• Published 21st Apr 2017
  • 2,352 Views, 101 Comments

Cross Reference - Eyeswirl the Weirded



Following the events of the Friendship Games, various parties adapt to their new lives.

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Chapter 13: Setbacks (Part 2)

"How does someone 'sabotage' a powerpoint presentation?"

"I don't freakin' know," Aria snapped back at an incredulous Sunny Flare, "but that dumpster fire was not what we put together!"

"Ordinarily," Sugarcoat interjected, "your story might be seen as making excuses and imagining conspiracies to cover up a failed attempt to stand out from the crowd, but as most of us saw you in the library multiple times-"

"And you never shut up about how great your presentation was gonna be."

"-and that, yes- your story does seem feasible."

"But like," Indigo asked with crossed arms and a quizzically tilted head, "who did it?"

The first answer that sprung to mind made Aria's stomach churn for multiple reasons. "About that... remember those two girls you guys said were 'nobodies'?"

"Uhh... no?"

Aria facepalmed. "Glitz and Glitter! The ones that-"

"Glitter and Glitz," Lemon corrected, her rare verbalization startling the rest of the table into an awkward silence. She shrugged. "I've never talked to them, but Glitter seems more like the ringleader type, Glitz just doing whatever she says, so her name should probably be first."

Sunny scratched her head. "I feel like 'Glitz and Glitter' rolls off the tongue better."

"Yes," concurred Sugarcoat, "but Lemon is right about their power dynamic."

Aria was surprised to see Sonata have two bright moments in one day when she asked a question. "Wait a sec, how do you guys know so much about them when they're nobodies you don't care about?"

"Rumor flies on wings, Sonata."

"...Huh?"

"It means that despite the higher standards, this is still a high school, and the students are teenagers like anyone else their age, craving all the same things even if they'll never admit it. As it happens, gossip serves a useful purpose in providing information on potential competition, provided said information is true."

"Whatever," Aria said with a flippant hand-wave, "I'll keep calling 'em 'Glitz and Glitter' just on the offchance it annoys Glitter, but more importantly, I'm pretty sure they're the ones that screwed us."

"Why is that?"

Aria briefly recounted their encounters with the pair up to just a few hours ago, particularly how smug Glitter got when she put extra emphasis on their upcoming presentation.

Sunny Flare raised an eyebrow. "Okay, so, how did they change your powerpoint? Are they hackers or something?"

Slumping, Aria let out a long sigh. "I have no idea."

Indigo made a face like she'd tasted anchovies. "Didja save it to one of the school computers? 'Cuz even with the login stuff, that's not totally safe."

"We kept it on a flashdrive that I keep in a bookbag, so I don't see how they could've gotten at it."

"Unfortunately," noted Sugarcoat in her usual, neutral tones, "that is a hole in your sabotage story."

"Yea, I figured," she grumbled, but familiar thoughts bubbling to the surface, her grimace became a smirk, "but even if I can't prove it, if I got the right dirt on those two, bet they'd confess to the whole thing." To her great annoyance, the entire table, bar Sonata, was looking at her like she was an idiot. "...What?!"

"Ignoring that you're seriously talking about blackmailing Crystal Prep students," Sunny answered with unmasked disdain, "if you had 'the right dirt' on them, you could probably make them say they did it whether they were guilty or not."

"Yes," Sugarcoat continued for her, "regardless of what anyone said or thought in that scenario, you would have nothing to prove you were capable of better work. In that matter, your saboteur has still won."

Aria scratched her head. "So you're saying we've gotta make some kinda comeback on paper before we can even swing back?"

"It would certainly help your case. Have you given any thought to the Proficiency Accolades?"

"The what?"

"Those marks of accomplishment we discussed a few weeks ago, with the primary and secondary-"

"Oh! Right, right, those were, um... Refresh my memory a little?"

"Awards given for primary categories that impress Principal Cinch and potential employers and secondary categories that involve greater social standing among the students of Crystal Prep. You said you would aim for the latter, which is effectively just having the highest grades in a given class (though having more than one is welcomed and encouraged) and outstanding performance in extracurricular activity." She glanced around the table, but if no one else was going to say it, she would. "Your odds of winning that for Social Studies are very poor."

"Thanks," growled Aria through clenched teeth and a frustrated blush, "I couldn't have guessed."

"There's still time to do the primary ones," Sunny added quickly, "if you've got something amazing you can do."

"Assuming that doesn't get sabotaged too," Sour Sweet cheerfully chimed in before shifting again, "or that you don't mind wasting months of your life to please some suits."

Aria had thought about it, but something told her that singing a really great song and labelling it with the 'art' sticker wasn't gonna be enough, and if it wasn't, she wasn't sure she'd be able to fluff it up enough to win without a ton of cash to fund a show. That or starting from scratch on something totally different, meaning way more work. Luckily, she seemed to have a kindred spirit in Indigo.

"Screw the primaries," she said while propping up her head with one arm, elbow on the table and a bored look on her face. "There's no real limit on the group size, 'cuz one'a the Art winners was a whole orchestra, but even if you work together, they're a freakin' pain. Even without all the extra hoops you gotta jump through, just being the best of the best should be the more important one. It's like, who cares if you do one great thing and then pretty much nothing with the rest of your life?"

There were murmurs of agreement that tasted of a familiar bitterness, one Aria had gotten to know from countless negative energy harvests to be resentment and frustration, cooled with grudging acceptance and a hint of doubt and anxiety. That delicate little worry that the source of these feelings was themselves inadequate, that it was because they just weren't good enough, had been one she and the others only needed to give the slightest nudge to push into fits of rage, despair, and even insanity. None of them lasted long, but for the sirens' purposes, they didn't need to.

If the worst happened and she really was screwed, giving a few Adagio-style pushes to send this school into a downward spiral of self-destruction might not help her, but it'd be one hell of a revenge/back-up plan.

"So," Sunny asked as though she wanted to know what Aria liked on her pizza, "what do you think you'll be doing?"

"Uh..." The primary options looked bleak, but with how things were going, she wasn't even sure she could make a comeback in the normal classwork, let alone as the top of her class! "Well, there's-"

"Aria Blaze, Sonata Dusk?"

Use of full names had those not already facing Dean Cadence turned around in a heartbeat, finding her with an uncharacteristically severe look on her face. She continued without waiting for a reply.

"Principal Cinch would like to talk to you before the end of the school day." Again not waiting, she turned and started off, stopping several steps away when she didn't hear movement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder with an apologetic smile and a whisper. "That means 'right now,' by the way."

Immediately stomping down the bubbling terror in her chest as the Shadowbolts traded curious looks, Aria took the escape route for all it was worth, motioning to Sonata and getting up to follow.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Principal Cinch sat with both elbows on her desk, fingers folded together as Aria and Sonata finished their story.

"Let me see if I understand... While you did make use of our services to put forth your best effort, someone found a way to undermine you in an attempt to remove you as competition, an act for which you have no proof whatsoever?"

Seeing exactly how that sounded, Aria begrudgingly nodded.

"Such claims are not uncommon, and in some cases, they are even found to be true, but in such cases, the target is always an academic rival." Neither of them responded, so she spelled it out. "Which, given your performance so far, it would seem strange to direct something like this at you two rather than any of the more accomplished students."

'You wouldn't be saying that if you saw our real presentation!' was the first thing Aria wanted to scream back, but that was totally gone now, so she could just as easily say they would have cured cancer with it. Luckily, she'd had a little time to think. "Yea, but that's sorta how I know who did it; these two girls that have had it out for us since-"

"Once more, do you have proof?"

Clenching her teeth, Aria tried her damnedest to say 'no' in a way that still could have worked out for her, but all she could do was shake her head.

"I cannot act on your accusation alone. This matter is very serious, cheating of any kind is not looked on favorably here, and if there is no credible evidence, dispensing blame in this manner will not be tolerated. Are we clear?"

Again, Aria felt like crying, but she forced herself to swallow the pill and nod her head.

"Very good. I have your records from Canterlot High, short though they are, and Principal Celestia had a few choice words she saw fit to share when I asked for details about your time there."

THAT BITCH!!

"In particular, she warned me that while you two and Adagio Dazzle, who stayed behind, had experienced some change of heart, you were previously known for manipulative behaviors and deception..."

Aria couldn't have pictured her past biting her in the ass any harder if it physically manifested into a bear trap on each cheek. She was just about to throw up her hands and say 'screw it' when Cinch's eyes narrowed.

"...which makes you susceptible to precisely this kind of attack." Both girls, two out of the three 'sirens' she'd heard plenty about, looked at her in confusion. "You remember my former star pupil, yes? One Twilight Sparkle?" They nodded. "I gather that, like her, your group was once involved in a magical incident, this one of your own deliberate design, and it would be very easy to believe that someone capable of such things would pass blame to cover up their own failings, making them a natural target for those actually willing to go to such underhanded lengths, wouldn't you agree?"

The two shared a look, Sonata's brain working faster this time. "Does this mean you believe us?"

"Not exactly, but I can see that something is out of place with the simplest explanation. I have looked into this, called Proper Place, our librarian, to learn more, and your log-in records from the school system indicate several hours-long sessions over the past week or so. Our library is monitored, there is little tolerance for just 'hanging about,' and while her memory isn't perfectly clear, Proper Place tells me that whenever she walked by, the two of you were focused on your work, and she has absolutely no memory of any of the slides you showed today."

Nor the dreadful dubstep, which, if played at the same volume as when that particular page was opened, would have surely seen them expelled from the library in minutes.

Aria tentatively crossed her arms. "Okay, so, you don't really believe us, but you don't really believe it's our fault, either? What happens now?"

"I would advise returning to class, doing your personal best to succeed despite setbacks. There are tutoring services available should you see fit to use them, the library remains open to students, and should you inquire, instructors are to provide helpful feedback." Her brows knitted. "I do not know exactly what befell the two of you, but I will say this: If there is a repeat of this incident, there will be an investigation, for good or ill. Are we clear?"

Aria reeeeally hoped that meant "we'll actually look at the most likely culprit instead of their victims," but saying so would probably be pushing her luck. "Yea, crystal."

"Pft!"

Aria and Sonata witnessed a rare sight just then; that of Principal Abacus Cinch losing her composure for a split second, then pulling herself together as best one could when on the verge of a gigglefit, her face tightening up as she forced herself not to laugh.

Damn you, Cadenza.

"Very good," she uttered through clenched teeth and a warped little smile, "best of luck to you in your future endeavors."

For slightly different reasons, the two were unable to completely keep from smiling themselves as they left her office. When they were gone, Cinch found it much easier to sober up. Particularly so when her own words echoed in her ears.

"Cheating of any kind is not looked on favorably here..."

Nor at CHS, in all likelihood. "They did it first," she'd told herself, "We only want what we deserve," felt reasonable, and if she couldn't stop the Wondercolts from using magic to gain the upper hand, the only recourse was to do the same. So was it cheating? It certainly didn't give Crystal Prep any advantage, the third event having been entirely called off due to Twilight's temporary insanity. Would it have been better to just play through, let come what may? Every fiber of her being protested the notion, but what did that say about the two sirens' predicament?

It said that, following Cinch's own example, which they were present to witness, they should cheat and sabotage right back. Aria had made it sound like they even had names. She'd be a hypocrite to tell them otherwise, so it seemed that she was a hypocrite.

Shaking her head, she sighed. Normally, she wouldn't have bothered with what she'd been told today, because students understandably choked under the pressure on a regular basis, but not to the degree of that slideshow and more importantly, not entirely missing a class afterward. At least this wasn't just a case of delinquency. She again checked over her the file on her desk.

Adagio Dazzle. Said to have been the brains of their operation, and yet you stayed at Canterlot High School. Why?

Her name was the one filled in for emergency contact and other such spaces in Aria and Sonata's paperwork, but she didn't seem to be a parental figure to them, and was clearly at least close enough to their age to be able to attend a high school, so the only reason Cinch could conceive for not coming too was a lack of funding. Was it a difficult choice? Did the three of them agree that she wouldn't need the prestige this school had to offer as much as the other two? She'd wanted to know about that more than this presentation matter, but that would have been prying into students' personal lives.

Granted, her students' personal lives were technically part of this little experiment she was conducting. It seemed to her that Aria and Sonata, her 'normal' samples from a 'normal' school, were genuinely putting forth their best effort, but some kind of rivalry was getting in the way. Or was it? Competition could, after all, be a galvanizing force provided one side didn't completely overwhelm the other, but if their story was true, that was most likely the intent of this strike. One carried out by, there could be little doubt, her own Crystal Prep students.

As this was intended to test her school more than any individual attending it, she supposed the best thing to do was let it play out naturally, to see if their facilities would outweigh these interpersonal conflicts. If not, it was possible that it would be a failing of the students to make the most of what was offered, but it seemed to her that any decent school wouldn't let that be an issue; encouraging students to take advantage of any and every opportunity to succeed.

"Well," she muttered to herself, "we'll just have to wait and see."

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Keeping what happened a secret wasn't going to end well for her, Aria knew that before she'd even gotten on the bus. That in mind, tired of it though she already was, she knew they had to tell the story for the third time that day when they got home. At least doing it in the beanbag-chair-room-comfort of their own home made it a little easier. When she heard the full account, Adagio sighed.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I didn't expect you to have the place under your complete control already, but this is... what, did they get implausible back-up out of nowhere?"

Sonata shrugged. "Sorta? They might've hacked our thingy somehow, and it sounded like that wasn't supposed to be possible."

Eyes narrowing, Adagio crossed her arms. "Did they have a transforming car too? Because if that's just standard issue around here, it's time we got our own."

Aria facepalmed. "No, it- listen, she, the two of them, they did something sneaky, and I don't know how yet, but-"

"Then perhaps we should start there. You told me you keep the flashdrive in your backpack, did you leave it unattended at some point?"

"Not really, unless they found out which locker is mine and broke in between classes."

Sonata scratched her head. "Maybe they did, 'cuz like, all they'd have to do is follow us around for a while and-"

"I mean, there are cameras all over those hallways, and I'm pretty sure they've got a clear view of the lockers all over the place." Probably for exactly this reason.

Adagio thoughtfully rubbed her chin. "Were they in or near the room when your turn to present came?"

"I think they'd have had to straight-up turn invisible to pull that off."

"And are we certain they can't do that?"

"Huh?!"

"Twilight -the one from this world- was studying magic over there for a while, and may have left something behind whether she realized it or not. If so, these nemeses of yours may have found it and put it to use, for invisibility or anything else it could do. Have either of you felt any pulses or currents in your time there?"

"Uhh..." Aria glanced at Sonata, who only shook her head. "I don't think so."

"Hm. While we didn't exactly spend much time exploring, we never found any other magic in this world before the Fall Formal, so I wouldn't rule out magic entirely, but perhaps it was something else. You said the presenting groups are to operate the machinery themselves to prevent exactly this sort of situation?"

"Basically, so I think it had to be before class even started."

"Could she have influenced the students who went before you to tamper with the computer?"

"Maybe, but like, I don't know how that would overwrite a file on a flashdrive. If they had some kind of attack-the-next-powerpoint-to-get-opened virus or something, I'm not sure how they'd have known who went just before us or how that'd have been activated without anyone noticing."

"I know it sounds far-fetched, but if we learned anything from the Battle of the Bands...?"

"I get that, but like, the only people in this world we've seen pull something outta their ass like that were packing rainbow magic, which I don't think can do anything this subtle."

"And that's if magic even works with computers," Sonata added.

Adagio shrugged. "With what we've witnessed so far, I'd say nothing is off the table. Still, there may be a simpler explanation: Was there a moment in which the flashdrive wasn't in your locker, but wasn't immediately in your sight, either?"

"Umm..."

Aria hadn't exactly sat there staring at her bag until her turn came, but it wasn't like she left it out in the open. The only times she could think of when someone might have been able to touch it were when she was walking through the halls full of potential witnesses and cameras, and-

"The cafeteria," she hissed, "she wasn't just trash-talking, she was distracting us!" Adagio's expression said she could use a few more details. "The smarmy one, Glitter, got to talking during a break period, went on about how bad we're doing and how our presentation was gonna suck, but the other bitch was nowhere to be seen. I bet she got close, waited for Glitter to bait us, and... did... something! She either swapped our flashdrive for an identical one with the crap powerpoint on it or uploaded it to ours from her phone or maybe she hacked the thing with a satellite, I don't know, but she did something while Glitter was secretly doing her misdirection shtick!"

"I see. We may not know exactly how they did this to you, if it was them, but if your theory is right, this is something to note for future encounters; if Glitter is present, but Glitz isn't...?"

"It means they're probably about to pull something," Aria finished, "we won't fall for that again."

"What's your next move going to be?"

'Break those bitches' kneecaps' was her first choice, 'turn the whole school against them like I said I would' was the second, but she knew both would really just be dragging them down with her, which was only fine as a last resort when she was absolutely screwed anyway. Begrudgingly, she had to go with the Shadowbolts' idea. "We should probably make our comeback with better grades first, prove we're not stupid while telling anyone who asks that we were sabotaged."

"They've got tutors or something at CeePee," Sonata added with a hopeful smile, "maybe they can make it all look easy."

Adagio again stroked her chin, an almost sinister smile forming. "There might be one better. Would either of you object to study sessions with this world's Twilight Sparkle?"

Aria was the first to fully process the implications behind that question, starting to smile herself. "Oh yea, she was the reigning nerd queen for a while, wasn't she? If we got half as good with the classwork as she was, we'd probably still put everybody else to shame."

Sonata beamed. "Totally, as long as we don't ask her about Gym!"

There were giggles.

Author's Note:

In this story, Indigo Zap hates the taste of fish.
You're already thinking it, aren't you?

Also, if it didn't come across in the first story, Cinch has put a lot of work into making Crystal Prep a great school, so when she hears that someone isn't just not attending, but voluntarily staying out, she takes it kind of personally.

I've almost typed Crystal Prep "Chrystal Prep" pretty much on autopilot a few times, and in addition to my most likely doomed daydreams of Chrysalis either establishing a power base in the Crystal Empire (did it again typing that) or outright taking it over to feed on the Crystal Heart (and again), it makes me think of Chrysalis somehow going from guidance counselor to principal and ruling with an iron fist. As much as one can rule a school without getting in trouble with state boards and such.
Spoilers: That one's not going to happen, but having her actually rename the school 'Chrystal Prep' might have been too tacky anyway.