• Published 27th Sep 2016
  • 2,649 Views, 92 Comments

Gangs and Monsters - Flynt Coal

While Twilight deals with the fallout of the Friendship Games, the notorious Fake AH Crew come to town to lay low and rebuild. Twilight soon finds herself entwined in the plots that surround them, hoping to do some good after having done so much bad.

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5 - Sunday Driving / Geoff's Yacht

Heart pounding in her chest, Twilight tried to keep cool as she sat on the fine leather seat in the back of the Roosevelt. In the driver’s seat, Michael chatted up a storm as he drove them through the streets of Canterlot.

“...and one of them, he didn’t even have a body!”

Twilight only half-listened to the man’s unusual story about an old neighbor. Unconsciously, she reached up to her chest and felt the slight bulge where she had hidden the thumb drive. It was a minor miracle that Michael hadn’t noticed it before she had shoved it down her shirt, where (she hoped) nobody would think to check. Dusky’s words repeated themselves over and over again in her mind, drowning out whatever ridiculous story Michael was telling.

Apparently some research corporation is willing to pay lots of money for the contents of that drive.

It was all too simple for Twilight to imagine the sequence of events that would entail if Michael or his associates were to discover that drive. They would give it to their mysterious employer, who would then scour its contents and learn all about her existence. And if this corporation, whoever they were, was ruthless enough to hire a notorious criminal organization like the Fake AH Crew to steal from their competition, Twilight was very afraid of what they might do if they learned about her.

Of course, even a worst case scenario was still a problem for the distant future, and one Twilight could conceivably prepare for. The worst case scenario for the boy sitting beside her, however, had much more immediate and much more dire consequences. Dusky—or Kerry when he rolled with the Fake AH Crew—looked pale as he gazed out the window at the passing traffic. If the Crew found out about his role in their boss’ capture, his end might come much more quickly. If Twilight was afraid what would happen to her, she couldn’t even imagine how her friend must have been feeling at that moment.

So with her best reassuring smile, Twilight put her hand on his. Despite everything he must have been feeling at that moment, he returned her smile and for a moment Twilight felt united in their purpose. Each of their fates relied on the Fake AH Crew’s continued ignorance of their respective secrets.

“Hold on, boys and girls. We gotta make us a stop,” Michael said as he pulled the vintage car into a grocery store parking lot.

Waiting for them by the entrance was a familiar brunette woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. She stood with a shopping cart filled with plastic bags, each one filled with various food and snacks.

“C’mon, let’s give Jack a hand with the groceries,” Michael said as he pulled over beside the woman in question.

And so Twilight and Dusky got out of the car with Michael and went around towards Jack, who expressed surprise and genuine joy to see Dusky.

“How’ve you been, Kerry?” she asked with a smile.

“Been alright,” Dusky answered as he hefted a bag full of cartons of milk into the trunk.

“You playing anymore of the, uh… what’re the kids playing? The Pokemans?”

Twilight just looked around the parking lot. A fairly large amount of people were walking in and out of the store, but none of them paid her or the others any mind. To them, they just looked like a mother and father with their two teenage kids. Twilight remembered what she had always been taught as a child: If you’re ever kidnapped in public, scream at the top of your lungs. Her heart raced as she realized that might be her best chance to get out of this, but the part of her brain wired for social interaction proved to be quite an obstacle. She hated making a scene and generally being the center of attention in the best of times.

Feeling a hand on her arm, Twilight turned to see Dusky giving her an urgent look. He must have guessed what she was thinking, as he shook his head and mouthed don’t.

When they were finished loading the groceries and put the shopping cart back, the four of them got back into the car, with Jack in the passenger seat beside Michael. As they started to pull out of the parking lot, Twilight heard the tell-tale vrrm vrrm of a smartphone vibrating, and Michael looked down at his device and frowned.

“Goddammit,” he swore as he set his phone down in the cupholder. “We have to go pick up Ryan.”

“Oh boy, what did he do this time?” Jack asked, knowing they would find out one way or another soon enough.

Twilight just tried to remember which one of them was Ryan again. Apparently Dusky remembered, as he took a trembling breath and closed his eyes.

Several minutes later, Twilight remembered as well when they pulled up to a public park in a relatively quiet neighborhood. The sight of innocent civilians running away in terror was what sparked the first embers of familiarity in Twilight. Then she saw the rubble of three cars piled up next to the swing sets, a blazing inferno reaching for the heavens. Standing silhouetted by the flames was a man in a black and blue leather jacket wearing a gray skull mask, a few empty red cans of gasoline at his feet. Absolutely shredding on air guitar, the man was lost in his own world and didn’t notice the arrival of the others until Michael honked the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy horn.

What could only be described as “the scent of a garage” filled Twilight’s nostrils as the man opened the passenger side door beside her, forcing her to move over and cozy up beside Dusky.

“Jesus, what the hell happened, Ryan?!” Michael asked, dumbfounded as they drove off, the sound of sirens filling the distance.

Ryan was quiet for a very long time, his expression unreadable behind his mask before he finally answered, “They looked at me funny.”

“Well of course they looked at you funny, you were driving around in a goddamn skull mask!” Jack exclaimed as Michael just sighed and shook his head. Twilight got the feeling that if he weren’t driving, his palm would be covering his face.

“I wasn’t wearing the skull mask then!” Ryan protested as he took the controversial facewear off, revealing black, white and red warpaint.

Twilight could feel the awkward beat that took place as if it were a physical presence, as the whole car (herself included) stared at the man dumbfounded. The topic was swiftly dropped after that, with the car suddenly filled with silence and the stench of gasoline. Wordlessly, Michael opened all four of the windows, and the awkward silence was replaced with wind as the vintage car aired out.

Slowly, Ryan glanced over to Twilight and Dusky, a perplexed expression on his painted face. “Huh. Don’t remember killing you…” Ryan said, looking at Dusky.

Dusky tilted his head in some confusion before answering, “Well, that might be because you didn’t. Hence why I’m here. Alive.”

“Wait, you’re real?” Ryan asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “I thought you were another manifestation of my psyche come to torment me over my past sins.” The man then looked at Twilight and scratched his chin with a puzzled expression. “Now, you… you look familiar….”

Swallowing nervously, Twilight’s mind raced as fast as her heart. Oh no, he recognizes me from yesterday’s heist! What if they decide they need to kill me to tie up loose ends? Isn't that what they always do in the movies?

“You’ll have to remind me, because I honestly don’t remember…” Ryan continued, “how did I kill you again?”

It took a lot for Twilight to keep herself from breathing a sigh of relief when she realized what was really happening.

“Oh, I’m real too Mr. Ryan, sir.” She then gave him what she hoped was an easy smile, but the sweat trickling down her forehead might have given her away.

“Oh. Good for you.” Seeming satisfied, Ryan turned to look out the window with a dreamy smile and eyes that were miles away. Twilight could only look at him and wonder just what was going on in his head.

The five of them drove along for another ten minutes or so, Michael taking them out of Canterlot proper. They all talked about a real random assortment of topics, from stories of their previous heists, to absurd theoretical science (which Twilight actually contributed a lot to, finding she was saying ‘to clarify…’ a lot), to Ryan’s former career as a male model. Eventually, they came up on some relatively thick traffic on the freeway and Jack looked over at Michael.

“Hey Michael, you wanna do the shortcut?” she asked.

“Yee let’s do it!” Michael said.

Then, as calmly as if he were taking a right at a stop sign in a quiet neighborhood, Michael turned the car ninety degrees and cut across the rest of the freeway, the other cars honking their horns as they either slammed on their brakes or swerved around them. Twilight frantically reached across Dusky and grabbed the door handle, shaking as she held on for dear life. The car lurched violently as it ran over a ditch, and suddenly they were no longer on the road anymore.

Twilight could only imagine how insane the sight of a prohibition-era car speeding up the side of a grassy hill weaving between trees must have looked to the rest of traffic, but at the moment she was too busy white-knuckling the handle to care. Her stomach did flips and flops as they reached the top of the hill and went sailing over it like a stunt jump, then did the same thing at the next hill. Twilight couldn’t keep in the terrified shriek as they achieved far greater hang time on the second jump.

“Jeez kid, you’re really freakin’ out back there,” Michael said calmly as he continued to drive along.

Twilight then realized that everyone else in the car was completely unconcerned, continuing their conversation about Ryan dressed as a gnome without a care in the world. Even Dusky, who she was practically wrapped around, was the very picture of calm and collected, as if this was nothing but a Sunday drive to him. And of course it was; he was used to rolling with these people after all. He did, however, recognize Twilight’s clear discomfort and gently rubbed her back.

After another thoroughly terrifying jump, the car landed with its back end on top of a boulder sticking far in the air, its front end smashed against a tree.

“Oops, wedged it. Hold on,” Michael said with the same calmness he had displayed throughout the nightmarish drive. He then changed gears and started backing the car further up, tilting it more and more vertically before switching back to Drive and turning the wheel as far to the left as he could. “Tease it… tease it…” he muttered in a mock British accent that Twilight thought might have been an imitation of Gavin, but sounded more like the Penguin from that old Batman movie.

Finally, with a few more maneuvers and “tease it”s, Michael managed to un-wedge them and continued driving like nothing was wrong until the terrain finally evened out. Twilight didn’t let go of the door until a few minutes after that.

She then felt her phone vibrate, and Twilight didn’t need to look at it to know it was her friends back at CHS wondering just where the hell she was. Were it not for the lingering gaze of Ryan beside her, she would have replied to reassure them that she was alive (against all odds). Seeing another hill on the horizon, she wasn’t sure how much longer things would stay that way.

Canterlot High seemed significantly busier than normal when the bell rang for lunch period, but Sunset Shimmer didn’t particularly care at that moment. Instead, she merely pulled out her phone and looked at it for what must have been the dozenth time. Her own message “Where are you? You ok?” looked back at her on the screen, along with the words “Delivered at 10:31am

It was now about ten past noon.

“You’re sure Twilight didn’t say anything else before she left Ms. Cheerilee’s class?” Sunset asked.

“For the zillionth time, yes!” a very exasperated Rainbow Dash exclaimed, adjusting her too big brown leather jacket with the effigy of a wolf on the back. “All she said was she had to go to the bathroom really bad.”

Naturally, the girls’ bathroom had been the first place Sunset had checked when lunch period started, worried that Twilight had retreated there due to more harassment from Trixie and her friends, but had no luck. The sound of a small whine drew Sunset’s attention to Fluttershy, or more specifically, the small dog she held in her arms.

“It’s okay, Spike. I know you’re worried about her, but I know Twilight will turn up!” Fluttershy said, holding the pup a little bit tighter to her chest.

As the group of six girls continued walking along, Sunset kept thinking about her interactions with Twilight that morning, hoping to find some clue as to her whereabouts. She had been really concerned with finding Dusky; that boy who seemed to know more than he should. Sunset hadn’t seen him all day either. Maybe Twilight pulled him aside for a talk? But there was no way that explanation alone made sense. She’d been unaccounted for since the start of first period.

“What in Sam Hill is goin’ on here?” Applejack asked, rousing Sunset from her thoughts.

She looked up to find that they’d made it to the front of the school, where an especially large congregation of students were gathered around a single spot. Some instinct Sunset couldn’t explain drove her to move forward, leaving her friends and pushing through the crowd of curious onlookers until she reached its core. There she saw Trixie Lulamoon looking more frantic and afraid than she’d ever seen her. The source of her distress was leaning on her for support.

“Give us some space, you vultures!” Trixie exclaimed. “He needs to go to the nurse’s office now!

Leaning with one arm over Trixie’s shoulder was none other than Curly Winds, looking like he’d just been chewed up and spit out by a dragon. Blood and bruises covered his body, one eye was swollen shut, his nose was bent unnaturally, and his clothes were tatters. It looked like his shirt had been burned, and he was currently wearing his pants over his head like a weird head scarf.

Sunset knew Curly was an unpleasant brute who hadn’t exactly been subtle about his intentions to get in her pants before he started dating Trixie, herself being not much better. Sunset had half a mind to turn around and continue towards the cafeteria with her friends. But she had to remind herself that she was New Sunset.

So without saying a word, she got on the other side of Curly and put his other arm over her shoulder. When Trixie noticed she wasn't holding nearly as much of her boyfriend’s weight, she looked over at Sunset and scowled when she saw her. Sunset was too busy dispersing the crowd with a warning glare to notice.

“We didn’t ask for your help, Shimmer!” Trixie spat. “This is your fault to begin with!”

“What are you talking about?” Sunset tilted her head, confused. “What happened to him?”

“As if you don’t know! Curly was just talking to your monster friend and that red-haired creep when you and your friends jumped him!”

So he’d seen Twilight! Sunset thought, some hope returning that she might find her. Still, Trixie’s words were unsettling. Sunset continued helping Trixie carry the dead-on-his-feet Curly towards Nurse Redheart’s office (one of his legs was definitely broken), but nevertheless gave the girl a stern look.

“Trixie, my friends and I were in classes all morning. There are plenty of students and teachers who can corroborate that fact, so how about you think more carefully before launching wild accusations.”

Trixie merely “hmphed” and said, “The rest of this stupid school may believe your whole ‘nice girl’ act, but Trixie is not so foolish! Curly told me that you and your friends….”

Curly chose that moment to spit out a good sized wad of blood, cutting Trixie off before looking directly at Sunset. “I said friends of theirs jumped us. I never said anything about Sunset’s friends.”

Whatever Trixie planned to say next died on her tongue as Curly continued, his voice muffled by his swollen mouth. “If anything, it seemed more like they were Dusky’s friends than Twilight’s.”

Sunset started putting pieces together in her head immediately. If their suspicions about Dusky were true….

“Do you have any idea who they were?” Sunset asked him.

Curly tried to shrug, but gave up with a wince of pain. “Don’t know, never seen them before. They just rolled up in a weird old car and started beating the hell out of me and my boys. We weren’t even doing nothing!”

Sunset was positive Curly wasn’t telling her the whole truth, but decided it didn’t matter at the moment. “Think you could describe them?”

Curly seemed momentarily puzzled that Sunset was giving him the full interrogation, but her reputation preceded her, so he continued talking.

“There was an angry Jersey one, a British one, a brown one, and a short one who kept shouting ‘hap hap hap!’”

Something about those descriptions seemed familiar, but Sunset couldn’t put her finger on it. She should have figured any description Curly could have given wouldn’t have helped, so she instead opted for the final and most important question as she and Trixie brought him into Nurse Redheart’s office.

“And what about Dusky and Twilight? Where are they now?”

Now seated, Curly was able to manage a shrug. “I’unno. If they aren’t back here, they’re probably still with those guys.”

A pit of dread formed in Sunset’s gut. She didn’t know for sure that Twilight was in any danger, but she nevertheless had a bad feeling. Sunset didn’t have much time to dwell on these thoughts, as Nurse Redheart came out and immediately began checking on Curly, asking Trixie and Sunset both as many questions as Sunset herself had just asked Curly.

“Go to the principal’s office and get Ms. Celestia down here quick!” Redheart had said when she was finished, going back to administering aid to Curly. “We’ll probably need to get the police involved.”

Sunset didn’t miss the way Curly swallowed nervously.

“We might not even need the police for this,” Trixie said after the both of them were out of Nurse Redheart’s office. “You’ve already interrogated him like a criminal!”

Sunset’s friends were all waiting in the hall, their expressions equally curious and worried.

“If there’s a possibility Twilight is in danger, I need as much information as I can get,” Sunset said, explaining her motivations to Trixie and updating her friends on the situation at the same time.

“In danger?!” Rarity exclaimed, and Sunset brought them all up to speed.

“That’s why I need to know where this all happened,” Sunset said, turning to face the upset looking girl beside her. “Trixie, did Curly mention anything about where they all were when he was attacked?”

The girl was silent for a long time, and Sunset was about to press further when Trixie answered with a huff. “Why should I tell you? This incident with my boyfriend is just the latest that monster is responsible for, even if it was indirectly this time.”

Sunset tried not to grind her teeth. Tried to keep a cool countenance. But with everything that has been happening, she found herself unable to contain the sheer rage she felt. “Trixie, you can hate me all you want. I get it. I did horrible things to you to become the queen bee here. You can hate me until you’re in your grave for all I care! But stop with this petty bullshit grudge against Twilight! She already feels bad enough about the mistakes she’s made without you antagonizing her over them, and you weren’t even affected any more personally by them than the dozens of others that were also there that night!

“So if you could please build a bridge, get over yourself and answer my fucking question, that would REALLY BE GREAT FOR BOTH OF US!

Sunset suddenly found herself short on breath, and hadn’t realized she had backed Trixie against the wall until she’d taken a few moments to catch it.

Trixie had to shake her head clear of the cobwebs before answering stiffly, “T-the alleyway behind the pizza place around the corner on John Street.”

“Thank you,” Sunset said much more amicably before turning to her friends. “I’m going to go look for her.”

“Not alone you’re not!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“You’re right, I’m not going alone,” Sunset said, looking over at the pup in Fluttershy’s arms. “Spike? I may need to use your nose.”

At this, the little dog’s tail started wagging. “Oh, I can track her down. It’ll be just like that time at the book fair when she got separated from the family because she thought she saw a limited edition Daring Do protractor set!”

“Pfft… she would,” Rainbow snickered.

Pulling a set of keys out of her jacket pocket, Sunset gave her friends an apologetic look and said, “Sorry girls, but as much as I’d like to have you along, time may be of the essence and I don’t exactly have a spare motorcycle helmet.”

The others all looked disappointed (except for Pinkie Pie. She just looked hungry), but they gave her understanding nods.

“Jus’ be careful, sugarcube,” Applejack warned.

“Indeed. If you think there’s going to be trouble, just stay out of it and call us,” Rarity said.

“Or better yet, the police,” Fluttershy added quietly.

“Have fun saving Twilight from bad guys!” Pinkie exclaimed. “And always remember: If your chocolate chip cookies don’t taste like chocolate chip cookies, they’re not yours!”

The others gave her askew glances.

“I really want chocolate chip cookies!”

Neeeeeeeeaaaar! Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!


There were few moments in life where Twilight had to stop and seriously consider just how she got there. Sitting in a hot tub wearing a borrowed one-piece bathing suit with Dusky and a bunch of adults on the deck of a luxury yacht while two of them recreated a scene from Titanic on the bow in front of them to the tune of discordant singing was one such occasion.

“I’m flying, Jack!” exclaimed—ironically—Jack, spreading her arms like the character Rose Petal from the film. She wore a two-piece bikini and had gotten out of the tub to recreate this moment.

Playing the part of Jack Hammer for the little impromptu reenactment was none other than Gavin, who still wore his blue shirt and jeans. He and the other Lads (that was what they seemed to call the younger members of the crew) had arrived at the yacht shortly after Twilight and the others, and reassured her and Dusky that ‘those bustas’ won’t bother them anymore. Twilight knew ‘those bustas’ were Curly and his friends, and she hoped the Lads hadn’t hurt him too badly. Still, Twilight had to privately admit it felt pretty good to know the rowdy group of men and women had her back. It was almost enough to make her forget the hidden thumb drive she still had.

The Titanic moment was abruptly interrupted when Ray—in the tub next to Dusky—fired a flare gun directly at the reenactors. The bright red flare bounced off Gavin harmlessly enough, but his blue shirt started to burn a little.

“AAAAAAAAAGH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” Gavin shrieked in a shrill register that would have put Rarity to shame.

It was only a tiny flame, but the panicked young Brit still ran full tilt towards the tub, performing an awkward flop face-first into the middle of it. Twilight’s amused giggles were cut off by the splash of water that followed, and then turned to full blown laughter when Gavin emerged sans his shirt and pants.

“Dude, you got lit up!” Michael exclaimed. He and Ryan sat in the tub opposite to Twilight and Dusky. Michael had a few tattoos of what appeared to be video game characters on his arms, and Ryan had a truly impressive amount of chest hair shaved in the shape of—unsurprisingly—a skull.

Waving away the residual smoke from the incident, Dusky quipped, “All this smoke, it’s like four-nineteen up in here, right boys?” which elicited a bark of laughter from Ray. It still amazed Twilight how easy his rapport with the Fake AH Crew was. They definitely had known each other for a while, which made Twilight wonder why Dusky had sold them out in the first place.

The steady thrum of helicopter rotors sounded above the voices and laughter, growing quickly louder.

“Oh, is that Geoff?” Jack asked as she got back into the water.

Her question was answered moments later when the sound of the helicopter became deafening. The chopper now hovered directly above the hot tub, the wind from its spinning rotors causing the water to ripple fiercely.

HEADS UP!” an older man’s voice shouted over the noise, and Twilight looked up just in time to see a man in swim trunks leap out of the helicopter.

With another shriek, Gavin dove out of the way as Geoff performed a perfectly executed cannonball in the center of the hot tub. The others laughed and cheered, and Twilight gave him a polite round of applause when he surfaced. She noticed right away that the man had many times more tattoos than even Michael, running all the way up his arms like sleeves. Geoff moved to sit beside Dusky, and did a brief double take when he noticed Twilight.

“Wait… who are you?”

Giving him her best and totally not nervous smile, Twilight said, “Twilight Sparkle, sir. I’m friends with Dusky.”

“You mean Kerry?”

Twilight nodded, and Geoff seemed ready to leave it at that, but then he looked at her more closely. “Wait a minute… I remember you!”

Twilight gulped. Of course he does. She had gotten to know him a little bit during their heist yesterday. He talked a bit about his daughter, for some reason opening up to Twilight in a way she wasn’t sure he ever had with any of his crew.

“Yeah,” Geoff continued, nodding confidently. “You’re the girl who doesn’t know who Countess Coloratura is!”

Twilight blinked. That wasn’t how she was expecting him to remember her. Geoff just laughed and reached into the pocket of his swim trunks.

“That’s okay though, we can remedy that right now!” Geoff pulled out a smartphone and a pair of headphones.

I hope those are waterproof, Twilight thought as the man gave her the headphones. Evidently they were, as Geoff pulled up the song without any problems and Twilight found herself listening to heavily synthesized beats and the melodic voice of a young woman. She had to admit, it had a good rhythm, and Twilight found her head moving along with the beat.

“Pretty good, right?” Geoff asked.

“Yeah, I like it,” Twilight said, smiling sincerely.

Geoff then placed his phone in her hands. “Well, why don’t you hold onto that for a little bit? I’ve got her whole discography on there!”

“Thanks!” Twilight exclaimed, and with a nod, Geoff turned to talk to Dusky, leaving her to listen to the music flowing through the earbuds.

It was strange, but Twilight felt herself actually quite at ease with the rowdy group of criminals. Upon learning she was friends with Dusky—or Kerry—all of them had accepted her without question. It was far more than what she had at Canterlot High, where Twilight felt like an outsider even among her friends there. The Fake AH Crew had never seen her at her lowest like Sunset and the others had, and while Twilight knew they didn’t resent her for what she’d done… she still didn’t feel like she was really a part of the group.

That realization suddenly made her feel sick. How could she be feeling that way after all they’d done for her? Furthermore, Twilight didn’t want to consider the implications of what it meant to be more at ease with known criminals than her own friends. That perhaps in a way, she had more in common with the Fake AH Crew than she did with Sunset and the others.

After all, were gangs and monsters really all that different?

Before she could slide any further down the slippery slope that was her self-loathing, Twilight felt a tap on her shoulder. When she looked up, Twilight saw that the others were getting out of the pool, and that the short man dressed in orange and purple was crouched by the side of it, motioning for her to remove her earbuds. Twilight did so, and Coloratura’s melodic voice faded away from her ears.

“Hey, we’re gonna play some cards,” Jeremy (aka Li’l J) said. “You in?”

Twilight smiled, and was about to say yes when she noticed Dusky wasn’t going over to the table where they were setting up. He was following Michael and Ray inside the ship proper.

“Let me just change out of this bathing suit first,” Twilight said. Jeremy looked a little suspicious initially, but one of Twilight’s patented awkward ‘almost smiles’ was her ticket out of the conversation.

After quickly toweling off, Twilight entered the yacht interior just in time to see Dusky and Michael disappear into a room further down the hall. She moved down the hall as quickly and quietly as she could, but the sounds of her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor seemed deafening to her ears. She slowed down as she got closer to the slightly ajar door, and could hear Michael’s voice as she closed in.

“C’mon, Kerry! You can’t honestly expect me to believe you lost the fucking tower!” Michael exclaimed.

“I’m sorry Michael!” Dusky’s voice chimed in in his defense, “but it’s like I said: I lost it after that Curly kid knocked me down.”

“Yeah, well we checked his pockets after we beat his ass,” Twilight heard Ray’s voice next. “He had twenty dollars, some cigs, and an iFruit 4, but no hard drive!” The sound of a clatter indicated the Brownman had just dumped those very items on the table.

“Well… maybe someone else found it….”

Twilight’s heart stopped. Oh please Dusky, if you care at all about me….

“Maybe someone found it and turned it into lost and found!”

Twilight sighed with relief. Dusky still had her back.

“Hey! Who the hell’s sighing out there?!” Michael called out.

Before Twilight could even blink, the brown spectacled face of Ray poked through the door, regarding Twilight warily.

“Um… which way’s the… bathroom?” Twilight managed to stutter.

With an almost comically big frown, Ray pointed down the hall, where Twilight saw the universal bathroom signs only a couple of doors down.

“Oh… thanks,” she said quietly as she slinked off.

Of course, Twilight didn’t actually need to go to the bathroom—no more than she needed to when she tried to get to know Geoff during the heist the other day. Instead, after checking to make sure Ray was no longer watching, Twilight continued down the hall to the room the crew had lent her to change in.

Moderately sized guest quarters awaited her, with little more than a bed and a couple of side tables. Her stuff was all neatly placed on the bed, and the first thing Twilight checked when she came in was her underwear, relieved when she felt the USB drive hidden within. It was the only place she figured the Fake AH Crew wouldn’t check. Indeed, it appeared that all of her stuff remained undisturbed for the duration of her time in the on-deck tub.

After changing into her dry clothes, Twilight held the little gold tower in her hands. Further down the hall, she knew Ray and Michael were still grilling Dusky over it, and Twilight momentarily considered giving it to them just to spare her friend further interrogation, but quickly quashed that idea. It would have been a great way for her to have to start a new life and identity just like he had done. So instead, Twilight slipped the tower back down her shirt and exited the room.

She nearly bumped into Geoff on her way out. “Oh, hey. There you are!” he said, his eyelids still managing to remain droopy even in his apparent gladness.

“Were you looking for me?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah. You still have my phone.”

“Oh, right!” Twilight exclaimed, remembering she’d left it on the bed in the room she used to change, and quickly ran back to grab it.

“Thanks,” Geoff said when she returned the device to him. “I, uh… also wanted to say I’m sorry. About yesterday.”

Twilight nodded at first, and was about to give a non-committal reassurance that it was okay before moving on, until she realized the implications of what he said. Of course, how could I have been so naive to think he actually didn’t remember me?

“I didn’t want to put you kids into the line of fire like that. Gavin’s stupid heist didn’t go at all the way we planned it,” Geoff sighed. “Anyway, glad all y’all are okay. As a father, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if something had happened to one of you guys.”

The pure sincerity in Geoff’s voice as he spoke directly into her eyes was unmistakable. Sure, being held hostage had been scary at the time, but it was good to know that in a way, Twilight’s desperate plan to manufacture Lima Syndrome had worked. Kind of.

“Besides…” Geoff continued, scratching his head, “it was kind of nice to talk to someone about my daughter for a bit. I don’t really get to do that with the guys.”

It seemed that Twilight wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel like she could talk about deeply personal matters with her own group of friends. She may have been socially incompetent on the best of days, but even Twilight couldn’t have missed the sad, nostalgic quality to Geoff’s tone.

“You miss her, huh?”

Geoff nodded. “Yeah, being in prison and then on the run doesn’t give me a lot of opportunities for quality time with my family.”

“When’s the last time you got to see them?” Twilight asked, genuinely curious.

“They visited me at Bolingbroke last month.” Unbeknownst to Twilight, Geoff’s thoughts had been consumed by the memory of that very visit every moment he was idle.

Geoff had called in a lot of favors with the prison guards and Big Dong to arrange for a little surprise for his young daughter: Tickets for a special VIP screening of a movie he knew she wanted to see.

“So, what do you think?” Geoff had asked through the phone connecting his side of the glass and hers. “I’m pretty much the best dad ever, right?”

But the young girl with pink and teal hair just looked disinterested, barely looking up from her iFruit. “You know you’re not the best dad ever, right?”

Perplexed and a little hurt, Geoff asked, “Alright smarty-pants, if I’m not the best dad ever, then who is?”

“I don’t know who he is,” she said with a noncommittal shrug, and what she said next continued to haunt him now. “I just know he’s not you.”

Geoff knew very well that he wasn’t the best dad ever. The fact he would never earn that title was probably the one thing he regretted about choosing his life of crime. Even so, to hear the words from his own daughter….

Geoff blinked, forcing himself to the present. Twilight looked up at him, confused and a little concerned by his sudden silence. She almost thought she saw tears in his eyes.

“I really hope she turns out like you when she gets older, Twilight,” Geoff said, leaving the next part unspoken. Instead of turning out like me.

With nothing else said, Geoff walked past Twilight further into the ship, the girl feeling pangs of sympathy for the man who looked older at that moment than he had any of the other times they’d met. Convincing herself (upsettingly easily) that the man’s problems were none of her business, Twilight continued towards the deck. She found Jeremy, Jack, Gavin, and Ryan sitting around a table just beside the hot tub, each with a deck of cards in their hands.

“Ah, Twilight! You got here just in time,” Ryan said as the tall man stood from the table. Pushing his hand of cards to her chest, he said, “I need you to fill in for me, kid. I’ve got, uh… other business to do.”

For some reason, this caused a chorus of groans from the other card players. “We are going to die here!” Gavin exclaimed, despairing.

“Have fun!” Ryan said as he walked away.

As Twilight sat down with the others, the first thing she noticed was that they weren’t playing with a traditional deck of cards. They were holding Uno cards.

“Welcome to Hell, kid,” Jeremy said sombrely.

Twilight wondered what could possibly be so bad about a game of Uno, not knowing how naive she truly was at that moment.

For what might have been the dozenth time since they arrived, Shining Armor glanced back towards the stack of three burned out cars in the middle of the park. The Fire Department had already finished putting out the fires, but the police were still keeping the area blocked off. Shining was one of the officers assigned to keeping nosy civilians from getting close to the crime scene, but right now his mind was occupied by one thought: He was here.

“Penny for your thoughts, partner?” asked Melati Jasmine, giving him a curious look hiding well-concealed concern. It would appear Shining was more obvious than he thought. After all, they both heard the eyewitness descriptions of the man who had apparently caused this.

“Just trying to figure out the motive behind this,” Shining lied easily.

“How do you know it wasn’t just a really bad case of road rage?” Melati asked with a humorous grin.

“This isn’t a joking matter, Mel,” Shining said, perhaps a little harshly.

Just like that, Melati’s grin disappeared. “What? No one was hurt.”

“This time.”

“Which is why I want to keep this as lighthearted as possible while we still can,” Melati said, chewing her lip. “If things get as bad as I think they’re going to get with the Fake AH Crew here, we’re gonna need as much morale as we can get for whatever’s going to come next.”

“If we stay focused and catch these assholes before they hurt more people, there won’t be any ‘next,’” Shining said, folding his arms and looking away.

Melati’s concern was no longer concealed. “You’re taking this whole thing with the Fake AH Crew very personally—which is totally understandable—but you need to lay off the trigger a little, you know?”

Realizing he was sounding like a petulant child—but at the moment not particularly caring—Shining asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s affecting your judgement, and as your partner it’s my job to make sure you’re flying straight.” Melati looked at him with hard, yet somehow vulnerable, eyes. “That’s why I can’t help but feel like what happened to you yesterday was as much my fault as it was yours.”

“No, that was all on me,” Shining said absolutely, ignoring the pain—real or phantom, it was hard to say—in his shoulder.

Whether Melati would have continued to argue the point or not, Shining would never know. The both of them adopted a full professional demeanor as somebody approached.

“I’m sorry miss, I’m going to have to ask you to keep your distance,” Shining told the girl with red and yellow hair like fire, and bright cyan eyes.

Something about the girl struck Shining Armor with a sense of familiarity, but he couldn’t say for sure whether he’d met her before. However, Shining knew exactly why the purple dog that was with her looked familiar. It was almost exactly like the pup his little sister had. Maybe this girl got hers from the same breeder?

“Sorry, I was just wondering what exactly happened here,” the flame-haired girl said.

“All we can say on the matter is that somebody destroyed the cars of two people as well as their own after an apparent incident,” Melati answered. “Fortunately no one was injured, but we currently have no suspect.”

“Do you think it could have been the guys that caused the scene at Blue Notes’ yesterday?” the girl asked, and suddenly Shining remembered one of the hostages had looked a lot like the girl now standing in front of him.

“It’s possible…” Shining said without really thinking.

This news made the girl frown, and Shining was sure she was the one from the hostage crisis the other day.

“Thank you for your help,” she said before turning around.

Had Shining Armor paid further attention to the girl, he would have seen her glance at the dog and heard her say, “C’mon, Spike!” as they headed for a nearby motorcycle. But by that point his attention was already back to the pile of burned out cars. A thought had entered his head with such inexplicable suddenness it chilled him. This wasn’t just a random act of violence or ‘road rage’ as Melati had put it.

This was the Vagabond sending a message.

Twilight had no idea how long it had been. Days? Weeks? Months? Surely it couldn’t have been the mere two hours that her smartphone’s clock said it was. Twilight felt like she had lived a lifetime in the world of the green, blue, red, and yellow numbered cards in her hands.

The unique game of Uno had been pretty fun at first. The unusual house rules the crew played with making for a very different game from what Twilight herself had experienced once or twice with her own family. Indeed, Twilight had been plenty confused when she played a 0 and everybody had to rotate their hands among themselves. And then there was the time Jeremy first played a seven and Twilight had to trade hands with him.

“Ooh, is my card red?” Twilight had asked the table facetiously. She’d only had one card left in her hand, and was certain she’d win the round if no one changed the color. “Is it red?”

“I don’t know, lemme check!” Jeremy had said as he put down the 7.

Yes, it was all fun and games... until the first hour or so. Then she began to understand the despair of the others. It turned out that Gavin, in his infinite wisdom, had decided to set the game to end after someone gains a total of five hundred points. Still, going through this experience with the rest of the crew gave her a sense of camaraderie unlike any she’d felt before… when they weren’t all trying to screw each other over.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Jeremy said, again, as he laid down a +2, forcing Gavin to pick up two cards and miss his turn.

“If Jeremy says ‘here’s looking at me’ one more time…” Gavin grumbled as he picked up two cards. It was a mere slap on the wrist, however—Gavin currently still had the smallest hand out of everyone at the table.

It was Twilight’s turn. “Here Gavin, you can get your turn back,” she said, putting a green reverse card on top of Jeremy’s +2.

“Aw, thanks Twilight! You know what?” Gavin put down another reverse card on top of Twilight’s. “You go. You certainly need it.”

He wasn’t wrong. Twilight’s hand was a monster. “Aw, you’re sweet. Here, take this token of my appreciation!” Twilight put down another reverse card, and the whole table groaned, getting ready for another endless back and forth.

“Cheers, love. Hey, you know what my favorite color is?” Gavin put down a blue reverse card. “Blue. Blue for you!”

Twilight spied the blue 7 in her hand and grinned. “Thanks. You know what my favorite hand is?” Twilight put down her 7. “Yours.”

Gavin let loose an agonized scream as he and Twilight exchanged hands, and the rest of the table nodded respectfully, acknowledging her masterful play despite how much they were suffering. Twilight had suggested changing the rules, or ending the game before someone reached five hundred points, but the others looked at her with shock and disbelief. Clearly their sense of honor towards properly completing this game of Uno outweighed their reason.

Indeed, the whole scenario reminded Twilight of an exercise she’d read about once called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, whereas two theoretical prisoners are separately given the opportunity to rat the other one out. Should one of these prisoners rat the other out, they would get a reduced sentence, however, if both of them should rat each other out, then they both get a longer sentence. The ideal solution for each of them is to both remain silent—to cooperate—giving each of them relatively low sentences. However, the sad truth of human nature is that everyone works toward their own benefit. The four players of this card game were no exception.

“We all want it to end, but no one wants to lose!” Gavin groaned.

But another hour later, someone finally won. When everyone’s hands were full of high scoring cards, Jack intentionally gave Jeremy the round, and the group watched with baited breath as he added up his points.

YEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!” Everyone cheered when Jeremy’s points added up to a win. Twilight actually caught herself wrapping her arms around Gavin with joy, before being hoisted up by Jack and spun around.

It was during this celebration that Ray approached, and Twilight wondered whether he and Michael were finished talking to Dusky.

“Hey, Twinkie,” Ray said.


“Right. Ryan’s offered to give you and Kerry a lift back to the mainland, and wants you to come get him whenever you’re ready to go. He’s down in the hold.”

A quick glance at her phone confirmed it was ten after three. She’d already missed the entire school day. So after grabbing her bag and bidding farewell to the rest of the crew, Twilight entered the ship and descended the stairs to the hold. An imperceptible sense of unease filled her as she reached the bottom, and passed through an open valve door to a room full of crates of various shapes and sizes. A small stack of assault rifles atop one of the crates was a cold reminder of the true nature of the people she’d just spent the better part of a day with.

Oddly enough, she also found an opened box full of Huggies baby diapers.

She found Ryan seated atop a crate deeper in the hold. He was dressed in his usual blue and black leather jacket, a fresh coat of facepaint completing his monstrous look. He had a half-disassembled rifle in his lap, and was cleaning its parts with a damp rag.

“Ah, it’s Twilight Sparkle, isn’t it?” Ryan asked in his deep, yet eloquent voice.

Inexplicably sweating, Twilight replied, “Yep. Ray told me to come get you when I was….”

“Ready to leave?” Ryan asked, setting aside the weapon he was cleaning but to Twilight’s anxious note, made no move to stand. “Not just yet. I want to have a little chat first.”

The hint of menace under his pleasant tone made Twilight uneasy, but she did her best not to let it show.

“So, you and the boss have bonded quite a bit while you’ve been with us, huh?” he asked, and Twilight nodded. Ryan sighed, “Part of me wonders if Ray was right, and Geoff really has gone soft. I’m not completely convinced, though. Geoff’s always had a bit of a, uh… blind spot when it comes to girls your age.”

Twilight was perplexed. “Girls my age?”

Ryan nodded. “Girls like his daughter, yes. Clearly he doesn’t have it in him to do what’s necessary, so once again I have to pick up the slack.” He then leaned forward, his cold blue eyes boring into hers. “You’ve seen us in action in our heist yesterday, and you’ve spent a fair amount of time with us today. Tell me, have you figured out who we are yet?”

Twilight was reluctant to answer, and evidently, Ryan picked up on that. “Don’t worry, Geoff made me swear I wouldn’t hurt you, and my word is my bond. Just tell me who you think we are.”

Swallowing audibly, Twilight answered, “Y-you’re the Fake AH Crew.”

“That’s right. You’re a smart little girl…” Ryan said with a grin. “But so am I!

“Um… sure,” Twilight said with a nervous, wobbly grin. “You can be whatever you want.”

“Smart enough to know a potential security breach when I see one,” Ryan continued taking no notice of his own poor phrasing or Twilight’s response to it. “You know where we are. Well, maybe not exactly where, but you know we’re on a ship off the coast of your hometown. And you were involved with our most recent heist. If the police should bring you in for follow up questioning, you may be sorely tempted to tell them everything you’ve seen today…. I can’t allow that.”

Twilight took a step back, visibly trembling. “B-but you said….”

“I said I wouldn’t hurt you. I made no such promise towards your family.” A pit of fear colder than any Twilight had felt entered her then as Ryan continued. “Much like you, I like to do thorough research. I know the university where your father works. I know where your mother’s office is in downtown Canterlot. And your brother….” With all that facepaint on, Ryan’s grinning face looked like the devil. “It’s a small world after all. Turns out I ran into him yesterday. Let’s just say I left quite an impression on him.”

Twilight remembered the wound Shining Armor had sustained the other day. Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to her until now that one of the people she was spending the day with had caused that injury.

“If you talk to the police, I will know. And I will be very unhappy… as will your family.” The room was ice cold as the two of them stared each other down for what felt like an eternity. Then, the tension was broken by the sound of an unusually jolly ringtone.

With a sigh, Ryan pulled out his phone and answered, “Hi, hon…. Yes… no, we haven’t left yet… I’m just tying up loose ends for the boss… yes dear… yes dear, I know….”

Just like that, Ryan’s demeanor did a complete one-eighty. Gone was the menacing killer, and in his place was a thoroughly meek, subservient husband.

“Yes dear…. Yes, I am still on my murder break… okay… yes dear… love you too. Bye.” Hanging up, Ryan gave Twilight a much more innocent smile and said, “Alright, shall we get going?”

Gulping, Twilight nodded eagerly, and soon she was following Ryan to the upper decks, contemplating with quiet horror just what kind of woman could have such a powerful influence over a man like the Vagabond.

Dusky was waiting for them on the helicopter pad beside what Twilight assumed was to be their ride back to town. A sense of relief washed over Twilight as she felt the little tower-shaped thumb drive hidden in her clothes, and realized that she and Dusky were in the clear.

“Hey Twi,” Dusky greeted as Ryan entered the cockpit and started getting ready. Glancing back at him, Dusky leaned closer to Twilight and said in a quiet voice, “So, did Ryan just give you the talk?”

When Twilight’s answer was another half-stunned nod, Dusky elaborated, “Don’t worry, he does that with every new member of the crew. He’s very protective of us.”

“You don’t say?” Twilight deadpanned, before a thought occurred to her. “Did he give you the same talk?”

Dusky grinned awkwardly. “Sure did! Almost pissed my pants for the first time since I was a toddler.”

Twilight snrked, already feeling… not necessarily better about riding in a helicopter with the man who threatened her family, but certainly a little less terrified. Something about being around Dusky always seemed to make her feel more at ease. Except he prefers to go by Kerry when we’re with his crew. She only belatedly realized the full implications of what Kerry just told her.

He does that with every new member of the crew….

The pair of them climbed into the helicopter as Ryan finished prepping it for takeoff, adorning the noise-canceling headsets. As the chopper rose into the sky, Twilight saw Geoff standing on the landing pad below, flanked by Michael and Jeremy. The mustachioed man was in his suit and tie again, and he gave them a smile and a wave as they flew away, which Twilight happily returned.

Unbeknownst to Twilight, Geoff’s mind was filled with darkening thoughts as he watched them fly off over the horizon.

“What did you find out from Kerry?” Geoff asked.

“He says he lost the drive at the school he and Twilight goes to,” Michael said. “But he’s not telling us the whole truth. There are a lot of gaps in his story.”

“Fortunately, I’m already on top of getting to the bottom of it,” Jeremy said, removing his hat and running a hand through his sky-blue hair. “I’ve just sent Matt on a deep cover assignment….”

As students poured out into the hall in the wake of the three-thirty bell, five girls met up by the lockers. The worried looks on each of their faces was not reassuring to Applejack.

“Guess none of you heard from Sunset, huh?” Applejack asked the others.

The other four girls shook their heads, and Applejack cursed under her breath. First Twilight goes missing after being attacked, and now Sunset has gone dark after going out to search for her. Applejack had a really bad feeling about this, and based on how the other girls looked, the feeling was mutual.

“I sure hope Sunset and Spike are okay,” Fluttershy said, before amending, “and Twilight of course.”

“I know Sunset’s okay,” said Rainbow Dash stubbornly. “She and Spike probably found Twi and the three of them are getting ice cream and just forgot to let us know they’re okay.”

Applejack wondered whether Rainbow was trying to convince all of them or herself.

“Hey, who’s that?” Pinkie suddenly asked, and the group turned around to where she was pointing to find a peculiar sight.

Leaning against some lockers a few meters down the hall was a man in a red sweater and jeans with a scruffy beard and long auburn hair. A pair of glasses adorned the man’s face and a backwards ball cap sat atop his head. Oddly enough, a skateboard was tucked under his arm.

“How do you do, fellow kids?” the clearly adult man said in what sounded like a bad imitation of a Russian accent. “I am being exchange student!”

“Uh… hi,” was all Applejack could muster.

Rarity, on the other hand, looked at the man through squinted eyes. “You seem incredibly familiar. Have we met somewhere before?”

“No, you are mistake,” the man said in his carefully engineered broken English.

“Uh, don’t you mean ‘you are mistaken?’” Rainbow asked.

The man narrowed his eyes. “I know what I said.”

Rarity sputtered. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“Say, you know what’s good place for hanging out like cool person?” the red-sweatered man continued, ignoring her. “Filing and records room. Where find?”

Applejack exchanged a look with the others. Whoever this mysterious man was, he was clearly here for something. Remembering what they’d all seen on the tower-shaped thumb drive, Applejack decided it was in their best interest not to tell him anything and alert the principal as soon as possible. So Applejack gave a barely perceptible nod to the others, and they returned it, an unspoken understanding between them. Or so Applejack thought.

“Down the hall and to the left, mister. Right past the administrative office!” Pinkie cheerfully informed him.

“Thank you, pink-haired one.” With that, the unusual man pulled out and ripped open a bag of pretzels, munching on them as he made his way in the direction Pinkie had indicated.

“What’d you do that for, Pinkie?” Applejack hissed when the man was gone.

“What? You gave me a ‘let’s help him’ nod!”

“No, I gave you a ‘he seems suspicious, don’t say anything to him’ nod!”

“Huh… I figured it was either that or your ‘there’s a sale on applesauce’ nod. Honestly, you have so many nods, Applejack, it’s hard even for me to keep track of them all!”

“I… what?

The argument was interrupted by a chorus of chimes from all of the girls’ phones at once. A quick check confirmed that a new message had been posted to their Lifeinvader Messenger group chat. To their cumulative relief, it was a message from Twilight.

> Hey, I’m okay. See you guys soon.

“Oh thank goodness,” Fluttershy said with a relieved sigh. “Looks like Sunset and Spike found her after all.”

Applejack, however, wasn’t so sure. So she started hastily typing in a reply as the hallway thinned out, the other students eager to leave for the day.

> Glad to hear it. Is Sunset and Spike with you? Applejack’s message read.

In a few quick seconds, the moving ellipses appeared beside Twilight’s icon, and a response promptly followed.

> No, why? Were they looking for me?

Applejack frowned. Sure, it was a relief to hear from Twilight, but now Sunset was MIA. As the girls all headed to their respective lockers, Applejack couldn’t help but worry her friend was in some kind of trouble. Indeed, the thought had her worried for the rest of the evening, and she forgot all about the strange man in the red sweater.

Matt entered the filing room still munching on pretzels. Picking the lock was but a trifle. The plan went off without a hitch, and the group of girls he’d briefly interacted with were none the wiser. Matt was, after all, a master of stealth—unparalleled in his ability to blend in anywhere as if he belonged. And now here he was at his objective.

Row upon row of filing cabinets lay before him, containing all information on students, budget, and everything else the school would need to keep track of going back as far as it was first built if Matt had to guess. But he didn’t care about that. Instead, he wasted no time finding the most current records, and started sifting through student profiles quickly and dexterously. As expected, a quick look through the ‘S’ files turned up nothing on their old friend Kerry, or Dusky Shawcross.

But further searching turned up something else under ‘D’. In the profile for one Dusky Darneil was a photo of a boy who was unmistakably Kerry, grinning innocently. Oh, but you’re not so innocent, are you? Matt thought as he went over the file. Dusky Darneil had quite the thoroughly crafted history in Red County according to the file, but Matt knew if anyone were to more closely investigate the school he’d supposedly went to, or the neighborhood he’d supposedly grew up in, this finely crafted history would unravel faster than a poorly knitted sweater.

Pulling out his phone, Matt hit one of the numbers on speed dial and after barely one ring, someone answered. “Hey L’il J, it’s Matt,” he said. “Looks like you were right after all….”

“You’re sure you can’t pick it up again?” Sunset asked a tad forcefully.

Spike looked up at her, ears folding back. “I told you, Sunset. Twilight’s scent is gone.”

The two of them had spent a good majority of the day riding all around the city in search of Twilight. After talking to the police officers and some of the witnesses to the strange incident with the burning cars in the residential park, they rode around all over town in the direction they figured Twilight and the Fake AH Crew (there was little doubt in Sunset’s mind now that was who she was with) had gone. It was all for nought though, and now they found themselves in the middle of a deserted warehouse district without any more leads. They heard the sound of a helicopter flying past overhead, and Sunset noted with only passing curiosity that it seemed to have come from the ocean.

Feeling some guilt at the dog’s chastened look, Sunset said, “I’m sorry for getting mad, Spike.”

“It’s okay. I’m worried about her too.”

Sunset rubbed her arm. “It’s not just that, I guess.” Spike gave her a curious look, and she continued, “I don’t know, I’ve been worried about Twilight well before today.”

Spike frowned. “Let me guess… since the Friendship Games?”

Sunset nodded. “For a dog who only recently gained sapience, you’re pretty perceptive.”

“It’s what I do!” Spike said with the tiniest of grins.

“Seriously though, part of me wonders whether she was really kidnapped or whether… whether she wanted to go with them.”

“You think Twilight’s run away to join a gang?” Spike asked, tilting his head and giving her the most befuddled look Sunset had ever seen on a canine face.

“Maybe not exactly, but… what Twilight’s going through now I went through myself, and I’d be lying if I said I had never thought about just running away back then. The idea of getting a fresh start away from everyone who can only remember your mistakes can be pretty tempting.” Internally, a dark thought entered Sunset’s mind as she considered this. I know what she’s been going through, yet I’ve barely done anything to help. I’m a terrible friend!

“Twilight wouldn’t do that,” Spike said resolutely.

“I guess you know her better than I do,” Sunset admitted, allowing herself to push aside her self-deprecation for later. She took another look around the empty lot they were currently standing on. Dilapidated old warehouses flanked them, with nothing but a few empty pallets and rusty barrels long since abandoned. “Regardless, I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. C’mon, Spike.”

Sunset pulled out her phone as she turned to head back to her motorcycle. Once again she tried to send a text to her friends to let them know her situation, and once again her phone informed her in red text that her message failed to send. Looking at the single on-again-off-again bar of service, Sunset sighed. Guess she’d have to wait until they got to a place with better reception.

“Wait, hold on. I smell something,” Spike said, sniffing at the air rapidly.

“Twilight?” Sunset asked, but Spike shook his head.

“No. It’s… Winona?

Sunset’s brow furrowed, and she was about to ask how that could be possible when she remembered what Applejack had told her that morning: Winona had disappeared at some point the other night.

“Which way?” Sunset asked, and Spike indicated with a tilt of his head to a warehouse way down the other side of the lot.

Without saying anything else, Sunset jogged in that direction with Spike hot on her heels. The first door Sunset tried was firmly locked, but after walking around to the other side of the building, Sunset found a loading bay with the door open to accommodate an unmarked panel van. This was the first thing to make Sunset seriously reconsider her impromptu investigation, but the sound of dogs barking inside and someone raising their voice piqued her curiosity. So against her better judgement, Sunset looked at Spike and raised a finger to her lips before creeping into the structure.

The loading bay was devoid of anything of note; the aforementioned van and a pallet with some empty boxes stacked on it were about the only things inside. Sunset crept towards the door in the back, stepping over an empty pallet and ready to dive into the nearest hiding spot should she see the knob begin to turn. But it didn’t, and as Sunset drew closer, she heard voices. Familiar voices.

Opening the door a crack and peeking into the main part of the warehouse, Sunset couldn’t make out much at first. Old industrial equipment lay strewn around covered in tarps—long abandoned. Then Sunset saw movement on the far side of the room, and quietly gasped when she saw the dozen-or-so cages, just about each one holding a dog. A few of them were mangy and collarless—strays, if Sunset had to guess—but most of them wore different collars. They clearly had owners. It didn’t take Sunset long after that to spot the brown and white collie, looking—as always—like she was just happy to be there.

“Winona!” Spike exclaimed, and made a run for it, but Sunset grabbed him by the collar and held him back. Spike seemed about to protest, but then they both heard the voices from before, and a moment later two familiar figures walked into view.

“The clients should be here any minute, brother mine,” the first said, a reedy man with red and white striped hair.

“Well it’s about time! I’m getting sick of listening to these mutts yap,” said the other, almost identical to the first save for his big red mustache.

“What are they doing here?” Sunset whispered.

Spike looked up at her and asked, “You know them?”

Sunset nodded. “The Flim Flam Brothers. They own a pawn shop in town the girls and I go to sometimes!”

But what are they doing out in the middle of a run down warehouse district with a bunch of kidnapped dogs?

“I don’t like this, brother,” the first one said after some silence. Flim… or Flam. Sunset honestly wasn’t sure.

“So you’ve said plenty of times already,” the mustached one said. Flam? “Just as I’ve pointed out plenty of times that we need the money. Our debts aren’t going to pay off themselves!”

“I know, but it doesn’t make me any less uneasy…” Flim said, turning his attention momentarily to the restless dogs in their cages. “What kind of company needs so many animals anyway?”

“The kind that doesn’t like people who ask too many questions,” a new deep, gravelly voice said, and suddenly Flim and Flam were standing ramrod straight.

“Ah, Captain Lock! Didn’t see you come in!” Flim exclaimed as three more men entered from the other side of the room.

Alarmed, Sunset noticed the new arrivals wore gray military fatigues and tactical vests. The one in the middle had patches on his shoulders displaying a mostly red logo that Sunset couldn’t identify from where she was hidden. He sported short dark hair, a big nasty scar across his face, and carried himself like someone in charge. Just behind him and the other two soldiers was a wiry man with glasses and a lab coat, with tousled yellow hair and an unshaven face.

“Yes, welcome back to Flim and Flam’s Captured Canine Emporium! For all your captured canine needs!” Flam exclaimed, but the lead soldier—Lock, if Sunset heard right—stopped him with a hard glare.

“Spare me the sales pitch, Mr. Skim.” He then turned to the man in the lab coat. “Do your thing, Doctor Star, and be quick about it. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

Nodding, the man in the white coat pulled out a round device that Sunset couldn’t identify, but struck an odd chord of familiarity with her. The man then began pacing along the row of dog-occupied cages, scanning each one with his device. While he did this, Sunset pulled out her phone.

“What are you doing?” Spike whispered with noticeable worry.

“Getting something we can show people,” Sunset replied.

She used to do this all the time back when she was the menace of Canterlot High: Sneak around, take pictures of her fellow students (and even a couple of teachers) in compromising positions, and then use them for extortion. This time, though, Sunset was using her skills for good. Whoever these people were, they were Bad News with a capital B. Some sort of scientist with a military escort? Sunset couldn’t help but think of the files they’d found on that hidden thumb drive.

As she took a few different pictures, the man in the white coat—Dr. Star—picked three different dogs to take back to “the lab”: a daschund, a golden retriever, and to Sunset’s dismay, Winona.

So after snapping a satisfying image of the scene, she brought up her text messaging app next. Sunset took a look at the single waning bar of cell reception, and briefly wondered whether there was even any point trying to send the picture to her friends. But then the image of Twilight’s horrific transformation captured from a hidden vantage point changed her mind. She had to at least try! There was just too much at stake.

But before she could act, a sudden flurry of messages appeared on her phone; a broken dam bursting with text that had finally found a way through the area’s shitty reception. Confirmation from Twilight that she was okay was among the sudden flood of messages, but at that moment it was the furthest thing from her mind. Instead, Sunset was too preoccupied with the terrible reminder that she had her phone’s ringer volume cranked up to the max, in order to make sure she didn’t miss a text from Twilight.

Thus, Sunset wasn’t the only one not to miss the messages.

“What the hell was that?” one of the Flim Flam brothers said. Sunset couldn’t be bothered to figure out which one. She was too focused on the soldiers, who had pulled out their sidearms and were making their way in her direction.

Swearing under her breath, Sunset gave a quick, panicked, “Time to go!” to Spike before whirling around and making a break for it.

She didn’t get very far before tripping over the wooden pallet she had stepped over earlier, scraping up her knees in a way she knew would sting later. Sunset’s trip caused her to lose her grip on her phone and she didn’t notice as it slid underneath the white panel van. Spike failed to notice the phone as well, too focused on making sure Sunset was okay. As she struggled to her feet, Sunset thought in a dazed stupor that she could never make fun of the protagonists in horror movies who keep tripping over nothing trying to get away from some monster.

“Sunset come on!

Shaking off her daze, Sunset pulled herself to her feet and she made it outside with Spike leading the way. Together, the two of them ran back around to the front of the building. Sunset’s only goal at that moment was to get back to her motorcycle, and wasn’t thinking about anything else. She certainly wasn’t thinking about the fact that the soldiers had originally come from the front entrance.

Waiting for her in the lot at the front of the building was a pair of black vans with a logo on the side: A white bald eagle glaring directly at her over the red words Merryweather Security. Outside the vans were two more soldiers who appeared to be having a smoke, both of them looking at Sunset and Spike with some confusion before drawing their weapons. Sunset looked over her shoulder to find Captain Lock and the two men with him had caught up, the five of them completely surrounding her and Spike (who started to give very non-threatening high pitched growls).

“You lost, kid?” Lock asked, carefully evaluating her.

Out of ideas, Sunset just said in her best valley girl voice, “Yeah… this isn’t the mall, is it?”

She heard one of the other soldiers laugh and mutter, “Freaking Cali girls….”

“Tell me, kid…” Lock said, still studying her for… something. “How much did you see?”

Sunset hesitated, but that seemed to be all the answer Lock needed, as something about his expression changed. Hardened.

“Whatever she did or didn’t see does not matter. She has no context for any of this,” said a nasally voice, and the man in the lab coat joined the group flanked by Flim and Flam, who looked on curiously.

“Strange, I feel as though I’ve seen this girl before,” one of the Flim Flam Brothers—the one with the mustache—mused

“If we wanted your thoughts, we would have asked for them,” Lock said dismissively, before turning back to Sunset. “If she talks, she could blow the entire operation,” Lock argued, his finger drifting worryingly to the trigger of his firearm. “The director’s orders….”

Dr. Star’s eyes briefly grew saucer-like. “She’s just a kid! You can’t…!”

“After the attack on the main facility months ago, we cannot risk any security breaches.”

Taking a step forward, Spike growled and then to everyone’s surprise, shouted, “You’re not doing anything to my friend!”

A loud silence followed, only broken by a soldier’s cough. Realizing his error all too late, Spike sighed and face-pawed, and Sunset merely waited to see what new wrench this development would throw into everything.

“Well… you don’t see that every day…” the clean-shaven Flim Flam brother said.

Speechless, Dr. Star pulled out the device he had used on the other dogs earlier and held it toward Spike.

“Remarkable, this dog is giving off huge readings of the alien energy,” he said. “Is it yours?”

“Uh… not technically…” Sunset muttered, overwhelmed by everything.

“Well if that’s the case, I’m sure it could be greatly beneficial to our research.” The man nodded to the soldiers, and one of them stepped forward to apprehend the small dog.

Seeing the advancing soldier and Spike back into her while whimpering, Sunset’s fear and confusion went away and was replaced by indignant rage. That was when something remarkable happened.

“I was just looking for my friend, that’s all! Just leave us the hell alone!

Sunset thrust out an arm as if to push the soldier away, and to the shock of everyone present, she did… without touching him. Cyan energy sent the man sprawling, and unbeknownst to Sunset she had sprouted a pair of pony ears and a hair extension resembling a tail.

“Curiouser and curiouser...” both Flim Flam Brothers said simultaneously.

The still standing soldiers all raised their weapons nervously, but Dr. Star shouted, “No, don’t shoot her!

“All I wanted was to find my friend, so if you could please just let us go, we can avoid—” The sound of a bang and the feeling of something like an insect biting into her neck stopped Sunset Shimmer in her tracks.

“Sunset?” she heard Spike say, but it barely registered.

In a daze, Sunset reached up and felt something persistently digging into her neck. She pulled it out and saw some kind of dart. Just outside of her vision, Lock lowered the pistol in his hand.

Sunset found herself suddenly losing the feeling in her extremities—first her fingers and toes, then her hands and feet, and so on. She tried to speak but suddenly it was like her mouth was full of cotton. Her legs stopped working and she collapsed to the ground. Spike called out to her again, but it was like he was suddenly miles away. Her vision started to fade as darkness closed in around her. The last thing Sunset saw was Spike being carried off by a soldier, and the last thing she heard was Dr. Star’s voice.

“The director will want to see this….

Author's Note:

Sorry for the delay in getting this chapter out, work has gotten so busy these past couple of months I haven't had time for anything else (12 hours a day, 7 days a week). It looks like I'm going to have to start updating at the rate that most authors do on this site, rather than the once a month I had initially hoped for. Hopefully the quality makes up for the quantity! :twilightblush:

We're approaching the final act of the story now. Soon, everything will start to come together....