Setting up a picnic usually took a little longer than twenty minutes, but one phone call was all it took for Pinkie and Applejack to combine forces and put together a basket to bring to a table on the outskirts of Sweet Apple Acres. They didn't meet up out here very often, but Sunset, Pinkie, and Applejack all trusted the other half of their group when they said Sugarcube Corner was a little too public for what they wanted to share.
The basket wasn't touched until well after explanations were over, which meant there were no spit-takes, to Pinkie's slight disappointment. More distressing to her still was learning of the three secret friendships, as evidenced by her quivering lip and watering eyes, but none would have guessed that it was actually guilt that drove this reaction. When asked why, she collapsed sobbing on the table.
"I did it too! I've been friends with Sunset Shimmer for muh-huh-unths!!"
Sunset blinked twice.
"...Pinkie," deadpanned Rainbow, "we've all been friends with Sunset Shimmer for months."
Any sign of emotional turmoil vanished from the pink partier as quickly as it had come. "Gasp! Everyone was in on it?!"
Eyerolling, facepalming, and a dope slap followed before Applejack moved things along.
"So, lemme get this straight;" she indicated Rarity with one finger, "Sonata swings by yer place one day an' you never tell anyone 'cuz ya didn't wanna make a fuss, an' that grows into, uhh..." Turning rosy, she quickly moved to Fluttershy. "A-and, Adagio talks to you while yer' waitin' on that bench like usual, makes a habit of it, and you start to fall for her after a whi-"
"It kinda sounds like they didn't know that they fell oh-woah-oh for each other," interrupted Pinkie.
"Right. So we got you two hookin' up with two'a the sirens and-" she pointed to Rainbow next, "-you playin' online sometimes with the last one?"
She'd have been casually leaning back in her seat if picnic tables had something to lean back on. "Yep."
There was a skeptical eyebrow from Applejack. "And that's all yer doin'?"
The question drew a blush. "I'm straight, and I'm pretty sure she is too!"
Sunset's head tilted. "You asked?"
"W-well, no, but..." She started to smile self-consciously, letting out a nervous giggle. "Y'know the final boss-fight in Populace Immoral 5 I was telling you guys about? Where big, brawny Sirhc Greenvalley was punching the boulder in a volcano? I was playing as Sirhc at the time, and from her comments, I've got three guesses for why Aria's aim was way off during that part."
There were some slightly scandalous giggles from around the table before Rarity cleared her throat. "That does sum up the situation, yes, and we're all sorry to have kept the three of you in the dark for so long."
Grinning, Sunset dismissively waved a hand. "Oh, it's oka-"
"It kinda ain't," interrupted Applejack. Glancing around, she found that the table was dead silent, drawing a sigh. "Well, Ah mean, Ah don't wanna go makin' a big mess over this, but don't it make anyone else just a little uncomfortable?"
Her expression guilty, Rainbow's hand shot up. "Yes! Super uncomfortable, that's why I blabbed!"
There were some giggles before Applejack returned her attention to the three secret siren befrienders. "Now, Ah definitely don't think that what'cha done with those girls is a bad thing, just..." She shrugged, some measure of hurt clear in her face. "Why didn't any of ya tell the rest of us sooner? If ya wanted us to keep quiet, we could have, it-"
"It's," Rainbow interrupted, "really not as easy as it sounds, AJ, trust me." She gingerly clasped her hands on the table. "Like, even now, I'm just wondering who out of the nine of us is gonna slip and expose everything first, but I don't think any of us wanted to hide anything." She turned to Fluttershy and Rarity. "Am I right?"
Both nodded, though Fluttershy wore a particularly apologetic frown. "I-I'm sorry I never, I mean, y-you girls almost guessed it a few times, but I always covered it up, b-because-" She was startled by a hand on her shoulder, whipping her head in that direction to see Applejack giving her a gentle little smile.
"We get why y'all did it, Sugarcube, and..." She had to hide her eyes with her hat. "Shoot, if Ah were in yer shoes, Ah might'a done the exact same thing."
She was clasped in an especially soft and grateful Flutterhug, which she returned with a light pat on the back.
"Pinkie Pie," asked Rarity, "are you quite alright?"
"Sure," she answered with a perky expression, "why do you ask, Rari-bear?"
Rarity gave her a sad stare. "I saw that frown, Miss Pie. I know I'm in no position to throw stones for keeping secrets, but if there's something you'd like to put forward, now is the time."
Pink, poofy hair lightly deflating, Pinkie made her I-Just-Dropped-A-Cupcake face. It was a very sad face for Pinkie. "Well, I guess it's like, we could have been friends with the Dazzlings the whole time?"
Sunset frowned too. "It's really not that simple, Pinkie."
Pinkie flailed her arms in random directions for a few seconds, though as always, she was careful to keep it out of friend-smacking range. "IknowIknowIknow, but still! It's been way, super hard to give them space like you said (which is a weird thing to give someone, because then they wouldn't be able to breathe), so instead I just stayed away from them and that's been really hard too! But I did it, I'm in the same class as Aria in sixth period and Adagio in eighth, but I left them alone no matter how sad, bored, or generally un-smiley they looked, but now I know that we could have been throwing secret siren parties for weeks?!"
Internally bracing herself, Sunset kept an even tone. This was going to be painful, but the point had to be made. "And what would we be doing with them at those parties?"
Her brain in party-mode, Pinkie beamed. "Tons of stuff! We could play games, eat cake, sing son-"
The table was silent for a long moment. Sunset sighed.
"I haven't talked to them about it since before they started coming to school, but they're probably still sore about their voices." She focused her attention on Rarity, Rainbow, and Fluttershy. "Have they said anything to you guys about that?"
Rainbow's wince said it had come up in conversation, and her guiltily rubbing the back of her head said there may have been hurt feelings at the time. "I, it, it might still be kind of a soft spot, yea."
"Indeed," added Rarity with a frown, "there's no song in the world, or Twilight's, that could be sung to win them over right now."
Adagio's voice echoed in Fluttershy's head.
"I, I suppose that we should count ourselves lucky we can still speak at all, but I can't help thinking of telling someone they should be glad only one of their arms was torn off."
That was what Adagio had said on the matter the day Fluttershy nursed her, and nothing had really changed since then. Looking at Sunset, she frowned too. "Has T-Twilight said anything, since the last time?"
Sunset shook her head. "Nothing substantial. Actually, judging by the long pauses between her messages and the occasional odd word-choice? I don't think she wants to say it, but she might not even know where to begin, with or without the gems."
"What about you," asked Pinkie, "you were a magical brainiac too, right?"
Even if she blushed a little at the title, Sunset cracked a smile. "Well, maybe, but I only looked into chaos magic for a few days as part of a project, so I doubt I'd be much help."
"They were Coltlantian artifacts," blurted Fluttershy, "some actually thought they were holy relics, but Adagio said they were more like magically-advanced, uh... things. Would that help?" The rest of the table gaped at her, which made her shrink down a little. "I-I asked about their home once, so..."
"...Well," Sunset eventually offered, "I guess that's something, but Coltlantis was destroyed over a millennium ago, and almost nothing is known about their methods. Still, I'll pass that tid-bit along to Twilight soon."
Though if I tell her that she was directly involved in destroying irreplaceable Coltlantian artifacts, she'll probably blow a gasket.
"Anyway," she said with a hopeful smile, "at least when the sirens have more friends of their own, letting go and moving on might be easier for them."
There was another of those long, quiet moments as the others traded looks. Rainbow resisted the urge to make fun of Equestria's weirdness with punny names again, so the silence was broken by Applejack this time.
"Ah'm just gonna say it; why're you so calm 'bout all this? You were tryin' harder than anybody to get closer to the sirens and they acted like you were a hole in their boot. Don't it bother you even a little?"
Sunset let out a little laugh. "Of course not, why would it?" Five stares held her, which had proven to be a worryingly effective tactic for making her spill her guts. She'd have lamented the loss her status as an incredibly convincing liar, but what she'd gained in exchange was too precious to even think about trading back, even if it drew a little frown from her now.
"Well, okay, I'm not thrilled that none of them ever came to me," the smile made a hesitant return, "but believe me when I say I'm much happier that this is happening at all. I'd love to have them join us at Sugarcube Corner sometime, but from what they told you three," she indicated the trio that had passed along the sirens' thoughts, "it sounds like we'll have to wait a bit longer."
"From what I gather," offered Rarity, a thoughtful finger on her lower lip, "Adagio has some kind of operation in the works, though I'm unclear on the specific details."
All eyes turned to Fluttershy, which only made her a little nervous this time. Just the same, her expression was warm and cheerful. "Our d-date yesterday, it was to pick up some cute outfits that she'll be wearing to school."
Rainbow's fist shot upwards as she rose to her feet. "Freakin' called it!!" It only took a few seconds of unamused stares for her to sit back down, smiling sheepishly. "Heh, heh... sorry."
Rarity might have liked to comment as well, but she knew that at the time, Adagio and Fluttershy had no idea of what she'd been doing with Sonata. That was the only reason she didn't take offense to not having been contacted for giving one of the sirens a makeover.
"If it works out," continued Fluttershy, "I think Aria and Sonata might be doing the same thing soon."
Pinkie clapped her hands together, beaming a bright, sparkly-eyed grin. "And that might finally get them some friends! All it takes to get started is talking to someone for a few minutes, and this might finally be the icebreaker!"
The six of them spent a little longer ironing out details, first and foremost that no one was to go spying on the sirens when they were with their respective Rainboom buddies. It was easily agreed on, but Rarity wanted to make especially sure, for reasons Rainbow insisted not be asked. That led to Pinkie expressing her sustained surprise that Fluttershy was the one to tame Adagio, Fluttershy replying that she wouldn't put it that way, just that Adagio was holding back to make her happy, for which she was very grateful. Applejack then asked her about Art class and shared her new hunch about that sketch from a while back, both of which led to Fluttershy locking up and sinking under the table until she could be lured out with a juice-box.
A little later in the afternoon, the group dispersed, everyone having agreed to honor the sirens' wishes by continuing as normal until the time was right, then see how things unfolded from there. That there wasn't a single hint of opposition to embracing the three as friends was like a flock of pronking lambs in Fluttershy's heart; just warm and happy and covered in soft fluff. That, of course, led her to her still-kinda-secret girlfriend, who would probably like to know how things went with the others today...
Sonata answered the door again, smiling just like she did earlier today. "Hi the-... Dr. Seuss? What're you doing here again?"
Giggling a little at the silliest of the nicknames the sirens had given her, Fluttershy smiled. "I just wanted to let you three know that the others agreed to keep things private and that there's nothing to worry about."
"Oh, we know," Sonata said while patting one of her pockets, "Rarity already called to pass it on, but thanks anyway!"
"Oh." Somehow, it hadn't occurred to Fluttershy to do that. Did she actually have Adagio's number?
...Could she get it now? There was no reason why not, right? The worry had been that her friends would see it in her phone and now her friends all knew about it anyway, so-
"-euss, Earth to Dr. Seuss, do you read, over? KRRRSHK!"
Fluttershy blinked twice. "Whuh, huh?"
Sonata giggled. "Thinkin' about Dagi naked, huh? It's okay, I do the same thing wi-" She was cut off with a series of spastic arm movements as Fluttershy went all rosy.
"N-n-no! I, I-I wasn't-"
"Is that so?" came a familiar, velvety voice from just behind her as faintly muscular arms slid over her shoulder and around her midsection, "And, what about now?"
Turning her head, Fluttershy found Adagio holding her in a gentle hug, her arms wrapped around Fluttershy's torso. Despite the predatory gleam in her red-violet eyes, Fluttershy only smiled a dopey smile. "Hi."
Adagio giggled. "Hello, Sweetie." She doesn't look very surprised, was slipping out the window and creeping around the side of the house not sneaky enough? Or does she just expect this from me now? I'm happy to oblige, but still...
Neither that nor the nudity question from a moment ago were answered as Fluttershy stretched out her neck to deliver a peck on the cheek, to which Adagio responded with a long, soft lip-lock. This might have escalated further, but both were a little taken out of it when Sonata, hands pressed to her cheeks, all but shouted "AWWWW!!"
The couple blushed, but neither had stopped smiling, even when they heard Aria's exaggerated yakking noises from inside. Shaking her head a little at the purple prude, Adagio smiled at the soft, cuddly girl in her arms, her voice gentle. "Would you like to come in for a while, Sweetie? I'll be making dinner in a bit."
Quietly awed by the fact that the suggestion had come without a hint of suggestiveness, from Adagio of all people, Fluttershy smiled back. "S-sure!"
While Fluttershy certainly enjoyed the way Adagio picked her up and brought her inside in the traditional princess-carrying pose; the carrier's hands supporting her legs and back while the carry-ee's arms gently encircled the carrier's neck, a tiny part of her was opposed. She was left on the couch, Adagio sitting next to her, and Aria and Sonata occupying cushy chairs to their sides, by which point she determined that her tiny dissatisfaction stemmed from wanting to be the one doing the carrying. Whether or not she had the physical strength to lift Adagio for longer than a four-second emergency-sprint, she didn't know.
"So," began Aria without looking away from the TV screen on which her digital rampage was displayed, a controller in her hands, "everything cool with those three?"
Grinning, Fluttershy nodded. "Everything's okay, none of us will tell a soul until you want us to."
"On that note," said Adagio as she leisurely leaned backward on the couch, "we'll likely need to be careful about how that's timed, even when we have a social circle of our own. No need to hammer out specifics right now, but it would raise a few eyebrows if we revealed everything on the same day, most of all you and I, or Nata and Rarity."
"Yep," giggled Sonata as she picked up a controller and tagged into Aria's bus-throwing mayhem, "if we were all "Hey, did we ever mention that we've been secret friends with those guys for months now?", it'd probably be more fuel on the can't-trust-'em-as-far-as-we-can-throw-'em fire."
It was a point they hadn't discussed at Sweet Apple Acres, but one that had occurred to Fluttershy before. She shrugged a little. "I guess so."
"It'll work out," Aria said in almost apathetic fashion before nodding to a third controller on the coffee table, "wanna join in?"
Cyan eyes rapidly darted back and forth between the controller and the onscreen chaos a few times. "Uh, n-no thank you."
"Not into the rough stuff, huh? Guess I can respect that." Another virtual garbage truck was sacrificed to the vicious reaper of pixels, but Aria noticed that other than the fire and explosions from the TV, the room had gone very quiet. She glanced at the others to see Fluttershy sitting there wide-eyed and glowing while Sonata and Adagio made the exact same motion of looking back at her with a scandalous hands raised to their mouths, though they did little to hide the smirks. Her word choice sunk in, making Aria blush almost as brightly as Fluttershy. "F-for the love of, I didn't mean like that!!"
Sonata wore a wide, satisfied grin. "But you still totally said it!"
"I meant violence, gut-rending, bone-crunching violence!" She winced a little as Fluttershy covered her virgin ears, but the fluffy-haired punishment for this was already staring her in the face.
"And yet, you didn't just say 'violence,'" Adagio pondered aloud as she leaned forward, her smirk and raised eyebrow starting to make Aria sweat, "you said 'the rough stuff.' Why is that? Something on your mind lately, Ria? Something you want to share?"
Aria did her best to sink down into her seat. "No."
"Yes." She was equally surprised and relieved to see Adagio backing off so early, but maybe she wanted to behave in front of her favorite Rainboom.
"Alright then, but remember that you can always talk to us, about anything."
Things were quiet again as the onscreen action continued, but Aria didn't dare look at either of her tormentors. Then Sonata asked anyway.
"So, top or bottom?"
Two sirens giggled as another turned red, but even she started to chuckle by the end of it. The three of them carried on, Fluttershy just watching in silence.
They still smile, she thought to herself, even without their voices, without- well, I don't know if it meant more to them than anything in the world, but- even without something very precious to them, they can still smile.
And somehow, that made her sad. Not that they could find any measure of happiness, that was great! Just, that anyone could carry on despite a painful loss, and she knew there were a lot of them in the world, made her think of her father. He was gone now, and nothing would ever change that, so the best thing she could do was to let go. Was the same true of the sirens' voices? She didn't want to think so, especially when-
Once more, Fluttershy's world stopped. It was just an instant, but one in which her brain struggled to keep up with itself as a number of thoughts crashed together at once. Adagio, Aria, and Sonata would never forsake their ability to sing if they had any hope whatsoever of getting it back, which was why the subject probably still hurt them. The problem, Adagio said, was that when they tried to project their voices loudly enough, they broke, but their speaking voices were unchanged. She said she wasn't really sure about how it worked either, that something happened when they shouted, sneezed, got the hiccups, yelled, or laughed too hard, but talking at an indoor volume was okay?
If that was the case... Fluttershy had a theory. A theory that, while she knew it was foolish to put such hope in so soon, she couldn't stop from splitting her face in a wide, painful smile. This got the Dazzlings' attention as they paused the game to look at her.
"Uhh," started Aria, "Squeaky? You okay there? Lookin' kinda..." there was a flicker of a nervous grin, "haha, scary."
Sonata looked a little uncomfortable too. "Y-yea... What's she doing, Dagi?"
Their fearless leader studied Fluttershy with a hand raised to her chin. "I don't know, but..." A little smirk forming, Adagio started to blush. "I think I like it..."
Aria covered her eyes. "Wow, and, ew."
Sonata didn't. "Dagi, you're a real freaky bit-"
"I HAVE AN IDEA," blurted Fluttershy, startling the sirens into silence. She gave the three of them an apologetic little grin. "Uh, I-I mean... I have an idea, f-for, uhm..." Horror seized her when she realized what she was about to suggest, but if there was even the tiniest chance that she was right? It was an easy thing to test, and from somewhere in the back of her mind, a long-accumulated confidence stepped forward, bringing with it such certainty that if she was wrong, she'd let them throw her out of the house stark naked. She had the undivided attention of all three, the combination of their stares and what may come with the next few minutes kicking her heartbeat into overdrive and sending ripples of fire and ice through her skin.
"What if you sang quietly?"
Not even Adagio gave her more than a blank, numb stare of shock in response. Her confidence took a baby-step backward, so she had to say this quickly.
"I-I mean, if your voice b-breaks when you talk louder, and they're-it's f-f-fine when-when, the rest of the time, I-I thought, w-what if, what if you j-j-" she bit her tongue, the stabbing pain bringing tears to her eyes as she cupped both hands over her mouth. She feared she'd start bawling then and there, but a gentle hand on her shoulder reminded her that she wasn't talking to complete strangers, but someone she loved, someone that might have even loved her back, and two people that... well, she was pretty sure they trusted her.
Fluttershy opened her eyes, but nothing had changed. The world hadn't split open, the sky hadn't fallen, and the sirens didn't look even a little upset with her. If anything, they looked lost, trading unsure glances until Adagio, gently rubbing Fluttershy's back, asked a question in a soft voice.
"What do you mean, Sweetie? That if we're just quiet, we should be able to sing again? Did Sunset Shimmer say that, was it an idea from Twilight Sparkle? What brought this on?"
She needed a minute before she could steady herself enough to verbalize a reply. "I, n-no, it's not from anyone, it just hit me a second ago. You s-said that, uhm, I-I mean, I think you said, that it was only when you were l-loud enough, s-so, I mean..." She gulped, her heart shuddering at the very idea of getting their hopes up for nothing. "Have you tried? Just singing quietly?"
There was another silent look-trading session before Aria shrugged. "What would you sing when it's so quiet hardly anyone's gonna hear it?" She was almost startled by Fluttershy's instant answer.
Another short silence, this one broken by Sonata bursting into gigglefits with a wavering grin. "W-what, like, just like that? Sing quiet and it'll work great?"
"Have you tried?"
It was the forcefulness in her voice that did the startling this time. "Have you tried?" It was like a needle in Fluttershy's heart when Sonata looked back at her as though she'd been scolded. If she had pony ears, they would have been down.
This time, it was Fluttershy that was startled as Adagio cleared her throat. The others looked to her as though she'd just said she was going to cut a finger off.
"Well," she uttered, "lullabies aren't exactly our bread and butter, but if there's even a chance...?" Aria and Sonata, her two oldest friends, watched her in stationary silence as she raised a steadying hand to her chest, closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and held a hushed note. None of them could rightly call it singing, but it was a far cry from the screechy Hell that had been their performance just before being booed off the stage at the Battle. She dared push a little harder, but backed down to softer keys when she felt her voice giving. Staying as low as possible, she varied things a little more, letting herself gently hum a few bars of the lullaby Fluttershy had sung for her the day she was sick.
And nothing was wrong.
It was soft, it was modest, but it was her voice, a much gentler version of what she remembered. Her heartbeat picking up, she opened her eyes to see her two band-mates gaping at her with their eyes nearly bulging straight out of their sockets and Fluttershy beaming the biggest, brightest, most dentist-worrying smile she'd ever seen her make. Adagio's speaking voice was soft and tearful as she smiled at the three of them. "Join me?"
The four of them practiced a lullaby together. Aria and Sonata were as shaky as Adagio had been at first, but the three of them worked out their range fairly quickly, singing very softly, but almost flawlessly for the first time since their gems were destroyed. When the lullaby stopped, it wasn't because the song was over, but because none of the four girls could hold together through their tears. She would deny it to her dying day, but Aria was the first to break down into inelegant blubbering as the sirens all but launched at each other, stammering and crying and and squeezing each other in clumsy, but fully-reciprocated hugs. It wasn't all happy crying, because overjoyed though they were to have even this much, they knew they'd spent the last few months without it for no better reason than having been too scared to try such a thing, but pain wasn't high on their list right now.
Emotionally raw though they were, the three didn't forget about Fluttershy, who was startled for different reasons when they latched onto her as one, their tears matched with her own, their grateful mutterings met with wordless blubbering that vaguely conveyed wishes for their continued happiness. It wouldn't make up for what they had lost, all of them knew that, but for now? It was something, and something they intended to cherish every day of their lives.