• Published 10th Mar 2021
  • 1,509 Views, 109 Comments

Paint the Sky - Flynt Coal

Having been adopted by human Celestia and her boyfriend Sable, the former Queen Chrysalis starts her new life in the human world. But she still has her old demons to contend with.

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Chapter 11 - Lost Time

Lying on her back on the couch in Dr. Chrysoberyl’s office, Chrysalis stared at a weird splotch on the ceiling as she pondered an answer to the question her therapist had just asked.

“Things at school are better now,” Chrysalis began. “The rumor that I murdered my classmate has pretty much died, mainly because now everyone thinks Cozy Glow did it.”

“Right, and would you like to tell me a little bit about that?” Chrysoberyl asked. “The incident with her and the others who assaulted you at Darkside Park was still pretty fresh in your mind when we last spoke. I wonder if having had a good week to process it all has given you any new thoughts?”

Chrysalis thought back to when Silver Spoon and Rover had attacked her in the park about eleven days ago. A malicious and poorly conceived plan which had been thrown further off the rails when Cozy had stabbed Rover’s friend Fido and tried to do the same to Silver. Chrysalis had brought the incident up with Dr. Chrysoberyl in their session the following Wednesday but had held back a lot of the details. She still felt uncomfortable sharing just how much of herself she saw in Cozy’s homicidal insanity.

“Not really, but Cozy’s arraignment is next week,” Chrysalis replied. “She probably won’t be tried as an adult, but even then it means she’ll end up at an alternative school for delinquents like the Blanks. Either way she’s out of my hair and won’t be able to hurt anyone else, so that’s a pretty big weight off my shoulders.”

“From everything you told me, I think it’s far more likely she’ll end up institutionalized,” Chrysoberyl said before changing the topic. “And have things at home improved at all since last week?”

After the Darkside Park incident, all of the feud between Chrysalis and Diamond’s clique had come to light. All of it. Things had seemed like they were going to be okay at first. Celestia and Sable had both trusted that Chrysalis had only been defending herself when she gave them her own account of events when ECSD brought her home the night of the incident. They’d even commended her for doing what she could to protect someone she thought of as her enemy. But then the following Monday she had been summoned to Principal Luna’s office, who had been talking to Vice Principal Neighsay as well as a detective from the ECSD.

Rover and Silver Spoon (as well as Rover’s friends who attended CHS) had received suspensions, and Chrysalis herself didn’t get away unscathed either. At some point, as all of the truth had been coming out about the drama of the previous week, Chrysalis’s physical assault on Zipporwhill had come to light, and Luna struck her with a suspension as well. Fortunately, as a “first time offender,” Chrysalis was only given a week’s suspension, as was Silver Spoon. Rover, who already had quite the rap sheet, had been suspended for a month.

Naturally, Sable and Celestia had both been furious when they heard, resulting in some rather loud lectures from both of them. The rest of that week had been a pretty rough one for Chrysalis, with her parents giving her the cold shoulder for much of it.

“Things are a little better than they were last week. Celestia’s started warming up to me again, and Sable’s picking me up at the end of our session, so that probably means he doesn’t hate me at least,” Chrysalis said.

“Naturally, it’s going to take some time for the broken trust between you and your guardians to heal. Just keep working at it, and I’m sure things will go back to normal eventually.”

Chrysalis just said, “I hope so.”

In her peripheral vision, Chrysalis noticed Chrysoberyl write something down in her notebook. For some reason it always set her on edge just a tiny bit.

“Now, it’s been one week since you’ve been prescribed the Malarsen. How is everything going with that?”

With a frown, Chrysalis said, “Honestly, I haven’t been taking it regularly.”

She’d talked to Octavia about it over the weekend. Having been on the same medication when she still thought Melody was a product of a mental disorder, Octavia agreed that it really made one feel like shit.

“I see,” Chrysoberyl said. “Then, you’re still having problems with your alter?”

“That’s the thing, Queen hasn’t really been talking to me anymore,” Chrysalis said.

“Hmm, that actually makes a lot of sense,” Chrysoberyl said. “You remember what I told you last week about alters?”

“Uh, that it means ‘alternate personality,’ and is something the brain creates in response to trauma?” It’s apparently most commonly found in cases of dissociative identity disorder, and although Chrysoberyl had diagnosed Chrysalis with psychosis rather than DID, her particular case was apparently close enough for the term alter to apply.

“Exactly. You suffered terrible trauma and abuse which was too much for your mind to handle alone. Thus, it created ‘Queen’ so that you wouldn’t have to carry those burdens alone. It’s sort of a mental defense mechanism,” Chrysoberyl explained. “However, now you are finally getting the love and support you need from friends and family. You no longer need your alter to survive.” Then with a chuckle, Chrysoberyl said, “I know it sounds corny, but sometimes the best cure for a case like this is a little love and compassion.”

Chrysalis smiled. It was certainly a nice thought, but Chrysoberyl didn’t know what Queen really was. Still, something about what she said still rang true, and Chrysalis found herself leaving that Wednesday’s session feeling more optimistic about her situation than she had in a long time.

Sable was waiting for her when she got out of Chrysoberyl’s office, and together the two of them went to his car and started driving home. Or so Chrysalis thought. Instead, Sable pulled into the parking lot of a modest shopping center.

“I just have one more errand to run before we get home. Won’t take long,” Sable explained as he found a parking spot and turned the engine off.

Figuring it was probably something SIREN related, Chrysalis shrugged and got out of the car with him. There was an army surplus store tucked away in the corner of the lot. Maybe he was picking up some equipment there? But Sable turned into another store well before reaching the army surplus store, and a quick glance at the sign out front revealed it to be called Rings n’ Things. The (reinforced) window was full of gorgeous rings and necklaces on display, polished to a sparkle.

A jewelry store? Chrysalis thought, puzzled as they entered the establishment under the watchful eye of an unfriendly looking security guard behind a desk. What does Sable need with jewelry?

The interior of the store was full of more jewelry on display, and Chrysalis couldn’t help but stop and look at some of it as Sable made his way to the register.

The older woman behind the desk (and more reinforced glass) greeted him with a smile. “Good afternoon, sir. Anything I can help you with today?”

“Yes, I’m here to pick up an order. Should be under ‘Sable Loam.’”

The woman behind the desk took a moment to check the computer in front of her, then said. “Oh, here it is. Yes, I remember your order. One moment please.”

With that, the woman disappeared into a back room, leaving Sable and Chrysalis to wait. For her part, Chrysalis hadn’t heard any of the previous exchange. The ring in a nearby display case had fully absorbed her attention. Rather than the shining gold and silver of the other jewelry, this ring was an obsidian color, polished to a sheen. Fitted inside it was an intricately carved emerald that matched her eyes. Chrysalis imagined what she would look like wearing it and couldn’t help but grin.

Noticing this, Sable smiled. “Like what you see?”

Tearing her eyes away from the jewelry, Chrysalis smiled at him. “Yeah!”

Her smile went away when she returned her attention to the ring and noticed the price tag. Eighty dollars before taxes. “A tad out of my price range though.”

Sable nodded, but said nothing. He took another look at the ring in question before the woman behind the desk returned with a little black box. She opened it to show Sable, and Chrysalis saw another ring, this one a more traditional gold color fitted with a small diamond inside. Sable then proceeded to pay for it with his credit card.

“So, who’s the lucky lady?” the woman asked as the transaction processed.

With a smile and a rush of emotion that tasted sweet on Chrysalis’s tongue, Sable said, “My girlfriend. Our seven-month anniversary is this coming Friday, and because we didn’t really do anything for our six month, I wanted to do something special.”

“Ah, so this ring isn’t what I think it is?”

Sable chuckled but didn’t answer the question. With the transaction completed, Sable thanked the cashier and put the little box with the ring in his coat pocket. He then turned to Chrysalis and leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “I trust you can keep this a secret?”

With a nod, Chrysalis grinned and said, “Discretion is my specialty.”

With dinner eaten and her homework finished, Chrysalis hopped into the Minecraft server she shared with her friends. For the past week now she’d been helping Sweetie Belle build an iron farm and had been content to let her lead the charge, not being very familiar with the game yet. In spite of the fact that Chrysalis didn’t entirely know what she was doing, she still enjoyed her time in the game. It was a good alternative to hanging out in person now that there was a curfew. The recent disappearances made everyone’s parents much more reluctant to let them go out in person.

“Oh, you girls are in for a treat! My granny says she wants to make her special apple crumble for the sleepover on Friday,” Apple Bloom said in the Steam voice chat.

“Ooh, that’s nice. Been a while since I had your granny’s cooking,” Sweetie said.

Scootaloo was in the voice chat as well, but technical issues with her microphone meant she had to reply using the in-game text chat.

<Scootscoot420> Noice

The sleepover was something the three of them had been planning for a good couple of weeks now. They had, of course, invited Chrysalis to join them, but the frequency and intensity of her nightmares at the time had convinced her it was a bad idea and she had politely declined. However, as Chrysalis walked her in-game avatar up to a blocky bed to set her spawn, it occurred to her that maybe things had changed since then.

“Well, I hope your granny makes enough for one more, because I think I’m going to come after all!” she said.

This was met with genuine sounding surprise from her friends.

“Really?” Sweetie Belle squeaked.

“That’s great!” Apple Bloom exclaimed.

<Scootscoot420> Awwww shit son!

“Yeah, I’ll definitely let my family know to expect one more.”

A slumber party was something Chrysalis had been interested in experiencing since she started living with Celestia and Sable, and as the topic of conversation switched to other things, Chrysalis found herself unable to stop thinking about it. She was so excited, in fact, that she couldn’t help but feel a little mischievous. High up on an elaborate stone tower, Chrysalis could see Scootaloo’s blocky avatar as she continued building the impressive looking structure ever higher. Chrysalis flicked her mouse wheel to equip her bow and arrow, and took aim at Scootaloo’s avatar high above her, snickering audibly as she did so.

“Oh god, why is Chrys laughing?” Sweetie asked, sounding amused and concerned in equal measure. Chrysalis had quickly established a reputation among her friends for bringing chaos to their Minecraft server when she felt it appropriate.

Chrysalis let her digital arrow fly and it hit its mark. Chrysalis giggled as she saw Scootaloo’s avatar get knocked back and disappear behind her own creation.

<Scootscoot420> hit the ground too hard.

<Scootscoot420> godammit chrys

“Oh. That’s why,” Sweetie said, unable to contain a snicker of her own.

“Don’t blame me, I’m a Capricorn!” Chrysalis exclaimed, and Sweetie Belle groaned.

It was a running joke among the group of friends ever since the previous week, when Sweetie had unironically said the same thing during an argument with Scootaloo. Whatever the original context of the argument had been was forgotten, but Sweetie’s utterly ridiculous excuse for whatever Scootaloo was mad about had quite effectively broken the tension and now lived in the group’s lexicon as a permanent fixture, much to the girl’s chagrin.

“You guys are never going to let me live that down, are you?”

<Scootscoot420> lol nope

<Scootscoot420> was blown up by a creeper

<Scootscoot420> FUCK

“Don’t blame me, I’m a Capricorn,” Apple Bloom muttered with a chuckle. “Are you actually a Capricorn, Chrys?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Chrysalis said, venturing over to where she figured Scootaloo had landed to make sure none of her items despawned. She may have enjoyed messing with her friends in the game, but she always made sure they never actually lost any of their hard work.

“You don’t know your star sign?” Apple Bloom asked.

Chrysalis shrugged, momentarily forgetting that her friends couldn’t see her. “Nah, I’ve never really cared much for astrology.”

Then, Apple Bloom asked the question that quite effectively took Chrysalis out of the good mood she was feeling. “Well, when’s your birthday?”

Chrysalis didn’t answer, for the simple reason that she couldn’t. She’d been familiar with the concept of birthdays shortly after first coming into power as Queen Chrysalis in Equestria. For all of her centuries ruling, she’d always believed that birthday celebrations were something that only ponies did; it certainly wasn’t a tradition celebrated in what was now called the pre-Renaissance Tuscan states. The modern calendar hadn’t even been invented yet. But as she’d come to live on Earth again, she discovered that birthday celebrations were something modern humans did as well. But before now, it was never something that Chrysalis really gave much thought. There were always bigger issues on her mind.

“Chrys? You there? Are you having mic problems now too?”

“No, I’m here. Sorry AB,” she said.

“So, when’s your birthday?”

Seeing that her friends weren’t going to drop it, Chrysalis answered the only way she knew how. “I don’t know.”

Chrysalis could hear the disbelief in Sweetie’s voice when she asked, “You don’t know your own birthday?”

Chrysalis shook her head—once again forgetting that her friends couldn’t see her. “Where I came from, birthdays weren’t really a thing.”

“You mean, you’ve never celebrated your birthday?” Sweetie’s voice sounded like it was about to break.


<Scootscoot420> wait really???

“Yeah, but it’s no big deal,” Chrysalis said as she rounded the corner of Scootaloo’s tower and saw the pile of items left where she’d hit the ground. Then in an effort to change the subject, Chrysalis said, “Sweetie, you still need that redstone for your powered rails?”

“Oh yeah, you got some?”

Grinning, Chrysalis said, “Scootaloo’s about to make a donation.”

<Scootscoot420> HEY

With that, Chrysalis had successfully brought the topic of conversation back to the game, with the awkward topic of her birthday having been (hopefully) forgotten. The four of them continued playing the game for another twenty minutes or so before Apple Bloom decided to call it a night. Seeing as it was a school night, Chrysalis decided to do the same, and logged out after telling Scootaloo not to stay up too late playing again.

<Scootscoot420> your not the boss of me

Heading to the bathroom to start getting ready for bed, Chrysalis found Celestia doing the same. The older woman was in her PJs—a tanktop and sweatpants—standing over the sink as she brushed her teeth. Chrysalis just stood outside the door and waited patiently.

“All yours,” Celestia said when she was finished, brushing past Chrysalis in the hallway as she headed to her bedroom. “Night, Chrys.”

Celestia wasn’t still mad at her—Chrysalis knew how Celestia’s anger tasted—but the cold distance wasn’t any sweeter.

It’ll just take time, Chrysalis reminded herself. It suddenly occurred to Chrysalis to ask Celestia about what was recently on her mind.

“Hey, Mom?”

Celestia stopped halfway to her bedroom and turned around. “Yes, Chrys?”

“Do I…?” Chrysalis hesitated, not really sure how to say it. “Do I have a birthday?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way we could ever know for sure when your real birthday is,” Celestia said. “Legally, you were born on October 2nd, 2002. When putting together your paperwork, I just chose that as your birthday because that’s around the time we would have met in Equestria.”

“Ah,” Chrysalis said. The full meaning of that suddenly hit her. “So, I’m fourteen already?” she asked, and Celestia nodded. “I’ve been telling everyone who’s asked that I’m thirteen.”

“Right, I’m sorry for not telling you about it, Chrys,” Celestia said. “That’s a pretty big oversight on our part.”

With a shrug (this time the person she was talking to could see it), Chrysalis said, “It’s okay. Aside from tonight, it’s never really come up, so no risk of getting exposed.”

“What happened tonight?”

“Oh, nothing big. My friends just asked me when my birthday was, and I told them I didn’t have one. Guess I can tell them otherwise now. They seemed pretty disappointed.”

Celestia seemed lost in thought at that particular moment. “Right, understandable.”

Chrysalis suddenly remembered what else she had talked about with her friends tonight, and the issue of her birthday all but forgotten, she said, “Oh! So, I decided to go to the sleepover with my friends on Friday.”

“You did? That’s great!” Celestia exclaimed. “What changed your mind?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Chrysalis said. “I haven’t had any really bad nightmares lately, and Queen has been silent. I don’t know, I just have this feeling like…everything’s cool, you know?”

At long last, Celestia gave her a smile, and its warmth filled her right up. “That’s good to hear, Chrys.”

After a short moment in which neither really knew what to say next, Chrysalis said, “Alright, I’m gonna brush my teeth now. Night Mom!”


Heading into the bathroom, Chrysalis didn’t notice Celestia lingering in the hallway outside of her bedroom door, deep in thought. Finally, rather than continue inside to bed, she turned and went back down the hall to the living room where Sable was still working.

“We’re horrible parents,” Celestia said.

“I see you’ve already mastered the parental histrionics you’d told me you’ve seen from Velvet,” he said with a grin as he looked up from his laptop.

“Cute,” she replied cattily.

Sable furrowed his brow. “Seriously, though, I think all things considered, we’ve done a pretty good job with Chrys. Where’s this coming from?”

Sitting down across from him, Celestia said, “It’s bad enough when parents forget their child’s birthday. It’s another thing to forget to tell their child that they even have a birthday.”

Sable winced. “Oh.”


The two sat there in contemplative silence for a moment. Sable seemed lost in thought, his laptop screen all but forgotten. At last, with a faint “hmm,” Sable grinned.

“What are you thinking?” Celestia asked.

“That there’s a way for us to set this right.”

Sable sped along the road towards the Blanks well above the speed limit, hoping he wouldn’t get pulled over. He’d already come close to running a few red lights—they had still been yellow, but only barely—not that it ultimately mattered. He was already late for his first period class thanks to an unexpected (but minor) incident involving SIREN business.

“Hey Sunset, can you do me a favor?” Sable had asked as the two of them surveyed the morning weapons training Troubleshoes was conducting with the ATG.

“Sure, what’s up?” Sunset asked.

Sable reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring he had purchased yesterday.

Sunset let out a mock gasp. “Sable, I’m flattered! But what will my family say?”

“Very funny,” Sable said in a tone that indicated otherwise.

“I thought it was,” Sunset said with a snicker. “Seriously though, is that for who I think it is?”

“Maybe. I was wondering if you could work some of your magic on it.”

“Of course. Just the basic stuff?” Sable nodded, and Sunset said, “Yeah, I’ll work on it tonight. Shouldn’t take long at all.”

“If that’s the case, would you mind doing a second one?”

Sunset seemed mildly perplexed by the request, but nonetheless answered, “Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem.”

That had been when all of the lights in the underground bunker suddenly went out. The backups kicked in quickly, but Sable and the triplets had all been convinced they were under attack and mobilized accordingly. It had turned out to all be for nought—all that had happened was one of the construction workers building the residence on the property had accidentally hit a buried power cable.

The incident had, however, prompted Troubleshoes to pull Sable aside for a brief chat.

“The training for the ATG is going really well. It’s clear these ladies were the real deal back in their homeland,” the big man told him. “But their cohesion just now was…sloppy. I don’t think they’re quite used to working as a team yet.”

Sable nodded. “Even I noticed that. I figured it was just that they’re still not used to our methods of warfare.”

“Oh, I think that’s a big part of it as well. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, actually.”

“Well, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears,” Sable said.

Giving him a hard look, Troubleshoes said, “We need to give them a taste of real modern combat.”

“A live fire exercise?”

Troubleshoes nodded. “I’m still trying to figure out the details of how to proceed myself. I’d like to do a little more than just take them to a paintball arena.”

“I know what you mean, but it’s going to be tricky finding a way to do it that doesn’t draw attention,” Sable said, checking his watch. That had been the moment he’d realized he was going to be late. “Look, I’ve gotta go, but I’ll look into it and let you know what I find.”

“Thanks, Sable.”

Sending a quick text to one of his coworkers, Sable sprinted to his car. Now, he found himself sprinting out of his car and through the staff entrance of the Blanks. At twenty-five minutes past nine, Sable arrived at his classroom, where his colleague Red Horse was currently giving his history lecture, and by the looks of it bullshitting her way through most of it.

Still standing out in the hall, Sable waved to get her attention and the stocky redheaded woman paused her lecture and left the bored looking students to meet him.

“Thanks again for this, Red,” Sable said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Just get me one night with that girlfriend of yours and I’ll call it even.”

Sable knew she was only joking. Probably.

“Seriously though, Sable. This is the third time in two weeks I’ve had to cover for you now,” Red continued. Now Sable knew she definitely wasn’t joking. “Seriously dude, if the stars hadn’t aligned for me to have a free period each time, you’d be shit out of luck.”

Sable didn’t need her to tell him he’d been pushing it lately. “I know.”

“Whatever’s going on in your life that’s got you stretched so thin, you need to figure that shit out sooner than later!” Red exclaimed. “I can’t keep doing this for you.”

She was absolutely right, of course, but all Sable could do was give her another meager “thank you” as she turned and left. Then taking a moment to collect himself, Sable entered his classroom.

“Okay, who wants to tell me where Ms. Horse left off?” he asked.

One of his students raised his hand and let him know, and Sable continued with the lecture on autopilot, his heart and mind not into it. “Stretched thin” had been the term Red Horse had used, and it was apt. His work at the Blanks was very much suffering for it. As the day went on, Sable realized with increasing certainty that it was past time he decided what his future was going to look like.

It was Thursday, and as such Chrysalis had her weekly meetup with the movie club at the end of the school day. Things were a little awkward between her and Star Tracker now, but that didn’t mean Chrysalis still didn’t enjoy watching and talking about movies with him and the other club members. Chrysalis hadn’t told him that she’d overheard his conversation with his friends back when everyone at school thought she’d killed a classmate, and she honestly didn’t feel the need to. What purpose would it serve? Better to just let the whole thing rest. However, when Chrysalis walked into the classroom the movie club regularly used, she was greeted with an unexpected surprise.

Haaaaaaappy birthday to you!” Juniper Montage and the other club members sang, all standing around a cake with white frosting and lit candles on one of the desks. “Happy birthday to you!

Chrysalis’s mind was a whirlwind of thought and she was surprised to find herself overcome with emotion. It wasn’t her birthday; it wasn’t even the fake birthday that Celestia had told her she had. Still, somehow her movie club had prepared this surprise for her (perhaps Apple Bloom and the others had talked to them earlier today because of the conversation they had the previous night?) and Chrysalis inexplicably found her voice catching in her throat as a warm smile crossed her face.

“Happy birthday dear Star Tracker!

Chrysalis’s smile disappeared in an instant, and her face turning faintly red, Chrysalis looked over her shoulder to see that Star had entered the classroom right behind her as the rest of the club finished the song.

Happy birthday to you!

“Wow, thanks guys!” Star said as he walked past an increasingly flustered Chrysalis towards his birthday cake. “You totally didn’t have to do this.”

“Yeah, we didn’t have to, but it’s a good excuse to have cake with this week’s movie,” Juniper said as she cut out the first piece and put it on a plate for the apparent birthday boy. She then looked up at Chrysalis, who was still standing awkwardly by the door. “Well, come on Chrys. Aren’t you going to have some cake with us?”

Suddenly remembering herself, Chrysalis nodded and joined the group around the desk, grabbing a paper plate to put a slice on. Star Tracker was beside her, happily biting into his own with a plastic fork.

“Didn’t know it was your birthday,” Chrysalis said, then added as an afterthought, “Happy birthday.”

“Technically yesterday was my birthday, but I mentioned it to Film Reel’s sister and I guess she mentioned it to him who mentioned it to Juni.”

Chrysalis just grunted and nodded, then took her slice of cake and went to eat it at one of the desks in the corner of the room. Its sweetness was of little comfort to the inexplicable feeling of crushing disappointment Chrysalis felt.

“Hey,” Star said. Chrysalis looked up from her piece of cake to see that he had taken a seat at the desk beside hers. “Is everything good? You don’t quite seem like yourself today.”

“Fine,” Chrysalis said, taking another bite of cake to avoid having to elaborate further.

Star didn’t look convinced, but didn’t seem inclined to pursue the matter any further, as he too took a bite of his birthday cake.

“You know, it occurs to me I might owe you an apology,” he said after a moment. Chrysalis raised a brow and looked up from her cake at him. “Two weeks back, y’know, when everyone was saying…those things about you, I…I think I kinda believed them.”

Chrysalis said nothing back and gave him a calm, patient glare which prompted him to continue. “In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious you wouldn’t hurt anyone. You are a huge dork, after all.”

Finally allowing herself a small smile, Chrysalis said, “I take umbrage to that assertion.” Still, he was sweet to say so. Dead wrong, of course. But still sweet.

“If it seems like I’ve been more distant lately, it’s because I feel like a huge jerk whenever I’m around you now. You were clearly going through a hard time before, and as your friend I should have been there for you. I’m sorry I wasn’t.” Then with a humorous but no less sincere smile, Star said, “Think you could forgive a stupid idiot?”

With a mischievous smile of her own, Chrysalis said, “Star, I could never hate you for being stupid any more than I could hate a trash can for being full of garbage.”

Star chuckled. “Oof. Harsh, but fair.”

With a chuckle of her own, Chrysalis said, “You don’t have to worry, though. That’s not what’s bothering me.”

“Oh. Well, seeing as I’m a stupid trash can, care to explain in simple terms what exactly is bothering you?”

Chrysalis shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s kinda dumb.”

“Then I should understand it perfectly.”

Chrysalis didn’t answer for a number of moments, and she honestly considered just saying nothing. But then she opened her mouth and said, “When the rest of the club started singing, I thought it was for me.”

“Oh.” Star then did a double-take. “Wait, is it your birthday too?”

“No, that’s the stupid part. I’ve never even celebrated my birthday before.” Unable to continue looking Star in the eye, Chrysalis looked down at her slice of cake and pushed a piece of it around with her fork. “For so many years I didn’t think I needed to. I always thought birthdays were an asinine tradition and, I don’t know. I just thought I was above it all, but now….”

Chrysalis sighed and a tight pain gripped her throat as she realized what all of this thought of birthdays was really about the moment she said, “I just have so much lost time to make up for.”

Chrysalis managed to hold herself together, if for no other reason than she refused to become known as the girl who cried into a piece of cake in the corner of the movie club. But the realization that she may never truly be able to get back centuries of lost time hurt more deeply than even she could have expected.

The weight of her thoughts dragged down the rest of what was usually an enjoyable after school club until it was time to leave. With her head hung low, Chrysalis made her way through the empty halls towards the school exit. With her gaze quite firmly focused on the floor, Chrysalis wasn’t looking where she was going and nearly bumped into a smartly dressed older female figure.

“Whoops, sorry Principal Luna,” she said.

Principal Luna, who also appeared to be on her way out, smiled at her and said, “Chrys, I’m off the clock. Just ‘Luna’ is fine. Or…” Luna seemed hesitant. “Auntie Luna, if you like.”

Chrysalis just grunted an acknowledgement and continued on her way. Luna fell into step beside her, evidently also heading to the school’s main entrance.

“You seem a little glum, everything okay?” Luna asked as they walked.

“Fine. Well, not really, but you know…” Chrysalis said, hoping to simply leave it at that.

“Well, you know what always picks me up when I’m feeling down?” Luna asked. “Some delicious greasy food.”

Chrysalis finally pulled her gaze away from her own feet to look at Luna curiously. She was feeling hungry, owed to her rather light lunch.

“As it happens, I was thinking of grabbing a bite myself,” Luna continued. “Care to join me?”

Allowing herself a little smile, Chrysalis asked, “Where we going?”

“My favorite local greasy spoon, the Sweet Spot. Ever been?”

Chrysalis shook her head, and Luna gave her a deadly serious look. “Well, we have to rectify that immediately. You haven’t lived until you’ve had the Canterburger!”

Taking a breath, Sable knocked on the door to Principal Sombra’s office. This wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.

“Come on in,” the deep bass of Sombra’s voice answered the knock, and Sable stepped into the office. “Ah, evening Sable. What can I do for you?”

Closing the door behind him, Sable took the seat in front of Sombra’s desk. “Sombra, I’m going to cut right to the chase.”

Sable then took out the document he had put together after classes had ended and placed it on the desk in front of Sombra, who looked at it with a contemplative frown. “Ah, this is…?”

“My two weeks' notice,” Sable said. “I figure I’ll finish off the rest of this semester, and then after the holidays, I’ll be gone.”

Sombra put on his reading glasses as he went over Sable’s letter of resignation a bit more thoroughly. “Well, I wish I could say this was a surprise but honestly, the bigger surprise is that you waited this long.”

Sable didn’t really know what to say to that. He and Sombra had already had more than one discussion about his recent performance.

“Have to say, as disappointed as I am by this outcome, I think you’ve made the right choice,” Sombra said, putting the letter back down on his desk. “I take it this mysterious ‘other job’ of yours has been working out well?”

Sable nodded. “It is. Though, if I’m being honest it isn’t the only reason why I’m quitting.”


“Yeah, just last night something came to my attention that made me realize my work at the Blanks hasn’t been the only thing that’s been suffering recently.”

Understanding filled Sombra’s eyes. “Your family?”

Nodding again, Sable said, “My dau…uh, little girl in particular. She’s been through a pretty rough patch recently and I regret not having the time to really be there for her.”

“Of course, I understand completely,” Sombra said, filing away Sable’s letter of resignation (as well as the rest of the paperwork on his desk) into one of his desk drawers. “Still, I hate to see you go. I think you really made a difference to the students in the short time you were here. And if you ever find yourself wanting to go back to teaching, just give me a call. At the very least I can give you some recommendations.”

“Thank you Sombra. For everything.”

The two men stood and shook hands. All in all, Sable thought that could have gone a lot worse.

“Hey, why don’t we grab a bite together like old times?” Sombra suggested. “I skipped lunch, and was thinking of grabbing a burger somewhere.”

Sable thought about it. He and Celestia didn’t have any particular plans for dinner tonight. In fact, she had told him that she expected to be at the office kind of late.

“Yeah, I could eat,” Sable said. “Where to?”

The name “The Sweet Spot” adorned the front of the restaurant in big glowing yellow letters. They were somewhat evocative of the golden arches of a certain other much more widespread fast food chain. Below the name was written in smaller script, HOME OF THE WORLD-FAMOUS CANTERBURGER.

“Is this ‘Canterburger’ really world-famous?” Chrysalis asked Luna as the two of them entered the establishment.

“I should hope so, the world needs to know about it!” Luna proclaimed.

With a grin, Chrysalis said, “You’re really hyping this burger up. I feel like it can’t be anything but disappointing now.”

Matching her niece’s grin, Luna said, “Well, I hope you’re feeling hungry, because you’re going to eat those words as well as the burger!”

As it happened, Luna was right. The Canterburger was delicious and unlike anything she’d ever tasted before. She’d had burgers before; once when Sable grilled some up in her first week living with them and another time from the very same cheap fast food chain whose golden arches reigned across the world. Each of those paled in comparison to the burger she was putting away now, with its perfect mix of bacon, sauces and vegetable toppings.

“Alright, you win. This burger deserves to be bronzed and put in the Smithsonian,” Chrysalis said, eliciting a bark of laughter from Luna.

“Right?” she said. “I only just discovered this place relatively recently, and I don’t know how I lived without it all my life.”

Her smile slowly vanishing, Chrysalis looked down at the literal food for thought in front of her. She had lived without a lot more than the Canterburger for most of her very long life.

“Chrys?” Luna said. Chrysalis looked up from the half eaten burger to Luna’s curious frown. “I know we’ve never been terribly close—one reason I brought you here was to try to change that—but we are family. I hope you know you can confide in me with whatever’s troubling you.”

“Am I that transparent?” Chrysalis asked before seeking comfort in another delicious bite.

“I’ve been around long enough to pick up on these things.”

Swallowing her bite of burger, Chrysalis explained, “I’ve just recently been thinking about how much time I’ve lost. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with my new life now, but it’s been full of so many firsts, and there’s still so many firsts yet to come. It just feels like…like there isn’t enough time.”

“Believe it or not, I know what you mean,” Luna said. “Did my sister ever tell you about my edgelord phase?”

“She told me you called yourself ‘Nightmare Moon’, which is a funny coincidence in itself, and that she broke your arm.”

“Yeah. The fact is, my whole stint as ‘Nightmare Moon’ caused me to miss a lot. Birthdays and other important occasions. We even had a bunch of family visit from Italy, and I was so busy being…well, Nightmare Moon to even show my face.” Luna sighed, and Chrysalis could tell that some of that regret lingered even now. “My paternal grandfather had apparently been at that family gathering. He absolutely doted on me when I was little, and I loved him dearly, but I hadn’t seen him since my family moved to the States.”

After a not-insignificant length of silence, Luna sighed and said, “He passed away some time after returning to Italy.”

“I’m sorry,” Chrysalis said, the words feeling useless but unable to conjure any more.

“Thanks, but it was a long time ago,” Luna said. “Still, what hurts the most even now is that I had a chance to see him one last time but had my head too far up my ass to bother. He hadn’t seen me since I was a very young child, and I’m sure he would have loved to see the young woman I’d grown into. Of course, considering who that young woman had been then, maybe it’s for the best that he died remembering a more innocent Luna.”


“It’s not quite the same as your situation, I know, but I think you can take the same lesson from it as I did.”

“And that is?”

Luna took a sip of the Pepsi she got with her food before answering, “Enjoy the moment and take nothing for granted. Instead of dwelling on all you’ve missed out on, focus on everything you’re a part of here and now.”

Chrysalis took some time to reflect on that as she finished her burger. Luna was right, and it wasn’t like Chrysalis didn’t still have her whole life ahead of her. In fact, Chrysalis wasn’t even sure how long she still had. She’d already lived for centuries in Equestria. Would she return to a normal human lifespan now that she was back on Earth? Or would she continue to outlive her friends and family? An entirely different problem to worry about, to be sure, but ultimately one Chrysalis decided not to concern herself with. She decided she would follow Luna’s advice and just live in the present for now.

“Luna?” a familiar voice spoke up towards the entrance of the restaurant.

“Oh, hello Sable. What a coincidence running into you here,” Luna said. “I just thought I’d take Chrys out for some aunt-niece bonding.”

Shifting in her seat, Chrysalis turned to look over her shoulder. “Hey Dad!” was what she had intended to say, but the greeting died in her throat when she saw that Sable wasn’t alone.

Another man was standing next to him, his familiar black hair and red eyes turning Chrysalis’s veins to ice. She found herself gazing upon the face from her nightmares; the face she saw when murder first entered her heart. All at once, Chrysalis found herself far away from the present moment—in direct opposition to Luna’s now forgotten advice moments before. Chrysalis was back in the confines of the Crystal Palace, bloodied, half naked, and alone with the cruel king.

“Ah, Luna. Good to see you,” Sombra said, an undercurrent of menace in the dark king’s voice.

He then turned his gaze to Chrysalis, who suddenly felt small and helpless. “And this must be the ‘Chrys’ I’ve heard so much about,” he said, but all Chrysalis heard was, My pet Rose.

King Sombra then reached out towards her; to strike her, to hold her down and…have his way with her, Chrysalis didn’t know which. Likely both, not necessarily in that order.

Stammi lontano, bastardo!” Chrysalis cried out, her half-remembered mother tongue spilling forth from her lips as naturally as breathing as she knocked aside Sombra’s outstretched hand and followed up with a punch to the stomach as hard as she could muster.

The man’s eyes bulged out of their sockets and he lurched forward as he staggered back into a table with a clatter. The startled shriek of another customer was what brought Chrysalis back to reality. She realized that the man now crumpled on the floor in front of her was clearly an ordinary human and not a unicorn with horrifying dark magic. Chrysalis supposed that the idea of him having a counterpart on Earth had occurred to her before, but figured her chances of encountering him were slim to none.

Chrysalis then looked around. Luna had her hand over her mouth in shock. Sable was staring at her with a mortified expression on his face—one she realized he’d been wearing the moment he saw her sitting with Luna. The confused, judgemental stares of the staff and other customers of the Sweet Spot were what ultimately drove Chrysalis to seek out an escape, and her hands still trembling, she bolted for the door.

Seeing this, Sable immediately knew he had to go after her, and quickly glanced at Sombra as the man struggled to pull himself up with a hand on the table he’d crashed into.

“Luna?” Sable asked.

Luna understood immediately. “I’ve got him, you just go get her.”

Giving her an appreciative nod, Sable turned and went out the front door after Chrysalis. Luna moved to Sombra’s side and helped him to his feet. “I’m so sorry, are you alright?” she asked.

“Fine,” Sombra said with a slight wince. “I’ve taken worse hits than that.”

The server who had brought Luna and Chrysalis their burgers was now next to them and had brought out her phone. “Should I call the police?” she said.

Luna tried desperately to think of a reason for her not to, but Sombra beat her to it. “No, that won’t be necessary, it was an accident. The kid and I were just horsing around and me, being the clumsy oaf that I am, slipped and fell. My fault entirely. Sorry about that.”

The server didn’t look convinced, but nevertheless said, “If you say so,” before rushing off, likely to grab something with which to clean up the mess.

“Appreciate that, Sombra,” Luna said when the server was gone. The two of them took a seat at Luna’s table, Sombra sitting in the seat previously occupied by Chrysalis. “I take it Sable told you about her background, then?”

“Not in any detail, but enough to paint a pretty clear picture,” Sombra answered, shaking his head with a sigh. “Poor kid must have been through hell to have a trauma response like that.”

“She has, and it occurred to me just now that you bear an unfortunate striking resemblance to her abuser,” Luna explained.

Sombra nodded and said, “Mm, I had a feeling it was something like that.” Then with a grin, he added, “I know I have a kind of scary appearance, but it never caused a reaction like that before.”

“And here I was thinking you hadn’t taken it personally,” Luna said with a chuckle.

The two were quiet for a bit, neither knowing what else to say, before Sombra apparently thought of something. “You know, I always felt like Sable was deliberately avoiding the topic of introducing me to his daughter whenever it came up. Guess now I know why.”

“Can you really blame him?”

“Of course not. Even if her reaction to seeing me hadn’t been that bad, I perfectly understand his desire to protect that girl,” Sombra said. “Honestly? I think being a father suits him.”

“I wasn’t entirely convinced myself at first, but I have to admit, he’s really taken to the role,” Luna said.

“Well, taking in a girl who’s been through even half of what I’m told Chrysalis has been through would be hard even for experienced parents. For Sable and Celestia to not only do it in spite of their inexperience as parents, but to excel at it as far as I can tell…I don’t think anyone else could do that.”

“Yeah, my sister’s always had a habit of biting off more than she can chew.”

“Oh trust me, I know,” Sombra said with a nostalgic grin. “It’s just like her.”

Luna smiled, and for a moment the two of them were lost in thoughts of times long past, until Sombra lifted his shirt to check the skin where Chrysalis had punched him. Sure enough, a large bruise was forming.

“Damn, that kid can really hit though,” he said. “She’s a lot stronger than she looks.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”

Sable found Chrysalis sitting on the edge of the curb a short distance down the street from the Sweet Spot. Her knees pulled close to her chest, she had her phone in her hand, but Sable didn’t think she was looking at anything in particular.

“Hey, Chrys,” Sable said, making sure to clearly announce himself before getting within punching distance. “May I sit?”

Her only answer was a shrug, which was as good an invitation as Sable was likely to get, so he sat on the curb next to her.

“Probably a dumb question, but how are you feeling?” he asked.

“Like an idiot,” Chrysalis said with a sigh.

“Why? Because you’re still dealing with trauma?”

“No. Because I thought I was finally done dealing with it,” Chrysalis said, finally looking away from her phone and at Sable. “But as soon as I saw his face…it was like I was back there.”

“Well, that’s the shitty thing about trauma: you’re never really done dealing with it, and you never know what’s going to set it off.” Sable was speaking from experience, and he was pretty sure Chrysalis knew it, because she didn’t say anything back.

It was after a few moments of silence that she asked, “Is he okay?”

She was clearly trying not to say his name, but Sable knew who she meant. “He’ll be fine. The only thing you bruised was his ego. We can only hope that the students at the Blanks don’t find out their principal was knocked on his ass by a freshman girl half his size.”

That managed to get a smile out of Chrysalis, at least. Or maybe it was a wince. It was hard to tell. It occurred to Sable then that this was her first time learning about who Sombra’s human counterpart actually was.

“I’m sorry, Chrys. I should have told you he was my boss.”

“You think?” Chrysalis deadpanned. Her look softened in a moment. “I can see why you didn’t, though. You probably weren’t counting on us ever meeting.”

Sable nodded. “Yeah. Today was…unlucky.”

“I always knew it was a possibility that he’d have a human counterpart, but…was it too much to hope that he would be living on the other side of the world…if he needed to be living at all?”

“Perfectly understandable.”

About a minute of silence passed as the two of them watched the cars go by on the moderately busy street.

“I should probably apologize to him,” Chrysalis finally said.

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“No. If I’m being honest, even knowing that he isn’t the monster I knew…I’d really rather not see him again.”

“Well, you’re in luck. Now that I’ve quit my job, the chances of that are even slimmer,” Sable said, and Chrysalis gave him a puzzled look.

“You quit your job?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Sable said, giving her a smile. “I have other things I’d like to focus on.”

Chrysalis gave him a smile back. It was a genuinely touching sentiment, even if she suspected she wasn’t the only reason for Sable’s rearranging of priorities. She decided to let him have this small victory. No need to burden him with what she was really thinking.

“Come on, let’s go home,” Sable said, standing up and offering his hand to help her up.

Chrysalis supposed this meant she was absolved of making her apology, which she was honestly very okay with. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a little guilty.

“You sure?” Chrysalis asked, taking the offered hand. “I could just take the bus or get a ride with Luna if you still want to eat with…with your friend.”

“I can always eat with him another time. He’ll understand,” Sable said. “Right now, I think it’s more important for the two of us to go home, take some ice cream out of the freezer and put on High School Musical.”

Chrysalis smiled. “But you hate High School Musical.”

“Well, maybe it’s grown on me,” Sable said, then grinned. “Besides, I need to think of ways to train the ATG in torture resistance. A few Blu-Rays probably cost less than creating a SERE course.”

“Pfft. Shut up,” she replied, and the two of them laughed

Yes, Chrysalis couldn’t deny it: Sable was doing a fantastic job of making her feel better. Even so, she couldn’t stop thinking about her lost time. Her conversation with Luna before the incident had helped her feel a little better about it. But as soon as the proverbial dust settled from her encounter with the human Sombra, Chrysalis found her thoughts dwelling on the very same problem.

Yes, she still had her whole life ahead of her to gain back her lost time. But now Chrysalis wondered whether it was ever something she could truly get back.

The following day was Friday, the day of the planned sleepover at Apple Bloom’s. In spite of the incident the previous day, Chrysalis didn’t have any particularly bad nightmares that night. Just the same, she was having second thoughts about whether she should go to the sleepover after all. She expected understanding disappointment from her friends when she told them what had happened at the restaurant yesterday and that it was making her have second thoughts about the slumber party. She wasn’t, however, expecting the wide-eyed, deer in the headlights stares from all three of them.

“Wait, y-you have to come!” Scootaloo exclaimed with a hint of desperation in her voice.

“Yeah! You can’t back out now, it’ll mess up everything,” Sweetie added.

“What are you talking about?” Chrysalis asked.

The two of them exchanged a look, each looking to the other for an answer.

“Um…” Sweetie said.

“Uh…” stammered Scootaloo.

“My parents…already bought the ingredients for the dinner,” Apple Bloom said with a smile that was just a tad too wide. “Yeah, and the portions are exactly for one extra person.”

Chrysalis was perplexed. Why were they acting so weird?

“Listen, Chrys…if you really don’t want to sleep over, that’s fine. But won’t you at least come for dinner?” Sweetie asked, ever the diplomat, putting on a much more convincing smile.

Chrysalis figured that much couldn’t hurt, and noted the obvious release of tension in the air when she said as such.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and soon enough the last bell rang of the day and students spilled forth from the school doors.

“Remember, come no earlier than six,” Apple Bloom said. “I want to make sure everything’s nice and tidy at the house first.”

She meant it for all of them, of course, but Chrysalis couldn’t help but get the feeling that she was talking to her specifically. Regardless, she acknowledged the directive, gave her friends a wave goodbye and then proceeded to get on her bus home, where she would find a way to kill time for a couple of hours. She was mildly surprised to find Celestia already at home when she arrived.

“Oh, hey Mom. What are you doing home so early?” Chrysalis asked.

“Took the afternoon off at Sable’s request,” Celestia answered. “He seems to think I’ve been working too hard lately.”

Thinking of the crazy hours she had seen Sable awake and working, Chrysalis said, “Kinda feels like the pot calling the kettle black, doesn’t it?” Of course, now that he’s quitting his job teaching, maybe that no longer applies.

“Maybe, but he’s right. I have to admit, it’s been nice to get home while the sun is still up for a change.” Celestia then asked. “Still going to your friends’ sleepover?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure about the sleepover part, but I’ll at least stay for dinner.”

“Well, why don’t Sable and I drive you? He’s taking me out to dinner and Apple Bloom’s place is in the area.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

With that, Chrysalis retreated to her room and killed some time reading and watching videos on YouTube. When five o’clock rolled around, she set out a change of clothes and her toiletry bag and hesitated. She didn’t have to stick around for the slumber party. In all honesty, she probably wasn’t going to. But she decided it couldn’t hurt to pack for it anyways.

At around five thirty Sable arrived home and ten minutes later the three of them got into the car and started driving. As they drove along, Chrysalis couldn’t help but notice the tense glances Sable kept taking in the rear-view mirror. Out of curiosity, Chrysalis checked over her shoulder out the rear window of the car. The street they were driving on was moderately busy, and there were three other cars behind them that she could see clearly.

There was a silver Buick right behind them which was itself being practically tailgated by a white Honda Civic. Driving a respectful distance behind the Civic was a brown panel van that looked to belong to a local pest control company. There were other cars behind it, but Chrysalis couldn’t make them out.

They stopped at a red light, and again Chrysalis noticed Sable glance suspiciously into the rear-view mirror. She remembered the Saturday she’d ridden with Sable to where he worked in Sunnytown, and the likely carjackers who had tailed them to the Blanks. The thought prompted her to ask, “Everything alright, Dad?”

Sable hesitated for a moment, but it was a moment too long for Chrysalis’s liking. “Probably.”

Celestia frowned. “You think we’re being tailed again, don’t you?” she asked. As always, Chrysalis was impressed by her ability to cut right to the heart of the matter with all the subtlety of a blast from the Elements of Harmony, and the “again” made Chrysalis realize this wasn’t the first time.

“I just could have sworn that van had been sitting on our street right up until we left.”

Chrysalis tried to think. In her old life details like that would rarely escape her, but she hadn’t noticed the van. Part of her braced for a remark from Queen about “becoming soft” in her cozy new life, but it never came. Still, Chrysalis couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something familiar about the brown van. For some reason it made her think of a cold autumn night and gave her a general sense of unease.

The light turned green and Sable drove through it, continuing towards Apple Bloom’s for another few minutes. The Civic that was tailgating the Buick changed lanes and sped past all of them, and shortly after that the Buick turned onto another street. The panel van continued on course a good distance behind them. After passing through the next light, Sable quickly turned right onto a side street without using his turn signal. Chrysalis looked over her shoulder again and watched as the van that had been behind them continued driving right on past the side street without slowing down.

Sable grunted. “Guess it was nothing.”

It was around four minutes to six when they arrived. Apple Bloom had said no earlier than six but Chrysalis figured it wouldn’t be a problem and after thanking Celestia and Sable for the ride, got out and rang the doorbell.

She heard a muffled curse from inside the house, followed by Apple Bloom’s voice calling out, “Just a sec!”

Perhaps she should have waited those extra four minutes after all.

“Okay, come on in, Chrys!” Apple Bloom called out.

Realizing that the door was unlocked, Chrysalis opened it and stepped inside. She expected she was the first one to arrive, which was why the loud group of young voices shouting “SURPRISE!” at her nearly made her jump and bare her changeling fangs (a habit she’d very effectively kicked). The living room that made up the entrance was decorated with party streamers and balloons, and her friends were all gathered with party hats on their heads. Not just Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo but Crackle, Coco Pommel and Raspberry Beryl as well.

Happy birthday to you…” as the group of girls all started singing the birthday song, Chrysalis was reminded of the somewhat embarrassing incident at the movie club yesterday and instinctually checked behind herself. But there was no one else behind her. This time, they really were singing for her.

Happy birthday dear Chrysalis, happy birthday to you!

“...And you smell like one too!” Scootaloo’s voice trailed in at the end.

Chrysalis smiled, and feeling the heat in her cheeks she just knew they were turning bright red. “Guys! What the hell?” she happily exclaimed with all the eloquence of a rock farmer. “It’s not my birthday!”

“We know,” Sweetie Belle said. “We just thought that, since you’d never celebrated your birthday before, we’d have a little celebration tonight!”

“Yeah, and you could have just told us that your birthday was October second, Chrys,” Scootaloo said. “At least, that’s what your parents said.”

“You talked to Celestia and Sable?” Chrysalis asked.

“Yeah, they called up my folks yesterday to try to organize a little ‘very belated birthday party’ for you, but since we were already planning this they agreed to let us go ahead with it,” Apple Bloom explained.

She then held out a small box wrapped in festive paper. My first present, Chrysalis realized.

“Your dad also dropped this off yesterday,” Apple Bloom continued. “Said that you’d have a proper celebration with just the three of you later but wanted you to have it today.

Chrysalis was speechless. She had already accepted the idea that she wouldn’t celebrate her “fourteenth” birthday, just as she had (or hadn’t) done for the hundreds of birthdays before it. She was used to other people simply not thinking of her, but here she stood in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise.

“This is…thank you!” she said, wiping a tear from her eye as she accepted the present from Sable delivered by Apple Bloom.

All of her other conflicts and problems were forgotten as she sat down in the living room with her friends and opened the gift: the very same ring she’d been eyeballing at the jewelry store when she’d accompanied Sable there earlier in the week. She suddenly remembered that Sable had been picking up a gift for him and Celestia’s seven month anniversary tonight, and couldn’t help but wonder how they were doing.

As Sable, ever the gentleman, pulled out the chair at her end of the table, Celestia looked around at the restaurant, realizing why she’d been overcome with a sense of deja vu since their arrival. This was the place they first ate at, in the wake of the two would-be assailants trying to get at her during her visit to the Blanks. Thankfully, that had never happened and instead, an entirely different man got to her, in a much more positive way.

That feels like another lifetime ago, she said as she favored him with a smile. Almost as if I had been another person back then.

But just for confirmation, lest nostalgia embarrass her, she chose to ask him anyway. “Isn’t this the place we ate at…?” Celestia started.

“The day we first met? Yep,” Sable finished as he sat down in his own chair.

A thoughtful smile and a “Hmm,” was all Celestia had time to express before the waiter came by to ask them for their drink orders. The waiter and Sable talked extensively, as if they had been sharing something that Celestia wasn’t aware of. When he left, Celestia noticed a distant look in Sable’s eye.

“Penny for your thoughts?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing. Just feels like a lot’s about to change in our lives,” Sable said. A second later, he added, “I am going to miss teaching, but there are other things that need to take priority.”

Hearing that made Celestia wonder herself about his recent change of employment. Granted, they weren’t going to be particularly in dire straits because of it, though at Sable’s absolute insistence, he didn’t want all the bells and whistles that would normally come with his SIREN duties that the other equivalents of his job here on Earth had. But they did make enough that while they would never be able to afford something in San Palomino, a nice two-story in Northside or Bella Vista was looking very doable.

“The SIRENs are taking well to their duties?” she asked lightly.

“They are, but I wasn’t really thinking of them,” he admitted. “I was actually thinking of our most important duty: Chrysalis.” He smiled as a thought came over his face. “I really hope she’s having the time of her life right now.”

“If pre-teen slumber parties are anything like they were when I was that age, I feel sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Apple.”

Sable chuckled. “She’s probably opened our presents already,” then with a slight frown, added, “I would’ve liked to see her reactions.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will, because I still have the other gift we got to give her during our time with her this weekend,” Celestia said, thinking about what they had planned. “If you wonder about what she’s reacting like right now, Saturday should really earn you parental points.”

“Yeah. I just hope it’ll be ready in time.”

“I talked with our point of contact at Social the other day. They assured me the paperwork would be ready by Monday, so we’ll have to move our celebration with her to after school then,” Celestia said. Sable was right about one thing: a lot was going to change in their lives. Yet at the same time, nothing would really change at all. After so much change had already happened—for both of them—what was coming next would be nothing.

As the salads were brought out, Sable excused himself briefly to head to the restroom, and Celestia sat in silence, pondering everything that had changed over the past year. It had only been just a year ago that she’d hesitantly given one last chance to a troublemaker who had turned out to be magnitudes’ more trouble than Celestia herself had ever conceived possible. But now, due to that one chance—her world had changed for the better. Not just Sunset, not just everyone around her. Celestia’s own world was different, so much so that the woman couldn’t imagine trying to explain it to her past self, the one who only knew Sunset Shimmer as a problem child.

Celestia silently chuckled; when it came to Sunset, things like that were probably within the realm of possibility.

Sable came back and smiled. “You seem happy.”

“I am. I was just thinking that a year ago, I thought I’d end up the crazy cat lady with no one with her but her cloister of fifty tabbys.”

“Well, I promise you that won’t happen. For one, your HOA doesn’t allow for more than two pets.”

“You know what I mean!” she mock-scolded him. And even that reminded her of how much her life had changed: just mere weeks ago her life had been a simpler time; just the two of them as a young couple in love—even if not technically young.

“You know, I was thinking: maybe sometime next month, before the snow starts to fully set in, we should take a weekend off somewhere. Chrys would probably appreciate having a weekend to herself, and we could do the Klamath Falls trip for real this time. Luna said it’s worth the drive.”

“That’s definitely a thought,” Sable said, as the waitstaff finally arrived with their dinners. To Celestia’s surprise, however, unlike the typical restaurant plates, these ones came with warming covers, something that hadn’t been expected. A very posh and unusual look for a restaurant of this type.

“That’s new,” Sable said, noting the additions.

The lead waitress nodded. “We’re upscaling since the owners opened up a second restaurant and they wanted to gain a leg-up on the competition, so they thought this would be a nice way to do it.”

“I certainly won’t argue,” Sable agreed. That being said, Celestia’s plate was set before her and uncovered, revealing her order of a salmon dish. In turn, the prime rib Sable had ordered was unveiled before him as well, and he complimented the staff. However, a third plate, a smaller one, remained covered; it looked slightly glazed with frost, as if it was a cold dish being set out.

“That one’s special,” the woman said with a grin. Pointing to the frosted cover, she said, “I would recommend letting that one warm up slightly before opening it. Gets rid of the ice you don’t want. I’ll be back in a few minutes to refill your wine glasses.”

With that, the two began to eat, though Celestia wondered as to what the still-covered plate was. It was set over by Sable, so it probably went with his dinner, though he seemed, oddly enough, to pay it no mind. A short time after, as the two finished off their meals, her curiosity finally got the better of her and she asked, “So, what is that?”

“A priceless treasure,” he said, though his tone indicated that he was probably joking once more.

“Seriously,” she asked again.

“I am being serious,” he told her, then set down his utensils. “Have you ever thought about the future?”

“Well, given I was making a suggestion of what we should do two weeks from now, I would say that’s a distinct possibility,” she said to him.

He grinned at the unspoken touché. “I mean beyond that. Children, grandchildren, a house in Bella Vista or Northside, stuff like that.”

“I thought we agreed to wait on that until we let a year pass, if only so that my mother doesn’t have a heart attack,” Celestia said.

“Yes, but I don’t think that we planned for a particularly large change in our life, either. And quite frankly, Chrysalis doesn’t need parental guardians. She needs parents. And so, it’s time to change the equation. But even if she wasn’t here…I’d do this anyway.”

And with that, he pulled the cover off the tray. The tray revealed a series of small tiramisu cakes, artfully engirdling the outer edge of the plate. But it was what was in the center that said it all: an open box, upon which in its satin innards, contained a truly priceless treasure, just as he had said: a perfect ring, made for a perfect finger.

Her hand went to her mouth in surprise as he got up from his chair, took the ring and went to her side, dropping to one knee.

Her eyes suddenly began to sting from unbidden tears of delight. “You mean…?”

“Exactly. Yes, our relationship hasn’t been anything remotely approaching normal, but who gets to dictate what normal is?” he told her with a smile, as he slipped the band on her finger. “We’ve only known each other less than a year, but as the philosopher Wisewords once said, ‘There are years that sometimes last decades’. And each month to me has been just that—and certainly enough to know that it’s time.”

As she looked at the ring on her finger—the very real indication that she was no longer unspoken for, as the old saying went—she did the only thing she could, answered in the only way she wanted. She leaned forward, kissing her love, focusing every emotion she had in her as she let him know exactly how she felt. The pair’s lips brushed against each other, a metaphorical dance of love as timeless as the emotion itself.

She was so focused on that moment that when she pulled away, she hadn’t even realized that the restaurant was gone, instead replaced by a tropical island paradise. In the distance, over the ocean, the sky was a multitude of redshifting colors as the day that had already ended in Canterlot began to make its final shift to night time here.

“Where are we?” she finally asked.

“A private resort in Kona, Hawaii,” he told her, the look on her face absolutely picturesque as he did. “I pulled a few strings. We’ve got this private beach to ourselves and the cabin over there,” he said, pointing to that, “and in the morning, we’ll return back to Canterlot, so we won’t miss a thing.”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Should’ve known,” the educator chuckled. “Remind me to thank her when we get back.”

However, Sable only grinned, knowing who she meant, and told her, “Oh, Sunset had nothing to do with this. Though, that reminds me: You should know I did get her to enchant the ring I just gave you with some simple protection spells, as well as a magical tracker. Don’t take it the wrong way, but after what happened over the summer, I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Understandable. But, Sunset didn’t have anything to do with this?” Celestia asked, gesturing to the beach around them.

“Nope, not a thing. I do have other contacts, you know.” He then got up, and took her hand, leading her over to a wooden floor that stuck out of the sand. As they alighted on the surface, an old soft jazz standard began to play. “And let’s just say it worked out for us.”

Nothing more was said as he took her in her arms and the two danced as the final rays of sunlight gave way to the light of the moon.

“Drink, Miss?” the bartender asked her.

A woman with delicate dawn-pink hair casually glanced out a window, seemingly gazing at a parking lot. The bartender had no idea she was, in truth, looking actually a mile distant, towards the private resort on the southeast that she’d rented for a month. At least for one night, she could stay at another hotel and let them have their moment.

“Sure. Got anything for true love?” the woman asked, a wry smile coming onto her face.

As the night was winding down, Chrysalis found herself at the center of her three friends as the four of them sat up against the side of Apple Bloom’s bed, watching the final minutes of a movie on her laptop. Crackle, Coco and Ribby had already gone home, each of them having things they needed to do the following morning (or in Ribby’s case, simply not feeling up to sleeping over).

The very belated birthday party that had been hastily organized for Chrysalis had been a huge success, considering how happy and content she was feeling right at that moment. Her friends had gotten her some pretty cool presents, including a new gaming mouse for her computer she couldn’t wait to try out.

“Now you can be even more accurate when you decide to ruin my day in Minecraft,” Scootaloo had said with a friendly jab.

Probably the most meaningful gift (aside from the ring from her guardians) was a very pretty locket from Ribby…much like the one the girl herself had that Chrysalis had recovered for her on Halloween.

“I feel like a stronger person for knowing you, Chrys,” Ribby had said when she had commented on how expensive the gift looked. “If this gives you the same courage you gave me, then it’s worth it!”

“Aw, thanks Razz…er, Ribby,” Chrysalis said.

Scootaloo had then mimed retching, receiving a smack in the arm from Sweetie Belle beside her.

Hours later, with midnight approaching and the effects of the food comas they were all feeling still lingering (Chrysalis now understood why Apple Bloom’s grandmother’s cooking was so hyped up), it seemed likely the night was almost at an end.

“Hey girls…” Chrysalis said. “Thanks for this. Tonight was a blast.”

“Glad you had fun, Chrys,” Apple Bloom said with a yawn.

“Yeah, maybe I can host the next slumber party,” Sweetie said.

“Or me. If you thought tonight’s food was good, you should come over on a night my family is having pegao,” Scootaloo said.

Chrysalis smiled. She had no idea what pegao was, but was looking forward to trying it. Most importantly, she wasn’t thinking about how many years of her long life she’d gone never having had the opportunity to try it. Or to experience a birthday-slumber party combo with friends. She was content to simply live in the moment.

In fact, Chrysalis felt so at ease with the three girls who had become her best friends, she decided she wanted to share everything with them.

“Hey, girls?” Chrysalis said. “What would you say if I…haven’t been entirely honest with you about myself?”

Her friends looked at her curiously. “What do you mean?” Apple Bloom asked.

“Does this have something to do with when you were, like, a child gang leader?” Scootaloo asked. “Wait, were you making that up to impress us?”

“No! Well, kind of. See, what I told you before isn’t entirely true, but I didn’t say it to impress anyone. I told you that stuff because the truth is even crazier.”

The three girls were now staring at her, intrigued. Chrysalis took a breath. “You see, I’m—”

Chrysalis was cut off by a knock on the bedroom door. Applejack poked her head in and said, “Heya girls, everything alright?”

“Yup!” all four of them answered at once.

“Good. Listen, I’m goin’ to bed now, and I’m gonna be waking up early to help Mom and Dad out at the store, so if you four are planning to stay up, I’m going to ask you to just keep the volume down, okay?”

“No problem!” Apple Bloom said.

“Thanks, AB. Night!”

“Night, sis!”

With that, Applejack left, but not before making brief but no less poignant eye contact with Chrysalis. The kind of eye contact between two people who were the only ones in a room who were in on a secret.

All at once, Chrysalis realized that she was perhaps being hasty in revealing the truth about who and what she really is to her friends. She remembered talking with Applejack on the matter, and the girl seemed keen on being included in whatever conversation would happen when Chrysalis decided to reveal herself to her friends. Applejack had been keeping a fair amount of secrets from her sister after all, and more than a few of them were for Chrysalis’s sake. It wouldn’t be fair to her for Chrysalis to reveal herself to them, lest she also expose Applejack’s lies of omission to her family.

“Anyway, you were saying, Chrys?” Apple Bloom asked, and Chrysalis noticed that her friends were once again waiting for her to blow their minds.

“Uh…right,” Chrysalis muttered, trying to figure a way out of the little mess she’d just put herself in. “What if I told you that I was actually…the queen of the pillow kingdom!

Chrysalis suddenly leapt up onto the bed and grabbed a pillow, holding it aloft ready to attack. “And I challenge anyone who thinks they can dethrone me to step forward and face my wrath!”

Apple Bloom and the others blinked. “Oh. I thought you actually had something serious you wanted to tell us,” Sweetie Belle said.

‘Twas a ruse!” Chrysalis exclaimed, suddenly whipping the pillow at Sweetie’s face.

It found its mark, and the girl’s startled “Eep!” was quickly muffled by the soft cushion.

Apple Bloom reacted quickly, jumping to her feet and rushing to her closet, where a number of spare pillows were tucked away on shelves.

“Scootaloo! To arms!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, tossing a pillow to Scootaloo and taking one for herself.

Sweetie Belle armed herself with the very pillow that had been weaponized against her and proclaimed, “It. Is. On!

Armed with the other pillow on Apple Bloom’s bed, Chrysalis fought back the usurpers valiantly but was ultimately overwhelmed. After that, the battle turned into a free-for-all, with pillows being swung indiscriminately, any alliances made ultimately temporary in the face of inevitable betrayal.

Chrysalis wasn’t sure how long the battle went on for before they all agreed to call it a truce and started getting ready for bed.

Slowly, Crisalide walked down the aisle, arm in arm with her stern-faced father. The pews on either side of her were occupied by an assortment of well-dressed lords and ladies, as well as members of her extended family. They were all equally strangers to her.

The organ music playing had a somber quality to it; the only way Crisalide knew she was at a wedding rather than a funeral was that she wore a white dress rather than a black one. But perhaps black would have suited her better. After all, she was in mourning: Mourning the death of her innocent youth.

At the altar ahead of her was her groom: a man closer in age to her father than to her dressed in fine silks embroidered with the sigil of House Cavalcanti. Crisalide wanted to think that he too was unhappy with this arrangement, and in a way she was right. One of the terms of his future deal with the Black Unicorn would be a wife better suited to him: One with the body of a woman rather than a child.

That Chrysalis knew this was the first sign that she was in a dream. After that, the rest of the dream started to fall apart like a house of cards. Upon reaching the altar, Chrysalis looked out at the pews and saw a sea of faces from across her entire life. Those who abused her intermingled with those she in turn had abused. Mangle-leg sat with Princess Cadance and Shining Armor in the front row, while just behind them Captain Sable Loam of King Sombra's special forces was next to Raspberry Beryl and the other Scions of Sombra.

As she looked in the pews further back, Chrysalis saw faces from her life as it was now. Those who loved and hated her mixed together: Apple Bloom and her friends were next to Diamond Tiara and hers. Celestia and Sable with Neighsay and Rover. All of them seemed so distant.

“...as long as you both shall live?”

The priest’s voice cut into her thoughts, and remembering her duty to her family, Chrysalis hastily said, “I do.”

She then turned her eyes away from the faces from her life and looked at her groom. It wasn’t Baldasarre di Cavalcanti that looked back at her. It was herself. Rather, it was her as she had been as queen of the changelings. She looked at the priest joining them together, and saw that it was Sombra. He had the face of the human she’d met at the Sweet Spot the other day, but his body was black smoke, and his eyes were burning coals.

As Sombra completed the rites that bound them together, Queen smiled and whispered, “‘Till death do us part.”

With a start, Chrysalis awoke. It took her a few seconds to get her bearings before she remembered she was in Apple Bloom’s bedroom. The girl in question was asleep in her bed while Sweetie and Scootaloo were sound asleep on the floor in sleeping bags, identical to the one Chrysalis herself was in. That none of them stirred indicated to Chrysalis that her nightmare hadn’t been violent enough to wake them, a sure sign that she was improving. Still, Chrysalis couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that something was wrong somehow.

That uneasy feeling kept Chrysalis from being able to go back to sleep, so instead she sat up and grabbed her phone, the light from its screen the only source of illumination in the dark bedroom. According to her lock screen the time was just past two in the morning. It was as Chrysalis unlocked her phone and started idly browsing her social media apps that she heard the sound of a toilet flush from down the hall. Chrysalis spared another glance around the room, and noted that Scootaloo’s sleeping bag was empty.

Giving it no further thought, Chrysalis resumed her mindless scrolling, waiting to feel tired enough to try sleeping again, as she heard the soft creak of the floors in the hallway outside. Scootaloo quietly opened the door, took a single step into the room and stopped. Chrysalis looked up from her phone at her and to her surprise, Scootaloo’s eyes went wide.

AAAH!” Scootaloo screamed, stumbling back against Apple Bloom’s dresser, not taking her eyes off of Chrysalis. “What the hell?!

Chrysalis gave her a curious look and asked, “What’s wrong?”

For a moment, Chrysalis thought she could hear a little of her old changeling resonance in her own voice. A sure sign that she was getting tired again. Except, she could taste the unmistakable flavor of pure terror, and it seemed to be emenating from Scootaloo. Was this, too, something her groggy brain conjured?

“Ugh…” Sweetie groaned, evidently having been woken by Scootaloo’s yelling. “Scoots, what are you—OH MY GOD!

Suddenly wide awake, Sweetie leapt out of her sleeping bag and started frantically shaking Apple Bloom. What was more, the fear coming from her was definitely not in Chrysalis’s imagination. Chrysalis’s own heart started racing in her chest as she realized there was something familiar about this whole situation. Chrysalis stood.

“Bloomie! Bloomie!” Sweetie exclaimed.

Apple Bloom groaned and opened her eyes, which shot wide open when she saw Chrysalis standing there.

“Guys, what…?” Chrysalis raised her left hand hoping to placate the three terrified girls, but her own fears were realized when she saw a black chitinous hoof instead of a hand.

Upright in her bed and staring wide-eyed, Apple Bloom could only choke out, “Chrys…?”

“That’s not Chrys, it’s some kind of monster!” Sweetie Belle said, trembling.

All at once, Chrysalis realized why this all felt familiar. Sweetie’s stinging words echoed what a dream version of her had said to Chrysalis in a nightmare ages ago. But this was unmistakably real. The wary, scared expressions on her friends’ faces were the same as they’d been in Chrysalis’s dreams after Queen had first made herself known.

Wait a second….

Chrysalis looked over Scootaloo’s shoulder into the mirror above the dresser that the girl was still cowering against. Sure enough, Chrysalis’s misshapen true form looked back at her in the mirror’s reflection, but that wasn’t all. Her reflection gave her a smile and a wink, and all at once Chrysalis realized exactly what had happened…and who was responsible.

Unable to hold back her anger, Chrysalis bared her fangs and growled, “You….”

Naturally, this only gave the others the wrong idea and Scootaloo, the mistaken target of Chrysalis’s monstrous anger, reached for what appeared to be an old piggy bank on Apple Bloom’s dresser and held it above her head, ready to bring it down onto Chrysalis’s. Then in a move that hurt far more than any knock on the head, Scootaloo moved to Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, putting herself between them and Chrysalis.

“Just stay away from us!” she shouted.

“Scootaloo, it’s me…” Chrysalis pleaded, taking a step towards her, but that only served to agitate the girl even more.

I said stay away!

Chrysalis’s throat tightened painfully as Sweetie Belle hid herself behind Scootaloo as best she could, while Apple Bloom just stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes and said, “What the hell are you, Chrys?”

Chrysalis wanted to answer. She wanted nothing more than to finally release all of her burdens onto her three best friends and confide all of her secrets to them, consequences be damned. But no matter how hard she tried, Chrysalis just couldn’t find her voice. She opened her mouth and the painful clenching of her throat allowed only a soft wheeze to come out…along with her rows of sharp teeth.

Recoiling on the bed next to Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle whimpered, “Please don’t hurt us! Please….”

Still looking ready to fight tooth and nail to protect her friends, Scootaloo shouted, “Just leave us alone!

With her voice failing her, Chrysalis saw no other option but to do exactly what Scootaloo said. With tears filling her eyes, Chrysalis turned and fled the room. She nearly bumped into Applejack, who had stepped out of her own bedroom, likely to see just what the commotion was about. Chrysalis heard Applejack say something to her as she passed, but didn’t care. She needed to get out. Needed to just get away from other people for a bit. She made it to the front door and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

The December nighttime air was cold, but it barely registered. The only thing that did register was the agony in Chrysalis’s heart as she let out a few wracking sobs. How did this happen? It still didn’t feel real, but it had to be. If it was just a nightmare she would have jolted awake by now. Had she really just lost her friends forever?

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Chrysalis realized she was standing outside in her true form and hastily corrected her appearance. That was when she caught movement in her peripheral vision and suddenly her changeling “danger-sense” spiked. But when she looked over towards the movement, she only saw a familiar—but nevertheless unwelcome—figure. Queen’s self-satisfied grin renewed Chrysalis’s anger, and she stormed over towards where the mental projection was standing.

She was the one who did this, there could be no other explanation. It hadn’t occurred to Chrysalis before that Queen could alter her appearance with her own shapeshifting ability, but that was exactly what had happened, she was sure of it. Why she waited until now to do it, Chrysalis wasn’t sure. Perhaps Queen couldn’t do it while Chrysalis was awake and in control, but asleep…. Yes, and hadn't Chrysalis awoken partly transformed on more than one occasion? Had Queen been testing the limits of what she could do with her body even then?

“What the hell was the point of that?!” Chrysalis exclaimed. “You know that I’m never going back to the way things were, so you’re just going to ruin as much of my life as you can, is that it?”

“Well that would certainly be petty of me, wouldn’t it?” Queen said. Chrysalis noted with even more anger that it wasn’t exactly a denial. “But believe it or not, there is a lesson I am trying to impart here.”

“Is the lesson ‘Being a Petty Bitch 101’? Because I already took that class.”

“The lesson is that friends are not worth it,” Queen said with no hint of her usual sardonic edge. “All I had to do was show your friends the real you, and look at what happened. As for your new ‘parents,’ do you think they’d still love you if you looked like that all the time?”

Chrysalis didn’t answer right away, which evidently was answer enough for Queen. “Face it, you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. I learned that a long time ago.”

Before Chrysalis could respond, the sound of a car door slamming close by brought her back to reality…and made her acutely aware that her changeling instincts were still screaming “Danger!”

Looking in the direction of the sound, Chrysalis saw a man walking towards her from a familiar brown panel van parked along the sidewalk a short distance down the street. It took a second for Chrysalis to remember that Sable had been pretty sure a van just like it had been following them on their drive here, and Chrysalis tensed up, readying herself for a fight as the man walked closer.

“Chrysalis, we need to get out of here,” Queen’s voice whispered inside her mind.

She sounded nervous, which was completely unlike her. Did she not think Chrysalis was strong enough as she was now to take on one guy?

“There are others. All around us,” Queen said.

Taking a brief glance around her, Chrysalis spotted other figures emerging on the street. To a common passerby, they would individually seem like they were just on a late night walk through the suburbs. But Chrysalis could see that they were all converging on her and the man in front of her. Remembering her fight with Rover and his gang, Chrysalis could understand why Queen was worried. She had thoroughly gotten her ass kicked in that fight, and Rover’s goons, although big, were not fully grown men like these guys.

“Are they…?” Queen whispered, and Chrysalis could sense her anxiety growing as she realized something that Chrysalis did not. “No, that’s not possible!”

Before Chrysalis could ask what exactly Queen meant, she found herself face to face with the man who emerged from the brown van. Right away she noted the scar across his face. He was definitely dangerous.

“Can I help you?” Chrysalis asked, curling her hands into fists.

“You’re coming with us,” the man simply said, grabbing Chrysalis by the wrist.

“Like hell!” Chrysalis shouted, hitting him with a sucker punch to his scarred face and wrenching her arm free.

Wasting no time, Chrysalis turned to run, knowing she was unlikely to win this fight. She would be safe when she was back inside Apple Bloom’s house, assuming they didn’t just chase her out again. But it was as Queen had said: She was surrounded. Two men were behind her and grabbed her before she could make it more than two steps.

“Calm down,” one of them—a bearded man—grunted as Chrysalis struggled. “We’ve been….”

Chrysalis managed to wrench her arm free just enough to elbow him in the mouth, shutting him up and sending him staggering back. With her arm now free, she brought her fist to bear against the man holding her other arm, striking him once, twice, three times before he finally let go and collapsed.

There was no one between her and the safety of the house now, and Chrysalis ran for it. But a pair of hands quickly grabbed her, and she glanced over her shoulder to see the scarred visage of the first man. Chrysalis hissed at him as she again struggled to escape, and the man responded by headbutting her, dazing her momentarily.

She then felt a sharp pinch in her neck as what felt like a pair of warm prongs penetrated the skin and made her blood run cold. Oh no, they just injected me with something, Chrysalis thought, but then she saw the side of the scarred man’s face in her peripheral vision. Felt his hot breath on her own face and realized, No, he’s…biting me!

“Careful, Sulfide!” the bearded man said as Chrysalis suddenly felt her body start to go numb as darkness crept in. “We don’t want to kill her!”

“She won’t die, brother,” the scarred man—Sulfide, apparently—said, no longer with a mouthful of Chrysalis’s neck.

As Chrysalis felt her body go limp and the world around her faded away, Sulfide’s final remark echoed in her ears. “You and I both know she’s survived far worse.”

Hours earlier, Shining Armor was seated at his desk at the Canterlot FBI office. He was poring over files related to the trafficking case that had all the local law enforcement scrambling. Ever since the girl Diamond Tiara had been the latest reported missing, and certain details of the case made it public, the traffickers Red Culpea and Iron Sulfide had turtled up. No further girls had been reported missing since then, and that was over two weeks ago. Likely they only found out just what a high-profile target Diamond was after they’d already nabbed her.

Still, even with Culpea and Sulfide laying low, Shining knew he was getting close. That was why he was still at the office well after everyone else had gone home. They were running on borrowed time. His coworkers all firmly believed that the unfortunate girls who had gone missing—including Miss Tiara—had to be halfway across the ocean by now, completely lost in the sex trafficking industry. A needle in a haystack. But Shining always had good intuition, even when he was just a patrolman in the CPD. He chose to believe that’s what was telling him they were all still in the city, and not simply desperate hope.

He also chose to believe that same intuition was telling him he was close. He was currently mapping out all known sightings of Culpea, Sulfide, and their known associates over the last two weeks. Some of them had been sighted within the vicinity of Canterlot High School—made sense if they were still scouting more potential victims. They had police units around the school at all times of course, and one of them had even spotted Sulfide lurking around, but the man was like smoke and seemed to evaporate when they tried to apprehend him.

Beyond that, this latest development Shining had uncovered while mapping out sightings was completely perplexing. The security camera at a convenience store in Centervale picked up Culpea apparently buying snacks at 4:15PM that Monday. But apparently a desk clerk at the Amtrak station downtown called in to report that a man fitting Culpea's description had shown up at around 4:25 the same day asking how much it cost for a ticket to the end of the line.

To get from those two locations took at least twenty minutes—probably longer since rush hour traffic would definitely be in play. So how was Culpea sighted at those two places only ten minutes apart? The only way it made sense was if the Amtrak worker was mistaken, but Shining had checked the security footage and it certainly looked like it was Culpea. The only other explanation was that he was in two places at once.

“Hey, Armor,” the gruff older man’s voice pulled Shining out of his world of unexplainable contradictions and he saw his boss standing in the doorway to his office.

“Oh, Director Badge. Didn’t know you were still here,” Shining said.

Shining Badge was the man who first brought him in to help out with the Dead Hand Killings, and had apparently been so impressed with his work that he recommended him to work with the Bureau full time. A man in his sixties, sporting a mustache out of an old Spaghetti Western, Shining Badge had apparently decided to forego his usual cowboy stetson today, giving Shining Armor a clear view of his graying blonde hair and receding hairline.

“Burnin’ the midnight oil again?” Badge asked in his usual drawl.

Shining Armor nodded, “Yeah, a lot of weird irregularities with the trafficking case.”

“Well, I’ve got good news for you. I was just talking to our liaison with the ICSD and they apparently just arrested Sulfide and Culpea earlier this evening."

“Wait, what?” Shining exclaimed. “They went back to Imperial County? When? Why?”

“Hold your horses there, son. ICSD only just finished conducting the preliminary interview an hour ago,” Badge explained. “Their liaison sent me the transcripts. I only skimmed them myself, but by the looks of things Sulfide and Culpea never left.”

“Never left? But how is that possible?” Shining asked. “We have multiple eyewitness reports of them all over Canterlot. We positively ID’d them on security cameras for Christ’s sake!”

“Believe me, I’m just as confused as you are, son, but it seems to be the truth. ICSD are positive the guys in their custody are the real deal. Prints match and everything. Maybe the eyewitnesses were all mistaken, or maybe those two guys each have a doppelganger. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.”

Shining Armor couldn’t wrap his head around it. It just didn’t make any sense! “Where did they find them?”

“That’s the interesting part. The pair turned themselves in. Just showed up to one of the local precincts drenched head to toe in God-knows-what. Based on the transcript, it looks like they’re scared shitless of something. Maybe they pissed off some really dangerous people and are willing to face trafficking charges if it means being protected. I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know?” Shining asked, trying not to sound disrespectful. “Didn’t they say who was after them when they were being interviewed?”

“Not exactly, those two bastards were very spooked,” Badge said. “I forwarded you the info from the ICSD if you want to look through the transcript and video yourself. If you think you can make any sense at all of what those lunatics are saying, you can be my guest, but I’m goin’ home for the night and I reckon you should do the same.”

With that, the director put on his coat and started to head out. But not before Shining said, “But what about the missing girls?”

With a mournful expression, Shining Badge turned back to Shining Armor and said, “It pains me to say it, but some of ‘em have been gone over a month. I don’t think we’re gonna find them, except maybe in a river somewhere. At the very least, it weren’t those two guys that nabbed ‘em. We can only pray that means they didn’t suffer too much.”

Shining Badge didn’t say anything more except “good night” before he left. Shining opened up his Bureau email and opened the folder that the director forwarded him (and the others working the case). Shining quickly skimmed through the arrest report, taking note of the unidentified goo-like substance they had been covered with.

He looked at their arrest photos, and they were unmistakably Culpea and Sulfide. They’d apparently been arrested at 6PM, and Shining thought back to the confirmed sightings of Culpea in two places in a span of ten minutes, that took at least twenty to travel between. He’d left the Amtrak station just after 4:30PM without getting on a train. Was it possible for him and Sulfide to then make it all the way back to Imperial County in an hour and a half? Shining would look into it tomorrow, but doubted it.

Maybe those two guys each have a doppelganger. Shining wasn’t sure why that part of what Badge said stuck out to him so much.

Lastly, he decided to quickly look through the arrest transcript before heading home. There was a video file attached—security footage of the precinct lobby where they turned themselves in. Shining Badge was right about one thing: Sulfide and Culpea were nigh-unintelligible, babbling nonsense to the point that the officer working the desk almost tossed them out rather than arrest them like they clearly wanted.

“We had to claw our way out of the womb—the dark place the monsters kept us full of nightmares!” The Culpea in the video rambled.

When the officer finally did call in the others working that evening to apprehend the two men, the charge he cited was “drunken disorderly conduct” rather than trafficking, assault, or the myriad of other charges that would apply to Sulfide and Culpea.

The word doppelganger again came to Shining’s mind as Culpea and Sulfide were escorted away in the video, and the latter yelled, “Our faces! The monsters stole our faces!

Author's Note:

Hopefully the next chapter won't take quite as long to come out. It's the climax!