• Published 17th Mar 2017
  • 1,582 Views, 93 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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New and Old, Fresh and Familiar

Sunset Shimmer stirred as sunlight traced its way across her face. She clutched her covers and pressed her cheek against her pillow, letting out a yawn. She half-considered closing the blinds to more easily get another few minutes of shut-eye, but decided she was lazy enough to ignore the light.

She ran her fingers through her hair and rolled onto her back. Her elbow brushed against skin, drawing her attention to the man beside her. He snored gently, his short, blue whiskers scratching against the sheets pulled up to his chin.

She pressed up against his arm and touched her lips to his cheek. “Hey. Good morning.”

His eyes fluttered open. He looked around cross-eyed for a moment before settling on her. “Hey.” He grinned. “Your hair’s on fire again.”

Sunset let a breath hiss through her nose. “That’s your opening line, huh?”

He tilted his head, reaching up to brush her bangs out of the way. “How’s this: When the sunlight hits you just right, as it crests over yonder hill, a fiery halo surrounds you, shining with holy beauty.”

She raised a single eyebrow.

“Or will ‘You’re hot’ suffice?” he said.

She giggled, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Class act as always, Shiny.”

Shining Armor rolled his free hand behind his head and shut his eyes. “Call me lazy, but I think I’m gonna try and sleep for a few more minutes—”

Thundering footsteps raced down the hallway. A shout like an approaching army hailed. “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy!”

A young boy burst into the bedroom, leaping through the air to land squarely on Shining Armor’s stomach. Shining bolted upright, the wind knocked from him, his eyes bulging.

“Mommy, Daddy!” the boy said. “Family reunion today! We’re going to the family reunion!”

Sunset, at a loss for words, could only gasp the boy’s name. “Sunny!”

Without acknowledging his mother, the boy leaped from the bed and careened through the rest of the house, shouting at the top of his lungs.

Shining Armor rested a hand on his middle and wheezed. “Never mind.”

Sunset threw the covers back and opened the curtain. The suburbs of Canterlot City sprawled before her, shining yellow in the warm summer morning. A few early-morning risers could be seen tending to their gardens, or playing catch in their backyard. Without looking away, she took a ring from her nightstand and slid it over her finger.

Shining Armor wrapped his arms around her waist and lowered his chin to her shoulder. “I think your magic’s getting stronger.”

Sunset leaned against him, twirling the ring between her fingers. “Why’s that?”

Shining Armor’s bright, blue eyes trailed down to her hands. “Because you pulled that thing from across the room without even thinking about it.”

“I didn’t—” She turned to the nightstand, which lay several feet away. Just a little bit farther than her arm could reach. “Huh. I guess teaching Twilight’s paying dividends.”

Shining laughed lightly, his voice warbling. He stared out the window, his eyes unfocused. “Well. Good. It’s something you love.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Sunset said. She winked at him. “And I’ve got the magical tattoo to prove it.”

Shining’s mouth quirked at the corner. “I have been wanting to take a closer look at that—”

Something heavy and potentially expensive landed with a thud on the far side of the house. Shining choked on his words and made haste through the bedroom door. “Sunny! What’s up, buddy?”

“I didn’t do it!”

Sunset smiled to herself, hugging her elbows and sliding the curtain closed with her magic. She closed the door and set about disrobing. She’d picked her outfit for the day last night; a yellow sundress, light and cool. “We’re gonna have to do something about that fibbing streak.”

The door rattled. “Sunset? Can you give me a shirt?”

Sunset hopped over to the door with a cottony t-shirt in hand. She cracked the door open and held it out until she felt Shining tug it away. “What’s the damage, Shiny?”

“The hibiscus will never play the violin again,” Shining said, “but the vacuum cleaner ’ll get the dirt in a jiff.”

Sunset tapped the door before he could walk away. “Get Sunny dressed, okay? And pack up his swimsuit for the pond.”

“Sure thing. Make sure you bring yours, too.”

Sunset grimaced, biting her lip. “I don’t think I’m swimming today, Shiny.”

“I know you can’t resist dipping your toes in.”

“When you’re right, you’re right.” Sunset pulled the sundress over her head and wriggled through the folds of fabric. “And I know you shouldn’t jump in until you’ve let Granny Smith’s Famous Baked Beans digest for a little while.”

“Noted,” he said as his footsteps receded.

Sunset sat at her small vanity mirror and applied a hint of makeup to her face. Not much, since she didn’t want it to run, but just enough that it brought out her eyes. Much, much easier, she thought, than combing her coat back in Equestria.

She ran over the contents of their kitchen in her mind. Eggs for breakfast? Maybe there were still waffles in the freezer. Farm Flakes cereal would be faster. Were they out of milk again? Shining didn’t like his cereal dry, and Sunny wouldn’t eat it without a spoonful or two of sugar…

A hustle brought her to the kitchen, where Shining sat at the table, the paper in one hand, a mug of coffee gripped in the other. She shook her head when she saw it was murky brown, rather than dark; Shining tried to drown out the taste with cream and sugar again. “You’ve brewed a Café-Mocha Diabetes again, huh?”

Shining smirked over the brim. “I’d have mixed a milkshake if I didn’t need the caffeine.”

“It sounds healthier if you call it a smoothie, Shiny.” She patted his shoulder as she passed. “And there’s probably plenty of caffeine—and real energy—in a banana smoothie.”

“Nanners!” Sunny leaned over the table, dangerously close to getting Oaty-O’s on his shirt. “I wanna have some nanners!”

Sunset came behind the boy, cupping his head between her hands. “Maybe later, Sweetheart. Mommy’s gotta get us ready for the re—”

“Family reunion!” He squirmed in her grip, more from excitement than from dislike of being touched. “Is Apple Bloom gonna be there?”

Shining took a sip to cover his mouth and muffle his words. “Applejack ’d be pissed if she wasn’t.”

Sunset shot her husband a white-hot glare, then turned tender eyes on her son. “Yes, I’m pretty sure Apple Bloom will be there.”

“And Sweetie Belle and Aunt Scootaloo?”

Sunset cracked a smile. “Yes, Aunt Scootaloo and her friend will be there, too.”

“And Nana and Papa?”

“No,” Shining said. “Nana and Papa are home in Micronia. We’ll see them at Hearth’s Warming.”

“Oh.” Sunny’s head shot towards his mother, pulling his ears from her warm touch. “Will Aunt Twilight be there?”

Sunset blew a soft breath through her lips. A glance at Shining told her he was busying himself with cleaning his mug, his mind ostensibly on some other subject. She kissed Sunny on the forehead and walked off to gather essentials for the party. “She’ll come as soon as she can. She’s working really hard right now.”

“Okay.” Sunny gripped the back of his chair. “How soon?”

Sunset smirked to herself. “‘Grown-up’ kinda soon. Sometime after ‘maybe.’”

***

Twilight Sparkle leaned back and took a breath of fresh air. The lab was chilly today, necessitating a sweater beneath her lab coat despite the blazing summer heat outside. She’d been bashing her head against a brick wall all night long. Figuratively, of course, but her head still hurt. She rubbed her hands together to return life to her chilled, rubber-wrapped fingers. She gagged and pulled the gloves off to clean up with hot, soapy water. A sip of Booyah Energy Drink lent some sugar-fueled, caffeinated power to her aching limbs.

The cadaver lay on the table, lifelessly staring at the ceiling. Although staring was difficult, considering the non-existence of its eyes. The poor thing was basically skin and bone, leathery and dry. Perfectly, pristinely, impossibly mummified. Nothing had decayed, not even the internal organs. The moisture had simply disappeared en masse.

Twilight jotted down the thought on a nearby yellow notepad. Normally, when all the moisture in an object evaporated at once, it tended to end in an explosion of steam, destroying whatever had spontaneously combusted. Mummies were created under special conditions, in a dry environment with specific chemicals to preserve the skin, muscles, and bones.

They were not created on the side of the road, fully clothed, with no wounds to be found anywhere on the body.

Twilight swore under her breath. She glanced over her team’s notes to give herself a little more time away from the cadaver. Female; mid-fifties; four foot, eight inches; upper-class judging by the gold wristwatch and pricey shoes; cream-colored skin; almond hair; five fillings; a pin in her knee; three days from retirement.

She scratched that last note off. Black humor didn’t quite seem appropriate.

The only identification she had on her was engraved into the back of the wristwatch; a small inscription that read “Happy Birthday, Ray. From Lesti.” Because nicknames were so very helpful when identifying a mummified body.

Moondancer walked into the room, holding a bundle of paper sheets. “Blood’s work’s back. Looks like she’s AB pos—” The woman paused. She looked over her glasses and touched a finger to her temple. “You look deader than the corpse.”

“Oog.” Twilight Sparkle ran her hands through her hair. They didn’t make it far before getting caught in her hairband. “What time is it?”

“Tomorrow-o’-clock.” Moondancer eased herself around the cadaver to stand at Twilight’s side. “You’ve got the weekend off, right? Get some sleep, Twi.”

“Sleep.” Twilight removed her glasses to rub her eyes. “Sounds wonderful. I’ll get right on that after the family reunion. And my date. And my workout. And… whatever the heck else I’ve decided to cram into the next couple of days.”

Moondancer drummed her fingers on the countertop beside the can of Booyah. “Did you at least schedule time to eat? Something to tide you over until your next caffeine high?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Twilight Sparkle put on a fresh pair of gloves. She set about the unenviable task of preparing the cadaver for storage. “The family reunion is with the Apples. If I ever leave that house hungry, it’s because somebody sewed my mouth shut. Granny Smith’s a monster with the fryer, Big Mac was born and raised on the grill—and his fireside vegetables are divine—Applejack’s a madwoman when it comes to everything else. I’m gonna have to go on a diet just to maintain my weight after—” Twilight hiccupped. The clock on the wall read ten-o’-clock in the morning. The reunion was starting in… minutes, really. It was an all-day event at the least, all-weekend event at the most. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t get to experience most of it, even if she was a little late, but…

Every moment spent at the lab was time away from people who loved her.

Pace yourself, she thought, handling the tools of the trade with a delicate touch. Only fools rush in. She had time. She had plenty of time. No need to—

A blade fell from her grip. She reach out with sheer instinct and snatched it before it hit the ground. It hovered in midair, glistening with faint purple sparks.

Twilight glanced at Moondancer, who was busy looking over her notes. She hadn’t seen. Twilight breathed a sigh and set the tool next to the others. She flexed her fingers, from which power still flowed in streams of light. A deep breath, in through her nose and out of her mouth, slowed her heart and brought the magic to a standstill.

She was dangerously tired to make a slip-up like that. To use magic so close to a coworker? In a lab, where untamed magic could cause unknown reactions with chemicals? On a sheer blade, which if mishandled could cause serious injury? No, it was time to find a dark corner to curl up in and sleep forever.

Twilight blinked as she rolled the body into its assigned container. A forgotten Jane Doe, her identity completely lost, if only for the moment. A tragedy which had lost its chance for a happy ending.

For the moment, it was no longer Twilight Sparkle’s responsibility.

Twilight cleaned herself off once again. Germ-free and cadaver-bare, she headed for the exit.

Moondancer caught her shoulder. “Sparkle. The Chief wants the results. I’ve still got some cleaning up to do, so—”

“I’ll take care of it.” Twilight grasped the offered sheets of paper. “Dead-tree style, huh? I really wish Carrot would use her email more regularly.”

“I’ve always said she was born in the wrong decade.” Moondancer shot Twilight a mock salute with two fingers. “Godspeed.”

“Yeah, and may your lawn gnomes never fracture.”

Moondancer pursed her lips. “I suppose that’s a blessing I’m willing to take. Except I live in an apartment, leaving lawns and their gnomes a distant dream.”

“Whatever, just—” Twilight waved a useless hand and pushed the door open without another word.

***

Sunset Shimmer tapped her fingers against the steering wheel of her minivan. A captain at the helm of her vessel. A pilot of her starship through the cosmos. A lone soldier against a world of metal and mayhem, in which one wrong move could mean death for them all.

She activated the right turn signal and accelerated to twenty-five miles per hour. A glance in the rear-view mirror told her Sunny was happily scribbling away with his crayons. A muffled sigh from her right told her Shining Armor was having little success at his task.

Shining folded the newspaper in half to keep the windows clear. “Friggin’… Gimme something.”

Sunset suppressed a sigh of her own. “Shiny, save the job search for tomorrow.”

“I will.” Shining Armor plucked the pen from between his lips and circled an article in the want ads. “I swear I won’t even call anybody during the reunion.”

“You know what I mean.” Sunset eased the minivan out of the way of a biker meandering his way down the median. “Take today as a restful, relaxing celebration. Leave tomorrow’s issues for tomorrow. There’s enough stress to go around without you—”

“Sunset.” Shining tapped the paper against the dashboard. He shot her a half-convincing grin. “It’s fine. There’s no stress. I’m not stressed at all. Maybe you’re stressed, but I’m not. Not even a little.”

Sunset gritted her teeth behind tight lips. “You don’t act like it.”

Sunny looked up from his coloring book, a serious frown spoiling his adorable face. She could tell from the shine in his eyes that he was in full absorption mode, completely entranced by his parent’s conversation.

“Honey!”

Sunset slammed on the brakes. She skidded to a stop a few feet away from putting a dent in their neighbor’s car, which was half-pulled out of their driveway. Their neighbor waved at them—with just one finger—and drove off none the worse for the wear.

Shining Armor blew a breath through his lips, giving their neighbor a much friendlier wave. “You okay, Shimmy?”

Sunset gripped the wheel tighter. “Fine.”

“You want me to drive?”

“Not until we get your name on the insurance.”

“Fair’s fair.” Shining Armor pointed to the cars that had stopped behind them. “So, you wanna get rolling?”

Sunset stretched her neck rather than say anything. It was a fairly short drive to Sweet Apple Acres. Just a quick drive, and then she could unwind. Relax. Be among the friends who had become her family.

“Hey.” Shining touched her hand, sending tingles down her arm. “Summer’s not over yet, okay?”

She gave his forearm a squeeze, then sped onward and upward to their destination.

***

Twilight Sparkle squirmed out of the sweater as she stepped into the stuffy offices of Canterlot City Police Department. The air conditioning was acting up again, and the atmosphere of irritation was thick enough to swim through. Everyone who could be on their rounds was out, and the folks who remained… well…

The CCPD’s chief of police, Care Carrot, leaned against her desk as Twilight walked into her office. She fanned herself with a newspaper and grimaced. “Sparkle. Nice sweater. Perfectly seasonal.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Twilight held out the test results, putting them within grabbing distance of the chief. “Not sure what else we can tell you. No ID tags, no discernable fingerprints, not even an eye color.”

“Awesome.” Care glanced over the bloodwork, found it uninteresting, and tossed it onto her desk. “So that’s one golden watch and a whole lot of dead. Think it was foul play? This sorta thing doesn’t happen by accident.”

“All due respect, this sorta thing doesn’t happen, period.” Twilight shrugged. “I’m heading out for the weekend. Try not to burn the city down while I’m gone.”

Care glanced down at the radio on her hip as it squawked. She blew a raspberry. “Any more days like today and a fire ’d be a nice change of pace. Keep your nose clean.”

Twilight Sparkle resisted the urge to simply tear off her dress shirt as she power walked between desks. She caught snippets of conversations as she walked by, recognizing various cases she was working on. Robberies, car accidents, domestic disputes, missing persons—

“She’s almost five feet tall,” one faintly familiar voice said. “A… pale complexion. Dark brunette hair. Ah… brown eyes. Last time I saw her, she was wearing a white dress—”

Twilight Sparkle halted in her tracks. That was a fairly strong coincidence if it was one. She glanced around for the voice, and was drawn to Officer Caution Tape’s desk, where he was interviewing someone.

“Can ye tell me anything more about Miss Raven?” he asked.

Happy Birthday, Ray. From Lesti. “Ray” checked out, but what did that leave “Lesti”?

Twilight Sparkle rounded a corner and ducked behind an officer. The woman Caution was interviewing came into view, and instantly, Twilight had a name for the face.

Principal Celestia sat with her arms propped on her knees, leaning over as if she was ready to vomit. She rubbed her temple. “I don’t know.”

Twilight Sparkle eased herself to the next desk over. The officer who usually manned it was probably in the restroom or something. She leaned her hands against it nonchalantly as possible, acting for all the world like she was supposed to be there.

“Anybody she’d be with? Local family? Enemies?”

“There was…” Celestia looked up with a chest-deep sigh. “She has no family. She’s never been anything but wonderful. I can’t think of a single person who’d want to hurt her. She’s been travelling for a few years, but I can’t imagine it’s changed anything.”

Caution nodded diplomatically. To Twilight, it seemed he was slightly more suspicious about Raven’s out-of-town activities than Celestia was. “Alright, Miss. Call us if you can think of anything else that might lead us to Miss Raven. And we’ll let you know what we find as soon as we can.”

“Thank you.” Celestia stood up slowly and reached out to shake his hand. “I appreciate the help, Officer Tape.”

Twilight Sparkle took that as the opportune moment to step in. “Excuse me.”

Caution raised an eyebrow. “Sparkle, we were just finishin’ up.”

Celestia’s eyes lit up, if only for an instant. A smile tugged at her lips as she moved her outstretched hand towards Twilight. “Twilight! Twilight Sparkle! How nice to see you! I was wondering if we’d run into each other.”

Twilight took the offered hand and shook gently. “The pleasure’s all mine, Celestia. It’s been a while.”

“Since Sunny’s fourth birthday party, yes.” Celestia’s smile shifted to slightly mischievous. “And I hear you and Sunset have a bit of a celebration ahead of you today, don’t you?”

“That’s for sure—” Twilight caught Caution’s souring disposition in her prereferral vision. Time to move the conversation forward. “I couldn’t help overhearing, and I think… I might have an answer for you.”

Celestia’s smile crumbled. Her eyebrows came together. Her voice, previously strong and chipper, lowered to a harsh whisper. “You do?”

“I think so.” Twilight Sparkle found herself wringing her hands together. “I was wondering… did you and Raven have nicknames for each other? Specifically, Ray and Lesti?”

Celestia was quiet for a long moment. She sat down, her eyes staring at nothing, the very color seeming to drain from her wavy locks. “Oh God.” She swallowed hard, and acknowledged Twilight with a tearful blink. “You found the watch, didn’t you?”

Caution Tape scowled at Twilight. “Sparkle, wot’s—?”

Twilight drew a line across her throat and silenced him with a glare.

Celestia no longer looked sad. Her eyes dried as if on command. Her mouth became a grim line. She folded her hands on her lap and took in a quick, steadying breath. “The watch is gold, with platinum trim, sealed with crystal, engraved with a birthday message from me to her. Th—the only three people who actively used those nicknames are me, my sister, and Raven. The only people still alive, that is.”

She shook her head. “You work in the morgue, don’t you?”

Twilight shook her head. “I’m a forensics lab technician, first and foremost. I mostly run the equipment and leave the… the medical diagnoses to doctors.”

Celestia’s eyebrows raised. “But she’s gone, isn’t she?”

Twilight waved an arm, pointedly ignoring Caution as he turned away in exasperation. “We don’t know that for sure. Someone could have stolen the watch, or—”

“Twilight.” Celestia grabbed her hand. “We are both smart women. We can put two and two together. It’s why you’re here.”

Twilight looked down at her shoes. She felt regret tugging at the corners of her mind. Regret for Celestia’s situation, or for getting involved, she wasn’t sure.

“Was is painless?” Celestia asked. “Please tell me she didn’t suffer.”

Twilight met Celestia where she was. Eye to eye, truth bared, voice steady. “I’m sorry. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Celestia’s mouth twisted. “Can I see her?”

“Absolutely not!” Caution said. He bumped his knuckles against Twilight’s shoulder as she stepped back from Celestia. He took her out of earshot and leaned in close to hiss a whisper. “If Raven is the Jane Doe you’ve got stuffed in the fridge, seein’ her ain’t gonna do Celestia any favors, mentally speakin’. And where do you get the spikenard to push into my Q and A session like that without talkin’ to me first?”

Twilight wanted for all the world to roll her eyes, but kept a professional face. Barely. “I connected the dots on your investigation before you started. You’re welcome.”

“I swear, Sparkle, one of these days—” He stepped to the side to allow another officer to pass between the desks. “—one of these days you’re gonna step on the toes of due process and get yourself in a problem you can’t get out of.”

Maybe one of these days you’ll discover breath mints, Twilight thought. “I’ll keep that in mind, Scotch.”

“Scotch was my father’s name.” Caution bustled back to his desk, leaving Twilight to watch the scene from afar. Celestia glanced at her, but her attention soon fell away as she discussed with Caution regarding the new revelation. Twilight considered sticking around, but she was no longer on the clock, and making Caution miserable was a fool’s errand.

With her sweater slung over her arm, her pistol tucked securely away, and her destination set, Twilight Sparkle left the CCPD for the weekend. She suspected it wasn’t the last she would hear about Celestia and Raven.

But for now, there were more important things to think about.

***

Sunset Shimer rolled up to the farmhouse. She was not the first to arrive, it seemed, as she had to navigate around a veritable parking lot that had spontaneously appeared on Sweet Apple Acres’ front lawn. A long paved path through the grass snaked its way around trees and stopped just short of the first of a few barns. Tractors and plowing equipment had been shifted aside for a photo display. Streamers trailed between branches and rooftops. Balloons hung with care from a giant sign, as tall as a person, which proudly announced the reason for the festivities.

Shining rolled the paper up and tucked it into the glove compartment. Once the engine turned off, laughter and conversation radiated from the farm all around them. He shared a smile with her and set about freeing Sunny from his confinement.

Sunny practically vibrated. “I wanna go swimming!”

“Gotcha, buddy.” Shining laughed as he strained over the back of the seat. “Gimme a sec—”

Sunset Shimmer opened the passenger door, reached over, and unbuckled Sunny with a flick of her fingers. She winked at Shining—“Beat ya to it”—and moved to the side to allow the young boy to bolt into the open air.

Walter and Wilbur, the Apple Family’s most recent batch of puppies, collided with Sunny and nearly knocked him over. The three of them ran around like mad, barking and yipping up a storm. If Sunset didn’t know better, she’d say Sunny was barking louder than the dogs combined.

Shining Armor hugged Sunset from behind and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Is there anything you can’t do effortlessly?”

Sunset laughed in the back of her throat. “Fly.”

She pulled away from her husband, raising an arm to wave at a figure approaching them across the field. “Applejack!”

Applejack whistled, calling Wilbur and Walter to her side. She tipped her hat and returned the wave with a flourish. “Welcome, one an’ all, to the Apple Family reunion! We got games, food, prizes, an’ just plain good company.” She encased Sunset in a hug made of iron, but cushioned with love. “An’ the best part is that Granny Smith finally let me plan another reunion, so you know it’s gonna be good.”

“Uh oh,” Shining said, crossing his arms. “Is fun mandatory again this year?”

“Har-de-har, loudmouth.” Applejack chucked him in the shoulder with enough oomph to lay low a wildcat. “B’sides, I had a lot of help from Pinkie and Cheese. So I can’t take all the credit.”

Sunset led the way towards the reunion proper, located between the farmhouse and the grain barn. “That does explain the streamers.”

“Streamers, nothin’. They were this close to making the pond a giant punch bowl.” Applejack punched a fist in the air and hollered at the top of her lungs. “Soup’s up! Come an’ get it while the gettin’s good!”

A crowd of friends and family, familiar and otherwise, rolled across the lawn. People of every size, shape, color, and walk of life crowded around with smiles to spare. Sunset cast a glance for Sunny in the melee, and was relieved to find him safe in his father’s arms.

In a flash, Sunset was the center of attention for the other most important people in her life. Rainbow Dash leaped up to press down on Sunset’s shoulders. “Sunset! You made it!”

“As if there was any doubt,” Rarity said, giving Sunset a peck on each cheek. “Wild boars couldn’t keep her away.”

Pinkie Pie shoved a plate overflowing with goodies into her hands. “Have you tried the punch? It’s a little underwhelming compared to what it could have been, but—”

Fluttershy grasped Sunset’s hand and giggled. “It’s most definitely a reunion now that you’re here. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”

Applejack parted the ranks with strong, patient hands. “Alright, y’all, you’re gonna smother her b’fore she even has a bite to eat. Give the girl some space.”

Rarity sniffed, holding her nose in the air. “Well, if I must maintain a certain distance from Sunset, then I shall have to settle for spoiling her darling child. Come to Auntie Rarity, dear!”

Sunny was quick to accept. He hugged Rarity’s legs and gave her a wide smile. “Can I have candy, Auntie Rarity?”

Rarity ruffled his reddish hair. “Dearest Sunny, it’s a Pinkie Pie Party at Sweet Apple Acres. You have only yourself to blame for not eating yourself sick.”

“I don’t wanna get sick.”

“I didn’t mean—” Rarity rolled her eyes and nodded to Sunset. “He has a head on his shoulders. I approve.”

Granny Smith’s voice carried over from a table laden with victuals of every kind. “You kids better bust a move on over here! These apples ain’t gonna eat themselves, now, hear? Gotta put some meat on your bones for the games!”

Rainbow Dash crossed her legs and leaned an elbow on Sunset Shimmer’s shoulder. She plucked a bite of monkey bread from the plate and tossed it into her mouth. “I love being an Apple for a day.”

Sunset passed the plate to a slightly-confused Fluttershy. She shielded her eyes from the morning sun, scanning the reunion for others. “Has Twilight gotten here yet? Did you guys see her?”

“Nope!” Pinkie Pie pulled a list from behind her back. It trailed down to her spindly knees. “I can say with utmost certainty that of the guests invited, only thirty-seven have failed to arrive, and twenty of those RSVPed that they couldn’t come. Twilight Sparkle finds herself number sixteen of the unaccounted for.”

Shining Armor scratched his forehead. “I think Twilight’d be proud of that assessment.” He rested a hand lightly on Sunset’s shoulder to get her attention. “I’m gonna grab a few of the guys and see if I can’t drum up a football game. You’ve got Sunny until he’s inevitably swooped up by his adoring public?”

“Too late for that.” Sunny stood by Rarity’s side, who had brought him to Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. The two young ladies were already cooing over him with reckless abandon, spoiling him with treats from their plates and laughing at his four-year-old skill-level jokes. Sunset slipped her fingers around Shining’s. “Go have fun, and get a touchdown for me. Just don’t get too hurt.”

Sunset paused her scan, landing on a face closer to her heart than most. “Excuse me, please. I need to say hi.”

Pinkie bobbed her head, sending her curls dancing wildly. “We’ll be here!”

Fluttershy passed the plate to Rainbow Dash, who gave up all pretenses of merely nibbling. “You’re going to say hello to Scootaloo?”

“Yeah.” Sunset Shimmer brushed her hair behind her ear with the tips of her fingers. “Wish me luck.”

Applejack nodded. “Godspeed.”

Scootaloo stood in line, waiting her chance to pull meat from the foil trays set along the table. She reached for a rib, thought better of it, and grabbed a few chicken wings instead. An extra dollop of barbeque sauce found its way to her plate, carefully avoiding any chance to soil her leather jacket.

“Hi, Scoots.” Sunset Shimmer took a plate in hand and followed Scootaloo down the buffet. “How’s things?”

“Hm?” Scootaloo glanced up, quirked her mouth to the side, and returned her attention to the food. “Hey, Sunset. Things ’re good. Got that job at Petal Metal’s Garage. Seems like a good fit.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Sunset felt her cheeks heat up. Ribs would absolutely destroy her dress, but that might be a small sacrifice to make. Yes, that seemed a good idea; concern herself with food rather than the person she was talking to. Much more gooder idea. “Are you still taking classes at the community college?”

“Nah. Taking a break. Building up my coffers.” Scootaloo snorted. “I’m gonna need to work for years if I wanna even get close to… eh. You know.”

Scootaloo grinned. She nudged Sunset in the side. “Hey. Almost got my pilot’s license. Just need a little more airtime.”

Sunset breathed a sigh. There was something to grasp at. An actual conversation. “Still taking off from Whistler Fields?”

“Yeah, old man Bunsen still keeps his planes in working order.” Scootaloo looked to the left, then the right. She leaned close and hissed just above the dull roar of the reunion. “Know what? Last time I went up, I totally did a roll.”

Sunset gave her a double-take. “You did not!”

“Totally.”

“Oho ho gosh.” Sunset laughed, shaking her head in incredulity. “Oh gosh, how are you not dead?”

“Because I didn’t tell Mom.” Scootaloo held up a hand, hesitating before touching it to Sunset’s shoulder. “Don’t tell Mom. She’d die, then come back as a zombie to kill me. And then she’d ground me. As a zombie. Please.”

Sunset looked her foster sister in the eye for the first time that day. She nodded slowly, certainly. “Your secret’s safe with me. Just don’t crash next time you do that.”

“I didn’t crash the first time.” Scootaloo pointed at Sunset, then turned away to head for Apple Bloom and Sweetie. “One step closer to the dream, am-I-right?”

“That’s right, Scootaloo.” Sunset Shimmer set her plate down, all but ignored. She hugged her bare arms, wishing for words worth speaking. “Keep following that dream.”

***

Twilight Sparkle followed a familiar road towards the farmland. It was a road she’d driven many times the last six-or-so years, to meet with a special friend. A special friend who grew into something else.

A couple special friends, really. Big Mac lay heavy on her mind, but Sunset as well. It was the place she’d first met the magical woman. It was the first time she’d ever felt home anywhere outside wherever her parents lived at the time. At least, when they weren’t staying at some random army base. That never quite felt like home. Not for her.

Spike had helped. Shining had helped. But things don’t last forever. Shining had joined the military and flown overseas, and Spike…

Twilight drove to the edge of the property. Her little purple car barely made a noise as she took the key from the ignition. Her tires fit neatly into her favorite parking spot. The reunion would be in full swing by this point, but she had another stop to make.

She walked through wet grass. Rain had been strong that year, and even though the sky was blue and cloudless, the ground was still heavy with moisture. Barely a birdsong broke through the stillness of the little plot at the edge of Sweet Apple Acres. Marble memorials dotted the grounds, broken by the occasional taller stone.

She knelt beside one memorial in particular, lying in the outermost portion of the property. A humble little plot with modest plaques. She brushed droplets aside and read the words inscribed therein.

Spike. Beloved dog and fearsome dragon.

She hugged her knees and knelt by the grave for a while. It was peaceful, calming, quiet. A time to empty her mind of the worries of work, or the troubles of tomorrow. Just a little moment spent between friends.

A heavy footstep broke the reverie, but it was not an entirely unpleasant interruption. Twilight Sparkle looked over her shoulder to see a big, tall man, with sandy blond hair and amazing biceps. “Hi, Big Mac. How’d you know to look here?”

“You always stop by and see Spike first.” He reached down to help her to her feet. He practically lifted her off the ground as effortlessly as he might pick up an errant sheet of paper. “I saw your car drive by, and figured I’d greet you before things got too crazy at the party.”

Twilight rested her hands on his chest and leaned close. “Good idea.”

A gentle kiss was shared beneath a lone apple tree in the cemetery. A birdsong serenaded the couple, following them as they walked slowly towards the party, hand-in-hand. Twilight adjusted her glasses with her free hand to push them higher on her nose.

“I’m glad you could come,” Big Mac said. “I know work’s been rough on you, lately.”

“It is kinda terrible.” Twilight blew a long breath through pursed lips. “I had the honor of telling somebody their loved one passed away today.”

Big Mac lowered his eyebrows. “Wanna talk about it?”

“Not now.” Twilight shook her head. Her loose ponytail batted her shoulders. “Not today. Not when we’ve got so much to be happy for.”

Big Mac smiled. It was a small smile, sad at the edges, but sincere. It was a special smile, one that he saved for her and her alone. “I can think of one thing in particular.”

“Oh yeah?” Twilight winced at the tension in her shoulders, but managed to force a curious smile. “Hit me with it.”

“Well,” Big Mac said, “I do know that bein’ with you, and talkin’ to you, and walkin’ beside you… well, that kinda makes me happy all by itself.”

Twilight squeezed his hand. The sounds of the party grew warmer as they approached, beating the heat and humidity for prevalence. Magic tingled at her fingertips. She stuffed the sparkling hand into her pocket to hide it from view. If there was one thing she still lacked skill in, it was controlling her magic despite her emotions. Feeling that light, that spark of friendship, still tended to draw out the deepest part of herself.

Big Mac looked down at her left hand, the one he was still holding. “Kinda tingles.”

Twilight felt her face heat up, but wasn’t going to pull away unless he asked. “Yeah. It’s still taking a while to get used to. I mean, the studies are absolutely fascinating, but it doesn’t remove the fact that it’s still so bizarre. So out of this world…”

She held her free hand up. Pinpricks of light flitted around, dancing between her fingers, tracing shapes in midair. “To think, this power lived in me all these years and I never knew it.”

A spark touched the tip of Big Mac’s nose. He blinked and twitched his nostrils, chuckling from the back of his throat. “You think other people have that power?”

“Maybe.” She shrugged. “Who can say for sure unless they have an encounter with magic?”

“Couldn’t tell yah,” he said. “Ain’t had much sense of it myself, even spendin’ time with you.”

“You’ve got a magic all your own.” Twilight glanced behind, to catch the last glimpse of the cemetery. Spike’s memorial sat beneath the old apple tree, highlighted by the sun. To her front, the party was in full swing, with friends and food and fun awaiting her arrival.

Big Mac cupped the side of her head and laid a kiss atop it. “I love you, Twilight.”

“I love you, too, Mac.”

***

Celestia sat at her computer, her head in her hands. She peered between her fingers to see the screen. The search engine had found her an answer. In zero-point-one-seven seconds, no less, as the data proudly proclaimed.

Ursagryph University, est. 1863 by King Andean Ursagryph as a sanctuary of higher education. Located in the Highborn Isles on the Lake Isle of Inasmuch. Alumni of this university include every member of the Royal Family, from King Periwinkle the Just in times past to our very own Prince Blueblood the Second.

Luna wandered in behind her, munching on a burrito and clutching her robe tight around the chest. “Not thinking of jumping ship again, are you?”

Celestia snorted into her palms. “Luna, if I wanted any other position besides High School Principal, I’d have left decades ago.”

Luna leaned on the back of the office chair. “Oh. Ursagryph University. It’s been a while since I saw that name.”

“No kidding.” Celestia leaned back, offsetting Luna’s balance. “I found Raven.”

“Huh?” Luna grasped Celestia’s shoulder. “Where? Did she go back to the school? Take up a teaching job?”

Celestia’s rough, reddened eyes met Luna’s own. “The police found the watch. She never took that thing off, Luna. They found it on a body.”

The burrito dropped from a limp hand. Luna cupped her mouth, stumbling back. Her eyes flicked to the screen, and shimmered with its light. “Oh. Oh, Celestia, I’m sorry—You’re going to tell him, aren’t you?”

“As soon as I can.” Celestia scrolled down the page until she found a small tab labeled “Contact Us.” A click sent her to a page with email links, street addresses, and a few phone numbers. She picked up the cell phone set beside the computer and punched in the front desk, preceded by the country code. Foreign calls were expensive, she knew, but money was no object. Not to her, and not in this instance.

“Hello, you have reached the front desk of Ursagryph University. How may I direct your call?”

Celestia steeled herself from her core. Her hand gripped the cell phone tight. “I need to speak with a professor there. Would you connect me to Dr. Sombra?”

“I’m afraid Dr. Sombra has taken a holiday.”

Celestia held the mic away from her mouth to groan.

“Would you like me to give him a message?”

“Yes, please.” Celestia’s mouse cursor flitted across the screen and selected a tab marked “Staff.” A long photo appeared, filled with people old and young, proud and disgruntled, familiar and unknown. Near the center, with the senior staff, stood a tall, strong man, held up with a cane. The wrinkles were new, coursing across his face and cracking it with age, but the eyes were the same. The flowing black hair was unchanged as well, if streaked with gray.

She, too, was fighting a losing battle with age as far as gray hair went. She was half-certain she’d be pure white if not for the constant hair color she assailed her head with.

“Please state your message, and I shall give it to Dr. Sombra as soon as he returns.”

“Please tell him… it’s from Celestia.” Celestia sighed. Luna put reassuring hands on her shoulders, even as she leaned forward to listen closer. “Tell him I have… very important news about his sister.”

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