• Published 17th Mar 2017
  • 1,570 Views, 88 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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Through the Hills and Valleys

The alarm clock sounded, and Twilight Sparkle was having none of it. She reached across the small space between her bed and the nightstand and nearly knocked the lamp from its perch. A wild, blind scramble later, the lamp was upright and the alarm silenced. She lay still for a moment, her ears ringing lightly in the silence.

She rolled onto her back and stared at the plain white ceiling. An arm reached out to her left and slid through the space beside her. She found cold, plain sheets devoid of warmth or life. An empty bedroom surrounded her, which was in turn surrounded by an empty house.

She used to wake up to the sound of Spike barking.

She swore to herself and hauled herself upwards, letting the sheets slide off her body of their own accord. It was her first day back to work after her sweet-yet-short vacation; it would not do to be late. She pulled her pajamas off on the way to the shower and locked the bathroom door out of sheer paranoia. She only allowed herself fifteen minutes for the shampoo, soap, and rinse combo, even if another thirty minutes would have done some good for the stress in her muscles. Perhaps she was due for a longer bath when she got home after work. Yeah, that’d do the trick.

It was as she was toweling off her hair that she realized the thing smelled like “Wet Twilight,” which was only a short step above “Wet Dog” in her opinion. Might have to save the bath for after the laundry was done.

Since the school year was nearing its end, Sunset had temporarily disbanded their little carpool, leaving Twilight to fend for herself. A breakfast bar in her mouth and her wallet in her pocket, she started the car and rolled towards the police station. She cussed at just about every other maniac driver on the road. Even if they didn’t really deserve it. But to heck with it, nobody could hear her regardless.

Typical parking spot, typical muttered greetings to officers, typical avoidance of eye contact with Caution…

Atypical presence of Police Chief Care Carrot in the lab. Similarly strange was that Moondancer stood at her side, a small electronic device in her hands. Twilight slowed, but did not stop, as she pulled off her coat and hung it on a rack. “Hey, guys. What’s up?”

“Good question.” Care raised a hand and took the electronics from Moondancer. “Here’s another: What’s this?”

Twilight’s eyes bugged. Her first instinct was to reach out with her magic and grab it, but she suppressed the notion by clenching her fist. “I—it’s a scanner. Of sorts.”

“Of sorts?” Care looked the thing over. “Whatever it is, it goes crazy whenever we bring it near the cadaver we’ve identified as ‘Raven.’” She grimaced, and her eyes narrowed to smoldering slits. “Or should I say ‘Lady Raven Sombra Relámpago of the Highborn Isles’?”

Twilight Sparkle blushed. She gave Moondancer a pleading look. “It, um, it’s the same deceive I used to track those energy pulses. From… uh… You know—”

“From Canterlot High,” Moondancer said, obviously having figured that much out. “We were tracking pulses from two events, and would have continued had Twilight not fallen ill that year.”

Care scowled. “I knew you never left high school behind, Sparkle, but this is ridiculous.”

Twilight frowned. She crossed her arms over her chest and spread her legs just enough to hold a strong stance. “So what’s the problem? This tells us that the murder and the energy I detected ten years ago are connected.”

“There are two problems.” Care placed the sensor on the table and walked closer to Twilight. “One, that the body has been claimed by a family member—a lord of the Highborn Isles—in order to perform funeral rights. Two…” She stopped just in front of Twilight, her hand on her belt. “The device also goes crazy whenever we try to put it in your locker.”

Twilight became acutely aware that Care was about a head taller than her. Her heart turned to ice in her chest, but she was able to hide any outward signs of worry. “And?”

“If the energy from Canterlot High is connected to the murder,” Moondancer said, “how are you connected?”

Twilight Sparkle gaped at her longtime friend and coworker. She was unable to mask the shake in her voice. “I—I’m a suspect?

Care placed a hand on Twilight’s shoulder. “The evidence isn’t strong, barely worthy of being called circumstantial, but this is a lead we need to follow. You need to put together whatever alibies you have—with strong witness backing.”

Twilight pulled away and circled around, running fingers through her hair. “Sure. Sure I’ll do that. I—uh—I know I can cover the timeframe we’ve figured out. Just give me a—”

She picked up the scanner and was immediately rewarded by a staticky shriek. She thumbed the power off and dropped it back on the table. She rubbed her arms, blowing a breath between her lips. “Oh God.”

Moondancer pushed her glasses higher up her nose. She wrote something down on her notepad. “They’re gonna question you and send you home, Twilight.” She tapped the pencil against the wooden edge of the clipboard. “I guess you figured out what the source of the energy is?”

Twilight’s face heated up. Moondancer avoided her gaze, content to reread her own words. “Yeah,” Twilight said.

“Good for you,” Moondancer said quietly. “Good for you.”

Twilight stared at Moondancer. Something clicked. Something deep down and dreadful. She and Moondancer—they were going to find magic together. When she had actually found it, she kept it secret to keep her new friends safe. To keep Sunset safe.

Moondancer was forgotten.

Twilight looked away and took a step back. “I can explain.”

“Good,” Care said. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”

The Q and A session honestly wasn’t as terrible as Twilight feared. Where was she on the days leading up to finding the body? Work and the farm, with very little in-between. Had she ever met Raven before? No, not in her life. How much contact did she have with Celestia? Basic acquaintances, nothing more.

Then they got to the interesting stuff.

“So,” Caution Tape said, licking the tip of his pen in the process. It didn’t help with the flow of ink, but he had gotten into the habit regardless. “What’s that little doohickey of yours sense?”

Now here was the tricky part, answering without giving Sunset away. Especially since it started to sound ridiculous about the time you mentioned a pony kingdom. “It’s a type of energy I first detected ten years ago during extracurricular activities at the Crystal Academy. Over the years, I’ve deduced it could be classified as a type of radiation. Usually, as far as my research has shown, it is unharmful to humans. Until we found Miss Raven.”

“Really now,” Caution said, his voice giving away the fact that he was keenly uninterested. “Strange radiation.”

Twilight forced herself to nod without throwing a barb.

“Moondancer said—” Caution looked back through his notes to find the specific wording. “—that you had found the source of the radiation you detected.”

“It’s actually generated by living things.” Twilight twiddled her thumbs and glanced at the door. “Generally in small quantities. Emotion and stress can give off the occasional bust of excess energy, but I don’t have statistics for that.”

“What? Like the Essence?” Caution Tape snorted. “Sparkle, this ain’t science fiction.”

“Technically, neither is Space Opera,” she muttered. In a voice Caution could hear, she said, “I only know what I’ve told you. Call it power, call it magic, it’s been used for something tragic and I want to get to the bottom of it. I can’t do that if I’m a suspect.”

“Darn right you can’t.” Caution Tape stood up and rounded the desk. Care moved aside to let him pass, but couldn’t hide the dirty look she gave him. He leaned over Twilight and grinned. “You’re involved with this someway and somehow. And if you’re not tellin’ us everything…” He patted her shoulder. “Lemme be the first to say ‘Oi told yah so.’”

“Ignore him,” Care said, pushing Caution bodily out of her office. “We’re all pretty sure you’re clean. He’s just been antsy since your encounter with the looney-bin reject a couple years ago.”

A twinge of pain and fear ran its way up and down Twilight’s arm—aftershocks from a forty-four caliber pistol. She rubbed the offending appendage and swallowed down the wash of anxiety that flooded her face. “I guess I can’t say I don’t feel the same…”

“It gets better with time.” Care pressed her lips together and held the door for Twilight. “All things do.”

Twilight Sparkle bobbed her head noncommittally and walked out.

“We’ll get you cleared soon enough, Sparkle.” Care waved. “Don’t leave town, though.”

Twilight Sparkle sat down in her car and slammed the door shut. She didn’t start it for a long time, content as she was to perform breathing exercise after breathing exercise. Her heart raced and her nerves danced.

She drove for an hour, meandering around town, avoiding the inevitability of an empty home. A red light beckoned her to stop, and allowed her far too much time to think. She cranked the radio in an effort to drown out the thoughts bludgeoning her brain.

Suspect. Secret keeper. Murderer.

Magic had to stay secret, she reasoned. They needed to keep Sunset Shimmer safe. Out of the public eye. Secure. She couldn’t betray her friend.

Betray like she’d betrayed years of trust from Moondancer, who’d been left by the wayside. Feeling forgotten. Perhaps she was right. Twilight had avoided that conflict by not telling her about magic. Neglected that aspect of her life. Neglected the one bright spot of an awful past.

And murderer… she wasn’t. She’d killed in self-defense and defense of others. That was all. That was all anybody called it.

She shouldn’t be alone. Not right now.

Big Mac and Applejack were working the farm. Harvest was approaching, and they had to work so very hard.

Sunset was in the middle of class. Shining Armor was at a job interview. Rarity had an important meeting about her magazine. Fluttershy had an appointment at the pet clinic. Pinkie Pie was planning a wedding and taking care of the kids. Rainbow Dash was on the air, giving the week’s weather.

But Twilight needed somebody.

The car made its way out of the city towards Sweet Apple Acres—almost of its own accord, like a horse that knew the road home. Twilight looked out over the lush orchards that surrounded the cozy farmhouse, and an immediate sense of longing overtook her. Perhaps, in some small way, a sense of belonging.

She parked in the driveway and stepped out. A barn lay before her, one that housed the various tractors and trailers the Apples owned. She touched a hand to Big Mac’s pickup truck as she passed. In the back of the room, she could hear power tools—probably run by Apple Bloom, acting handyman.

The redhead and her frazzled hairdo popped up from behind a pile of miscellaneous mechanical chicanery. She pushed safety goggles onto her forehead and waved. “Hi, Twi. To… what do we owe the pleasure?”

Twilight hated being speechless. That feeling of having too much to say to say it all. That sensation of not believing the words were worth hearing. The pain of burdening others.

She pushed it down, because it helped nobody. “W—where’s Big Mac?”

Apple Bloom stared at her for a moment that was perhaps too long to be comfortable. She wiggled a finger around in her ear. “Uuuuhhhh… Lookin’ over spreadsheets or some such hogwash. Check the office.”

Twilight Sparkle offered her thanks and headed for the farmhouse. The kitchen door was always unlocked when the family was working outside, so it was a simple matter to make her way in. She half-expected Granny Smith to be bustling about, but it wasn’t anywhere close to time for her to cook a meal.

The office was a small room overflowing with barely-organized paperwork. An older-model laptop chittered away, while the external hard drive blinked merrily. Big Macintosh sat at the desk, his head leaning heavily on his left hand while his right scratched down numbers. He dropped the pen and flexed his fingers, using his left hand to pull ill-fitting glasses from his face. He pinched his nose and heaved a sigh.

She rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. “Knock, knock.”

Mac jolted upright. “Uh.” He stood and rounded the desk, his head tilted. “What brings you here, Twi? I thought you were at work.”

She nodded softly. She tried to speak, but couldn’t find her voice. It was hushed, muted, constricted. She sucked in a breath and was repaid with a sob. Hot tears dribbled down her cheeks.

Mac took a step forward. “Twi, what’s—?”

She met him in the middle and buried her face in his chest. She gripped him tight, feeling for all the world like a shipwreck victim clinging to a lifesaver. He said nothing, content to wrap his arms behind her back and rub gently.

Twilight wept, and she hated herself for it.

***

Sunset Shimmer tapped a pencil absently as she graded math homework. The students were silent as they took their quiz—one of the last of the year. She double-checked that she was using the right answer sheet, then double-checked the answer given. Unfortunately, it all added up to Pumpkin Cake potentially needing remedial courses. It was just plain sad; Pumpkin was one of her brightest students, and one of the most brilliant young ladies she’d ever had the opportunity to meet. It’s just that she didn’t apply herself scholastically.

Contrasted with her twin brother, Pound. He wasn’t quite as quick on the uptake, but he doggedly pursued success until he grasped it in full. Their grades followed an equal and opposite incline, his increasing, hers decreasing.

Maybe she could talk with Pinkie. Her friend was a virtual adoptive aunt to the two kids. Maybe she could speak some wisdom into Pumpkin’s life. At least, when she wasn’t utterly bogged down with four kids of her own, plus a full-time party planner job, plus keeping the household running while Cheese was on business trips, plus—

She refocused on the papers and the pencil in her grasp. She set it down briefly to mark a problem with a red pen, then wrote a quick note as to which section of the chapter needed reviewing. The next down the line was a story problem, one regarding money. Of course it was money. It was always money.

Her mind briefly overheated at the thought of summer’s swift approach. Three months out of work, for all practical purposes. No real income. The library wasn’t accepting applications. Barnyard Bargains was only hiring teenagers part time, not adult women who would bog down the payroll with a need for a living wage. The savings were drying up as assuredly as the days rolled onward, and with Shining still looking for work…

“Mrs. Shimmer?” Pumpkin plopped the finished quiz onto her desk. “I think it was time up a whole minute ago.”

Sunset blinked and removed her hand from the side of her face. Her eye briefly clouded before she readjusted to the light. “Yes, I think you’re right, Pumpkin. Thank you. Please hand in your quizzes, and we’ll call it a day.”

With that, the bell rang as clearly, fervently, and panic-inducing as an alarm klaxon. Doors all over Canterlot High slammed open and released their hordes of students. Sunset’s students were no exception, as her desk was soon overcrowded with completed papers.

She split her attention between the ungraded homework and the soon-to-be-graded papers. Eight hours of school and her day had just begun. Perhaps she could convince Celestia to do all their grading via scantron, starting next year. But alas, not every problem was multiple choice.

The buzzer sounded, and was followed by a voice over the intercom. It was Principal Celestia, and the message was for her. “Sunset Shimmer, please come to the front office. Sunset Shimmer to the office.”

Sunset laid her papers in her briefcase and locked the clasps. No sense tempting students with access to the answer books. She breathed a sigh, smoothed down her dress, and set out at a swift gait.

She hadn’t really talked with Celestia since she’d heard about Raven. It honestly wasn’t really her business—she’d never met Raven in the first place—but she did feel the need to relate some sort of comforting words. Something to offer support.

It would be a fresh wound for Celestia. The funeral was just three days earlier. If Sunset had lost a close friend like that, she’d probably request a week off. She might not have gotten it, but she’d have requested it.

She walked in the opposite direction of most students. The principal’s office wasn’t exactly a popular hangout. It was only slightly less popular than the vice principal’s. Corrections notwithstanding, to Sunset, they were the typical locations for two of the most influential people in Sunset’s life. Dear friends.

Sunset opened the door to the office and stepped in. Celestia sat behind her desk, a smile on her face. That alone was unexpected, but further unexpectedness came from the other visitor to her office.

He was a tall man, perhaps even head and shoulders above the likes of Shining Armor or Big Mac. He was broad at the shoulders, strongly built. His short black hair betrayed a widow’s peak, and his downright archaic sideburns lent an air of ancient history to his personage. His green eyes shone bright from beneath a weighty brow, and his high cheekbones twitched with a smile similar to Celestia’s. He stood in Sunset’s presence and offered a hand.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Celestia said, “I’d like to introduce you to an old friend of mine: Dr. Oscuro Sombra Relámpago.”

“Sombra, please.” The doctor took Sunset’s hand gently. “It is an honor to finally meet you, Mrs. Shimmer.”

“Finally?” Sunset smiled with what she hoped was polite interest, rather than mortal terror. Sombra? That Sombra? The subject of bad jokes, history classes, and foal’s nightmares the world over in Equestria? The one whose atrocities—scientific mutations, national mind-control, regicide-matricide, temporal terrorism—had been unmatched for centuries?

“I first heard of you many years ago,” he replied, “when tales of your magical exploits reached as far as the Highborn Isles.”

Sunset shot Celestia a look. A firm look; one screaming “Please explain this right now!” Celestia responded with a laugh and joined the two of them near the door. “It’s alright, Sunset. I’d say Sombra has known about magic for longer than any of us. Though, I don’t think he really believed it until recently.”

No, Sunset decided. This was not the Sombra of her world. Just like it was not the Celestia, or Luna, or Twilight Sparkle of her world. This was a new person, to be treated as such. Easy, right? “Th—that’s something. Yeah.”

The three of them took a seat around the office. Sunset folded her hands in her lap and regarded the strange visitor. He seemed relaxed, and that might have set her at ease if she hadn’t brought her own issues to the table. Celestia steepled her fingers and coughed to get Sunset’s attention.

“Sombra and I reconnected in the wake of… well, you know about Raven’s passing.” Celestia’s eyes turned down as a great weight sagged her shoulders. She waited for Sunset’s nod before continuing. “During the conversation, we wandered to scholastics. He’s a teacher at Ursagryph University.”

Ursagryph University. That was a name with a lot of power. The single most ostentatious, high-priced money-sink on the planet. Requiring a literal king’s ransom at times. Of course, it got to be that way via a few centuries worth of academic overachievement. Famous the world over.

Just a little outside Sunset Shimmer’s realm of possibility.

“And, of course, how could I resist mentioning one of my brightest students?” Celestia gave her a sheepish smile. “He’s the one who brought up your connection to magic. And he has a proposition I think you’ll find very interesting.”

Sombra leaned forward, and for the first time Sunset noticed the cane he held loosely in his right hand, and the brace around his left leg. He leaned against the cane, which was capped with a gold lion’s head. “I first learned of magic many years ago, before either of you were born, I believe. I was but a child of four, living in the Highborn countryside. We were a small farming village, living simply. Until we received three strange visitors. Three women who spoke of other worlds and magnificent creatures as if they were real. They exhibited strange powers of their own: the ability to turn friends against each other with a mere song.”

Sunset Shimmer felt a shiver run down her spine. “The sirens?”

“They do coincide roughly with the old myth, do they not?” Sombra tapped his cane and shot Celestia a glance. “We seem to agree that the very same creatures confronted you ten years ago and were defeated, yes?”

“Closer to twelve, but sure.” Sunset danced her fingers against each other. “Two of them are dead now, but one of them’s mostly reformed. Kinda.”

Sombra lowered his eyebrows. “Indeed?”

“It’s a long story,” Celestia said quietly.

Sombra held her gaze for a moment, then tapped his cane. “Another time, then. I considered magic to be an invention of childish imagination. Even when I heard of the so-called ‘Canterlot High Hoax,’ I remained steadfast in my belief that it was all misremembered nonsense. That was until I met a most extraordinary lady.”

He smiled and held a hand out, as if offering a trinket of some sort. “Tell me, have you ever heard of Starlight Glimmer?”

Sunset nearly snorted with laughter, but her nerves helped keep it under wraps. “It might be a common name? I don’t think I’ve met the one you’re talking about.”

Sombra leaned back in his seat. “I suppose you wouldn’t keep up with the politics of the Highborn Isles, would you?”

“No, sir.”

“There will hopefully be time to ignore it,” he muttered. He brushed away the faint air of annoyance that flashed across his face. “Starlight Glimmer is a woman much like you. She has discovered magic, and become quite adept at its use. She wishes to share this power with the world, one person at a time.”

Sunset’s heart raced. Words failed her. Teach magic? To people around the world? Was Starlight a genius or crazy?

“Of course, those able to teach magic are a rare breed indeed.” He clasped his hands around the head of his cane, his brow furrowing in concentration. “It is such a new science that any knowledge in the field sets one person so far ahead of the rest. We are in need of instructors who understand the ability. Who respect the power involved.”

Sunset’s stomach churned as the ramifications hit her like a ton of bricks. Or tonne, as far as the Highborn Isles were concerned. Magic, introduced into a world that was very much built without it. A world to which magic was an outlier, to be feared and derided. Lumped in with bloody rituals and heretics to be burned at the stake. Something that was so very real, and so very dangerous in the wrong hands.

“Starlight Glimmer would like to invite you to the Highborn Isles to show you the school she’s built,” he said, breaking through her thoughts. “We are small, but willing to learn. It is her hope that, should you be a good fit, you would join us in sharing magic with all people.”

Something that Sunset Shimmer held so very close to her heart.

She swallowed hard, not quite removing the lump from her throat. Her fingers tingled with possibilities, even as her shoulders tensed with fear. Starlight Glimmer was a loaded name. But then, so was Sombra. Celestia trusted him. But what did she know? How long had they been apart? Celestia for sure hadn’t been to the Highborn Isles since the War of the Straight. What guarantee did she have—?

“Sunset?” Celestia stood up. “May I speak with you alone for a moment?”

Sunset Shimmer nodded, and Sombra stood. He quietly excused himself from the room, leaving the teacher and the principal alone.

Celestia took Sombra’s chair and slid it beside Sunset’s. She faced the younger lady and took her hands in her own. “I know… I know you have misgivings. I do, too.”

“Yesterday I thought magic was a secret.” Sunset raised an eyebrow. “Today I find out there’s a whole school dedicated to it.”

“That’s being pretty generous.” Celestia laughed lightly. “I think they only have about twelve students.”

“That’s a dozen more than I expected.” Sunset squeezed her hands. “You understand why I kept this secret, don’t you? It’s keeping so many people safe. Whether it’s the government, or the press, or the public, everybody would have a reason to hound our friends; or worse. And that’s without magic being spread to people who would misuse it.”

“Any tool can be misused, Sunset.” Celestia touched her hand to Sunset’s cheek. “You of all people know that magic is a two-edged sword.”

“It cuts both ways.” Sunset let out a huff. “It cuts deep.”

Celestia nodded and met Sunset’s eyes. “But you love it.”

“I do.” Sunset gritted her teeth and leaned back in her seat. “That’s what makes this hard.”

Celestia rubbed her forehead. She brushed her long hair over one shoulder. “So… How’s Shining’s job search been going?”

Sunset glanced through the fingers covering her eyes. “He’s got an interview at the auto shop today. It might be his best bet. Why?”

Celestia intertwined her fingers. “I… Well… I don’t want to…” She sniffed quietly, pressing her lips together. “Your financial situation is pretty strained lately.”

Sunset had no reason to deny it. “And how.”

“I… I think this might help.” Celestia tapped a forefinger against her lips. “Sombra has agreed to fund the entire trip to the Highborn Isles. This includes compensation for missed work.”

Sunset lowered her hands to her lap. She frowned.

“When I say compensate…” Celestia shrugged. “I mean he’s going to pay you an amount of money that completely embarrasses my yearly wages.”

Sunset’s ears burned. She imagined it might have been due to her brain overheating.

“You’ll be under no obligation to actually join the school.” Celestia gave Sunset a weak—but not insincere—smile. “You’d just be taking about a month to explore, meet the students and teachers, and find out as much as you can before making your decision.”

The smile gained a modicum of strength. “And I’d be with you the entire way. I’m going to the Highborn Isles whether you’re with me or not.”

Sunset nodded slowly. She wrung her hands together. “I’ll have to talk with Shining about it.”

“Of course.” Celestia got to her feet, and Sunset followed. “Take all the time you need.”

Celestia placed her hand on Sunset’s back. “But I think this’ll be good for you.”

Sunset said her goodbyes to Sombra, retrieved her briefcase, and headed to the minivan. Shining had bummed a ride off of Scootaloo—he was interviewing at the shop where she worked. Sunny was at Pinkie’s, probably fighting with little Cheese Cake over her toys. They’d be collecting together soon, and Shining had promised burgers on the grill that evening.

She had an interesting conversation in her future.

***

Twilight spent the day at the Apples’ residence. Staying close to Big Mac most often, but on the occasions he had to operate some machinery, she stayed in the living room. She sat on the couch in front of the old TV. Granny Smith insisted it was in perfect condition, but most colors seemed to be replaced with yellow and green.

She curled up, her knees to her chest, her arms wrapped around her shins. She peered between her kneecaps at the muted screen. All the better to drown in her thoughts. All the better to worry about alibies and murders and broken trust.

She ran out of tears three hours into the visit. After that, all she was left with was shame. She was stronger than that. To run blubbering to her boyfriend like some waif from a bad TV serial. Puh—lease.

She was supposed to be stronger than that…

Anger boiled in her chest. Anger at herself, her situation, at Moondancer for connecting dots that didn’t belong together. If only she could have just kept her hands to herself!

But that wasn’t fair, was it? Nah. Moondancer didn’t do anything wrong. She was just better at her job than anybody gave her credit for.

Twilight pulled her glasses off and set them on a side table. All the better to bury her face in her knees. All the better to squeeze her own head in an effort to contain an outburst of frustration. She managed to muffled the instinctive curse, but the meaning behind the words was loud and clear.

“Goodness,” a wizened, warm voice said. “I’d wash your mouth out with soap, but I suppose whatever that came from is better thrown to the winds than cooped up inside.”

Shame washed over Twilight Sparkle anew, this time for violating the hospitality of her host. “I’m sorry, Granny Smith. It just… jumped out at me.”

Granny Smith set a small teacup in front of Twilight. The scent of cinnamon floated freely about the room. “Gotcha a nice cuppa apple cider tea. Warmth helps with the nerves. Drink up while the gettin’s good.”

Twilight took the cup gently between her fingers. The ceramic material was still hot. She blew at the liquid before gingerly touching it to her lips. Satisfied that it wasn’t going to melt her face off, she took a ginger sip. “Thank you.”

Granny Smith took a seat on the couch next to her, lowering herself carefully onto the cushion. “Hope you don’t mind if’n I take a load off?”

“Be my guest.” Twilight Sparkle’s voice was weak, droning. “It’s your couch.”

“True ’nough!” Granny rubbed her back. “But it’s your quiet space right now.”

Warmth transferred itself from Granny’s hand to Twilight’s back, mingling with the soothing tea. She sighed and rested her head against her knees, a frown tugging at her mouth. “I’m sorry I cursed. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“Aw, heck. I’d be worried if you didn’t need to get a couple things offa your chest.” Granny sighed through her nose. “You need to scream, scream. You need to cry, cry. You need to cuss… I’ve heard worse. Guaranteed.”

She touched Twilight’s elbow. “I wantcha to know we’ve got a nice cozy guest cot for you to sleep on while you sort out your issues. Applejack’s already movin’ things around in her room for yah.” She gave Twilight a squeeze on the shoulder. “We’re here for you, sweet pea.”

Twilight peered out from behind her knees. “Thanks. I think I’ll take you up on that.”

Granny waited for Twilight to take another sip. “Do yah know what you’re gonna do about it?”

Twilight switched to sitting cross-legged and leaned her forearms on her thighs. “Catalogue my visits. Verify it with firsthand accounts and social media postings. I’m lucky Pinkie’s such a shutterbug. And that I don’t spend much time at home these days.”

“Too busy?”

“It’s too… quiet. And empty.” Twilight twiddled her thumbs, furrowing her forehead. “I don’t… like it there anymore.”

“Well, don’t forget; you’re always welcome at Sweet Apple Acres.” Granny Smith brushed a lock of Twilight’s hair behind her ear. “Just wanted to make sure you knew you were loved.”

Twilight Sparkle leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Granny. “I love you, too, Granny Smith.”

“Ooh.” Granny stood up and made her way carefully to the kitchen. “Soup’s up in about a half-hour. Don’t forget to worsh up.”

Twilight slurped up the last of the tea. She felt a little better, she had to admit. Granny Smith had a way of unpacking the soul and putting it into order. Mostly through her skills in the kitchen, but a mother’s touch went a long way. Even when it wasn’t strictly her mother.

Not having to go back to the cold, empty building she owed payments on was a boon. Maybe if somebody went with her, but… not tonight. A sleepover with Applejack was in the cards. She had thought herself too old for real slumber parties, but here she was. Twenty-eight and bunking on a thirty-year-old friend’s cot.

It felt a little like home. A place to plan her next move.

She needed Sunset. They’d investigated a magic-related murder before. Maybe this time would be similar. Find the real killer and put a stop to them.

There weren’t many magic users in her world. All it would take was them putting their heads together and finding the critical clues that would lead them to the solution. Twilight could use her magic scanner again. Sunset would probably know a list of spells capable of dehydrating a body. Between the two of them, there was nothing to fear.

She’d call her tomorrow and set up a meet time. She’d feel better by then. Ready to get to work.

In the meantime, supper was just about ready.

***

Sunset pulled into the driveway with a smile. Their home lay bright and inviting, the windows glowing from within. She saw Shining jump out of his easy chair and race for the door, opening it before the minivan was even in park. His wide smile said all he needed to say, but Sunset still wanted to hear it aloud.

As soon as she stepped out of the van, he scooped her up and lifted her high. Her joyous shriek was drowned out with his triumphant shout. “I got the job! I start Monday!”

She bent her knees to better take the landing and allowed her husband to pull her tight. She laughed as her cheek brushed against his. She hadn’t seen him like this in a while. A long, long while.

He reached into the van and unbuckled Sunny. The excitement was just enough to pull Sunny’s attention away from his Transformers Rescue Bots toy. Rather than ask a question, he allowed Heatwave to drop into the car seat as his father hoisted him free of the vehicle. “Daddy finally got a job, Sunny! Daddy fixes cars now! Is that awesome or what?”

“You fix cars!” Sunny smiled a toothy grin. “I wanna see!”

“I’ll have to take you sometime later, buddy.” Shining winked at Sunset as they locked up the van. “After Mr. Petal Metal’s decided he likes me enough to keep me around.”

With Sunny in one arm and the other around Sunset, Shining led them towards the house. “The starting wage is pretty good. It should carry us through summer. When you get back to school, we can really start making progress.”

He snorted once they were inside. “Scootaloo’s my supervisor, if you can believe that. The girl’s a real taskmaster. Can’t imagine where she learned that.”

Sunset bit back a groan. It was the truth. Sunset had no small part in Scootaloo’s upbringing. “She’ll keep you in line. Believe me. You’ll known exactly when you’re doing something wrong, and exactly what that is.”

Shining Armor set Sunny on the floor and allowed the boy to roam freely. He headed for his room for some reason or another. Sunset took Shining’s hand before he too could move on. “Hey.”

Shining smiled at her, raising his eyebrows. “Yes, my love?”

“Ha ha.” Sunset swung his hand back and forth. She sucked in a steadying breath. “I found out about something important today, too. Something that could really help us. And not just us.”

Shining jerked his head towards the couch. The two of them sat side-by-side, their knees touching. Sunset kept his hand cradled gently in hers. “A friend of Celestia’s visited this week. He’s from the Highborn Isles. He’s a teacher at a university there.”

Shining nodded. His beautiful blue eyes briefly took on a distant look, remembering something but not quite willing to divulge. He waited for Sunset to continue and squeezed her hand.

“Dr. Sombra is part of a new school in the Highborn Isles…” Sunset gave her husband a lopsided grin. “One that teaches magic.”

Shining’s eyes popped. His jaw dropped open. “Huh?”

“Real magic.” Sunset leaned closer, her voice growing higher against her will. “Like the kind I use. It’s real Equestrian magic, Shiny. And they’re teaching it to people. And—” She swallowed. “—and they want my help. They need my help.”

Shining looked numb. His hand was limp at the least. His eyes took on that distant look again, wavering between the past and the present. “Sunset… that’s wonderful…”

Sunset brought her head a little closer to his. “Why don’t you think so?”

“I… do…” Shining bobbed his head back and forth. “That’s what I said, it’s wonderful. But…”

Sunset closed her eyes and called up the deepest bastions of her patience. “But what, Shining?”

“But…” He brought his eyes to hers, fully in the now, focused on her. “The Highborn Isles are going through a really rocky time right now. The monarchy is teetering and people are protesting. Violently. There’s practically a civil war between the people who want to keep the line of succession going, and those who want their government upheaved. Monarchists and anarchists and all sorts of bad vibes.”

He shook his head. He rubbed the back of her hand in that special way she liked. “When I was in the special forces, we were part of a mission to protect a diplomat and I saw firsthand what it’s like. It wasn’t that long ago, Sunset. I don’t feel safe letting you go over there right now. And… and with the new job, I wouldn’t be able to go with you.”

“W-we’d be out in the country, away from the cities and the violence.” She chewed her lip and crossed her legs. “It’s magic, Shiny. Magic.”

Shining Armor leaned back, staring across the living room with heaviness behind his eyes. He looked at her quietly for a moment.

“Celestia’s going, too, ” she said. “And Dr. Sombra will pay for everything. The flight. Room and board. Meals. And… and lost work.”

Shining tilted his head. “He’s paying you to teach.”

“Yeah. Exactly. Kinda.” Sunset waved a hand. “It’s a no-obligation deal. If I don’t fit, I can just toodle my way back to Libertas and be done with it. If it works…”

She shrugged with lack of anything better to do. “We could change the world for the better.”

Shining Armor leaned forward. He chewed on his forefinger’s nail. “Why don’t you want to keep magic secret anymore?”

“Because it’s a learning environment.” Sunset stood up and paced back and forth across the room. “It’s a chance to teach magic the right way. To teach people how to be safe, how to use it right, what the problems might be. It’s like teaching Twilight. And… if it’s already out in the world, don’t we want it being taught by somebody who knows exactly how dangerous it is? Who has a working knowledge of every form it takes?”

She stopped before him and leaned forwards, her hands on her knees. “They discovered it by themselves, Shiny. This is a huge opportunity to do things right.”

Shining’s lip twitched up at the corner. The ghost of a smile vanished into fog. “You really want this, don’t you?”

Sunset straightened up, hugging herself. “It’s my dream.”

Shining Armor stood as well. He reached around her and pulled her close. He pressed his lips against the top of her head. His voice was small, naught but a whisper. “How can I protect you if you’re not here?”

“Protect Sunny.” She looped her arms around his back, clasping her hands near his waist. “Get yourself back on your feet. Find joy in life. Call me every night. Skychat me; I’ll have my laptop ready whenever I manage to figure out the time change.”

Shining chuckled. “It’s about six hours difference.”

His hands ran up and down her back, a loving, comforting embrace. Comforting for them both, she supposed.

“If you really want to do it,” he said quietly, “I’ll be behind you the whole way.”

A spark lit in her chest. Relief, happiness, excitement; all thundered through her heart. “I love you, Shiny.”

“I love you, too, Sunset.”

Author's Note:

Yes, fans of Blueblood's Ascension. His full name is Oscuro Sombra Relámpago. It means what you think it means.

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