• Published 7th Oct 2014
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Sunset Shimmer: Element Bearer - ConningOfficer



A heroine instead of a villain, Sunset Shimmer becomes a leader to her friends at Canterlot High. She begins by helping Sonata Dusk after the Battle of the Bands...

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Chapter Two

The six girls clustered around the tome in the center of the cafeteria table eyed one another in stunned silence, nervously waiting for each of them to finish reading Twilight Sparkle’s magically-delivered message from Equestria, with the exception of Sunset Shimmer, who stared at the book, a frown of concentration creasing her features. The seriousness at their table was in stark contrast with the rest of the raucous, almost joyful, cafeteria.

Applejack broke the silence with a low whistle. “Well, so much for celebrating the rest of the year. Twilight sure gave us quite a bit to think about.” She pushed her trademark hat further back on to her head, “What do you all make of it?”

“Awwwwww,” Pinkie Pie moaned in disappointment, “I can’t go through the portal? But I would have had so much incredible fun with the other me! I’d even started making her best-friend-forever rock candy necklaces, like I make for Maud. Do ponies even eat candy? Could I bring a sousaphone? How would I look with four legs?”

“Pinkie, dear, I think you might be missing the point.” Rarity redirected her energetic friend. “Let’s take this one step at a time. Twilight acted very responsibly by closing the portal. She is worried for us and for all of us here at CHS that could put themselves in, at best, a disorienting situation. As a Princess, it sounds like she has her hands, hooves, and mind completely full right now,” she declared with a calming pat on Pinkie’s forearm.

“Excuse me, Sunset Shimmer,” broke in Fluttershy, “but could you help us out? You’re the only one of us that can really teach us about Twilight’s warning. You are being so quiet and it scares me a little.” She ended her request in a whisper.

“Sorry about that, Fluttershy. I’m sorry, everyone. This just brings back an awful lot all at once,” Sunset Shimmer said as she snapped back to reality with a shake of her head. “But, I need to keep this link to Equestria safe and secret,” she said with a pointed glance at Pinkie Pie. Slipping the magic book into her bag under the table and wrapping her leather jacket around herself protectively, Sunset hesitantly asked, “How much do you really want to know?”

“Everything you can tell us,” said Rainbow Dash seriously, scooting as close to the table as she could, “and I totally get it that you won’t be able to tell us everything. If there’s anything I learned last week, I can’t do it all myself and this is way more your thing than mine.” Applejack arched an eyebrow, so Rainbow Dash continued. “Come on, AJ, let me get through this! Sunset Shimmer, you proved yourself an awesome friend here after we got past the Fall Formal aftermath. I think I just sort of forgot about your life before coming here. Um, it just didn’t seem like that big of a difference to the stuff that really mattered.”

Seeing the trust and agreement reflected in the eyes looking at her, Sunset Shimmer nodded. “There’s way more than I can cover in a lunch period, or in a whole month of slumber parties, Rainbow Dash, but I’ll tell you the most important things for now, and translate what I read from Twilight’s letter as best I can. Got it?” The girls all nodded agreeably.

“Okay, here we go,” she began, brushing her gold-and-red streaked hair behind her ears. “Listen carefully, because I can’t exactly yell this stuff across the cafeteria. Twlight’s scared about something, but she’s not telling us even half of what she knows. It’s easy to simplify her as a magical-prodigy bookworm, but she’s a scientist through-and-through who just happens to have earned the title of Princess. I have my own thoughts, but I’m so out of practice with magical theory that I’d be totally guessing.”

“Sunset Shimmer, I’m more comfortable with your guesses than most people’s facts, especially when it comes to magic,” said Fluttershy with a smile.

“Thanks, Fluttershy. There are all kinds of things Twilight made me think about: undead, evil spirits, bad faeries, and opponents of Starswirl the Bearded leap immediately to mind. All of these are probably more dangerous than the Dazzlings. Equestria was even at war with griffons and minotaurs if I can separate legend from history. All of these creatures can use or need to feed on magic to survive. Some are intelligent and crafty, while others are all about brute force.”

She gestured with a yellow-hued hand, “As far as I can tell, there’s only one me and only one set of Sirens.” She gestured with the other hand. “But there are two of all of you, including Celestia and Luna. The way that the Dazzlings were ripped from Equestria may have something to do with it, but my best guess is that nearly every person, pony, or creature with a soul has an alternate version on the other side of the mirror. While so much is similar between parallel worlds, you’re all unique with separate choices and separate memories.”

The former unicorn continued. “I can only speak for myself, but when the portal opened this fall, I could feel my pony magic again. I couldn’t use it, but it was like static electricity that was all through the air. It was tiny, but that tingle was there. Now, with three major Equestrian magical discharges in one year, the natural magic in the air is much greater than it was. It’s probably one reason why ears and wings appear when the Rainbooms play. But, using the magic in the Elements of Harmony is like trying to dump a lake into a swimming pool. There’s going to be massive overflow.”

“Static electricity??? I love that!” bounced Pinkie Pie, having pulled her curly hair pulled at least a foot away from her face in every direction. “Oooh, did you say there was going to be a pool party???”

Sunset Shimmer smiled at her friend’s antics and shook her head. “I wish this was a party, Pinkie, and I hope we can have one soon, but Twilight is right to warn us. This is a problem. I cut short my formal magical education, but right now I feel like I can almost use weak telekinesis spells in this body.” Clasping her hands in front of her, Sunset furrowed her brow and narrowed her green-blue eyes. “Starswirl the Bearded couldn’t see the future, but girls, look to your own history. A thousand years ago, this world had stories of dragons, monsters, and fantastic creatures that were vanquished or just disappeared. If this was a mass exile, it might have been part of the founding of the Canterlot dynasty.”

With wide violet eyes, Rainbow Dash reached across the table with a smile and squeezed the hand of her worried friend. “Sunset, the next time I say to tell me everything, could you make it a little more bite-sized? Don’t worry. We’ve got your back!” the others smiled and began packing for the start of afternoon classes.

Sunset blushed. “That means a lot, Rainbow Dash.” She made eye contact with all the others, then wrapped up. “We all just need to watch for anything strange and I can report back.” She puckered her lips to one side and hesitantly added, “Even though Twilight will help, I sort of want to prove we can handle a few things ourselves.”

Applejack glanced at the clock. “Of course we’ll all keep our guard up. Right, girls?” She looked to her friends for agreement which was quickly given. “But first thing’s first. Sunset, get Sonata over to the farm later this afternoon and we’ll make sure she’s all right while keeping an eye on her. Besides, some chores and fresh air may do us all some good to get my head around all this.”

“One last question, Sunset Shimmer,” asked Rarity politely, fixing her with her blue eyes, “Do you believe in Twilight’s theory about the Elements of Harmony?”

Bravely returning the gaze, Sunset struggled to keep her voice steady. “Rarity, I said I’d tell you everything and I will. Activating the magic and joining together to defeat the Dazzlings and break their spell was sweeter than a first kiss and reminded me of the first time I ever felt the spark of magic in my horn. If I wasn’t floating and then hugging you all, I would have dropped to my knees to thank Princess Celestia.” The honorific was intentionally added to separate her from the Principal. “You have all seen me at my worst and I’m scared to death of the awful, hurtful things I am capable of doing. This time I needed to do what needed to be done to save my friends. But, I worry what I will decide to do next time. Bottom line, I believe in all of you and we need to help each other do the right thing.”

Brushing away a tear, Fluttershy summed it up. “We love you too, Sunny,” and she initiated a group hug.

Muffled by the others’ bodies, Sunset Shimmer protested. “Fluttershy, please don’t call me that!”

-------

The rest of the school day passed uneventfully. Applejack and Sunset Shimmer met outside of Nurse Redheart’s office five minutes after the last bell rang, while students were hastily streaming out of the school and out into the spring afternoon. The blonde-haired farmgirl was eager to finish her chores with the remaining daylight, but was held back by the look on the other girl’s face.

“Applejack, we need to be delicate with her. I don’t think her body is the thing that’s hurt the worst. Do you think you could use a little tact?” asked Sunset Shimmer.

“I told you I’d help and I am,” she told Sunset, tamping down mild annoyance, “but I’m glad she’ll be outnumbered at the farm.”

The leather-clad shoulders rose and fell with a great sigh. Sunset said, “I think you’ll understand more after you talk with her.”

Entering the office, Nurse Redheart smiled at the two girls over a steaming cup of coffee. Sonata Dusk had discarded her dirty sweatshirt and skirt and was wearing a borrowed blue-and-gold Canterlot High School gym uniform. The angry kaleidoscope of colors in her facial bruise made Applejack gasp.

“How are you feeling, sugar cube? In case you didn’t catch it before, I’m Sunset Shimmer’s friend Applejack,” she said.

“I’m Sonata Dusk. I’m doing a little better.” She looked at Sunset Shimmer with a weak smile. “You were right about Nurse Redheart. She’s very good at her job.”

“Thank you, Sonata. I’m glad I could help,” the school nurse replied.

“So, here’s the plan,” declared Sunset, “You and I are going to help Applejack on her family’s farm and spend the night out there. Is that all right with you?”

Looking down at the floor, the Siren gave a quick “Mmmm-hmmm.”

Placing a hand on her shoulder, Applejack mentioned, “If you help me get some of the work done around the farm, I’ll loan you some clothes and you can soak in the bathtub. Deal?”

At the mention of a bath, Sonata raised her eyes to meet Applejack’s, the corners of her mouth lifting. “Sounds good to me,” she demurely assented.

The three filed out of the office, left the school, and walked to the street, where a very impatient Big Macintosh was sitting behind the wheel of an older-model pickup truck. After directing Big Mac, Applejack’s older brother, to take on two additional passengers, the party of four drove through the city of Canterlot. On the outskirts of town, the truck quickly turned a curve and traveled down a small rise, where a large apple orchard and attending farm spread as far as their eyes could see. The words “Sweet Apple Acres” were painted in red on a white arch over the gravel-two-track that served as an access road.

The central part of the orchard contained a huge farmhouse, an even larger barn to support the farm’s livestock, and an equipment support building. The inviting farmhouse had signs of wear on its red siding, but was obviously sturdy and well-cared for. A pyramid of empty barrels near the barn reminded the Apple family that harvest was still many months away. Sunset watched Sonata closely as she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

“What an incredible smell! What is that?” Sonata Dusk asked Applejack.

“I’m going to assume you’re talking about the apple blossoms and not the manure!” she told Sonata while Sunset Shimmer smiled. Sweet Apple Acres in full bloom was a glorious site and over the past several months, the orchard often reminded Sunset that nature was one of the unifying forces between her two worlds.

“The flowers are so beautiful! I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sonata said, tossing her blue hair as she sat up a little straighter, “So, what do I need to do to get a bath around here?”

Her directness about something so simple was refreshing and brought a genuine smile to Sunset’s face. “Well, you have to earn it, first. I hope you don’t mind getting that borrowed gym uniform dirty! Don’t worry. I do chores with Applejack all the time,” said Sunset Shimmer.

In the two hours before dinner, the three girls completed a full list of chores. Applejack found that Sonata readily accepted direction and instructions. Sunset thought, with a twinge of suspicion, that her obedience was a little too prompt. Once Applejack showed her what to do a couple of times, Sonata proved quite competent at basic farm chores. The three moved hay from the loft to feed the livestock, made sure that the orchard equipment was ready to tend the flowering trees tomorrow morning, and made a good start at mucking out the barn. They had worked up quite a sweat when Granny Smith’s ringing of a large, wrought-iron triangle rescued them.

“Dinner in five minutes! Come in and wash up!” shouted the Apple Family's matriarch.

The three girls took turns washing their hands and as much of the rest of them as they could at the large kitchen sink and sat down at the cramped dinner table. Joining them were Big Macintosh, Granny Smith, and Applejack’s younger sister, Apple Bloom.

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened in shock when she saw Sonata seated between her sister and Sunset Shimmer. She opened her mouth to speak, but after one stern look from Granny Smith the teenager’s jaw snapped shut.

Sunset began the conversation. “Granny Smith, there’s one question I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why is it that you work at the high school? It seems like there’s so much work that needs to be done here at Sweet Apple Acres.”

“I’m just glad that I get a chance to see at least two of my grandchildren every day! Not everyone can do that. Besides, the farm is doing very well and I need to give Big Mac the space he needs to run things his way. I won’t be around forever and need to know he’ll have everything working like clockwork.” Fixing the new arrival shrewdly, she inquired, “Well, young lady, you’ve had quite a weekend, haven’t you? That’s a nasty bruise you have there. The best way to get those to heal is to eat up and get lots of sleep. I’ll do my part by making sure you go to bed with a full stomach!”

“Thank you very much,” said Sonata mechanically.

Big Macintosh had been fidgeting all meal long and finally found his opening to address Applejack. “I know she’s helped with the chores and all, but why did you bring her here? Though Celestia and Luna are doing their best to hide it, that girl and her two friends almost killed you and drove the rest of us crazy,” he boomed with his forceful baritone.

“Because I have to believe that she’s better than that,” Sunset Shimmer jumped in, grossly simplifying the situation for Big Mac’s benefit. He didn’t need to know everything. “Sonata was looking for ways to make the best of her situation from this point forward, and the other two Dazzlings couldn’t handle that. Adagio hit her and ran off with Aria. I found her in class this morning and knew she needed some help. Thankfully, Applejack volunteered to give me a hand.” She pushed her now-empty plate back and pointedly added, “We all need the chance and the choice to make things right, even Sonata. I know I did.”

Applejack nodded, supporting her friend. Sunset Shimmer noticed a marked shift in Apple Bloom’s body language, indicating uncertain sympathy from overt hostility. Big Macintosh relented for the moment. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

Granny Smith interrupted, “And what we’re doing now is dessert!” Turning to the blue-skinned girl, Granny asked, “What do you want? Apple pie, apple fritter, caramel apples, candied apples, applesauce…”

-------

Sunset Shimmer and Sonata Dusk were excused from dishwashing duty to get settled in Applejack’s room. Sunset guided Sonata toward the bathroom for her long promised bath. “I’ll bring you some of Applejack’s clothes. They may not fit you as well as your other stuff, but they’ll get you through tonight and tomorrow better than the gym uniform. Do you need anything else?”

Sonata was relieved. “Not really, but could you just come back as quickly as you can, Sunset Shimmer? I am having a lot of trouble being alone after this weekend.”

The red-and-gold-haired girl knocked on the door after gathering the least embroidered of Applejack’s outfits, settling on a plain white T-shirt and a pair of work jeans. She entered and saw a bathtub full of water and bubbles, but didn’t immediately see Sonata. Before she could panic, Sonata surfaced with a loud intake of breath after being totally submerged.

Sunset Shimmer put a hand to her chest in shock. “You worried me for a moment! How did you hold your breath that long? Here, I brought you the clothes I promised.”

A smiling Sonata replied, “Thank you very much! Did you know that I spent almost all my time in the water before, um, coming to this world? That’s why I sooooo love baths! It reminds me of home. I can hold my breath, close my eyes, and pretend. But trying to swim in the ocean without scales is the worst. It’s so cold.”

Sunset noticed that the bubble bath had an amazing effect on Sonata’s bruises. The colors had changed from deep blues and purples, to a lighter blue that was only a few shades darker than her skin. The entire area had decreased by about a third, too. “Wow, you look a whole lot better after just a bit of time in the water! How are your chest and ribs doing?”

“They’re better, too. They don’t hurt as much. Your nurse was right. With some food, some sleep, and spending some time in the water, I’ll be back to normal in no time.” Sonata’s smile winked out as she came to a realization, “But, what is normal for me now? I feel so alone and scared. I feel magic and emotions but can’t tap into them. It’s like my hunger belongs to someone else, but that, Aria, and Adagio are all I can remember.”

Sunset sat on a stool near the tub. “Sonata, I want to help you, but I can’t make all your decisions for you and I certainly can’t tell you who you are without your songs and other powers. You have to decide what you want to be. I decided I wanted friendship, not power or revenge. That’s not an easy path, to fall from being the most talented of Celestia’s students and later, the most popular girl at CHS, to being hated.” She smiled and added kindly, “It’s my friends and the choices I made that kept me from being broken and alone.”

Sonata leaned over the edge of the bathtub, blue-streaked hair falling over one eye, “You could help me all by yourself,” she purred seductively, “You don’t need to have those other girls around.” Sonata, with half-lidded lilac-colored eyes, reached out to Sunset Shimmer and began to hum.

Shocked by the brazen, ham-fisted attempt to sow discord and by the atonal cacophony coming from the other girl, Sunset snapped, “Sonata, what in Celestia’s name are you doing?” using an Equestrian oath for maximum effect.

“No! Oh, no, no no!!!” the Siren sobbed as she sank beneath the surface of the water. Surfacing again after a full minute, she cried “I can’t stop! I need my song back! Why can’t it go back to the way it was? What do I do, Sunset? Help me…” her voice trailed off as she buried her face in her hands.

Sunset Shimmer’s eyes flashed in mingled anger and disappointment. “I’ll meet you in Applejack’s room,” she calmly stood and added from the doorway, almost haughtily, “Princess Twilight Sparkle warned me that I could seek out the magic of friendship or forever be alone. I think it’s your move.” Shutting the door behind her, Sunset wiped tears of her own from her eyes.

Sonata dried off, continuously wiping away tears, and brushed out her long blue-streaked hair. The painful knots created from days on the street added to her pain, but after fifteen minutes she looked presentable and was composed enough to leave the bathroom in her borrowed clothes. Not ready to confront Applejack and Sunset Shimmer, Sonata Dusk went out on the farmhouse’s front porch. The cool spring evening felt good on her damp hair, calming her. The troubled girl sat on the Apple Family porch swing and slowly moved back and forth, eyes fixed on her knees and mind worlds away.

“Uh, Sonata?” asked a cautious, young voice. She looked up at its source, Applejack’s little sister Apple Bloom, wearing pajamas and a comically oversized bow that held back her hair. “Are you OK?”

“I don’t know. I think I really messed up this time and I don’t know what to do. Would you sit with me for a while? I don’t want to be by myself,” The younger girl joined Sonata on the swing. The two looked at the stars in silence, taking in the fragrance of the apple blossoms, slowly going back and forth.

Apple Bloom worked up the courage to speak, looking up at the older girl. “I don’t want to pry, but I always thought that the best thing to do when you’ve made a big mistake is to say that you’re sorry. If you mean it, you won’t make the same one again. That’s what Granny Smith has been telling me for as long as I can remember.”

Sonata stopped the swing, and in a fit of wide-eyed impulsiveness, she broadly smiled, and swooped Apple Bloom up in a bear hug. “That’s it! Thank you, little one!”, she cried, rushing.

“I’m not that little,” protested Apple Bloom to the night sky, rolling her eyes.

------

Sunset Shimmer told Applejack about Sonata’s bath. Sunset’s hurt and disappointment fed Applejack’s resurgent mistrust. Applejack was about to find their guest and ask her to leave, when there was a soft knock at the bedroom door. The blonde farmgirl opened the door to discover an uncomfortable Sonata Dusk.

Applejack’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and she opened her mouth to speak, but a single blue finger was held up in an appeal. “Please, I need to tell you both something.”

“Fine,” replied Applejack suspiciously.

“I apologize. I am sorry for trying to drive the two of you apart. I’m sorry for being stupid and useless,” Applejack looked back at Sunset, who was sitting cross-legged on top of her sleeping bag. Sonata’s confession had grown from a trickle to a torrent. “I’m sorry for tricking you and stealing your magic. I’m sorry for trying to kill you and take over this world. But, most of all, I’m sorry I can’t make myself stop being a Siren.”

She reached into the pocket of the borrowed jeans and brought forth a small cardboard box. “Sunset Shimmer, I want you to have these. It’s the best promise that I can make to stay out of trouble while you are helping me, and I need to have this box far away from me for a little while.”

Sunset Shimmer edged past a stunned Applejack and took the box from her hand. She slid it open to see the crystalline red fragments of Sonata’s magical pendant. Snapping it shut, her mouth opened in surprise, which was concealed by giving Sonata a brief hug. “That’s a better beginning. Let’s get some sleep and figure out how to help you make better choices tomorrow.” She led Sonata by the hand to a pile of pillows and blankets spread out on an air mattress. Sunset gave Applejack a look that screamed We’ll talk later.

Despite her nap at school and the illumination of Applejack's small desk lamp, Sonata quickly nodded off, curled up into a ball underneath the blankets. Her long blue hair splayed across the pillow. Asleep, with the bruise concealed by the pillow, she looked beautiful and peaceful. In slumber, Sonata’s face was smooth, with no indication of a Siren’s spite or a girl’s terror.

“I’m glad for whatever caused that, but I’m still confused,” whispered Applejack.

“I’m more glad that you agreed to take her in, and that your intuition was correct that we needed to outnumber her,” replied Sunset Shimmer, “She was so quiet and innocent today, it took me by surprise. But why did she give me the broken pendant?”

“To be honest, I think you’d better get that fancy pen of yours and tell Twilight about this, no matter how much you want to make Sonata Dusk your own responsibility. There’s a lot more to it than your pride. Remember, I can see stubborn a mile away,” directed Applejack with a playful twinkle in her green eyes.

Suppressing a yawn, Sunset Shimmer began to write.

Dear Princess Twilight

Sunset Shimmer drew a single line through the formal greeting and it magically disappeared from the page.

Dear Twilight,

Today, Sonata Dusk reappeared at Canterlot High School. Adagio hurt her badly (both physically and spiritually) after Sonata encouraged her to move forward in this world. The high school was the first place she thought of to find help, but she’d been hiding on the street for a couple of days. She’s still pretty dazed, but we were able to get her some medical attention and bring her to Sweet Apple Acres to figure out what to do next. While I was watching her during a bubble bath, Sonata tried to divide me from Applejack with a song, but her voice has no power.

She obviously felt terrible at what she had tried to do, and apologized after a while, but I’m worried that she’s still trying to be a Siren. It’s troubling on many different levels to watch her flip between a thousand-year-old master of manipulation and a scared, lonely teenage girl. If this bit lands on horseshoes instead of heads, I worry what might happen next. I have to encourage her to make good choices, stop manipulating others, and teach her that she controls her own destiny. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer. Also, Sonata gave me the shards of her pendant tonight. She attached a lot of significance to that act, almost like a human general handing his sword to an enemy in surrender. There’s still magic there, but I’m glad that it’s weak and unfocused.

Finally, the girls and I went over your letter today at lunch, and I had to tell them about some of the legends about the time when Starswirl the Bearded helped Luna and Celestia establish Canterlot Kingdom. I also gave them a little bit of background information about Equestrian magic. The five of them were brave and I didn’t want to disturb them too much. I just know that it’s too much of a coincidence that the Sirens were sent here about the same time that Nightmare Moon was banished, and only a few years after the founding of Canterlot and the discovery of the Elements of Harmony.

Sunset Shimmer looked back at her letter, “…weak and unfocused...” she mumbled to herself, and then stood up and did an exaggerated happy dance to the surprise of a sleepy Applejack. “AJ, you have a furnace and anvil here, right?”

The blonde girl sleepily answered, “Yeah, way out by the Honeycrisp trees so it doesn’t burn the house down. Why?”

With a look of determination, Sunset shook the box with the shards and answered, “I have a very important craft project that involves Sonata,” she smiled and finished her letter to Twilight.

I just figured out what to do. If you could send me some information on the reforging of magical items and the removal of powerful curses, I would really appreciate it.

Faithfully yours,
Sunset Shimmer

Shutting the book with a triumphant “thump”, the red-and-gold sunburst glowed with magical energy, sending the message to its twin in Ponyville. A broad smile on her face, Sunset Shimmer settled into her sleeping bag for the night and turned out the light.

----------

Deep in the orchard, two pairs of unfriendly eyes saw the last light wink out in the farmhouse.

“When I get a hold of that traitor, I’ll make that last beating look like a good night kiss. I don’t know why I pulled you away, Adagio,” venomously dripped Aria Blaze.

With a firm grasp, Adagio Dazzle pulled them both to a seat on the ground, “Not today, Aria. Sonata’s betrayal deserves something much more artful. A symphony of revenge will take some time to compose. For now, we wait, we watch, and we follow,” the leader pointed.

Aria followed the yellow finger to a solitary figure slipping out of a first floor window. The moonlight reflected on Apple Bloom as she stealthily walked toward the main road from the farmhouse.

Author's Note:

Thanks for your patience, everyone! I know this chapter ran a bit long, but I had to wrap up the scene at Sweet Apple Acres properly. My travels across the United States went well, and I'm glad to spend time with my extended family for a big celebration. It was a lot of driving, and it's going to take me a few days to catch up.

I appreciate the comments and private messages encouraging me to keep writing. I'm very happy that you enjoy the story and it's your feedback that keeps me motivated. I'll work to get on a predictable submission schedule as time goes on. I must balance writing with family life and employment, which isn't easy because you all are just so *fun*!

Minor edits on this chapter completed on 12/19/2014.