• Published 2nd Jan 2020
  • 2,852 Views, 83 Comments

Music Box Blues - PrincessColumbia

Principal Celestia gets help from a completely unexpected source when trying to find a gift for Sunset Shimmer

  • ...

If you'd just believe, Just believe with me

Celestia whipped around to see a pink-skinned woman, this one also with pointed ears that had white tips. She was kneeling down and looking at the presents that were stacked under the tree, holding a small package in the shape of a game or movie box and inspecting it as if the wrapping weren’t even there.

“...but...I...uh...what’s the difference?” the woman’s statement had completely derailed Celestia’s train of thought.

The woman chuckled, “Well, we’re here for Sunset, but there’s no reason that we can’t make another gift a great one.” So saying, she waved her hand over the gift, which glowed briefly. Without another word, she placed it back on the pile and stood.

“...what did she mean by that?” blurted Celestia, finally getting some of her conversational mooring lines tied.

The pink woman grinned wryly and replied, “What did who mean by what?”

Celestia found herself once again foundering, “Aurora...she said...motherhood…”

The woman simply strode past the principal, “My dear Celestia, we can’t help you with that, no matter how precious a gift that would be. You’ll have to explore your options on that front on your own.”

Celestia followed the woman with her eyes, her gaze latching on to the door that she had seen already once that night, it’s wooden paneling and stonework presented in jarring contrast to the modern construction of the house’s interior. Now that she had a bit more familiarity with it, she had a moment to realize there was a small fragment of fluorescent lighting poking down through the ceiling seamlessly, a bright yellow point of light that appeared for all the world like the ceiling had been built around the light, rather than the light appearing and displacing the sheetrock and paint.

“Come, my dear. While time is a fluid thing for us, we should not waste it.” So saying, the elfin woman held out her hand for Celestia.

Still reeling in something akin to surprised befuddlement, she clasped the woman’s hand without thinking. Her mental flailing about was made even worse when the disconcerting feeling she was bracing herself for did not repeat from her experience with Aurora, instead of the suspended buzzing her body felt as though she had been force-fed into a single wall outlet backward and inside out before being practically yanked off her feet.

“...but I don’t even know you’re naaaaa~...” Celestia’s frantic verbal stalling tactic failed miserably as she was once again dragged through what she now suspected was a magical wooden door.

“...all I’m saying is that you probably are overthinking your menu a bit. Yes, it’s good to have variety, and you’ll eventually get to the point where you don’t even need to ask your guests what they want and just give it to them, but you’re running a bar, not a diner. I’m sure your power generator can be made compatible with Federation replicators, all you’d need to do is make sure whatever is feeding it recipes has enough raw materials and then you can focus on the drinks, which is the real art of being a bartender.” said the centuries-old woman.

Sunset cocked her head to the side, “But I thought the art of the bartender was having a good ear to listen?”

Guinan gave that enigmatic smile that only a handful of beings in existence had mastered (Sunset thought that Princess Celestia must have taken lessons from this woman), “It’s like stage magic or aikido; you’re using the patron’s focus on the drink to keep their mental defenses lowered. The better your skill in preparing and presenting the drink the more likely that they’ll…” the el-aurian trailed off and turned to the entrance of the bar, eyes not quite focusing on the fixtures that gave the entryway the signature “mid-20th century” feel.

Sunset watched the other bartender nonplussed. Suddenly, the bell jangled, once again without the accompaniment of the door being opened. This time Sunset didn’t have her hands full of rare alcohol, so she immediately darted around the bar and ran to the hallway leading to the front entrance to find...nothing.

She walked carefully down the hall and opened the door. The inside of a home greeted her, a winter solstice tree of some variety stood in the living room (she’d long ago realized that “Hearth’s Warming” was one of the dozens of nearly identical celebrations across the multiverse, “Christmas” being one and “Yule” being a close third), a hallway to some bedrooms to her left and a kitchen to her right. She was about to call out to see if there was anyone there who might need her services, but then caught sight of the grandfather clock on the opposite wall and realized it was after midnight wherever this was. Gingerly, she stepped back into her bar and closed the door, once again thoroughly perplexed at the odd behavior of the building.

As Celestia was able to get her bearings about her, she realized that she was standing in front of Canterlot High. Something was bothering her, though, and she couldn’t quite figure out what. She looked around to see if she could figure out what was itching the back of her brain, but nothing really stood out to her as “this is wrong!” The school was the same, bearing signs of recent repair work to the front entrance and making it clear that this wasn’t yet another Hearth’s Warming of the past. There was snow in layers around the school, the time seemed to have been rewound to mid-afternoon, though what day she wasn’t sure, the sun sinking in the sky and, judging from the coats the students were putting on, temperatures dropping as evening prepared to take hold. Even the students gathering in disgruntled clumps as they prepared to leave for home wasn’t what was setting off Celestia’s alarm bells, but that was nonetheless a significant difference of note.

“That slightly itchy feeling in the back of your mind is normal, it’s what tells you that you’re not in your home universe.”

Celestia whipped her head around to see the pink woman gazing sadly across the schoolyard, looking at the window to Celestia’s own office...no, wait…

“That’s...me!” gasped the educator. She saw this alternate version of herself standing stoically inside her office. The doppelganger had a pensive expression, eyes flitting about the cliques in the courtyard as she breathed in a slow and steady cadence that Celestia recognized as her own private meditation technique, one she only used when she had no idea how a situation came about and not a clue as to what to do about it.

“That Celestia never took in Sunset after the Fall Formal. She didn’t need to.”

The visiting Celestia blinked in surprise at this, “What do you mean…?”

She was interrupted by a familiar voice that she hadn’t properly heard in nearly three months cried out, “Girls, please, wait!”

Celestia turned to see Sunset Shimmer, whole, uninjured, and clearly not having had a prolonged period of depression induced self-starvation, running out of the school entrance toward a familiar group of five other girls.

All was not well, however. Sunset had tears streaming down her face, and her backpack wasn’t closed, so random papers were flying out behind it in her wake. As for the girls, they were sharing looks of anger, resentment, and...disappointment? Odd

Rainbow Dash was the first to speak, “I don’t wanna hear it, Shimmer. It could only be you! Stop trying to tell us it’s anyone else!” Celestia was shocked, given how intensely loyal Dash had grown to Sunset.

The fire-haired girl sobbed again, “But I swear, it’s not me doing it! I don’t know how they got into my phone, and I know Anon-a-miss’ profile page has my cutie-mark…”

Rarity stepped towards Sunset, seemingly to block her from Applejack’s view while delivering an angry tirade, “Sunset Shimmer, you betrayed our trust! We took you into our little group because Princess Twilight offered you a chance. A chance that you wasted for...what? Being able to feel superior again? The need for some form of power even if it isn’t magic? Well congratulations, Sunset! You did it! You got into our hearts just enough for it to really, really hurt when you turned back to your true colors! That’s a...form of power, I suppose.” Rarity glared at the other girl, “Does it feel as good as you expected?”

Pinkie Pie’s hair was nearly ruler-straight by this point, the principal noting that it had been sagging from its signature cotton-candy bouncy curls since they had stomped out of the building. “I thought...I thought if I threw you enough parties you’d know what it means to be a friend…” Celestia sighed and shook her head. Whatever was going on had clearly hit this group hard.

She glanced around, looking for some sign of an adult presence that might help to diffuse the situation. She was sure that there was a reasonable explanation for what was happening, but she saw nobody. Almost desperately, she glanced at her office window, only to see the Principal Celestia of this world deeply engaged in some sort of crisis involving the totally-not-lesbian-couple of Lyra and Bon Bon. Since she was outside the window, she couldn’t hear the conversation, but it was obviously a rough time for the two girls. Lyra had her face buried in her hands and what was visible of her cheeks were covered in tears. Bon Bon had an arm around her girlfriend and was handing something to Celestia with an angrily determined look on her face. The principal looked at the object, which turned out to be Bon Bon’s phone. After a moment of reviewing the screen’s contents, she hurriedly sat down at her desk and unlocked her computer. (Celestia noted this version of herself was using an iFruity, not an AppleBook as she did) Within moments she had brought up a webpage and had grabbed a phone.

That was when Celestia realized that every single group of students in the courtyard all had their own phones out and were looking at something. She approached one group and used her height to look over their shoulders. On Micro Chips’ phone, she saw a social media profile with a rather...embarrassing picture of the boy with a finger inside a computer power supply and a rictus grimace on his face as he was apparently being shocked by the still live wire. In the background was Brindle, connecting the power cord to a wall socket. Across from Chips, Brindle had his own phone open to the same social media account but to a different post, this one a picture of Brindle caught on camera at what Celestia guessed was some sort of gamer party, wearing a t-shirt with some sort of computer command printed on it, armpits stained with sweat, cheese-puff stains on his fingers, and said snack stacked on his belly as he reclined in front of a monitor, one hand on a keyboard and the other on a mouse. The two were having a hissed argument about who took what picture or set up the other prank.

Celestia moved from huddle to huddle, seeing the same profile on every phone, dozens of different pictures, spilled secrets, and rumors being posted about nearly every student in the school. Through the windows to her office, she could see Celestia bringing in various members of the staff and the phone off the cradle while the other version of her was clearly on some form of a conference call. Were she to guess, it was probably someone in the legal department at the district level, trying to get a cyberbullying page taken down as quickly as possible. At least, she thought, That’s what I would do.

She turned back to her purpose for being in this world, only to see things had gotten worse. Sunset was on her knees, watching dejectedly as her friends walked away, remaining in a huddle as they went. Celestia walked up to the girl, tried to put her hand on Sunset’s shoulder comfortingly, and flinched as her hand passed through Sunset’s shoulder. “Oh, Sunset…” sighed the principal.

The girl, not knowing she had anyone at her side, got her sobbing under control, almost blindly grabbed at a book that had fallen out of her still open back, stuffed it away and closed her pack with a jerk. She staggered to her feet and began fleeing in the direction of the industrial district. That means...she’s still in the warehouse!? The principal whipped around and stalked up to her window...and through it. Might as well use my current state to my advantage, she thought as she shook her head to clear the disorientation that phasing through solid matter did to her.

Luna was speaking, “...and it seems this ‘Anon-a-miss’ account has only sprung up in the last couple of weeks. At first it was only targeting Sunset Shimmer’s friends, but in the last few days has begun taking submissions for rumors, humiliations, and pranks against pretty much any student in the school.” Celestia noted that this version of Luna was working on an AppleBook Pro, a computer her Luna wouldn’t be caught dead with (as her sister had loudly proclaimed many times). She had it set up on the edge of her sister’s desk as they worked in tandem. “The posts have grown increasingly offensive as the days have progressed.”

Counselor Neighsay’s voice came from the desk phone, “And we have no idea who is behind this?”

Celestia, the one at her desk, snorted quietly enough the phone wouldn’t pick it up. “It’s clear the entire thing is meant to implicate Sunset Shimmer. The content of the blog is the kind of information that she has confided in me that she’s used in the past to manipulate the students, but this isn’t her style at all, even before the...events of the Fall Formal.”

The spectral Celestia perked up. If this Celestia had come up with a way to get the school board off her back about magic… “You still haven’t explained that event to my satisfaction, Celestia. Just because I haven’t managed to convince the entire school board of the necessity of an inquiry doesn’t mean I have forgotten it.” Both Celestia’s winced, So much for that idea… thought the visiting principal, “And the obfuscation you created at the Musical Showcase is not going to distract everyone for long.”

At this the native Celestia and Vice Principal Luna both cringed. The spectral Celestia thought back in confusion, The Musical Showcase…? But we canceled that after...oh, right. After Sunset was found trying to kill herself and I had to take her in. Does one person’s life really change that much?

“Regardless of any other events,” came a voice from the phone that Celestia recognized as belonging to Red Tape, one of the district’s lawyers, “We do have a pretty clear case for cyber-bullying, regardless of who the actual target is. I’ll get on the phone with a judge to get this blog taken down, I’ll leave the investigation into who started it in your hands. I will, of course, see if I can get a rider on the court order to have the ISP turn over their records on the account’s creation, just in case that helps with the search.”

Native-Celestia and Luna relaxed visibly, but they didn’t let the relief that someone was willing to direct the conversation away from the topic of magic show when they resumed their portions of the conversation.

Before the visiting Celestia could eaves-drop further, her guide walked through the wall. “So, Celestia, have you realized the gift you must give to Sunset yet?”

Celestia jumped, ignoring the resuming conversation, “What!? No, I...will you stop doing that?”

The woman smirked, “Doing what?”

Celestia found her thoughts being interrupted by the conversation about the Anon-a-miss cyberbullying, so she walked back through the wall to the courtyard, where the subdued conversations were completely blocked out. As her traveling companion followed in her wake, she spun around and put her hands on her hips. “You keep interrupting my train of thought with your...non-sequiturs! And how am I supposed to know what to get Sunset? All I’ve seen all night is what not to get her, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to learn about Sunset here that’s going to give me any clues!” Her statement trailed off with a shout, a very loud counterpart to the depressed, angry atmosphere in the courtyard.

The otherworldly woman smiled in the way that Celestia knew was practically a mirror image of her own “teacher’s smile” that she’d been using for a decade, “And where is the Sunset Shimmer of this world now?”

Celestia didn’t answer right away but turned to look in the direction the girl had fled. She took a deep breath and started after the girl, knowing where she would go.

Before she could take more than two steps, she felt the other woman’s hand on her shoulder, then was suddenly somewhere else. The move was so sudden that there was absolutely no sensation of movement at all. Her mind reacted as though she was physically struck, and for a moment wasn’t sure if she was going to pass out from the sudden reverse-vertigo she was experiencing.

She whimpered as her lizard brain stopped screaming at her adrenal glands, “Stop that!”

The hand was removed from her shoulder and she glanced around, realizing that she recognized the room. It was Sunset’s room in the warehouse and said girl was absent. Not for long, however, as the sound of an industrial loading bay door being slid open and closed met their ears, followed by the hurried clamor of footsteps up the stairs outside the door. The office doorway was flung open and slammed against the wall, causing some framed pictures in a much more homey office than the last visit she had paid here. It was no wonder she had to take a moment to recognize it, the room was an actual bedroom by this point, with the walls decorated with posters and pictures, a chest-of-drawers on one wall with a TV mounted on it, and a loft bed over a desk that was cluttered with the detritus of a life in the process of being lived. Sunset yanked her bag open, pulled the journal out, and tossed the bag up on the bed. She slumped down on the chair and dropped the book on an open space that was obviously accustomed to the presence of the tome, as there was nothing in the space that was nearly perfectly sized for it save the desk calendar everything else sat upon. She looked for just a moment as though she were about to open it. Her frame shuddering, she slumped down and quietly cried into her folded arms. Celestia found herself lifting her hand to put it on the girl’s shoulder, but put it back to her side as she knew she wouldn’t even be able to touch Sunset.

After a brief time where the only thing happening was Sunset’s tears, she sat up, wiped her eyes, and opened the journal. Celestia was getting used to ignoring the voice of protest that told her that eavesdropping or reading over shoulders was rude, it was quite literally the only way she could get adequate information in her current state. She stepped up behind her counterpart’s student and read as the girl wrote:

Dear Princess Twilight,

Something has gone horribly wrong, and I don’t know how to handle it. My friends have all turned their backs on me and it’s all because someone is using my old reputation against me…

Celestia hummed in mild confusion and let her eyes move up the page a bit to read what was visible of the previous entry in the journal:

and of course Rainbow had the time of her life, Pinkie got a new…(would ‘mascot’ be the right word for a rubber chicken?), and I think there’s still some of that cake the pegasi squirreled away somewhere, ‘cause I keep seeing Derpy and Rainbow with pieces of it as they fly around town. It’s been, what, a couple months since then? How are they keeping it from getting hard as a rock?

Speaking of rocks, we need to compare Pinkies, or at least her family. Does your Pinkie have a sister named Maud, and does she have an...unusual affection for rocks?

Yours in friendship,

Twilight Sparkle

Celestia stood from her reading and turned to the other woman, “She’s communicating with Twilight? That’s good, she needs a friend right now.”

Celestia’s guide nodded her head sagely, “Her perfect gift will come to her on the pages of her journal, but she won’t know it’s a gift for some time yet.” The woman gave a subtle wink, “I call that kind of gift, ‘stealth presents.’”

The principal turned back to the journal, “So how much longer are we waiting for this gift?”

“Oh, we’re not waiting,” came the reply.

Celestia barely had enough time to look up in surprise, “Wait, what? I thought we were learning about the gift for Sunset?”

A smile dimpled the other woman’s face. “Yes, but you won’t learn that by seeing what this Sunset gets for her gift. As similar, as they are, they are not the same person. It’s time to move on to our next stop,” she grabbed Celestia’s wrist, and instead of the sudden non-motion move that the previous trip had, this jump felt like she were dropping in all directions at once and then suddenly stopped.

Celestia yanked her wrist out of the woman’s hand, “Stop that! Stop yanking me around the universe like that!”

She giggled, “That would be the ‘multiverse,’ my dear. And the events we’re here for are about to unfold…” The woman swept her hand to indicate the hall around them, which Celestia realized was back at Canterlot High. The only clue she had that this was a different universe was a repeat of the earlier scene, but this time in the school hallway.

Applejack was looming aggressively over Sunset, taking full advantage of her few more inches and her cowboy boots giving an additional boost, “How did she know about my nickname? How did she get the pictures from your phone?” The cowgirl poked an index finger accusingly between Sunset’s breasts, “It was you all along! You’re “Anon-A-Miss!”

Unlike in the previous universe, Rarity remained quiet and subdued and Pinkie kept her hair in a frizzy poof, crossing her arms in anger. Rainbow Dash was, of course, ready to speak for the group when it came to broken trust, “We trusted you, Sunset! We thought you were our friend!”

It was only then that Rarity spoke, “How could you do this? After all we’ve been through together?”

Celestia felt a lump in her throat as she watched, wishing she could intervene but forced by her role as observer to remain unnoticed and unknown.

Sunset spread her hands, “No, wait, you guys...I didn’t do this! I could never hurt any of you!”

Unable to watch any more of the interaction without being able to do something about it, she turned to face her guide, “Please…” she pleaded as Pinkie Pie joined in the angry accusations, “Can’t I do anything about this?”

The other woman smiled sadly, “No, there’s nothing that she could do at this time. She doesn’t have that kind of relationship with Sunset.”

“What? No, I mean…” it took a moment for Celestia to recognize what was being said without being told directly; she couldn’t intervene at all. That wasn’t her purpose here, it was just to observe. The Celestia of this universe was just as impotent since this Sunset only saw the woman as an educator, not any sort of parental figure...Celestia, you stop that train of thought right now!

She broke away from her self-chastizement when she heard Applejack say, “I’m sorry, but you did this to us. Tell whatever secrets you want...but we don’t have to listen.” She turned to see Applejack and Rainbow Dash leading the other three away as Sunset sank to her knees, tears streaming down her face beneath hands that had covered her face in anguish.

Celestia felt a hand gently grasp her elbow, and she turned to see the woman who’d been guiding her around. For the first time that night, the elfin being looked genuinely contrite that she was about to move Celestia through time and space again. “If it’s any consolation, this Sunset is also using the journal to communicate with the Twilight Sparkle of her home universe.”

To Celestia’s relief, instead of the near-instantaneous jarring not-yank, this time the world around them slowly faded, then a new world resolved around them. They were in the nearby hangout spot that the Cakes ran. Celestia had occasionally visited when she had time...which was usually during the summer months, as her school schedule usually meant she just didn’t have the time.

A familiar scene was taking place, this time at a booth where Rainbow Dash was angrily venting at the contrite Sunset Shimmer. “...of course we think it’s you because this kind of thing is what you used to do all the time!

Sunset was set back a step at the heat in Rainbow’s voice, “But that was before, I’ve changed, you know I have! I wouldn’t give up your friendship for anything!”

Rarity chose that moment to speak up, turning to put herself between Sunset and Fluttershy as though to protect the yellow-skinned girl. “The problem is we’ve heard similar from you ‘before,’ I seem to recall that you were acting rather contrite and friendly...right before you stabbed me in the back to get the crown for the Spring Fling!

Celestia remembered that; it was a particularly vicious rumor campaign that involved a secret that Rarity was trying to keep...and apparently had confessed it to Sunset, who had used it to spread rumors...ouch! thought Celestia, Karmic backlash to the extreme, if this is the same incident as the other universes.

And so the night went. Universe after universe, setting after setting, Sunset Shimmer was rejected by her friends because the evidence was just too strong that she had betrayed them. Enough universes flew by that Celestia had lost count, and she was honestly starting to feel a bit numb.

She was able to piece together far more than any of the people in any single universe was able to. It was as obvious in hindsight as it was rediculous...the Canterlot Movie Club (whose membership included the younger sisters to Applejack and Rarity and Rainbow Dash’s little hanger-on) had engaged in a campaign to alienate Sunset Shimmer from the rest of the group, apparently out of sheer jealousy. While the school would naturally start the process of investigating and shutting down the Anon-A-Miss blog once it was brought to the administration’s attention, it was never going to be in time to prevent a horrible fracture in the group that had befriended the two extra-universal visitors.

One thing she couldn’t shake the feeling of was going further and further afield, as though her “home” universe were getting further and further away. This was cemented in her mind (as three-dimensional as the concept was, what with her traveling through universes and not space) when the residents of a visited universe went from being human to various creatures she associated with fantasy, such as elfin beings like her guide, to centaurs to even small ponies like that of Sunset’s home universe. In each the story played out exactly the same; Anon-a-Miss would start up, spill secrets that were meant only for the six friends, then Sunset would be emotionally broken and alone just before the holiday. The holiday itself would change names depending on the universe. Whether it was Hearth’s Warming or Solstice or Yule or other even stranger or exotic names like Savior’s Day, Christmas, or one of a string of holidays with equally exotic-sounding names like Hanukkah or Kwanza.

After watching a mermaid Sunset shimmer swim away from a Canterlot High built out of a coral reef (she stopped asking how she was even able to breathe in these environments about the time she witnessed a version of Sunset Shimmer that was a space-eel that lived in an asteroid belt around a blue-dwarf star get rejected by a trio of space-squid, a space-octopus, and a big pink space-jellyfish) an emotionally exhausted Celestia slumped down on the seafloor. “Please...can I go home? I can’t watch this anymore.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up at her guide. “We have one more universe to visit, and this one will be the most important one that I have to show you.” said the otherworldly woman.

The corral seemed to wash away, then the water turned to wind and blew away the sand to reveal the carpet of what Celestia at first thought was a library, but closer inspection showed it to be a large study, just one with lots and lots of books. Sitting at the very large desk in the room was a woman that looked startlingly familiar, but also just different enough from whatever her subconscious was trying to connect the face with to throw off direct recognition. She was leaning back and slumped down into a very large desk chair, looking more like it belonged in front of a roaring fire with its wide arms, high back, and leather upholstery. Her face was a mask of defeated misery and in one hand was a nearly untouched glass of what looked to be brandy. The woman herself was wearing a rather smart looking pantsuit, though in more muted colors than Celestia preferred, the woman opted for a gray suit instead of Celestia’s preferred khaki and purple. Her makeup had been washed off if the leftover mascara (always hard to really get off without the hot water of a shower) was any indication, and her light blonde hair was falling out of the hairstyle that had obviously not been touched up in a couple of hours. The woman’s computer, a make and model Celestia didn’t recognize at all, had a darkened screen, but the status lights on the keyboard showed that it was at least powered on. A silent phone sat in front of the woman, a girl that looked very much like Sunset Shimmer graced the screen. Instead of orange skin and bright red and yellow hair, the girl had strawberry blonde locks and a similar shade of skin to the woman at the desk. The girl on the screen was showing the same look that Celestia would see lately on Sunset’s face when she was just able to have fun with her new friends; a smile that would finally reach her eyes, but the depths of those eyes belied experiences that most people her age would never be expected to see, let alone live through.

The tableau remained mostly static, the only indication that what Celestia was seeing wasn’t just a life-sized sculpture was when the phone on the desk started to dim for power saving and the woman would reach out to tap the screen to keep it awake. After this happened three or four times, another woman entered with the bearing of one who had some sad news and didn’t want to deliver it.

This one Celestia recognized right away, for all the newcomer’s skin tone was a near match for the woman in the chair the jet black hair was close enough to what her sister’s hair color was, not to mention the style, that drew her to the inescapable conclusion that she must be looking at a version of her sister...and her own counterpart was the one in the chair.

“Sister,” began this universe’s version of Luna, “...I…” she was clearly hesitating to speak.

“Selene, just say it.” the woman in the chair snapped. “...sorry.”

Selene sighed and gently took the glass of brandy from her sister’s hand. “I just got done on the phone with Lance, you know, Candace’s fiance? He put out the word to the rest of the precinct and took his squad car out to the area we last saw Sunset...he didn’t find anything. Either she knew we were following her and misled us entirely, or she was really good at covering her tracks from after the Chinese food place we lost her at.” Bad news delivered, she slugged down the alcohol and slumped into the seat across the desk from her sister.

Celestia’s counterpart breathed a shuddering sigh, “We...I failed her.”

Selene sighed and reached over the desk to grab the bottle that Celestia had at first assumed was some sort of decorative vase and poured more brandy. That must be expensive stuff...I think I recognize the bottle, Filthy Rich donated it to the school board last PTA conference. I guess in this universe mom and dad did better at settling their assets before… she shook her head to clear the thoughts as Selene spoke, “You were perhaps her best hope for anything resembling a normal life in this world. She said herself that when the portal is closed, that’s it, no magic. She’s alone and everything, and I mean everything she ever held dear, including the subject of study she devoted her life’s work to, is gone. You did everything you could short of dragging her kicking and screaming into our home to provide a better life for her than the one she is stubbornly holding on to out of some misguided form of penance.” The woman behind the desk made to speak, but Selene powered on, “And no, Celeste, don’t even think of spouting off your guilt trip! You always take responsibility for other people’s choices, even…” she paused for just a moment, “Even my suicide attempt when we lost our parents.” The raven-haired woman downed the second glass even faster than the first, but set aside the bottle rather than give herself a refill.

Celeste tapped the screen again to keep the image of Sunset Shimmer from fading. “I just...if this Anonymous group hadn’t started their campaign, we might have at least been able to invite her over for...I don’t know, at least Christmas dinner. But once the cyber-bullying began she just started...pulling away. She is so convinced that she needs to be punished by the people she hurt that she can’t see that they’re just getting petty revenge, not serving justice.”

Selene picked up the brandy bottle and poured another drink, this time handing it to her sister. “Celeste...there’s just nothing you can do right now. I know the bullying campaign has been...unusually toxic, as such things go, and her friends left her, but you’ve been reaching out to be supportive to her the whole time. She’s a strong young woman, she’ll be there at the school doors on the Monday morning after Christmas break ready to take on the student body and probably have some sort of plan to force the portal back open, even with no magic to speak of.”

Celestia absently wrapped a hand around the glass and just held it slightly to the side as she rested her cheek on the opposite fist, slouching against the desk so she could stare at the picture of Sunset. “...I hope so, Selly...I really hope so.”

The two sisters sat in silence for a while. The clock by the window, the one that looked very much like the one in Celestia’s living room, struck 11-o’clock. Celestia decided to use the silence and turned to her guide, “They mentioned there’s no magic here, that Sunset confirmed this, does that mean...?”

The green-skinned woman nodded, a sad smile on her face, “The Sunset of this world will have tested the journal after Harvest Festival...what they call Thanksgiving here. Without Equestria’s magic streaming through the portal, it’s just a very fancy bound book with many empty pages. It was one of Sunset’s lowest points, knowing that she was completely locked away from Equestria, not even to be able to speak to her former mentor, as sweet a torture as that would be.”

Celestia watched the two silent sisters for a moment. Selene’s phone buzzed a couple of times from a text message, to which she replied only briefly, and Celeste finally allowed her phone to go to sleep, closing her eyes. Celestia noticed slight dampness squeezing out onto the woman’s’ eyelashes. She turned back to the other traveler, “Can you take me to this universe’s Sunset Shimmer?”

The woman’s smile was shrouded by sympathy as she indicated Celeste, “I’m afraid this world’s Sunset Shimmer, or the girl who would have been Sunset’s human analog died shortly after childbirth when Celeste was still in college.” Celestia’s hands flew to her mouth, “The father was a man who wanted a one night stand and the poor dear never saw him again. Selene was an invaluable support to Celeste, helping her where a husband and mother were supposed to, rallying Celeste’s friends when Celeste herself was unable to do much due to carrying a child. Sadly, their hopes and dreams were dashed by a congenital defect. Celeste never wanted to experience that kind of pain again, so she had her tubes tied as soon as she was able.” The two spectral visitors turned to observe the native women, “She doesn’t know why she feels such a strong connection to Sunset, she just knows that she wants to love and protect this child from another universe.”

Celestia took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Selene standing up from her chair. The younger woman leaned over the desk and gripped her sister’s shoulder gently, “Please try to get some sleep, sister.” She then stood up and left the room.

“Take me to her,” Celestia practically ordered her guide, “Now. I need to see.”

The elfin woman sighed, reached out for Celestia’s hand, and practically as soon as their hands touched Sunset’s room at the factory burst into existence around them, like a bubble popping.

The room was largely the same as the other universes that she had seen Sunset still living in. The blonde-haired girl was curled up in her bunk above her desk. This one had a closed laptop instead of the journal taking pride of place. The journal itself was on the floor across the room from the bed, spine cracked and pages crumpled against the face-down cover of the book. Sobbing echoed through the room, the girl’s body shivering and heaving.

Celestia rushed over and almost accidentally simply phased through the bed to move around the girl to see her face. It was, indeed, Sunset’s face, showing the same level of haunted brokenness that Celestia had first seen the night she picked up her own version of Sunset from the Apple homestead. She’s crying, she’s not yet at the depression stage yet, but she’s close...so close. Instinctively, she made to stroke her hand through Sunset’s hair...only to have her hand pass through the girl’s head. Biting back a hiss of frustration, she stepped back slightly to see what the girl’s eyes were focussed on. It was a picture of her friends, the ones Princess Twilight had tasked with taking care of Sunset. Pinkie was the most different but at the same time the most similar. Her clearly natural curls were bright, bubble-gum pink...but a hint of brown roots could be seen. Rainbow Dash was only recognizable due to her proximity to the others and the normal sporty clothes the girl wore. There was none of her signature rainbow hair, instead just a closely cropped mop of hair that she clearly didn’t do much to care for and a smirk on her tanned face that showed just how little she cared. Rarity was nearly identical to the one from her home universe, the only difference was her hair was walnut brown and her skin was just a few shades of brown lighter. Applejack wasn’t orange, but fairly close with the farmer tan. Fluttershy was recognizable as well, but instead of pink hair it was a cascade of blonde, much lighter than Sunset’s own. Celestia noticed that there was text overlaying the image, and realized that the picture was set as a background to a chat app. She read the visible text, her concern ratcheting up to ‘alarm’ more and more with each line she read.

PonyPrincess: Please, you have to believe me, it wasn’t me!

Soccer>Football: [Soccer>Football has blocked PonyPrincess]

ApplesNAppleAccessories: [ApplesNAppleAccessories has blocked PonyPrincess]

FashionHorse: [FashionHorse has blocked PonyPrincess]

PoppinPartyPlanner: [PoppinPartyPlanner has blocked PonyPrincess]

AnimalsRLuv: [AnimalsRLuv has blocked PonyPrincess]

Celestia noted with alarm that the last time stamp on the chat was three hours prior. “Oh, Sunset…” breathed the principal, sadly gazing into eyes that couldn’t see her.

Into the apparently empty room, Sunset’s own words interrupted her sobbing, “N...nobody...I have nobody...nobody l...lo..loves me…”

Celestia’s heart plummeted in her chest, and suddenly she was in another place entirely. It was a sign of how accustomed she was to suddenly appearing in an alien environment that she at first didn’t realize she was in her own living room again until she turned and barked a shin on her coffee table. Bouncing on one foot while swearing under her breath, she continued her turn and spotted her guide. Forgetting her pain momentarily, she leaped across the room and grabbed the elf woman by the collar, “Take me back!” she spat.

In reply, the woman gave one of her enigmatic smiles and simply put a finger to her lips. “Shhh, it’s nearly midnight, after all.”

Celestia blinked in surprise and looked at the clock. Sure enough, the time was just a couple minutes before midnight...again. She glanced around, “Wait, how come I’m not seeing myself? I was here with Aurora right about this time...unless I lost a day?” she absently let the other woman go in her confusion.

The guide giggled lightly, “Oh, that’s a little secret that those who’ve managed to live as long as I have are privy to. Don’t worry, someone will show you how we did it...in a millennium or two.” She gave a cheeky wink.

Celestia’s thoughts caught up to her again, “That Sunset...she thinks she has nobody. Someone needs to go to her. Will she be okay?”

The green-skinned woman sighed, almost in resignation. “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t answer that. Only my younger sister has knowledge of the presents of the future.” The clock started chiming midnight, “Oh, and my name? It’s Bori.”

Her train of thought once again derailed, Celestia blinked in confusion. “What?” was all the reply she could muster.

Just as the woman’s form began to sparkle and fade, she clarified. “You said you didn’t even know my name when we started our little adventure. It’s Bori.” And with the same mischevious smile she wore when Celestia had first seen her, she vanished completely

Emotionally exhausted, Principal Celestia sank down and slumped back against the couch. Not sure if she could even start to cry any more tears, she scrubbed her face with her hands, rubbing at her sinuses to try to relieve the pressure of her pounding head. I don’t think I was meant for this kind of thing…

With a sigh, she dropped her hands to her sides, then slowly reopened her eyes…

...to see another pair of eyes less than six inches away from hers.

She flinched back into the couch cushions with a yelp, scrambling back and up, practically pulling herself back up onto the couch back to give herself enough space to see yet another elf woman, this one with light brown, ever so slightly green-tinted skin with ear tips the color of coconut and green hair.

“Ooooh!” squealed the newcomer, “This is gonna be so much FUN!”

Author's Note:

This chapter was nearly as many words as all the rest of the previously written parts combined. So yes, it took a bit of time. :derpytongue2:

If this part makes you feel like Celestia was just kicked in the shin and had her wallet stolen...good, that was the goal