• Published 11th Dec 2022
  • 403 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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III.

So. Flash has to find this world's equivalent of the Crystal Heart before the snowstorms get out of hand and they're all buried in twelve feet of ice and frost. Easy, right?

Ha. Flash isn't cut out for this. He almost wishes the girls could just deal with this while he cowers in his house and waits for the storm to be over.

But, hey, he wanted to be useful, right? Wanted to stop feeling like such a bystander while the world around him spiraled into technicolor chaos without his say-so. And he was the one there for Twilight's explanation, so he feels some kind of responsibility to also be there for the search for the Crystal Heart.

Besides, he knows Sombra would prefer to work with him over everyone else. And that's a nice thought—that's a really nice thought—and considering Sombra and his memories are still the best shot they have for finding this damn thing and getting it to work in the first place, well. He guesses he's in this sink or swim.

The first thought that came to mind when Princess Twilight mentioned finding the Crystal Heart was some ridiculous heist. This world's Twilight could sneak him and the gang into the school after hours, and they could search room-by-room, just barely dodging getting caught and having a great time of it, maybe some magical mishap happening and them barely making off with the Heart by the skin of their teeth.

Or, on second thought, he could just… ask.

Thus comes one of the top ten most awkward conversations of his life as he seeks out this world's Twilight Sparkle and explains everything to her.

Luckily for him, she seems too involved in the mystery that's just been placed in front of her to notice. "I can't say I've ever heard anything about a Crystal Heart before," Twilight says, chewing on the end of her pen. "But then I've never really gotten to research much about Crystal Prep! The school's been around for more than a century, but they lost a lot of records in a big storm a decade ago."

Twilight taps the end of her pen at the corner of her mouth. "I bet Cadence could tell you more. She was so excited to become Dean, she's been doing more research about it than even I have, and that's saying something!" She laughs. "I could invite you two over for dinner tomorrow? Cadence wouldn't mind, she loves meeting my friends."

"Sure," Flash says with a shrug, ignoring the fact that if just getting in an involved conversation with her is awkward then outright dinner is going to be miserable.

Sombra's eyes linger knowingly on him after Twilight walks off. Flash elbows him in the side.

-—-

Flash whistles when he sees Twilight's house for the first time. It's a two-story manor kind of deal, complete with an elaborate flower garden in the front yard dusted softly with a layer of snow and swirling, ornately wrought iron fencing. "I guess the kind of money that gets you into a private school also gets you some nice things."

Sombra hums in agreement. "It's a lovely place."

Flash looks up at him mischievously. "Fit for a king?"

Sombra barks out a sudden laugh. "Hardly," he says, throwing an arm over Flash's shoulders. "Shall we?"

"I guess," Flash says, resisting the urge to lean into him. "Can't stand out here admiring the greenery forever."

He wishes he could. They make their way up to the front doorstep and Sombra rings the doorbell. On the other side he hears frantic footsteps, Twilight's voice yelling distantly, Coming!—and then a softer voice that only vaguely sparks recognition, like he's heard it once or twice but in a totally different context. "I'll get it!"

The door opens and Flash finds himself face-to-face with Dean Cadence. "Oh, hello! You must be the friends Twilight mentioned."

Remembering something about Sombra mentioning remembering her the strongest, he turns to look at him, worried. Sombra falters for a brief moment—he can see the lingering glance in his eyes—but then his arm slips off of Flash's shoulders and he inclines his head in something like a bow, the very picture of perfect grace. "Miss Cadence. A pleasure to meet you."

Cadence's eyebrows reach her hairline, but she smiles with a hand over her mouth, flattered. "Aren't you polite! Please, just Cadence. It's what everyone calls me."

"Of course," Sombra says, smiling warmly without teeth.

Flash almost feels awkward not greeting Cadence with nearly the same manners. Then again, he'd be even more awkward if he tried that whole miss-paired-with-a-little-bow thing. Only Sombra could act like he was serving in a royal court and not have it totally stick out like a sore thumb.

"Come in, come in!" Cadence says, gesturing them inside. "Twilight will be down in a moment."

The inside of the house is just as nice as the outside. It's not over-the-top luxurious or anything, no gold trim, but there's subtle swirly detailing on the purple-painted walls and Flash can feel how soft the carpet is even through his sneakers.

"Now," Cadence says, tugging Flash's attention away from examining the wallpaper. "Twilight mentioned you two had a few questions you wanted to ask me about Crystal Prep Academy?"

"Yeah! Uh," Flash glances over at Sombra, who probably has more precise and interesting questions to ask her than he does. He doesn't even go to Crystal Prep, damn it.

"Ah, yes. We're researching into the history of the school—call it a side project of ours." Sombra takes the cue quickly enough, at least.

"Well, you've certainly come to the right person," Cadence says with a bit of laughter in her voice. "I've been working on researching and restoring the academy's records since I became Dean. It's hard work, for sure, but it's a very fascinating project. What would you like to know?"

"The school was founded more than a century ago, yes? By who?" Sombra asks.

Cadence lights up. "That would be Dean Amore!" she says, clasping her hands together excitedly. From the subtle flinch that runs through Sombra's body at the name—Flash doesn't frown but does lean in closer to him—he seems to recognize it.

"It's tragic, but her name was struck from the records by the previous Dean," Cadence continues. "I ended up finding her name in the most unexpected place. Shiny and I were going through old family albums together one morning, and there she was. Can you believe it? Me, distantly related to the founder of Crystal Prep Academy?"

"Hi guys!" a voice from the stairs behind them says, interrupting Cadence. Flash turns to wave at Twilight—her hair slightly messy and tied into a bun around two pencils—trying his best to smile at her without it being obviously awkward. She's just so much like the Twilight he knows. It's funny; he finds it strange that Sunset is a horse, but even stranger that this Twilight isn't a horse. "Are you already asking Cadence about the history of Crystal Prep?"

"Yep!" Cadence replies. "I was just telling them about Dean Amore."

"Oh, yeah, how you found her in your family photos!" Twilight says, smiling. "Isn't it neat? Her, distantly related to the very founder of Crystal Prep Academy?"

"It's fascinating," Sombra replies, saving Flash the trouble of having to carry conversation. "Do you know why Dean Amore founded the school?"

Cadence frowns in thought. "We're a little unsure of that. Because so many of the records were tampered with or destroyed, it's hard to find why, exactly, she decided to create Crystal Prep in the first place.

"I went through her history and found that Amore originally worked at another school, the name of which has been lost to time. I found a few fragments of papers from her that complained of a poor working environment—that the faculty were unfriendly, unkind, and treated the students beneath them like—well." She laughs softly, humorlessly. "Like slaves, I suppose."

Well, they're on the right track. And Flash is quickly learning how good Sombra is at controlling his expression. It's only because he knows him and he's been hanging out with him for so long that Flash catches the way his shoulders tense at the word.

"So, Amore struck out on her own and founded her own school," Cadence says. "One dedicated to supporting the students under its care rather than denying them; where every student in its halls would have equal opportunity."

She sighs. "It seems that the deans before me took it far from that intended purpose. It's been difficult work, separating fact from fiction and helping rid the school of its worst habits. It takes a lot to convince students that, up until now, have seen their fellow peers as enemies and competition rather than friends that they can make relationships and cooperate with each other."

She smiles a little sheepishly at the two of them. "But I'm certain you two didn't come here to hear me complain about my duties. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"

"This research you've been doing…" Sombra says. "In relation to Dean Amore—have you heard anything about a 'crystal heart'?"

Cadence's eyes light up. Twilight leans in; to his amusement Flash finds that Sombra is doing the same thing himself. "Oh! Now where did you hear about that?"

Sombra makes a vague gesture.

"When the school was first founded, Dean Amore wanted to create something to represent her ideals of love and unity—similar to the statue on the front lawn of Canterlot High representing their ideals of bravery and friendship," Cadence says. "Eventually, Amore came up with the idea of the Crystal Heart: a heart-shaped statue displayed in the very center of the entrance hall of the school for all to see. Students were encouraged to come up to the Heart to see and even touch it—she felt that a statue locked away behind glass wouldn't get the meaning to sink in."

Cadence sighs. "Sadly, the Crystal Heart was shattered a long time ago, around when the Academy's records became scarce. I suspect the Heart was broken on purpose by one of the deans who disagreed with Amore's ideals."

"So you don't have the Heart anymore?" Flash asks, a little concerned.

"Oh, I didn't say that!" Cadence says, brightening. "While most of the Heart has been lost to the years, I actually managed to get my hands on a few fragments. I have one stored in my desk up at the Academy, and I keep one here in my nightstand."

She runs a hand against the back of her hair. "It sounds silly and a little sentimental, but I like having a piece of the Heart nearby. It makes me feel truly connected to the Academy."

Flash's eyes slide subtly to make eye contact with Twilight while Cadence is focused on Sombra. Twilight's eyes flick from Cadence, back to Flash. She nods slightly.

Alright. That's the Heart covered. They'll just need to figure out a way to power it. Flash thinks he'll leave that to the girls—considering his track record in his love life, Flash thinks he's supremely unqualified to wield the power of love anytime soon.

"One more thing," Sombra asks, and Flash blinks.

"Lay it on me," Cadence replies.

"Have you ever heard of a girl named Radiant Hope? Perhaps a student at the school?"

"Oh, I know that name!" Twilight exclaims. "Radiant Hope was Crystal Prep's very first valedictorian! I always looked up to her."

The way Sombra's head snaps to Twilight as she says that is more intense than Flash has ever seen. "What happened to her after she graduated?" Sombra asks, intent.

"She went on to get her medical degree and revolutionize the surgical field," Twilight says. "She was incredible—one of the best surgeons ever heard of in the field. She invented so many new procedures, helped so many people… I always wanted to change the world like her, one day."

"You speak of her in the past tense."

"Well, yeah." Twilight shrugs. "The school was founded more than a century ago, remember? She died a few years ago of a stroke. It was really a shame. She'd been retired for a little over two decades, of course, but it was still so sad when it happened. It's always a little sad to see someone as brilliant as her go."

Sombra's expression is unreadable. This is not a great sign, Flash knows, because that means whatever expression he's covering up with a wall of stone is something he doesn't want others to see.

He shifts his position a little so that he and Sombra's arms are hidden behind his torso. Tentatively, he reaches back to take Sombra's hand.

Sombra grabs him with a white-knuckled grip, lacing their fingers with a kind of desperation that worries Flash. Outwardly, he's crystalline; his expression shifting only a little as he tilts his head and says, "Thank you. I think that's everything I wanted to know."

"Thank you for asking!" Cadence says, brightly cheerful. "You know, it's not that often that we get students interested in the Academy's history…"

-—-

Dinner with Cadence and Twilight is not nearly as painfully awkward as he expected, mostly because Flash instead spends the entire time sneaking glances at Sombra, concerned. The name Radiant Hope doesn't ring any bells for him, but clearly she must have been important to Sombra somehow, if he's shaken up like this by the news of her death.

Also, Sombra keeps lacing his fingers with his underneath the table, squeezing his hand occasionally like he wants reassurance that he's there, and Flash is glad to be there for his friend but the warmth of his hand in his is utterly distracting.

Somehow he manages to make it through dinner and goodbyes without utterly embarrassing himself. Sombra is cool, cold, and polite as he always is—but his hand is still laced with his, and Flash worries.

Eventually they make it outside. It's as cold as it has been for the last couple of weeks; late evening with the sun fading on the horizon, the chill is even worse, and Flash can't help but shiver.

"Stupid," Sombra teases, but he can hear his heart isn't quite in it. "When will you remember to bring that coat I made you buy?"

"It wasn't that cold when we got here," Flash complains, pulling his free arm tight to his chest and leaning against Sombra for his warmth.

He pauses. "...Sombra?"

"Mm?"

"Are you… alright? You seemed pretty shaken up when you asked about Radiant Hope."

"I am…" Sombra's fingers tighten around his. "I should be… fine."

"You obviously aren't now, Sombra," Flash says. "Don't mess around with the 'what ifs'. Just talk to me."

Sombra looks up at him, staring into his eyes for a long moment, every muscle unhappily tense.

Then he gives a long, long sigh, leaning into Flash like a drooping plant.

"She was my friend, once," Sombra says, low. "She meant everything to me. She… she saved my life."

He sighs, deeply. "The Crystal Empire was not meant for creatures like me. When I rose to overthrow it, she foolishly went to the princesses for help, thinking she could still save me. Instead, the princesses came to overthrow me in turn, and sealed my fate.

"I spared her and let her run to the princesses because she was my best friend… more than that, even. It was my love for her that doomed me—and my anger at what she'd done that doomed her in kind.

"I cast two curses when the princesses rose to overthrow me. One would seal the Crystal Empire away in limbo for a thousand years, because if I could not rule the Empire, nopony could.

"The other…" He pauses. "...the other would seal her away beneath the Empire, until I came to retrieve her. She would be trapped unaging for a thousand years, and a thousand more after that—as long as it would take, for I was patient, and I knew that it might take just that long for me to reach her."

The expression on Sombra's face is deeply unhappy. "The place I sealed her away in… was already a prison for something else. I know—even if my other self managed to pull himself together from his scattered scraps and retrieve her, she would not be the mare I loved a thousand years ago. The darkness would have changed her, reshaped her into a creature as great and as terrible as me."

"And I, in this world, have to contend with the memory of a dead woman who never knew me and never will. I will never get to hear her voice. I will never get to see her smile. I will never…"

Sombra takes a choked breath. Flash can see the glimmer of tears in his eyes and pulls him closer, arm over the shoulders just like Sombra does with him.

"It is foolish. I am the shadow of the stallion who actually knew her. I am a reflection cast through a shattered mirror—I never truly knew her, just as she never truly knew me. All I have of her are distant, half-held memories belonging to someone else. I should not be despairing over her as I am."

"You know," Flash starts, and Sombra looks at him.

"You know, I'm not the best at love. I mean, you've heard about my ex," Flash says, with a little bit of a laugh. "The thing is, that means I've had my heart broken a good couple times. And the first few times, I was thinking—why am I even torn up over this, you know? That girl didn't—didn't give a shit about me. Why do I care about her so much?

"But the thing is, nobody's gonna show up to give you shit because your grief isn't good enough. The police aren't going to come knocking down your door because you aren't doing love right. You can be a complete mess, you can be just—just a puddle of tears on the couch, sitting in yesterday's clothing, and nobody's going to stop you.

"The heart feels what it feels, alright? Sometimes that's crying over the girl who dumped you like you were trash because you loved her more than she could ever love you back. And sometimes…" He sighs. "Sometimes it's crying over a girl you loved, 'cause you're never going to get the chance to love her like you really want.

"And that's okay. That's okay. You're allowed to have feelings, alright? You're allowed to grieve, no matter how stupid you feel like it is.

"And, Sombra?"

"Mm?"

"I don't know much about Hope, but it sounds to me like she was a wonderful friend. You were lucky to have her. I'm so, so sorry you lost her."

Sombra gives him a strangled look.

Then, without warning, he buries his face in Flash's shoulder and begins to cry.

Flash just holds him close and lets him sob.