• 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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The Bygone Days

When Sunset Shimmer said nothing, Dr. Sparkle raised a hand. The lights in the room flickered on. It was a fairly standard-looking school laboratory. Tables with Bunsen burners sat at regular intervals. Laminated posters decorated the walls with various formulas. An old computer with a CRT monitor chittered away at the back of the room. The new Twilight raised an eyebrow and waved Sunset into the room. “Judging by your stunned silence, you have to know something about me.”

“I—” Sunset finally found her voice, though it still sounded froggy. “I’m sorry, why would you think I’d heard of you?”

“Inductive reasoning.” The doctor grabbed an office chair as she passed by and rolled it towards the computer. She sat down and jiggled the mouse. The screen showed a few articles made in the wake of the “Canterlot High Hoax.” “To this point, the only people of this world who have contact with magic have also had contact with those not of this world. Sombra with the Sirens. Starlight with me. You with…” Dr. Twilight swiveled her seat and steepled her fingers. “That is to say, either you come from my world, or you know someone who has.”

Starlight Glimmer looked as confused as Sunset felt. She looked at Sunset Shimmer as though she were a strange alien. Maybe that’s just what she was?

Knowing what she did of the multiversal theory… Sunset was still befuddled. Another Twilight Sparkle? Not from her Equestria nor her current world? That meant that she either came from a heretofore unknown world… Or one that was thought to be sealed off. She found a hard chair and sat down before she could fall down.

Dr. Sparkle folded her arms. “I also see that you believe me. I was half-expecting an argument about the sheer existence of alternate worlds. At least this can expedite the conversation to more constructive things.”

“No, no, I know other worlds exist.” Sunset folded her hands on her lap. She caught herself before she could allow her toe to tap nervously. “I take it your Sunset Shimmer isn’t much of a public figure?”

The doctor raised her eyebrows slightly. “You also know about duplicate personas.” Not a question, but a statement.

“Right.” Sunset glanced at Starlight, who examined the two of them with an intense interest. “I know of at least one other Starlight Glimmer.”

“At least.” Dr. Twilight Sparkle’s eyes glinted with magic—the same magic that caused them to glow in the dark. If Sunset was right, it seemed to be a vision-correcting spell, an alternative to glasses or contact lenses for the magically-gifted. The most advanced forms of the spell allowed the blind to see, but those usually required a relic to work. “Perhaps your surprise is not that you’ve seen me, but that you’ve seen another me?”

Sunset drummed her fingers on her leg. “I think we might be getting off on the wrong foot.”

Dr. Sparkle sighed. She shook her head and brought herself to her feet. “I’m sorry. My curiosity got the better of me. Perhaps real introductions are in order?”

“It might give us a… solid starting point.”

“May I say something?” Starlight asked.

Sunset turned to her. Starlight’s continence was slightly downcast, yet with an air of resignation. Did she have this conversation before?

Starlight folded her hands and brought her index fingers to her lips. “Were you ever going to tell me you already knew me?”

“I don’t know you.” Sunset clenched her jaw as her forehead creased. “I only know somebody who looks like you. You’re two different people.”

Starlight held her gaze for a moment, but eventually nodded. She sat down and folded one leg over the other.

Dr. Twilight gave Starlight a tiny smile and an equally small nod. The smile vanished as she looked up at Sunset. “Perhaps I should go first.”

“If you want,” Sunset said.

The doctor’s fingernails shimmered purple. An illusion spell crafted a facsimile of a unicorn mare out of thin air. “I am a unicorn from a country known as Equestria. Our world does not have a name, but we call our planet ‘Earth.’ Most people do, it seems. I am the personal student to Equestria’s king, Sombra.”

Sunset’s blood ran cold. King? Did this third world contain a timeline where Sombra destroyed the Crystal Empire? And Twilight was his personal student? She desperately hoped her earlier hunch was true. “W-what’s he like?”

The chill in her voice showed. Dr. Twilight tilted her head, but brought no additional attention to it. “He was once a wise, noble king. One who loved his people and fought bitterly for them. In my lifetime, he was the only thing separating us from utter annihilation.” There was a hint of bitterness to her voice. A harshness with the way she delivered the words. There was an old wound, deep down. “He took me in after my parents died. He taught me everything I know of magic. He was… a father to me.”

A pit settled itself in Sunset’s stomach. She had an idea of where this was going. “What happened?”

Dr. Twilight took in a deep breath. She had the appearance of steadying herself, but Sunset saw something else. She was thinking over every single word Sunset said. Picking it apart. Dissecting it to understand things Sunset didn’t realize she was saying. Perhaps this Twilight was learning as much about Sunset as Sunset was learning about her.

“He fought against two alicorns, who were corrupted by a being of dark magic called the Tantabus.” Dr Twilight clenched one of her hands into a tight fist. The illusion of the unicorn shifted to show two horned, winged ponies flying around a dark cloud of power. “He sacrificed himself, taking the Tantabus into himself and allowing them to regain their right minds. The magic drove him mad.”

The illusion flickered until it showed the unicorn again, reading a book at a desk, a lamp illuminating her. “While the alicorns took charge of the world, I alone stayed by his side, seeking a cure.” Dr. Twilight’s eyes looked away from the image for a brief moment. Her expression changed. The confidence and bitterness left her voice, replaced by barely-concealed weariness and unshed tears. “I failed.”

Dr. Sparkle steeled herself. The image vanished, replaced by an intricate, full-length mirror. “Through my research into powerful magic, I was able to discover the existence of other worlds. I learned of Sombra’s own dalliance within them. The mare he loved came from one such place, though they were forced apart by the boundaries between their worlds.” She allowed her hand to drop, and the illusion dissipated. “When he grew too violent to be around… when I feared for my life… I found a portal to this world and forced it open, with no way to follow me, and no way to go back.”

She stretched a hand out to indicate Starlight. “And with Miss Glimmer’s help, I’ve started a new life helping people.”

Sunset nodded slowly. “It must have been hard, deciding to leave your home.”

“It wasn’t home anymore,” Dr. Twilight said, perhaps too quickly. “But… yes, of course.”

Rubbing her hands together, Sunset offered a smile. “It’s kinda weird how similar our stories are. Except I was the one at fault.”

Dr. Twilight Sparkle took to her office chair and bobbed her head. “Perhaps you might elaborate?”

Sunset traced an image in the air. It wasn’t quite as elaborate or lifelike as the doctor’s, but it equated a rough approximation of her pony body. “I am also a unicorn from Equestria. However, I was the personal student to Princess Celestia.”

Dr. Sparkle leaned forward. She frowned, and her eyes would have turned dark had their irises not been consistently glowing. “Princess?”

“I think my Princess Celestia,” Sunset said, “is the mare your King Sombra fell in love with.”

The doctor released a breath Sunset didn’t know she was holding. Dr. Twilight stared at her feet, clasping her hands together. “How do you know?”

“We’ve always called your world the Reflection.” Sunset allowed her sketched illusion to vanish, and turned her full concentration on the other Twilight. “My Celestia came to your Sombra’s aid when your evil versions of Celestia and Luna encroached on his kingdom. He sacrificed himself to save everybody when both worlds neared the point of collapse.”

Dr. Twilight didn’t say anything, but hummed, content to listen.

“And to seal the deal…” Sunset grinned halfheartedly. “I hear you have a Princess Trixie Lulamoon, Virtue of Humility. And Discord calls himself Captain Goodguy.”

The doctor held her head in her hands. “Yes. That’s my world. That son of a—”

Sunset spoke out of the side of her mouth, on instinct. “Twilight…

“—gun,” Dr. Sparkle finished. She raised her head slowly.

Sunset knew she was blushing, but could do nothing to hide the fact. Old habits had brought her to stop a Twilight Sparkle from cursing as vehemently. She usually only did it to her sister in law.

If Dr. Twilight noticed something was off about the exchange, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Discord was convinced nobody could decipher his secret identity. I think we were too nice to tell him to his face.”

“Probably for the best,” Sunset said with a small voice.

Dr. Twilight Sparkle rolled her hand. “Please continue. How did you find your way to this world?”

Sunset laid it out, as bare-bones as she dared. Her time as Celestia’s student. Her desire to become an alicorn. The wedge she and the princess drove between each other. Her escape through the mirror. Her time at the high school. Her attempted theft of the Element of Magic.

Her redemption. Her friends.

She didn’t mention Princess Twilight or Twilight Sparkle. Not yet. She didn’t give any names. Not until she was sure what kind of person this Twilight was. It would be a difficult thing to take; she knew from experience. She would break it gently during her time at the school.

She suspected it was only a matter of time before she and this Twilight trusted each other.

“I guess that’s it in a nutshell.” Sunset shrugged. “Over a decade later, and I’m a wife, mother, math teacher, and magic aficionado.”

Dr. Twilight sat cross-legged on the office chair’s seat. She pursed her lips. “Did you ever pursue your dream to become an alicorn after that?”

Sunset wasn’t sure how to answer that. She hadn’t really thought about it in a while. Having that taste of power from the Element of Magic… it only resurfaced as a bad memory. A time when she had truly lost herself. The low point in her life. “No. I’m… I’m pretty sure that’s not my path anymore. I screwed up when it counted most. I’ve rededicated my life since then. It’s not…” She shook her head. “I don’t think it would be good for me.”

Dr. Twilight again said nothing to respond. Instead, she artfully shifted the subject. “Well, it’s clear you have a great deal of expertise in magic. It seems we were right to seek you out.” She gave Starlight a sidelong glance. “Wouldn’t you say, Headmistress?”

Starlight had been silent throughout both stories, having clearly already heard Twilight’s, and merely absorbing Sunset’s. Her expression was guarded to not reveal any sort of emotion, and her voice was similarly deadpan. “Yeah, she’s the girl for the job. Funny how we keep running into your old friends.”

“Not necessarily old friends,” Dr. Twilight said. “We’re all different people. Right, Sunset?”

“Yeah, pretty definitively.” Sunset sucked in a steadying breath. “I’m sorry for the deception, but I really want to keep my friends safe. In both worlds. You know?”

“I understand completely. You’re not at fault.” Another sidelong glance flew towards the doctor before Starlight stood. “Why don’t I get you settled, Sunset? Twilight usually takes this time for private study, so we ought to give her space.”

“I appreciate it.” Dr. Twilight Sparkle took her homemade book and set it on her lap. “I’m very glad to have met you, Sunset Shimmer.”

“The—ahem—the pleasure’s all mine, Twilight. Doctor. Twilight.” Sunset cleared her throat, smiled as genuinely as she could, and followed Starlight out the door. A glance behind her won her a smile from Dr. Twilight, and a peek at the cover of the book. Half of the title was obscured, but what she could see said “Grimoire.” A magic tome, obviously. Made sense.

With a flick of her wrist, Dr. Twilight Sparkle closed the door, switched off the light, and began to read in total darkness.

***

Twilight Sparkle hovered near the back of their little procession. Princess Twilight took point, with Little Spike at her heels, while Shining Armor and Big Mac clumped up in the middle. The princess maintained her ever-present friendly smile as she knocked on the door. It was a smile Twilight couldn’t bring herself to match, or even verge upon. Everything in her body told her to crawl into a corner and mope until her coworkers came to take her away to the “big house.”

Big Mac eased himself beside her and rested his arm behind her back. His titanic meat-hook of a hand encased her narrow shoulder like a suit of armor. It was nice to have him nearby. He had so much to do, but here he was, helping her in any way he could. Some of her anxiety faded, though its core remained dark and pulsating.

Vice Principal Luna opened the door. Pensive was the word of the hour as she led the lot of them into her and her sister’s house. It was a fairly simple affair, with few pictures and fewer adornments. The most elaborate decoration seemed to be the lamps placed next to their respective cozy-looking chairs. Twilight did spot what appeared to be a family photo placed on a desk, situated beside an old laptop computer. The subjects of the photo were Luna and Celestia themselves, both in their early twenties, wearing the signature styles of the time.

Twilight gave it a second look. A third woman stood between them, one with a stony face and white hair. A vicious scar ran down her left cheek. Was it their mother?

A series of fabric-cushioned folding chairs had been laid out in a circle. Luna took one for herself, offering the easy-chairs to whoever wanted them. “Sorry I don’t have much else. We don’t have people over all that often.”

Twilight took a chair that slid close to Big Mac’s. Princess Twilight sat beside Luna, while Shining Armor and Little Spike each took one of the nicer chairs. When Luna gave Little Spike a wary glance, he pulled a lint roller from his ever-present bag. “I came prepared. And I’m not shedding. Much.”

“It’s nice to see you again, Principal Luna,” Princess Twilight said. “Thank you for agreeing to this.”

“It’s the least I can do.” Luna covered her mouth with a hand, her eyes taking on a distant look. “For both Celestia’s sake and Raven’s.” She stood up from her seat, her voice taking on a higher pitch as she forced a little congeniality into it. “Hold up. If we’re gonna talk about this load of horsecrap, we might as well have snacks to go with it.”

“Here, here,” Little Spike said, carefully placing a pen in his paw.

Luan returned with a paper plate full of crackers and cheese and set it on a folding table between them. Nobody moved to partake for a good minute.

“To start…” Princess Twilight gave the room a once-over. Like Twilight, she apparently didn’t find anything of interest. “Can you describe your relationship with Raven?”

“Well… we were friends.” Luna crossed her arms as though she felt a chill in the room. “She was mostly Celestia’s friend, honestly, and I was the tagalong. They met during the Great War. You know the one. Celestia was a combat nurse serving the unit Sombra was part of. Those two hit it off pretty well. It wasn’t long after the war the four of us were meeting up and hanging out and stuff.”

Shining Armor nodded. “That was the war my mom fought in. She was one of the first female fighter pilots.”

Luna let out a laugh, staring at the ceiling. “Yeah. So, the years went by and my sister and Sombra parted ways. Their dreams led them to different continents. You know how it is. But Raven came with us. She went on this whole globe-trotting adventure. Celestia and I went with her while she was in Libertas. But when she went south, we parted ways again. She’d show up every once in a while to celebrate a holiday or something.”

She took a cracker from the plate and held it, never bringing it close to her mouth. “Last I heard, she went back home to the Highborn Isles to learn at some sort of spiritual-awakening kind of school. Inner power and that kinda stuff. It’s the one Celestia’s visiting right now.”

That got Twilight’s attention. She raised her head and grabbed the sides of her chair. “The magic school?”

“If you wanna call it ‘magic.’” Luna shrugged, looking more confused than anything. “Look, my experience with magic amounted to making sure my students were safe whenever some freakshow attacked with their sparkly fish powers. I left understanding the stuff up to Sunset Shimmer and Twilight here.” She jerked a thumb in the princess’ direction. “I can accept a talking dog exists, but don’t ask me to explain it.”

Princess Twilight waited for Little Spike to stop writing before asking another question. “Do you know of any other people who associated with Raven?”

“Aside from Sombra, not really.” Luna finally took a bite of the cracker, more to mull over her thoughts than to sate her hunger. “The whole reason she left the Highborn Isles in the first place was so she didn’t have to be around the nobility over there. Not a day went by that she didn’t complain about how dumb Fancy Pants was.”

Shining Armor tilted his head upwards. “The Prime Minister?”

“Probably. I didn’t vote for him.” Luna hunched over with her arms on her knees. “I dunno, guys. She spent more than half her life outside her own home country, and she was only in my life about half that time. I don’t know… know…”

Luna pressed her lips tight. “She contacted us about a month ago. Said she was coming into town again. She wanted to set up a meeting. Then we lost contact for a couple of weeks… and then she was gone.”

Princess Twilight touched a hand to Luna’s shoulder. “Did she say where she wanted to meet?”

“Um…” Luna laughed humorlessly. “I only remember because of how out of place it sounded. There’s this club downtown where apparently all the cool cats hang out. Dunno how kindly they’d take to three women in their fifties getting their groove on.”

“Nobody I know turns away paying customers,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Which club was it?”

Luna bit into another cracker. “Ever heard of the Party Favor?”

“Yeah.” The word came out as a defeated sigh. More than once the place had gotten rowdy enough to have the police escort people home. Thankfully, the activities had never needed Twilight’s involvement, and the infamy was more a running joke than an actual danger. She had never been drawn to the place—crowds, booze, and electronic dance music didn’t exactly entice her or Big Mac—but Caution was known to frequent the joint. “It’s only been open for about five years, so I don’t know how she would have come to choose it.”

She might have been trying to throw somebody off her trail, but Twilight didn’t want to vocalize it. Try as she might to hold it together, Luna was obviously breaking down bit by bit. It stung Twilight’s heart, though she knew she didn’t have the ability to comfort her.

Twilight sighed. She knew so much about the human body, but the human heart still left her altogether helpless.

Princess Twilight spoke softly to the older woman. “It’s okay if you need to take a break.”

“Maybe.” Lunas voice was shaky, and her eyes jumped from face to face. “I don’t know what else I can tell you.”

Shining Armor waved a little to get her attention. “How well do you know Dr. Sombra?”

“Even less than Raven, if you can believe it.” Luna breathed softly as she leaned back. “After their dreams pulled him and my sister apart, what was he to me, really?”

They stayed for another hour, but had little to do but visit. Luna had no more information to give aside from a few phone numbers for Celestia’s cell and Sombra’s workplace. They bid her goodbye, left her alone, and didn’t speak until they were headed back to Sweet Apple Acres.

Shining Armor tapped his fingers against the steering wheel of his and Sunset’s minivan. “Am I right in assuming that was a bust?”

“You kidding me?” Little Spike said from the back seat. “I’ve got ten pages of notes!”

Princess Twilight leaned around from her place riding shotgun. She reached back, and Twilight Sparkle passed up Little Spike’s sheets of paper. The princess looked them over, nodding appreciatively. “I see you’ve also taken note of the club’s name being familiar.”

Big Mac scowled lightly. “The ‘Party Favor’s’ popular in Equestria?”

“Party Favor is the name of one of Starlight Glimmer’s friends back home.” Princess Twilight taped the page with a flickering index finger. “Starlight Glimmer is also the name of the person running the school Raven learned at. It’s an odd coincidence if it is one.”

Twilight leaned her cheek on a closed fist, propped up on her bucket seat’s armrest. “I woulda thought Party Favor was a common name where you come from.”

“Not so common I can’t single it out.” Princess Twilight shuffled the pages absentmindedly as she looked out the window to watch the world roll by. “I think we should take a moment to investigate the Party Favor and see if there’s any connection to Starlight Glimmer. Meanwhile, Sunset Shimmer can be our eyes and ears in the magic school. You said she’s calling you tonight, Shining?”

“Yeah,” he said, turning on his left signal and waiting his turn to go. “A teleconference for Sunny and me. I suppose you’re all invited, too. It’s at noon, six her time.”

“Just a few hours, then. Good.”

Twilight Sparkle felt her face scrunch up of its own accord. The princess’ voice lit up every time the school was brought up. She had a feeling the place was the real reason the princess came to the world, rather than just corresponding via the magic journal. Perhaps it was for the best, if the school had anything to do with the death of Raven.

It made sense, if Twilight thought through it. A bunch of humans given magic power, with no supervision from those aware of its potential. There were bound to be bad eggs in the bunch. Maybe the whole bunch was rotten. Maybe that’s why Raven left them.

Pointless speculation. Until she knew more, there was only conjecture. And conjecture didn’t prove Twilight’s innocence or find the guilty party.

“Hay.”

Twilight Sparkle turned to Little Spike, who rested his paw beside her elbow. He smiled as his tail wagged in an oh-so-familiar way. He spoke quietly. “We’ve got this. With us on your side, there’s nothing you gotta worry about, okay?”

Big Mac’s hand reached across the center aisle and wrapped his fingers around hers. His mouth didn’t quite smile, but his eyes dazzled her with the cool confidence to be found within. “A’yup.”

Twilight’s mind still whirled with painful possibilities, but she couldn’t deny the cozy feeling that warmed the bottom of her heart.

***

“I hate it!”

A shoe zipped across the room to thwack against the far wall. Starlight Glimmer glared at it, her rage prepping the other shoe to fly harder and fiercer. A similarly-disappointing whap greeted the other shoe’s arrival at its sister’s destination.

Double Diamond looked up from the newspaper he was reading. He peered slightly down and to the right, where the shoes had ended their brief flightpath. “Hate what?”

“That brilliant, perfect little mind of hers!” Starlight stripped off her raincoat and left it slumped over the back of a metal folding chair. She stalked across the room to slouch into a rickety office chair that never quite kept its balance. “She’s always thinking in twenty different directions, plotting a dozen different outcomes, and I can’t follow it worth a darn.”

“Yep.” Double Diamond brought the newspaper back up. “The doc’s up to somethin’ again.”

“Inviting Sunset Shimmer wasn’t about getting more teachers, oh no, that’s far too shortsighted for her.” Starlight slapped her palm against the desk, causing Double to jump. “She suspected Sunset was from another world like she was. And she was right.” She spun in her chair and nearly careened to the floor before Double Diamond caught her. “Did she feel the need to share this information with little old me? Noooo, of course not. Why bother to clue in her personal student, confidant, and supporter of her livelihood!”

Double Diamond took a moment to process the information. He ended his musings with a quizzical shrug. “Dr. Sparkle’s always kept her secrets, Starlight. We knew that when she started tutoring us.”

“It keeps happening, Double Dee.” Starlight undid her hair and let it flow over her shoulders. “Chrysalis, Dr. Sombra, Sunset bleeding Shimmer. Every time she seeks out somebody to invite to the school, it’s because she knew their double from her world. I really should have expected it by now.”

“She’s probably just lookin’ for familiar faces, y’know?” Double Diamond folded the paper and set it within her reach. “I don’t really blame her. I know what it’s like to pull up roots. It does things to your heart.”

“Oh and I totally fully support her coping mechanism.” Starlight yanked the newspaper from its place and glanced at the first page. A picture of Crown Prince Blueblood waved to a crowd of spectators. She wanted to rip the offending face from the article. In fact, maybe she would. “I just wish she would open up a little. Talk to me once in a while. I might be able to actually help her if she just…”

Double Diamond gave Starlight a small smirk. “Dr. Sparkle also likes to be the smartest person in the room.”

God, that woman.” Starlight rolled her eyes and began to skim the article. “I love her to death.”

She frowned when she caught the main headline: King Bluemane passes away. Blueblood to be crowned shortly. She cursed, folded the page over, and presented Blueblood’s handsome mug to Double Diamond. “This moron—this boy in a man’s body—is gonna be the death of the whole ruddy country.”

Double Diamond propped his legs up on the desk and folded his hands behind his head. “You’ve been saying that for years.”

“It’s been true for years.” Starlight clenched her fist. Magic wrapped around the picture of Blueblood and tore it cleanly from the page. She crumpled the paper to pulp and tossed it in a wastebasket. “He’s got no business acumen, he’s got no cause to fight for, he’s just a stud horse for the next generation of pompous halfwits to take charge of our lives.”

She jabbed her pointer finger at a smaller article near the bottom of the page. The headline read: Violent protest leaves three businesses in shambles. “Look at these idiots. Those riots sure as hell aren’t going to move his butt from the throne. Not that our protests ever made a dent.”

Double Diamond sighed through his nose. “Night Glider thought our rallies were important.”

“Yeah.” Starlight Glimmer let the newspaper slump to the desk. She hunched over until her forehead rested on the wood table top. “That’s why she and Party Favor hopped on the first ship to Libertas.”

She rolled the chair across the floor and nearly lost her balance again. “I feel like I’m on a sinking ship and I’m the only one with the mental fortitude to carry a bucket!”

Double Diamond straightened himself out. He opened a jar of hard candy and tossed one to Starlight, while popping another in his mouth. “We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy, when we starting this whole thing. But that’s what the magic’s all about, right? It equalizes people. It’s gonna put people like Blueblood and people like us on the same level. It’s not about blood relations, or being born into privilege, or race, or credo. It’s somethin’ we can all learn.”

He waited a beat, during which Starlight stewed. She knew exactly what he was about to say.

“It’s why I think Dulcimer being here is a good thing.”

“Blech! Dulcimer, Dulcimer, Dulcimer!” Starlight bit down on the hard candy. The crunch could be heard in the next room. “He’s worse than Blueblood! Shoved into power just because he knew the right people—”

“You don’t even know him, Stars.” Double Diamond watched Starlight pace back and forth across the small office like a caged tiger. “I hear he’s a smart businessman. Done good things for the economy. Dr. Sombra said he was the reason Blueblood graduated.”

“And then Blueblood appointed him master of all his business affairs.” Starlight crossed her arms, her feet shoulder-width apart. “Coincidence?”

“Probably not.”

“Definitely not.” Starlight turned away from Double Diamond, seething at the locked door that led to the “courtyard.” “I loathe the thought of teaching that man magic.”

“Hey.” Double Diamond put his hands on her shoulders. The gesture was nice, though it failed to break through her wall of ire. “We wanna give everybody the chance at equality, right? Put everybody on the same level? I think that should include everybody. And you do, too.”

“Presumptuous of you to say so, Double Dee.” Starlight raised her eyebrow at him, her mouth formed into a tiny pout. “Even if you’re right.”

Double Diamond patted her shoulders and took a step back. “Anything else you wanna get inordinately pissed about?”

Sunset kicked her office chair. It spiraled through the room until it collapsed to the floor. “I wish we could have used Sombra’s “grant” for equipment instead of a new teacher.” She blew a raspberry. “But she might not have come without it.”

Double Diamond laughed. “So it’s up to us to get her as sold on the cause as she is on the cash?”

“She strikes me as the earnest sort.” Starlight slipped three hard candies from the jar and bit right into the first one. “How hard can it be?”

***

Dr. Twilight Sparkle exited the dark laboratory, her book tucked underneath her arm. She went to the edge of the walkway and put her hand on the railing. Her students were starting to come indoors for the day. A few were still practicing a spell or two as they made their way to the eating area.

They had made great strides since the day Starlight Glimmer had found her, seven years before. Comparatively great strides. Most had the magic acuity of a first-year student of magic in Equestria. Some, though, like Starlight Glimmer, stood head-and-shoulders above the others. Perhaps part of it was passion. Part of it was the ability for magic to “click” with them. Some of them were still struggling to believe it was even real.

But then, Starlight had quite the gift of persuasion. The rest was in the presentation.

“Excuse me, are you Dr. Twilight Sparkle?”

Dr. Twilight’s ear twitched. In her original body, it would have swiveled to catch the man’s words. In this realm, she was forced to turn her head to look at him. He was one of the new students; one Starlight had warned her to be wary of. He was a handsome man in his late twenties, around her age. A noble not by birth, but by appointment. “Speaking. You are Viscount Dulcimer?”

Dulcimer smiled, stepping closer to her with his hand sliding along the railing. “The one and only. I have to say, it’s an honor to finally meet you.”

She frowned at that. She clutched her book tighter to her chest as she strengthened her grip on the rail. “Very few people know of me before they come here.”

“Perhaps. But I’m not most people.” He stopped a single step away from her. He was taller than her by at least a head, but he had little hope of intimidating her. From the friendly expression he wore, it seemed he had no desire to intimidate her in the first place. “You’ll have to forgive me for doing my research. I’m on official business for the Prime Minister’s office, after all.”

“I’m aware.” Dr. Twilight Sparkle tilted her head back. She added a little intensity to the spell in her eyes. “As is everyone you’ve spoken to for the past few hours. Afraid of your legitimacy coming into question?”

“Alas, you’ve caught me.” Dulcimer’s smile verged more towards a smirk, but his eyes twinkled with genuine mirth. “I’m a slave to my own insecurities.”

For her part, Dr. Twilight kept her face neutral. “Then what do you know?”

“I know that you are actually a foreigner. And that the paper trail that is your existence ends about seven years back.” He glanced around at the warehouse they were in, though only long enough to indicate that it was the subject of his next statement. “I know that this place was the brainchild of Starlight Glimmer and yourself. Coincidentally, your arrival also signified the disappearance of Miss Glimmer from the public eye. She was quite the outspoken individual for a while.”

Dr. Sparkle tapped a finger on the rail. “The years have not softened her stance.”

“So I suspected.” His laugh was dry. Nearly a verbal wince. “Most of all…”

He looked her in the eye. Most people were unnerved by the spell she used in lieu of spectacles. Luminous irises were most often seen as dangerous. Otherworldly. But he seemed quite comfortable. Perhaps he was a good actor. Perhaps he was too dimwitted to understand the implication.

No, she decided. His gaze did not hold the dull glaze of an idiot. Much as he joked about his insecurity, he was certain of his stance. Whatever it might be.

“I know that what you teach here,” he said, his voice warm and quiet, “is real. It is powerful. It is beautiful.” He bowed at the neck, a smooth, practiced motion. “I look forward to learning from you, Dr. Twilight Sparkle. Thank you for this opportunity.”

Energy radiated off the man. A light she had only rarely found in the people of this world. Starlight had it. Sombra had it. Raven once had it. He had the potential to learn magic at an accelerated pace. He had the drive and will to keep at it, practice it to its fullest.

Whatever his ultimate motive was, he was to be the perfect student.

“Very well, Viscount Dulcimer,” she said. “I look forward to instructing you.”

“Just Dulcimer to my friends, Doctor.”

“We’ll see.” Dr. Twilight grasped her book in both hands and began to walk the other direction. “I have an appointment to keep. Please help yourself in the dining hall.”

“Thanks.” He offered her a faux salute. “’Til next we meet.”

She continued along the walkway towards the west wing, where the computer lab was held. She knocked on the door three times before stepping in. A gaunt, thin-faced woman leaned over her monitor, which was a sight more high-end than Dr. Twilight’s personal PC. The woman input a series of keystrokes that were as foreign to the doctor as could possibly be, then turned to face her. The woman’s straight, thinning green hair fell over one eye.

Dr. Twilight Sparkle took a seat beside her. “What can you tell me, Chrysalis?”

Chrysalis cracked her knuckles one by one. She opened a document with a list of names she’d noted down. “Sunset Shimmer keeps off of social media for the most part. Even the profiles of her most active friends are pretty much bereft of information. Everything with her name on it seems to link back to the ‘Canterlot High Hoax.’ I know she’s married, but I still haven’t been able to access her records.”

Dr. Twilight frowned at the notes. She already knew all of that. It was what drew her to this Sunset Shimmer in the first place. “Most people aren’t this difficult to research.”

“Don’t I know it?” Chrysalis returned to the computer and brought up another file. This was an old article from Canterlot City about the high school’s Fall Formal dance. It was barely a paragraph long, but the face in the picture was familiar. It was Sunset Shimmer at age fifteen, wearing a pretty white dress and a crown that she seemed surprised to have earned. “I did find some evidence that she was a foster kid. Her foster parents are named Davenport and Roseluck. Davenport owns some sorta sofa store with a website ten years out of date. It uses JPEGs of all things. I mean, holy crap.”

Dr. Twilight furrowed her brow.

Chrysalis cleared her throat. “Right. Sorry. I forgot you were allergic to technical jargon.”

“I’m unfamiliar with your technology, not opposed to it.” Twilight placed her elbows on the desk and interlaced her fingers. One benefit hands had over hooves was that they offered better brooding poses. “You combed the images of her friends’ social media posts?”

“Pretty thoroughly.” A folder’s worth of pictures sprung up from its minimized position. Two folders labeled PP and RD were tucked into the top left corner, with the rest of the images remaining at the folder’s top level. Chrysalis set the pictures to have large thumbnails, enabling Twilight to see their previews. “I think I deserve some credit for being able to get past the privacy screens.”

Dr. Twilight took the mouse from Chrysalis and used the wheel to scroll through the pictures. “You can do that in your sleep.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Chrysalis draped a lanky arm over the back of her chair. “It’s just my own special kinda magic.”

One of the pictures caught the doctor’s eye. It had a cowpony hat. A very familiar one. She’d never seen the person wearing it before, but the face’s lines, angles, and expression were unmistakable. “Well, well… Even worlds away, I can’t escape—”

Another picture with the same woman. Beside her stood a large man who barely fit into the frame. His eyes gleamed with a perfect, brilliant green. “Big Mac?”

“Who?” Chrysalis leaned in and let out a laugh when she saw him. “Oh, yeah. Now that’s a sight for sore eyes. He looks like he could fit his hands around my waist.”

Dr. Twilight scrolled back to the top. PP and RD. “Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah. How’d you guess?”

Her pulse quickened as she peered through the images. She was able to pick out Pinkie immediately, though she had never seen that level of joy on the mare’s face. Rainbow Dash was even more cocksure of herself, if that was possible. Anger continued to build. Seeing Fluttershy as a veterinarian almost made her throw the mouse across the room.

When she found the woman who was sure to be Rarity, she had to step away from the computer.

“Whoa.” Chrysalis watched her from a distance, a shade of fear falling across her features. “You okay, Doc? Did these girls break your favorite toy, or what?”

Dr. Twilight Sparkle tightened her fists. Sparks of magic shot out of her fingernails. She could tell her face was reddened with blood flow. She forcibly unclenched her teeth. “These… are not the mares I know. I need to remember that.”

She took a deep breath in through her nose, held it for a moment, and then let it flow from her mouth in a continuous stream. She forced the rage from her body and allowed serenity its rightful place. She sat down and continued to scroll, seeking out appearances from Sunset Shimmer.

“Um…” Chrysalis shivered, even though the room was perfectly temperate. “If you need a break, I can grab us some grub from the mess hall—”

“I’m fine.” Dr. Twilight perused onward, guarding herself against further outbursts. “It was a mere slip, and won’t happen again.”

“That’s…” Chrysalis tilted her head. “Good.”

The doctor paused near the bottom of the main folder. She found exactly what she was looking for: A sight that would have caused most hearts to stop dead in their tracks.

Big Mac had his arm around a small woman in her late twenties. She wore glasses over her intelligent lavender eyes. Her hair was held back in a messy bun, but her bright pink stripe still shone through. The face was, of course, an exact mirror to Dr. Twilight’s own.

Chrysalis gave the picture a double-take. She looked at the doctor, then back at the picture, then settled on the doctor. “Wait.”

“I see realization has finally taken hold.” Dr. Twilight leaned back and folded her hands on her lap. “I trust I don’t have to explain this?”

“What—” Chrysalis peered closer at the picture as her jaw dropped. “What the actual hell?

Dr. Twilight let out a subtle sigh of resignation. “You recall what I said about your mirror counterpart?”

“Goody Two-shoes? Yeah…” Chrysalis’ slight form practically melted onto the desk as she beheld what her mind considered to be an impossibility. “What is she, your evil doppelganger?”

“That remains to be seen.” Dr. Twilight double-clicked the picture to make it viewable at full-screen. It was a grainy phone picture, but the likeness was clear as day. “As does why Sunset Shimmer thought to hide her from me.”

“Might just keep to herself.” Chrysalis swallowed hard, tapping her nails against her knee. “Rare quality in this day and age, but…”

“Moreover…” Dr. Twilight Sparkle rubbed her chin, running her eyes along her duplicate’s body. They seemed a perfect match. “Is this the Twilight Sparkle of this world, or Sunset’s?”

She stood and touched a hand to Chrysalis’ shoulder. “Cross-reference the name Twilight Sparkle with Canterlot City. Also be on the lookout for the names Shining Armor, Twilight Velvet, Night Light… and Spike.”

Chrysalis switched back to the document and typed the names in with incredible speed. “More friends of yours?”

Dr. Twilight gave her a humorless smile. She left the room without another word. What more could be said?

She clutched her book tight, its front cover closest to her heart, and made her way to her special office at the very back of the school. Few people were allowed entry, and only under her supervision. She stepped in, left her book on the counter, and locked the door behind her. She had worked up an appetite after the revelations of the day. It would be good to sit with Starlight and forget some of the stress.

She had nearly slipped up by reading the book when Sunset had arrived. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. If Sunset had seen the full title, there would have been an immediate argument. All of her hopes and dreams could have been placed in jeopardy.

Only those who had studied at the feet of their land’s most powerful mages had even heard of the tome. If Sunset was indeed the student of that reality’s Celestia, then she was privy to a world of information most ponies would be unable to fathom. Including those things that were to be avoided.

Those who knew of the Grimoire Alicorn knew enough to fear it.

Dr. Twilight Sparkle knew quite a bit.