“You want to throw my sister a party?”
Five uneasy smiles met the stone-faced girl in front of them. Maud Pie’s unflinching and lifeless eyes managed to fix a gaze on all the girls at once, mesmerizing them. She blinked again, eyelids moving slower than her speech, giving the girls a short window to correct their civil smiles.
Like most afternoons after school, Tuesday proved busy for Sugarcube Corner. But, also like most afternoons, the Spectacular Seven, currently the Canterlot High Five with the absence of Pinkie and Twilight, found a booth large enough for all of them plus their guest.
“Yes, Maud,” Rarity said, unanimously agreed by a silent vote to be the group’s spokeswoman. “We really want to do something special for her this year, and since you’re her older sister and she speaks so fondly of you, we were hoping you could tell us what she would like.”
Maud nodded very slowly. If Sunset didn’t know any better, she would have sworn Maud was actually made from stone. The gray skinned girl continued to keep all of them locked in her gaze, staring silently. Even with the chatter of the students around them, Maud’s silence made each of them fidget in their seats. Sunset rubbed her hands together to stop goosebumps from popping up. Fluttershy hid inside her pink waterfall of hair. Even Applejack kept her hat tipped a little lower than usual.
“Pinkie likes everything,” Maud said, each syllable clearly defined. “She’ll be happy with anything you do.”
Rarity’s smile strained further, becoming lopsided. “That’s all you can tell us? Nothing she’s ever wanted to do, or something she likes a little more than everything?”
Maud’s wide-ranged stare honed in on Rarity, forcing her to push back against the seat cushion. “She likes all of you a lot.” She then reached into her pocket, pulled out a small rock, and set it on the table. “Boulder wanted to say hi.”
Sunset stared at the pebble then back to Maud. Oh, now I see the family connection. They’re both crazy.
Maud gave Boulder a gentle poke. “Boulder agrees that Pinkie will be happy with anything you do.” She took another look at everyone’s dejected faces. “Pinkie also loves to go to new places.” She scooped Boulder up and tucked him into her pocket before scooting out of the booth. “And bounce houses.” It took her over a minute to get from the table to the door.
“Well, that wasn’t a complete waste of our time,” Sunset said, crossing her arms.
“Pinkie did say she would spend her cut of the money on a party with bounce houses,” Applejack said. She lifted her hat up. “Boy, that Maud is… a character.”
“If by ‘character’ you mean an unfeeling, emotion draining zombie, then yes, she is.”
Rarity snapped her fingers. “That’s enough, Sunset. She’s still Pinkie’s sister.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure who I feel more sorry for in that situation.” Sunset cleared her throat. “Okay, I’m finished.” She forgot how powerful Rarity’s glare could be sometimes.
Rarity pulled out a notebook and pen. “So, ‘exotic locations’ and ‘bounce houses’.” She clicked the top of the pen. “It’s a start. Where’s somewhere Pinkie’s always wanted to go?”
“Wherever she hasn’t been,” Rainbow answered. “Like Maud said, we could take Pinkie anywhere and she’d be happy.”
“Well, it has to be in our budget—”
“Of ten thousand dollars,” Sunset said.
“Plus, we still need a chaperone,” Rarity finished, glaring at Sunset again.
“First things first,” Applejack said, standing up. “Let’s make sure we actually get our prize money. Then we can decide the who and where and how.”
The way Applejack said it flipped a switch in Sunset’s brain, making her wonder for the first time if the Sirens had meant to give out a grand prize at all. Their goal was world domination. They had set up the contest, but that didn’t mean they had to follow through with anything promised.
Everyone seemed to catch onto the same wavelength and exchanged uncertain frowns, but Rainbow clicked her tongue and said, “Don’t worry. The city helped put on the event, I’m sure they’ll pay us.” They left the pastry shop, a shadow cast over the bright idea of them being rewarded for their efforts.
“So,” Sunset said, pushing the conversation out of the gloom. “How do you think Pinkie’s tutoring session went?”
“Okay, one more time,” Twilight said, her bun coming undone, and several hairs out of place. She put the chalk against the board. “Factor 4x2 + 12x + 5 .(2x + 5)(2x + 1). And show your work this time!”
Pinkie stared at the problem unblinking for several seconds, then stooped over her paper and scribbled like mad. “Done!” She held it out to Twilight who snatched it away.
On it was a picture of a large duck with sharp teeth, a sun in an ice cream cone, and a baby alligator wearing a crown. And scribbled in the crown was the correct answer.
“Did I get it right?”
Twilight could only walk back to the board and smack her head against it.
Seven teenagers at city hall was an odd sight on a Wednesday afternoon. Office aides gave them polite but scrutinizing smiles, and as they sat in the lobby waiting for their name to be called, Sunset couldn’t help but feel there was an unseen camera watching them.
Six of the girls sat patiently on a bench, while Pinkie stood up, making faces at her reflection in the polished mirror-like granite floors. “Does anyone else feel like they’re floating in space when they stare at these?” she asked after her giggling had subsided. “I mean look! The ceiling is down there, but it’s also up there! Wooooo!” She waved her arms and glided around the floor. “I’m in space!”
“Hard to believe she’s graduating, isn’t it?” Rainbow asked.
Sunset snorted. It was harder to believe that at the beginning of the school year, Pinkie had tied with Rainbow for people she hated the most. With Rainbow, however, it had been a mutual hatred. Pinkie had been the only one out of the five to genuinely want to accept Sunset into the fold with no promise to a certain princess influencing her actions. Sunset had hated her for her boundless optimism, and hyperactive and childlike nature. Now, she found it endearing and sometimes relieving. The least she could do was give Pinkie a good party.
“Ahem, err… ‘Spectacular Seven?’” One of the aides stopped before them, double checking her clipboard. “The Mayor has time to see you now. Right this way, please.” She cast them a scrupulous glance, then turned to the doors in the back.
Pinkie led the march, grinning back at her friends. “I’m so happy when people call us that!”
Mayor Ivory Scroll’s office had plush carpet instead of granite flooring. Two of the walls were made entirely out of fully stocked book shelves, while a large window was placed in the back, giving a great view to the park behind city hall. Ivory Scroll herself was a small, middle-aged woman with beige skin and fluffy gray hair. She straightened her green tie and adjusted her half-moon spectacles as the girls walked in. By the teetering smile on her face, Sunset already knew something was wrong.
“Hello, girls,” Ivory Scroll said as her aide exited. “Congratulations on winning the Battle of the Bands”
“Thank you,” they all said.
“Sorry to come in like this on such short notice,” Rarity said.
“Yeah, we weren’t really sure how this all worked since the Dazzlings bolted,” Rainbow said. “We thought it’d be easiest to come talk with you.”
Ivory Scroll adjusted her tie again. “Yes, you’ve all worked very hard and performed very well.”
Sunset pursed her lips. “Miss Mayor, what’s the matter.”
She sighed and walked to the other side of her desk, taking a seat in her large chair. “Again, you all did very well, and you should be proud of yourselves for winning but…” She took her glasses off and sighed again. “Girls I hate to tell you this, but there is no prize money.”
Applejack muttered, “Ah figured,” under her breath.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.” Ivory Scroll cleaned her glasses and set them back on her face. “The Dazzlings never put up the money. They never even filled out any official paperwork to host this event!” She slumped her head into one hand. “I don’t know how this even happened. They came into my office one day and told me what they wanted to do. I thought it was a great idea, and… that’s it. I’m so embarrassed.”
Sunset stepped forward. “Don’t be, Miss Mayor. The Dazzlings hoodwinked a lot of people. It’s not your fault.”
The mayor lifted her head and cracked a relieved smile. “Thank you for understanding. I wish I could give you girls something. But taking ten thousand dollars out of the city budget… the council would have a field day with me.” She looked over her glasses, eyes shining with sincerity. “I’m sorry for all of this trouble. I can’t make any promises but, if there’s anything I can do for you girls, just let me know.”
Rarity nodded on their behalf. “Thank you, Miss Mayor.” They left her to her paperwork, and hid their disappointed faces until they were well outside the building.
“I shouldn’t be surprised, but come on!” Rainbow threw her hands in the air. “I can’t believe there was never any prize money! I mean, I can, but it still sucks! All that hard work was for nothing.”
“Yep, saving all those people and stopping eldritch horrors. That was just a consolation prize,” Sunset said dryly.
“You know what I mean! What are we supposed to do about our par—vacation plans?”
Sunset shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. She glanced at Pinkie, looking as bummed as the rest of them, but still maintaining her usual happy-go-lucky glow. Maybe they didn’t have ten thousand dollars, but they could still give her a good party, right? And maybe they couldn’t go anywhere extravagant, but they could still spend spring break together.
“We’ll come up with something,” Sunset said. “We’ll have an awesome vacation, I promise.” Seeing the hope on their faces just filled Sunset with guilt. Why lead them on? A simple week of hanging out would be just as awesome, right?
Because I owe them. I owe them for ruining their vacations in the past. I owe them for having to fight the Sirens. Another part of her said that she needed to let the past go. Sunset stoutly ignored it. She had debts that needed to be paid.
Downtown Canterlot was a hive of activity even this late in the day. Streets and sidewalks were crowded with people doing last minute errands or trying to get home from work. Being surrounded by the tall office buildings reminded Sunset of her version of Canterlot, only instead of marble, these buildings were constructed of steel and glass. They reflected the sun much better, sending an orange glow all throughout the city. The walk from city hall to the parking lot wasn’t long, but proved a hassle thanks to all the foot traffic.
“See you girls tomorrow,” Rarity said, getting into her car. “Let’s all brainstorm some vacation ideas. Sunset’s right, we can still make this work in our favor.”
Sunset took Twilight home on her motorcycle, slipping through traffic with Twilight holding on for dear life. They returned to suburbia with plenty of light left in the sky. With spring only days away, the lawns had begun to turn green again, and flowers were starting to bud in the gardens.
“Would you like to come inside?” Twilight asked as they got to the porch. “I’m sure mom would love to have you over for dinner.”
“Maybe tomorrow.” Sunset gave a sheepish grin. “I should probably go and actually spend an evening with the Lulamoons.”
Twilight smiled, but Sunset could see a hint of disappointment in her eyes. “That’s fair.”
Sunset bent her head and kissed Twilight on the nose. “Hey, tomorrow, I’m all yours. We’ll do whatever you want.”
The excitement on her face was enough to make anyone smile. “Can we talk more about magic?”
“Sure. You can ask all the questions you want.”
Twilight squeed and kissed Sunset on the cheek. “I’m going to go recheck my notes! See you tomorrow!” She bolted inside, sparing Sunset one last smile before closing the door.
“Well, I’ve got twenty-four hours to brace myself,” Sunset said, heading back to her bike.
Sunset entered the kitchen, finding Artemis sitting at the table, trying to spin a fork between his fingers. As he tried to cross it between his ring and his middle, the fork slipped and clattered against the granite. “Rats,” he said, flexing his hand. His frown flipped over at the sight of Sunset. “There you are! I was starting to worry you forgot where you lived.”
Sunset playfully rolled her eyes as she sat down next to him. “How are your hands feeling?”
Artemis held them up. “Well, got all the bones knitted and everything. Just a little stiff. Should be back to normal just in time for vacation. Lord knows I could use one.” He snapped his fingers, flinched, then shook his hand out. “That reminds me! We’re taking our annual trip to Las Vegas next week! The lights, the activities, the fake magicians! We always have a good time! Would you like to accompany us?”
“Oh, wow, I’d love to, but…” Sunset took a page out of Twilight’s book and started playing with a loose piece of hair. “The girls and I are already making plans. And we’re trying to throw a birthday party for Pinkie.”
“How unfortunate for us,” Artemis said, snapping his fingers and wincing again. “But, she’s lucky to have a friend like you. If we had the money, I’d offer to take all your little friends with us. You all could use a reward.”
“Speaking of a reward,” Trixie said, walking into the kitchen with Spot in her arms, “where’s our cut of the prize money?”
Sunset skipped over the fact that it would only be her cut since Trixie wasn’t part of the winning band. “There is none. The Sirens lied about it.”
Trixie handed Spot off to Sunset and harrumphed. “Trixie shouldn’t be surprised, but she’s still furious.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.” Sunset pressed her nose against Spot’s and rubbed them back and forth. “What’d you do with those pendant shards?” She asked Artemis.
“Selena put them in the ‘trunk-of-things-we-found-but-will-never-sell-because-they’re-too-dangerous.’ Boy, that’s always a mouthful.”
“I’m less surprised that you have a trunk like that, and more surprised this is my first time hearing about it.”
Artemis shrugged. “Haven’t had to open it in almost ten years. Don’t find too many dangerous objects these days. Hopefully because there aren’t too many left to find.”
Selena came in from the backyard, and set down her sword. “Okay, you three. Either help me with dinner or take your magic conversation to the next room.”
Twilight flipped to an open page in one of her notebooks and scribbled ‘birthday/vacation ideas’ at the top, then slid it to the center of the table. “So, who would like to share first?”
Rarity held a hand up. “Well, the most practical thing would be to have a nice surprise party and rent out a bounce house. Maybe even a DJ.”
“Hold on.” Applejack leaned across the lunch table. “Between the six of us, how much money do we even have to spend?”
Sunset coughed. “Uhh, about… zero from me.”
Rainbow laughed and tugged on her shirt. “Same.”
Twilight tapped her fingers together. “I get a small weekly allowance… but I already spent it on books.”
Rarity sighed and held a hand to her face. “Store sales have been good this week, but I can’t pay for this on my own.”
“Maybe we could try to raise the money first?” Rainbow said. “Like, a bake sale or something?”
“The best baker outta all of us is Pinkie, and we’re not gonna have her raise money for her own party,” Applejack said.
“Would it really be so bad just to have a simple party with cake and ice cream?” Fluttershy asked. “It’s the thought that counts, right? As long as we’re all together.”
“What’s this about a party?”
Sunset jumped at Moondancer’s appearance behind her. “We need to put a bell on you.”
Moondancer ignored her and looked at the notebook. “Planning ideas for a birthday and a vacation? Quite an endeavor. Have you come up with anything yet?”
“Does the blank paper tell you anything?” Rainbow said under her breath.
“Not yet,” Twilight said, shooting Rainbow a warning look. “We’re thinking of just keeping it simple.”
“Simple is always nice.” Moondancer smiled like a pampered cat. “Or, rather that, you could all accompany me on my spring ski trip!”
Applejack choked on her juice. “Say what now?”
“I had the intentions of renting a lodge up yonder mountains before spring makes its triumphant debut, banishing the last vestments of winter. A few days of picturesque views, folksy communities, and slopes dusted with icy powder.” She twirled then gestured to all of them with a little bow. “Then, the thought occurred to me that it would be even better with friends!”
What friends? Sunset bit her tongue to keep from saying it outloud.
“Moondancer, that’s very generous of you,” Rarity said gently, “but I don’t know if we can accept such a gift.”
Moondancer made a flick of her wrist. “Pish posh. Consider it a thank you for saving the world. And it’ll be a great way for all of us to bond!”
Sunset and Rainbow immediately locked eyes with one another. No, Rainbow, we can’t push her down the mountain.
But it’ll be so easy!
Twilight looked at their empty list. “Moony, are you sure about this? What did your dad say?”
Moondancer rolled her eyes, and Sunset could actually see scorn in them. “Please, my father won’t care. He’s not even going. It was just going to be my butler and I. So again, I insist you all join me.”
The restraint on Rarity’s modesty broke, and she burst into excited giggles. “Well, if you insist, we’d love to join you! I haven’t been skiing since I was a little girl!”
Rainbow shrugged. “Sure. I’ve always wanted to try snowboarding. Seems pretty rad.”
The cafeteria door burst open, and Pinkie shuffled in, panting and sweating. She collapsed into the chair next to Sunset and pressed her face into the cool surface of the table.
“I… ran all over… the school... looking for that leprechaun you saw. It must have gotten away.” She took a deep breath and sprung up, smiling and full of her usual pep. “So, what’d I miss?”
“Apparently, we’re goin’ on a ski trip for spring break,” Applejack said.
“Yippee! I’ve never been skiing before! Are we going to stay in a cabin?” She gasped. “What if it turns into one of those scary movies where there’s a murderer out to get us and only two of us get to survive for the sequel? Oooh, oooh, maybe it’s one of those survival movies where a blizzard gets us stuck, and we have to work together to stay alive, but one of us has to sacrifice herself to save the group! Or maybe…”
“Well, Maud did say Pinkie liked to travel,” Twilight whispered into Sunset’s ear.
“Yeah, I think she’ll have a good time.”
“Come on, I want to show you this! It’s finally ready!” Twilight took Sunset’s hand the second her boots were off and led her through the house, Spike barking at their heels. She stopped at the door to the garage and hopped up and down.
“Someone didn’t sneak you caffeine while I wasn’t looking, did they?”
Twilight stopped bouncing and gave her a deathly serious look. “No. I’m never having caffeine ever again. At least, not in that large of a dose.” She bounced on her toes again. “But that’s not important!” She opened the door and flipped on the light switch. “Welcome, Sunset, to my laboratory!” She gestured dramatically.
A long workbench had been set up next to a desk with a dual screen computer and a seismograph against the right wall. Sea charts, star charts, world maps, the periodic table, and several other posters had been set up everywhere, taking up any blank wall space. A telescope sat in one corner with a tarp hanging loosely over it. On the opposite wall of the desk were shelves and filing cabinets already alphabetized and organized by subject. Next to them were other machines and wires currently unplugged. Close to the door were boxes of random machine parts and papers, and against the garage door was a movable blackboard and whiteboard.
Twilight ran to the center of her ‘lab’ and spun in a circle with her arms out. “Isn’t it great? I have all the room to do all the research I want!”
Sunset came up behind her and gave her a few extra twirls before taking Twilight into her arms. “Does this mean I’m going to see less of you now? I know how much you love science.”
“Not as much as I—” Twilight snapped her mouth shut and turned a deep crimson. “Love spending time with you!” she said loudly.
Sunset raised an eyebrow but smiled when she asked, “You okay?”
“Yep, I’m fine! I’m just so excited about this!” Twilight continued in her outdoor voice. She brought it back down and said, “Don’t worry, you can still be my number one assistant.”
Spike gave an indignant bark.
Twilight giggled. “Would you mind being moved down to my number two assistant? Spike does have seniority.”
“Darn, beaten out by a dog.” Sunset knelt down and scratched him behind the ear. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”
They took turns scratching Spike on the belly and throwing his ball around before cracking down on their magic and science lesson. Twilight pulled out a binder from the shelf and set it on the workbench. “This is everything I know so far about Equestrian magic along with some notes about similarities and contrasts to conventional science.” She pulled up a rolling chair and prepared her notebook, giving Sunset starry eyes when she was ready.
Sunset walked over to the whiteboard and took a deep breath. She had never thought herself much of a teacher. Relax, you’re just telling Twilight what you know. It’s just like any other night you’ve done this. Only in a lab. She made three circles and drew a horn, a set of wings, and a horseshoe in them. “So, there are three types of ponies in Equestria: unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies. Umm, did I tell you this already?”
Twilight nodded eagerly.
“Right, right.” Sunset shifted her weight and looked back at the board. “Well, they each have their own type of magic. Earth ponies are tied to, well, you know, the earth. They’re the best at growing crops, tending to animals and plants, and have superior strength and usually longer lives. Pegasi use their magic to fly, push clouds and manipulate the weather. Both their magics are internal, instinctual things they just do. Unicorns are different.” She tapped the picture of the horn. “Our magic can be externalized and turned into an energy or aura that can manipulate the world around us. It’s, ummm… kinda like how humans got opposable thumbs and big brains to help them survive.”
Twilight’s hand flew across her page as Sunset spoke, head bobbing up and down, a sign that Sunset could keep going.
Sunset erased the symbols of the three tribes and drew a fat pony with four stick legs and a triangle for a horn. She was many things. An artist was not one of them. “Let’s focus on unicorn magic, since I’m a unicorn and that’s what I know the most about.” She drew squiggles around the horn. “Now, first thing you have to accept about this is, nopony is one-hundred percent sure where our magic comes from.”
Twilight’s pencil stopped for a second. She took a deep breath and said, “Okay.”
“Now, there’s a few theories. The most popular one is that all unicorns have a sort of ‘mana pool’ within them, but no scholar has actually been able to prove that one exists. We can measure it all we want, we just don’t know where it’s coming from.” She heard Twilight huff over her scratching pencil. “It acts like another limb or muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. However, most unicorns are bound to a set number or type of spells, usually focused around their special talent. It’s possible for them to learn other spells, it would just be a lot harder. For ponies like me and… the princess, our talent revolves closer to magic itself, making it easier for us to learn, well, everything.
“Magic also acts a lot like stamina. We only have so much magic we can do before we get tired. This is the only drawback, really. Pegasi could move clouds all day if they wanted to, and still be able to keep doing it. If we drain out all our magic, then that’s it. No more until we take a nice, long rest.”
Twilight took a pause. “From what it sounds like, your type of magic is the most diverse. Couldn’t you use your magic to grow food or push clouds?”
Sunset couldn’t help but grin. “Yeah, we could. Granted it wouldn’t be as efficient as the other races, but there’s nothing really stopping us. That’s why unicorns are the best.”
“I’m getting some unicorn supremacist vibes,” Twilight said, leaning back in her seat.
“Not my fault we’re awesome.” Sunset turned back to the board and continued to explain everything she could about how unicorn magic worked, the focus it took to cast a spell, the different schools of magic one could learn, how magic could be channeled as pure energy. It was here that Twilight got hung up.
“You said it’s like stamina,” she said, looking back at her notes. “It fuels your spells like levitation or animation. How do you use it as raw power? What form does it take?”
“I guess you could say it’s a plasma?” Sunset rubbed her chin. “Huh, never thought about that.”
“But then what form does magic take originally? How does it get from that to a plasma? Is that what the rainbow was made out of?” Twilight got up and went to the blackboard next to Sunset. She picked up the piece of chalk, tapped it twice against the board, then began to scribble like mad. “You got hit by the rainbow. Describe to me what it felt like.”
Sunset hunched her shoulders. “It burned,” she said between her teeth. “And it was very bright. And you know I hate talking about this.”
“Uh-huh.” Twilight scribbled Sunset’s response, then came to an abrupt stop. “Oh!” She dropped the chalk. “Sunset, I’m so sorry! I got caught up in thinking again!”
Sunset released the tension in her jaw. “It’s fine.”
Twilight wiped her chalky fingers on her pants. “No, it was insensitive.” She took Sunset by the hand. “I should have known better. I’m sorry.”
“Really, it’s fine. I need to stop being so sensitive about it.”
“I think you have every right to be sensitive about it. We can stop if you want.”
Sunset looked at the boards, hers covered in eraser smudges and poor drawings, and Twilight’s already decorated with tiny handwriting and a diagram. “No. I said I would give you a magic lesson, and that’s what I’m going to do.” She tapped Twilight’s nose. “Just… think before you speak, okay?”
Twilight bobbed her head. “Deal!”
The lesson continued, moving away from rainbow friendship lasers and back to magic proper, Sunset trying her best to explain how magic became pure energy. Twilight with her furious notetaking wrote down every word Sunset said, even some of her ‘umms’ as Sunset found out later.
The night wore on until Shining came in to remind them they still had school in the morning. He stopped and stared at Twilight’s blackboard drawings. “What are you two even doing in here?”
“Learning!” Twilight said chipperly.
“I’m teaching Twilight about magic.”
Shining ran a hand down his face. “Right. The whole ‘from another dimension’ thing. Jury’s still out on whether or not I believe you.”
“She’s telling the truth! I have proof, see?” Twilight pointed the board. “Well… kinda. I’ll solve all of this eventually.”
“In the meantime, you both need sleep.” Shining gestured them out of the garage. “Always nice seeing you Sunset,” he said as they walked to the front door.
“Likewise, Detective.” She gave Twilight a short kiss and Shining a toothy grin. “See you tomorrow.”
“Good night, Shim!”
Sunset flinched on her way down the porch steps. Yeah, we’re gonna have to talk about that later.