Twilight had a very bad feeling.
It wasn't just the lack of intelligible results in her search thus far, but the other thing she'd been dreading all day. She stood next to Sour Sweet at the start of the obstacle course in the center of the... (should I still be ashamed if my vocabulary is lacking in athletic jargon?) sporty, thing, area... with CHS's competitors doing the same just a few meters away. Standing in the grass between CHS's side of the obstacle course and the roller-rink were CHS's cheerleaders, who at least weren't giving her any unsettling looks. The same could not be said of her own team, the countless faces on the distant bleachers, and most of all Principal Cinch, who took her seat by the other judges.
Nervous even without the pressure (OH SO MUCH PRESSURE) to do well, Twilight did her best not to react to everyone staring at her like they were expecting her to fail. The first step to doing this was to remember that such stares were (most likely ENTIRELY) in her imagination, derived from various fears and anxieties. She felt better already! In that she was just extremely nervous now, but still!
Dean Cadence summed up the rules of the event, how one competitor had to hit the target (archery, which is a requirement at Crystal Prep, WHY?!) at the end of the obstacle course before their partner could move to do the same. When both obstacle-course-running archers had completed their task, the competitors on their team could begin with the roller-skating race, whether the other school's team was moving or not. When enough laps were completed, the bike teams could start their way around the track, which would be the deciding factor.
When the event started, Sour Sweet and Fluttershy took off and the cheerleaders launched into their routine. Distantly, Twilight tried to pretend that those cheers applied to her as well.
Run, slide, jump, swing,
grab a bow and shoot something!
Ar-row, and, bow,
one hit and you're good to go!
Sour Sweet hit a bulls-eye by launching three arrows at once, which, while Twilight questioned the legality, meant she was now 'good to go.' With a quick glance at the other CHS competitor, Twilight stood up, ran, tried to leap over the hay bale, tripped, and face-planted on the ground just past it. Luckily, there were no mocking cheers relating to klutziness or polishing the floor with one's face. Sour Sweet was glaring at her in irritation when she got up, but Twilight quickly moved to swing over the mud, barely keeping herself from falling in. Struggling, she made her way onto the platform by the time Fluttershy hit a target and the other CHS archer was in position. Both took a shot that neither landed, but where Fluttershy quietly applauded her teammate, all Twilight got was another glare.
Unfair! Just like with the Elimination Equation! CHS gives praise no matter what and all I get is judgement! I don't want patronizing participation awards, but this just SUCKS!!
The blonde girl across from her hit with her very next shot, which sent CHS's roller-skaters off in the next ring and the cheerleaders into another lively chant.
Work the left, work the right,
legs move at the speed of light!
On the track, round you go,
faster than your richer foe!
Twilight kept firing, knowing that statistically, one of her arrows had to hit if she kept shooting the general area where the bulls-eye traveled. Right? Failure rate so far remained at 100% (and I just love getting 100% on things...), but Sour Sweet's tone suggested she wasn't thinking positive as she watched CHS's skaters go by.
"Well, that's just fantastic!"
Knowing that it was directed squarely at her, the commentary offered by Dean Cadence hurt much worse.
"If CPA can't hit another bulls-eye soon, they'll be out of this race."
Frantically, she tried to ready another arrow, dropped it, and felt the tears welling up in her eyes as she quickly moved to retrieve it. She tried to wipe her eyes clean (my accuracy is horrific as it is) with her bare arm before shooting, but it hardly made a difference, which got worse when Sugarcoat shouted from the outer-most ring.
"You're really bad at this!"
Turning to look at her, Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "Is that really how you encourage a teammate?"
Shrugging, Sugarcoat haughtily raised her chin. "I'm just pointing out the truth."
"Yea? Well here's some more: If you want to win, tearing down your own members is a fuckin' stupid way to do it." She looked at the scoreboard for the roller-rink, waiting for her cue. "Good luck to you guys anyway."
As Sugarcoat and Indigo stared in slack-jawed shock, Sunset beamed with some kind of friendly pride, which reached face-hurting levels when she saw Applejack assisting Twilight down by the archery range.
Given that the platforms were elevated for better audience visibility, the sirens, standing on the grass on the opposite side, couldn't quite see what was going on with Applejack from where they were, which made Aria scratch her head.
"What's she doing over there?"
Adagio leaned over to try to get a better look. "I saw her hand her bow off to Fluttershy before going over to their side... Did you two just hear the other Shadowbolt just say something about advice from the person they're competing against?"
Sonata hopped up and down a few times to see for herself. "Why the heck're they helping CeePee? I thought the whole reason they brought us here was that they badly wanted to win? Shouldn't they be, y'know, jumping on this?"
Adagio had suspected other motives out of Sunset from the start, and as she alone was the one that helped them regain their voices, proposed that they be present, and regularly checked up on them, perhaps there was more to her benevolence than met the eye. She would need to have an increasingly long talk with Sunset later.
"Trust me," said Applejack as she helped Twilight steady her aim, "take a deep breath..." She did. "let the arrow go... riiiight... now!"
Twilight fired, her heart stopping for the instant in which the arrow flew directly for the target, hitting it dead-center.
The crowd cheered, Sunny Flare and Lemon Zest took off, and Spike hopped up to congratulate her. She knelt down to hug him before turning to the girl that had, despite her chance at an easy win, helped her through what may have been the most tense moment of her life. She saw the visual cue of the blonde raising her arm for a high-five, but ignored it, gently seizing her opponent in a hug. The other girl patted her back.
"See? Ah was tellin' ya the truth."
And then that strange phenomenon started again!
During another cheer for the roller-skaters, the sirens had skillfully cartwheeled into a position from which they could see Twilight and Applejack better.
"Hey," Sonata observed, "she's ponying up! Sunset's gonna get in trouble for this!"
Aria looked to Adagio. "I don't really give a damn about these games, but we kinda owe Sunset. Anything we can do about this?"
"If I knew how to prevent or dispel those transformations, don't you think I'd have done it at the Battle?!"
"Yeesh. No need to get snippy."
Her eyes widening in horror, Sonata pointed at Twilight and Applejack. "I think she's figured it out for us!"
Applejack struggled as she felt her energy fading like she was a toaster with the plug pulled, that thing around Twilight's neck ripping it out of her somehow. "What, are, you, doing?!"
"I don't know!!" Horrified at what she was doing to the girl that had just helped her, Twilight again felt like crying as she tried to restrain the spectrometer, but only when the ethereal substance stopped coming was she able to pull it back and snap it shut. Unfortunately, she lost her footing and fell backward, off the platform, and dropped the spectrometer, which snapped off its cord and rolled onto the roller-rink. Open. She could only watch as it unleashed some kind of pulse...
Twilight again out of their field of view, the sirens tried to lean over for a look when they felt the burst of magical activity, but had to keep their focus on the event when the roller-skaters finished.
Dirt roads, dirt bikes,
take those slopes fast as you like!
And don't miss, those ramps,
if you want to be the champs!
And that's when people noticed the huge, plant-like tendrils and Venus fly-trap mouths popping out of rips in time and space. Strangely, no one screamed or ran away or anything, not even Crystal Prep's students, so either this was a more common occurrence than the sirens would have ever guessed, or the people in this world had the self-preservation instincts of a cow.
They watched as Sugarcoat and Sunset were attacked, the former danging from her bike in one of the creature's many mouths and the latter skidding along the ground on her back. Good thing Rarity's motocross outfits doubled as standard safety gear.
As Sugarcoat fell and tumbled down the plant monster's body, the (mostly powerless) sirens did they only thing they could think of in this situation: Play through!
Watch the vines,
watch the head,
otherwise, you'll end up dead!
Geeeeet out of there!!
Sugarcoat was the only one to take this advice, fleeing the area almost as soon as she was on her feet. Rainbow, however, had gone back for Sunset, snatching her out of the way of a mouth that slammed straight into the dirt. This act quickly led to Rainbow ponying up, but with no immediate response from Twilight's magic-sucking medallion. Much more perplexing was Rainbow's next thought as she pointed to the track.
"We can still win this!"
Sunset knew that her priorities should have been on the creature. She knew that the smart thing to do was stop, find Twilight (who she knew had done something to the portal), and do whatever it took to reverse what she'd done to open all these little rifts the plant-thing was now spilling from. However, if she did that, she would be confirming that magic had gotten in the way of the games, that she had failed completely to stop it from making a mess of things, and the school would probably never forgive her for ruining the Friendship Games. So instead of doing the sensible thing, she did the crazy thing; revving up her bike to continue the race.
If the event kept going, if she just drove past the stupid thing, no matter who won, that would mean that the magic hadn't gotten in the way, right? If they still finished the event? Maybe she was a little heavy on adrenaline right then, but that was what she decided to do. She wanted to give Rainbow credit for thinking the same thing, but if it was a matter of winning something...?
Regardless, she took off, racing past the pit Indigo Zap had fallen into. With the roar of her bike, it was a little hard to detect whether or not the sirens' next cheer was at all sarcastic.
You're still racing?
Well, why not?
Just make sure that you're not caught!
To stay pretty as a peach,
stay out of the monster's reach!
Aria shrugged a little. "I mean, we're not running either, but-"
Sonata finished for her. "But the beastie is all around the outer-most track for some reason, so around the center of this thing, where we're standing, is probably a lot safer right now?"
Twilight wasn't paying attention when the racers crossed the finish line, having to dive-roll over a tendril (athleticism is so much easier when no one's watching) to seize and shut the spectrometer, which, she assumed, caused the portals to close and the monster to go away. She looked at the Canterlot High girls that had gathered to discuss this, the scary, fiery-headed one was visibly upset about... magic? That was certainly interesting, but more urgently, Twilight knew she had to apologize.
"Um, excuse me," she started with a contrite frown, "I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I just wanted to learn about the strange energy coming from your school, I didn't know it was magic, or, how it works."
"That's okay," said the smiling, blue, winged girl as she stepped closer, "neither do we."
And again, the spectrometer acted on its own. Twilight tried to close it while frantically apologizing as it drained another girl. "I'm sorry, it just started absorbing energy on its own, but I'm not sure how!"
Scary Girl immediately got in her face for this. "What do you mean you don't know how?!" She tried to close it too, which may have been what triggered the bolt that opened a rift over their heads. Still trying to close her treacherous creation, Twilight again tried to explain herself.
"It also caused these corresponding rifts to appear, I don't know how that works either!"
Exasperated, Scary threw her hands up. "Is there anything you do know?! Like how to get our magic back, or how to fix the portal to Equestria?!"
Wearing a worried frown, Fluttershy stepped forward. "Sunset, please, calm down."
Making note of the name, Twilight was vaguely sure she'd heard it before, but Sunset's last word had her completely lost. "Equestria?"
"You're supposed to be so smart," Sunset seethed as she reached out to clamp the spectrometer shut, "but did you ever think that you shouldn't be messing around with things you don't understand?!"
"But I want to understand," pleaded Twilight, which Sunset heard as 'but I want to play with fire!'
"But you don't," she snapped, pointing an accusatory finger in the hapless hazard's direction, "and worst of all, you put the lives of my friends in danger!" She drew some kind of satisfaction from the tears in Twilight's eyes, knowing that the other girl knew she was wrong.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
And she ran off crying. Sunset continued to glare after her, but only when Rainbow touched her shoulder did she realize what she'd just done. Again.
Temper. It's always my temper. Something bad happens, I don't get my way, I get angry, and then I do something stupid. Happened with Celestia, happened during the Fall Formal, it happened during the Battle, and now I've done it again.
She'd have been angrier at herself, but where would that lead her? Probably doing something stupid again and making an already terrible day even worse. Speaking of things getting worse, she caught sight of the sirens, who, by the looks on their faces, heard more than a little of her exchange with Twilight
"Uh... Hi, guys?"
"Yea, hi," Aria said with a moderate scowl while crossing her arms. "So, when were you gonna tell us about what was going on?"
"I, I only just learned what she was doing recently and-"
Sonata tilted her head a little. "How recently?"
"A little before the second event?"
Aria's eyes narrowed. "But you still didn't say anything?"
"I was, I was going to-..."
Sunset remembered the how she felt about the look she got the first time Princess Twilight returned to this world, and the months between the Fall Formal and the Battle of the Bands, how it felt to be distrusted. There were multiple times in which she thought she'd earned someone's trust back only to learn otherwise, there were misunderstandings with her friends, causing them to doubt her too. Those situations were always resolved eventually, but the look Aria and Sonata were giving her now, that subtle blend of confusion and betrayal? When Sunset wore it herself, it always meant "You don't trust me, do you?" To have that very expression reflected back at her, hurt.
She didn't know what else to say, but Adagio, her face unreadably passive, filled the silence with an ice-cold monotone.
"We should talk later. In private. I'll call you." Leaving no room for discussion, she turned and walked away, Aria and Sonata following her.
When they were out of the Rainbooms' earshot, Adagio glanced over her shoulder at them. "When I said later, I meant very soon, and when I said 'in private'...?"
"Oh," said Sonata as she and Aria stopped following, "gotcha! What should we do?"
Heading off to find a secluded spot, Adagio shrugged. "Whatever you like, the next event doesn't start for a while." The complete lack of mirth in her voice made it hard to tell if she was joking. "Don't do anything I'll see on the news, please."
Aria snorted with amusement anyway, turning to see Sonata giving her a ponderous look.
"So, now what?"
In a split-second, Aria registered that Sonata had forgotten that she was supposed to be 'in charge,' which left that position open to her! But she had to act fast. Glancing around, she caught sight of the Rainbooms approaching Luna, Celestia, Crystal Prep's Ultra-Girly-Hair 9000, and a really cross-looking, blue librarian lady angrily making hand-gestures at Celestia. Aria pointed to the stairway just behind them. "Recon."
Sonata nodded and the two quickly snuck over to hide behind the steps, catching the tail end of something Celestia was saying.
"-some extenuating circumstances... Perhaps we should end the games now and declare a tie."
Blue Pompous did not gel with this. "A tie?! Was this your strategy all along, to force us into accepting you as equals?! I think not. The games will continue and Crystal Prep will prevail despite your antics and whatever performance-enhancing regimen your students are on!" She gave Celestia one more dirty look before walking off.
Sunset immediately stepped forward to apologize. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop all this from happening."
Celestia frowned, her tone completely sympathetic. "It's not your fault, Sunset." This appeared to make Sunset feel worse.
"Isn't it? I should know how to control the magic I brought here. But I don't." Same as Twilight. "I let everyone down. And now Principal Cinch thinks we're cheating!"
She gently put a hand on Sunset's shoulder. "It doesn't matter what Principal Cinch thinks." Damn, it feels good to say that out loud!
"But it does," said Sunset as she stepped away. "The students here at CHS don't just wanna win, they wanna beat Crystal Prep. It isn't gonna count if the other side doesn't really think they lost. Crystal Prep is never gonna believe we won fair and square if there's magic around, and that magic is only around... because of me."
Still behind the stairs, Sonata kept her voice down. "Kinda too late now, isn't it? If the plant thing slamming down on the racers doesn't count as CHS not winning fair and square, I don't know what does!"
"Forget the stupid games, did you hear Sunset?" Peeking around the stairs, Aria's eyes narrowed at the departing Rainbooms. "Maybe when Adagio calls her away, we should have a private talk of our own..."
"Private with their whole group? Minus Sunset?"
Aria facepalmed. "Don't ruin the moment, Sonata."