• Published 17th Mar 2017
  • 1,839 Views, 157 Comments

In the Absence of Twilight Sparkle - MyHobby



Twilight Sparkle isn't the only human learning magic, as Sunset discovers when she is invited overseas to visit a school run by Starlight Glimmer. She appears to have good intentions, but Sunset's doubts rise when a magic-powered murderer strikes

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In Memoriam

Fog covered the streets of Canterlot. Gargoyles and grotesques hung from gnarled architecture, their jaws open wide in a bevy of silent screams. Rain dripped from the corners of rooftops to soak the scarred pavement below. Thunder rumbled.

But the thunder did not hail from the dim overcast.

Blazing light flashed from the windows of Sombra’s School for Extraordinary Foals. Wind whipped within the auditorium, scattering papers and ash. Magic poured in great waves towards a small cart, which held a single egg. Incalculable powers raged. Lightning flashed and fire sparked. Force with the power to shatter bone spilled from a small filly, one who had not yet chosen a cutie mark.

She stared at the egg, which refused to yield until cracks formed along its surface. She needed the egg to hatch. Everything counted on that egg hatching.

She couldn’t stop. Not even if she wanted to. The floodgates had been opened by that final push; that last desperate plea to succeed in her test. She would prove that she was good enough, if only the egg would hatch.

A scream jolted into her ears and crawled down her spine. She twisted her head away from the cart, just for an instant. She saw her mother and father, clothed in what rags they were able to gather for the momentous occasion. They were so proud of her for making it this far. They, too, needed her to succeed. Maybe even more than she needed it.

She frowned. They weren’t cheering her on. They were screaming in fear. Shouting that she should stop. Pleading with her to pull it back. She couldn’t. She was so close to hatching the egg. So close to making them proud again. The magic blazed forth, uncontrolled save for the guiding need buried deep in her chest.

Another shout, almost unheard in the dreadful din surrounding her. This one came from the bleachers, voiced by one of her judges. He raced towards her, his horn aglow, motioning for her to stop.

He wanted to shut her down! No! He couldn’t!

She shoved with all her might to ward him off. He vanished in a cloud of red-hot smoke.

Her heart caught in her throat. He was gone. Gone-gone. Super-gone. Nothing remained but a pile of ash. She didn’t mean to. She didn’t want to.

She ran to the egg and placed her hooves upon the cart. If only she hatched it, everything would be okay. Everything would be better. They’d live in the palace. They’d eat nice food. They’d be able to bring her brother back home. Tears streamed down her face as she begged with all her heart for the egg to hatch.

The metal seats of the bleachers rusted and crumbled. The windows shattered outward as the wind seeped out. Magilights popped, one by one, as they were stressed beyond their limits.

Somepony called her name. Screamed for her to stop. She wouldn’t, and she told them as much.

The next wave of magic from her horn turned skin and bone to wood.

Her ears shot up as the voice registered far too late. Her father had told her to stop. Her father, who had always encouraged her. Who had always said that if you worked hard enough, you could do anything. Her father who had told her never to give up, or else she’d turn out like he did. He didn’t want her to end up like him. He wanted better for her.

She turned around, and saw two potted plants where her parents once stood. Their leaves turned brown and died, drifting down and disintegrating before they reached the ground. The wood hollowed before her eyes, drying like driftwood on the shore.

She shook her head. She could save them. If she just wanted it hard enough, she could save them. Fix them. She pulled magic from the egg and shot it towards the plants. If she could do it, she could undo it, right?

A booming voice, somewhere between rage and terror, stuck her to the core. She gazed at the newcomer, who dwarfed her utterly in his looming shadow.

King Sombra stood over her, his broad shoulders as wide as a carriage. His blue locks spilled from beneath his silvery crown, and his shining breastplate reflected the lavender light of her spells. Kind blue eyes, wide with adrenaline, stared at her. Through her, to something deep inside her soul.

His voice, normally so even-keeled and friendly, rang strained and insistent in her ears. King Sombra, the ruler of Equestria, the one she hoped to impress most of all, who inspired her in everything he did, who had no equal in all the land, told her she should not succeed.

Her response was immediate, passionate, and unbridled.

The egg centered in her focus. She saw the small cracks running through its surface. The jagged lined that offered a small peek at the new life inside. She thrust her magic into those imperfections and ripped the shell apart. She felt the newborn’s first breath, heard the cry of a baby, experienced every ounce of hunger and fear and want.

Behind her, the plants withered away.

Sombra called, but she couldn’t hear it. She’d succeeded. She’d hatched the egg. She looked upon the baby dragon she’d birthed. He was beautiful. Purple scaled that shimmered like her magic. Green eyes to match his soft belly. A cute little tail that wriggled as he pleaded for food in the only way he knew how.

She had won.

Sombra gripped her, but released just as quickly. Her body burned his hoof with the barest of contact. He told her to stop. He told her it was over.

She tried. She tried to reign in the magic that was swelling from her horn, decimating the auditorium, wreaking havoc throughout the school. She found the tide could not be stopped. Like a hole in a dam, every moment just brought more and more magic.

She gasped. Her parents! She still had to fix them! She still had to heal them! She swung around, called to them, but found no answer.

They were gone. No more. Vanished into thin air.

Tears and snot mingled as she wept. They had to be okay. She had won. She had passed the test. They needed to be there to see it. They needed to be proud of her. They needed to know they were right about her.

She looked up at Sombra. He had to be able to bring them back. He was the most powerful wizard in Equestria. Maybe the world. He would know what to do.

His eyes softened as the skin around them grew tight. He opened his mouth, but said nothing. He sighed and bowed his head.

He touched his horn to hers, and everything went black.

***

Twilight Sparkle thrust her hands into her jacket pockets. She slid down in her seat as her brother’s car jolted over a pothole. Buildings and trees flashed by, barely serving as landmarks as Shining Armor sped towards their destination. “I have got to stop letting you talk me into these things.”

Shining didn’t take his eyes off the road. He still found the presence of mind to raise an eyebrow and smirk. “What? And leave you to your own devices? I don’t think the world could survive a Twilight Sparkle with free-time.”

Twilight groaned under her breath as Canterlot University rolled into view. The school bustled at any hour of the day, but especially at midmorning. Cars lined up outside the college, dropping off students, picking them up, or just waiting in line for the parking lot. Someone had gotten into an accident on the far side of the lot, and several students were gathered around, hashing out phone numbers and calling up security.

“Strangely enough,” Shining Armor said, “attendance at the driver’s class is at an all-time low.”

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” Twilight slid a hand out of her pocket long enough to push her glasses higher up her nose. “Please tell me that wasn’t your A-game. I would die of embarrassment if that was the best you could do.”

“I was being astonishingly sincere.” Shining put the shifter into park. He waved a hand to the front doors of the college, offering his little sister a smile. “Have a good time, Twily.”

Twilight sighed and glanced at the bustling crowds rolling through the gates. People of every imaginable size, shape, and color were present. Shouting, roughhousing, texting, anything and everything that wasn’t educationally productive.

“I’m not tutor material, Shiny.” Twilight pushed the car door open. She slipped an arm behind the seat to grab her way-too-heavy backpack. “I don’t like people enough.”

“Hey.” Shining Armor put a warm hand on her shoulder. He favored her with a reassuring grin that only seemed to be a little synthetic. “You’re an awesome person, with more knowledge to share than most people will learn in a lifetime. Big Mac is a good friend of mine. I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.”

“Yeah,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes and getting to her feet. “Because the first thing I think of when I wanna get academic is your old football buddies.”

She leveled a finger at him before he could respond. “And if you’re not here to pick me up at three-o’-clock sharp, I will sic Spike on you.”

“I love you, too, Twily.” Shining laughed as she slammed his car door shut. She stood at the curb to watch him speed away. He gave the accident a wide berth, took a left out of the lot, and was gone.

She was stranded. Nowhere to go but forward.

She blew a quick raspberry at her absent brother and marched into Canterlot U.

It was a mercifully short walk to Collegiate Hall. Down a flight of stairs just inside the entrance. To the right of the rowdy Student Union. Past a wall of posters proclaiming the wonders of extracurricular activities, reporting abuse, and safe sex. Through a pair of glass doors designed expertly to keep out the noise.

Collegiate Hall was usually fairly peaceful, when it wasn’t being used for blood drives or the occasional public presentation. It was an open room, with one wall made entirely out of windows facing the college’s inner courtyard. Round tables were scattered around, each holding a variety of seats and a wider variety of students. Tutors mingled with their charges, textbooks and notepads scattered everywhere.

One table, on the other hand, was empty save for its single occupant. He leaned heavily on his elbows, his head in his hands. He wore a button-up, red plaid shirt, and faded jeans. His sleeves were rolled up above his elbows, showcasing incredible biceps.

Twilight Sparkle blinked and shook her head. She gave the room a once-over; everybody else seemed to be engaged in conversation. Through process of elimination, she supposed the young man had to be the one she’d been hired to tutor. She gave herself a steadying, bracing breath, and approached the table.

She thrust a hand towards him, trying with all her might to not sound bored or disinterested or anything else people were known to call her. “Macintosh Apple?”

His head shot up like he’d sat on a bee. He rose to his feet and pulled his lips back in a friendly sort of grimace. “You must be Miss Twilight. I, um, I’m mighty grateful you’ve agreed to help me.”

It was a second later he seemed to realize she wanted to shake his hand. He took hers with a light grip, cradling her fingers as if he was afraid to break them. He slipped away and cleared his throat, pulling out the chair beside his and motioning to it. “I saved you a seat, ma’am.”

She took the chair, jerking her jacket down to sit more comfortably across her torso. She blew a soft breath between pressed lips, letting her eyes roam around the table. A trigonometry textbook sat front and center, surrounded on all sides by graph paper and pages of notes. Chicken scratch scrawled beside drawings. Homework was marked in red. A used scantron served as a bookmark, hiding its results from view.

Twilight pulled her mouth to the side. “It looks like you’re fighting a war.”

“Feels like a war. All these fancy mathematics.” Big Mac picked up a pencil covered in teeth marks. He glanced her way with tired eyes, but snapped away the instant he thought she noticed. “Shining says you’re a genius, though. Maybe you can help?”

“That’s why I’m here.” Twilight forced a smile and adjusted her glasses. “Where would you like to start?”

“Sine, cosine, tangent. The unholy trinity.” Big Mac flipped through his trig textbook, wincing as every new topic loomed into view. Twilight leaned close to watch the subjects fly by. His hands shook slightly as the page turned over, just enough to make him hesitate.

He paused on the first page of the subject. He gathered a pile of paper to his left and pointed at the numerous red marks. “All these sine calculations are mucked up. Workin’ on these A squared, B squared, C squared triangles gets my thoughts in a jumble. I get that C’s the longest side, but how’m I supposed to know the difference between A and B?”

Twilight sucked in her lower lip. Her cheeks tinged the slightest shade of red as the response popped up. “A is the shortest side of the triangle. Always.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

“Pretty sure, yeah.” She crossed her arms to lean on the table, tempted to just let her forehead rest against them. She shifted in her seat as she awaited a long, long tutoring session. “Oh boy.”

Big Mac stared at his paper. It crinkled between his fingers before dropping to the floor. “I don’t got time for this.”

A spark shot though Twilight’s nerves, first taking the form of embarrassment, then a flare of anger, then settling on a slew of confusion. She managed to stutter a response, “I—I beg your pardon?”

Big Mac’s mouth dropped open as he raised his hands. He blathered for a solid few seconds. “I didn’t… I mean, I’m sorry, I was—

He pinched his nose and leaned his elbow against the table. “I’m sorry. I am thankful you’re willin’ to help. I just… I don’t got time to keep makin’ stupid mistakes like this. I got a farm to run. Family to feed. I’m four years goin’ for an associates degree, for cryin’ out loud.”

Twilight swallowed. She leaned back in her chair and folded her hands across her lap. Her heart sank at the sight of the man; tired, worn out, just looking for help.

And what else was she there for? “What’s your major?”

He turned his eyes to her. They were bright green, she realized with a start. She didn’t quite know why that detail seemed so important to her, but darned if they weren’t the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.

“Associates in Agribusiness,” he said. He tapped his pencil against the textbook, his forehead wrinkling slightly as the gears in his head turned back. “My family’s owned the farm at the edge of town for three generations, now. Pretty as a picture. Got corn, got cows, but mostly we got the best dang apple farm this side of Peopleburg. We felt that if we wanted the farm to keep up with the times, I needed some solid secondary schoolin’. Been takin’ a couple classes every semester, paying for it a little at a time. It’s slow goin’.”

Big Mac’s voice took on an easy, smooth drawl as he spoke about his farm. Dripping pride with every word.

“What about you?” He nudged the textbook away, scowling at the glorified pile of wood pulp. “What’s your major? Rocket scientist? The way Shining talks, you’d think you were gonna build a base on Mars.”

She snorted. “Probably not this lifetime. I’m studying forensics. I wanna join the police department, help them solve cases, discover the mysteries of the world. Do some good.”

She unclasped her hands, becoming aware of just how tightly she’d been holding them. “I… I think I’d like to start with helping you put—put two and two together.”

Big Mac brushed his sandy bangs back. “I guess we can’t spend the whole time just talkin’.” His eyes sparkled, even if the smile didn’t quite reach his mouth. “Shame, that.”

Twilight, on the other hand, felt free to smile wide. “Why don’t we go through what you’re learning right now, and see what you need the most work on.”

***

Sunset Shimmer all but dragged a bag of groceries up to the farmhouse. The stifling summer heat penetrated right through her t-shirt and threatened to start up a monster-grade sweat. She stuck her tongue out at the thought. There was too much to do for her to be slowed down by biology. Balanced precariously on the porch, she raised a hand to rap at the doorway.

Applejack answered not a second too soon. She reached down and took the bag with an easy, smooth motion. “Glad you’re here, sugarcube! Got a heck of a time roundin’ up the food, but looks like we’ll be A-Okay from here on out.”

“Please let me in the air conditioning,” Sunset said as moisture beaded on her nose. “Please, please let me in the air conditioning.”

Applejack stepped aside and let her friend rush into the house. She chuckled and shut the swelter outside. “Good thing y’ got here quick as you did. Turns out we got a couple extra places at the table today. Big Mac’s bringin’ his new girlfriend.”

Sunset Shimmer jerked her head around and followed Applejack into the kitchen. She pulled a few vegetables from the bag and started dicing them into a salad bowl. “Girlfriend? What, did his shyness finally implode the universe? Who’s the lucky gal?”

“Heck if I know; he ain’t mentioned her name.” Applejack lifted the lid on a pot of corn cobs, relishing the smell. “If he did, I wasn’t listenin’ on account of him dronin’ on and on and on about it.”

Sunset shrugged, never slowing in her preparations. “You said there were a couple new places, right?”

“A’yup.” Applejack slid the window open and whistled. “Mac! Get your butt over here and put the steaks on the grill! We got mouths to feed!”

Applejack counted down on her fingers. “We got Mac’s new girlfriend and her brother. One of Mac’s college buddies. The two of ’em don’t got nobody to spend Memorial Day with, on account of their folks bein’ out of state. Mac asked Granny if he could invite them, an’ she gave her blessin’.”

Big Mac lumbered in and grasped the plate of steaks, seasoned to perfection. He gave Sunset a nod—“ma’am”—and zipped back out to the blistering heat.

Sunset sent Applejack a wry grin. “And there was such a great cry in all of Canterlot City, such as never has been or ever will be again.”

Applejack waved a spatula at her. “If y’all wanted to ride that particular bandwagon, y’ ought to have made mention a little earlier than now.”

Sunset tore leaves from a head of lettuce and filled the salad bowl to the brim. She set about tossing it, adding her diced veggies as the meal demanded. “Not gonna lie. Feeling just a liiiiitle bit jealous of ol’ what’s-her-face. Guess that’s the luck of the draw, though.”

She covered the salad and slipped it into the fridge, giving it some small protection from the summer heat. “It’s not like I have the time, though. The professors have me working overtime for this degree.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Thought you were already the master of all things academic.”

“There’s more to teaching than teaching, AJ.” Sunset paced around the kitchen, slipping a handful of fresh pea pods into her hand and crunching down on them. “There’s how to teach, there’s how to treat the kids, how to deal with hard cases, when to discipline, why to discipline. I think I’m going crazy.”

She smiled, leaning against the counter and flipping a pea into her mouth. “More than anything, my respect for Celestia’s grown time a billion.”

“God bless yah, is all I say.” Applejack pulled a pie from the oven, which radiated with pure—nearly physical—deliciousness. “Had a hard enough time raisin’ Apple Bloom without dealin’ with a dozen more just like her.”

“It’ll be taxing, yeah.” Sunset rolled the last pea pod though her fingers as she looked out the back window. She took a decisive bite. “Gotta believe it’s worth it, though.”

Applejack slapped an oven-mitted hand across Sunset’s back. “That’s the spirit, sugarcube! It’s like Granny always says, y’ can’t till a field without plowin’ a lot of m—”

The timer on the stove interrupted her with a whistle. Applejack rolled her eyes and hopped over. “A’right, a’right, I hear yah. Mash potatoes coming right—”

The doorbell chose that moment to ring its merry little jingle. Applejack’s face scrunched up in the sort of light scowl that she reserved for naughty puppies. “Sarsaparilla! Sunset, would you be a pal and go let them in? It’s probably the guys I was talkin’ about. Just stall ’em till I get there.”

Sunset flashed a faux salute. “Aye, aye, Cap’n.”

It was a quick walk through the living room to the front door, past a meticulously arranged sitting area and a decade-old television. She checked that her shirt was covering her stomach, ran her fingers through her hair, and pulled the door open.

She was met with a bespectacled—but otherwise keenly familiar—face. She blinked. “Twilight Sparkle? What are you—?”

Twilight jerked her head back. She narrowed her eyes and looked Sunset up and down. “Have we met?”

“Uh.” Sunset choked, her twitching gaze examining this new, strange Twilight Sparkle with a slacked jaw. “Haven’t we…?”

Twilight wrung her hands, a frown overtaking her features. “Pretty sure we haven’t, Miss…?”

“I am…” Sunset took a breath to steel herself. It was too early for multiversal shenanigans. These were multiversal shenanigans, right? It had to be. Unless Twilight had somehow gotten wammied by Discord, or they were playing the dumbest April Fools prank in the history of foolishness…

She was face-to-face with the human Twilight Sparkle. The alternate-universe version. The mirror twin.

It was then she brought herself back to reality and focused on the other girl. Existential crises be darned, she was still playing temporary host to a potential new friend. “My name’s Twilight Shimmer! I—er—Sunset Sparkle! Gak—” Smooth move, Sunset, she thought to herself. Smooth. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. My name’s Sunset Shimmer.”

“You clearly know mine.” Twilight Sparkle hesitated before offering a hand. “It’s… nice to meet you?”

Sunset smiled warm as she took Twilight’s hand and shook firmly. “It is very nice to meet you. I’m really sorry for jumping at you like that. I think the heat’s getting to us.”

Twilight Sparkle glanced up as she stepped inside the house. She rubbed her elbow, shuffling around with tiny steps, just taking in the room. “I’ll drink to that.”

Sunset drummed her fingers across her shorts. She snapped her fingers as she stumbled upon a topic. “So, Applejack’s in the kitchen, Apple Bloom’s keeping the dogs out of trouble, Granny Smith and Big Mac are out back grilling. So… I guess you can pick your poison.”

Twilight snorted. “Arsenic.”

“Touché.”

Twilight smiled. She pressed her hands against the back of the couch, taking some of the weight off her feet. “Actually, I’d like to meet everybody and then make sure Spike’s doing okay with the dogs.”

Sunset Shimmer choked on her spit for the second time in as many minutes. “Spike?”

“My beagle.” Twilight slipped her hands into her pockets and shrugged, perusing the family portraits that seemed to cover every available surface. “My brother Shining is swinging him around to the barn until it gets cooler out.”

And with that, Sunset was three for three. “Shining Armor?

Twilight reached up to twist a strand of hair around her finger, wry amusement dripping from her words. “Wow. I guess Big Mac can’t shut up about us, huh?”

“Come on, Twilight,” Sunset said, as dry as possible. “We all know that Big Mac’s fatal flaw is his blabber mouth.”

They shared a quiet laugh together in the cool living room. Sunset motioned for Twilight to follow her.

“So, hey,” Twilight said. “May I ask how you’re related to the Apples?”

“I’m not, actually.” Sunset rubbed the back of her neck, leading her way into the kitchen. “I’m an old friend of the family, just staying with them until I can get back on my feet.”

“Stayin’ with us sometimes.” Applejack stood over the pot of mashed potatoes, treating it with a signature Apple Family recipe. “When you ain’t stayin’ with Pinkie Pie, or Rainbow Dash, or Rares.”

“Applejack.” Sunset stood with her legs ramrod straight and her hands cupped behind her back. “I’d like to introduce you to our new friend, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Come again?” Applejack glanced over her shoulder. She appeared to nearly twist her neck around when she gave Twilight a double-take. “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”

Twilight’s eyebrows came together. “Is this just how you guys say hello?”

Applejack widened her eyes at Sunset, who mouthed “yes.” Applejack grinned with all her sparkling clean teeth, in a smile that was just shy of sending small children into years of therapy. “Yeah, sure as shootin’. I’m just real excited to meet you, Miss Sparkle. I… I think Big Mac’s lookin’ forward to seein’ you, so I won’t keep you, none. We’ll have plenty of time to talk durin’ supper. Yep.”

Twilight’s mouth jerked up, as if she just remembered that she was supposed to be happy to be there. “I know better than to get in the chef’s way when they’re at work so…” She pointed past Applejack towards the back door. “Sure as… shooting?”

“A’yup.” Applejack gave her a none-too-gentle nudge towards the stifling outdoors. “Pleased to make your acquaintance; lookin’ forward to that talk.”

Twilight Sparkle bobbed her head and slipped out the door.

Applejack’s smile melted away in an instant. “What in the name of Aunt Mildew’s Super Duper No Kids Allowed Special Cider was that?

Sunset Shimmer waved her hands in front of her face. “No. No, no, no. You don’t get to say anything, Miss ‘I Can’t be Bothered to Listen to my Brother Talk.’ No. Now’s not the time to be upset—”

Applejack crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re doin’ a bang-up job of that yourself.”

Sunset clenched her fists. She lowered her hands slowly to her sides. “Touché. Okay. As weird as this is, it’s not the time to freak out. It’s… She’s pretty clearly this world’s version of Twilight Sparkle. So… So I guess this just about confirms it.”

Applejack glanced out the window and caught sight of Twilight Sparkle embracing Big Mac. She grumbled, her mouth scrunching like she’d eaten something sour. “Confirms what, exactly? What are we dealing with, here?”

“We’re dealing with the fact that everybody has a double, somewhere.” Sunset placed her hands on the rim of the sink to stand beside Applejack. She chewed her tongue behind a closed mouth, mulling over the very thought of it. “This Twilight… She doesn’t know any of us. She doesn’t realize the history we have with her double. She doesn’t even realize she has a double.”

“Hokey Peat.” Applejack slid the curtain closed and went about setting the table. “Sunset… Sunset, I don’t think that’s a secret we can keep. Not if she’s gonna be so close to Macintosh.”

“No, we can’t keep it.” Sunset Shimmer sighed. “We shouldn’t keep it.”

She snapped her fingers. She rested her hands on Applejack’s shoulders and gave her a friendly squeeze. “Tonight, we treat her like anybody else when we meet a new friend. Later, we’ll have a meeting with the other girls and get some input from the princess. We’ll figure this out together, like we always have.”

“Well…” Applejack slapped a friendly hand across Sunset’s shoulder as she passed. “I expect any plan you think up’s gonna be a good one. I’ll try an’ be civil, but…”

She hoisted the potatoes and gravy, moving them to their proper spots on the table. “But land sakes it’s hard to be friendly when you’re hidin’ somethin’. I can’t lie to her face like that.”

“It’s not a lie.” Sunset winked, jabbing a finger Applejack’s way. “It’s a truth not yet told.”

Applejack clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Sunset.”

***

Spike hopped onto Twilight Sparkle’s lap as her laugh rang out across the farmyard. The gathering had moved outside the moment the sun went down, bringing with it a cool, refreshing night sky. Stars danced overhead as the bonfire crackled within their open circle of friendship. Sunset found the laugh infectious and joined in.

Twilight removed her glasses to wipe tears from her eyes. “Oh my gosh, Sunset. How did you get out of that one?”

Sunset giggled. “I didn’t. I spent the next three days cleaning the laboratory, the next four weeks in detention, and Green Sleeves still hasn’t forgiven me.”

Applejack tipped her hat back to better frame her satisfied smirk. “Serves you right for dragging Pinkie into that mess. Vice Principal Luna couldn’t sit for a month. “

Twilight slipped her hand into Big Mac’s and bumped her shoulder against him. She used her free hand to scratch Spike behind the ears, which he responded to with a frantically-wagging tail.

Shining Armor stuck a stir-stick into the fire to turn over the coals. “So you were the troublemaker at your school, huh?”

Sunset folded her hands atop her knees and rocked back. “I prefer to think of it as ‘chemically expressive.’ Science has always been the cause of, and the solution to, all my problems.”

Shining nodded to his sister. “You and Twilight, both. I think if you two joined forces, the world would not soon forget it.”

Sunset held herself up imperiously, thrusting one shoulder forward and flinging one arm back. “What say you, Twilight Sparkle? Shall we take control and show the world its new masters? Shall we once again reveal that science is the one true master, the pathway to greatness? Shall we reign as its Overlords of Science?”

Twilight snarled, growling at the back of her throat. “Only if I my title is Sultaness of Supreme Sciences. And I get to live in Buckingpork Palace.”

“It is decided,” Sunset said. “The rest of you may be our flunkies.”

“Well,” Granny Smith said, “if’n you can hold off on the world domination rigmarole for a night, I think it’s pert near time to break out the s’mores.”

Apple Bloom shot up from the log she was using as a seat. “I’ll help you get the marshmallows and chocolate, Granny!”

“Best hop to it, then!” Granny Smith walked with her youngest granddaughter back to the farmhouse. “The rest of you sit tight and don’t let the fire go out.”

Sunset stifled a yawn. She looked over to Applejack, who was lying back and resting her head against a log turned sideways. “I think I’m gonna do a little stargazing. Keep the fire warm without me, will yah?”

Applejack nodded. “Mind you don’t scare the cattle.”

Sunset Shimmer walked away from the light, into the gentle glow of the silvery moon. The apple trees bloomed across the orchard, their pink flowers muted, yet still discernible among the shadows. Overhead, a milky tapestry spread across the infinite vastness of space, spanning a million worlds.

One of those worlds was hers, she supposed. But not the one she called home.

She held a hand to her chest and felt power prickle at her fingertips. A flame appeared from thin air, swirling around her index finger. She held the hand to the sky, adding her light to the stars, hoping for some sort of inspiration. Some sort of direction.

A branch snapped behind her. She extinguished the flame and hid the hand from sight. When she turned, she could still see the campfire burning against the silhouette of the farmhouse. Another shadow stood between the fire and her, with broad shoulders and blue hair.

“I’m sorry,” Shining Armor said. “I know you wanna be alone, but… I just wanted to say thank you.”

“No. No, not alone.” Sunset turned back to the sky, stuffing her hands in her pockets. After so long at the campfire, the air felt especially chilly in her shorts and t-shirt. “I spent way too long being alone, and I didn’t like it. I just wanted… a quiet moment. A moment of solace.”

She motioned for him to stand beside her and continued to watch the sky. “I just like to look at the stars every now and then. It makes the world feel bigger. Full of possibilities.”

It finally registered, what he said. “Thank you for what?”

Shining looked down at her, looping his thumbs through his belt loops in an effort to appear nonchalant. “For being so friendly with my sister. I… I’ve never seen her open up to someone this fast before. You’ve just met her and it feels like you already care a lot about her.”

“Oh. Well.” Sunset hugged herself to warm her arms against her palms. “I guess… Honestly, she reminds me of someone I care about very much.”

Shining raised his eyebrows. “So you’re saying it just comes naturally?”

“To a point.” Sunset tilted her head towards the farmhouse. “I am pretty good at making friends.”

“Hadn’t noticed,” he said with a laugh. “But still, thank you for letting her in. I’ve been… trying to get her to open up for years. Figures the instant I let her go and do her own thing, she’s making friends left and right and… Heh. Her and Big Mac. There’s a real pair.”

“I dunno, Shining.” She wagged a finger at him. “From what I’ve been hearing, it was you who orchestrated their meeting. Seems this whole thing is your fault.”

Shining tilted his head back to stare at the stars. “Yeah. My old girlfriend was a real matchmaker. Some of her worse habits wore off on me.”

Sunset rolled her eyes, hiding her smile by sweeping a glance over the orchard. An owl hooted in the darkness, showing that even the most empty corners of the world held life.

“What about you?” he asked. “What’s your story? How’d you go from being the terror of Canterlot High to somebody who makes friends so easily?”

A shiver ran down her spine, not so much from the cold air as chilling memories. “Being a troublemaker comes at a price. I burned a few bridges. Hurt a lot of people. There are relationships you can’t get back, after all that.”

The lightness in Shining’s voice flattened out, lowering to a whispered treble. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t feel bad,” she said quietly. “It was a learning experience I had to go through, or I wouldn’t be here. I decided I never wanted to miss the chance to make a new friend. I never wanted to lose another relationship. Not with anybody.”

She smiled a sad sort of smile at him, tilting her head to the side, flashing him a wink. “My past does not define me, ‘cause my past is not today.”

Crickets chirped across the field, playing nature’s concerto. “I like that,” he said after a moment. “I like that sort of conviction.”

Apple Bloom’s cry of “S’mores!” carried across the farmyard, jolting them out of their conversation. Sunset jerked her head towards the fire, and Shining nodded.

“I’m glad we’ve met you,” he said, falling into step beside her. “I look forward to getting to know the Sunset Shimmer of today.”

Sunset giggled at the back of her throat. “I look forward to getting to know the mysterious entities known as ‘Twilight Sparkle’ and ‘Shining Armor.’”

“Either way”—Shining Armor took the stir-stick in hand to prep his corner of the bonfire—“it’ll be an adventure.”

***

Twilight Sparkle leaned against the door as Shining drove them to their home on the edge of Canterlot City. She rubbed her eyes to remove the lingering sting of the smoke. A yawn rolled up from her chest as she finally felt the effects of the day’s activities.

“I’m proud of you,” Shining said.

“For what?”

“For coming this far. For growing this much. You really seemed happy, tonight.”

Twilight roiled her arm behind the seat. She felt Spike’s breath brush her palms as he slept. “They were so genuine. I can’t really think of another word for it. Big Mac, his grandma, his sisters… Sunset. They’re really, genuinely nice.”

Shining sighed, sharing a genuine smile of his own. “I think they could be lifelong friends, if we let them be.”

“Friends…” Twilight Sparkle scratched Spike’s chin, making him mumble quietly. “And maybe also answers.”

“Answers?”

“High school. Remember all those strange readings I found?”

“On your little homemade seismograph thing?”

“It’s not a seismograph, it’s a—nevermind. The source of all those energies revolved around Canterlot High, and each event centered around one name. One name that kept coming up again and again.”

Shining’s forehead wrinkled. He took his eyes off the road for the briefest of seconds, taking a look at his grinning little sister.

“Sunset Shimmer,” she said. “I think we’re going to learn a lot from each other.”

***

Rain fell in buckets from the sky, drenching the landscape from the rooftops to the cellars. Three figures walked into the streets, exiting a smoky little hole-in-the-wall tavern. Yellowed street lamps dotted the highways and byways of Griffon Rock, contrasting heavily with the pink neon sign above the door; a wine glass that had seen better days.

The three of them huddled beneath the awning, all glancing around for their designated driver. One ran his hands through his curly mop of hair, a little wobbly on his feet. “Why is he always late? We told him we were done.”

“Because he can’t always just drop what he’s doing.” A short woman at his side socked him in the shoulder. “His life doesn’t revolve around you, Party Favor.”

The third person behind them groaned, pressing a hand to her forehead and nudging back her beret. “I’m not drunk enough for you two to be arguing like this.”

“I am,” Party Favor said. “If life has to suck so much, why shouldn’t I share it with the world?”

“Because nobody cares.” The short, pudgy woman sat down, heedless of the rainwater soaking into her pants. “Stick your face in a rain barrel and put yourself out of our misery.”

“Knock it off, you two.” The beret-clad lady waved a hand into the street, catching the attention of a car speeding towards them. “You’re not gonna be sober for the rally tomorrow if you keep railing on each other now. Night Glider is counting on us to—”

“So what?” Party Favor threw his hands out, getting inside the taller woman’s personal space. “Sugar Belle will bake a few brownies, I’ll cut out a few signs, you’ll make a big, stupid speech, and nothing will change. Because nothing ever changes!

He stalked off towards the car, pulling a hood tight over his face. “And getting punch-drunk every Friday isn’t helping anymore.”

The shorter woman moaned from her seat on the sidewalk. She looked up with reddened eyes. “What are we doing here if we can’t make a difference?”

“We can too make a difference, Sugar Belle.” The taller of the two reached down to hoist her friend to her feet. “We’re gonna strike a blow for equality, or my name isn’t Starlight Glimmer!”

A flash of lavender light crackled from a nearby alleyway, brushing raindrops aside. A steady, droning buzz reached their ears and struck straight at their hearts. The hair on Starlight Glimmer’s forearms stood on end, and static hummed through her wavy hairdo. She glanced at the car to see that Party Favor and the driver, Double Diamond, were also staring at the strange phenomenon.

It wasn’t just her, then. She wasn’t going crazy.

Her heart beat stronger, faster, but more erratically. Something warm touched her fingertips, but when she looked, there was nothing there. She flexed her hands and walked slowly, step-by-step, towards the light.

“Starlight!” Double Diamond stuck his head out the window of his rusted beater. “What are you doing? That could be dangerous!”

“But it’s not,” Starlight said, her voice echoing in her ears, as if she was under water. “It calls me. It calls out to me. Don’t you feel it?”

“No!” Double Diamond jumped out of his car and raced to her side. He grabbed her elbow, his breath coming hot. “Don’t go. We’ll call the constable. Get the authorities on it—”

“The authorities?” Starlight Glimmer scoffed. “Are you listening to yourself, DD? What are they going to do?”

“Keep you from getting yourself killed.”

“I’m not going to get killed.” Starlight’s head swam. She yanked her arm from his grasp and strode forward with sure steps. “It calls to me. It needs me. Almost as much as I need it.”

Double Diamond looked to Sugar Belle and Party Favor. Not finding a response in their dumbfounded expressions, he reached out to Starlight. “But what is it?”

Starlight Glimmer stopped at the entrance of the alley. The air was filled with lavender particles, drifting like dust in a sunbeam. The brick walls of the adjacent buildings shimmered and flickered, broken by ever-shifting fractals of glass-like reflections. Raindrops fell to either side of the alleyway as the all-encompassing, drawing voice pushed them back.

Starlight reached her hand into the cacophony of sound and sight. Power surged through her nerves. Light flashed through her blood. Life tore its way through her bones. She felt something soft, something warm, and took hold of it.

The alley exploded in blinding white. Starlight was knocked to her rump, but otherwise unscathed.

She looked up, and saw a young woman, near her age, lying naked on the cold pavement. The rain was faint, but still bone-chilling. She pulled the coat from her back and rushed to the woman’s side. “Oh my God, are you okay? Double Diamond! Call an ambulance! There’s someone here and she looks hurt—!”

The woman raised her head with a start and threw her hand out. “Don’t touch me!”

Starlight felt like she’d been punched in the chest. By a professional boxer. Who was taking steroids. And had a serious grudge against berets.

Her back hit the far wall and knocked the air from her lungs. She gasped for breath even as her eyes found the source of her injuries.

The woman from the alley held a hand out, glowing with the brightest, most beautiful purple Starlight had ever seen. Energies similar to before swirled about the woman, surging around her, through her, from her. Power incalculable. Power unimaginable.

Starlight held her coat out, moving inch by inch to get closer to the stranger. “Please. I just want to help you. How are you… what is that?”

The woman’s damp, straight hair clung to her shoulders. Her chest heaved with every shallow breath she took. She looked down, befuddlement coloring her features. She ran her free hand across her body, as if surprised by it. Confused by it. Disgusted by it. “It’s… it’s magic. Why won’t my magic work?”

“Magic? It’s really magic?” Starlight edged ever closer, then came to a stop an arm’s-length away. She held the coat out. “Please, take my coat. It’ll keep you from catching your death of cold.”

The woman stared her in the eyes. The stranger’s eyes were striking, piercing, filled with the same magic that poured from her fingertips. She snatched the coat away and wrapped it around her body, shivering violently as the air within rose to her body temperature.

Starlight sat on her knees, barely daring to breath in the presence of the magical creature. “Where did you learn to do that? How can you?”

“I… learned back home. In a faraway country.” The stranger’s eyes snapped down the alleyway, towards the others who watched with wide eyes. “Who are they?”

“They’re friends.” Starlight spoke in her warmest, gentlest voice. She contained her drive, her excitement, with all the strength she had. “We’re all friends. We want to help you.”

The stranger gritted her teeth, glaring at the ground. She hissed out a pained breath before whispering, “Who are you and where am I?”

“I’m Starlight Glimmer.” Starlight lowered her head to look into those eyes again, the ones she was convinced could divine the soul. “This is Griffon Rock, a city in the Highborn Isles. Where do you come from? What’s your name?”

When the stranger didn’t answer, Starlight finally allowed herself the question she wanted to ask most. “Can you teach me to use magic?”

The stranger lowered her eyebrows, curled her lip. Starlight spoke as quickly as possible before she ran out of breath. “I’ve felt it my entire life, since I was a child. It calls to me. It sings to me. I’ve wanted it more than anything, and I never even knew what it was until now. Tell me you can teach me, and I’ll give you anything you want. I’ll do anything!

Starlight reached out to grasp the woman’s hand. She recoiled at the touch, but Starlight refused to let go. “Please. Please say you’ll teach me. I don’t know where else to go.”

Their eyes met, and Starlight felt her insides scramble under the scrutiny of the stranger. Those eyes that were filled with light, yet seemed so dark and judging. She held her breath until it felt like she would puke.

“I can teach you.”

Tears collected in Starlight’s eyes. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

She gestured to the group milling around at the edge of the street. “Please… please come with us. We’ll take you to a place you can get a warm bed and a decent meal. We’ll—uh—we’re here to help you, Miss… Who are you?”

The stranger looked over the group with the same examining glare she gave Starlight. She wobbled on her surprisingly muscular legs, before they gave out altogether. She leaned against Starlight for support, her face softening, weariness overtaking it. She pulled the coat tight and let out a slow, sad sigh.

“I am Twilight Sparkle.”