Duelists of the Friendship Cup
One Day of Peace
Sunset took a deep breath. You can do this. She’ll listen to reason. She wants the school to win the Cup, right? She nodded to reassure herself and then turned the handle to open the door to the office. “Mr. Kibitz?” The older man looked up, eyes narrow over his sandy mustache. “Is Principal Celestia free at the moment?”
Kibitz slowly reached to his phone, pressed a number on the dialpad, and then picked it up. “Ma’am, Sunset Shimmer would like to speak to you… yes.” He hung up. “Go in.”
“Thank you.” Sunset crossed the office to Celestia’s door. She knocked softly.
Sunset pushed the door open and froze, her breath catching in her throat.
Rays of light streamed through the windows, giving a warm glow to the furniture in the room and the mare sitting at the desk, multi-colored hair streaming in the air around her horn and down her back. She smiled at Sunset, bowing her head. “Sunset, have a seat.” She gestured a hoof forward.
Sunset jerked and blinked rapidly, turning her head away. When she looked back she saw Celestia giving her an odd look, her hand still extended to gesture to one of the chairs in front of her desk.
“Thank you.” Sunset came closer and sat down. It’s not her. She’s in Equestria. You’re nothing special, just another student to her. She immediately regretted her choice of wording in her thoughts.
“What can I do for you?” Celestia leaned her elbows on the desk to clasp her hands.
“I wanted to talk to you about the Friendship Cup,” Sunset said. “Voting for the entrants has concluded, right?”
“Yes, I’ll be announcing the seven duelists who will be competing at lunch today.”
“About that.” Sunset hesitated. “I wanted to ask if I was one of the ones who’ll be in it.”
Celestia frowned. “Sunset, I’m afraid it would be highly improper to disclose that information early.”
“I know, but…” Sunset sighed and shook her head. “I just want to be sure that the best duelists we have get a chance to compete. My friends have been working hard to improve their decks to stand a chance against Crystal Prep.”
“I see.” Celestia tapped her fingers and then turned to her computer. She clicked around a few times before continuing. “Well, I can tell you this much, the identities of the seven duelists voted to compete in the Friendship Cup would not surprise you were I to share them. However, I’ve only been able to contact six of them.” Celestia sat back. “Attempts to get in touch with Twilight Sparkle have led me to dead ends. After the tournament she never attended any classes here and I cannot even find evidence she was meant to transfer here. Suffice to say, based on what I’ve found, she wouldn’t be interested in attending the Friendship Cup for Canterlot High.”
“Right.” Sunset nodded.
“That said, if Twilight were hypothetically one of the seven duelists chosen to compete, and if I could not find her… we would need a replacement.” Celestia looked back at Sunset.
“I’m still a good duelist, even if I didn’t win,” Sunset whispered. “Please, put me in.”
“There is precedent for such things. Your win-loss record and tournament victories are strong proof of your talent.” Celestia leaned forward again. “But, before I even entertain the idea, answer me one thing, Sunset; why do you have this sudden interest in things?”
Sunset swallowed a lump in her throat. “I know I didn’t care about the Friendship Cup in past years. But I’m not the same person I was then. I know this tournament means a lot to the students of this school, and I’d like to be part of it to try and give them a win.” She slowly smiled. “I want to compete in a tournament for the right reasons, not just to prove I’m the best.”
Celestia nodded. “I see. I believe you, I do. But still, there are many other talented duelists in the school. I’ve already been considering this decision very carefully. I’ll be making the announcement today at lunch. You’ll know then.”
“Thank you.” Sunset stood up and bowed her head. “I do mean what I said.”
“I know.” Celestia smiled. “I’ve seen you with those girls. You’re not the same person you were last tournament. Twilight brought out the best in you.”
“Yeah…” Sunset got a distant look in her eyes as she remembered seeing her rival among the other students as fillies. “She does that to ponies…”
Sunset jerked as she realized what she had said. “Uh, I said she does that to people. You know, bring out the best.” She smiled awkwardly and approached the door. “I should go and get to class.” She waved and shut the door behind her.
Twilight picked up her tray from the end of the line and turned to walk back into the main cafeteria. She approached the doors to head to her usual lunch spot, an abandoned classroom with a row of computers along the back wall that she could use to work once she was done eating.
“Twilight, wait up!”
She stopped and turned her head. A girl with multi-toned blue hair waved at her from the end of the lunch line. Twilight waited patiently while the girl paid for her meal and walked up to her. “Come on, I got us a table.”
Twilight tilted her head. “Us?”
“Yeah, over here.” The girl jerked her head and headed into the crowd. Twilight’s expression didn’t soften as she followed her to a table with four other girls sitting down. The blue-haired girl sat down and gestured her hand towards them. “This is where the best eat. I’d say you’ve earned the right to have a seat here.”
One of the girls at the table with bright green haired nodded. “Starlight used to sit with us now and then, until she got too good for us and started hanging out with her groupies.”
Twilight slowly set her tray down and slid onto the bench.
The blue-haired girl grinned. “Allow me to introduce the gang. I’m Indigo Zap.” She leaned back in her seat and put her hands behind her head. “You might have heard of me.”
“Yes, I believe I have.” Twilight pushed her glasses up with her forefinger. “I recognized you properly once I saw the five of you together.” She looked around the table in turn. “Lemon Zest, Sour Sweet, Sugarcoat, and Sunny Flare. You call yourself the Shadowbolts, right?”
“Well, aren’t you well-informed!” Sour Sweet gushed. “If I didn’t know any better I’d peg you as a stuck-up know it all!” She snarled the last words.
Twilight leaned away at her tone. “Did I mistake your names?”
“Relax, dear.” Sunny Flare put a hand on Sour Sweet’s shoulder and smiled at Twilight. “Yes, that would be us. It seems our reputations precede us, as they should.”
“Shining Armor talks about you sometimes,” Twilight replied.
“I would presume so, seeing how often we challenge him,” Sugarcoat said. “Even if our win-loss record couldn’t surpass his, a victory would be a symbolic show of superiority.”
“Hey Twilight, got any secrets to share on that front?” Indigo nudged her and winked.
“Yeah, you know.” Indigo shrugged. “How’s he so good? Do you have some kind of program that builds his deck for him, does he have to train ten hours a day?”
Twilight gave her a quizzical look. “I’m not sure I follow. There isn’t any sort of secret like that to my brother’s dueling. He just practices hard, builds his deck well, and knows how to use it effectively.”
“I do all the same things!”
Twilight shrugged. “Than it stands to reason he’s simply better than you, doesn’t it?”
Sunny Flare let out a small, indignant huff. “It's good to know you think so little of us.”
Twilight turned her attention her way. “Not at all, you're all extremely skilled. But, if you were capable of defeating Shining Armor, you would have done it by now.”
Sugarcoat murmured. “She's got us there.”
“She's just so confident!” Sour Sweet gushed. She scowled after. “Makes me wonder how badly we'd crush her if she faced us!”
“Yeah, good idea.” Lemon Zest put her elbow on the table and leaned across to look at Twilight with a raised eyebrow. “Think you could beat us?”
Twilight paused in eating her lunch and looked around the table at the five girls staring at her, her eyes stopping on Indigo. “Is that a challenge?”
“Do you want it to be?” Indigo replied immediately.
“No.” Twilight shook her head. “I'd have little to gain by dueling any of you. As for Sour Sweet's statement, while a win wouldn't be outside the realm of probability, it wouldn’t be favorable to me within a reliable degree of certainty. All the reason more not to try.”
“Wow, really?” Lemon scrunched her face. “That's lame. You won't duel anyone you don't know you can beat?”
Twilight furrowed her brow. “If I have minimal chance of defeating a duelist, I don't see the point of facing them.”
Sugarcoat gave the new girl a half-lidded stare. “With the right combination of luck and skill, anything is possible.”
“Possible, yes. Probable, no. Luck is just a word for variables one hasn’t solved for yet.” Twilight adjusted her glasses. “At any given time in a duel, the odds of a duelist drawing a particular card on their next turn can be definitively calculated as long as one knows the contents of their deck. Then, knowing the contents of the opponent's deck and the current state of the field, one can determine the statistically best usage of that card to have the most impact at increasing their own resources or draining the opponent's resources.
“A duel is merely the process by which duelists take turns putting this formula into action, and the deck is the tool they use to execute it. True, a duelist may occasionally defy the odds of random chance, but they can’t manage it every turn. Under these conditions, and presuming optimal decision-making from both players, eventually the duelist whose deck is more efficient at this process will gain enough advantage over the other that their ability to follow the process will be compromised beyond repair. Shortly thereafter, the duel will certainly reach its conclusion.”
The other five stared at Twilight as she finished her explanation.
Indigo let out a low whistle. “I feel nerdier just listening to that.”
Lemon nodded. “There's more to this game than statistics, you know.”
“Having fun!” Indigo grinned. “The adrenaline rush of a great draw, the thrill of pulling off that epic combo to clench the win, the rush of victory as you watch that Life Point counter tick to zero!”
Sour Sweet grinned. “Watching the hope drain out of their eyes as you back them into a corner and grind them down one card at a time.”
“Yeah…” Indigo leaned back in her chair and sighed. “It's the best feeling in the world. Know what I mean?”
Twilight looked down at her deck. “No. Not really.”
Sunny Flare frowned. “Weren't you excited when you defeated Starlight?”
“I expected to defeat her, and I did. It was merely the formality of playing out the result.” Twilight picked at her half-eaten food. “I don't find it very exciting when it was just the probable and logical outcome.”
Sour Sweet peered closer at her. “If you don't play for fun, why even play this game?”
“I intend to go into card design when I graduate. I've already applied to internships at a tournament venue to shadow under judges.”
Indigo rolled her hand through the air. “And you want to do that because…”
“Card design is a promising career path with a lot of room for advancement and development.”
“So is being an electrician, why not look at that?” Lemon snickered and high-fived Indigo.
“I have.” The two lowered their hands. Twilight gestured to her duel disk. “Hardware development for duel disks. But I find the hazardous factory environments unappealing. And I don’t want to carry heavy loads every day and I don't know how to operate a hand truck.”
Lemon shrank back. “Oookay then…”
Before Twilight could continue, the PA system buzzed on.
“Attention, duelists of Crystal Prep,” Sombra boomed. “Tomorrow the 25th annual Friendship Cup with Canterlot High will be held.” The students cheered. Twilight noted Sombra paused to allow them before continuing. “This year’s cup will be held at Canterlot High grounds. As per the usual, our seven students with the best win-loss record on the campus will be advanced to the standings. With the rankings locked over the weekend to ensure the integrity of the standings, the seven students accompanying Vice-Principal Hope and myself are as follows:”
Twilight saw Indigo hold up a hand with a finger extended. As Sombra spoke, she slowly swiveled her hand around the table to point.
“Rank 1st, Shining Armor. Rank 2nd, Sour Sweet. Rank 3rd, Sunny Flare. Rank 4th, Indigo Zap. Rank 5th, Sugarcoat. Rank 6th, Lemon Zest.”
Indigo’s hand turned to go into the cafeteria. Twilight looked where she was pointing. Starlight Glimmer sat upright at her table, smiling proudly.
“Regarding the seventh position in the tournament…”
Starlight’s smile vanished.
“Representing our school in public events is not merely a matter of skill, but of school pride and spirit. Our seven students must stand for the values of Crystal Prep. For reasons related to concerns of this nature, and for recent developments with her dueling record, I have made the decision to discount the school’s seventh-ranked duelist from the cup.”
The cafeteria burst into murmurs, several of them protesting. Twilight noticed several students turning to look at her, the number growing by the second.
“Under the circumstances, it is to my discretion to determine how to fill the empty spot. Since choosing representative duelists based on skill has proven a flawed system, I have selected the seventh duelist based on grades and extracurricular activities. Joining the six top students in the Friendship Cup this year will be our star academician, Twilight Sparkle.”
The number of students looking at Twilight swelled to encompass the vast majority of the cafeteria. She kept her eyes on Starlight as the other girl turned her head and they made eye contact. Starlight calmly stood up and walked out of Twilight’s view.
“Directions to Canterlot High can be found posted outside the office and on the school website’s page for the Friendship Cup. Competing students may make their own way to Canterlot High at 10 am, or report to Crystal Prep by 9 am to receive a ride there. Other students are invited to attend the cup at their leisure. And to those seven duelists who will be representing us – good luck, and good draws.”
The PA crackled as Sombra ended his announcement.
“Soooo,” Indigo said slowly. “I’m gonna guess you dueling Starlight the other day wasn’t a coincidence?”
Twilight watched the cafeteria crowds go back to their own business. However, several were still looking at her, now glaring or giving looks of disapproval. She looked away from them and back to the girls at her table.
“Every hypothesis needs to be tested for viability before attempting to put it into action.” Twilight lifted her burger to her mouth and took a bite.
“I managed to fit a couple of Tuners in my deck, but it’s gonna be slow.” Rainbow flipped through a stack of cards. “I don’t have good ways to search them out so it’s down to luck of the draw.”
“At least you have something.” Rarity shook her head. “I don’t have any Rank 4s that can be summoned using the Crystal Beasts since they all need certain monsters I don’t have.”
“But your deck is still good when used right,” Sunset said gently. “You have Rainbow Dragon, that’s plenty strong.”
“It’ll have to be.”
The PA beeped twice to signal an incoming announcement and the group fell silent.
“Attention, students,” Celestia said, “Voting for the seven students who will compete in the Friendship Cup has been tallied. In no particular order, the seven students voted in are as follows: Flash Sentry. Rainbow Dash. Rarity Belle. Fluttershy Breeze. Jacklyn Apple. Pinkamena Pie.”
The cafeteria whispered as Celestia paused before the seventh name. Sunset bit her lip and held her breath.
“At this time I admit there has been a complication. Many students have voted for Twilight Sparkle to compete, and as winner of the Autumn Crown Tournament, she would normally have full rights to that privilege. However, Twilight has not attended school since the tournament and there is no record of her registration here. For this reason it seems her entry into the Autumn Crown Tournament was fraudulent.”
The student whispering grew louder with this revelation.
“Under these circumstances, I have no choice but to disqualify Twilight Sparkle from entry, and declare the position of winner of the previous Autumn Crown Tournament to be vacated. With that so noted, we are still in need of a seventh duelist to take part in the Friendship Cup. Based on her previous tournament wins and consistent dueling record, I have chosen Sunset Shimmer to compete.”
What seemed like every set of eyes in the cafeteria turned to glare at Sunset.
“All students are welcome to attend the cup tomorrow. Official ceremonies will begin at 10 am.”
The PA channel closed with a low whine.
Sunset slowly turned her head to see the entire cafeteria staring at her table. She slowly stood up and cleared her throat.
“I know a lot of you hate me right now, and for good reason. But…” She shook her head. “I’m not the duelist I was before. I’m going to prove that at the Friendship Cup. That’s why I wanted to take part. To win it for all of you.” She held up her duel disk. “Like me or not, I’m one of the best duelists you’ve got, right?”
Movement. Sunset turned her head and saw Flash step out of the crowd. He stepped up to Sunset and looked her in the eye. She did her best not to look away. After several seconds Flash turned to the crowd.
“She has as good a chance of beating a Crystal Prep duelist as anyone. What’s the worst she can do? Lose? So let’s give her a chance.”
Slowly, the cafeteria returned to normal. Sunset let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Thanks, Flash.”
Flash reached to an adjacent table to grab an empty chair and pulled it closer to sit down. “What do we do now?”
“Panic?” Fluttershy whimpered.
“That's your answer for everything!” Rainbow groaned.
“We need to stop thinking of ourselves at amateurs vs professionals,” Rarity said. “Sunset and Flash are recurring champions, Rainbow, Applejack and myself have impressive win-loss records. Fluttershy’s record has been climbing steadily ever since the Autumn Crown Tournament, and Pinkie’s record has always been comfortably average. Our unity aside, at least five of us could be seen as the school’s top duelists.”
Applejack folded her arms. “Flash, you’ve faced Crystal Prep kids before. What can we expect?”
“The best.” Flash frowned and shook his head. “Even I can only occasionally beat one of them, and I’d be lying if I said it was ever an easy win when I did get one. Their access to Synchro and Xyz just makes them too unpredictable. They could be using anything.”
“Well, let’s be generous and count you as a win,” Rarity said. She began to count on her fingers. “Applejack is using a new Fusion deck that’s proven fairly effective, so she could stand a chance. Pinkie and Fluttershy have Xyz, so there’s two more. And Sunset has her Pendulum monsters, so that’s another.”
Flash tilted his head. “Pendulum monsters?”
“Don’t worry about it, you won’t remember them,” Sunset answered. “Let’s just say I have a deck they can’t possibly know about and expect. But, I don’t know how effective it’ll be on its own since I’ve never faced Synchro or Xyz.”
“Right.” Flash nodded. “Well, sounds like you girls have been getting ready. That’s good. Still, don’t get complacent. There’s no telling what Crystal Prep will throw at us. Good luck, though.” He stood up. “Sunset, come here a sec.”
Sunset stood and followed. Flash led her to the doors of the cafeteria and stepped outside them, holding them for her. When they close behind Sunset, Flash spoke. “Why isn’t Twilight here anymore?”
“Why ask me?” Sunset glared. “Do you think I did something?”
“No. But you know something.”
“She’s…” Sunset trailed off. “She’s not here. She can’t be.”
“So she showed up for one tournament, beat you, and then vanished?”
“That doesn’t sound strange at all.” Flash breathed deeply. “We could use her, you know. She wasn’t just a good duelist. She was an example. She showed this school what this game could be for us, what it used to be.”
“I know…” Sunset sighed. “And here I am, reminding everyone of what Twilight fought so hard to get rid of.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Flash shook his head. “If she’s not going to be show, maybe you’re the symbol we need instead.”
Flash looked her over. “You’re really going for this ‘reformed’ thing?”
Sunset scoffed. “I’m not ‘going for’ anything. I’ve changed for real.”
“Then this is your chance to prove it. If you’re a symbol of what went wrong with our dueling, then it’s time to tear yourself down.” Flash slowly smiled. “I believe you. At least I want to. Give everyone reason to think the same.”
Sunset returned the smile. “Thanks.”
“You can thank me by dueling your best tomorrow. Crystal Prep’s duelists will be the toughest you’ve ever faced.”
Sunset put on a brave face and shrugged. “After what Twilight showed me is possible with this game, what could Crystal Prep have to surprise me?”