• Published 11th Dec 2022
  • 399 Views, 8 Comments

Chasing Shadows - astrolatryy



Flash Sentry is used to weird magical mishaps by now. The guy his age sprawled unconscious in his backyard, however, is a new one.

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II.

"All this snow and they still didn't give us a snow day!" Flash can hear Rainbow Dash complaining as he trudges his way up to Canterlot High. He remembered to grab a jacket this time, but it's still damn cold out and the chill keeps getting in through his hood. He almost wishes he had Sombra's coat back, but he just knows the guy would look so very smug about it if he asked and he's not that desperate.

"Darling, it's not even half a foot yet," he hears Rarity reply as he turns the corner to see the girls grouped up in front of the horse statue, chatting in their usual half-circle. There's a twist of flaming hair missing from their usual group, though, and Flash glances around for any sign of Sunset as he walks up to them.

"Hey girls," Flash says, to various waves and hi's. "Where's Sunset?"

"She texted 'n said she was runnin' late," Applejack replies. "Somethin' about warmin' up her—"

The rumbling sound of a motorcycle engine echoes across campus like a roaring dragon, growing closer.

"—motorcycle," Applejack finishes. Flash Sentry grins.

He's been on Sunset's motorcycle with her exactly once back when he was still dating her. She'd wanted to show off to him and he hadn't quite clocked how much she was just using him back then—he doesn't hold it against her now, he knows she's changed—and, damn, was he impressed. More impressed now, honestly, now that he knows she'd only had about a year or two to get used to a human body instead of something with four legs and a tail. She drives that thing like a professional.

Speaking of which, there she is, flame-painted and rumbling down the street like she owns it. He's so caught up in the sight of it that he almost misses the person with her; Sombra's dark hair bound up in a matching helmet to hers, hands at his sides as he—

—is he sitting on it sideways?

He is, with his head tilted in a way that Flash just knows he's grinning even though he can't see his expression under the helmet, seeming not at all afraid of the thought that he might fall off it if he loses his balance.

Sunset slows to a stop at the curb and Sombra hops off as she kicks the stand down, removing the helmet with a toss of his dark hair that makes it seem like a rolling thunderstorm, or a cloud of smoke. He absentmindedly runs a hand through his hair as he sets the helmet down on the second seat of Sunset's motorcycle and says something to her too low for him to catch—not like Flash would catch it anyway, really, because all he's doing right now is staring.

He seems totally in his element in the snow, too, carrying himself with a kind of regal, comfortable confidence even as the snowflakes begin to dot his hair and the back of his coat. It's the first time Flash has actually seen him wearing it, too, and it fits him; the fur collar high around his neck in particular makes him look striking, kingly. In that moment Sombra could ask him to jump and Flash would only ask how high?

Sombra turns and finally sees Flash, visibly brightening—in the subtle way he does, a tilt of the head a little higher, the eyes a little softer—and it's all Flash can do to give him a wave, trying to act casual. "Hey."

"Flash," Sombra greets, striding to his side. "You seem cold. Are you certain you don't need to borrow my coat again?"

"Oh, shut up," Flash says, giving him a gentle punch in the arm. "I bet you'd melt in the summer heat."

"Then I'm lucky that summer seems to have ended early."

"I wanted to talk to all of you about that, actually," Sunset says, drawing everyone's attention. "I don't think this is just a freak snowstorm out of nowhere. I think this is connected to Equestrian magic."

Her eyes meet Sombra's. "More specifically, I think this is connected to you."

Sombra tilts his head thoughtfully, nodding his chin at Sunset to prompt her to elaborate.

"I mean, come on. You show up with only vague memories about the snow at the same time the temperature starts dropping without warning. You mentioned remembering the arctic, and now it's started to snow."

"It would make sense. I have the feeling that you're correct… though it stands to say that I do not know where this snow came from, or what it is being caused by."

Sunset shrugs. "I figured you didn't. I'm just here to tell everyone to keep an eye out. We don't have many clues about what's going on right now, but it never hurts to keep a sharp eye on things. This stuff gets weirder before it gets better—" She laughs. "—as we all know."

Flash almost wants to sigh. Of course things couldn't be as easy as getting Sombra settled in his new life. And of course he's getting caught up in the magical mishap of the month.

He steals a glance over at Sombra. It can't be all bad, he supposes. He didn't want to leave Sombra behind when he first met him, and he doesn't want to just leave him to whatever magic he's at the center at now. He might not be a Rainboom, but he'll try his best to get them both through this unscathed.

-—-

Waiting for the other magical shoe—horseshoe?—to drop feels like holding his breath underwater. Flash wants to do something, but what is there to do? He's sure the girls have already poked around at the portal enough, and Flash has gone over the place where Sombra appeared in his yard so many times that he's certain there's nothing to miss. The only lead they really have is Sombra, honestly, and unfortunately that seems like a lead that's run out of options.

Sombra doesn't mention remembering anything else, and Flash is hesitant to bring it up to him. It feels a bit… personal. Like, if he was dropped into another world knowing fuck all about both it and himself, he'd feel pretty vulnerable about it. That's Sombra's personal history. If he wants to bring something up about it, he will—until then, Flash is just happy being his friend.

They start hanging out more outside of class, too. Sunset manages to acquire Sombra a phone—somehow—and Flash isn't surprised to find that Sombra is the type of person who texts with perfect grammar, punctuation and all. It's kinda funny. He feels like he's texting a professor sometimes, only for said 'professor' to totally break character with blurry photos of stray cats and links to the metal songs he's started getting into.

Flash has been teaching him more guitar whenever Sombra swings by his place. It's nice; the two of them hanging out side-by-side on the couch or in his bedroom, Flash correcting his grip or his notes every now and then but more often just leaning back and listening as Sombra makes his way through the chords. He'd love to get him his own electric guitar, he knows Sombra's partial to the sound. Just sucks that a decent guitar is so expensive…

…he takes him to the mall anyway, just to look around. It's half a way to get Sombra to reveal what kind of electrics he likes so Flash can take note of it if he ever gets the money to buy him one, half just showing Sombra another aspect of human life he's sure he's unfamiliar with.

And half just an excuse to hang out some more with Sombra. (Yes, that's three halves, but he's got a C in Algebra II so it's not like he cares.)

It's to his surprise, then, when Sombra notices a storefront and drags him halfway up an escalator to see it. It's less of a surprise when Flash notices the sign hanging over the storefront and can't help but laugh; Hot Topic in big, bright, bold letters and Flash all but elbows Sombra in the side. "Should've known that would be your thing."

"You should have brought me here sooner, then," Sombra replies, amused. "Shall we?"

It is absolutely, totally not his type of store; he feels like he sticks out like a lightning bolt as soon as he walks in. Like a gaudy orange stain on the dark walls.

Sombra just smirks at the look on his face and pulls him closer with a tug of his wrist, getting an ungainly noise out of Flash as Sombra gestures him closer to the jewelry section.

"Don't worry about the employees. They don't bite," Sombra says, chuckling.

"How are you more confident here than I am?!" Flash breathes, feeling ridiculous, but kneels down to check out the earrings with Sombra too, glancing at him to see the two sets of fang-shaped metal earrings that Sombra first showed up with still in his ears. The raw metal aesthetic fits him, honestly.

Then again, Sombra's the type to pull off just about anything he wears. He carries himself like that.

They get a few packs of earrings at the Hot Topic and then Sombra is once again leading him through the mall, eyes high on the store signs like he's searching for something. He stops in front of a clothing store, hums to himself, and then drags Flash into that too. It's all he can do to trail behind like a helpless duckling,

He sees what's on Sombra's mind soon enough as Sombra ends up leading him over to the jackets.

"Really?"

"You can't say your current hoodie is sufficient enough for the cold. I've seen you wearing that poor, thin thing. It doesn't even have a drawstring," Sombra says. The shit-eating look on his face says he knows exactly what he's doing with this.

"Yeah, yeah, like you're showing me this out of the goodness of your heart. My jacket's fine," Flash argues, crossing his arms.

"Certainly. That is why you cling to mine like a lamb to its mother, yes?"

Flash is certain his face must be red by now. "If I get a new jacket, will you shut up about it?"

"Perhaps," Sombra says.

In the end he does end up walking out of the store with a much nicer jacket for the snowy weather—puffy, dark, with the kind of hood he can really feel keeps in the heat even just in the insulated environment of the store, and fur-lined on the inside.

…like Sombra's. Because it's comfortable. He stoically ignores the amused look Sombra gives him as he tugs it off and hangs it over his shoulder. He won't give him the satisfaction of a reaction.

Instead, as they walk out of the clothing store, he says, "I was thinking about taking you to look at the guitars. They're kind of expensive, so it's just to look, but I thought you might like looking at more brands than just mine."

"That sounds excellent," Sombra replies. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something else, but he doesn't get a chance, because just then the power shuts off for the entire mall, plunging them into darkness.

Sombra's arm is around his shoulders in a heartbeat, pulling Flash against him protectively. "What was that?"

Flash has to take a few moments to reply. "Uh, that was—the power went out. It's not supposed to do that. I have no idea what's going on."

He can hear hushed, frantic voices echoing all throughout the mall. Down below on the lower level he can see people starting to gather, nervous.

In the sudden quiet, he can hear a distant, howling wind. Flash shivers, and it's not from the cold.

"That is the sound of a snowstorm," Sombra breathes, in that distant I'm-remembering-something voice. "The sound of cutting, cold wind howling against a shield."

Or against the front of a mall.

"Come on," Flash says, reluctantly pulling away from Sombra's grasp. "We should… we should get down to the lower level. See if everyone's okay."

Sunset and the girls work here after school, right? The thought is surprisingly comforting. There might be a freak snowstorm howling its way through town outside, but at least the girls have their rainbow magic superpowers to make everything right.

He hopes.

The ground floor of the mall is filled with clustered, nervous teens whispering to each other in the darkness. Flash keeps an eye out, searching for any sign of one of the girls, as Sombra sweeps an arm around his shoulder again and leads him to the closest entrance to the mall.

The glass facade facing outside has been coated in a thick wall of white. Flash can't see anything else—not the cars he knows are lined up in the parking lot, not the planted trees, not even the few feet leading up to the automatic doors. It's all just snow. He's never, not once in his life seen a blizzard this vicious. How did a snowstorm like this even form so fast?

Magic, he knows, exhaling nervously. "Any thoughts?" he asks, looking up at Sombra.

Sombra still has that thousand yard stare to him. The fact that a snowstorm as vicious as this is familiar to Sombra is a little concerning, but, well, if he had to be trapped in this mall with anyone, it might as well be the guy who knows how these things play out already…

"That won't hold against the snow," Sombra says, bringing Flash back to a sharp, terrified present.

"Are you—are you sure?"

"I am certain. I have seen storms such as this—" Sombra cuts himself off to grab Flash by the back of his hoodie, yanking him bodily backwards just in time for a terrible crack! to ring sharply through the mall.

The glass shatters inward in an awful explosion. Flash thinks just quickly enough to pull his hood up and hunker down against Sombra—who's pulled the two of them around a corner and against a nearby wall—before a wall of howling wind races into the mall and an ice chill like nothing he's felt before cuts through him to his very bones.

The snow is vicious and opportunistic, cutting at any little bit of exposed skin it can reach; Flash hisses through his teeth with the pain of the sudden temperature change, clinging close to Sombra without thinking.

He can barely see—barely hear. The wind of the storm is howling in his ears and his only landmark for where he is right now is the warmth of Sombra's body heat, the feeling of his long, dark hair whipping against them as Sombra says something that is quickly snatched by the noise of the blizzard.

"We have to get out of here," Flash says, pushing his head up against Sombra's shoulder in an effort to make himself heard.

He can feel Sombra's hand tighten in the fabric of his hoodie. The other reaches for his own, taking his wrist gently and guiding it to the smooth plaster of the wall they're pushed up against.

"We will have to follow the wall," Sombra tells him, voice heavy and commanding. "It is far too easy to get lost in a storm such as this. Be careful."

"I'm not leaving your side," Flash says. He'd look him in the eye if his eyes weren't stinging from the snow. "Lead the way."

Side by side, his shoes crunching in the building snow, Sombra pulls him tight against him and the two of them trace blindly against the mall's inner wall, their only sign that they're going the same direction. Eventually the texture of the wall begins to change—Flash feels glass beneath his fingers and knows they're near a storefront.

The snow isn't nearly as blinding inside. Sombra takes no time in leading the two of them behind the counter and sitting behind it; Flash figures the store owner won't mind, wherever they are. It's a tiny little electronics store that he swears he's been to before—maybe one of the girls works there? Fuck, where are they?

He thunks his head back against the counter and takes a few moments to breathe. "That wasn't natural," he says to Sombra.

"It wasn't, and yet I know I've seen that kind of storm a thousand times," Sombra remarks, curling a fist. "I should know… it is so frustrating not to remember. Like forgetting a word and having it at the tip of your tongue."

"Sunset said you were from some place called the Crystal Empire, right? They've gotta have some way of dealing with the storm, right? Some kinda magic, maybe?"

Sombra frowns. "They had… a weapon of some kind, I believe. A—" He huffs a soft breath of laughter to himself. "A crystal. But I suppose that much is obvious."

"A crystal weapon…" Flash laughs, too. "Yeah, that doesn't narrow things down much. I know the girls have a set of crystals they get their powers from." And come to think about it, didn't that crown Sunset caused all that trouble with during the Fall Formal incident have a special crystal in it too…? At least the weird magic has a theme.

The whistling sound of the wind from the storm outside battering the store suddenly recedes. Flash peeks over the counter to see Rarity standing in the doorway, a human-sized crystal shield behind her blocking out the worst of the storm.

"Hello? Is anyone—oh, Flash, there you are, I was worried sick. Is Sombra with you?"

"He is," Flash says, gesturing with his head. "Where are the others?"

"The girls are going all around the mall trying to find anyone who was caught in the storm. You two are the closest to an entrance I've seen—are either of you hurt?"

Flash runs a hand over the cloth at his neck and winces to feel a few shards of glass digging into the fabric of his hoodie. At least none of them made it through the clothing… "I'm fine. Sombra?"

Sombra nods at him, and he nods in turn at Rarity. "We're good. Do you girls have a plan to deal with the storm?"

Rarity sighs nervously, but nods. "Once we're certain everyone's safe, we're going to go to the source and, ah, 'pony up'. Hopefully our magic will be enough to push the storm back… if not, I suppose we'll shelter in the mall and wait for outside help. Sunset has been trying to contact the princess."

"Good luck," Flash says, feeling a little useless. "We'll stay here until you're done or one of you comes back to get us. Does that sound good?"

"It certainly does. I assume you have a means of contacting us?"

"Uh—" Flash falters, not having gotten Sunset's number yet.

"I do," Sombra says, fingers tracing the shape of his phone in his pocket, who apparently has.

"Excellent," Rarity says. "Hopefully the storm won't be enough to disrupt the signal, yes? I promise one of us will come check on you if it does."

And with that, Rarity turns on her heel and leaves, letting the wind and snow pour back into the shop once more. Flash falls behind the counter and exhales shakily, nerves rattled. He's been magically mind-controlled—twice—watched the other Twilight Sparkle rip holes through reality and gotten trapped by thorny vines thicker around than his torso, but yet this storm scares him the most.

It's the fact that there's not a person behind it, at least as far as he's seen. It's just a storm. It's just a particularly vicious snowstorm with the wind power to shatter glass, like a tornado that could give him frostbite. It's not another person driven mad with magical power, who at least has enough sense not to kill him outright. It's almost normal. The storm does not care about the shards of glass in his hoodie. The storm wouldn't care if he froze to death within. It's just…

…it's just a storm. It's just a fucking snowstorm.

And his hands are shaking.

"...Sombra?"

"Mm?" His tone sounds a bit softer than he's used to. Has he noticed how shaken Flash is?

"You said you've been in storms like this before," Flash says. "How did you manage to make it through?"

Sombra is quiet for a long moment. "I was… often on the outside, looking in. I saw others survive them, heard… tales. Even then, everything I manage to remember feels like a distant dream—a life lived by someone else. I remember this third-hand.

"I remember those with the strength of will to keep standing even as the snow lashed icy whips against their bodies. I remember those who forced themselves to keep walking, though the wind howled and the path ahead seemed vanished. They kept going because they had no other option but to survive. They kept going because they wanted to survive, even though their world was nothing but pain.

"Most of all, they kept going because of their love for others. Even though their whole world was a nightmare of frost, even though they had no hope, they took one step in front of the other because they had somebody waiting for them at home.

"That was how they survived. Their love was a shield against the uncaring frost of the world."

Sombra looks over at him and laughs, quietly. "And as for the moment, although we may be trapped, we are currently trapped in a place with an exceeding amount of food, water, and clothing supplies, with excellent shelter from the winds outside. Furthermore, although I am unfamiliar with the magic you speak of these girls wielding… I have a feeling it is immensely powerful. We are hardly in a difficult situation at all. We will be alright."

Flash huffs, picking his head up to give Sombra a look. "You could have opened with that."

"You asked about my memories," Sombra replies, arching an eyebrow.

He manages a little bit of a laugh. "I guess I did.

"...thanks."

-—-

He feels it before he sees it: a rush of power over his skin, tingling like he imagines being in a lightning storm would be like, sugar-sweet.

The wind gusts weakly once more, sending a small flurry of snow into the storefront that Flash and Sombra are still holed up in, and then it fades. Flash dares to get up onto his knees and peek over the counter again.

There's still a thin layer of snow piled up on the floor from where the storm blew it in. Flash is honestly a little glad it's still there; he doesn't want to know what would happen if all that snow melted at once. The chill's still ebbing around his fingers, but it's not the vicious, biting thing it was just a minute ago. He loosens the zipper of his hoodie and turns back to Sombra. "Hey, I think they—"

He pauses. Sombra is staring dead through a wall, eyes blanker than he's ever seen, like he isn't even registering Flash's presence. "Sombra? You there?" Flash asks, kneeling beside him, all thoughts of the snow outside forgotten.

Tentatively, he puts a hand on Sombra's shoulder. Sombra seems to start at the sensation, breathing sharply through his nose with a jolt. He glances over at Flash. "Apologies, were you talking to me?"

"Were you remembering something?" Flash asks. "You seemed pretty out of it for a moment there. I was worried."

Sombra hesitates. "...I am uncertain. Something about that wave of power… it isn't the same, and yet…"

He shakes his head. "It is nothing. I'm fine."

Flash leans back, frowning. "If you're sure, dude."

Sombra rolls his shoulders and stands, offering a hand to Flash absentmindedly; his eyes are resting on the glass at the front of the store. He seems distracted.

Flash takes his hand and stands, too, going to rub the circulation back into his fingers now that it's not nearly as cold. He never thought he'd be grateful for thirty degree weather. "We should go find the others," he says. "Make sure everyone's okay."

Sombra hums an acknowledgement and Flash reaches back to wrap a hand around his wrist, leading him out into the wider mall. (Hey, is it his fault he doesn't want to let go of him after what he just went through?)

It's easy enough to find the girls. Just look for the most technicolor, sparkly thing in the mall—also, the wings and horns help. Hard to miss Rainbow Dash when she's hovering a couple feet over the others grinning like she could fly a marathon with those things.

Sombra laughs softly when he sees them.

"What?" Flash says, grinning at him. "You mean it's not ridiculous that the girls of Canterlot High's most popular band can turn into horses?"

"Ponies," Sombra corrects, making Flash do a double-take. He's only ever heard Sunset correct him like that.

"Do they—" Flash starts, feeling ridiculous. "—do they seem familiar to you?"

Sombra tilts his hand so-so. "It's amusing seeing them in-between, even if I don't quite remember why that is. They're little humans playing at being ponies."

Flash snorts softly. "Glad to hear the other side finds it just as crazy."

Sombra tilts his head, nodding at one of the girls. "Shouldn't that one—Twilight, was it? Shouldn't she have wings?"

Flash's eyes flick to Twilight pushing her glasses awkwardly up with one finger, eyes tracing over the horn currently residing on her forehead. Now that he thinks about it… "Huh. I think you're remembering the other one. I wasn't really… paying attention…" Read: was reeling from magical brainwashing. "...when I saw her transform, but I remember she had wings and a horn."

She looked beautiful like that, honestly. Sunset does, too, all fire and power, the smile on her face telling him she's in her element like nothing else. Like this feels natural to her. It probably does.

He wonders how Sombra looked in the other world. This isn't his natural appearance, right? He can't even tell from just looking at him. Sombra walks in this world like he owns it, regal bearing, chin tilted up, sharp eyes. Flash knows he'd last all of five minutes in the pony world, but he'd risk it just for a glimpse of him.

It's at this point that the girls finally notice them. Sunset's eyes settle on them and Flash registers her horn lighting up for half a second before there's a sharp crackle of something like ozone and she's suddenly in front of them. It's evidence to how Sombra's not from around here that he doesn't even flinch at the sight; Flash on the other hand jolts so hard that Sombra settles a hand on his shoulder. Sunset smiles at him apologetically.

"Hey," Flash says with a little wave.

Sunset, to his surprise, barely acknowledges him—there's a little bit of a lingering glance and then her focus is wholly on Sombra, her expression sharp and serious.

"Princess Twilight wrote back to me," she says by way of explanation. "She wants to see you. Now."

-—-

Flash feels inexplicably like a kid in trouble at school making the long walk down to the principal's office as he accompanies Sombra to the Canterlot High statue.

Sunset didn't explain much. Just that Princess Twilight wanted to see Sombra yesterday, and—in a softer, more hesitant tone so that Sombra couldn't hear—that Flash might not want to be around for the conversation.

Well, fuck that. He's been at Sombra's side since he showed up here. He's not abandoning the dude just because Princess Twilight might want to have a messy conversation with him, or that he might get even more confused and caught up in weird magical pony shit. Sunset wasn't there when the storm hit. And she wasn't there before when he first got to know Sombra. Just because Sombra's currently living in her apartment for lack of a better place to go doesn't mean she knows him like Flash does.

No, he's sticking close, sink or swim.

"Got any ideas for what this might be about? You knew Princess Twilight, right?" Flash says, sticking his hands in his hoodie pockets casually like he's not incredibly nervous about this.

"Mm," Sombra says with a distant tilt of his head. "I have my suspicions."

He doesn't elaborate, which makes Flash even more worried. But he doesn't push. If Sombra wanted to tell him, he would tell him. And it's not like he's not going to find out in a few minutes anyway when Twilight comes through.

But, fuck, it must be serious if Princess Twilight's coming back through the portal. After all this time. He should be excited about it—and he kind of is, it'll be nice to see her again—but he doesn't feel any of that hopeless, longing rush he did when she first started coming through the other world.

It's kinda freeing to get over it, to be honest. Sunset was right. He can't spend all this time pining over someone who lives full-time in another world, anyway. And what would an actual princess have in common with some high school music nerd?

They round the corner just in time for the surface of the statue to ripple with pastel rainbow light. Flash takes a step back, heart flipping in his chest, suddenly more nervous than ever. Sombra raises his head, staring down the portal like a challenge.

Princess Twilight steps through, and she looks just the same as she ever did. It's weird seeing her unchanged, honestly; she's even wearing the same clothes she normally does, and Flash takes half a moment to wonder how clothing works through the portal. Is that just her everyday outfit, or…?

His train of thought vanishes as she locks eyes with Sombra, her eyes narrowing to meet his in a standoff. The only time he's seen Twilight ever look like that at someone was with Sunset, or the sirens—people she's seen as a threat. What on Earth…?

Before she can say anything, the portal ripples behind her again, lower to the ground. Flash gets to see Spike leap through, shaking himself off awkwardly as the portal's surface smooths behind him.

Sombra regards Twilight with an expression of idle interest, but as soon as Spike shows up, his entire expression shifts.

Spike's eyes snap up to meet Sombra's. "You!" he says, and if anything is weirder than watching a dog speak like it's totally natural it's watching a dog bark out the word you like a challenge, fangs bared.

Sombra's head tilts back with lazy confidence, arms crossing over his chest. "Ah. I remember you."

"You better. I'm the one who saved the Crystal Empire from you! I kicked your—"

"—Spike!" Twilight cuts in, picking him up under the shoulders to settle him in her arms. "Enough."

Sombra raises an eyebrow at her. "I assumed you'd let him go on."

"Don't tempt me," Twilight says, looking him in the eyes. There's a moment of unspoken tension—a fire burning between the two of them, and for a moment, Flash wonders if either of them are going to snap.

Twilight sighs, deflating. "Sorry, I'm… I'm trying to be nice. I'm a princess for a reason—I should believe in second chances more than anypony—um, anyone else. And if Sunset's right, you don't even remember a lot of what you did. You haven't done anything wrong here. It's unfair of me to treat you like you have."

"Uh, hey," Flash cuts in, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. "Not-pony here? What's going on?" More importantly, what did Sombra do in the other world?

"Oh, Flash!" Twilight startles. "I didn't even notice you! Right, I remember Sunset mentioning that you were the one who found… Sombra. Come on, let's…"

She pauses, eyes flicking to Sombra. "Are you sure you want him to know?"

"I would hardly be a good friend to him if I left him in the dark," Sombra replies. "Isn't that what you stand for, Princess?"

Okay, that's definitely not a neutral tone Sombra has in his voice. Kind of challenging. Twilight's eyes narrow at him. "You shouldn't use my title or his feelings as a power play, Sombra."

Sombra stills. Flash hears him exhale slowly, softly; he glances over his shoulder to look over at Flash. "You are right," he says. Twilight blinks.

"Flash Sentry…" Sombra says, his voice gentle. "I may not remember much of who I was. But I remember enough that what you will hear from the Princess about my past… I know it will not be pleasant."

He slips his hands into his coat pockets with another soft sigh. "You may choose to leave, and keep yourself in the dark. Or you may choose to stay, and listen to the details of my sordid past. I will let you decide."

Sombra speaks like he's telling Flash his cat died. But all Flash sees is the look in Sombra's eyes. Sombra speaks like he's done some truly terrible things, and maybe he has. But Flash looks back at the expression written on Sombra's face, and all he sees is a guy who cares so much about what Flash thinks of him—cares so much about Flash's feelings above his own that he gives him the opportunity to listen to the worst things he's ever done spilled across the table, because he thinks Flash deserves to know.

That's a pretty good thing, he thinks. Because Flash has experience with someone who treated him like a tool to be used, like garbage to be wadded up and tossed in the trash, but he also has experience with that same someone recognizing her mistakes and changing. Sunset Shimmer is his friend, now. Maybe even one of his best friends, 'cause it turns out the things that drew them to each other still stayed the same even after all of that.

The thing is, he knows people can change. And he thinks Sombra's changed, too.

Sunset and Twilight both know some pretty awful things about Sombra's background, and everyone involved is treating him like he might turn tail and run as soon as he learns what they are.

But all he sees is Sombra looking him in the eyes and saying, basically: you'll hate me for this, but I'll let you listen, anyway.

He thinks that's a pretty good reason to stay.

"Sombra." He huffs. "My ex turned into a she-demon at the school dance and tried to make the school into her personal army. She regretted it. She changed, and now I'm friends with her."

Flash shrugs. "You can't do worse than that."

Sombra looks at him for a long moment, dumb-struck.

It's Twilight who interrupts to get them back on course. "Well, in that case…" she says. "Let's sit down, and I'll tell you everything I know."

-—-

Flash sits side-by-side next to Sombra at one of the little round plastic tables that students can sit at outside to eat, having cleared away most of the lingering snow from the surface. On the other side of the table, Twilight's sitting down with her fingers laced. Spike is sitting in her lap almost like a normal dog—almost, except his little doggy eyes have not stopped glaring at Sombra over the table for the last minute.

Flash almost can't blame him. Turns out 'turning into a demon at the Fall Formal' doesn't hold a candle to 'enslaving an entire city's worth of ponies and banishing them into nothing for a thousand years'.

A thousand. He's still reeling from the mention. Is Sombra really that old?

Sombra himself has his arms crossed over the table, looking distantly through the cheap plastic instead at anyone else involved. His brows are furrowed in heavy thought.

"I do remember the things you speak of," Sombra says. "Spike is most familiar to me, followed by you. I believe I would remember Cadence quite sharply if I met with her counterpart in this world… even now the memories of her form are still there. The color of her magic. The feather down of her wings…"

He sighs. "But I remember all these things like a distant memory. Like I am watching them from the outside; a spectator looking in on another's life. You fought your way through someone else's tower to retrieve someone else's bane. The ponies gathered around while someone else looked on with hateful fear—someone else was destroyed that day, when the Crystal Heart activated."

He says the word 'destroyed' so casually, but Flash can see the way his hand tightens around his arm.

Sombra is quiet for a long moment.

"I have a theory," he says at last.

"Go on," Twilight says. "What is it?"

"The moment I remember most keenly was the moment of my destruction. When the crystal ponies' love tore through me, anathema to my very being… I was shattered. Scattered into a thousand tiny wisps of the thunderstorm I once was."

His eyes flick sharply up to Twilight's. "But you cannot kill a shadow, can you? Even splintered as I was, I persisted. Those wisps lingered in the little nooks and crannies of the Crystal Empire—the darkest shadows where even love cannot go. The places I carved out for myself in the Empire when I ruled a millennium ago."

A soft exhale. "I believe when the mirror to this world first activated in the Crystal Empire, a part of me slipped through."

Twilight leans her head curiously, one hand fidgeting with a strand of her hair in thought while another runs down Spike's back absentmindedly. "But the portal first activated moons ago. What you're talking about makes a lot of sense, but wouldn't you have reformed when Equestrian magic first came through?"

"I would have," Sombra says. "If not for the sheer purity of said magic. Your counterpart and her friends called upon the magic of Harmony around me recently. It was… stifling, for lack of a better word. I can only imagine that a shade of myself, damaged from exposure to the Crystal Heart's magic to begin with, would have been unable to reform in those early days."

Twilight's nodding along, a spark in her eyes like she's just put everything together. "But the magic that leaked into the human world didn't stay purely harmonious for long. The sirens took the power of Equestria's magic and used it to brainwash the entire school. I bet they would have moved on to worse if we hadn't stopped them."

She taps her nails against the table thoughtfully. "But their magic was quickly countered by our own, and their gemstones were shattered. Then, afterward, with my own counterpart… it would have been the same cycle. Someone here using magic for their own ends before the Bearers here restored the balance with their own power of Harmony. But as magic becomes more and more widespread around the portal, and it naturally becomes more wild—influenced by the will of the people around it, even if they aren't trying to use it for themselves…"

Twilight blinks, eyes focusing back onto Sombra. "So what are you now, then? If, um, you don't mind me asking."

Sombra pauses. "I have been trying to answer that question for myself. Clearly, I am no longer the monster of shadows which ruled over the Crystal Empire. I do not feel as if I have been taken from another world and reshaped into a form which is not my own—I consider this body mine and mine alone.

"Certain religions have the concept of reincarnation, yes?"

Twilight nods.

"When the former king of the Crystal Empire was destroyed, a piece of his soul tore loose and hid for a time. When the portal open, that fragment fled into another world. Disconnected from its original source, it became something… else. Something more."

Sombra gives her a meaningful look. "I am no longer the Sombra from the world you knew—yet I am not some independent concept, either. I carry much of his memories with me. I am a reflection, perhaps, from a shattered mirror. Sombra reincarnate.

"Most of all—" he says, leaning back and lacing his hands. "—I am myself."

"I see," Twilight says. "That has some fascinating implications—the theology alone is…"

She cuts herself off with a laugh, running a hand through her hair. "I'm getting ahead of myself. Thank you for sharing all this, Sombra. I know this must be incredibly personal to you."

"In return for the explanation which clarified much of my memories, it is only fair," Sombra replies.

"Your theory also explains the phenomenon which Sunset mentioned to me earlier," Twilight says, raising a hand to catch a few snowflakes. "It's not supposed to be winter in this world, is it?"

"It's August," Flash huffs.

"I thought so. I think this is because of what you mentioned earlier, Sombra. If you were able to access this world when the portal opened, what's to say other magic didn't find its way through too?"

Sombra tilts his head. "Are you implying that when I found my way into the human world, so too did part of the magic in the Crystal Empire?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying," Twilight says. "I think it was held in check by all the magic concentrated around the portal, the magic of harmony. But the magic has started to spread out, now, and become something of its own. There's nothing holding the snow magic back anymore. The Bearers here can hold it back for a little while, but if the pattern stays consistent… this is only going to get worse."

"So how can we deal with it?" Flash asks.

"That's always the question, huh?" Twilight smiles at him. "Lucky for you, I have a solution in mind. The other side of the portal isn't located in the Crystal Empire anymore, so no more magic from there is leaking through. All you have to do is neutralize the existing magic, and everything should go back to normal."

She laughs. "Normal for you guys, anyway. And even luckier, the Crystal Empire already has a solution for this sort of thing."

"The Crystal Heart," Sombra says.

"Exactly."

Sombra huffs a breath of amusement. "I doubt the inhabitants of the Empire would let anyone here go back and borrow their precious Heart."

"No, I don't think Cadence would be very happy with that," Twilight says, smiling. "But the Crystal Heart is meant to protect an entire Empire. You don't need that much power. You only need enough to drive the snow away."

"What is the Crystal Heart, anyway? You never explained that part to me," Flash says.

"The Crystal Heart is an ancient magical artifact which acts as a focusing lens for love magic," Sombra explains. "Powered by the combined love of the ponies it protects, it projects an aura of that same magic over the Crystal Empire, shielding it from the constant, raging snow of the north. It is, in essence, the reason for the Empire's continued existence."

"Precisely," Twilight says.

"So what do we have to do to get our own Crystal Heart over here?" Flash says.

"I don't know for sure," Twilight says. "But I know that this world mirrors ours very precisely, down to the artifacts within it. When Sunset stole my crown, she tried to replace it with the version this world had—the painted cardboard cutout used to crown the princess of the Fall Formal.

"I also know that the mirror version of Equestria's Crystal Empire is Crystal Prep Academy here. I'll bet you they have some replica of the Crystal Heart somewhere. If you can get your hands on that, and figure out some way to power it, that's the best chance you have to drive away the snow."

Twilight bundles Spike back into her arms and stands. "I'm sorry I can't stick around to help you guys."

"Don't worry about it," Flash says, sounding more confident than he feels. "It'd get confusing with you and the other Twilight around at the same time anyway, yeah? Good luck with… whatever princesses do over there in pony-land."

"Thanks," Twilight says, smiling. "And good luck with your problem here. Both of you."

Flash leans sideways on the table and watches her leave, quietly marveling at the fact that the sight of a girl walking through what should be solid stone barely even registers to him as 'magic' now. Maybe he is getting used to this.

Eyes on the back of his neck. He feels Sombra looking at him before he speaks. "...Flash."

"Yeah?" Flash says, turning. "Are you okay?"

Sombra blinks. "I am… fine, as always. I simply…"

He sighs. "You seem to truly not care about what I was. Perhaps I am not quite the same as the monster who enslaved the Crystal Empire, but I am still… similar. Surely you have seen by now my fangs?"

"Well, yeah," Flash replies. "I think they're neat."

Sombra stares openly at him.

"Look, I wasn't kidding when I said my ex literally turned into a demon at the Fall Formal. I was there. It was a whole thing. And yeah, maybe overthrowing and enslaving an entire empire doesn't really hold a candle to that… but that isn't the person you are now. Both ways. You said it yourself that you are literally not the same person you were when you did those things, right?

"Remember back in the mall when the storm hit. You didn't have to stay with me to protect me from the storm. I've seen how selfish people can be. You could have run for safety and left me for dead."

"I would never—" Sombra breathes.

"Exactly," Flash says. "That's what I mean. You aren't the same person you were when you did those things because you've changed. You woke up in a new world with barely any memory of who you were, and you chose to stay by my side. You chose to be friends with me. And when worst came to worst… you kept me safe.

"That's who you are, Sombra. Not some memory. Not some half-forgotten story parents tell their kids to scare them into behaving. You're you. And you're my friend."

Sombra stares at him for a few long moments, jaw working like he wants to say something but can't quite find the words.

And then, without warning, he pulls him into a hug.

Sombra is just as warm against him as he was when Flash hid from the storm against him. His hair is soft and he's holding him close and without hesitation, Flash holds him back.

Muffled by the shoulder of his hoodie, he almost misses Sombra whisper quietly to him, "Thank you."

Almost.