• Published 9th May 2020
  • 1,346 Views, 223 Comments

Magica Ex Dolori - Posh

A wave of suicides sweeps through Canterville. Sunset and the girls can't stop it. But maybe Wallflower Blush can. She just needs someone to show her how. A crossover with Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

  • ...

1. Performative Grief

"Here. I got one for you, too."

Twilight's voice pulled Sunset Shimmer's attention away from the sparking facade of Crystal Prep. The school's glass panels reflected the hundreds of flickering candles held by the student body down below. Twilight held a candle in each hand, both pristine and unlit, and offered one to Sunset.

Muttering her thanks, Sunset accepted it, and drew out a lighter. She lit hers first, then Twilight touched her candlewick to the flame, crowning it with a tiny orange bulb that gently swayed in the breeze.

The two of them were largely alone on the central walkway leading up to the front entrance. Most of the visitors were gathered on the two lawns framing the walkway. That gave Sunset a clear view of the easel set up in front of the school's entrance, where a blown-up photo of a young girl in a Crystal Prep uniform stared back at them.

The girl's gaze wandered behind thick-rimmed glasses, drifting left of center. Her smile was shaky; the messy bun pulling back her hair made her head seem unnaturally wide, and highlighted how disproportionately bushy her brows were. Sunset tilted her head, hoping that a different angle would make the girl seem more comfortable in her own skin. It didn't work.

"They could have picked a more flattering picture for the memorial," she remarked.

"Chances are, it was the best one they could find. Moondancer didn't photograph well." Twilight sidled closer to Sunset, their shoulders almost nudging together. "Thank you for coming out here with me."

"Of course. I couldn't let you face all this alone." Sunset glanced around at the throngs of students – the lawns were rapidly running out of space, even as more students, parents, and faculty kept trickling in off the street. "Although, maybe 'alone' isn't the best word to use."

"Moondancer once told me that she didn't think anyone would notice if she just up and died one day. Guess she was wrong." Twilight regarded the students coolly. "It's funny, though. I don't think I ever saw any of these kids spending any time with her."

"Nothing brings a community together like tragedy."

"I suppose. It's good that they're here – visible shows of support and solidarity might discourage copycats among the student body." Twilight's thumbnail scratched a shallow divot down her candle. "So many suicides in town lately... it's awful to think that Moondancer's whole life'll just be reduced to just one more point of data."

Sunset put an arm around Twilight's shoulder. "You sound like you cared a lot about her."

"We... We studied together, now and then, and we partnered for labs regularly, but we never spent time together outside of class. I barely knew her, if we're being honest. I don't suppose a lot of people did." Twilight sniffed. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be here right now, would we?"

Sunset didn't think she could say anything meaningful to that. She hugged Twilight close, and hoped that said enough.

She glanced around the campus, picking out familiar faces and trying to match them with half-remembered names. When Twilight told her about this event – this vigil for an old schoolmate of hers – Sunset had immediately volunteered to go with her, to be there for her closest friend while she grieved. She didn't regret signing up, but with no other connection to the deceased or the student body, it wasn't long before she started feeling awkward.

The one person Sunset did know was Principal Cadance, and even then, only because she was marrying Twilight's brother... or were they already married? It probably said something that Sunset didn't know.

Cadance had spent the whole gathering so far moving from person to person, group to group, talking quietly with parents and faculty and offering condolences, and didn't have much time to spare for Sunset and Twilight. Just a moment of pleasantries and a hug before she moved on. Even so, Sunset was struck by just how tired she looked when they talked. She still tried to carry herself with poise, but wrinkles covered her clothes, her hair stuck out at odd angles, and her eyes hung baggy and bruised.

Sunset nudged Twilight. "You know Cadance a lot better than I do. Did she seem kinda... out of it before?"

"She was. Is. Shiny says she cried all night after she got the call from Moondancer's mom. All this was her idea. It's more than Cinch would have done." Twilight managed a weak smile as she glanced back at Cadance – she was standing by the curb, embracing an older woman with the same red hair and bushy eyebrows as the girl in the portrait. "Who's that she's with?"

Sunset squinted. "Moondancer’s mom, I assume."

"No, I know that. There's someone else, too. See?"

Twilight was right; there was someone else with them, a tangle of green hair barely visible behind the two embracing women. Moondancer's mother parted with Cadance and headed for the campus parking lot, leaving Cadance alone with the third person: a gangly teenager in too-baggy clothing, self-consciously hugging herself. Cadance said something to her, and patted her shoulder gently before moving off; she stiffened at the sudden touch.

"Wallflower Blush?" said Sunset. "What's she doing here?"

Twilight shrugged. "I won't say she's the last person I expected to see here, but she'd certainly make the list."

"She must've known Moondancer somehow. Was Wallflower ever a student here?"

"Don't think so. Although, don't take my word for it – I didn't know a lot of people when I was here."

Wallflower made no move to join the crowds gathered on either side of the walkway, and never approached the school. She stayed where she was at the end of the walkway, her hands nervously fumbling with a candle, turning it over and passing it back and forth. Her head drooped, and her eyes found her shoes, feet shuffling awkwardly in place.

"Looks a bit out of sorts, doesn't she?" said Sunset. "Guess she doesn't know anyone here, either."

"She knows us. She knows you, at least."

Sunset drummed her fingers on the candlestick. "We should go talk to her."

"You should go talk to her." Quietly, Twilight added, "You're a little friendlier with her than I am. She might not want to open up with me around."

"You sure?" Sunset glanced back at the portrait of Moondancer, frowning. "I don't want to ditch you."

"It'll be alright. I'll do some rounds, maybe catch up with Cadance. Come find me when you can, okay?"

"Okay. If you're alright with it." Sunset squeezed Twilight one more time before moving toward Wallflower. The other girl didn't look up as Sunset drew closer; her footsteps and rapidly looming shadow never seemed to register.

When she was right in front of her, Sunset reached into her vest pocket and drew out her lighter, flicking it on and flashing a smile. "Need a light?"

Wallflower jumped at the sound of her voice. Her head snapped up; her eyes darted between Sunset's face, candle, and lighter, bouncing rapidly between the latter two.

"Uh... which one should I...?"

"Hm? Oh. Guess the lighter was redundant, huh?" Sunset flicked off the lighter and stowed it away, and held the tip of her candle to Wallflower's, passing the flame between them. "I'm surprised Cadance didn't do this for you."

"She probably assumed I had matches on me. You know, because teenager? Or she just forgot." Wallflower stared into her flame. "I'm not allowed to carry matches anymore."

"Twilight's wasn't lit, either, for what it's worth." Sunset glanced over her shoulder; Twilight was still standing where they'd parted, watching Sunset and Wallflower from the corner of her eye. "I'm here with her, by the way. Moral support, I guess."

"...That's right. She went to Crystal Prep. I was wondering why you'd show up to something like this. Guess it makes sense if you're supporting your friend." Wallflower looked at Twilight, biting her lip. "I'm sorry for dragging you away from her."

"You're not dragging me away from anyone. I wanted to come talk to you, Wallflower." Maybe Twilight had been wrong – maybe Sunset going to Wallflower alone sent the wrong message. "How did you know Moondancer? Was she an old classmate?"

Wallflower's lips stretched thin, and she shook her head.

"Just a friend from outside school?"

Wallflower nodded, nervously wringing her hands around her candlestick. She lowered her chin again.

Sunset felt a quick, nervous patter in her heart – the silent treatment probably wasn't a good sign. "Well... However you know her, I'm really sorry for your loss."

Wallflower mumbled something in monotone. Her fingers trembled around her candle; it suddenly slipped from her grasp and split in two against the pavement.

Concerned, Sunset took a step closer to Wallflower. The girl's breaths seemed to be growing quicker, shallower. The bagginess of her sweater made it hard for Sunset to tell, but it seemed like her shoulders were shaking.

"What the hell am I even doing here?" she whimpered in a wet, raggedy voice.

Sunset licked her thumb and knelt down, pinching the fallen candlewick to put out the fire. Then, rising, she leaned toward Wallflower and lowered her voice.

"Do you want to go?"

Wallflower's breath caught, and she shakily nodded. She pivoted on her heel to her left and shuffled away, as quickly as one could whilst shuffling.

Biting her thumb, Sunset looked back at Twilight and met her gaze. She pointed at herself and jerked her neck toward the quickly retreating Wallflower.

Twilight, understanding, nodded.

With a sigh, Sunset followed Wallflower, skipping a few steps to catch up. "You know, when I asked, I was implying that I'd go with you. You don't mind, do you?"

"What?" Her voice made Wallflower pause in her tracks, and regard her with a startled expression. "You don't have to— I mean, won't Twilight—?"

"She's fine with it, I promise. And besides, I want to walk with you." Sunset said, maintaining a low, soothing tone. "Is that okay?"

"I... I guess." She continued down the sidewalk, her gait a little more steady than before. "My place is pretty far from here. Don't feel obligated to go the whole way with me."

"Then I'll go as far as I can, at least," said Sunset, falling into step beside her. "Just don't hold it against me if I get distracted by something shiny and wander off."

Wallflower scoffed and rolled her eyes, and pulled a curtain of hair down to hide her smile.

The longer they walked, the longer their shadows grew, the sun plunging deeper toward the horizon. Sunset cradled her candle in her hands, letting the heat from its tiny flame kiss her skin as the evening air grew chillier. Wallflower's steps straightened, gaining confidence, the more distance she put between herself and Crystal Prep. Still, for the most part, they were silent, and a distance of several blocks passed before Sunset chanced to say anything.

"Are you feeling any better?"

"I'm not crying, and I'm not about to cry. I think that's a net positive." Wallflower shrugged limply. "Mostly, I just feel dumb for freaking out like that in public like some stupid kid. Thought I was getting better with crowds."

"Maybe it was because they were strangers?"

"It was because of a lot of things," said Wallflower, sticking her hands in her pockets. "But... yeah. A little."

"I get that." Sunset used her thumb to wipe a droplet of wax running down the candlestick. "The whole time I was there with Twilight, it was hard not to feel out of place. Don't really know anyone there besides the Shadowbolts."

"You didn't know Moondancer?" Wallflower's voice was characteristically flat, but there was a hint of an edge to it.

Sunset shook her head. "Twilight did, a little, I guess. I was just there to support her. That's... part of why I felt so out of place, if I'm being honest. Showing up to a memorial for someone I didn't even know. It felt... unauthentic."

Wallflower scoffed. "At least you're honest about it. That's more than I can say for the rest of them."

"What do you mean? The rest of who?"

"Everyone else who was there. Or, most of everyone, anyway."

Her comment struck a nerve with Sunset; she wondered if Twilight was one of the exceptions. "People were grieving, Wallflower."

"Are you sure? Maybe I'm wrong. I didn't mingle as much as you did, so, you tell me." Wallflower stopped and pivoted on the ball of her foot to face Sunset. "Did you see anybody who looks like they were torn up about what happened? Did you hear any crying? Or see anyone shed a single tear?"

Sunset's reply died on her lips as she thought back to the memorial, and couldn't summon a single example of anybody showing signs of mourning – save Twilight and Cadance, of course, and Moondancer's mother, too. But from what she saw, there was no crying, there were no comforting embraces among the student body. Just quiet chatting, in pairs or in groups, and a lot of stoic faculty staring at Moondancer's portrait.

"Didn't think so." Wallflower scoffed and tucked a knot of hair behind her ear. "I was halfway hoping you had, too."

"Not... not everyone grieves the same way," Sunset said weakly.

"Right, I know that. But what was going on there wasn't grief. It was guilt – the kind people feel when they don't care about someone dying, and have just enough decency to be ashamed." Wallflower looked away, her arms circling around her midsection. "That stupid vigil wasn't for Moondancer. It was for them – to feel better about themselves for not caring while she—"

Her voice broke, and she turned away, shaking with quiet, choked sobs. Overhead, the street lamps flickered on, bathing the girls in pale yellow fluorescence.

Sunset reached for Wallflower, resting a hand on her shoulder. She felt Wallflower stiffen beneath her touch before relaxing. Wallflower took a deep, tremulous breath, and let it out slowly.

"...It's not like I'm any better than them, you know," Wallflower said softly. "I only heard she died 'cuz my mom was watching the news – some talking head going on about all the suicides mentioned Moondancer's name in passing."

She paused to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. "Six seconds on local public access, and a phony candlelight vigil. Moondancer deserved better. Better friends, too – much better than me."

"You can't blame yourself for not being someone's lifeline,” Sunset said. "Especially not when you're already going through it, yourself."

"I still could have helped her. Or maybe we could've helped each other. We'll never know now." Wallflower scoffed. "I just had to try making friends offline... for all the good that's done me."


Wallflower shrugged Sunset's hand off her shoulder, not unkindly, and continued down the road. She moved quickly; she wasn't waiting for Sunset. Maybe this was where she expected Sunset to ditch her.

Instead, Sunset hurried to catch up, falling in behind her again. Wallflower briefly turned her head toward Sunset before setting her eyes on the way ahead again.

Sunset followed Wallflower deeper into the city, recognizing where their path was taking them. They were heading downtown, if by a different route than she was used to.

Her senses drank in the familiar sounds and smells: the acrid odors of fried meat and gasoline, the rumbling motors and screeching tires. Pinkie worked at a diner not far from where they were, and Sunset's own apartment was a few blocks away. Did Wallflower live downtown, too? The beating heart of the city must've been hell to someone who hated crowds.

Then again, she also hated being noticed, and there was no better place to blend in than downtown.

They cut through an older neighborhood: a few blocks of old tenements and shuttered businesses between two patches of urban renewal. By then, an evening fog had settled over the city – thin at first, like tepid broth, but gradually thickening as it crept in from the sea. It transformed the street lamps into hazy beacons, waystations guiding them home.

Wallflower led Sunset to a bench illuminated by pale orange lamp light. A girl in a green trenchcoat sat there, idly swiping through her phone, her shoulder-length blonde curls afire in the street lamp's glow. Sensing their arrival, she scooted to the far side of the bench without looking, probably assuming they were there to catch the bus.

She wouldn't have been wrong. Wallflower paused at the bench, chewing her lip for a moment, before abruptly sitting down. "My place isn't much farther, but I'm tired and my feet hurt, so I'm gonna catch this bus. I'm sorry for dragging you all the way out here."

"You didn't drag me anywhere – I live around here, myself, actually." Sunset glanced left and right, up and down the street. "Hope you won't be waiting long."

Wallflower's tangled locks bounced as she shrugged. "I'd look up the schedule on my phone, but this neighborhood's a dead zone."

"I know what you mean. Texts are one thing, but internet’s a no-go for me out here, too." Although poor signal wasn't stopping the girl on the bench from using her phone, if the speed at which she was swiping right was any great indicator. She had a pair of earbuds in, so Sunset leaned forward and raised her voice.

"'Scuse me – can I bug you for a second?"

The girl plucked out one of the earbuds and looked up tiredly, her blue eyes half-lidded. They widened as soon as she glimpsed Sunset, her mouth drooping open slightly.

Sunset smiled politely. "Didn't mean to scare you, sorry. I just wanted to ask if you knew when the bus was coming." She linked her hands behind her back, waiting for a response.

The girl's jaw worked up and down, slowly, as she looked Sunset from head to toe.

A self-conscious blush warmed Sunset's cheeks. She chuckled disarmingly to hide her discomfort, and pulled her vest closed. "It's okay if you don't. No pressure."

The girl's mouth curled into a frown, and her eyes narrowed. "No, I don't."

"Okay, well..." Sunset pursed her lips. "Your phone has a connection, right? You mind looking up the Canterville MTS site? I'd do it myself, but the signal's crap. And my friend really needs to catch this bus."

She gestured at Wallflower. Wallflower jerked her hand up and waved frantically from the wrist without moving the rest of her arm.

The girl spared her a momentary glance before getting up from the bench, and tucked her phone and earbuds into a coat pocket. "Can't. Signal's crap."

"Wasn't too crappy to go cruising a second ago, was it?" Sunset huffed as the girl turned to walk away. "Where're you going? Won't you miss the bus?"

"Maybe. Then again, maybe I'll get where I'm going faster if I don't bother waiting." She looked at Sunset from over her shoulder. "You girls really ought to keep moving. This is a bad neighborhood."

Without another word, the girl walked away down the street, vanishing amid the fog.

Sunset watched her leave, raising her thumb to her mouth and biting down gently. "Strange girl. Kind of a bitch."

"Cute though," Wallflower chirped. She squirmed a bit on the bench. "You know, um... this neighborhood isn't really all that bad, but I've never hung out here this late at night. I could, uh... use some company. At least until the bus gets here. If you don't have anywhere else to be...?"

Sunset smirked. She took the now-vacant spot on the bench, folding her legs. "Are you cold? I could let you borrow my vest, if you'd like. It's warmer than it looks. Probably would suit you, too."

"I outgrew my black leather phase a long time ago, but thanks." Wallflower squirmed again. She drew in a long breath, which she exhaled slowly. "We met online, y'know."

"Hmm?" Sunset pointed at her chest. "We met in ninth grade English, I thought."

"Me and Moondancer, you dodo. We met on the Internet." She glanced at Sunset from the corner of her eye. "You were curious."

Sunset ah'd – she hadn't expected Wallflower to open up again. "There's a local meet-up app for teenagers, right? What's it called, uh... Canterville Commons? You meet her through that?"

"The one used exclusively by skeevy weirdos? No, we were... we were both members of the same anime forum. Far safer. " Wallflower fidgeted. "I'm being sarcastic, if you were wondering. It was a forum for some show about schoolgirls in puffy skirts fighting monsters; sites like that always attract skeevy weirdos. She was the least weird and skeevy person there, including myself."

"Puffy skirts and monsters? Isn't that, like, ninety percent of all anime though?"

"That's a misconception. As a medium, anime offers a great deal of stylistic diversity. What's commonly known as the magical girl genre—" Wallflower stopped abruptly and buried her reddened cheeks in her hands. "Crap. I haven't geeked out like that since tenth grade."

Sunset snickered – for a moment there, she almost sounded like Twilight, with that pseudo-lecturing, pedantic tone. "Was it easy for you and Moondancer to hit it off?"

"A couple of shut-in anime nerds? Oh yeah. We went from talking on the forum to talking one-on-one lickity-split. Turned out we had a lot in common besides just being otaku. For a friendless loser like me, she was all I could've hoped for and more."

"Didn't we have an anime club at school for a while? Whatever happened to it?"

"Shut down," said Wallflower, pouting. "Nobody ever joined, and the meditation club needed a room, so it was natural to axe it."

"Well, why didn't you join? If you were trying to make friends with shared interests, that might've been a good way."

"Yeah. It would've." Wallflower looked flatly at Sunset. "That's what I thought when I founded it."

"Oh." Sunset cringed and flopped back on the bench. "So that was just a heaping helping of salt in the wound, wasn't it?"

"No salt here," said Wallflower. “I'm over it, Sunset, it's whatever. The point is, neither of us had any offline friends to talk anime with – or offline friends at all, really. We went through a lot of the same stuff, related pretty hard to each other."

"Did you ever meet up with her?"

"We talked about hanging out, but something always got in the way. She'd have to study, or I'd have cramps, or we'd both have cramps..." Wallflower sighed. "The truth is, I think we were just making excuses – that it was social anxiety getting the better of us. 'Cuz there's no way things could ever be as easy IRL as they were online, right?"

"You'd be surprised." Sunset scooted closer to Wallflower on the bench – as close as she dared without making her anxious. "Princess Twilight and I almost never see each other. But then we do, and everything feels completely natural. Like no time has passed at all."

"Well, good for you," said Wallflower, her voice frosty. "Moondancer and I aren't ever going to have that. We both knew it'd never happen, and we were right. It never did."

"I didn't mean to... I mean, I wasn't trying to..." Sunset trailed off, balling up her hands and resting them on her knees, and wondering just how she expected Wallflower to take her comment.

Miss Sensitivity strikes again.

"...You know what's ironic?" Wallflower gathered her legs onto the bench and hugged them against her chest. "After the Memory Stone thing, I started trying to branch out more – talking to people, maybe making new friends. The less time I spent glued to my phone, or my computer, the less time I had to talk to Moondancer. Right when she needed someone the most, apparently."

There was a note of guilt in her voice that sounded too familiar to Sunset. "That's not a road you wanna go down."

"I'm already at the end of it. Like I said – I'm no better than the phonies at that vigil. Moondancer killed herself, and I did absolutely nothing to stop her." Wallflower's laugh was thick with snot and unshed tears. "And it's not like making friends has worked out for me, either, so what was the point of trying? She died alone, and now, I'm more alone than ever."

"That's not true," said Sunset. "You have me, don't you? And my friends, too – you know that we can be there for you."

"I have you, Sunset. Your friends don't know me."

"They didn't know me, either, once. Or, no. They did, and they hated me." For good reason, she added, silently. "But they took a chance on me for Princess Twilight's sake, and now, we're everything to each other."

Wallflower laughed bitterly. "Aren't you lucky."

"Luckier than I can say. I don't mind sharing some of that luck with you." She gave Wallflower a half-smile. "Just keep an open mind about it. That's all I'm asking. Okay?"

"I'll... maybe. I guess." Wallflower looked sidelong at Sunset. "I'm sorry for being so short with you tonight."

Sunset extended her hand in a silent invitation. Wallflower reached across the bench, slowly, and met Sunset's hand with her own. Her fingers closed around Sunset's.

Time passed; seconds stretched into minutes. The street was silent and still. Few pedestrians were out and about, and only a handful of cars sped past in the night. Wallflower seemed to doze, her neck slumping over until her cheek touched her shoulder, and a thin trail of drool collected on the fabric of her sweater.

Sunset glanced at the candle – she'd been carrying it for so long now that she'd practically forgotten it was there. Wallflower's grip around her hand had slackened as she nodded off, so Sunset gently drew it away, and cupped it around the candle's tip, and blew on the flame to extinguish it.

Then, sighing, she flopped back against the backrest. She was beginning to wonder if Wallflower had been mistaken about this bench being a stop, when she heard the distant sound of a diesel engine chugging down the street toward them.

Sunset gently shook Wallflower awake. "Hey. I think your bus is here."

"Nyum?" Wallflower lifted her head and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Rolling her shoulders, she leaned forward, and glimpsed a pair of headlights cutting their way through the fog. "Took its sweet time. Sorry you had to wait so long."

"I'm gonna start charging you ten cents every time you say you're sorry. Double that if it's something you're not responsible for." Sunset stood, stretching her limbs and cracking her back, and offered Wallflower her hand again; Wallflower looked away from it, rising on her own. "You got bus fare, I take it?"

"Yeah." Wallflower fumbled in her pockets as the bus ground to a stop in front of the bench, hydraulics hissing as it knelt. "Thank you for everything – walking with me, waiting with me."

"Anytime, Wallflower. I mean that, really."

The bus's doors folded open, and Wallflower planted her foot on the first step. She didn't notice the woman coming off the bus at the same time as she was boarding. The woman bumped into her, without stopping, shoulder-checking Wallflower out of the way.

Sunset reacted quickly, dropping her candle and catching Wallflower under the arms before she could collapse to the pavement. To the woman, she snapped, "Exit from the back, dumbass. And say you're sorry when you..."

She trailed off when she realized who she was speaking to.

"...Principal Cadance?"

Cadance had looked exhausted at the vigil; coming off the bus now, she looked dead on her feet. Her eyes were vacant and unfocused, her face a placid mask, and the briefcase in her right hand trembled so much that her arm didn't seem up to the task of carrying it. She stepped off the bus with slow, deliberate motions, and stood on the curb, her pose a little too rigid.

"What are you doing out here this late?" said Sunset. "And why're you taking the bus?"

Cadance said nothing to Sunset. With a dazed look in her eyes, and a dumb smile on her face, she glanced from left to right. There was something on her neck, a violet mark that Sunset was certain hadn't been there at the vigil: A five-pointed star, its rays outlined in turquoise.

Her gaze passed briefly over Sunset and Wallflower, but her eyes never focused on them. And when she'd finished surveying the street, she turned on her heel, and started down the sidewalk with that same too-straight gait.

Sunset gently pushed Wallflower back to her feet, and watched Cadance vanish in the fog. "Something's very wrong here."

"I mean, I'm used to getting bowled over by people who don't see me," said Wallflower, brushing herself off. "So, that part isn't out of the ordinary. But the way she's acting... and did you see that mark on her neck?"

"Yeah. I'm starting to think that, maybe..." She drew Wallflower closer, lowering her voice. "Maybe there's some kind of Equestrian—"

"Ladies," a stern voice snapped from inside the bus. The driver, a middle-aged woman, glared down at them through a scratched-up pair of too-small glasses. "Shit or get off the pot; I got ten more stops before the end of the line."

"Sorry, ma'am!" Sunset called back, forcing an apologetic grin. She looked at Wallflower. "You get going. I'm gonna follow Cadance and keep an eye on her."

Wallflower's eyes widened. "What do you— all by yourself?!"

"I mean, I'll call for back-up if I need it, but otherwise, yeah. By myself."

Wallflower hesitated, and shook her head. "No way, Sunset. I'm coming with you."

"That won't be necessary," Sunset said quickly, anticipating Wallflower's insistence. "Thank you for offering, but I'll be fine."

"Even if your friends never show up?"

"Even if they don't. I can handle myself, Wallflower. And I'd feel a lot better if I knew you were on that bus, on your way home, safe and sound."

Wallflower bit her lip, glancing up at the door. Then she stepped away from the bus. "I wasn't there for Moondancer when she needed me. I can't leave you alone now."

Sunset pressed her hand to her temple, sighing. "Come on. I know how you feel, but I don't like getting people wrapped up with Equestrian magic if I can help it – especially not when they've already been through the wringer once. It'd be better for the both of us if you turned around, got on that bus, and—"

The bus doors folded closed; the hydraulics whistled and whined, and the bus pulled away from the curb. Its engine growled as it drove down the street, disappearing in the night with its rear lights glowing like a pair of red-hot coals.

"Well, that kinda settles things, doesn't it?" Wallflower muttered.

Sunset's teeth ground together, and she drew in a slow breath to calm herself. She bent to pick up the candle – it was still in one piece, if visibly cracked down its length. Visibility was poor enough without losing her most viable light source, and anyway, littering was irresponsible.

"Just stay close to me," said Sunset. "Keep your head down. And if I say to run, you run. Got it?"

Wallflower pointed a dinky pair of finger-guns at Sunset, which Sunset guessed was supposed to be an affirmation.

In the fog, Cadance had already become little more than a vague black blob. Sunset walked quickly to close the distance; Wallflower's steps were slower and plodding. With Cadance still moving as though in a trance, and on heels no less, it didn't take them long to catch up.

Sunset darted ahead to walk beside her, matching her speed, and craning her neck to get a look at her face – her eyes were still glazed over, set dead ahead.

"What's going on, Principal Cadance?" she said. "Are you feeling alright?"

Cadance's feet scraped the pavement as she pulled to a sudden stop beside an alley. Wallflower collided with her from behind with a yelp, but Cadance hardly seemed to register the impact. Slowly, she swiveled her head toward Sunset, eyes focusing for the first time.

"Why... Sunset Shimmer." Cadance slurred her words as she spoke, her answer dribbling out in a long, syrupy ooze. "How lovely it is to see you. It's been so long."

"We talked, like, an hour ago," said Sunset. "Does anyone know that you're out here? Can I call someone for you? Twilight, or Shining Armor?"

"I'm sorry, Sunset Shimmer, but I just don't have time to talk right now. Will you excuse me?"

Cadance stepped around Sunset, who caught her tightly by the wrist and planted her feet.

"Alright, fine," she growled. "If you don't want to talk, then we'll do this the hard way."

The geode tucked beneath her shirt flashed, and Sunset—

—found herself in a sea of black, dark and deep. There was no light, yet Cadance was somehow brilliantly lit, no part of her body casting a shadow. She knelt with her back to Sunset, her face in her hands and her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. In the distance floated a window that caught no reflection.

Sunset tried to lift her arm, and almost fell forward on her face; her hand had become a hoof. That was new. She’d always been human when entering someone else’s mind.

Shaking her head – first time for everything – Sunset extended her foreleg, fighting to remember how to balance on equine legs.

She rested her hoof on Cadance's shoulder, and tried to say her name. She made no sound, yet Cadance reacted. Her sobs abruptly stopped, and her body straightened. She looked over her shoulder at Sunset.

Sunset screamed silence into the void, backpedaling and collapsing on her haunches. Her own face – her human face – was stretched taut across Cadance's skull.

Cadance leered with Sunset's lips, and—

—Sunset lost her grip and collapsed to her knees, gasping for breath. Crying her name, Wallflower dropped down beside her, scrabbling closer on her hands and knees.

Oblivious, Cadance wandered into the alley. She vanished in a mire of fog and shadow, footsteps echoing against the brick walls.

"What happened? Are you okay?" Wallflower's hands hovered around Sunset's shoulders, as though she were unsure of whether or not she had permission to touch her.

Sunset patted her arm, drawing an eep from Wallflower, and climbed back to her feet. Her breath had started to even out, but her heart still hammered in her chest. "I'm fine. She just startled me, that's all."

"You can see people's thoughts, and memories, and stuff, right?" Wallflower crept closer to Sunset again. "What did you get from her?"

Sunset shut her eyes, and saw her own face leering back at her...

Immediately, she cupped her forehead and shook the image away. "Enough to convince me that we can't leave her alone."

"So we're going in after her?" Wallflower's voice quavered.

Sunset drew out her cell phone and thumbed out a quick message. "I'm going in after her. You'll stay out here, with my phone, waiting for Twilight to call."

Wallflower balked. "What am I, your secretary?"

"No," said Sunset, "you're my back-up. I just texted Twilight, but I'm not sure how long she'll take to get back to me, and I gotta go after Cadance now. I need to know that there's someone out here who can talk to her if things go south. And if I take too long, or it sounds like things are getting funny in there, blow up her phone until she answers, and tell her where we are. Wait for her, or whoever shows up, but whatever you do, don't come in after me. Okay?"

"I told you, I don't wanna—

"Abandon or ditch me, I know. You wanna be there for me." She shook the phone for emphasis. "This is how you're gonna do it."

Wallflower grimaced – or tried for a grimace; it looked more like a scrunchy pout. But she nodded, and took the phone from Sunset, stuffing it in her pocket. "Don't get your guts eaten, okay?"

Sunset suppressed a shudder – did Wallflower absolutely have to phrase it that way? "I will try my absolute best."

She took a moment to relight the candle, and followed Cadance into the alley.

A few steps in, and Sunset already felt like she'd been swallowed by darkness. The alley stretched on endlessly; no light shined from the windows on either side of her, nor did the street lamps reach this far. Even with the candle, Sunset felt like she was walking in place.

The only indicator she had of her progress was the clack of Cadance's heels echoing off the alley's walls. Her pace sounded like it was slowing; the break between steps grew longer after every one, until finally, Sunset stopped hearing them altogether.

"Principal Cadance?" Sunset spoke quietly, but the name still echoed through the alley as if shouted.

She extended her arm, holding the candle further in front of her, and picked her steps carefully. Cadance's outline came into view and sharpened the closer she drew to it. Her shoulders were sagging as though she bore some great weight, her head tilted down just so.

To her left was a window, criss-crossed with cracks and cobwebs. The candle's tiny flame glinted off its foggy glass.

Sunset licked her lips. "Please answer me, Cadance. Do you need help?"

Help, help, help... The word echoed, as if the alley were throwing it back in her face.

Cadance didn't answer right away, and when she did, it was without turning to look at Sunset.

"I don't deserve help." Cadance's voice was placid, tranquil. "After all, I couldn't even save my own student from herself."

Chills rippled down Sunset's spine. "Moondancer wasn't your fault."

"Of course she was. So I have this coming."

Cadance swung her briefcase across her body, through the window to her left, shattering the glass and ripping her arm free before Sunset could even process that she'd moved at all. Her arm was a bloody mess from the elbow down, her sleeves reduced to shredded strips of fabric.

She dropped the briefcase through the window and pulled out a jagged shard of glass, about the length of a butcher's knife, from the frame.

Tilting her head to the left, Cadance pressed the shard against the base of her neck.

"Cadance, don't!"

Sunset dropped the candle and lunged, catching Cadance by the wrist and elbow and wrenching her hand back. She was strong – unexpectedly so – but Sunset had leverage on her side, and managed to keep her arm pinned while she stripped the shard from her hand.

Cadance responded by throwing her weight back against Sunset. Knocked off balance, Sunset fell, pulling Cadance on top of her chest and painfully forcing the air from her lungs. She felt dazed and numb but had enough sense to loop her left arm around Cadance's, pulling her down when she tried to rise.

The candle was still alive, flickering, and with its light, Sunset could see Cadance's hand scrabbling for the shard of glass. Her fingertips brushed against it, drawing it closer.

Then someone new kicked the shard away. It flew down the length of the alley, and landed somewhere in the darkness with an almost comical ping.

Cadance's arm remained outstretched for a moment longer, her fingers grasping for nothing. Then, abruptly, she went limp, her full weight dropping onto Sunset again, once more crushing the air from her lungs.

She heard a strained grunt coming from her right. Cadance's weight lifted, and she rolled off of Sunset, flopping face-down onto the candle, and extinguishing what was left of its flame. Sunset immediately sucked down grateful gulps of breath, pressing a hand to her chest to feel her heartbeat.

"Sunset, are you okay?" Wallflower's voice squealed. "Say something, please!"

"I'm fine," Sunset wheezed. Her chest and stomach ached in protest as she pulled herself up to a sitting position. "Thought I told you to wait for Twilight to call."

"But I heard the glass break, and it sounded like there was a fight, and I..." Wet fingers, slippery with perspiration, gripped Sunset's arm, helping to guide her to her feet. "I dropped your phone, too. Sweaty hands – it just slipped out. Please don't be mad."

"About my phone, or about you coming in after me?"

"Both? Either? I don't know, I... I was just scared." Wallflower scraped her feet against the ground. "What happened? Why did she attack you?"

"She didn't." Sunset glanced away from Cadance's unconscious body. "She tried to stab herself with that piece of glass you kicked away. Said it was what she deserved for Moondancer. I just happened to get in her way."

"...So all this was because Moondancer...?" Wallflower trailed off, her words lost in a staggered whisper.

Sunset nodded. "I don't think it's a coincidence that it's happening so soon after Moondancer, or that there’s been a string of suicides in Canterville. There has to be some kind of magic causing this. The mark on Cadance's neck, her strange behavior, and all the deaths around town – I think they're all connected some..."

She stopped when she heard whimpering from Wallflower – whimpering that threatened to become hyperventilating.

Strike three for Miss Sensitivity.

"...I'm sorry, Wallflower. I shouldn't... I mean, this isn't the time or place for me to talk about this." Sunset lowered her voice, speaking as soothingly as she could. "I know you've been through a lot lately, especially tonight. But Cadance needs medical attention, and that means I'm gonna need a little more help from you."

Part of her worried that the request would just push Wallflower further toward a breakdown. But after a few more moments of wet, heavy breathing, her sobs flattened out.

She sniffled, and whispered, "What can I do?"

"Just help me get her out of the alley. We'll call an ambulance, and then I'll take you home." Sunset knelt and took Cadance's arm, sticky with blood, slinging it over her shoulder. "Can you do that? Will you help me out for a little while longer?"

Wallflower took one last, deep breath, and let it out in a prolonged shudder. She stepped over Cadance and knelt; Sunset felt Wallflower take the other arm, and smiled with relief.

"Thanks. I'm glad that I went with you tonight – glad that we were here for Cadance when she needed someone."

"...Me too.” Wallflower was smiling – Sunset could hear it in her voice, even if she couldn't see it. "This is without a doubt the least useless I've felt in forever. I can see why you've done the hero shtick for so long. Just feels good to help someone else for a change.”

"Not sure we're feeling quite the same thing right now. We'll have to compare notes later." Sunset laughed softly. "Alright, enough talk. Let's get her out of here. You ready? One, two..."

A glint from the broken window caught her eye, and Sunset paused before she could reach three. Something inside the window was glowing, a pulsing yellow light that chased back the darkness and burned off the fog.

The hairs on Sunset's arms stood up as a feeling swept over her – women's intuition, or Equestrian magic, or latent herd animal instinct. Something about the broken window had changed. To her, now, it seemed like the snarling maw of a hungry predator, the jagged shards in the pane like worn, yellowed fangs.

It may have been an illusion. She didn't think it was – she felt like prey.

"Sunset?" Fear spiked in Wallflower's voice. "Tell me you see that too."

"Yeah," Sunset snapped. "Get Cadance up. We need to go, now."

They rose with Cadance's weight on their shoulders, just as the light from inside the window suddenly exploded outward. The yellow glow reached every inch of the alley, and every surface it touched seemed to warp.

Swirls of shifting color wriggled across the alley's walls and split into grinning window panes, lined with rows of jagged shards. Even the sky overhead was an expanse of yellow light, criss-crossed with stairways to nowhere.

Sunset looked at Wallflower – she was pale, trembling, and on the verge of tears. Neither of them said a word. They simply ran, hauling Cadance behind them.

Sunset ignored the windows opening on the walls on either side of the alley, keeping her gaze set on the alley's distant exit. They kept a quick pace, but it felt sluggish to Sunset – not fast enough. Cadance was too heavy for her to run at full speed, and Wallflower wouldn't have been able to match her at a sprint.

"Something's after us, isn't it?" Wallflower was gasping out questions in between labored breaths. "Something magical, like... like the sirens, or the Memory Stone. Right, Sunset?"

"Your guess," Sunset panted, "is as good as mine."

"What do you mean? You're an expert in stuff like this, right?"

"This is—"

A thunderous crack interrupted her – the ground was splitting open.

Sunset skidded to a halt, pulling hard on Wallflower to make sure they stopped together, just as a fissure opened in the ground between them and the alley's exit. The buildings that formed the alley walls were upended by great, thorny cables, like roots, rising from the ground underneath them and drawn to some distant point high above.

Sunset and Wallflower, with Cadance between them, were left alone on a delta-shaped piece of land, formed from the alley's floor and the foundations from the buildings that had been on either side of them. Untethered to land, their island floated adrift in a yellow sky that stretched endlessly in all directions.

Other islands floated in the distance, linked by a network of rusted fire escapes joined together at impossible angles. High above, the roots that knocked away the alley's buildings met in a coiled, thorny knot, an asymmetrical sphere. More roots splayed out on all sides of the knot like maypole ribbons, extending into the expanse.

Sunset gulped. "Like I was saying. This is all new to me."

"You don't know what that is?" Panic swelled Wallflower's voice, and her feet scraped against the ground. "Well... Well, what are we gonna do? We gotta run away, right?"

Run away to where, exactly? Sunset thought, glancing back. There was a fire escape hanging off the edge of their island – where it came from, she had no earthly idea – but there was no telling if it went anywhere. Even if it was a way out, it was too narrow to accommodate the three of them while they carried Cadance.

The bottom of the knot swelled and churned. Three long, thorny vines uncoiled from the rest of the mass, each tapering into a sharp-edged, ebony-black point. They dangled freely for a moment before a jolt ran through them, and they leveled themselves at Sunset and Wallflower, coiling back like serpents poised to strike.

Sunset removed Cadance's arm from her shoulder, and pushed the unconscious woman into Wallflower's grip. "Could you carry her on your own?"

"Carry? No. But I could drag her." Wallflower sagged under the added burden. "What are you doing?"

Stepped in front of the other two women, flexing her fingers and cracking her neck. "You said you wanted to run. The only place to go is down those stairs. Take Cadance, and go. If you manage to get out, then find Twilight and the others, and tell them what happened here."

"I— but— what about you?" Wallflower spluttered. "What, are you gonna fight that thing?"

Calling what's about to happen a fight is probably too generous. "Just long enough to buy you a head start. I'll be right behind you."

"Like hell, Sunset, I know what suicide looks like!"

One of the vines suddenly lunged, closing the distance and stabbing downward toward Sunset. Sunset jerked back, and the vine's tip stabbed into the ground; she raised her foot and stomped down on it, pinning it as it writhed to wrench itself free.

The other two circled around, flanking Sunset. She had just enough time to shove Wallflower back before one of them encircled her wrist; another caught her around the leg, freeing the vine that she'd trapped under her foot.

Sunset bit back a cry as thorns sank into her arm and her leg. The vine she'd pinned rose up and shot toward her face, but she managed to snag it in midair with her free hand, just below the shard at its tip.

"We're out of time, Wallflower!" Sunset growled through her teeth, straining to hold the vine back as it pushed toward her. "I told you to run! Now run!"

"And I told you I wasn't gonna abandon you!"

The vines holding her arm and her leg squeezed tighter, sinking their thorns deeper into her skin. Her grip around the first vine slackened, and it edged closer toward her chest, its tip level with her eyes.

A sound like a whip cracking against leather cut through the air.

The vine in Sunset's hand suddenly snapped halfway up its length; it stiffened briefly before going limp. The whiplash sounds came twice more, and the other two vines broke the same way. They uncurled from Sunset's limbs, the thorns pulling free from her skin as the vines fell in a tangled heap. Freed from their grip, Sunset dropped gracelessly to the ground. Shallow gouges lined her arm and leg.

Overhead, the knot of vines trembled and shook, and the severed halves of its vines flailed madly in the air. Tremors ran down the length of its roots as a high, scratchy whine, like a razor drawn across a violin's strings, echoed through the expanse.

Wallflower knelt and edged closer to Sunset, hefting Cadance to keep her close. "Did... did you do that?"

Sunset shook her head, a little too breathless to say anything.

The distant sound of footsteps on metal drew their attention. Something was coming up the fire escape.

Sunset immediately stood and dropped into a half-remembered krav maga pose that she hadn't practiced in months. The pain in her arm and leg made it difficult to maintain; whatever was coming, Sunset hoped it wouldn't notice her trembling.

"I tried to warn you, didn't I?" a familiar voice called out. "I said that this was a bad neighborhood."

The tension in Sunset's stance ebbed as a figure rose to the top of the staircase.

The bitch from the bus stop?

She'd traded her overcoat for a hooded green capelet, clasped with a green gem in the shape of a harp. She wore a vest and boots of brown leather, tightly cinched and lined with thin, red patterns, and a red skirt trimmed with pale, pink lace. Her arms were bare and corded with muscle, her hands in fingerless gloves. Her blonde hair, which had hung freely before, was neatly tied back.

Sunset blinked. Either she'd changed clothes, or this was just what she was wearing under the coat.

The girl looked at Sunset, eyes narrowing as she traced her from head to toe, the same way that she had at the bus stop. Then a wry look crossed her face; she cocked her hip and planted a hand on it.

"Lemme guess. She offered you candy?"

Sunset flushed, her face screwing up. She wanted to retort, but the roots whined again, and she cringed, hard.

The girl at the stairs, unbothered, waited for the droning to cease before responding. "Good to see you, too, Briar Rose. Just hang out for a second; I'll be right with you." Crossing toward Sunset and Wallflower, and addressing them, she added, "'Hang out,' get it? Or did that go over your head?"

She's spitting puns? Really? Sunset exchanged a look with Wallflower – or tried to, anyway. Wallflower couldn't take her eyes off the new girl.

...Oh, yeah. Wallflower thinks she's cute.

"That was you, right?" Sunset said to the girl, indicating the vines with a nod. "I mean, I assume it was you. The timing would be pretty convenient, otherwise."

"How observant."

"I'm trying to thank you, y'know. The least you could do is be courteous about it." She offered her hand. "I'm Sunset Shimmer. This is Wallflower Blush."

The girl stopped within reach of Sunset and looked down at her hand as if it were coated in bodily fluids. Which it wasn't – Sunset had made sure to offer her the clean one. Then, looking up, she jerked her thumb over her shoulder, at the fire escape.

"If you wanna get out of here, just take those down as far as they go. Try not to follow any more strangers down alleyways once you're gone."

Smoldering, Sunset withdrew her hand and gestured at Cadance. "There's no way we'd make it down the stairs carrying her. I'm not sure either of us is strong enough to manage it solo."

"So leave the dead weight here," said the girl, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Problem solved."

Sunset's hands clenched into fists. "Watch it. That's my best friend's sister-in-law."

The girl tilted her head. "But what's she to you?"

With a popping sound that silenced Sunset before she could summon another retort, a fresh vine uncoiled from the knot in the sky, and lunged toward the girls.

Cursing, the girl shouldered past Sunset. The gem clasping her hood glowed green, and in a flash of that same light, a crossbow materialized in her hand. She leveled and fired it in one smooth motion, severing the vine's point and sending it falling to the ground. It impaled at Sunset's feet.

"Pushy, aren't you?" the girl murmured. To Sunset, she said, "Do what you want. Just don't get in the way."

Sunset watched as more vines uncoiled from the knot – what the girl had called “Briar Rose” – by the dozen. "Are you gonna give me your name at least?"

The girl tossed her crossbow away; it dissolved into motes of green light the moment it left her hand.

"You can call me Lorelai."

Then she leaped – flew, really – toward one of the many floating fire escapes, pursued by the mass of vines. The gem on her hood glowed, and another crossbow materialized in her arms – not handheld, but at least as long as she was tall.

Pivoting in midair, she aimed at one of the roots stretching into the infinite void, and fired.

With a gush of green juice, the vine snapped, one half falling, the other dangling limply from the mass's center. Briar Rose rocked back and forth, still suspended by its other roots, and whined again. Its vines shifted angles, and shot toward Lorelai's fire escape.

Lorelai leaped before they got anywhere near her. She landed on a floating patch of alley walkway, a new crossbow in her arms, and sent a bolt through another root. Pursued again, she dropped the spent crossbow; a new pair of miniatures appeared in her hands, and she fired twice, severing two of the encroaching vines before finding a new firing position.

One after another, Lorelai severed Briar Rose's roots. Each time, a new tangle of vines chased her away, but any that got close met a swift death by crossbow. Each root severed sent shivers through Briar Rose and made it sag a little bit more, dragged down by its own immense bulk.

"Sunset," said Wallflower softly. "That girl... is she, y'know... like you and your friends?"

"I hate to repeat myself, Wallflower, but your guess is as good as mine." Sunset bit into her knuckle nervously, distorting her words as she replied. "She’s definitely got powers you can’t find in this world. It’s magic – I guess."

"What else would you call it?"

"I don't know. The only magic I know is Equestrian. And I don't think that's Equestrian magic." Sunset's jaw clenched, digging her teeth deeper into her skin. "No, it can’t be. None of this should be possible."

Wallflower snorted. "You mean like a stone that can erase people's memories? Or music that can hypnotize a whole school into acting like zombies?"

"Like I said, that's Equestrian magic," said Sunset, her eyes scanning the sky for any trace of Lorelai – she'd lost track of her while talking to Wallflower. "Magic that came from enchanted artifacts, or everyday objects that got possessed and turned into totems. Hell, even the Dazzlings needed their gemstones to do what they did; humans can't use magic without something to act as a conduit."

A crossbow bolt the size of a sedan slammed into Briar Rose's central mass from above. The knot swayed and jerked, but the remaining cables managed to hold it aloft. Lorelai fell from some unseen point high above, caught the handrail of an upside-down fire escape, and fired a handheld crossbow through a vine before dropping out of sight again.

Moments later, another root snapped. The knot lurched, pulled down to one side, as a worrisome groan echoed through the expanse.

"But she's not following that rule," Sunset finished. "And what's more... that's not Equestrian magic she's using."

And I don't I like what that implies.

By now, Briar Rose hung by only three roots. Stretched taut to support its weight, they snapped, one by one. Sunset watched the knot plummet toward the island where she and Wallflower waited, its vines and roots trailing like the tail of a comet.

The ground shuddered and shook when Briar Rose impacted, its limbs draping over the edges of the island and hanging over the abyss. Green liquid squirted from the stumps that had once been vines, forming a miniature lake within the impact crater.

Any optimism Sunset felt was quashed when something burst from the top of the mass: a cluster of thin vines that knitted together and coalesced into something resembling a human body. A woman – or the upper half of one – formed entirely of vines.

Leaning her head back, she emitted a high, warbling wail. A dozen more vines sprouted from the crater lake, writhing and twitching with anticipation.

"You girls still down there?" called Lorelai, voice echoing from high above. Craning her head back, Sunset could see her – a wiry shape atop a distant platform. "Because I'm about to finish this, and you're in the splash zone, so... don't say I didn't warn you."

She dived toward the island, jerking aside to dodge as Briar Rose's vines streaked toward her. By then, she was close enough to ground level that Sunset could see her face – her gaze was fixed upon her target.

She noticed the vines circling back around too late.

The vines quickly snatched Lorelai from her arms down to her feet, and held her tightly in the air. They squeezed, and Lorelai cried out, the sound quickly turning to a pained, breathless gasp.

The other three vines hovered beside her head, their points poised.

"Lorelai!" Wallflower cried. "Sunset, we have to do something!"

Sunset didn't need to be told. Getting out of there alive hinged on Lorelai surviving; if she died, the rest of them would probably follow suit.

...And it was the right thing to do, she supposed.

Looking down, Sunset saw the spearpoint tip of the vine that Lorelai had severed. Briar Rose's head was held back, its arms raised and fingers outstretched. The vines not holding Lorelai swayed gently, like cobras in a trance, dancing in front of her face in mockery. Nothing else in the void seemed to register.

Sunset took a breath and let it out slowly. "I'm going to try something. It's probably gonna go badly. Be ready to run if it does."


"Do not argue this time."

Sunset plucked the spearhead from the ground and held it like a knife. Its edge bit into her skin, and she felt the sticky sensation of blood collecting in her palm. She embraced the pain – the adrenaline would be good for what she was about to do.

Unfettered by Cadance, without Wallflower's plodding holding her back, Sunset bolted across the island toward Briar Rose. She squeezed between the vines protruding from its base, relishing the way their thorns clawed her skin, and clambered up the mass, taking what handholds and footholds she could, until she was at its top.

Briar Rose finally tore her attention away from Lorelai and swiveled her body toward Sunset.

Sunset cried out, and thrust the knife into Briar Rose's chest. The vines holding Lorelai, then went limp, collapsing and piling on the ground.

A fleeting feeling of victory passed over Sunset, before Briar Rose grabbed her throat and crushed her windpipe, shrieking.

Sunset sputtered and stabbed twice more, each blow landing with less strength than the last. The pain in her hand grew increasingly distant, and the edges of her vision dotted with spots. They expanded, and met, and merged into a vast, inky darkness.

In that expanding black void, she again saw her own face across Cadance's, leering.

Then Briar Rose lost its grip on Sunset and fell over the side of the knot, twitching spasmodically with a crossbow bolt through its head. Coughing, Sunset looked up, her vision returning.

Lorelai stood at the top of the mass with a crossbow cradled in her arms. She stared at Sunset, her jaw working thoughtfully.

Sunset rubbed her throat and glared back at Lorelai.

Bet you're glad I stayed in the splash zone now.

Briar Rose began to melt, dissolving into frothy green fluid and further filling the crater pool. The blade in Sunset's hand did likewise, stinging her open cut; she clenched her hand tightly and tried not to let the pain show on her face.

All around them, the air seemed to shimmer and distort like a mirage. The yellow void, with its islands and fire escapes, vanished, and the world darkened again into the familiar alley, completely undamaged by the battle with Briar Rose.

The only signs that anything had happened were the still-stinging cuts on Sunset's arm and leg, and the open wound on her hand.

"Wallflower." Sunset's throat felt like a pincushion. "Are you there? Are you and Cadance okay?"

She heard shuffling footsteps, shoes scraping against the pavement, drawing closer. A tiny, timid voice answered from the darkness, stammering between shallow gasps. "Yeah, I'm... I mean, we... we're both— uh— "

She couldn't articulate the thought amid her shallow, rapid breaths. Crouching, Sunset reached out in the nearly pitch-darkness, found Wallflower, and rested her hand on her shoulder.

She felt Wallflower's hand grip her own, her breathing slowing to normal.

A flash of brilliant green lit the alley. Sunset saw Wallflower's face, streaked with dirt and trails from silently shed tears, and she swiveled toward the source of the light.

The light was coming from Lorelai, her every inch alight, before it receded into her upraised palm, into an egg-shaped gem, banded in gold. The light still radiated from the gem, painting the alley in an eerie glow.

"I was wrong to talk down to you," she said, staring impassively down at Sunset Shimmer. She was back in her street clothes, her blonde ringlets hanging freely over her shoulders. "You've got courage. An astonishing lack of common sense... but courage."

Sunset tried to rasp a sarcastic rejoinder, but it caught in her throat. She ended up coughing, instead.

Wallflower spoke up. "Thank you. For helping us, I mean. You didn't have to, but you did, and... I mean, I'm sure Sunset feels the same way. Right?"

Sunset shot Wallflower a look. It didn't register – she was staring at Lorelai with that same awestruck look.

"And, uh, all that stuff that you did?" Wallflower continued. "I mean, the shooting, and the acrobatics, and the, the... lamp-thingy you're doing right now? It was incredible. Like something out of—"


Wallflower shrank back, casting her gaze at the floor and mumbling.

"Thought so. You look the type. No offense." Lorelei closed her hand over the gem. Light escaped from the gaps between her fingers in thin, pale beams. "You don't need to thank me for saving you. It's just what a Puella Magi does."

Wallflower's nose wrinkled, a vacant expression crossing her face.

"...No Latin, huh?" For an instant, Lorelai’s eyes flicked toward Sunset. "In English, it means—"

"'Magical Girl,'" Sunset finished, fighting through the urge to cough. "At least, I assume that's what you were going for. I’m just translating; the literal is nothing like that.”

She relished the look of surprise that flew across Lorelai's face. "Well, well. You got guts and brains, I see."

"I take it that means I was on the money," said Sunset. Savior or no, this girl had been rubbing her the wrong way since they'd met, but patronizing Wallflower was a step too far. Besides, Lorelai wasn't even the most magical girl in this alley. "You don’t mind the artistic liberty?"

The corners of Lorelai's lips curled up in a smile as thin as a razor – and as inviting as one, too.

"Not at all. I couldn't have put it better myself."

Author's Note:

"Put Snake Lorelai on the stairs fire escape." -DannyJ, 2020

I already thanked them in the story page, but a huge shout-out to DannyJ, Dubs Rewatcher, and Scampy for all their help with this project.

Yes, I am aware that the story title is non-grammatical.