Spectacular Seven

by The Albinocorn

First published

As graduation draws near, magic begins to awaken in the human world, drawing out old rivals and opening the doors to new adventures. It's up to Sunset and her friends to keep Canterlot safe, all while dealing with their looming futures.

It is a new year for Sunset Shimmer; a fresh chance at real happiness with her five best friends and her girlfriend. But Sunset is constantly troubled by her uncertain future, and haunted by the consequences of her past.

For her battle against Princess Twilight has drawn forth ancient forces with eyes on the last bastion of magic: Canterlot City.

As darkness closes in, Sunset must find her light and guide her friends to defend their world against old rivals and legends best left forgotten, all while dealing with their ever-looming futures.

But when graduation comes, what will Sunset Shimmer do? For she is still a stranger in this world, with or without her friends, and the road before her guarantees nothing.

Of course, with the universe conspiring against her, it'll be a miracle if she even makes it that far...


Story plot edited by HenryAnthonyCourtler
Pre-read by DrakeyC
Cover art spectacularly designed by Drakenichols1 (Final draft coming soon!)
The page of Spectacular Tropes!
Presenting the French translation!

Volume I: Rainbow Rocks—1. Long Road Home

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“Music comes from the soul.

“It’s the purest form of expression—how we learn about our true selves. It can be soft and controlled, or wild and free! Just like life, our songs have rises and falls.

“When lives cross paths, the encounter can create either harmony or dissonance. And that encounter—that song can change the world.

“That is the melody of life.”

Volume I

Rainbow Rocks

A warm breeze tousled her hair and tickled her cheeks. The grass beneath her boots whispered hymns of summer delight. Even from here, she could smell sweet pastries and roasting vegetables carried down on the gentle wind.

Sunset Shimmer was home. She stood on the crest of an emerald hill in the middle of the Unicorn Range. Within her reach, just over her head was Canterlot, perched on its royal purple mountain. The sun sat over it, basking it in golden rays, making every tower and turret, every marble wall and glass window, every waterfall sparkle with perfection.

Tears welled in her eyes. She was almost there. Just across the plains, just through the forest, just up the slopes.

Before she could move, something soared out from the city. It rode the wind on wide alabaster wings, turning translucent at a touch of the sun’s light. A rainbow flowed behind it, swirling and dancing as the figure descended. It touched the ground with long, slender legs while the rainbow settled into a mane that ebbed and flowed like the tide. Her regal white coat was untarnished and unmarked saved for the sun adorned on her flank.

Princess Celestia smiled; the same smile that could melt Sunset’s heart and make her feel like anything was possible. “Do you want to come home, Sunset?”

Her mouth hadn’t moved, but Sunset heard the words loud and clear in her head. She wanted to respond ‘yes’, but instead, the world swiveled beneath her feet.

Behind her, six girls smiled and waved, calling her name. Sunset’s heart swelled, filled with a heavenly euphoria. She knew them: those were her best friends.

Applejack: strong and reliable.

Rarity: resourceful and a shoulder to lean on.

Rainbow Dash: competitive and unbreakable.

Fluttershy: kind and brave.

Pinkie Pie: bubbly and upbeat.

Twilight Sparkle: compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful.

Sunset took a step toward them, and fell off the edge of the world, straight into darkness. She tumbled head-over-heels, spinning in an empty sea of nothing. No sound, no light… no friends. Soon, her fall slowed, and she merely floated.

Where am I going? She thought. Which way was up or down? Did it even matter?

She appeared before Sunset, hanging upside down (or perhaps rightside up) with her arms crossed. Her skin was a blistering red, covered only by her yellow and black dress. Fire billowed off of her head, and she kept her wings tucked behind her back.

“Which way are you going, Sunset?” her demon asked, flicking her tail back and forth.

Sunset looked at the twisting roads all around her. Up and down, backwards and forwards, spiraling, loop-de-looping. She couldn’t see where any of them went. Darkness obscured the horizon.

“I don’t know.”

The demon grinned. “That’s because you have nowhere to go!” She grabbed Sunset in one hand and raised her to her face. “You will wander forever!” The demon opened her mouth, preparing to devour Sunset.

*******

Sunset snapped her eyes open, forcing herself to do nothing more than inhale deeply. She kept her head against her pillow and took slow breaths, finding a rhythm with the six sleeping girls around her. Her eyes focused on the high ceiling, barely visible in the midnight gloom.

That’s it, girl. Just take it easy. Just being in the presence of her friends gave her peace of mind. Still, Sunset felt the restlessness that came with being unceremoniously jolted awake. It would take a while to get back to sleep, she could feel it.

As quietly as she could, she unzipped her pink sleeping bag and slipped out of it. She navigated the maze made up of her friends and their sleeping positions across Pinkie’s living room floor, stepping lightly to not wake any of them up. She froze when Fluttershy moved, but sighed and smiled when she saw it was just to snuggle against her stuffed bear.

Sunset made it over to the couch and settled down against its side. Leaning against it, she had a front row seat to a transparent theater screen, complete with grey curtains on either side—her own private show. Tonight’s feature presentation: an encore of the winter storm that had hit Canterlot a few days ago. Supposedly, it was the final showing.

Flurries of soft white flakes fell onto the frozen ground. If Sunset squinted into the murky night, she could see a soft blanket tucked over the rooftops of other houses; a simple, bewitching sight.

With a shiver, Sunset pulled her knees close to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Snowflakes drifted about on the wind, aimless, with no decision on where they would land or when. I can relate, Sunset thought, resting her head on her knees.

A long time ago, she had known what she wanted. She had wanted power. Enough power to make Princess Celestia acknowledge her as worthy to be a princess herself.

But that power had backfired on her.

It had almost been four months since the Fall Formal—since Sunset had been brought low by the meddling Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Since the Elements of Harmony, after she refused to repent for her actions, laid upon her a penance: to help anyone who asked for a favor, and to only tell the truth.

If Sunset had to describe her life after that in one word, it would be ‘chaotic.’

She smiled wearily, watching a snowflake land against the window. At the end of it all, she had seen the errors of her ways. She had gained friends, albeit, at the cost of some of her sanity. But she supposed that was part of the deal: friends drove you crazy. She had gained a pseudo-family, she had gained happiness...

Sunset frowned. The only thing she hadn’t gained was a new sense of purpose.

“Do you want to come home, Sunset?”

Equestria was Sunset’s home. But the portal linking the human world back to the land of equines and magic was sealed, forcing Sunset to endure another two years. Could she go home at the end of that? Would Celestia forgive her for her transgressions? And could Sunset swallow her loathing of Princess Twilight Sparkle enough to acknowledge her as a ruling monarch?

The answer to the last question remained an emphatic ‘no’.

A blanket fell over Sunset’s shoulders, and she looked up to see the sweet smiling face of the human Twilight Sparkle looking down at her.

With the lifting of her penance, Sunset had also gained a girlfriend. The fact that she was the human version of her mortal enemy was irony at its finest. But, Twilight had wanted to be Sunset’s friend, not out of a promise to someone else, but because she had been genuinely curious about Sunset.

The fact that Sunset had saved her life probably hadn’t hurt either.

Twilight settled down next to Sunset and wrapped the blanket around both of them. She rested her head on Sunset’s shoulder and joined her in watching the snow fall. “Can’t sleep?” she whispered.

Sunset tilted her head against Twilight’s. “Yeah. Just a bad dream.”

“I thought they went away?” There was that note of concern; that compassion that had melted Sunset’s cold exterior.

“They have. It’s just… I don’t know.” Sunset no longer experienced nightmares like she had after the Fall Formal, but from time to time, her darkness liked to catch up with her.

The snow outside settled down, falling in slow, lazy spirals. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah.”

Twilight lifted her head and pecked Sunset’s cheek. “You’re going to be fine. You have us, okay?”

Sunset smiled and snuggled closer to Twilight. “Yeah, okay.” I know I have you girls. But for how long? She suppressed a sigh. Just tackle the future one day at a time, Sunset. She closed her eyes, letting Twilight’s subtle aroma of lavender lull her back to sleep. One day at a time.

*******

“All right, you two. Best get up before Rainbow goes and eats everything,” a voice drawled somewhere above Sunset.

“You snooze, you lose!” Rainbow shouted.

Sunset blinked the sleep out of her eyes. Applejack came into focus above her, smiling and holding Twilight’s glasses out. Twilight lifted her head off Sunset and yawned before taking her glasses and setting them on her face. She stretched her arms and got up, helping Sunset to her feet.

Applejack chuckled at the sight of them before walking off to the kitchen. Twilight folded the blanket and set it on the couch, rolling her eyes at Sunset’s rolling eyes.

“It’s common courtesy,” she chastised.

“Whatever,” Sunset said playfully. It earned her a poke in the shoulder. The couple wandered over to the kitchen where the rest of her friends sat at the table, save for Pinkie who was dancing around the stove in her pajamas and an apron.

“I made pancaaaakes!” she sang, flipping two more golden brown pastries off the skillet and onto a plate.

Sunset settled down at the table, eager to indulge in Pinkie’s famous pancakes. It had become a staple breakfast thanks to their many sleepovers during winter break.

“I can’t believe this is the last weekend before school starts,” Rainbow moaned. “It feels like it just ended.”

Rarity placed a napkin over her lap. “Don’t be so melodramatic. Besides, this is our last semester of high school. We’re almost done! And think of all the exciting things we have to look forward to this semester!”

Rainbow shook her head. “The only thing I’m looking forward to is grad night. Nine hours in an amusement park just for us! That’s going to be awesome!”

Sunset picked a blueberry from the fruit bowl and popped it into her mouth. She looked forward to any time spent with her friends. Ugh, I’m growing way too sentimental.

Pinkie skipped over with a large stack of pancakes and set them on the table. “Dig in!”

The Spectacular Seven, as Pinkie had affectionately dubbed them, helped themselves to the breakfast Pinkie had prepared. Along with pancakes, fruit, toast, eggs, bacon, and sausage, regular and tofu laid out in front of them.

Like every other batch, the pancakes were light, fluffy, and delicious. The girls passed their compliments to the chef, setting off Pinkie’s infectious smile. They partook in desultory conversation until every scrap of food was gone, leaving only bloated bellies.

“Well, time to hibernate until school starts,” Rainbow said, leaning back in her chair.

“Ah thought we were goin’ outside?” Applejack asked, getting up and gathering plates. “It’s the last time it’s supposed to snow this season.”

“Right, right, just give me a sec.”

Fluttershy stood up and began collecting plates as well. “Here, let me help, Applejack.”

Chairs screeched and silverware clattered as everyone (save for Rainbow) helped clean up before getting dressed. Sunset bundled up in her winter coat and gloves, and wrapped her red scarf around her face.

As Twilight emerged from the bathroom, Sunset had to bite back a laugh. She had seen Twilight’s winter get up before, but it still tickled her every time. Twilight caught Sunset’s tightened expression and narrowed her eyes from behind her glasses. “Stop it.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help it if you look like a grape!”

From her overstuffed winter jacket that made her waddle more than walk, to her cap, and down to her snow boots, Twilight wore some shade of violet. “Blame my mom.”

With everyone dressed, they filed out the door, Twilight having to turn sideways to fit. Snow had stopped falling from the sky, though a steel grey tarp still hung over them. Snow, soft, deep and perfect for fighting and sledding coated the world in front of them.

Pinkie’s front yard was wide and mostly empty save for a few large rocks sticking out of the snow. They looked like powdered dates.

No one was sure who threw the first snowball, but within seconds, a full scale war had erupted. Sunset used Twilight’s added bulk as a moving shield, much to Twilight’s annoyance. When she tried to bend over to grab snow to fling at Sunset, she fell and became stuck on the ground. Sunset joined her, but only because her laughter brought her to the ground.

It was worth getting pelted by an onslaught of snowballs.

When Sunset could breathe again, she helped Twilight to her feet, and immediately received a faceful of snow. Sunset thought about pushing her back down, but decided she had tormented Twilight enough for now. With the score even, they teamed up against the other girls, using one of the powdered dates as cover.

Their outing reflected the rest of their winter break together. They pelted each other with snowballs until the chill numbed every finger, then submitted themselves to further frozen torture by marching to Canterlot Park and sledding down the biggest hill. They would go separately and then in pairs, with Twilight managing to fall off at least once.

Clothes soggy and bodies freezing, they hurried back to Pinkie’s house to warm up with a roaring fire and hot chocolate. A simple routine, perhaps even monotonous; they had done this every time it snowed in the last two weeks, opting to see a movie or play laser tag whenever it hadn’t.

Sunset found pleasure in the simplicity of it. She had the one thing she had been missing her entire life: friends. It didn’t matter what they did, as long as they did it together. She found solace in the sanctuary of their company.

She sipped her cocoa. I’m being sentimental again. Of course, with Twilight leaning against her, it was hard not to feel something.

They were all gathered around the fireplace, reheating their fingers and faces; thick mugs of hot chocolate and marshmallows clutched in their hands.

Rainbow took a large slurp of hers and belched, ignoring the wrinkled nose Rarity made at her. “Pinkie, is there anything you can’t make delicious?”

“Haggis,” Pinkie said, narrowing her eyes. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“What’s haggis?” Sunset asked.

“Sheep intestines cooked in its own stomach,” Twilight said, turning green at the thought.

“And now I wish I hadn’t asked.”

“Ain’t nothin’ a little hot sauce can’t fix,” Applejack said.

Rarity scoffed. “That’s your answer for anything with food.”

“That’s proof that it works.”

Just then, Igneous, Pinkie’s father stuck his head in from the kitchen. “Pinkamina,” he drolled, “would any of thine friends care to stay for supper?”

“No thanks!” they all cried, scrambling to their feet. Anyone but Pinkie cooking signaled the time to leave.

Everyone gathered their stuff and headed out the door. The sun had begun to break through the clouds as it sank through the sky. The snow sloshed rather than crunched beneath their feet.

“Bye, girls!” Pinkie waved them off from the porch. “See you at school!”

Applejack packed hers and Rarity’s things into her old pickup truck, while Rainbow did the same for herself and Fluttershy, roughly shoving everything into the trunk of her car.

"You two need a lift?” Applejack asked Sunset and Twilight.

“No thanks,” Twilight said. “It’s just a few blocks from the park.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “They just want time alone to make-out.”

Sunset crossed her arms and smirked. “Rainbow, if you’re jealous, just say something. I’m sure one of us would be happy to accommodate you.”

“I’m not—” Rainbow ended her sentence by flipping Sunset the finger. Sunset blew a raspberry, and Rainbow blew one back as she got into her car. Fluttershy sighed, perking up a little as she waved to everyone before getting in the passenger seat.

Applejack climbed into her truck. “All right, well, you two just get home safe now, ya hear?”

Sunset nodded. “Will do. See you tomorrow.”

“Ta-ta, dears!” Rarity waved, giving them a wink as Applejack pulled away. When they rounded the corner, Sunset slipped her glove into Twilight’s and they started down the road.

Other kids still played outside in the melting snow. A snowman bid the girls farewell as they passed by, his body sagging to the right with one of his arms raised in a final salute. Most of the ice had thawed off the roads, though it was still covered with snow, much of it black from the asphalt. It was probably safe for Sunset to ride her motorcycle again, but she’d wait a few more days just so Twilight wouldn’t worry.

Twilight pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Do you think Rainbow is jealous of us? She comments on our relationship a lot.” Sunset could see Twilight’s breath as she spoke.

“Nah. She just likes to be funny. Or at least, attempt to be funny. If she really wanted someone, I’m sure half the boys on the sports teams would love to get with her. Some of the girls, too.”

“But she’s not gay.”

“I know, I just like to remind her.”

Twilight made a cute snort. “You two are terrible to each other.”

Sunset shrugged. “She started it. You know, if we’re not counting the actual terrible things I did to her.” She felt Twilight give her hand a squeeze. “Sorry. Force of habit.”

“You’re a good person, Sunset. We all know that.”

Sunset looked away, giving herself a chance to flex her cheek muscles before giving Twilight her most convincing smile. “You’re right. Thanks, Sparky.” The kiss Twilight gave her made her smile a little more authentic.

Still, it was a shallow reflection of her real emotions. She tried her hardest to never lie to Twilight. But how did Sunset tell her that she still had a literal demon haunting her from time to time; reminding her of her past failures and cruelties, reminding her what awaited if she slipped up at any moment?

Reminding her what would happen when graduation came, and everyone left.

Sunset avoided the conversation like the plague, knowing what Twilight’s answers would be. Sunset loved having Twilight’s support, but she didn’t want to hear more reassurances that she was good and that she had friends. Sunset knew she had friends, and maybe she was good now if her lack of a harmonic curse was anything to go by. But a few good deeds didn’t mean she couldn’t fall back into old habits. And it certainly didn’t make her future any clearer.

A little tug from Twilight told Sunset she wasn’t being discreet in her brooding. Twilight looked at her, sad eyes magnified by her glasses.

“I’m fine, really.” Sunset put on another smile. “You know I just think too much sometimes.”

Twilight lifted her glove and ran her thumb along Sunset’s cheek. “You always look sad or lost when you do.”

Sunset found herself leaning into Twilight’s hand. “You make a little pouty expression whenever you’re worried. It’s really cute.”

If the cold hadn’t already turned her cheeks red, Sunset’s compliment would have done the job. “D-don’t change the subject,” Twilight said, pulling her hand back.

“I’m not.” Sunset grinned. “The subject of this part of the conversation was how I looked at a particular time. You noted how I looked when I’m thinking, I noted how you looked when you’re worried. No subject change.”

“That’s…” Twilight pinched her nose. “Okay, you’re fine.”

Sunset took Twilight’s hand and they continued their walk. Keeping her thoughts and feelings closed became a challenge when Twilight learned to read Sunset’s facial cues. It was a rather impressive for a social introvert. Though Sunset guessed that wasn’t so much the case anymore. Twilight could be awkward at times, but she had come a ways from her first interactions with the group; the driving factor being to set herself apart from Princess Twilight Sparkle.

It had worked in Sunset’s eyes. She saw nothing of the princess when she looked at Twilight. This wasn’t the girl who had stolen Sunset’s apprenticeship, ruined her plans, then left her to languish in the human world. This Twilight, while annoyingly curious at times, had only been kind, caring, and optimistic, rooting for Sunset even when Sunset wasn’t rooting for herself.

They came to Twilight’s house, situated in what Sunset referred to as Suburbia, where every house looked identical save for paint colors and personal touches. They were all organized in perfect rows with perfect lawns (even in winter, they were uniformly dead) and perfectly paved streets. An unnerving shudder always ran up Sunset’s spine when she walked through it.

Twilight’s house was light blue with a small fountain on the porch as its mark of personality. Sunset thought the porch itself carried a curse, as every time she and Twilight stood poised to kiss, something went wrong. Granted, the first time had been her own fault, but after that, they were either interrupted or Twilight, with the girth of her snow jacket, would lean forward too much and topple Sunset over.

This trend didn’t go unnoticed by Twilight either. She bounced on her heels, looking eagerly at Sunset, then nervously at the door.

“Think we can get away with it this time?” Sunset asked.

Twilight didn’t respond. She just closed her eyes and stood on her toes. Just as Sunset leaned down, lips puckered, the door opened and Twilight’s father walked out, pausing mid-step.

Sunset looked at him from the corner of her eye, lips still puckered. “Hello, Mr. Night Light.”

“This is statistically impossible,” Twilight muttered.

“Caught in the act again, Miss Shimmer,” Night Light said, trying and failing to sound serious. “I thought I told you to stop kissing my daughter in public.”

“Can’t help it, Mr. Night Light, she’s just so pretty.”

Twilight hid her melting face behind her hands.

Night Light smiled in satisfaction. “You always know just what to say, don’t you Sunset?” He stepped aside and gestured to the open door. “All right, get inside before you two freeze to death. I’m off to pick up dinner. Are you going to stick around, Sunset?”

“Oh no, I’m just here to drop Twilight off.”

“All right, but you’re missing out on some good Chinese food,” he said as he walked out to the car.

Twilight ushered Sunset inside and shut the door before peeling off her coat and boots. Spike rushed over before she could even finish, pawing at her leg until she picked him up. “Heehee, I missed you too, buddy,” she giggled as Spike licked her face.

Sunset unzipped her jacket but kept everything on. A hello to anyone else home and a kiss to Twilight, then she would be on her way. She followed Twilight to the kitchen, where Shining Armor and Cadence sat at the counter, stacks of envelopes between them.

“Good evening, Sunset,” Shining said cordially, though like always, there was that underlying tone of ‘I’m watching you’, only it wasn’t a joke like Night Light’s.

“Officer,” Sunset said with a dip of her head.

“Detective.”

“Right, sorry.” Sunset had almost forgotten about Shining’s new promotion. As impressive as it was, it almost took a backseat to the other news he and Cadence had shared with everyone.

Speaking of which…

As soon as Sunset turned, she was met with a full body hug from Cadence. “Sunset, how are you, sweetie?”

“Suffocating.” Cadence let go, allowing Sunset to breathe. She gave Cadence an annoyed look, but it bounced off her impenetrable cheery demeanor. While Sunset was on good terms with this world’s Cadence as opposed to her pony princess counterpart, she still hated surprise hugs.

Cadence pulled an envelope from the stack and handed it to Sunset. “Here you go, you get one of the first invitations.”

Sunset turned the white envelope in her hand. 'You’re invited!' was scrawled in elegant cursive across the front. “Wow, I’m kinda honored,” Sunset said.

Cadence made a quick gesture with her hands, her diamond ring catching the kitchen light. “Go on, open it.”

Sunset gently tore open the envelope and pulled out the authentic parchment within. White doves were printed in the corners, and the paper carried the hint of white roses. “Dearest friend,” Sunset read aloud, “you are cordially invited to the wedding of Shining Armor and Mi Amore Cadenza.”

Cadence clapped and jumped up and down. “Isn’t it exciting? This summer, me and Shiny are finally going to be married!”

“I’m happy for you both, really.” Sunset looked at the invitation again. “I’m just surprised you made these so soon. He only proposed, like, a week ago.”

“Oh, we started making wedding plans months ago.” Cadence showed off her engagement ring again. “We didn’t make anything official because I was waiting for Shining to give me the goddamn ring!

Shining squirmed in his seat. “I was waiting to see if I would get the detective position. Now we can actually pay for everything.”

Cadence draped her arms over Shining. “I know, you were being big and responsible.” She poked him in the chest. “But never keep a wedding ring from a girl who knows you’re going to propose to her.”

Sunset slipped the letter into her pocket. “I bet a lot of your fans must be heartbroken now.” Across Canterlot, Cadence was known on the radio as the Goddess of Love and Fortune.

“Oh, I’ve already gotten a few calls asking me to ditch Shining for them. But I wouldn’t trade my knight in Shining Armor for anyone.” She kissed him then added in a serious tone, “I also told them he was cop, so I doubt anyone will try anything.”

Twilight held Spike in front of her. “Don’t worry, we’ll have Spike on guard duty during the ceremony.”

Spike barked and wagged his tail.

With her greetings done, Sunset retreated back to the front door, escorted by Twilight and her faithful dog. “I get to be the maid of honor,” Twilight said with a happy squeak. “I can’t wait.”

Sunset rezipped her jacket. “Neither can I. I bet you’ll look amazing.”

Twilight’s smile grew a little hesitant. She opened her mouth to say something, but quickly closed it and smiled like nothing had happened.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” Twilight shook her head. “Nothing important.”

Sunset gave her a skeptical eye, but let it drop. Guess we’re both guilty of keeping secrets today. She leaned down and pressed her lips against Twilight’s, giving them a gentle knead. Nothing more than that since Sunset knew Shining was watching from the kitchen. She did, however, move her hands down to Twilight’s waist.

Twilight finally pulled away, smiling too much to keep contact. She fixed her askew glasses and said, “Walk home safe, okay?”

“When have I ever not been safe?” She kissed Twilight again and stepped out the door. “See you tomorrow, Sparky.”

Sunset felt Twilight’s eyes stay on her until she was two houses away. She couldn’t help but wonder what Twilight had been about to say, but knew better than to pry. Twilight was an open book and would tell Sunset anything in due time.

The sun had fallen completely by the time Sunset got home. She was still in Suburbia, but it was the older half where the houses at least had individual designs. Hers in particular had a medieval tower sticking up off the side.

“Hello?” she called as she stepped into the spacious living room. Photos and tapestries coated every wall, giving Sunset a detailed account of her host family’s life. A delicious aroma wafted into the living room from the kitchen. Sunset’s mouth watered up as she imagined what Selena had cooked up tonight.

The first response was a jingling collar followed by the pitter-patter of paws against the hardwood floor. A little white dog with a brown mark around his left eye and a torn ear ran up to Sunset and started hopping on his back legs, wagging his tail.

“Hi, Spot!” Sunset cooed, picking him up and scratching his chin. “Did you miss me?”

Sunset had adopted Spot from Fluttershy's animal shelter. Like Twilight, Spot had been a terrible judge of character, liking the bitter, spiteful version of Sunset. In turn, Sunset found Spot to be the cornerstone of adorableness.

Making sure the living room was empty, Sunset put him down on his back and started scratching his belly, getting Spot to kick his leg in delight. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? Who’s my little Spotty-wotty? Who’s the cutest—”

“Ahem.”

I knew I should have done this in my room. Sunset looked up from her coddling to find Trixie leaning on the banister with an impish smirk. Sunset straightened up and gently nudged Spot away with her toe. “That was my impression of you.”

Trixie’s smirk diminished a fraction. “One time.”

“All the time.”

She blew her bang out from in front of her face. “Whatever. Trixie has better things to do than argue with you. Dinner should be almost done.”

Sunset followed Trixie into the kitchen, breaking into a smile at the sight they had walked in on. Spatula in one hand, earbuds lost somewhere in her cascade of sky blue hair, Selena danced in front of the oven, singing one of Sapphire Shore’s songs under her breath.

She twirled, and her eyes fell on Trixie and Sunset. Selena jumped, her emerald eyes wide and her cheeks red. “Girls!” She took out her earbuds and switched her expression from surprised to stern. “What have I told you about sneaking up on me?”

Trixie raised a finger. “We didn’t sneak up on you, Mother. We just walked in.” Trixie took a seat at the island table. “Your dancing is getting better though.”

Selena put her hands on her hips. “What do you mean ‘getting better?’ My dancing is fine, thank you very much.”

As Sunset approached the table, a large cloud of purple smoke exploded in front of her. Out of it stepped a tall man with sleek silver hair gelled back, and a silver goatee that curled at the tip. He wore a blue suit with a cape and hat, both purple and covered in stars and moons.

“Hello, family!” Artemis bellowed, flashing them all with his boyish smile. “I hope you’re all having a magnificent day!”

Selena glared at him, waving a dish towel at the remaining smoke. “Artemis, how many times have I told you not to teleport in the kitchen? You’re going to set off the smoke alarm.”

Artemis flinched at her scalding tone. “Sorry, turtle dove. Won’t happen again.”

“Mmmhmm.”

Artemis turned around and gave Sunset a one-armed hug, then swooped over to plant a kiss on Trixie’s forehead. “How was your last day of vacation? Do anything exciting?”

Trixie shrugged. “Lavender Lace went to get concert tickets for some new band and bought one for Trixie. Trixie’s heard them over the radio and they’re okay, she guesses. But Lavender said that her friend’s cousin went to a show and supposedly they’re much better live.”

“Exciting!” He looked over to Sunset. “And how was your eighth sleepover in two weeks? With the amount of time you spend outside the house, I’m starting to think you don’t want to stay with us,” Artemis pouted.

Sunset paled. “N-no, it’s not—I-I, we just, you know—”

Artemis patted her on the head. “I’m kidding, Sunny.”

Her guilt burned away, and she gave Artemis her usual annoyed glare which, as usual, went completely unnoticed. Sunset didn’t know why she bothered. A month of living with the Lulamoons should have made her used to their quirks and familiar teasing.

Force of habit I guess.

Selena came and set two dishes on the table: lasagna, one meat, and a smaller vegetarian. Along with them was a bowl of salad and some rolls.

One of the many perks that came from not living in an abandoned factory anymore was the amount of food Sunset now had access to. She sometimes wondered if Selena cooked this much to make up for Sunset’s previous living conditions, or if they always had a mini-feast for every meal.

Either way, Sunset helped herself to the steaming lasagna, ‘accidentally’ dropping a few pieces for Spot to lick up off the floor. The disapproving glare Selena gave her told Sunset she wasn’t being discreet, but Spot was happy, so Sunset wasn’t too concerned.

Dinner was never a quiet event with Artemis around. He enjoyed recounting one of his many adventures from his youth. He often tried to embellish them, adding extra bad guys, spike pits, or handicaps that he overcame. Selena, having been with him for most of these adventures, would correct him, though for some of his more ridiculous accounts, she would just smile and shake her head.

Since Selena enforced a firm ‘no magic’ rule in the kitchen, dishes were cleaned the old fashioned way. Sunset always helped, feeling it was the least she could do cover her free room and board. Once she finished, she headed upstairs to her room, Spot right on her heels.

When she had first came to this world, Sunset had been under the impression it held no magic, or at least so little of it, using or manipulating it proved impossible. Artemis (and to a much lesser extent, Trixie) had proven her wrong. There were a scant few who had magic in their blood and could wield it. As far as Sunset could tell, it wasn’t like Equestrian magic that could literally do anything if you knew enough and were strong enough. The magic of human world seemed to have a short range of powerful illusions to basic thaumaturgy.

Sunset entered her room, leaving the door open just a crack in case Spot wanted to weasel out. Her adopted bedroom was painted a soothing baby blue and had come with a desk, a dresser, and a nightstand, upon which sat a picture frame with ‘friends for life’ scribbled on it. A picture of the Spectacular Seven dressed in their gowns at the Winter Ball filled the frame. A small closet was off to the right of her bed, and the window across from her gave a view of the snowy streets.

Pulling off her sweater, Sunset looked at herself in the mirror hanging on the back of the door. A few months ago, if she had learned that magic sat under her nose, Sunset would have pounced on it, anything to reclaim her lost power and further her goals of revenge.

Now, as she looked into teal eyes empty of scorn and vindictiveness, the very thought of touching anything magical made her skin crawl. Sunset turned away from her reflection before anything else could rear its head.

“You really should have told Twilight everything that’s bothering you,” a squeaky voice said.

Sunset sat on her bed, taking Spot onto her lap, and glared at the little pink unicorn doll lying on her nightstand. It had a roll of duct tape running across its middle from when Sunset had tore it in half. Princess Twilight Sparkle was its name, and being the annoying conscience that nagged Sunset and told her to do the ‘right’ thing was its reason for existing.

Talking to it sat somewhere between insane and cathartic.

“Twilight doesn’t need me dumping all of my stupid problems on her,” Sunset said. “It’s not like she can do anything about them anyway.”

“But talking about it is still healthy. You should have an open relationship and talk about anything that’s troubling you.”

“Thanks, but I’m not going to take advice from a stuffed toy.”

Spot barked.

“That’s right, you tell her,” Sunset said proudly. She sighed and fell back against her blanket. “I’m a mess.”

2. Moondancer

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Twilight sat at her usual table, hunched over with her nose in a book. The silence of the library gave her optimal comfort for her reading.

At least, it would have if that girl would stop staring at her.

Twilight tried her best to ignore her, but this was the third time this week she had followed Twilight into the library and sat at the table across from her, pretending to read a book.

It was normally easy for Twilight to get lost in her literature. But every time the girl looked at her, Twilight could feel it. She had half a mind to go find somewhere else to sit and read, but the lunch hall and the quad were far too noisy for her liking.

Glancing over her book again, Twilight saw the girl quickly look away. Twilight slowly retreated behind her book again, twisting her face into a scowl. What does she want? She’s ruining my concentration! Twilight tried to read again, but found herself staring at the same line over and over. She made a tiny growl and snapped the book shut. Maybe reading something else would get her reinvested.

She adjusted her glasses and selected A History of Shakespeare from the pile of books next to her. It didn’t take long for her to get sucked in; she couldn’t even feel the girl staring at her anymore.

“Shakespearean history. Quite a pristine choice of reading,” a light and regal voice said.

Twilight jumped in her seat and jerked her head. The mysterious girl stood over her shoulder. Skin pearly as the full moon with nary a blemish, long red hair which curled and turned purple at the ends and decorated with a blue bow, and curious violet eyes that gazed at Twilight.

“My apologies, did I startle you?”

“Yes, you did,” Twilight snapped. “I’m trying to read in peace.”

The girl dipped her head once. “Forgive me, I was merely interested in your book of choice. It’s not everyday I see someone trying to read up on the great Shakespeare.”

Twilight was about to ask her to leave, but froze, her interest piqued. “You read Shakespeare?”

The girl held one hand against her breast and held the other up high. “‘By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap to pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon, or dive into the bottom of the deep, where fathom-line could never touch the ground, and pluck up drowned honour by the locks.’” She smiled at a speechless Twilight.

“That… that was amazing. You quoted Henry IV perfectly!”

“Well, any thespian, Broadway or otherwise, should be well-versed in their Shakespeare. Not only was he the greatest playwright of all time, but he was a philosopher of the spoken and written word.” Her eyes twinkled in admiration.

Twilight nodded her head so fervently, her glasses almost fell off. “That’s what I think too! But the way the students around here react when we have to read Romeo and Juliet, you’d think they were being punished.”

“Plebeians, the whole lot of them. They have no taste for the finer arts of life.” She flashed another radiant smile. “But not you. I can tell you are quite cultured.”

Twilight blushed. “Well, I do like to read a lot.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

Twilight couldn’t believe what she was about to do. She had thought herself above friend making; the only ones she needed were her brother and Cadence. She had come to school to learn, not socialize. Yet here was someone who shared her love of Shakespeare. Maybe, just maybe…

She pointed to the seat next to her. “Would you, uh… I mean, if you want to keep talking…”

The girl dropped into the seat and scooted closer. “I’d be absolutely delighted.”

Twilight smiled, then sputtered, “Oh, w-what’s your name?”

“Hmmhmmhmm.” The girl held a hand over her mouth as she giggled. “You may call me Moondancer.”

*******

Sunset’s alarm went off at 6:45 A.M., ringing three times before she slapped it off. She turned over and nestled deeper into her warm bed.

Something wet tickled her cheek. She tried to push it away, but the slimy appendage just kept coming back. “Okay, okay, I get it, time for school.” She pushed herself into a sitting position, finding Spot looking up at her with eyes that were impossible to be mad at. She scratched him under the chin before rolling out of bed.

She selected some warm clothes for the day, then went to the bathroom. Unfortunately, she opened her door the same time Trixie came from her bedroom. They locked eyes for a moment, then both ran to the bathroom between their rooms.

Their shoulders shoved into each other as they tried to fit through the door.

“I saw it first, Trixie.”

“Well, Trixie was here first!”

“No, I was!”

“Trixie meant in this house!”

“Oh… well you got it first last time!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Girls!” Artemis’ voice rang out from down the hall. “It’s too early for this! Get dressed and go to school!”

During that brief distraction, Trixie shoved Sunset back and claimed the bathroom. “Victory for Trixie!” she said behind the door.

Sunset grumbled a few choice words then retreated to her room to wait. She sat on her bed, rubbing Spot’s belly to pass the time.

Her eyes wandered over to her bedside table. With her free hand, she reached over and scooped up the necklace sitting by her photo. A shining red and gold sun with eight rays hung from a silver chain: Sunset’s old cutie mark. Trixie had given it as a Christmas gift—a small gesture that told Sunset while they might not get along, Trixie accepted her in the house.

I guess she can have the bathroom this time.

*******

Twenty-five minutes later, Sunset was out the door and heading down the road. Canterlot High being in comfortable walking distance was another perk that came from living with the Lulamoons. She didn’t need to ride her motorcycle unless she absolutely wanted to.

The streets were sleek and shiny from the melted snow, and younger children splashed in the leftover puddles on the sidewalk. Small pockets of snow hid in ditches or shaded areas, too stubborn to melt overnight. The clouds had begun to break apart, returning sunlight and warmth to Canterlot. Sunset pulled her new leather jacket tighter around her. Another Christmas gift, this one from Twilight and now one of her most treasured possessions. She admired the spiked cuffs on her long sleeves, and traced a finger along the embroidered S on the left breast pocket before hiding her hands away from the cold.

Trixie drove past her in her blue buggy, honking as she went. She had offered Sunset a ride, but Sunset had preferred to walk today. Besides, it was only an extra ten minutes by foot.

She saw a few students on her way to school. None of them waved to her, but they didn’t look at her with contempt like they had before she organized the Winter Ball and formally apologized for her past actions.

I suppose I’m just neutral now. Sunset smiled. She was perfectly okay with that.

Like everywhere else, the lawn of Canterlot High School sat brown and limp. Students milled about, catching up with some of the friends they hadn’t seen over the break. As she approached the front entrance, Sunset stopped and looked at the statue of the Wondercolt horse atop the marble base.

Sunset rested a hand against the cold stone, her thoughts turning to Equestria hidden away on the other side. Just two years to go, she thought humorlessly. She faced the brightly painted school. Well, I’ve got plenty of things to do in the meantime. So stop with homesick shtick. You’re getting on my nerves.

Students overflowed in the central rotunda, laughing, swapping stories, and trading pictures on their phones. Little banners were posted on the walls that read, “Welcome back, Wondercolts!” Below it was a list of all the upcoming activities: soccer matches, the school musical showcase, an orchestra recital, and the Spring Fling.

“Hey, Sunset!”

Sunset turned around and saw Flash Sentry slip through the door, his guitar case in hand. “Morning, Flash.” She and Flash had been on much more amicable terms after Sunset had heartfeltly apologized to him.

Flash ran a hand through his spiky hair and smiled. “So, how was your break?”

“It was pretty good.” Sunset tugged at her jacket. “Got this for Christmas. Hung out with my friends and Twilight. Couldn’t ask for much more.”

“That’s cool.” Flash sighed. “I asked for a new guitar for Christmas, but my dad keeps saying ‘music isn’t a career, it’s just a hobby. Knuckle down and do something productive.’” Flash’s mouth rose into a grin again. “He won’t be singing the same tune after my band wins the showcase.”

Sunset had a mind to poke a hole in his dream, but thought against it. She gave him a thumbs up instead. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

They said goodbye and went down opposite ends of the hall. Sunset packed her bag away in her locker before traveling a bit further and finding Twilight, folding up her thick jacket and stuffing it away. Sunset leaned next to the locker and crossed her arms. “Morning, Sparky,” she said with a grin.

Twilight gave her jacket one final shove and slammed the locker shut. She gave an exhausted sigh before acknowledging Sunset. “Morning. How are—mmmph!” Twilight was cut off by a surprise kiss. When Sunset pulled away, Twilight’s cheeks were bright red. “S-Sunset, are you… sure about, you know…” She looked up and down the hall.

Sunset’s smile slid off her face. “Why, are you not comfortable with this?”

Twilight quickly shook her head. “No, no, it’s not that! It’s just, well… I mean, I think the school just stopped harassing you and—”

“Hey, it’s one thing if they hate me for making their lives miserable.” Sunset raised a fist. “If anyone wants to say something about me dating another girl, I’ll gladly knock their teeth out.”

Twilight gave her a critical look, one that Sunset had become very familiar with.

Sunset lowered her fist. “I mean, sit down and have a nice talk with them.” She made minimum effort to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

Before Twilight could respond, a loud voice sang from across hall, “Twily!

Looking over Twilight’s shoulder, Sunset saw her first. She wore a long white winter gown that traveled down to her ankles, and had large open sleeves where slim, fingerless gloves stuck out. A blue bow sat in her red and purple hair. But what struck Sunset the most, what struck everyone else in the halls as they turned to look at her, was her face.

Flawless skin the color of fresh milk, a slim nose, thin painted lips, long eyelashes and round purple eyes. Sunset loathed to admit it, but upon first sight, this girl was beautiful. And not just in appearance, the way she sauntered down the hall, even at a hurried pace, displayed extravagant elegance.

Twilight turned around and let out a shriek of delighted surprise. “Moony!” She ran and met the girl halfway. They clutched hands and jumped up and down before wrapping each other in a warm embrace.

It was a harmless, friendly act, but Sunset couldn’t help but snort like a bull, quickly regaining her composure as the two came back. As ‘Moony’ drew close, Sunset couldn’t help but feel there was something familiar about her.

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Twilight gushed. “I missed you so much! I got all your letters! Oh wait, I mean, obviously since I wrote you back, but still! Oh, I missed you so, so much, Moony!”

The girl cupped Twilight’s face, gazing lovingly into Twilight’s eyes. “And I missed you, my little star! It was as if my heart had been rent asunder when we were separated! But lo! Here we are again!”

Sunset briefly narrowed her eyes to dangerously thin lines. She cleared her throat as loud as she could. “So, Sparky, who is this?” This time, she put maximum effort to hide her annoyance.

“Oh!” Twilight grinned sheepishly, gesturing between the two of them. “Sunset, this is Moondancer, Moony, this is Sunset Shimmer… my girlfriend.”

Moondancer’s eyes twinkled, but Sunset saw a muscle twitch when she smiled. “Ah yes, Twily has told me a lot about you.”

“Funny, she’s never said anything about you.” Sunset met Moondancer’s smile with her own shark version.

Twilight’s eyes dilated. “What? No-no-no, that’s not true! I’m sure I’ve said something—”

Moondancer placed a finger on Twilight’s lips, instantly silencing her while Sunset watched, her stomach filling with molten tar. “Shh, my little star, it’s all right. In fact, I’m almost delighted.”

“You are?”

Moondancer moved her finger away and said, “Yes. After all, one cannot adequately describe my being.” She placed a hand over her breast. “One must see it—no!” She raised her hand to the ceiling. “One must experience it—no!” She clenched her hand into a fist and brought it back down, bowing her head. “One must live it for themselves—the full majesty that is I!”

Sunset stared blankly at her, the molten tar cooling in her stomach and being replaced by… a bumpy and confusing road. “What?”

Moondancer looked up, her eyes sparkling with what Sunset believed was pure narcissism. “Allow me to properly introduce myself!” She jumped back and spun in a circle with her arms spread wide, her large sleeves billowing in the breeze. She stopped and posed, one hand raised above her head with the other across her mouth. “I am the girl with many faces.” She moved her arms in slow, wide circles and swayed her body to an invisible song. “I am the goddess of dance.” She held her arms perpendicular to her body and placed one foot in front of the other. Her body subtly leaned forward, then she sprang up into the air with a backflip and landed again on her feet. “I am she who walks on stardust.” She crossed one leg in front of the other and gave a deep bow.

“I am Moondancer.”

The onlooking students broke into tremendous applause and whistles of affection, of which, Moondancer soaked in with a triumphant smile.

Sunset just continued her blank stare, unsure whether to burst into hysterics or throw up. The girl gave Artemis a serious run for his money in terms of sheer hamminess. Sunset was going to make a smart remark to Twilight, only to find her clapping along with everyone else.

“I see you’ve been working on your introduction.”

Moondancer stepped closer, brushing her hair back. “Of course. I aim to capture my audience and leave them speechless.

Sunset crossed her arms. “Oh, I’m speechless all right.”

“As you should be,” Moondancer said. “My dream is to perform on every stage of the world, enamoring audiences from every culture until all come to revere my brilliance!”

And Twilight thinks I’m narcissistic? Well, this explains why she put up with me.

Twilight put a hand on Moondancer’s arm. “Okay, Moony, I think you can tone it down a little.”

“Ahem, of course. You know how I can get sometimes.”

“I know.” Twilight smiled. “It’s so great to see you again, but what are you doing here?”

Moondancer took Twilight’s hands and clasped them together. “I’m here to enroll of course!”

“You are?” Twilight asked excitedly.

“You are?” Sunset groaned.

“I am!” Moondancer draped a hand across her forehead. “When you left, Twilight, my entire world became dim. So close we were, you and I. Closer than sisters. The world was so less radiant without you in it, for how can the moon properly shine without the stars?”

“Well, technically—” Sunset was cut off by Moondancer’s continued ranting.

“Though you were still in the same city, you seemed a galaxy away, and I shuddered to think what the Fates had in store for you without me by your side.” She moved her hands over her heart and closed her eyes. “And fate would tear us further apart, for how could I say no to an opportunity to model abroad? Thus, I was forced to embark to France, opening the maw between us even further.” She let out a dramatic sigh. “Twas only your letters that sustained me. I held onto the dream that we would be united again someday.”

She opened her eyes and twirled around before taking Twilight’s hands again. “And the first thing I did upon my return was beg father to let me transfer. So voila! Here I am—here we are! Together again!”

Sunset was now certain she wanted to throw up. There was also an urge to strangle Moondancer with her bow. Not even for the excessive touching of Twilight (though that was a large part of it) just to get her to shut up.

Twilight wiped a tear from her eye. “Wow, Moony, I can’t believe you did that for me. I know how much you loved the academy.”

A dreamy sigh escaped Moondancer’s lips. “Yes, I shall dearly miss the hallowed halls of that palace of enlightenment. But you are more important than any of that, my little star!” She threw her arms out wide. “Besides, it is high time I descend from my place in the heavens. Mingle with the commoners, see how the lower half lives.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes, a sight that gave Sunset much satisfaction. “Moony, you’re doing it again.”

“Am I? My apologies.”

“And really, the suburbs aren’t that different from the Upper Villa. There are plenty of smart and sophisticated people here.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said, snickering, “here comes one right now.”

Rainbow walked down the hall, laughing and wiping her eyes. “You guys missed it! Snips just finished belching to two-hundred off of one can of soda! Then, he totally heaved! It was awesome, disgusting, but awesome!”

Sunset looked back to Moondancer. Her face remained neutral, but her eyes beheld disgust and horror. Oh, Rainbow, you never disappoint.

Rainbow looked from Sunset, to Twilight, to Moondancer. “So, who’s the new girl?”

Moondancer curtsied. “I am Moondancer. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And how shall I address you, good sir?”

Sunset bit down on her lip.

Rainbow slowly furrowed her brow while her cheeks matched the red in her hair. “I’m a girl, you dingus!” She stomped her foot.

Moondancer’s eyes wandered to Rainbow’s chest, and her mouth formed an O which she quickly covered. “My sincere apologies! I thought, ahem, well, I shouldn’t have assumed… at any rate, I apologize.”

“Yeah, whatever. Name’s Rainbow Dash.” Rainbow stalked away before Moondancer could follow up.

“Hmm. Well, that could have gone a lot better.” Moondancer brushed her hair back. “Such is life I suppose. Not every encounter is a positive one.”

Twilight tried to smile. “I’m sure she’ll come around.”

Sunset turned her head to allow herself a victorious smirk. That had gone better than she could have ever planned. When she turned back, her fleeting victory was spoiled by Moondancer swooping around Twilight, closely examining her.

“Little star…” Moondancer tapped the rim of Twilight’s glasses. “Why do you hide your radiant face with these lenses? I thought you liked contacts?”

Twilight pushed her glasses up. “Well… um…” Her eyes flickered to Sunset. “I just wanted to change things up a little. I think they make me… stand out more.”

“I think she looks great,” Sunset said, crossing her arms.

Moondancer leaned back and hummed. “Well, I do like this look for your hair,” she said, playing with one of Twilight’s tresses. “I must admit, this look does reflect your inner you: the sparkling genius I know you are!” She raised her hands above her head. “Look at my little flower, blossoming into her own!”

Twilight blushed. “Thanks, Moony.”

Moondancer held a hand over her mouth and giggled. “I’ll spare every compliment for you.” She pointed down the hall. “Now, I must adjourn to see the principal for my class schedule. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me, my dear Twilight?”

“I’d love to!” She looked to Sunset. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Oh no, of course not,” Sunset said, her voice an octave higher than usual, and a smile stuck on her face. “Go and catch up, have a good time!”

Twilight leaned up and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll see you at lunch. Come on, Moony.”

Moondancer crossed and arm over her chest and bowed. “It was lovely to meet you, Sunset Shimmer. I can’t wait to learn more about your character.” She rose and draped an arm around Twilight, leading her away to Celestia’s office.

Sunset continued to stand there, staring after them, still painfully smiling. She didn’t stop until Fluttershy tiptoed up and tapped her shoulder.

“Sunset, are you okay?”

“Yep! Totally fine! Peachy!” Her voice was still an octave too high.

Fluttershy took a half-step back. “Are you sure?”

Sunset’s shoulders dropped and she uncrossed her arms. “No. But, I’m just being, you know, me. Twilight hasn’t seen her friend in months, I should be happy for her. Instead, I’m…”

“Jealous?”

“I am not jealous!” She saw Fluttershy flinch back, and cupped a hand over her eyes. “Sorry. I’m not jealous, I’m just… annoyed. And… and... “ Sunset stomped her foot. “I mean, did you see her? You can’t deny she’s beautiful!”

“I wasn’t going to,” Fluttershy mumbled, her cheeks reddening.

Sunset released an aggravated sigh. “It’s okay, I’ll get over it. Is it a little suspicious that she transferred from some private school to here, just to see Twilight? Yes. But, I’m going to be reasonable and responsible, and trust Twilight.”

Fluttershy smiled. “That’s good.”

“And if this Moondancer tries anything, I’ll snap her like the twig she is.”

Fluttershy frowned.

*******

The new semester began with no fanfare or excitement other than the murmurings of Moondancer’s acrobatic feat earlier. Vice Principal Luna greeted the students and read off the morning announcements, repeating much of what had been on the posters.

Sunset took her seat in the front of her history class next to Rarity, who flashed a radiant smile. Before they could exchange a proper greeting, Mr. Noteworthy cleared his throat, ceasing all side chatter.

“I hope you all had a good break,” he said, scratching chalk against the blackboard. “Now, just because you’ve turned in your college applications, doesn’t mean you can slack off. I won’t tolerate ‘senioritis’ in my class. Now then…”

Sunset began taking notes, her mood made more sour by the mention of ‘college applications.’ She filed it away under ‘bridges to cross when she got there.’ Unfortunately, that just left her filled with images of Moondancer backflipping in the hallway. Had Sunset still been the iron-fisted hate monger she had once been known as, she’d already be conspiring to find ways to drag Moondancer through the mud, figuratively, and if she got the chance, literally.

All right, reel it back, girl. You’re not a vindictive megalomaniac anymore. As fun as it would be to entertain the thought, she hasn’t even done anything yet. ‘Yet’ being the key word.

And besides, what could Moondancer actually do? Sure she was an overdramatic ham like Artemis, and could backflip while wearing pumps, but that didn’t make her a threat. Yet.

And furthermore, Twilight had picked her, Sunset, right? She had known Moondancer years before, and apparently nothing had come of it. Heck, maybe Moondancer really was just Twilight’s best friend and Sunset was reading too much into it.

‘Hi, Sunset. Moondancer just confessed her love to me and I realized, I’ve felt the same way and didn’t notice until now. So, I’m leaving you for her. Bye!’

There was a tiny crick as Sunset gripped her pencil a little too tightly. Okay, you’re being stupid. You know Twilight isn’t like that. Don’t turn this into the stupid dramas Rarity’s into. Just relax. If Twilight picked you after learning how terrible you were before, there must be a reason.

As the period progressed, Sunset relaxed to her usual indifferent contentment. History remained her least favorite subject and the only one of her classes that wasn’t advance placement. Having Rarity as a work partner was the only thing that made it bearable now.

“So, tell me about this Moondancer character everyone is whispering about,” Rarity asked when the class broke into group work.

Sunset tapped her cracked pencil on the desk. “You know how you have some of your ‘drama moments’ from time to time?”

“Yes?” Rarity said, raising an eyebrow.

“That’s her. Set to eleven. It’s like, she thinks we’re in a play or something.”

“I see. Interesting.” Rarity looked through her textbook and wrote an answer on their assignment paper. “So, what was she wearing?”

Sunset pushed the eraser against her forehead. “Rarity, I’m honestly trying not to think about her right now.”

Rarity gave her a cat-like smile. “Sunset Shimmer, you’re not jealous are you?”

“No, I am not jealous!” Sunset said in a raised voice, getting half the class to look at her. Her cheeks burned, and she said in a quieter voice, “I’m not jealous. Sure, she’s pretty, but I know Twilight isn’t going to run off with her at first sight.”

“Good.” Rarity nodded sagely. “Although, you shouldn’t discredit your own beauty, Sunset. You’re a very attractive young woman.”

Sunset looked down at her paper, blushing. She didn’t know why. She knew she was sexy! Still, it was nice to hear it from her friends.

Rarity closed her book and dug through her bag to find her nail file. “And personally, I think a smidge of jealousy is healthy for a relationship. It lets your partner know you care about them. Just a smidge, mind you.”

“I know, I know.” Sunset waved her free hand as she she finished her paper. “Don’t turn this into some friendship lesson. Jealousy is bad, leads to anger, blah, blah, blah, she-demon.”

Rarity paused her filing to give Sunset a concerned stare. “Well, I wasn’t going to go there, but… as long as you understand.” When Sunset kept her head down, Rarity asked, “Is something else bothering you, darling?”

“No.”

“Sunset…” Rarity pursed her lips and tapped a newly manicured nail against the desk.

Sunset sighed. Next to Twilight, Rarity could read her best. Not that Sunset was making the best effort to hide her emotions. Honestly, there were a plethora of things bothering her. Still, Rarity had proven time and again to be a good shoulder to lean on. She looked up and met Rarity’s eyes.

“You know at New Years, I said I wanted to be a good friend?”

Rarity nodded.

“Well…” Sunset inwardly kicked herself. She felt like a five year-old. An insecure five year--old learning how to ride a bike without training wheels. “I’m just worried about how long I can go without messing something up. You know how I can get sometimes: snippy, abrasive, angry. What if I do take this jealousy thing—which I’m totally not by the way—too far and do something stupid? I don’t want to go back to being mean, but sometimes, it feels so easy.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Rarity laid a hand over Sunset’s. “That’s why you have us. We’re not going to abandon you over one little mistake you might make. Yes, you can be quite sarcastic and a little rough around the edges, but so is Rainbow, and we tolerate her.” That got a chuckle out of Sunset. “I’ve seen your growth, Sunset. I’m not concerned in the slightest about you turning back to the proverbial dark side. None of us would let you.”

Geez, we did turn this into a sappy friendship lesson. Though, Sunset supposed it was these moments that kept her from, as Rarity said, ‘turning to the dark side.’ Of course, now she just felt stupid for feeling worried in the first place. You’re just all over the place, aren’t you?

Outwardly, she nodded and smiled. “Thanks, Rarity. I don’t know why I get so worked up. I guess between having actual friends and dating Twilight and everything I did before and…” Sunset slapped a hand over her eyes. “Ugh, I sound so pathetic right now.”

“Darling, it’s okay to be worried. Your life has changed rather dramatically in only a few months. But, I’ll be here for you, every step of the way.”

Mr. Noteworthy walked over, more papers clutched tightly in his hand. “If you girls have time to yammer on for ten minutes, then you have time to do extra work.” He slapped the papers onto their desks. “Less talking, more learning.”

Sunset groaned at the new set of short answer questions. She looked over to Rarity, who gave an encouraging smile. At least she didn’t have to do this alone either.

*******

Noisy chaos: the cafeteria’s usual state. Complimented by reheated pizza, veggie burgers, and open milk cartons melding together to create a pungent smell that could only be produced in public high schools.

Sunset sat down at the regular table, Rainbow, Applejack, and Pinkie already seated. It wasn’t long before everyone else gathered, including Moondancer. Sunset was glad to see she wasn’t the only one perturbed by this, if Rainbow’s scowl meant anything.

“It’s a delight to meet you all!” Moondancer said sweetly. She sat on Twilight’s other side, leaning too close for Sunset’s liking. “Thank you so much for taking care of my little star while I was gone. I hope she wasn’t too much trouble.”

“Are you kidding?” Pinkie said, leaning out of her seat. “She’s one of our bestest friends now! And besides, she always follows the rules! I don’t think she’s broken a single one!” Pinkie tapped a finger against her chin and looked at the ceiling. “Well, except for the time we all snuck into detention to throw Sunset a party. But is that breaking any rules? I don’t think there’s a rule saying you get in trouble if you break into detention…”

Applejack picked up the conversation while Pinkie dove into her own ramblings. “What she means is, we love havin’ Twi around, and any friend of hers is a friend of ours.”

Moondancer held a hand over her heart. “You’re all very sweet. I simply must repay this favor somehow.”

Rarity waved a hand. “Please, darling, it really was no trouble. You don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh, but I insist! ‘Twould be most ungracious of me to not show my appreciation.”

Rainbow looked between Moondancer and Rarity, a look of revulsion on her face. “Oh, God, they’re multiplying.”

Moondancer snapped her fingers. “I know!” She traced a hand through the air. “You are all cordially invited to my home this Saturday for afternoon tea. Does that sound enjoyable to all?”

Rarity bobbed her head. “A tea day sounds lovely! I can’t wait!”

“Moondancer!” an incoming voice shouted.

“Oh, God, here comes another one!” Rainbow said, looking at Trixie as she ran over.

Moondancer stood up and held her arms out. “Trixie, sweetie!” She kissed Trixie on both cheeks and gave her a squeeze. “My dear, it’s been so long! How are you?”

“Trixie is doing fantastic! She sees you’re looking just as good as ever.”

Twilight tilted her head. “You two know each other?”

Moondancer put a hand over her mouth. “That’s right, I never got a chance to introduce you to most of my family. Yes, Trixie here is my cousin.”

Sunset’s eyes widened in realization. She had seen Moondancer before, the first day she had walked into the Lulamoons’ house and saw their vast collection of pictures on their living room wall. Moondancer had been there, a little girl being measured next to Trixie, and jumping with her on a trampoline.

The idea settled over her like a cold fog: Moondancer hadn’t stepped into her life.

She had stepped into Moondancer’s.

3. The Upper Villa

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Tuesday brought Sunset much more cheer than her first day back to school. Twilight shared her new AP Economics class. And, due to budget cuts, the two AP Chemistry classes had to be combined into one, not that they were very big separately to begin with. Combined with their final period of AP Trigonometry, Sunset and Twilight had a whole day of classes together.

The best part? Moondancer wasn’t in any of them.

She may be pretty, but I bet her head’s mostly full of hot air. Even as she thought it, Sunset knew it wasn’t true. Moondancer may not have been her and Twilight’s level of smart, but she was far from dumb. Still, petty insults were how Sunset relieved her frustrations. That and enjoying her quality alone time with Twilight.

They leaned over their high-powered microscope, examining the chemical reaction to their isotope. Though only one of them could look into the lense at a time, they kept their cheeks pressed against each other. As Sunset pulled away to fill in their chart, Twilight cleared her throat.

“So, uhh, Sunset… do you like science?”

“Obviously, Sparky, otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Because I have my ion you.”

“What?” Sunset looked up at her, finding Twilight face red. She twisted a finger through her tress and stared at the floor.

“Get it?” she asked meekly. “Because… ion… eye on… I...umm…”

Sunset pressed her lips together, trying not to burst into hysterical laughter. “Twilight, are you trying to flirt with me again?”

Twilight looked up. “Is it working?” There was a hopeful gleam in her eye.

“No, sweetie, it’s not. You’re still terrible at it.”

Twilight slumped her shoulders and groaned.

Sunset reached for Twilight’s hand under the table and gave it a squeeze. “But the fact that you’re trying is adorable as hell.” She leaned to give Twilight’s blushing face a kiss, but remembered that public displays of affection were frowned upon in the classroom setting. The fact that they were at the front of the class where everyone could see them didn’t help either. So she settled for pushing her cheek against Twilight’s while she looked into the microscope again.

Twilight’s pout continued even when the period came to an end. She and Sunset headed for their lockers to put their books away before heading to the cafeteria. “I don’t get it. Cadence makes flirting look so easy.”

“It’s all about timing and delivery, Sparky,” Sunset said, pushing her book into her locker. “And honestly, asking me if I liked science? You should have known you were going to get a snarky answer.”

Applejack came over, sack lunch in hand. “Howdy, girls. How was class?”

“It was fun,” Twilight said, perking up. “We studied isotopes and their reactions to certain chemicals and other stimuli.”

Sunset wrapped an arm around Twilight’s waist and whispered into her ear, “You must have eleven protons, ‘cause your butt is sodium fine.”

Twilight locked up, her face turning red again. “S-Sunset!”

She laughed and kissed Twilight on the cheek. “Consider that a lesson.” She let go and sauntered away, smirking at Applejack’s confused head tilt.

“That’s not fair!” Twilight shouted.

*******

At home, dinner had been a relatively calm affair. After Sunset had helped clean up the dishes, she retreated toward her room, pausing in the living room to look at the picture of Moondancer. With her was a woman who looked like, simply put, a female version of Artemis. She had longer hair and lacked a goatee, but they shared a childlike smile.

Sunset made another detour to her room, stopping at Trixie’s and knocking on her open door. Trixie looked up from the magazine she was reading and took off her headphones. “What do you want?” It wasn’t said unkindly. Trixie’s natural tone just made everything she said come out as snappish.

“How are you and Moondancer related?” Sunset knew the answer but wanted to make sure she was right.

Trixie rolled herself into a sitting position. “She’s my first cousin, the daughter of my father’s sister. Why?”

Sunset leaned against the door frame. “Just curious, really. Artemis never talks about his sister.”

“Well…” Trixie looked away, a grim shadow over her face. “She… she isn’t around anymore.”

The shadow from her face spread over her words as well. Sunset decided to leave it alone. Whatever the story behind it, it wasn’t her place to know. “So, what’s Moondancer like?”

Trixie rose her head to the light and shrugged. “We used to play together a lot when we were little. Honestly, Trixie thinks she was a little full of herself.”

No one in this family understands irony.

“She loves the stage, like every Lulamoon before her. She’s a pretty good actress and can dance very well.” Trixie sat up straight and stuck her chest out. “Unfortunately for her, she did not inherit the amazing, mind-blowing magic our family is capable of! So, it’s up to The Great and Powerful Trixie to continue on the legacy of magical feats of wonder and amazement!”

By now, Sunset had turned her back and retreated to her room, ignoring Trixie’s indignant shout of, “Hey!” She closed the door and greeted Spot who had taken up residence on her bed.

“I thought you weren’t going to collect information on her to prepare a diabolical plot?” Princess Twilight squeaked.

“I’m not,” Sunset said defiantly. “I still want to know more about her. Apparently, I’m going to be spending an… unfortunate amount of time with her.”

“You could always use more friends in your life.”

“I’m happy with the amount I have, thank you very much.” Sunset may have accepted love and friendship, but she was no social butterfly. Besides, something about Moondancer irked her.

“You’re just jealous.”

I am not!

*******

Saturday arrived, much to Sunset’s displeasure. She wasn’t sure which was worse: going to Moondancer’s house for tea, or going there with Trixie. She and Trixie didn't dislike each other anymore, but any time they were in the car, an odd silence hung over them that Sunset could never quite hurdle over.

She followed Trixie out the door, hands in her pockets. The air was chilly, but the sun was out and shining, occasionally covered up by a puffy cloud. Sunset kept her leather jacket zipped up, thankful for the thermal interior.

Artemis walked the girls to Trixie’s little blue buggy. “Give Moondancer all of our love. I’ve tried to go over there, but they always seem to be away. Lord knows how busy her father is.”

Sunset waved goodbye as they pulled away and took off down the road. The drive to the Upper Villa would take an hour and a half with good traffic. She had never been to that side of Canterlot, but according to the stories, it was supposed to be their version of Beverly Hills.

Trixie turned the radio on the break the silence. As usual, it was set to Cadence’s radio station. Sunset made a small noise in the back of her throat but said nothing. It didn’t bother her as much as it used to.

When the song came to an end, Cadence popped on. “And that was Ambrosia’s ‘Midnight Love’ one of my new favorites! Now, I’ve been getting a lot of requests recently to play songs from the Dazzlings. Guys, you should know better,” she said in a fake scolding voice, “I only play love songs, so when they write one, I’ll play one.”

Trixie shook her head. “Trixie doesn’t understand what people see in them. They’re okay at best. She can’t figure out why half the country is going gaga over them.”

Sunset shrugged. “I’ve never even heard of them.”

“They’re just the next girl pop band. In a year, no one will even remember who they are.”

They fell back into silence, though Sunset got some satisfaction that they had held a conversation, however short. She watched the suburban scenery fly by before they got onto the freeway heading north. Moondancer had offered to pick Twilight up herself, and in a limo no less. To Sunset’s unspoken chagrin, Twilight had said yes.

Sunset resisted the urge to smash her forehead against the window. Who wouldn’t say yes to riding in a limousine? And what could Sunset say: no, Twilight couldn’t go and spend time with her best friend? Although Sunset was sure Moondancer was doing it to prove some point, she had no counter for it.

Well, nothing legal at least. She shook her head. She was past that stage in her life. The easy and grown-up thing to do was sit down and have a calm talk with Moondancer. Or punch her in the face, but Sunset was sure Twilight would resent that action.

The hour ticked by, filled with love songs accompanied by Trixie’s humming, and Cadence giving love advice on the air. Sunset found that desperate lovestruck idiots asking for help on live radio was more entertaining than she would have thought.

“...And he always makes it up to me with expensive gifts, but I don’t know if I can handle coming home to find him in bed with someone else again,” a forlorn woman told Cadence, sounding close to tears.

“Sweetheart, once is a mistake, twice is counselling. He’s done this to you seven times. You should have dumped him a long time ago.”

There was a loud sniffle. “You’re right. Should I give back the puppy then?”

“Oh no, keep the puppy. Dogs are more loyal than men anyway. Love you, Shiny!” she quickly added. “But… you might want to leave the knife sharpener.”

Sunset scoffed. “Should keep the knife sharpener.”

The road elevated and began to zigzag and curve up the mountain side. Sunset could see the pricey homes and luxurious condos sitting on the cliffs, surrounded by the limbs of dead trees. Still, these mansions were beautiful to behold, and Sunset could only imagine how much they cost.

Trixie pulled up to the community gate, where a bored looking security officer sat in his booth, playing his radio. Sunset could hear a trio of voices singing.

“We’re here to see Moondancer,” Trixie said.

The guard simply nodded, barely looking away from the radio. He pressed a button, and the gate creaked open. “Very top, you literally can’t miss it.”

As they drove on, Sunset made out some of the lyrics to the song.

Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh,

You didn't know that you fell.

Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh—

They continued to drive upwards, passing mansion after mansion, fountain after fountain, sculpture after sculpture. The community parks even had play structures painted ivory and gold. It reminded Sunset of Equestria’s Canterlot.

A three story manor sat at the top of the Upper Villa, with its own open gate and a marble wall surrounding the property. Trixie pulled into the roundabout driveway and stopped.

Stepping out of the car, Sunset had to tilt her head back to see the top of Moondancer’s mansion. There were four pointed spires at the corners of the arched roof, giving it a castle like appearance. Large windows decorated the front, and four stone columns flanked the entrance. Another fountain sat in the middle of the rotunda, this one painted gold and with three cherubs spitting water.

Sunset turned around and looked at the view of the city. She could see everything, even the Everfree Forest miles off on the other side. She crossed her arms and looked away. “All right fine, I’m jealous.”

Trixie let out a longing sigh. “Trixie wishes she had enough money to buy a house like this. I always loved it when we got to come over.”

A tall man with salt and pepper hair and an expensive looking suit stepped out from the oak front doors. “Ah, Miss Lulamoon, how nice to see you again.”

“Hello, Mr. Porter, it’s nice to see you too.”

Mr. Porter turned to Sunset. “And you must be Miss Shimmer. Lady Moondancer is awaiting you both in the back garden; please, allow me to escort you.”

She even has a butler, Sunset thought bitterly. In essence, Moondancer had everything Sunset did before she ran through the mirror. She’s like Princess Twilight… Sunset stopped at the threshold, eyes wide with smoldering fury. They narrowed to dangerous slits. Congrats, Princess. You have competition.

Upon entering the manor, Sunset looked down at the polished floor only to stare at herself in an immaculate reflection. Above her reflection’s head hung an enormous chandelier with hundreds of mini crystals dangling off its arms. Caught in the light, they shone in a spectrum of colors.

Porter led them past the grand staircase, with its rich red velvet carpeting and bronze handrails. Instead, they went down a large corridor, passing the kitchen, where a maid was setting out porcelain tea cups, and the dining room, with a black table large enough to sit twenty people comfortably. They finally reached the back door and exited into the garden.

It was impossibly full of life! Roses, lavender, honeysuckle, snapdragons. Azaleas and orchids and firebird dahlias—flowers of every type were in full bloom, releasing heavenly fragrances that numbed Sunset’s brain upon first contact. Hummingbirds and bumblebees lazily drifted from flower to flower, taking in the sweet nectar of the floral paradise. Perfectly trimmed green hedges ran along the garden walls, where ivy hung in abundance. A stream ran through the garden, splitting it in half and wrapping around the gazebo in the center where Twilight and Moondancer waited.

Sunset approached, keeping her arms crossed. “How on earth are you keeping this garden alive in the middle of winter?”

Moondancer spun in place and stuck her thumb out. “I’ve got a green thumb!” She paused, then shrugged. “A professional gardener doesn’t hurt either.”

A loud shriek of delight made all four of them jump. Fluttershy stood with Rainbow at the front of the garden, the former covering her mouth with her hands, her cheeks as pink as her hair. “Sorry… I just… I got excited.” Fluttershy took her time down the path, stopping several times to smell the flowers are watch the hummingbirds.

Rainbow cut straight for the gazebo and took a seat at the glass table. “Nice garden, Moonprancer.”

“Um, it’s Moondancer,” she said, “and thank you.”

Fluttershy took a seat next to Rainbow. “Oh yes, it’s absolutely lovely! I can’t believe it’s flourishing like this in the winter time! You even have honeybees! My mother keeps a garden in our backyard, but it’s nothing like this!”

Moondancer flicked her wrist. “Oh, Fluttershy, you have such kind words, you’re embarrassing me. But do go on.” Twilight pinched her shoulder and she giggled. “I jest, of course.”

Rainbow leaned over to Sunset and whispered, “Seriously, who uses the word ‘jest’?”

Rarity, Pinkie, and Applejack were the last to arrive, each marveling at the miniature Eden. “Whooweee,” Applejack said, “that’s a lot of flowers. Ah tip mah hat to whoever keeps this place lookin’ perty.”

Everyone gathered at the table, and Moondancer’s maid Lemon Fresh brought out the tea, served in a silver teapot, and an assortment of cookies on a silver plate. Pinkie quickly snatched three cookies and shoved them into her mouth. “Manks fer the cookes, Moomrancer.”

Moondancer grimaced. “You’re welcome, love.”

Rarity tutted. “Pinkie, do not talk with your mouth full. You know better.”

Pinkie made a loud swallow. “Sorry, they just looked so tasty!” She reached for another one, but Rarity smacked her hand.

“Let everyone else have one first.” Rarity relaxed herself, taking a careful sip of her tea. When she finished, she pressed her hands to her face and squealed. “I can’t believe it! I’m having tea in the Upper Villa, the height of Canterlot high society!”

Moondancer waved a hand. “Oh, it’s not that special. We just have a nice view.”

“And a giant house,” Rainbow said, eyeing her tea with a scrunched nose.

Moondancer brushed her bangs over her shoulder. “Well, that is a bonus.” She raised her cup to her lips, keeping her pinky out as she took a dainty sip.

Sunset took a sip of her own tea, surprised to find it a rich cinnamon flavor. It was so well-blended, Sunset didn’t feel the need to add milk or sugar. All right… that’s one point for her.

“So, Moondancer, Twilight told us you did some modeling in France,” Rarity said, leaning forward excitedly. “You must tell us how that went.”

“Well, there isn’t much of a story to tell really,” Moondancer said with an airy laugh. “I originally went there for some cosmetic and hair care products.” She gave her hair a light fluff. “Then, they were so enraptured by my natural talent, that they wanted me to model a few dresses, so I stayed a bit longer than I thought I would. In between shoots, I got to tour the country—it’s beyond lovely, you should really see it for yourself.”

“Did you see Paris? What was Paris like?” Rarity bounced in her seat.

Moondancer raised a hand to the sky. “Absolutely stunning! There are no adequate words to describe the sheer beauty of the City of Lights!” She turned and cupped Twilight’s cheeks. “I promise, I’ll take you there myself someday, my little star.”

“That’s really sweet of you, Moony,” Twilight said between her squished cheeks.

Sunset gripped her cup extra tight, wondering if she could break it with enough force. If that didn’t work, she could always try beating it over Moondancer’s thick head.

Composure, Sunset. She took another sip of her tea. She’s lucky it tastes so good.

Applejack spoke up. “So, Moondancer, got any hobbies or pastimes?”

“Well, theater is my pride and joy. Gymnastics, ballet, piano,” she said, counting off her fingers.

“Don’t you play any sports?” Rainbow asked. She had pushed her tea away and focused squarely on the cookies.

“I just said gymnastics.”

“Pfft, barely counts,” Rainbow muttered, leaning back in her chair.

Pinkie waved her hand. “Ooh, ooh, do you have any embarrassing stories about Twilight?”

Twilight bolted upright. “No!” She looked at Moondancer. “Of course you don’t!” She looked back at Pinkie. “Why would you even ask that?”

Sunset brushed against Twilight’s arm. “Your strong denial tells us otherwise, Sparky.”

“You stay out of this!”

Moondancer wrapped her arms around Twilight and pulled her into a hug, eliciting a mental hiss from Sunset. “Oh, I would never dream of embarrassing you, Twilly.” Her lips curled upwards. “Buuuuuuut… there was this one time in tenth grade—”

Twilight struggled against Moondancer’s grip, raising her hands to try and cover her mouth. “Moony,” she whined.

“—I convinced Twilight to try out for the school play with me. I thought it might help her come out of her shell and shine like the pearl she is! Naturally, she landed a role—”

Twilight struggled harder now, but it appeared Moondancer was stronger than she looked. Then again, Sunset thought, caught between amused and thoroughly annoyed, Twilight isn’t very strong to begin with.

“—So, being the adorable, studious bookworm she is, Twilight memorizes the entire script. She’d make any true thespian proud. Come—mmmph! Peh…” Twilight had finally gotten a hand near Moondancer’s mouth, but still couldn’t silence her. “Come opening night, Twilight gets up on stage for her first speaking line and—mmmhmmph! Poor dear was so nervous, she accidently says the other actor’s entire speech before realizing her mistake.”

Twilight went limp and pressed her face into the table. She let out a loud muffled groan. “It was so embarrassing. The other kid didn’t know what to say, so we were both just standing there while the audience stared at us. I had to start all over again, and I was even more nervous then. I tripped over every word.”

Sunset pet Twilight’s hair bun. “Come on, Sparky, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.”

“Indeed,” Moondancer said. “I found it comically delightful. Besides, not everyone starts off a master of the stage. Many great actors have terrible first experiences.” She brushed her hair back again. “Except for me; my debut was perfect. But that’s beside the point.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. She leaned over and whispered into Twilight’s ear, “So between that and fondling me, which was worse?”

Twilight shot up, her cheeks Sunset’s favorite shade of red. “I didn’t fondle you!”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “You fondled Sunset? Is this before or after you starting dating?”

“I didn’t fondle her!”

Rainbow whistled. “Wow, Twilight, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Twilight pulled at her bangs and let out a pained whine.

“Tell the story, tell the story!” Pinkie said, hopping in her seat.

Sunset smirked, catching Moondancer’s eye as she began. “Well, Twilight and I went to the mall a little before Halloween last year. She bought me a strawberry milkshake, and while we were sitting down, she knocked it all over my chest and tried to clean—Mmmmph!”

Twilight shoved a cookie into Sunset’s mouth. “Sunset cuddles and makes baby noises at the puppies in the animal shelter!”

Sunset nearly spat her cookie out. She forcefully swallowed the part she had bit off and dropped the rest into her lap. “How do you know that?” she asked over her friends' loud snickers.

“Fluttershy told me.”

Sunset tried to lock eyes with Fluttershy, but she had already retreated behind her wall of pink hair. My justice shall be swift and merciless, Fluttershy.

Pinkie snorted. “Come on, Sunset, that’s not that embarrassing. Not like the time you turned in—”

Wham!

Clank!

Pinkie pressed her face into the table while she held her shin underneath. Sunset sat up straight, trying her hardest to play off her lightning quick kick. She took a bite of her cookie and asked, “You okay, Pinks?”

“Uh-huh,” she said in a higher pitched voice. “I meant to say the time you turned your paper in late. Ha… ha.”

Moondancer tilted her head. “Is she going to be all right?”

Sunset nodded. “Yep, she’s just being Pinkie.”

“Well then…” Moondancer crossed her fingertips. “That was certainly more entertaining than I thought it would be.” Lemon Fresh came out and restocked their tea and cookies while everyone waited for someone to start the next part of the conversation.

Surprisingly, it was Rainbow who spoke, looking a little more relaxed than when she had first came in. “All right, I gotta know, how the heck are you so rich?”

“Rainbow!” Rarity chided.

“What? We’re all thinking it.”

Moondancer just made a throaty chuckle. “It really isn’t anything too glamorous. No rags to riches story. My father already came from a well off family. He just took their fortune and made it even larger. He now owns a multi-million dollar conglomerate. Simple, really.” She pointed off the mountain. “The headquarters is actually downtown. You’ve seen Canterlot Tower, yes?”

Applejack whistled. “That’s the tallest building in the city.”

“Again, we just like the view.”

Sunset quietly sighed through her nose. While this wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be, she had grown quite bored, and her leg was starting to cramp up. “Where’s your bathroom?” she asked, standing from the table.

“Down the hall, across the foyer—” Moondancer stopped and hummed. “You know, it might be easier if I show you.”

Sunset fought to keep her face straight. “You really don’t have to.”

“Oh it’s no trouble, really.” Moondancer got up. “You girls talk amongst yourselves, we’ll be right back.” She led Sunset back into the house and across the entrance hall. They crossed through a large sitting room with shelves stacked with books and atlases, and a fireplace. Moondancer pointed to the door on the other side. “There’s the bathroom. But you don’t actually have to use it, do you?” The pleasantness never left her voice.

With a small harrumph, Sunset said, “So I just wanted to stretch my legs. That’s not a problem is it?”

Moondancer just continued to smile at her, but it was the intelligent kind of smile Sunset knew all too well. She had given it to her opponents whenever she knew more than they did, which was most of the time. “Sunset, as an actor, I’ve learned to read people quite well, and I have the distinct feeling you don’t like me.”

Sunset looked away. She supposed she hadn’t been doing a very good job to hide that fact, though Moondancer didn’t seem torn up about it. Sunset shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. “Don’t take it personally, I don’t like a lot of people.”

“Oh, it’s quite all right. I have reservations about you as well.”

Sunset looked back at her with a smirk. “Is it because I stole your best friend?”

For the first time, Moondancer’s smile fell to a thin line. “That’s a vast proportion of it, yes.” She walked over to the window and stared out at the front lawn. “Twilight Sparkle is one of the few true friends I have. She’s pure and honest and sweet.” Moondancer let out a dreamy sigh. “And her eyes…. Simply cosmic!”

“Ahem.”

Moondancer looked over her shoulder. “Right. My point being, I was enticed by her very aura the moment I saw her. But she was an introverted and shy soul. I could never force myself upon her. So, I made myself content to just be near her, making her happy whenever I could, cultivating and tending to her like a delicate flower.” She fully turned to Sunset. “And the moment I leave, she blossoms for someone else. Do you know how that makes me feel, Sunset?”

With her voice neutral the entire time, Sunset found it hard to tell. “I’m gonna go with furious.”

“Beyond all measure,” Moondancer said in clipped tones. “However…” She took a step forward. “As I understand it, you saved her from a fate most vile. You were there for her when I could not be, and she speaks of you in such a high regard.”

Sunset’s cheeks heated up. “She does?”

“Of course she does!” Moondancer threw her hands up. “She looks at you the way I wish she had looked at me for four years!” She took a deep breath and brought her hands down. “But… it is not to be. I am angry… and jealous. And I hate having these dark emotions outside of my acting roles.” She took another step forward. “But, I am also thankful. Without you, my beautiful flower would have been sullied, and I would have to tear the world asunder in retribution.” She crossed an arm over her chest and bowed. “So, Sunset Shimmer, you have my deepest thanks.”

“Err, you’re welcome.”

Moondancer straightened up. “However…” She pointed a well-manicured finger at Sunset. “I find your character dubious at best. Twilight deserves only the finest, and I will always be there to make sure she has it.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. This was honestly the sort of conversation she expected to have with Twilight’s parents. “Are you sure you’re her best friend and not her mother?”

“I’m whatever she needs me to be. Above all, I am her guardian angel, and I shall be watching you, Sunset.” Her smile returned. “In the meantime, I will endeavor to further our… acquaintanceship.”

Sunset smirked again. “What’s the matter, Moondancer? Don’t want to be friends with me?”

“No.”

Sunset paused. Then threw her head back and laughed. “Huh, maybe you’re not as bad as I thought. Too bad the feeling’s mutual.” She crossed her arms. “But sure, I’ll play along with our ‘acquaintanceship’ for Twilight’s sake, on the condition that there are ground rules.”

Moondancer raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“One: stop touching her face.”

Moondancer pouted for a second, sticking her bottom lip out, then perked up like nothing happened. “Fine, no touching—”

“Or the rest of her body.”

She pouted again.

Sunset raised a finger. “You get her arms and her shoulders. Touch her anywhere else, and I might be forced to hit you.”

“Brute.”

“Rule two,” Sunset continued, “no trying to sabotage our relationship.”

Moondancer smiled and closed her eyes. “Oh, I won’t have to. You’ll screw it up eventually. And when you do, I’ll be waiting for my little star with open arms.”

Sunset growled. “We’ll see about that.” She struck her hand out. “So, do we have a deal?”

“Very well.” Moondancer gripped Sunset’s hand. “I find your accords acceptable.”

To Sunset’s surprise, Moondancer had a very strong handshake. Sunset increased her own pressure, and Moondancer responded in turn, trying to crush Sunset’s hand.

Both girls continued to smile at each other with false pleasantness.

4. Rockin' Rainbow

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The blustery wind carried rhapsodic cheers expelled by the stadium crowd. Thick clouds hung over Canterlot on this dreary Monday morning. But the gloomy weather did nothing to dampen the spirits of the Wondercolts.

School had concluded, but students, parents, and teachers filled the entire stadium, cheering for their soccer team. Today was the first league match against the Appaloosa Settlers.

“Woohoo! Go, Dashie!” Pinkie cheered, shaking a pair of pink pom-poms. “You can do it, Wondercolts, Whooo!” Her upbeat cheers were almost drowned out by—

“Come on, Dash!” Sunset screamed, leaning on the guard rail. “Don’t let her push you around like that! Yeah, that’s it, show her who’s boss!” However, Sunset’s encouraging cheers paled in comparison to—

Let’s go, Rainbow Dash! Make those Settlers settle for second place!” Fluttershy bellowed the loudest of all, having scared Sunset out of her skin when the game first began. It was the loudest Sunset had ever heard the girl, compounded with the fiercest look she had ever donned. “What? Ref, are you blind? That was a foul!”

Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack sat in the bleachers behind the screaming trio. “They’re certainly passionate, aren’t they?” Twilight asked.

Applejack grinned in satisfaction. “Yep. That’s the spirit of competition for ya.” She jumped up and twirled her hat, cheering with everyone else as Rainbow brought home another goal, turning the score to 5-1 in the Wondercolts’ favor.

Sunset took a seat next to Twilight. “I’m glad we’re winning, but this is a pretty one-sided game.”

“Agreed. I feel bad for the other team.”

“As do I,” Rarity said. “I mean, brown uniforms? What on earth is their coach thinking?”

Twilight adjusted her glasses. “That’s not quite what I meant.”

Rarity clicked her tongue. “You’d be surprised at how much an outfit can help or hinder your performance.”

“I just wish they’d put up more of a fight,” Sunset said. “They’re letting us walk all over them.” The crowd erupted in cheers once more, as Cloud Kicker scored another goal. “Dear Maker, now they’re just giving up.”

That’s right, Settlers! You don’t have anything on us! Go, Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy screamed, jumping up and down, her hair a wild mess.

Twilight looked in her direction. “Is that normal?”

Sunset raised her shoulders. “I don’t know, this is new for me too.”

“Likewise,” Rarity said.

Applejack stretched her arms behind her head and leaned back. “It’s nice to see her come out her shell once in awhile.”

They watched Pinkie and Fluttershy cheer Rainbow and the team on as they dominated the match. When it was over, the Wondercolts had won 8-2. The girls waited outside the locker room along with other parents and friends eager to congratulate the soccer team on their first victory.

Rainbow emerged first, looking like a triumphant hero coming home from war. Her bangs still stuck to her sweaty forehead, and she had a towel draped over her shoulders. She met the rest of the Spectacular Seven, giving Applejack a high-five, and Sunset a fistbump.

“Four goals scored in one game,” Applejack said. “Someone was on fire today.”

Rainbow grinned. “Yeah, I was pretty amazing, wasn’t I? Too bad they weren’t more of a challenge. But hey, if we keep playing like this, no one can beat us!”

“All right there, champ,” a deep, jovial voice said. Out of the crowd came Rainbow’s dad. He was tall and toned without being overly muscular. Sunset could see where Rainbow had gotten her hair from, as her dad also had messy multi-chromatic hair. “Don’t get overconfident just because you beat one team.”

“I know, I know. Still, did you see me out there?”

Rainbow Blaze ruffled her hair. “Yeah I did. You brought your A game like always.” He smiled at the girls. “I also saw all of you cheering for her. Especially you, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy blushed and brushed her boot against the sidewalk. “I just…” She winced at the gravelines in her throat, cleared it, and tried again. “I just wanted to show my support.” She was still a little hoarse.

Rainbow pulled her into a half-armed, sweaty hug, making Fluttershy blush harder. “You’re the best, ‘Shy.”

The girls gave Rainbow another round of congratulations before going their separate ways. Night had nearly settled upon them, allowing the brighter stars to twinkle in the violet sky. Twilight followed Sunset to the parking lot, where Sunset’s black motorcycle sat. It carried a few pink scuff marks and scratches from the time it had been vandalised, but it remained Sunset’s pride and joy.

Lifting the seat up, Sunset pulled out her red helmet and Twilight’s purple one. They hopped on, Twilight scooting as close to Sunset as she could, locking her arms around Sunset’s waist.

“Good to go, Sparky?” Sunset said from underneath her helmet.

“Uh-huh,” Twilight responded, her voice shaking. Her grip around Sunset tightened when the motorcycle lurched forward, letting out proud roar as it rolled onto the street. Twilight always said she liked riding Sunset’s bike, yet acted like she was going to die every time she got on it. Sunset supposed it was how she got her adrenaline rush.

Unfortunately for Sunset, suburban speeding laws kept her from burning rubber and giving Twilight a real rush. Thirty mph was probably enough for her anyway. Sunset enjoyed the peace-shattering din her bike produced, the rumble she felt each time she turn the throttle. To the houses she sped past, it was a noise-complaint waiting to happen, to her, it was sweet music.

The ten minute ride to Twilight’s house flew by. Both girls disembarked, stowing their helmets back under the seat. Sunset could already hear Spike barking at the door. He had learned that the rumble of a motorcycle meant his master had come home.

Twilight opened the door and there he was, jumping at her leg. She picked him up and carried him inside, scratching his belly all the while. “I’m home!”

Mrs. Velvet came out from the dining room, still dressed in her nurse scrubs. “Hi, sweetheart, hi, Sunset. How was the game?”

“We pulverized them,” Sunset said, taking off her boots. “A bit of a let down, really.”

“Rainbow made four goals though,” Twilight added.

A whistle came from the living room couch. Sunset looked over to find Shining lounging across it, reading a comic book. “Four goals in soccer? Either she’s really good, or they’re really, really bad.”

“A little of both,” Sunset said.

“So, what are you two up to tonight?” Velvet asked.

“We’re going upstairs to practice violin and do some homework,” Twilight said.

Shining looked up from his comic. “Why can’t you do that down here?”

Sunset gave him a toothy grin. “Because then, we can’t make out.” She grabbed Twilight by the wrist and ran upstairs before Shining could retort.

“Leave the door open!” Velvet called.

Twilight’s room sat at the end of the hall, square with violet walls and lavender carpet. What wasn’t taken up by the bed, desk, dresser, and closet was used as space for bookshelves. All of them were completely full, leaving some books to be stacked in neat piles on the floor. From the ceiling hung a model of the solar system. On Twilight’s desk was her laptop and a picture of her and Moondancer. Sunset tried not to let her eyes linger on it too long.

They sat on Twilight’s bed, and she pulled out her violin case from beneath. Sunset held her breath in anticipation, watching as Twilight delicately took her instrument out and tuned it. She tucked the maple brown body under her chin and gave the strings a few test strokes with her bow.

The moment she began playing in earnest was the moment Sunset breathed again, closing her eyes in bliss. Every note, perfect, every stroke, wholeheartedly delivered, even her occasional mistake added to the heavenly delivery of Twilight’s performance.

Twilight would never admit it, but she was a master of the violin. If Twilight asked, Sunset would gladly give up her day plans to listen to her play.

The piece was short and left Sunset wanting more. Twilight giggled at the euphoric look stuck on Sunset’s face. “I’m guessing you liked it?”

“‘Like’ would be a severe understatement.”

She giggled again and scooted closer, handing off the violin. Sunset gently gripped it, letting Twilight make all the necessary adjustments. Ever since they had started dating, Twilight had been giving Sunset violin lessons. Like her old guitar lessons with Flash, Sunset didn’t think she was making any progress, despite Twilight’s reassurances. Sunset just liked to have an excuse to sit close to her.

She had one arm around Sunset’s shoulder, fixing the curl of her fingers around the bow. “There, how’s that?” she asked, her voice dancing in Sunset’s ear.

Sunset nodded. “That’s good.” Her mouth was dry. She played a few notes, creating a scratchy wail that made them both cringe before she made the instrument produce something closer to music. She practiced her scales as per Twilight’s instructions, then played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. She got some of the notes mixed up, but she had prevented it from making anymore wails.

“You’ve gotten a lot better,” Twilight said, still hovering over Sunset’s shoulder.

Sunset tilted her head toward her. “I have a really good teacher.” Their eyes met, and Twilight leaned in, pressing her lips against Sunset’s.

Like always, it started out gentle. They broke away, smiling and giggling before coming back. Sunset carefully set aside Twilight’s violin and brought a hand up to cup her face, running a thumb across her cheek. Something warm pressed against Sunset’s teeth, and she parted them to let Twilight’s tongue explore the inside of her mouth. Sunset moaned in delight, playfully pushing back, and twisting her whole body toward Twilight.

Twilight ran her fingers through Sunset’s hair and leaned forward, showing a surprising amount of force. It wasn’t anything Sunset couldn’t match though. She leaned against Twilight, pressing their breasts together.

“I’m not hearing violin!” Shining shouted from downstairs.

It was enough to make both of them jump back, but whereas Twilight fell back against her bed, Sunset fell onto the floor with a thud.

“Sunset, are you okay?” Twilight asked, leaning over the edge.

“Yep,” Sunset said tonelessly. “Peachy.”

*******

‘Holy crap, guys! You’re not gonna believe this! You have to come to the music room at lunch! It’s gonna blow your minds! Twilight, don’t bring Moonlancer.’

Sunset looked over the group text Rainbow had sent them, keeping a straight face at Rainbow’s typo as she walked with Twilight to the music room. They had all gotten it just before school started, and Sunset would be lying if she said it hadn’t kept her curious all day.

“Do you think Rainbow is still mad about Moondancer calling her a boy?” Twilight asked.

“Probably. She knows how to hold a grudge.”

Canterlot High’s music room was one of the school’s more up to date features, and thus, quite popular for the creative students. Trying to book time for it proved to be a hassle on occasion. Treble clefs and half notes hung on the beige walls, and three soundproof windows in the back gave the room excellent lighting. A grand piano sat against one of the walls with a small bandstand set up across from it. Next to it was the storage room that contained rental instruments, of which the school had a generous amount.

Rainbow stood at the top of the bandstand, a blue, electric guitar in her hands. She bounced with excitement, making a very good impersonation of Pinkie. “Oh my gosh, guys! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not going to believe this!” she said when everyone had gathered. “Rarity, close the curtains.”

Rarity exchanged questioning looks with the others, but complied to Rainbow’s wish. She closed all three curtains, leaving the room lit only by the florescent lights.

“Okay, okay!” Rainbow took a controlled breath. “No one bother sitting down, ‘cause you’re all just gonna jump right up when you see this.” She tested the chords on her guitar, then began passionately strumming and breaking into song.

“Awesome as I wanna be!

“First you see me riding on a sonic boom,

“Got my guitar shreddin’ up my latest tune!

“There is nothin’ you can do to beat me,

“I’m so good that you can’t defeat me!”

The girls stared in shock and awe, with Sunset giving into the urge to facepalm. Had Rainbow really dragged them here so they could hear her brag about herself?

“Mah God,” Applejack said, “Ah can feel her ego in this.”

“I can taste her ego in this!” Sunset said.

“I’m awesome, take caution!

“Watch out for me, I’m awesome as I wanna be!

“I’m awesome, take caution!

“Watch out for me, I’m awesome as I wanna be!”

Rainbow broke into, what Sunset guessed would have been a guitar solo if Rainbow had a full ensemble. She bounced up and down on her toes and began performing tricks like flipping her guitar in the air and playing it behind her back.

“Is there a point to all this?” Applejack shouted over the echoing acoustics.

“Wait for it!” Rainbow said, grinning ear-to-ear. Sure enough, after several more seconds of guitar shredding, a blue aura appeared around Rainbow, growing more intense as she continued to play. She rose into the air, and in a flash of light, blue wings sprouted from her back, her ears elongated into equine shaped ones, and her hair extended into a ponytail.

She played one last chord, then looked down at her friends. “So, what do you think?”

Stunned silence and open mouths were the general consensus. Sunset gaped like a fish, her brain replaying the transformation in her head several times, then locking onto Rainbow floating near the ceiling. “I… how… what… why?

Twilight had a similar response, only with additional finger pointing and hyperventilating. “She—she—how—that—music—floating—wings—magic!” She started laughing hysterically. “That’s magic! She has wings! Wings that came out of nowhere! That’s not scientifically possible! Hahahaha! You’re not scientifically possible!

Sunset grabbed Twilight’s shoulders. “Sparky, breathe. Nice and easy.”

Twilight nodded and took in large gasps of air, bringing her hand in toward her chest and back out with every inhale and exhale. “Okay,” she said after a full minute. “Okay, I think I’m good.”

Sunset let go of her shoulders. “Good, because I’m not.” She turned back to Rainbow. “What in Celestia's left teat is going on?” she shouted.

“What?” Twilight said quietly.

Rainbow floated over, giving her wings a gentle flap. “Okay, so last night, after I got home and took a shower, I was still feeling pretty pumped about our awesome win at the game! So I decided to practice my guitar and get ready for the showcase.” She played a few chords. “I don’t know what happened, but one second, I’m on the ground, and the next, I’m floating in the air with these babies on my back again! It’s so awesome!

Pinkie squealed. “Yeah it is! I want to be a pony magical girl again, too! It was so much fun floating around and shooting a giant friendship rainbow to stop Sunset’s demon form.” She blinked and looked over to Sunset. “No offense.”

“Offense taken.”

“I don’t understand,” Rarity said, “I thought Princess Twilight took all the magic back with her to Equestria.”

Applejack lifted her hat and scratched her head. “Apparently not. Question is, why is Rainbow… ponying up now?” Hers and five other pairs of eyes looked toward Sunset.

Sunset shifted uncomfortably. “What?”

“You’re the one from magic land,” Rainbow said. “Don’t you have some idea of how this happened?”

“Not really, hence my outburst from earlier.” Sunset put a hand to her chin and paced the floor. She didn’t have a theory yet, but her mind already raced to find one. Rarity was right, when Princess Twilight took the crown back through the portal, the magic should have gone with it.

Then again, that’s not necessarily true, she reasoned. The magic released could have just as easily stayed to fill the vacuum of this world having such a low amount of magic. But, did we really release enough to create any lasting effects? She stopped pacing, aware all her friends were watching her.

“Okay, well, my first theory is some of the magic lingered because this world has almost none of its own. As for why Dash ‘ponied up’...” she paused and thought for another moment. “You five did come in contact with the Elements of Harmony, one of the most powerful forces from my world. It’s possible that that magic just stuck with you. You do represent five of the virtues that make it up.”

“That makes sense, I guess,” Rarity said thoughtfully. “But why only Rainbow? And why music?”

“Yeah, for that, I have no idea.”

Twilight gasped and squeed, holding her hands under her chin while she bounced from one foot to the other. “We should run some experiments! Test out why and how this phenomenon is occurring!”

Fluttershy stepped back. “You aren’t going to cut us open, are you?”

“Of course not! We’ll start with basic tests, like seeing if the same reaction happens to the others with the same stimuli! Then we can change up the catalyst and see if the effects are different! We can monitor brain waves and heart patterns, and—”

“Glad to see you’re taking this in stride, Sparky,” Sunset said.

Some of the excitement left Twilight’s face. “It’s how I cope with the fact that one of my friends has wings and pony ears and is floating over my head!”

“Fair enough.”

Rainbow finally came down to the floor. “Well, as long as she doesn’t go Area 51 on us, I’m for it.” She fluttered her wings. “Wouldn’t it be so cool if we got superpowers from this?”

Sunset crossed her arms. “I’m pretty sure the only ‘superpower’ you guys get is that stupid rainbow cannon.”

“Well, it proved pretty effective at the Fall Formal,” Rarity said. “Er, no offense, dear.”

Sunset bit her tongue and growled. She didn’t want to use vulgar language on Rarity.

Twilight clapped her hands. “So it’s decided then! We’ll study magic for the sake of science! This is going to be so exciting! Groundbreaking!” She flashed her hopeful eyes at Sunset. “You’re going to help, right?”

“Umm…” Sunset shifted her weight between legs. “I will… help you take notes from a good distance away.”

Twilight frowned. “Why, what’s wrong?”

Sunset sighed and looked at the ground. Guess it’s time to pull this cat out of the bag. “I’m… scared.”

“Scared of what?”

Sunset clenched her fists. “Scared of magic, scared of myself.” She loosened her hands and let her shoulders fall. “As you all kindly keep reminding me, the last time I messed with higher powers didn’t end well for me. So I’d like to avoid coming in contact with anything magically related if I can. Especially anything with the Elements of Harmony.”

Warm fingers curled around Sunset’s hand, and Twilight smiled reassuringly at her. “Don’t worry then. You can be my number one assistant.”

Rainbow held a finger to her open mouth and pretended to gag.

“Thanks, Twilight,” Sunset said, thoroughly ignoring Rainbow. She looked to the others. “Well, first things first, you’re all going to need an instrument to play.”

Rarity put her hand on the piano. “Well, I’m a little rusty, but I can play this after a few practices.”

Pinkie waved her hand in the air. “I can play just about anything!” She hummed in thought. “Maybe I’ll try the sousaphone? Or the electric triangle! Oh, oh, I’ll play the theremin!”

“How about the drums?” Twilight offered.

Pinkie smacked herself in the head. “Duh! I rock at the drums!”

“Ah can play the banjo,” Applejack said.

Sunset gave her a half-lidded stare.

“What? ...What?”

Turning to Fluttershy, Sunset asked, “What about you, ‘Shy? Do you play anything?”

Fluttershy wrung her hands. “Um, no, not really.”

“Well, can you sing?”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened in horror. “S-sing? In front of all of you? I-I…”

Rainbow put a hand on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “Relax, Fluttershy, it’s just us.”

“Uh-uh.” Fluttershy resolutely shook her head. “I’ll… I’ll find an instrument to play, but I’m not singing.”

Twilight wrote down everyone’s names and instruments on a piece of paper. “Okay then. Fluttershy, think about what you’re going to play. Everyone else, start practicing with yours. Tomorrow after school, we’ll meet in here and start experimenting!”

While Rarity sat down at the piano, and Pinkie and Fluttershy dug through the rental equipment, Sunset stood in the corner. What would happen if all five of them ponied up? Would they form another rainbow beam? And would it home in on Sunset in an attempt to eradicate the evilest force it could find?

Sunset shook her head. You’re being paranoid. Besides, they need all six parts of the Elements of Harmony to launch the rainbow. Right? An uneasy tingle crawled down Sunset’s spine. She, once the most powerful unicorn in Equestria, was now surrounded by magic wielders while she could do none herself. She looked down at her hands. Not without turning into a monster again, or some other dark repercussions.

She couldn’t feel her demonic claws hiding beneath her skin, but she knew they were there. She had pushed her dark half down, deep down beneath her newfound love and acceptance of friendship, and refused to give it any chance to resurface. She refused to give the Elements any reason to hit her again. If the price to pay was no more magic, then so be it.

“I’m not going back,” Sunset whispered. She balled her hands into fists. “I’m never going back.”

5. The Science of Magic

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The first test was simple, and consisted only of seeing whether or not the other girls could, as they now officially dubbed it, ‘pony up’ like Rainbow. Wednesday after school, the Spectacular Seven occupied the music room with all of their instruments. Fluttershy had decided on playing the tambourine, though Sunset and Twilight doubted it would produce any satisfactory results.

Twilight had with her a clipboard and a spectrometer to measure any energy readings. Sunset had tried to tell her that it wouldn’t be able to pick up the thaumetic energy Rainbow released, but Twilight was obstinate in trying anyway. Sunset let her be, since she had already told Twilight any data collected here was strictly confidential and would not be shared with anyone.

That caveat had put a major damper on Twilight’s mood during the day, but as everyone got set up, she bounced back to her peppy, sciency self. “Even if I can’t share it with the scientific community, at least I get to learn something,” she told Sunset.

With sound checks out of the way, they began with Rainbow. “Just play like you did yesterday,” Twilight instructed.

“Easy-peasy,” Rainbow said. She launched into her song, appropriately named ‘Awesome As I Wanna Be.’ She got past the chorus and started her set of wild guitar moves, getting more into the song as time passed. The blue glow returned and in a few seconds, Rainbow’s pony features burst into existence with a flash of light. She finished with one last power cord and slid across the bandstand on her knees.

“Show off,” Applejack muttered.

Twilight ran over, stethoscope around her neck and a mini flashlight in her gloved hand. “Sunset, did you start the timer?”

Sunset sat atop the piano. “Yep.” She shook the stopwatch being used to measure how long Rainbow’s form lasted.

Twilight first ran a hand through the aura surrounding Rainbow. “Note: magical aura can be felt. It’s warm and kinda tingly.” It faded away, but Rainbow kept her pony enhancements. Twilight checked the spectrometer, frowning and knitting her brow. “It tried to pick up on something, but now it’s just giving me an error sign.” She set it down with a disappointed sigh, and held out the cold silver disk of the stethoscope to Rainbow. “Could you, um, put this over your heart for me?”

Rainbow smirked as she took it and slid it down her shirt. “Pretty sure doctors don’t have their patients measure their own heartbeat.”

“You’re not a patient, you’re a test subject,” Sunset said.

“Okay, quiet, I’m trying to listen.” Twilight put the plugs in her ears and hummed. “It seems to have accelerated, but that could just be adrenaline.” She had Rainbow hand the stethoscope back, then shone the flashlight in her eye. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” she murmured. “How do you feel?”

Rainbow shrugged. “Magical, I guess? A little warm, but like, the happy, sappy kind of warm on the inside, you know? Plus, I can feel the wings on my back, and these cool ears.”

Twilight moved up to the ears next, gently pulling and pushing them. “Fascinating. Has your hearing improved?”

“Not that I can tell.”

“Write that down, Sunset.”

Sunset complied, jotting notes down on the clipboard Twilight had provided.

Twilight moved to Rainbow’s wings, running her fingers through the primary feathers. “I can’t believe it. They’re really real.” She ran her finger along the carpal joint.

Rainbow shuddered, taking in a deep breath, then swatted Twilight’s hand away. “Don’t do that.”

“Wings are sensitive to touch,” Twilight said, barely fazed by Rainbow’s quick attack. “Write that down, Sunset.”

Sunset paused mid-sentence and pursed her lips. Why does this seem familiar?

Twilight quickly tugged off a feather, making Rainbow jump. “Oi! Be careful!” But Twilight was already on the other side of the room, stowing the feather in a ziplock bag.

“I’ll have to examine that more closely when I get home.” She turned toward Pinkie, Rainbow’s glare going completely unnoticed. “Okay, that’s it for Rainbow’s preliminary test. Now let’s see if we can reproduce these effects with the rest of you. You first, Pinkie.”

“Yes!” Pinkie punched a hand to the air. “Canterlot High, are you ready to rock? Because Pinkamena Diane Pie is in the house!” She tapped her drumsticks together three times before banging them against the drums in a furious rhythm. It was loud and fast, but managed to carry a good beat. Twenty seconds in, Pinkie glowed pink and floated out of her seat. Her poofy hair produced a ponytail, and she grew a set of ears to match Rainbow’s. She dropped back into her chair and threw her arms up. “Woohoo, look at me! I’m magicy!”

Twilight frowned. “Why doesn’t she have wings though?”

Sunset tapped the pen against her lip. “My guess would be because her pony counterpart is an earth-pony, while Rainbow’s is a pegasus.”

“Acceptable explanation. Though, now I want to know just how deep this link is between us and our pony counterparts. Questions for later.” Twilight took to work looking over Pinkie. “So, how do you feel?”

“Hyper and bubbly, super happy, a little hungry—”

“Anything new?”

“Oh, well, I feel all warm and tingly like Dashie.”

Sunset continued to scribe, watching Twilight flex Pinkie’s arm. Going off just Rainbow and Pinkie’s data, if Sunset had to hazard a guess, she’d say that the warm and tingly sensation was friendship magic. Since it originated in Equestria, it gave them Equestrian characteristics.

Still, why music? Does anything else trigger it? Sunset made sure to keep a record of her personal thoughts for Twilight.

Rarity’s turn came next, and Sunset moved to the other side of the room, getting cozy in the corner. When she sat down, Rainbow’s magic timed out, and she returned to normal. Sunset stopped the timer and called, “Five forty-three.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said. “All right, Rarity, your turn.”

Rarity flexed her fingers. “I hope I can do this right. One day’s practice certainly didn’t clear all the cobwebs.” She ran her fingers over the keys, lightly tapping each one. She faltered in a few spots, but never quit. Soon, she closed her eyes and the melody came much smoother and refined than at the start. After a minute, Rarity took on a purple hue and underwent the same transformation Pinkie and Rainbow had.

Her hair extended into a ponytail and gained a lustrous shine. Instead of gaining wings, a white horn appeared on her forehead.

“Huh, so Rarity’s a unicorn,” Sunset said. “Not surprising when I think about it.”

Twilight immediately began poking it and running her finger along the grooves. “Interesting, it has the same texture as your nails but is the color of your skin.”

Rarity smacked Twilight’s hand away. “Twilight, I know this is for research, but you need to ask before you violate my personal space.”

“Hehe, sorry,” Twilight said, sheepishly.

Rarity opened her compact and examined her horn in the mirror. “Hmm. I wonder if I can make accessories for this?”

“Rarity, you ain’t supposed to be walkin’ around school with a horn on your head,” Applejack said. “Students would flip.”

“Well, they took Sunset turning into a demon and the princess with wings pretty well.” Rarity’s cheeks turned pink as she looked at Sunset. “No offense, dear.”

Sunset gripped the clipboard, using all her will to not break it in half. “All right, new rule,” she said through gritted teeth. “The next person to mention the Fall Formal, and then follow up with ‘no offense’, gets a fist to the face.”

There was an awkward murmur of agreement before the testing continued.

Rarity tried to use magic with her new horn, but even with Sunset’s instructions, she failed basic levitation, leaving them to wonder if the horn was just for show. They moved onto Applejack and her banjo. Sunset had to keep her face pressed into the back of the clipboard to stop from saying anything. After five minutes of torturous country strumming, Applejack ponied up. It didn’t come as a shock that she was an earth pony.

Finally, it was Fluttershy’s turn. Rainbow helped by giving her a rhythm to shake her tambourine to. Fluttershy’s took the longest, but with some encouragement from the girls, her wings and ponytail appeared in a slow flash instead of a burst like the others.

“Hmm,” Twilight pondered aloud. “Perhaps cheering from comfort sources can serve as a substitute for musical passion or ability in relation to the transformation.”

Pinkie scratched her head with a drumstick. “Wha?”

“She said friendship might trigger the pony ups instead of just how well you play,” Sunset said, writing Twilight’s version.

Twilight remembered to be gentle when looking over Fluttershy. Unlike with Rainbow, Twilight gently wiggled one of Fluttershy’s feathers loose before stowing it in another ziplock bag. She checked Fluttershy’s pulse, flexibility, and coordination, making sure Sunset took down every note.

“All right, that concludes our preliminary tests,” Twilight said, clapping her hands.

“You mean there’s more?” Rainbow whined.

“Of course! There’s not nearly sufficient enough data with just this, especially with the spectrometer acting on the fritz.”

“I tried to tell you,” Sunset said.

Twilight ignored her and pulled a list from her pocket. “Next, I want to see what happens when you all play as a group. You all seem to emit some sort of energy when you play individually, so what would happen if you coordinated your music?”

Rainbow perked up. “Play together? Like, as a band? That sounds awesome!”

“A rather odd sort of instruments though,” Rarity said, looking from her piano, to Applejack’s banjo, to Fluttershy’s tambourine. “Can we really play a song and have it sound good?”

Sunset shrugged. “Aside from A.J.’s banjo—”

“Hey!”

“—as long as you guys are in time with each other, any arrangement should sound all right.”

“We can try playing ‘Awesome as I Wanna Be,” Rainbow said with an eager smile.

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Or, we could play somethin’ that doesn’t revolve around your ego.”

Fluttershy gave her tambourine a little shake. “What about ‘Shine Like Rainbows’?”

Sunset gave her an encouraging nod. “That could work. Fluttershy did write the original composition. I’m sure she could think of an arrangement for you guys.”

“Maybe,” Rainbow said. “But the only time we actually heard the song was at the Winter Ball.”

“And the only time we heard your song was yesterday,” Sunset argued.

“Yeah, so it should be fresh in your minds.”

“All right then,” Applejack said, “let’s put it to a vote. All in favor of playin’ ‘Shine Like Rainbows’, say I.”

“I!” six voices cheered.

“The I’s have it.”

Rainbow threw her arms up. “You didn’t even ask if anyone wanted to play my song.”

Applejack sighed. “Anybody want to play ‘Awesome as I Wanna Be?” She let the silence speak for itself before smirking at Rainbow. “Happy now?”

Rainbow just grumbled and started tuning her guitar. The corner of Fluttershy’s lips turned upwards, but Rainbow’s sour attitude seemed to keep her from enjoying her moment. Fluttershy gave the basic composition for the song, giving details to Rainbow and Pinkie, but letting everyone else, herself included, improvise.

“It doesn’t need to sound perfect,” Twilight said, “just enough to make magic.” She giggled with a hint of hysteria. “I’m studying magic. Yep, that’s still a thing that’s happening.”

Sunset tucked herself back into the corner since the others scattered themselves around the room with their instruments. She knew she was probably being paranoid at this point, but it paid to be prepared.

The girls waited until they had all powered down before playing again. It was a shaky first attempt with Rarity, Applejack and Fluttershy trying to find their place in the song. While rough, Sunset could still feel the emotion put into it.

Once… upon a time,” Applejack sang, “you came into my world and made the stars align.”

Rarity followed. “Now, I can see the signs.

“You pick me up when I get down so I can shine.”

Everyone joined in on the chorus. “Shine like rainbows, ohohoh.

“We shine like rainbows, ohohoh.”

All at once, the five of them glowed, their separate colors coming together to form a brilliant white light. Their pony features popped back into existence, and with them, a light shockwave that expanded across the room.

Sunset watched it rush toward her, mouth open in a silent scream. She clenched her eyes shut and raised the clipboard as a feeble shield. The light wave washed over her, and a scream echoed somewhere in her mind.

Sunset raised an arm at the six girls floating before her, bathed in heavenly light. It burned and blinded her, even with the distance between them. How could this be happening? She had the Element of Harmony—the only source of magic in this world! How did Princess Twilight continue to defy her?

A lavender beam shot from Twilight’s forehead and connected with the crown atop Sunset. Another force began clawing its way into her mind. She was already in enough pain! She didn’t need anymore!

“The crown may be upon your head, Sunset Shimmer,” Twilight said, her voice strong and fearless, “but you cannot wield it, because you do not possess the most powerful magic of all: the magic of friendship!” The beam between them broke, but in its place, a rainbow rose up from the six girls, poised to strike Sunset.

Sunset screamed, raising her hands to defend herself, but it proved absolutely powerless against this magic. The rainbow spun around her, locking her in. “No! What is happening?” The vortex grew closer and closer, burning her skin, trying to burn away the darkness in her soul. Sunset’s scream rose to a roar of agony.

Then, she floated in a white void.

“Sunset?”

Sunset snapped her eyes open, seeing the checkered tiles of the floor. Her arms were thrown over her head, and something wet snaked down her cheeks. Several shadows loomed over her, and she turned up to find all her friends staring with concern, Twilight at the forefront.

“Sunset, what happened?” Twilight put a hand on her shoulder.

“Nothing,” Sunset said quickly, wiping her tears away.

Applejack straightened up and crossed her arms. “That wasn’t nothin’, sugarcube. Ya squealed like a pig, then tucked yourself into that corner.”

“It’s like you were having a nightmare,” Fluttershy said. “You were shaking like a leaf.”

Sunset stood up and dusted her jacket off. “I’m fine, okay?” she said tersely. “I overreacted, that’s it.” Even as she said it, she could still feel her core trembling. No one said anything, they just kept looking at Sunset with pleading eyes. She turned her back to them and let out an irritable sigh. “I told you, it’s nothing. I just… I just had a flashback, okay? Of when I got hit by the rainbow.” Her voice softened and she bowed her head. “It burned. It burned everywhere. And then, I was just floating in a void. I thought I was dead. And I was still angry. After all of that, I was only mad that I had lost.”

She held a hand over her face. “I just freaked out for a second, okay? I thought maybe the Elements changed their mind and thought I hadn’t learned my lesson yet. It’s stupid.”

Her friends didn’t say anything. Instead, a pair of arms wrapped themselves around her waist. Sunset made a noncommittal grunt at Twilight’s hug. Twilight wasn’t alone, however. Five more arms wrapped around Sunset, followed by their respective bodies.

Sunset squirmed, her face turning red. “What are you doing? Who said you all could hug me?”

“This is what friends do, duh,” Rainbow said.

“You know I hate this!”

“No,” Rarity said, winking at her, “we know you pretend to hate this. We’re showing you our support, darling. You’ve got nothing to fear.”

Sunset relaxed her arms and surrendered to the hug. “Thanks, girls.”

Pinkie beamed at her. “See? I knew you liked group hugs!”

“I never said that.” She wiggled her arms until her friends got the hint and let go. “I know the Elements aren’t out to get me. It’s just…” She didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

Twilight took her hand, gently running her finger against Sunset’s palm. “We can stop if you’re uncomfortable.”

Sunset shook her head. “I’m not going to let my stupid paranoia ruin your fun.”

“It’s not stupid—”

“The point is, I’ll be fine.” She took a slow relaxing breath, then gave everyone her most convincing smile. “See? I’m good.”

Twilight picked up the clipboard forgotten on the ground. “Well, either way, I think that’s enough for today. I’ve got plenty of data to analyze, and I need to prepare the next round of tests.”

“Which are…?” Rainbow asked.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be anything too intrusive. I just want to take a closer look at any biological effects this magic has on you, and try converting your magical output into readable data..”

Rainbow laid her guitar in its case. “Well, like I said, as long as you don’t go mad scientist on us, I’m down for whatever.”

The Seven tidied up and headed out, the school hallways completely desolate. They could hear the basketball team practicing in the gym, the only signs of life on campus. Outside, puffy clouds filled the orange sky, pushed by a frigid wind.

They parted ways, with Sunset and Twilight heading for the parking lot. “Guess we should work on our chemistry homework, huh?” Twilight asked. “Unless you want to call it a day.”

Sunset gave her a sideways look. “I know you want to look at your samples the second you get home.”

Twilight twiddled her fingers. “I mean, yeah, but not if it makes you uncomfortable.”

They stopped in front of Sunset’s motorcycle. “Twilight, I told you, I’m fine. It was just a little leftover anxiety. I’ll get over it.” She pulled their helmets out and tossed Twilight hers.

“Are you sure? We can talk about this, you know?”

“Oh, so you’re a scientist and a therapist now?”

Twilight puffed her cheeks. “I’m trying to help you.”

Sunset placed a hand under Twilight’s chin. “I know, and I appreciate it completely.” She gave her a kiss. “But I’ve already told you everything. I just have to get over it.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes, trying her best to be intimidating. Some of the effect was lost with her having to look up at Sunset. Eventually, she gave up and said, “Fine, if you say so.” Her eyes softened. “But you know you can talk to me—to any of us, right?”

“Don’t worry, that’s been firmly established.” Sunset mounted her bike and patted the seat behind her. I just don’t want to talk about it.

*******

Unfortunately for Twilight, the samples she had gotten from Rainbow and Fluttershy had vanished by the time she got home. Come lunch on Thursday, she was still put out, moodily eating her sandwich.

“Twily, tell me what’s wrong?” Moondancer cooed, leaning on Twilight’s shoulder. “I can’t stand to see your precious face so glum.”

“It’s nothing. Just a science experiment that didn’t go so well.”

While Sunset took no pleasure in seeing her girlfriend upset, she had to fight to keep the smirk off her face. She quickly shoved some salad into her mouth and smiled with her eyes. I know something you don’t know! I know something you don’t know! she mentally taunted Moondancer. This is incredibly childish but I don’t care!

Moondancer stroked Twilight’s hair. “There’s no reason to be blue. Being the genius that you are, I know you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Sunset sense of superiority faded, and she gave Moondancer a searing glare. Touching clause!

Moondancer met her eyes, gave Twilight one last long stroke, then moved her hands away. “Why don’t I take you to get something sweet after school? Just like old times?”

Twilight smiled but didn’t meet Moondancer’s eyes. “I’d love to, but, uhhh, I s-still have more of my science experiment to work on today. How about tomorrow?” She looked in Sunset’s direction.

Sunset rolled her eyes and gave a subtle nod. She saw the cheshire grin Moondancer flashed, and went back to chanting, I know something you don’t know!

Lunch came and went, pushing Sunset into her Advanced Trigonometry class with Twilight. Like usual, they had finished their class work early, leaving Twilight to fiddle with her notes. She had drawn up diagrams and charts, though they held many blank spaces.

“Sunset, how does magic work in your world?” Twilight whispered, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one was paying attention to them.

“Well, there’s different schools of magic, like thaumaturgy, abjuration, transfiguration, etcetera, and each of them have their own principles, rules, and theories.” She saw Twilight’s starry-eyed interest and continued. “So, thaumaturgy is the manipulation of elemental energy, like fire or water or wind. It’s the basis for most combat magic and was one of my specialties,” Sunset said, letting a hint of pride ooze out.

“It’s kind of hard to explain, but the best way to think about it is like the transformation of energy in this world, only with shortcuts.” Sunset tapped her fingers together. “Like, if I wanted to make fire, I essentially just generate enough friction in the molecules in front of me until they ignite.”

“Fascinating,” Twilight breathed. “So, you wrote down that you think this is ‘friendship magic’?” She gestured to the rather poor sketch she made of Rainbow’s pony form and the notes Sunset had made.

“That’s my first guess.”

“How does it work?”

Sunset gave Twilight a deadpan stare. “You’re asking me how friendship magic works?”

Twilight looked down at her paper. “Sorry.”

Sunset leaned back in her chair, kicking her boots up onto the desk and stretching her arms behind her head. “Right now, your notes are all we have to go on.” Ms. Vector glared at Sunset from her desk. Sunset just smiled and pointed to her completed work.

“Do you think the princess knows how it works?” Twilight asked, her head still bowed.

“Well…” Sunset chose her words carefully. “Even if she did, she’s not here, so it’s up to us to figure it out. More importantly, it’s up to you.” She ruffled Twilight’s bun. “And you’re smarter than she is, so you’ll figure it out no problem.”

With a blush and a giggle, Twilight said, “Thanks.”

*******

“Twilight… I think this falls under ‘mad scientist.”

Rainbow stared wide-eyed with the other girls as they joined Twilight in one of the science labs where a large machine was set up. A helmet with wires and a dial connected to its side. Twilight finished plugging the machine in and whirled around, a white lab coat draped over her shoulders.

“This isn’t ‘mad science’, this is perfectly normal science.” She gestured to the machine. “It’s just a bigger spectrometer. I’m going to measure any energy output you release from your music and record it. As well as any deeper readings in your biochemistry.”

“Ah didn't even know we had a machine like this,” Applejack said. “What do they normally use this for?”

Sunset shrugged. Like Twilight, she was also adorned in a white lab coat. “Who knows?” She lifted the helmet up. “So, who wants to go first?”

Everyone save for Fluttershy took a step back.

“Fluttershy, thank you for volunteering!” Twilight said.

Fluttershy looked behind her, realizing she had been sold down the river. She made a whimper and clutched her tambourine to her chest.

Sunset fitted the helmet onto Fluttershy’s head. It looked more like an upside down colander than a scientific device. “It’s not going to hurt, ‘Shy,” Sunset said, putting a hand on Fluttershy’s shaking shoulder. “Just play like you did yesterday.”

With some help from Rainbow, Fluttershy found a rhythm to shake her tambourine to. It didn’t take as long for her to pony up. Sunset watched the monitor over Twilight’s shoulder, observing the wavelengths change from flowing lines… into butterflies.

Twilight cocked her head. “What?” The ceiling lights flickered for a moment before becoming stable again. Twilight and Sunset turned back to Fluttershy, who had stopped playing and was looking at a pink butterfly fluttering around her.

“Where did that come from?” Sunset asked.

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy said, her eyes and voice full of whimsical wonder. “It just appeared when I was playing.”

Twilight stalked toward it, hunched forward with her hands outstretched. She made a lunge for it, but the butterfly floated higher, leaving Twilight to trip and fall face first onto the floor. It then floated over and landed on Sunset’s nose, where it lingered for a moment, then vanished in a puff of pink wisps.

Sunset blinked. “Okay, so that was weird.”

“Write it down!” Twilight said from her place on the floor.

They repeated the process with Applejack, Sunset strapping the helmet over her head while Twilight prepared the monitor. Applejack strummed her banjo, producing noise that made Sunset want to break the unholy instrument in half. After a minute of playing, Applejack ponied up in a yellow light, and looking at the monitor, Sunset saw the wavelengths now looked like an apple.

Twilight threw her hands up. “These readings don’t make any sense!”

“Maybe—” Something hard collided with her skull, and the next thing Sunset knew, she was looking up at the ceiling. “What happened?”

Applejack leaned into her view. “Sorry, Sunset! My banjo just shot out an apple.”

“... What?”

Applejack pulled her to her feet and pointed to Twilight. “See?” Twilight held a glowing apple in her hand, examining it from all sides and holding it up to the light.

“Thanks for the help, babe,” Sunset said, rubbing a small welt on her head.

“Sorry, Sunset.” It sounded genuine, but Twilight still had her eyes on the apple. “I’m just trying to make sense of this apple. It was produced from thin air! It’s not a hologram! I think it’s a real apple just conjured up by magic.”

Sunset walked over, snatched the apple, much to Twilight’s objection, and continued on to a table. She pulled out one of the dissection knives and cut the apple in half, showing the insides to the others. Both halves consisted of only a white void.

“Arcanus’ Second Law of Transfigurative Properties: ‘food cannot be created or conjured from nothing.’” Sunset watched the apple disappear the same way Fluttershy’s butterfly had. “Glad to see at least that makes sense here.”

Applejack chuckled disappointedly. “There goes mah idea of ending world hunger.”

They planned to move onto Rarity next, but ran into a large complication upon realizing the grand piano could not be moved from the music room. Rarity examined the doorway with a determined squint.

“Maybe if we turned it on its side…”

“Rarity, it ain’t gonna fit,” Applejack said. “Plus, we don’t have the muscle to move it.”

“Well, what else am I supposed to play?”

Rainbow came out of the storage room, a retro looking device in her hands. It looked like a guitar, only it had piano keys instead of strings. “Here, play this.”

Rarity cringed and held her arms up, like Rainbow had offered her a snake. “Please, Rainbow, that’s so…. synthetic pop.”

“Pssh, like you don’t listen to synthpop.”

“As a matter of fact—”

Applejack groaned. “Rares, just play the dang keytar so we can get this over with.”

Rarity wrinkled her nose, but reached for the keytar, gingerly taking the instrument like it might bite her at any moment. “But I don’t even know how to play this.”

Sunset waved a hand. “So? Fluttershy’s never played a tambourine before. Besides, it’s just like a piano, only portable, right?”

Rarity mumbled something about the tambourine not being hard to learn as they headed back to the science room. Twilight lit up upon their return.

“Oh good, you found a substitute! This’ll be a good time to see if the magic effects are only specific to the first instrument you play. I really hope they aren’t, otherwise, this’ll make even less sense, and I don’t know if I can handle that.” She untangled a bunch of wires with suction cups on the ends. “Also, I found these!”

Looking slightly paler than usual, Rarity asked, “What are those, exactly?”

Twilight walked over and stuck one on Rarity’s forehead. “Don’t worry, they’re just going to help get a better reading on your biochemistry.” She stuck several more on Rarity’s arms and legs.

“I feel violated.” Shoulders hunched, she tested out her new keytar, pressing the keys and fiddling with the knobs. While it sounded very little like a piano, the sound it produced was not unpleasant. It was enough to make Rarity smile again. “Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.”

She started playing in earnest, letting the notes and chords come naturally. Her smile turned into a giggle, which then moved up into inspired laughter. Her purple aura blazed, and she floated into the air, horn, ears, and ponytail bursting forth.

“Oh goodness!” she said, taking a break. “I didn’t think this could be so much fun! I’m feeling so inspired now! Perhaps it’s time for an 80’s comeback!”

A purple aura appeared around Sunset as she took notes and slowly lifted her off the ground. The weightlessness settled over her, knocking her off balance. Sunset fell back, only to flip around in Rarity’s magical grip. “Rarity?”

“I’m thinking big, bold colors! Something attention grabbing, but not obnoxiously loud,” Rarity continued, throwing her arms out.

Sunset jerked to the side. “Umm, Rarity?”

“Oooh, I can see sequence working well into some of my designs! Maybe rine encrusted boots. And pleats! Hmm, maybe not pleats. Then again—”

“Rarity!” the entire room shouted.

“What?” She clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh my… Sunset, am I doing that?”

Sunset glared at her from her upside-down position, arms crossed. “Yes. Now, would you kindly put me down?”

Rarity tugged at her collar. “Ahaha… err, sure thing. Just a second.” She squeezed her eyes shut and produced a few sparks from her horn.

The magic around Sunset wavered, then shot Sunset up toward the ceiling before dispelling. With a loud, “Eeep!” Sunset dropped back to the ground, landing on her stomach.

This time, Twilight ran to her aid. “Sunset! Are you okay?”

Sunset coughed and rolled over. “I forgot how much magic hurts.” They took a quick break to ensure none of Sunset’s ribs were broken, with Rarity apologizing profusely the entire time.

When Pinkie’s turn came up, Sunset made sure to stand on the other side of the room, though she was pretty sure Pinkie wouldn’t produce anything harmful, or be able to telekinetically lift things.

“Pinkie Pie, second encore!” Pinkie shouted before banging away on her drums. She was the fastest to pony up, and continued to play after her transformation finished. She and her drumset lit up the room, and a light humming noise joined her percussion.

Balloons exploded out from her drums and rocketed forth on a direct collision course with Sunset. She had no time to acknowledge, let alone move out of their way, and in a few scant seconds, found herself sticking to the wall. Her hair was a frazzled mess with leftover balloons sticking to it, and residual discharge danced across her body.

“Sorry, Sunset!” Pinkie shouted.

Sunset merely sighed. “This is karma for something. I’m just not sure what.”

*******

Rainbow was last, and to ensure that nothing bad would happen, Sunset chose to observe the last test from the safety of the monitoring booth. It was convenient since Rainbow’s guitar could be plugged into the recording devices inside. Sunset gave a thumbs up while keeping an eye on the music guages. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but if something magic popped up, she’d know it when she saw it.

Outside, Rainbow started shredding on her guitar. She forewent singing her new theme song, opting to just play. Once she was into it, her wings appeared, and she started performing tricks in the air. Unnoticed to both Rainbow and Sunset, a rainbow snaked its way down the connection cord and into the booth.

Sunset stared at the readings on the computer screen. “Huh, it’s picking up some sort of energy reading. Maybe it thinks it’s joules? Or volts.” The readings climbed higher, and electricity crackled across the screen. Sunset leaned back. “That can’t be good.”

Boom!

Splat!

Fury, revulsion, sadistic mirth, and sadness all raced through Sunset in one moment. Mostly revulsion. She brought a hand over her eyes, wiping up some of the rainbow goop that had somehow exploded out from the monitor and covered her face.

Someone tapped frantically on the glass. “Sunset, are you okay?”

Sunset spit out some of the rainbow clinging to her lips. She walked over to the door, and pulled it open, hearing her friends gasp as one when she stepped out. She opened her eyes and glared at them.

“One word from any of you… and I will murder you in your sleep,” she said, voice drained of emotion.

Rarity eased a finger into the air. “But, Sunset—”

“In your sleep!”

*******

Twilight and Sunset sat in Sunset’s room, after she had thoroughly cleaned herself of Rainbow’s rainbow residue. She had come dangerously close to choking Rainbow after the latter had burst into gales of laughter. Thankfully, Applejack was strong enough to hold Sunset back.

Between Sunset and Twilight sat pages and pages of notes, hypothesis, observations, and wild guesses. Sunset had explained thaums, the unit of magical measurement, but they had a hard time figuring out a conversion between thaums and an earth equivalent to remeasure the collected data.

Sunset flopped back on her bed, prompting Spot to settle on her stomach. “I don’t know why you’re focused on the ‘how.’ You should be focused on the ‘why.’ Why do they have magic again? And why music?”

Twilight sat up from her place on the floor, leaving her calculations alone. She rolled out a crick in her neck. “I’m getting to that. I want to know the ‘how’ first. How does magic work in this world? How do they get all those ears and tails and wings? How do I explain this with science?” she shouted.

Sunset reached over and patted her head. “There are some things you can’t explain with science. Maybe this is one of them.”

“Impossible.” Twilight wildly shook her head. “You even said there’s rules and laws to magic. There has to be some reason behind this, and I’m going to find it!” She held a determined fist in the air, then went rigid. “Sunset… isn’t Artemis supposed to be a magician?”

“Yeah.”

Twilight flipped over, gripping the side of Sunset’s bed. “Why don’t we ask him for help? He has to know how magic in this world works! Maybe he’s the link we need!”

Sunset ran her hand across Spot’s back. “Huh, yeah, we could ask him,” she said casually.

There was an impatient pause. “So?” Twilight asked, bobbing up and down.

“I really don’t want to feed his ego.”

“Sunset!”

“All right, fine, geez.” She picked Spot up and set him down on her pillow. “But if he goes off on a tangent about his wild adventures, don’t blame me.”

6. Of Myths and Monsters

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Artemis’ study took up the tower added on to the back of the house. It was a circular room lined with shelves featuring an assortment of oddities, trinkets, and books. It looked like a smaller, more personal version of the emporium he ran in town. Artemis sat in a carved armchair behind a mahogany desk in the back. He fiddled with a half finished ship in a bottle.

“So, what can I do for the adorable little couple?” he asked, keeping his eyes trained on the back mast he attempted to set up.

Sunset and Twilight stood side-by-side, Twilight clutching some of her papers. Sunset cleared her throat. “So, remember when I told you about… you know… how I messed with some dark magic and six girls stood up to me and hit me with a rainbow friendship laser?”

Artemis snickered. “Yes. That’s also when you told me you’re a pony from another dimension. I still get a kick out of that. I’m playing host to a magical pony girl. Life is just full of wonders!” he said jovially. He looked up at the puckered expression Sunset gave him. “Ahem, but you were saying something?”

“Yeah, see, recently it seems five of those girls have kinda gotten some magic back.”

Artemis set the bottle down and gave them his full attention. “Really?”

Twilight nodded. “We’ve been trying to research it and figure out why based on Sunset’s knowledge of her homeworld’s magic. We were wondering if you could help us in any way?”

“Ha ha!” Artemis vaulted over his desk and landed with his arms spread wide. “My dear Miss Sparkle, I’ll help anyone with an interest in the mystical arts!” He slipped his black and white wand from his pocket and gave it a whirl. “Lulamoon!”

Beanbags appeared behind each of them, and a force of gravity compelled Sunset to collapse into hers. To her annoyance, it was pink.

Twilight sat comfortably and had a pen out for her notes. “First question: how did you do that?”

“First answer,” Artemis said, tipping his moon and star decorated hat down over his eyes. “A good magician never reveals his secrets.”

“But… I thought…”

Artemis laughed and wiggled his fingers, shooting off a few sparks. “Sorry, natural response. I can’t go giving my secrets out to everyone.” He tugged at his goatee. “Though that might be a moot point since you have to have magic to do magic. Regardless, that was a simple materialization spell. Beanbags are quite easy to make.”

Twilight scribbled on her notepad, her brow furrowed. Before she could ask her next question, Artemis said, “Now, tell me about these magical friends of yours.”

Sunset tried to get comfortable, but the beanbag kept trying to swallow her whole. “Well, erf, the thing is—” She punched the beanbag a few times before settling down. “The thing is, their magic only pops up when they play music.”

“Is that all that’s stumping you?” Artemis put his hands up. “And I thought you were a genius, Sunset.”

She growled.

“All right, all right, no need to get testy. Sunset, music is magic! It’s one of the oldest magics in the world! It soothes the savage beast, it tames the wild heart, it makes entire stadiums sing together in unison!” Artemis finished, dramatically lifting his hand into the air.

Sunset put a hand to her chin. “Huh, when you put it like that… In Equestria, we do have a tendency to break out into song. Things seem to get done faster when we do that.” Sunset shuddered. “It’s one of the few things I don’t miss.”

Artemis nodded. “See? Music is magic.”

Twilight paused from her furious scribbling. “But that doesn’t really explain why they’re transforming. Or how.”

“Transforming?”

The beanbag pulled Sunset deeper into it. “Yeah, the magic that they get gives them pony features. Ears, wings or horns, and a ponytail. We call it ‘ponying up.’”

Artemis let out a bark of laughter. “‘Ponying up! How cute! I love it!” He twirled a finger around his goatee. “Well, if I had to hazard a guess… You said that they first gained magic when a princess from your world joined with them, yes?”

Sunset pursed her lips. “Yes.”

“Well then…” Artemis sat up and lifted his wand. “Lulamoon!” A clear screen popped up between him and the girls. Artemis held his wand like a pencil and drew on it, starting with a straight line. He then made a girl in a simple dress. “I’d say, when you and your princess crossed over to our world, you brought some magic with you.” He made squiggles flowing from one side of the screen to the other. “Sadly, there isn’t too much magic in our world these days, and the magic that you originally brought was probably barely recognizable.”

He added five more simple stick figures with long hair. “However, when she and your friends made that ‘rainbow friendship laser’, I’m guessing that released a substantial amount of magic.” Artemis paused and scratched his head. “I wonder how I didn’t feel that?” He looked at Sunset. “Does this sound right so far?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, that’s where my theory started. The Elements of Harmony are pretty powerful, enough to leave a lasting impression.”

“Good.” Artemis drew music notes around the girls. “Now, when your friends were exposed to magic from your world, I’m guessing they managed to retain it if these Elements are as strong as you say they are.” He tapped his wand against his chin. “Magic has a tendency to attract more magic. But, since there’s so little magic in this world, that’s probably why nothing has happened since then.”

“Until this week when Rainbow started playing music really passionately,” Sunset said.

“Ah.” Artemis drew more squiggles flowing directly to the girls. “My hypothesis is that your strong pony magic has resonated with some of the last magic on earth—one of the most ancient ones.”

“Music?” Twilight guessed.

“Music!” Artemis threw his hands up. “Their residual magic has mingled with music and drawn out the effects of this Equestrian magic now floating through the world.” He tapped the screen, making it vanish. “That’s quite some deduction if I do say so myself. I amaze even me sometimes.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. Narcissism aside, Artemis had pushed more than one of Sunset’s hypotheses into theories. If her friends had residual magic from the Elements of Harmony, then Sunset was positive she had some of its corruption as well. And if they ponied up from crossing their magic with earth’s, Sunset shuddered to think what would happen if she did the same.

She kept her somber thoughts to herself. The solution was simple: just don’t do anything that would trigger her magic. Though, as the events of the day had shown, magic seemed determined to chase after her. Was she a walking danger to her friends? They couldn’t perform the whole rainbow, could they? They managed to release a small shock wave, but would it be enough to put her down if she lost control?

Sunset raised her arms to hug herself, playing it off like she was tightening her jacket. Twilight didn’t notice. Her rapt attention was on Artemis.

“Okay, that explains the why. What about the how?” Twilight asked. “How are they transforming? Does it change their body structure? Where does it go when they’re normal? Are there any side-effects to this? How does magic even work in this world?”

Artemis reached over and tapped her nose with his wand. “You ask a lot of questions; it’ll get you far in life.” He leaned back. “But, you’re asking questions I can’t give an answer to. I only know simple transfiguration, and this sounds like it’s leaning further to your Equestrian magic. Magic in the human world works because you believe it will.” He wiggled his fingers again. “And you have wizard blood in you.”

Twilight scrunched her nose, and Sunset could see a muscle tightening in her jaw. “That’s all you can tell me? Even supernatural forces have to work off of some sort of laws and principles!”

“Well, there’s a certain amount of work and concentration that goes into it. And there are certainly laws even magicians have to abide by.” A thoughtful frown dragged down his normally cheery face. “But I’m afraid, Twilight, you’re looking for answers I can’t give you. If you asked me how I pulled a rabbit out of my hat, I’d tell you it’s because I have a small pocket dimension stored in there and because I believed I had the power to pull it out. Then you’d ask me how I created a pocket dimension, and I’d tell you I made a sealed space and condensed it until it could fit in my hat. Then you’d ask me how again, and I’d tell you ‘magic.’” He turned his eyes to the ceiling. “Very few magicians ever asked ‘how’. ‘What’ and ‘why’ certainly, and even the fundamental ‘hows’.” He looked back at Twilight with respect and pity in his eyes. “You’re looking for the root ‘how’, and I think that’s an answer that doesn’t want, and possibly can’t, be found.”

Twilight made a frustrated sigh and pressed her papers to her head. After some incoherent muttering, she said, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Lulamoon.”

Artemis stood up and walked back to his desk. “Please, I told you to just call me Artemis. Mr. Lulamoon just makes me sound old. At any rate, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you all the answers you wanted.” He sat down and started playing with his ship in a bottle. “But sometimes, you don’t need a complicated answer for a complicated problem.”

Sunset helped Twilight up from the beanbag after struggling to free herself from its spongy clutches. Twilight kept her head bowed until they reached Sunset’s room, where Spot laid on the bed and chewed the Princess plushie.

Good boy, Sunset thought. She moved a hand to Twilight’s waist, wincing at the disgruntled aura pulsing off of her. “Listen, Sparky—”

Twilight snapped her head up, a determined fire in her eyes. “I want you to teach me everything about Equestrian magic.”

Sunset took a step back. Twilight rarely ever demanded anything. “Woah there, Twi. That’s a lot of information, half of which I can’t remember off the top of my head.”

“Then teach me the things you do remember. If you can tell me that, maybe I can figure out how magic in this world works.”

“Okay, hold on.” Sunset rested her hands on Twilight’s shoulders. “Twilight, take a few deep breaths and calm down.”

She did as she was told, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Sunset could feel the tension in her shoulders ebbing away. A shadow of a smile crossed Twilight’s face. “Usually I’m the one telling you to calm down.”

“Guess we’re rubbing off on each other.” Sunset guided Twilight over to the bed and sat her down. “Sparky, you’re brilliant, the smartest girl I’ve ever met… besides me, of course.” Twilight gave her a playful shove, and Sunset continued. “I get you want to figure this out. You like understanding things—that’s how you work. But maybe Artemis is right, maybe we’re looking too deep into this. We know why the girls pony up; do we really need to know how?”

Twilight hunched over. “I’d like to.”

“And what would you do with that information anyway?”

“I don’t know,” she said, her head hung in defeat. “It’s like you said, I just like knowing.”

Sunset ran her fingers through Twilight’s hair. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll tell you everything I can about Equestrian magic if you think it’ll help you figure this out.” She turned Twilight’s head toward her. “Just promise me you’ll take this magical studies thing easy and won’t obsess over it. If something doesn’t make sense, it’s because magic isn’t supposed to make sense.” She kissed her on the nose. “Okay?”

The cheerful light returned to Twilight’s eyes, and she rested her head against Sunset’s chest. “I guess that’s fair. And you’re right, I have enough to be studying without adding magic to the list.” She nuzzled closer and lifted her head to Sunset. “Still, I’m excited to learn more about your home.”

Sunset smiled, hoping it didn’t look too pained. “Always happy to talk about it.” She supposed it gave her some closure. Talking about Equestria was the next best thing to being there.

Her thoughts became muddled by Twilight’s lips pressing on hers. For a brief moment, Sunset forgot what she had been worried about.

“Eegh, at least close the door. Trixie doesn’t need to see that,” Trixie said, walking past Sunset’s room.

Sunset pulled away with an annoyed grunt. “Now I know why so many people make out under the bleachers.”

*******

“So, the magic we got from Equestria and Princess Twilight is being triggered by the magic from this world, and that’s what’s makin’ us pony up?” Applejack summarized in a low voice.

“More or less,” Sunset said.

“Neat!” Pinkie said. “Twilight must be happy.”

Sunset wiggled her hand. “Eh… she’s still wants to learn how, but she’s content for the time being.” She walked with her friends through the rotunda and out onto the campus lawn at the end of their Friday school session. Twilight had already departed with Moondancer.

“So, no more experiments, right?” Fluttershy asked.

“No, I think were done for now.”

Rarity tossed her scarf around her neck. “It’s too bad. I was starting to enjoy playing that keytar. Oh well, I got plenty of fashion ideas out of it.” She looked at Sunset. “Though, remind me why we kept this all hush hush from Moondancer?”

Sunset shoved her hands into her pockets. “Because I don’t want to tell her anything.” She flinched at the withering glare Rarity cast. “I’m joking… kinda. I mean, do you want everyone knowing you have magic?”

“I suppose not. But Moondancer is Trixie’s cousin. Don’t you think she’d be able to handle that information?”

From Sunset’s other side, Rainbow spoke up. “I’m with Sunset. What Lunedancer doesn’t know, won’t hurt her.”

Sunset smirked. “You’re doing that on purpose now, aren’t you?”

“Oh, totally.”

They shared a subtle fistbump.

Applejack leaned past Rarity, copying her expression. “We get it, Dash, you’re mad that she called you a boy. Don’tcha think you’ve held a grudge long enough?”

“Ask me again next month.”

Applejack rolled her eyes and put a hand up. “Fine, whatever. Lord knows you can’t be reasoned with.”

Rainbow lifted her chin. “Don’t act all high and mighty. You don’t like her either.”

“Ah never said that. She’s an actor. Ah just don’t trust her ‘cause you never know when they’re actin’ or not.” She adjusted her backpack straps. “Anyways, she’s a friend of Twilight’s, so Ah’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.”

Rainbow jerked her thumb. “The last time we gave someone the benefit of the doubt, we got stuck with Sunset.”

“Hey!”

“Well, I like her!” Pinkie said, popping up between Rainbow and Sunset.

Sunset lidded her eyes. “Pinkie, you like everyone. That’s a moot point.”

“That’s not true; I don’t like everyone.”

Rainbow snorted. “Name one person you don’t like.”

Pinkie stopped walking and stared off into space, her head tilted to the side. As the girls watched her, Sunset could swear she could hear a small ticking noise.

“Well, as fun as this is, I should get home, Sunset said. “Homework to do and all that.”

Rainbow’s lips curled up. “You’re just saying that because Moontrancer is off with Twilight.”

“Nothing gets past you, Dash,” Sunset said listlessly. She gave a wave and turned at the corner.

She shoved her hands in her pockets and hunched her shoulders. Of course she was upset Twilight was with Moondancer, but she wasn’t going to give Rainbow, or Moondancer for that matter, the satisfaction of saying it out loud.

Besides, she did have homework to do. She just would have preferred to do it with Twilight.

Sunset grunted. “Stop acting so codependent. You managed perfectly well before Twilight walked into your life; you can manage a day.” Sunset smiled. “A nice evening of me time.”

Her plans fell apart the moment she walked through the front door. Artemis appeared in a puff of smoke, a frantic look on his face. He grabbed Sunset by the wrist. “Emergency family meeting! Now!

“Wha-”

When she blinked, Sunset found herself in the kitchen standing next to an equally confused Trixie. Across the table, Selena had her attention on a newspaper article.

Artemis relentlessly paced behind her, making wild gestures with his hands. “How could I have missed this… Doesn’t make any sense… This is what I get for not following social media!”

“Can someone please explain what’s going on?” Sunset asked. “You’re acting stranger than usual. Mind you, that’s a high bar to hurdle.”

Selena looked up from the paper, a grim look in her eye. “Artemis has told you the tale of our fight against the Sirens, right?”

Sunset tapped her chin. “ Sounds like something he would go on about, yeah. Something about Greece and a heart.”

“How did they get past my barrier?” Artemis shouted. “That was my strongest spell!”

Selena reached over and rubbed his arm. “Sweetheart, calm down.” She turned back to Trixie and Sunset and pushed the newspaper over to them. “You should read this.”

Trixie picked it up and cleared her throat. “‘Singing Sensations Spark Another Riot. The overnight pop phenomena, The Dazzlings, continued their tour across the country with their latest stop in Tall Tale. Like all of their concerts before it, the performance ended in a riot amongst fans. While no deaths occurred, several people were injured and hospitalized.

“‘When asked for a statement, bandleader, Adagio Dazzle—’”

Artemis growled.

“‘—had this to say. ‘We are worried that some of our fans might get hurt, but we’re just happy they’re so enthusiastic about our music.’ Neither she nor her sisters, Sonata Dusk and Aria Blaze, show any indication of stopping their one-hundred city tour. Some have likened their spontaneous and zealous fan base to a cult, showing growing concern over the devotion the youth culture has given them. They’re scheduled to play in Canterlot February 12th.’”

Trixie looked up, mouth hanging open. “The Dazzlings are the Sirens?

Sunset looked over her shoulder at the picture provided with the article. Three girls stood on stage wearing costumes the eighties spat out. The girl on the right had blue hair and skin, and a wide smile. On the left was a girl with purple pigtails with green highlights. She smiled too, but it was one of pure superiority. The lead singer was a girl with a mass of orange hair that put Pinkie’s to shame. Her smile was a combination of the other two, filled with enjoyment and superiority with a hint of sultry deviance. All three of them wore black necklaces with bright rubies at the center.

“Those are the Dazzlings?” Sunset asked, raising a skeptical brow.

“Don’t underestimate them,” Artemis warned. “They’re three of the most devious and dangerous creatures we’ve ever fought.”

“I’m sure.” She shrugged. “So they’re causing concert riots. What’s the big deal? Teenagers riot over a lot of stupid things.”

Artemis threw his arms out, nearly smacking Selena in the head. She glared at him while he said, “The ‘big deal’ is that they feed off negative energy! Their songs stir up negativity and tense emotions, getting friends to bicker over even the smallest of things! One second, you’re in a café with your friends talking about the weather.” He raised his arms above his head and waved his hands. “Then the next thing you know, you’re fighting over whether that cloud looks like a puppy or a turtle!”

Sunset’s eyebrow rose higher.

Artemis lowered his arms. “All right, that was a poor example. The point is, the Sirens create negative emotions, then feed on the emotions released. Feeding makes them stronger. Another caveat to their powers is that their voices have a strong influential effect, making the hearer susceptible to mind manipulation.” Artemis grit his teeth. “If they grew strong enough, I’m sure it would evolve into all out hypnotism.”

“Okay, now this sounds bad,” Sunset said.

“Even worse,” Selena said, pushing Artemis to sit down at the table, “is if they found the Crystal Heart.”

Sunset took a seat as well. “Why does that sound familiar?”

“Don’t you listen to anything my father says?” Trixie snapped.

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

Selena cut in. “The Crystal Heart is an ancient artifact of magical power. It amplifies and reverberates the strongest emotion emitted. For instance, if it picked up on happiness, it would double that happiness felt with everyone in its radius.”

Sunset nodded in grim understanding. “But if the Sirens got it and used it while they were feeding…”

“It would double the output of negative energy they were creating,” Trixie finished.

“That was their plan twenty years ago,” Artemis said. He proudly put a hand over his chest. “Luckily, I—”

We,” Selena said.

“—were there to stop them.” Artemis stood up, a heroic gleam in his eye. “Yes, it was quite the thrilling adventure, full of action, peril, sabotage, and intricate disguises. It all started when—”

Selena clapped a hand over his mouth. “Sweetheart, I love when you recount our adventures and I get to correct you, I really do, but for the sake of time, just give them the bare bones and skip to the point.”

Artemis deflated, his hat sagging to one side. He made a grunt, and Selena removed her hand. “Fine.” He straightened up and cleared his throat. “Greece. The eighties. Your mother, my sister, and myself came to the ancient country on the trail of the Crystal Heart and—can I at least make pictures for this?” he whined.

Selena rolled her eyes and waved a hand. “Go ahead. But again, bare bones.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Artemis whipped his wand out. “Lulamoon!

A bubble appeared over the table, pearly smoke swirling inside of it until it formed three figures, their features growing more defined with each passing second. Sunset recognized the younger versions of Artemis and Selena; neither of them had any significant changes, save for Artemis’ missing goatee. The third girl Sunset had only seen in the pictures around the house. She looked like a female version of Artemis, or perhaps a grown up version of Trixie, only slightly less smug. She had waist length silver hair, bright green eyes, and the same mischievous smile Artemis always wore. On her head was a blue witch’s hat with a wide brim.

“There were the three of us,” Artemis continued, “three of the most talented and good looking adventurers in the world! We spent weeks following myths and legends about the Crystal Heart, finally tracking it to a city on Greece’s coast.”

He waved his wand, and the image changed to a town sitting by the water. It was grimy and dust ridden, with swollen grey clouds hanging overhead. It certainly wasn’t something to put on a postcard.

“Unfortunately for us, the Sirens had gotten there first, and were already spreading their magic. Everyone in town was on edge and ready to snap at the drop of a hat.” Artemis winced and rubbed his shoulder. “And I mean that quite literally. I walk past a guy, the wind knocks his hat off, next thing I know, I’m being assaulted.”

“You bumped into him,” Selena corrected.

“My point still stands. Anyway, with the natives acting extra hostile to tourists, it was hard to procure information on the Crystal Heart. Fortunately, finding the Sirens was a bit easier.” With another wave of his wand, the image in the bubble melted and reformed, depicting the three girls who hadn’t aged a day between the bubble image and their picture in the newspaper. They sat on three makeshift thrones made from white wood and pillows, and had a crowd of people surrounding them, offering baskets of fruit and bread.

Artemis wrinkled his nose in disgust. “They weren’t exactly subtle in their use of power. I don’t know how long they’ve been around, but they’ve been piggybacking off of a number of human conflicts, literally adding their voice to the dissent, then feeding off the negative energy. They had enough power to put the entire city under their thrall right when they arrived.”

“Hypnotism?” Sunset asked.

“Not quite yet. The people still had free will. Their will was just skewed to make whatever the Sirens wanted take first priority.”

“All while acting like complete jerks toward one another,” Selena added.

Artemis nodded and crossed his arms. “Needless to say, trying to boot them out the old fashion way was… ill thought out.” He lazily waved his hand, and the bubble showed the three adventurers fleeing from an angry mob complete with pitchforks and torches.

Selena took over. “We spent the next few nights sleeping on the outskirts of town. Since we couldn’t take on the Sirens directly or find the Heart, we would have to wait for them to make the first move.”

“It took time, patience, and some clever illusions from yours truly,” Artemis said with a self-important grin, “but we finally followed the Sirens out to a remote island. It was there, in an underground cavern, that we found the Crystal Heart.” With a flourish of his wand, a brilliant blue and white diamond appeared over the table. True to it’s name, it was cut into the shape of a heart, and gleamed in an unseen light. Just looking at it filled Sunset with a cozy warmth.

The image changed again to show the two groups squaring off against each other. “What followed after,” Artemis said excitedly, “was a death-defying battle for the ages!”

“It was a game of magical keep-away,” Selena whispered.

“A game that we won!” Artemis rubbed his ears. “Although I went temporarily deaf thanks to their maniac screeching. But our magic and teamwork trumped theirs! It was Apalla’s crafty escape artist skills that got us out of there.”

“Apalla?” Sunset asked.

“My aunt,” Trixie said.

Artemis sighed wistfully. “My sister could get out of anything if she wanted to. Because of her, we got off that island before the Sirens did, and I was able to put up my barrier spell. A spell that should have held as long as I drew breath.” The image bubble dispersed, and Artemis started pacing again. “Now they’re free, and I can only assume they’re going to pick up where they left off.”

Sunset hummed, processing everything she had been told. Perhaps I should start listening to him more. Sirens and magical artifacts. Sunset had thought the strangest thing to happen to this world was herself. Turns out she was just a new player in an old game. “So, where is the Heart?”

“I sold it to the Canterlot museum,” Artemis said casually.

Sunset gaped at him. “You sold a magical artifact to a museum?”

“Yep. Sunset, if you saw it’s beauty in person, you would understand why. Yes, it’s magical, but it’s also a priceless artifact of history. I can’t just keep it to myself. Besides, its primary function is to spread happiness and joy. It does a much better job doing that in a museum than in my store.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Just looking at the picture had made Sunset feel delightful.

Trixie asked, “So, what did you do with the money?”

Artemis ruffled her hair. “Put it into your college fund. You’re welcome.”

Selena stood from her chair. “We should probably put in an anonymous tip to the museum that someone might try to steal the Heart.”

Artemis ran a finger down his goatee. “Yes, that should make it a little harder on them. They’ll be here in a few weeks, which doesn’t give us a whole lot of time to plan.” He stretched a hand out to Selena. “Come, turtle dove. We have much to discuss.”

Selena giggled as he whisked her away from the kitchen, leaving Sunset and Trixie alone.

Trixie smiled from ear-to-ear. “Trixie has the coolest parents ever! Someday, she’ll go on adventures just like they did.” She glanced to Sunset. “You can be Trixie’s sidekick if you want.”

“Not in this lifetime.”

“Suit yourself. Trixie is going to see if she can assist in saving the world!” She sprung from her chair and sprinted after her parents.

Sunset looked at the newspaper again, examining the picture of the Dazzlings. The more she looked, the more they felt familiar, like they shared a certain bond with Sunset. She shook her head and headed for the stairs. Bond or not, this was one fight she had no intention of joining.

7. Frenemy Mine

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“So, the Dazzlings are actually evil sirens?”

“Yep.”

“And they want this Crystal Heart thingy to power themselves up and take over the world?”

“Pretty much.”

Six pairs of eyes stared back at Sunset, each filled with varying degrees of shock and amazement, and in the case of Fluttershy, fear.

“That’s pretty hardcore,” Rainbow said.

The Spectacular Seven sat in Sugarcube Corner, having picked a table tucked away in the back. A spread of pastries sat in front of them, most untouched after Sunset began explaining what Artemis had told her last night.

Applejack rhythmically tapped a finger against the table. “So, does that mean we’re puttin’ the fate of the world in the hands of Trixie and her parents?”

Sunset shrugged. “Hey, they stopped the Sirens before. Who says they can’t do it again?” She took a sip of water to ease her parched throat, then started on a strawberry scone.

“Still,” Rarity said, tapping a finger against her cheek, “I feel like there’s something we could do to help.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie raised a hand. “We have magic now, too! We could totally swoop in and go pow, right to the Dazzlings’ faces!”

Sunset snorted. “What, like superheroes? You girls grow horns and wings when you play music, but that doesn’t make you superheroes. Besides, for all we know this could be some passing thing until the Equestrian magic in you just, I don’t know, runs out.”

“Could it work like that?” Twilight asked.

“I dunno. They’re humans with pony magic; who knows what’ll happen?”

“That’s why we were running tests. Which reminds me, I have a new idea, but it’s going to require a few blood samples—”

The collective chorus of, “No!” quickly shut Twilight down into her seat. Sunset stroked her hair, trying not to laugh. “Maybe we should hold off on the tests for a bit.”

Twilight muttered something about stifling her scientific mind and started moodily chewing through a cookie. The humor of seeing Twilight dejected wore off quickly, and Sunset brainstormed a way to cheer her up, or at least get her mind off magical science.

She groaned inwardly as her thoughts stopped on one particular subject. “So…” Sunset swallowed her petty demeanor. “Did you have fun with Moondancer yesterday?”

Twilight rose out of her slump and smiled. “Yeah. We walked around uptown and got cupcakes from this little pastry shop—”

Pinkie made a small, “Harrumph.”

“—then we went ice skating.” She looked down at her cookie, but continued to smile. “I fell a lot.”

“I’m glad you had fun.” Sunset counted that as a half truth. Was she glad Twilight had fun? Yes. Was she bitter that said fun was had with Moondancer? Only a little.

Why didn’t you ever take her for ice skating? Because I don’t know how to skate! Then you both could have fallen down and laughed about it!

Sunset blocked the taunting voice in her head. “Maybe you and I can do something special next weekend. Maybe hang out at the mall?”

In an unexplainable way, Sunset knew she would dread Twilight’s answer. Her smile was genuine, her eyes bright, but the second Twilight opened her mouth, Sunset’s entire body tensed.

“Actually, Moondancer thought it’d be a great idea to have a day for all of us to hang out. We could all go to the mall together!”

Hayseed, ponyfeathers, rotten Tartarus below! “Yeah, that sounds like a fun plan!” Sunset said, her voice raised an extra octave. “Doesn’t that sound like fun, girls?”

“Sure does,” Applejack said, her eyes pointed to the front door. “Too bad Ah’ve got a lot of farm work planned next weekend. Y’all know how it goes.”

“Actually…” Rarity twisted a finger around a lock of hair. “Flash and I have a… prior engagement on Saturday.”

Pinkie gasped and pointed. “I knew you two would get together after the ball!”

Rarity tried to hide her pink cheeks behind her mug of hot chocolate. “Don’t be silly. We’re just seeing a movie together. We’re not an item.”

“Yet,” Sunset said, smirking in satisfaction. Perhaps the poor, lovestruck dope would finally find a good girl this time. “Well, what about the rest of you.” Do not leave me alone with Moondancer!

Fluttershy pulled on her longer bang. “I’m really sorry, girls. But I already promised Pinkie I’d give Gummy a check up.”

Pinkie nodded fervently. “Yep. Can you believe most veterinarians won’t look at baby alligators? Good thing Fluttershy is super-duper awesome!”

Sunset’s pleading eyes fell onto Rainbow, but the blaise look on her face already told Sunset she’d find no backup there.

“I just don’t wanna go,” Rainbow said flatly.

I hate you, Dash.

Twilight wilted momentarily but sprouted back up. “So I guess it’s just the three of us,” she said to Sunset. “We can still have plenty of fun. Besides, I really want you two to get along.”

“What are you talking about? We’re practically best friends already!” Sunset said, still fighting to get her voice to normal. I’ve lost my touch at lying.

It was enough to convince Twilight at least. The rest of the girls just smirked in amusement.

*******

Sunset had a whole week of school to suffer through before her play date with Moondancer. Once Artemis and Selena had told her about the Sirens, it seemed the only thing on most of the student’s minds were the Dazzlings and their music. Either she hadn’t cared to notice before, or their influence spread like wildfire.

Having learned from their previous mistakes, Artemis knew attacking the Sirens directly would only paint himself as the villain. For now, his and Selena’s main objective was to make it as hard as possible for them to get the Crystal Heart. In the meantime, they would track the Sirens’ progress while working on a plan to reseal them.

Like Artemis, Sunset found herself wondering how the Sirens escaped from a deserted island surrounded by a forcefield. Part of her wanted to attribute it to Artemis being not as good at magic as he thought, a trait that seemed to run in the family. However, she had seen first-hand some of the feats he was capable of. She rubbed her stomach, remembering when he had sawed her in half upon their first encounter. When he stopped goofing around, he could do incredible things.

So how were the Sirens walking free?

The only answer Artemis had drawn was that someone had set them free. That theory meant someone incredibly powerful had to have intentionally released them, taking down the barrier without Artemis noticing. Of course, he had managed not to notice Sunset and Princess Twilight’s showdown, so it remained feasible. That added the questions of who set the Sirens free and why?

Sunset paused her train of thought and slowly came back to her AP English class. This wasn’t her fight. Why was she spending so much time pondering this? She cared and hoped the Lulamoons could stop the Sirens and whatever sinister plot they had up their sleeves. But she had more important things to worry about.

For instance, as her subconscious mind now liked to remind her constantly, what the hay was she going to do after graduation? As welcome as she now felt, Sunset had no intention of living with the Lulamoons and working in the emporium for the next two years. And when the portal opened up at the time, did she even want to go back? Going back meant looking Celestia in the eye and admitting, once again, that everything Sunset had done in the past had been wrong. Sunset was sure she could get over that part, but there still remained the issue of sharing a dimension with Princess Twilight Sparkle.

Sunset shuddered in disgust. She held onto the urge to punch the princess in the face the next time they met.

Third and finally, when the portal opened, Sunset would have to say goodbye to everyone here that she had come to love. Her friends, her foster family, Twilight… The thought of it made her heart tighten. But the thought of never seeing Equestria again gave her equal pain.

In the end, she would have to give up something.

The bell rang, dismissing the students for lunch. Sunset packed her bag, moving slow so she could massage her head. Too much thinking. You’re just giving yourself a migraine. She stepped out of the classroom and headed for the cafeteria, wondering if it was too much to ask for Pinkie to be quiet.

Arriving at the lunch table, Sunset found Pinkie’s volume level was the least of her concerns. Both Moondancer and Trixie had taken seats next to her friends. You know, it’s hard to be the Spectacular Seven when there’s nine of us.

She dropped into the chair next to Moondancer, forcing Twilight to sit on Sunset’s left when she arrived. Moondancer and Sunset exchanged pleasant smiles while their eyes traded silent jabs.

Rainbow sat across from Sunset and spoke first after initial greetings were through. “So, gonna be honest, I kinda got curious enough to listen to some of the Dazzlings songs. I gotta say, not impressed.”

Trixie threw her hands up. “Finally, someone agrees with Trixie!”

Applejack ran a hand against her forehead. “Phew. Ah thought Ah was the only girl whose curiosity got the best of her. Yeah, they sound okay, but Ah don’t see why everyone else is goin’ gaga over them.”

“I personally find their voices a musical treat for the cultured ear,” Moondancer said. “Which is saying something, because as a matter of course, the pop and rock and roll genre is a degenerate and garbled mess of sounds trying to pass as something akin to music.” She clapped her hands together and held them to her chest. “Their voices, however, are a melodic harmony words cannot describe.”

“Oh I bet you could if you tried hard enough,” Sunset said.

Pinkie eagerly raised her hand. “Can I try?”

“Please don’t.”

Trixie sighed and picked up her sack lunch. “Well, Trixie has to go put up with more talk about how great the Dazzlings are from her friends.” She made eye contact with Sunset, glanced over to Moondancer, then back with a small shake of her head.

Sunset nodded, savvy enough to understand the message. Still, it meant a change in subject for the rest of her friends. “So, who’s ready for the musical showcase next month?”

Rainbow pumped her fist. “Oh yeah! I’m gonna remind the school why Rainbow rocks!” She played an air guitar and banged her head, ponytail flipping wildly about.

Applejack twirled a finger, her face deadpan. “Five whole minutes of you showing off for the entire school. Can’t wait.”

“Actually, I’ve gotten my guitar solo to six minutes now,” Rainbow said smugly.

“Great. Six minutes of our lives we won’t get back.” Applejack snorted as Rainbow took her stetson and shoved it further down her head.

“I’m really excited too,” Twilight said, bouncing in her seat. “Mrs. Carol wants the school orchestra to perform at the end, so this will be my first performance for the school!”

“That’s awesome!”

“How extravagant!” Sunset and Moondancer said over each other. They shared sweetly poisonous smiles again.

Pinkie gasped and reached over to grab Twilight by the shoulders. “You’re going to play in front of the entire school! That’s so super swell! You must be so excited! You must be so nervous! Is there a word for that?” She gasped again. “You must be so nervouscited!”

Sunset rubbed her temple. “Pinkie, please remove that word from your vocabulary forever.”

“Awww.” She slumped back to her side of the table. “You never let me have any fun.”

*******

“Shouldn’t you tell Moondancer about the Sirens?” Sunset realized how hypocritical that sounded when she had just told her friends to keep their magic tests a secret. But this was a matter of safety. As much as Sunset didn’t like her, she didn’t want anything bad to happen to Moondancer.

Trixie sat up on her bed, dropping her textbook into her lap. “Trixie did. In fact, Moondancer already knew the whole story. But since she doesn’t have any magic in her, she’s still vulnerable to their effects.” Trixie sighed. “She’s already been infected by their black magic. If she came over, I’m sure father could put a protection spell over her, but she’s always busy with something after school.” Trixie rolled her pencil between her fingers. “Which reminds Trixie, how come your friends, or you for that matter, don’t seem to be affected?”

Sunset leaned against Trixie’s doorframe and tilted her head back. Why hadn’t Rainbow and Applejack started to fall in love with the Sirens like everyone else? The answer presented itself as obvious. “Because they’ve been touched by magic. The Elements of Harmony. It’s probably impossible for them to fall for any mind control now.”

“What about you?”

Sunset cringed. “Well… I touched magic too. Bad or good, I guess it blocks out the Sirens’ influence.”

Trixie gave her a dark smile. “Guess that black magic was good for something after all.”

“Good night, Trixie.” Sunset turned on her heel and stalked to her room.

“Oh come on, Trixie was joking!”

Sunset shut her door and pressed her back to the mirror hanging on the other side. “She’s lucky she didn’t add ‘no offense’ to that.” Still, Sunset supposed she should be grateful. Whether it came from putting on the crown or being hit by a rainbow beam, at least she could count on not being mind controlled.

She bit her lip. She was safe. Her friends were safe. What about Twilight? Until she had seen Rainbow transform, she had never been exposed to magic. Luckily, Twilight didn’t use the radio very often, and only listened to public broadcasting when she did. Sunset made a mental note to see if Artemis could cast a protection spell around Twilight just to be safe.

Sunset stepped away from the mirror, but a burning hand grabbed her by the wrist. “Or, we could do it instead,” a voice hissed into her ear. The hand yanked her down to the cold ground, and she stared up at her demon. “Hi, Sunny!” it said with false sweetness.

“Ponyfeathers!” Sunset rolled onto her side in time for her demon to kick her away. She rolled across a black floor. Everything around her was black. Only she and her dark half existed in this place.

“There’s still power within you, Sunset.” Her voice drifted hauntingly in her ears, a siren song of its own. “Power that you could wield to stop these little Sirens. To put Moondancer in her place.”

Sunset got to her feet. “I don’t want power,” she said through gritted teeth.

Her demon inhaled deeply, a sadistic grin sliding across her face. “I smell regret. I smell fear. I smell guilt.” She rushed forward, three times larger than Sunset when she closed the space between them. She grabbed Sunset in her claws. “And I smell a liar!” Her hair blazed, licking Sunset’s face with scorching embers. “You still want me—you still need me!”

“No I don’t!” Sunset wiggled and squirmed, but the grip only tightened until she could no longer breathe.

“When all your friends abandon you, when you have nowhere left to turn, when you claw desperately at the mirror begging to go home, you’ll come crawling back to me! You can’t outrun your shadow!”

Sunset’s eyes snapped open. She sucked down gulps of air, like a great weight had just been lifted off her chest. Something wet touched her cheek, and she bolted upright just to find Spot wagging his tail at her. She felt her bed beneath her and a notebook in her lap.

“When did I fall asleep?” She looked out the window. The sun had yet to rise, but her clock read 6:17 A.M. “Well, guess I’m up now.”

“This fear isn’t healthy,” Princess Twilight said, sitting on Sunset’s night stand. “You should tell someone.”

“Tell them what? I’ve already told them everything. I’ll get over it. Eventually…” Repeating that mantra again and again ad nauseum, eventually it had to become the truth. She gathered up her clothes and headed to the bathroom, grateful that Trixie still slept. A thirty minute shower was just what the doctor ordered.

*******

The week progressed, talk of the Dazzlings’ upcoming concert growing louder each day. No one seemed hypnotized, just overly excited, much like the days before one of the school dances. Sunset thanked Celestia when the weekend arrived to escape the talk of pop divas, but dreaded what came next. On Saturday before their rendezvous with Moondancer, Sunset brought Twilight to Artemis. They stood in his study once more, no beanbags thankfully. Artemis sat on his desk, twirling his wand between his fingers.

“From my—”

“Our,” Selena said, walking past the door.

“—Investigations, the Sirens don’t have any true influence over people via the radio. Moderate suggestive properties at best—enough to get people to want to see them in person.” He stood and held his wand up. “Still, dangerous in its own way. Listening to them could lead to an obsession.” He moved over to Twilight and put his wand level to her forehead.

She closed her eyes and flinched back. “This isn’t going to hurt, is it?”

“Nonsense, you won’t feel a thing!” He pushed the wand against her. “Lulamoon!” Twilight’s eyes dilated after a short flash of light. When it passed, she shook her head and stared in astoundment.

“I… just had magic done on me.”

“Yep!” Artemis pocketed his wand. “I’m quite amazing, aren’t I? As long as I’m around, you shouldn’t have to fear the Sirens.” He gave both of them a grave look. “But that isn’t an invitation to go looking for trouble. Let me and Selena handle this.”

Sunset nodded her head. “Don’t worry, we won’t.”

“Good. Now, off with you! Go have fun! And please, tell Moondancer to visit us the next time she’s free.” Artemis said with exasperation.

“Will do.” Sunset took Twilight’s hand and led her away, feeling a small weight lift from her shoulders.

“This is going to be so much fun!” Twilight squealed as they got to Sunset’s motorcycle. “A whole day with just the three of us! We can go shopping and get food and go ice skating and—”

“Yep, it’s gonna be a great time!” Sunset tossed Twilight her helmet with more force than she intended. “Come on, we don’t want to be late.”

They sped off down the street, Twilight hanging on for dear life. Remember, this is all for Twilight. If Moondancer can keep her word, so can I. Moondancer had been pretty good so far about upholding their agreement. She hadn’t sabotaged anything yet, just stolen time away. The least Sunset could do was act cordial.

A Saturday afternoon meant crowds of teenagers swarmed the mall. Finding parking even for a motorcycle proved difficult. Moondancer awaited them just inside the door. She wore a purple coat that matched the highlights of her hair, and a wide, welcoming smile.

“Little star, Sunset! How are you two?” She gave Twilight a long, warm hug, then exchanged a much shorter one with Sunset. “Are you ready for our outing together?”

Twilight nodded enthusiastically. Sunset gave a single dip of her head.

Moondancer clapped her hands together. “Excellent! Let us peruse this middle-class melting pot of boutiques and services. And remember, Twilight, if there’s anything you see you want, I’ll be more than happy to buy it for you!”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. Oh, that’s your game?

“Moony, you know I could never let you do that,” Twilight said.

“Of course, of course. But the offer is always on the table.” Moondancer turned and held an arm aloft. “We’re off, my friends!” She skipped forward, spun around, then moved across the sparkling tiles, sashaying from right to left, dancing to a melody Sunset couldn’t hear.

Twilight caught Sunset’s deadpan expression and gave a sheepish shrug. “You get used to it after a while.”

“I’m still getting used to Pinkie.”

First on the docket were clothing stores, and of course Moondancer brought them to the most expensive one. Sunset still saw no point in ‘window shopping.’ If you couldn’t afford it, why bother torturing yourself by looking at it? Though she supposed for Moondancer, it wasn’t really window shopping.

Sunset ran her fingers against a silk nightgown. A little over-extravagant for her tastes, but she wouldn’t have minded falling asleep in it.

“Sunset, how do I look?”

She turned around, the silk falling out of her limp hand. Twilight stood in front of her wearing a form fitting white dress and holding herself in such a demure way, Fluttershy would have been jealous. Sunset notice that what Twilight lacked in breast size, her hips made up for it judging by the way the dress hugged them.

“Uuhhhh…” Way to ditch me, brain!

“You look like the first lavender flower of spring rising from the snow!” Moondancer said, materializing over Twilight’s shoulder. She gave Twilight a second appraisal. “Actually, no. This color is all wrong for you. Back to the fitting room!” She took Twilight by the arm and retreated.

Sunset’s brain rebooted and she swore under her breath. Moondancer kept the ball in her court, doing things she and Twilight had in common and previously enjoyed. What did Sunset and Twilight have in common? Superior intellect, a love of ice cream, listening to classical music. How could any of those activities be applied here?

Also, note to self: find more activities to do together.

Moondancer continued to play dress up, using Twilight as her doll. While Sunset devised a way to turn this day back in her favor, she played along, putting on fancy skirts and designer shoes she would normally never wear. Moondancer even handed her a dress, and to Sunset’s surprise, it looked good on her.

Twilight picked the next store. She searched the directory for anything interesting, but eventually gave into her instincts and took them to the bookstore. At least here, Sunset had even footing. Sort of. They spent a majority of the time listening to Twilight gush about the newest astronomy guide or historical biography.

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can buy you?” Moondancer asked as they headed for the front door.

“Yeah. I’ve still got a mountain of books to get through before I buy anymore,” Twilight said with a wistful look back. At least Sunset knew what she could get as a surprise present for her.

Sunset got to pick their next activity, and as she had no desire to visit any stores, she picked something only she and Twilight shared. They moved to the center of the mall where a giant chessboard was set up. It took a little while to get all of the kids to stop playing with the pieces, but soon, Twilight and Sunset took their places on opposite ends of the board.

Moondancer waited on a nearby bench. “Good luck, both of you. I expect a grand show.”

Sunset tuned her out. Now, it was just her, Twilight, and their respective intellect and strategy. She popped her knuckles and waited for Twilight to take the first move. She opened by moving one of her central pawns, setting it down with a knowing smile.

Either a King’s Gambit or a Sicilian Defense. I love it when you don’t hold your punches, Twilight. Sunset countered by moving her knight first, putting it within range of Twilight’s first pawn. Like many of their other matches, it dissolved into a counter and re-counter game, each girl trying to out move the other. Sunset prided herself on being able to make the necessary sacrifices for the greater good, while Twilight always hesitated when she had to give up a piece to capture something of Sunset’s.

They hardly spoke a word, their actions and eye contacts speaking for them. Acknowledgement of the other’s tactical prowess, complimenting a well-thought move, the occasional flirtatious wink. The last one was mostly done by Sunset.

She lost track of time, but snuck an occasional glance over to Moondancer. Throughout the whole match, she kept an interested gaze and bemused smile. Sunset admired her patience if anything else.

Twilight and Sunset whittled each other down to a few pieces. The match was decided after Sunset lost her second castle. Twilight put her into checkmate with a bishop and a knight.

Sunset hung her head. “One of these days, I’m going to beat you.”

Twilight moved her pieces back to their proper places. “You won the first time we played, remember?”

“That didn’t count; you gave up!”

Moondancer ran over and gave Twilight a large hug. “Oh, my little star! Shining brilliantly as always! Your moves were precise and graceful! Bold and decisive!” She lifted a hand to the ceiling. “Surely, Minerva favors you on this day!”

“Thanks, Moony.”

“And you, Sunset. You performed most admirably. I learned a lot watching you play,” Moondancer said with an unreadable smirk.

“Uh, thanks?” Something cold crawled down Sunset’s neck, and she suddenly knew how her past enemies felt when she was calculating dark machinations. “So, I guess loser buys hot chocolate today instead of ice cream?”

Twilight licked her lips. “Hot chocolate sounds delicious right now.”

“Allow me,” Moondancer said, giving her purse a little shake. “A treat for the riveting bout you two put on.”

Sunset forced herself to smile. “How sweet of you.” She would have protested more, but her wallet would be grateful somewhere down the line.

One line for hot chocolate and scones later, the trio found themselves gathered around a round table instead of sitting in a booth like usual. Twilight scooched a little closer to Sunset, but the space between them still felt infinitely wide.

Moondancer took a careful sip of her chocolate. “So I turn around and standing behind me in line is Prim Hemline herself. She recognized the dress I was wearing was one of her originals. So we start talking and I told her I was in Paris for a little modeling. Of course, she saw my natural talent and asked me to model her new line of dresses. One of my best days all in all.”

“That’s so exciting!” Twilight said.

“Yeah, what are the odds you run into a famous fashion designer in the middle of a random pastry shop in Paris?” Sunset said, stirring her drink.

“Well, perhaps it wasn’t a random pastry shop. I just chose at random… from a list of the best shops in town.” She took another sip. “But enough about me. Anything exciting happen that you haven’t told me about in your letters, Twily?”

“I don’t know. I already told you about the science fair and the Winter Ball. Those were the most exciting things I can think of.”

“Ah yes, your school dance.” Moondancer looked over at Sunset. “That’s where the student body attempted to persecute you for misdeeds, correct?”

Sunset shifted an eye over to Twilight. How much did you tell her?

Twilight nervously blinked twice. Not too much. Maybe.

“I can’t help but wonder what sort of transgressions you partook in that would rouse the ire of most of the school. None of Twilight’s friends appear to be agitators.” She sipped again and gave Sunset a level look. “Though I suppose you do wear that rebellious look quite well.”

“Moondancer,” Twilight said quietly.

Sunset put a hand up. “I did some things I’m not proud of. But my work at the dance was me trying to make up for it.” She pierced Moondancer’s steady gaze with one of her own. “I learned my lessons.”

Moondancer’s expression didn’t change. “Indeed. A lesson learned is a lesson earned.” Her entire face changed to that of a doting mother. She took a napkin, reached over and dabbed at Twilight’s nose. “Twily, you have whip cream on you.”

Twilight rubbed her nose when Moondancer finished. “Thanks.” She squirmed in her seat. “Actually, I think that hot chocolate went right through me. I’ll be back.” She stood and hurried toward the restrooms.

Sunset watched her go until she was out of earshot, then whipped around to Moondancer. “Are you trying to make me mad?”

Moondancer propped her chin on top of her folded hands. “Is it working?”

Sunset took a deep breath. “No. It’s not. I’m not letting you get under my skin.”

“Oh? That’s good to know.” Her unreadable smile returned. “I heard you used to have quite the nasty temper, Sunset.”

Guard doubled, Sunset asked, “Really? What else have you heard?”

“Oh, this and that,” Moondancer said with a wave of her hand. “Your fellow students have a lot to say about you. It’s difficult to discern fact from fiction. But as I told you before, I find your character dubious at best. However…” She moved her mouth behind her hands. “The more I examine you, the more… interesting you become.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow and leaned her body back. “Interesting?”

“Yes. How does one get from queen of the school, to shunned outcast, to where you’re sitting now? How do you go from hateful and hated to… courting Twilight Sparkle?”

“Through a long and painful road,” Sunset said, keeping her voice even.

“Perhaps. But I’ve found that zebras don’t change their stripes.”

Sunset balled her fists. “You think a little second hand information and staring tells you everything about me?”

“Oh, not everything. But a lot. I can tell you were a lonely child growing up. Either your parents didn’t love you or didn’t have enough time to spend with you. So you shunned everyone else and focused on making yourself the center of attention through power. Then, to hold onto that power, you used fear and manipulation. But something happened and you lost that power you clung to so tightly. But I still see it in your eyes. And in the way you play chess. You’re not afraid to crush or sacrifice anyone in your way.”

Sunset fought to keep her face stoic, but Moondancer’s words cut dangerously close to home. Aside from the magic and world hopping, she had practically nailed Sunset’s past story. Sunset breathed steadily through her nose. “You still don’t know everything about me. I’ve changed. I’m in a much better place now.”

Moondancer’s lips rose above her hand again. “‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’”

Sunset raised her hands and pressed them into the table. “All right, princess, you wanna go right now?”

“‘Go’?” Moondancer raised an eyebrow. “Are you challenging me to a duel of some sorts?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, I am! How about you and I play a match of chess? Let’s see what I can’t learn from you.”

Twilight came back, a smile on her face. “Hey, girls, what did I miss?”

Instantly, the negative energy flowing around the table dissipated. Moondancer moved her hands and beamed at Twilight. “Nothing much. But Sunset seems eager to make up for her earlier loss, so I am going to be her next opponent in chess.”

Twilight gasped. “Oh, that’ll be great! I’ll get a fresh perspective on both of your strategies. It’ll be so much fun!” She drained the rest of her drink and sprung from her chair again. “Come on, let’s go.”

Sunset finished her cup and slammed it onto the table before shooting Moondancer one last challenging stare. They moved back to the board, devoid of any children needing to be shooed away.

This time, Sunset faced Moondancer on the other side of the black and white tiles. She thinks she can read me through the way I play? Then I’ll give her a whole novel!

Picking the white pieces, Moondancer had the first move. She kept a hand under her chin while she thought. Sunset swore Moondancer stared more at her than the board. She moved her first pawn, taking time to ensure it fit perfectly into its square.

Sunset took her turn, following her usual set up to let one of her bishops move freely next turn. She hesitated as she set her pawn down, keeping a hand on it. Moondancer had just watched her play. She no doubt expected Sunset to play in a similar fashion. To take necessary sacrifices whenever she saw an opportunity.

That doesn’t reflect how I act in real life… does it? No, of course not! I would never sacrifice my friends! This is just a game. She took her hand off the pawn and stepped back. Moondancer wouldn’t get to her, not under her skin or in her head.

But as the match progressed, Sunset found herself second guessing what should have been particularly easy moves to take. Moondancer played a defensive game, setting a good wall against her king and making sure most of her pieces could quickly be avenged if one was taken. She offered up bait for Sunset to take, but seeing three moves ahead, Sunset knew it would only be detrimental to her in the long run. Occasionally, Moondancer would move a piece only to move it back the next turn.

She’s waiting, Sunset realized. Most of the pieces remained on the board; only pawns had captured. Neither of them had struck a real blow. She wants me to make the first move. She wants me to prove her point. One look into Moondancer’s eyes confirmed her suspicions. Throughout the entire game, she wore a calm smile, and her eyes held a superior see-all gaze.

Sunset’s turn came around again, and she couldn’t decide on an action. Her knight stood ready to take Moondancer’s rook, but then her own knight would take Sunset’s. Three squares over, Sunset had a pawn that could be taken by Moondancer’s white bishop. If Sunset moved her rook a few paces and Moondancer took the bait, Sunset could take the bishop. It was just a pawn. It was worth it, right?

You can’t win this game without sacrifices! It’s strategically impossible! She glared at Moondancer. I know what you’re doing.

Moondancer wiggled her eyebrows. Do you?

It’s just a game! I’m allowed to be ruthless! In fact… Sunset moved her rook into position, firmly setting it down. Moondancer stepped onto the board as soon as Sunset stepped off. She nudged her bishop forward a single space instead of the full three it took to reach Sunset’s pawn.

So, she’s not stupid.

Moondancer tipped her head to the side. This is the best you can do?

I’m just getting started! She moved her knight to take Moondancer’s rook, and as predicted, Moondancer captured Sunset’s knight with her own. What followed was a lightning quick exchange of moves and captures. Sunset beat into Moondancer’s defensive line, losing several pieces, but opening the path to the king.

With half her key pieces missing, Moondancer switched to the offensive. She left her own king with little defense, but persistently dogged after Sunset’s, making it impossible for Sunset to target her. Sunset didn’t switch to a defensive strategy, she just tried to outmaneuver Moondancer, creating an elaborate dance across the field.

Turn after turn, they cornered the other’s piece or moved their own out of danger. Sunset had no more pieces she could sacrifice. Everything mattered now. As the fight dragged on, Twilight danced on her toes, running from one side of the field to the other to examine each of their moves, sucking in air at the excitement.

Sunset placed her last knight on a square in radius of attacking Moondancer’s remaining bishop. If Moondancer moved it, Sunset could put her rook in front of Moondancer’s king for a check.

“Oh dear,” Moondancer said, the first words spoken the entire game. She quietly scanned the field for a few minutes, then crossed an arm in front of her middle and bowed. “I concede defeat.”

Sunset slouched over, adrenaline fading fast. “What?”

“I know when I am bested. You play this game marvelously, Sunset. Kudos on your victory.”

“But… I…” Sunset sighed and ran a hand across her face. “What is with you people and just giving up?” Twilight’s tackling hug, lifted her up from her disgruntled spiral.

“Sunset, that was great! You looked so focused out there.” She ran over and hugged Moondancer too, sucking away what little feeling of victory Sunset had. “You played really well, too! Have you been practicing?”

“Oh, a little here and there. I miss having you as a partner though. No one else can push me to my mental limits.” Moondancer raised her head to Sunset. “Though, Sunset might be a good contender.”

Sunset crossed her arms. She didn’t… throw the match, did she? No, she put way too much effort into this just to lose on purpose. Then again, Moondancer’s entire reason to play seemed to just be so she could prove a point. Sunset looked into Moondancer’s eyes, determined to discover something herself.

She wore her mask well, better than anyone Sunset had intimidated thus far. But behind the smug confidence, Sunset could see something. A crack in the Shakespearean veneer. Just like her defensive wall around her king, Moondancer was trying to protect something.

Rich girl. Busy dad, absent mom. Comes from a family with unusual abilities and inherited none of it. Sunset smiled at Moondancer. That’s right, two can play at this game. You’re not as great an actress as you think.

8. Dazzling Dissonance

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Sunset came home with a sore butt and knees from falling so much during her first ice skating session. After the chess match, Moondancer had insisted on going to the ice rink at the back of the mall. Twilight eagerly agreed, offering to teach Sunset how to skate. While it gave plenty of reason for physical contact between the two, Sunset remained silently annoyed at Moondancer’s jumps and twirls around them.

Fancy footwork aside, Sunset had an enjoyable time with Twilight’s arm around her. Standing on the ice skates alone took the better half of an hour. Sunset thought learning to stand on two legs had been hard; standing on two thin blades of metal proved downright insane. Twilight laughed everytime Sunset fell but helped her up in a heartbeat. Sunset let Twilight have her fun since that would be the only time she was more coordinated than Sunset.

Walking through the front door, Sunset realized she had forgotten to tell Moondancer to see her extended family. Oh well, I’ll tell her on Monday. Spot welcomed her home first, sniffing her boots and rolling over when Sunset put her hand down. She scratched his belly, then carried him upstairs, stopping at the door to the study where she found all three Lulamoons and several floating books.

Selena looked up from the crumpled notes she had in her hand and smiled. “Hello, Sunset. How was the mall?”

“Fun.” A book floated past her. “So, what are you guys up to?”

Artemis tossed a book into the air and snatched a different one. “Putting that spell on Twilight made me realize we don’t have a proper counterspell against the Sirens’ magic. That was merely a precautionary defense. I’m not sure if it’ll work on people who have already been manipulated. Moreover, that spell won’t work on a larger scale. They’re influencing people by the thousands.”

“Once we seal them away, the spell should wear off eventually,” Selena said. “Theoretically at least.”

“And how are you going to seal them away?” Sunset asked.

Artemis swept his hat off his head. “I’m going to create another pocket dimension and keep them nice and safe in here. You know what they say: keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” He pushed his hair back and put the hat back on. “Yes, we have the means, just not the method. We can’t just march up and fight them. Learned that the hard way. And unless we break the spell they already have on half the youth of the country, we can’t just make them ‘disappear’ without raising some sort of alarm.”

“Trixie doesn’t see why not. It’s not like anyone could prove we did anything.”

Artemis glanced at Selena. “She’s not wrong.”

Selena didn’t look up from her notes. “We’ll call that plan B.”

*******

With the Dazzlings’ concert on Friday, they were the only thing most students at Canterlot High talked about. Anyone who hadn’t heard them sing was quickly indoctrinated. Their music played in between classes and during lunch. By Wednesday, if Sunset never heard ‘Under Our Spell’ again it would be too soon.

“They’re not exactly being subtle, are they?” Twilight said during their sixth period. Sunset took comfort in knowing Twilight found them equally irritating. Ms. Vector, however, seemed to think they made great learning music since she made no effort to stop Lemon Hearts from blaring them out her Ipod.

“They’re not even in town yet and everyone’s on the verge of being obsessed with them,” Sunset said, disgusted. “Flocks of sheep.”

“It’s like the Greek myth of the Sirens, actually,” Twilight said. “A Siren's voice was so alluring, it was like hypnotism.” Twilight frowned. “But at the end of their song, sailors would meet their deaths. At least, in some variations.” She returned to their math problems. “I just can’t believe Sirens are real. Gosh, if I could get them to sit down and answer some of my questions! Are they really the Sirens from mythology? If they are, does that mean all the other myths are real too?”

“A threat to everything we love and hold dear, and you want to ask them questions.” Sunset pinched Twilight’s cheek. “You’re so cute when you’re being nerdy.”

Twilight pretended to bite at Sunset’s fingers. “I’m just as concerned as you are. That doesn’t stop me from being curious though.”

Twinkleshine turned around and shushed them. “I can’t hear the Dazzlings!”

Twilight lowered her voice. “I’ll be glad when this is all over though. Do the Lulamoons have a plan to stop them yet?”

“Define ‘plan’. Artemis is going to do reconnaissance tomorrow night when they arrive. Aside from that, they’re kinda stuck. Trying to deal with them publically will just backfire. And with everyone watching their every movement, it’ll be almost impossible to do it privately too.”

”So what can they do?”

Sunset tapped her pencil against her desk. “Right now, they’re banking on the idea that they’ll steal the Crystal Heart. With tightened security around the museum, Artemis is hoping they’ll get caught in the act.”

“Well, I guess that’s better than nothing.” She bit her lip. “I don’t like this. Knowing something bad is going to happen but not being able to do anything about it.”

“What can we do about it? Just because the girls come preset with special effects when they play music now, doesn't mean we can go toe to toe with ancient evils.” Sunset rubbed her chin. “Although, when I say it like that, it sounds pretty awesome.”

Twilight sighed. “I know. I’m just worried about Moondancer and anyone else who isn’t protected by magic. I don’t want anything bad to happen.”

Sunset wrapped an arm around her. “It’s gonna be fine. If Artemis and Selena beat them before, I’m sure they can do it again.”

“Sunset! Twilight!” Ms. Vector barked. “Stop talking, and do your work! You’re interrupting—” The school bell went off, releasing them for the day. “Oh, well, I guess class is over. Whatever you didn’t finish is homework for tonight.”

“I might just bring earplugs on Friday,” Sunset said as they walked out the classroom. Vinyl Scratch walked by them, dubstep blasting from underneath her headphones. “She’s got the right idea.”

“Twilight, oh Twilight!” a melodic voice called.

“Speaking of ear grating noise,” Sunset whispered to herself. From down the hall glided Moondancer.

“Little star, guess what I obtained through my various social connections.”

“Umm…”

Moondancer pulled out two tickets from her purse. “Ta-da! Tickets to the Dazzlings’ concert! An evening of music just for the two of us! Box seats even!”

Is this sabotage? This feels like sabotage.

“Wow, Moony, I don’t know what to say.” Twilight tapped her fingers together. “It sounds like a lot of fun but.. Uh, let me talk to Sunset for a second.”

Taking her cue, Sunset linked arms with Twilight and took her down the hall before Moondancer could protest. “Yeah, so I hate to be that girlfriend. But no.”

“I figured you were going to say that.” Twilight took a deep breath, the kind where Sunset knew she wasn’t going to like what was said next. “Sunset, you’re not… jealous I’m spending time with Moondancer, are you?”

“What? No! Of course not!” Sunset said loudly.

Twilight crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow in a way very reminiscent of Sunset.

Gee, I wonder what tipped her off? Sunset folded her arms and leaned against the lockers. “Okay, just a little. Have you met me? I don’t know what else you expected.”

“I expect you to be mature about this,” Twilight said with a scolding wag of her finger. “Moondancer and I are just friends.”

“I know that. That’s why I let you go out with her.”

“Let me?”

Sunset facepalmed. “You know what I mean, Twilight. Besides, this isn’t even about that.” She got off the locker and put her hands on Twilight’s shoulders. “I don’t want you going to that concert because it’s dangerous. One, the riots, and two, I don’t know if that spell will hold up if you’re standing right in front of the Sirens.”

Twilight looked down, considering Sunset’s words. “That’s fair, I guess. I just feel bad.”

“Hey, if you don’t go, Moondancer probably won’t go, so you’re protecting her too.”

“You’re right. This is probably the safest option. But what do I tell her?”

“Study date.” Sunset and Twilight walked back to Moondancer, casually fanning herself with her tickets.

“Sorry, Moony, I already made plans for a study date with Sunset.” Twilight said, her expression tight.

“On a Friday?”

“It’s also a sleepover,” Sunset added.

Moondancer gave her a wary look.

“Adult supervised!” Twilight quickly threw in, sweating and blushing.

Moondancer pursed her lips for a moment, then shrugged. “Disappointed? Yes. But I shall respect your previous engagement.” She waved her tickets. “What am I going to do with this extra concert ticket though?”

A line of guys appeared behind her, starry-eyed and hopeful. Moondancer looked back and shooed them away with a wave of her hand. “Plebeians.”

*******

“Artemis, I don’t like this.” Selena protested but put the headset on and adjusted the microphone. “I should at least go with you for backup.”

Artemis tapped his own headset. “Turtle dove, if we didn’t have two beautiful girls to look after, you know I would say yes.” He took her hand. “Any minute away from you feels like an eternity.”

Selena blushed and looked away. “Don’t try and charm me when you’re about to dive off into danger.”

“It’s just a little stakeout. Hardly what I’d call dangerous.” Artemis took a few steps back and turned his mic on. “Testing, testing. Can you hear me, love?”

“Yes, I can hear you. And if it’s so safe, why can’t I come with you?”

Artemis put on his trusty grin. “Do you think Sunset and Trixie can be left alone in the house together?”

“They’re getting better. Besides, Spot will watch them.”

He laughed. Selena was right. In the two months Sunset had been in their house, Trixie had warmed up a considerable amount. And having a dog for the to bond over (even though they both tried to hide it) helped their relationship even more.

“Just in case something happens, you need to be here for them.”

Selena took a seat on Artemis’ desk. She looked at the books lining the shelves in the back with thoughtful eyes. “You worry me when you talk like that. You used to never make contingency plans. One plan, and if that didn’t work, we’d just wing it.”

“Back then, I didn’t have a daughter and a foster child to raise.” Artemis tried to soften his words with a smile. He never liked sounding this serious. “Everything will be fine though. I’m not actually going into the hotel. I’ll be on the roof, out of sight the entire time.” He pointed a hand to the crystal ball resting on a golden frame. “And you’ll be able to see everything I see through that.”

Selena tapped the ball. “You’ll be fine. I know. I just can’t help but worry. I don’t enjoy sitting on the sidelines.”

Artemis crossed the room and rested a hand on her cheek. “I know you don’t. But you’ll have your time to shine again. And when this is over, you’ll have another story to share with the world.” He bent down and kissed her tenderly. She moved her arms around his neck, locking him in place and turning tenderness into passion.

The door behind them creaked, and they broke apart. Trixie and Sunset tried to duck their heads away, but the attempt was meaningless. “Yes, girls?” Artemis asked.

They opened the door, shamefaced. “Sorry, Daddy,” Trixie said. “We just wanted to see you before you left.”

Artemis raised his hands. “Honestly, girls, I’m just going to do a little stealth work. The big, epic battle comes later.” He swooped over and wrapped both of them in a hug. “I appreciate the concern though.” He stepped into the center of the room and tipped his hat. “Now, mind your mother. Get to bed on time. I’ll see you all in the morning.” He took in all their faces, each of them trying to smile in spite of their concern. He winked and raised his wand. “Lulamoon!

Everything vanished in a plume of smoke, and Artemis spiraled through nothing, sinking down, down, down, until he hit something solid again. The cold night air blew away the residual smoke, and he found himself on the rooftop of The Castle, Canterlot’s most famous and expensive hotel.

“Turtle dove, this is grand wizard. Do you read me? Over.” Artemis said into his com.

A faint crackle, then, “Grand wizard. Really?”

“Too ostentatious?”

“Well, that’s one problem with it. But yes, I can hear you, Artemis. And I can see as well. That’s quite a view.”

Stretching twenty-five stories, The Castle gave a magnificent view of downtown Canterlot. The city lights glowed like fireflies in the dark, illuminating the marble architecture and green parks. Cars crawled below him, mechanical rolly-pollies rolling through night.

A few blocks away, Canterlot Tower loomed over the rest of the city, still twenty-five floors higher than where Artemis stood. The top floors remained dark, masking it with the sky. Artemis made a longing sigh. “Forgive me, Apalla. When this is over, I’ll be a better uncle. I promise.”

“What was that?” Selena asked.

“Nothing, nothing.” Artemis set about navigating the rooftop. The Castle ended in a domed spire that cast an impressive shadow over the rest of the bare roof. Just below him was the penthouse suite, and if he was a betting man (he performed in Las Vegas, of course he was) he guessed that’s where the Sirens stayed.

He placed the tip of his wand against the cement. “Lulamoon.” A pulse of light spread out from his wand and washed over the roof, then snapped back. He felt two surges of power burst into life beneath him with a third a few floors down. “Yep, they’re here.”

“Be careful,” Selena said.

“You worry too much, my love.” He tapped each ear and said, “Lulamoon!” He winced at the sudden jump in the noise level of everything around him. The wind sounded like a hurricane, the cars below like monster trucks, and each conversation was a wild party. “Refocus that… Lulamoon!” The noise fell considerably, but he could still pick up exchanges happening in the hotel. He knelt down and concentrated on the room below him.

“...this one, or this one tomorrow?”

“I don’t care, Sonata.”

“Well, what are you wearing tomorrow?”

Artemis heard the crunch of potato chips. “This probably.”

“Eww, Aria, that’s gross.”

“I’ll have it dry cleaned, geez. Stop sounding like Adagio; it’s annoying.”

Artemis rolled his eyes. “This might turn into a long night.”

“Why, what are they talking about?” Selena asked.

“Absolutely nothing.” He listened to Aria and Sonata bicker back and forth for the next twenty minutes, most of which consisted of childish insults. Remind me again how we almost lost to them? The door slammed open, and a new voice entered the mix.

“We’ve been here an hour and this place is already a mess!”

Ah yes. Her.

“Aria did it!”

“Sonata, you are literally the worst!”

“No, you are!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Girls,” the third voice started sweetly, “as much as I would love to hear this conversation for the umpteenth time… please shut up!

“Sorry, Dagi.”

“Sure, whatever.”

“Thank you. Now according to the ticket manager, we have a sold out show tomorrow.”

Sonata clapped her hands. “Yaaay! It’s going to be so much fun!”

“Quite. I told you this plan would work, Aria.”

Aria scoffed. “Yeah, you keep reminding me every city. I’ll keep being skeptical until the Crystal Heart is sitting in our hands.”

Artemis tensed.

“I can’t believe we circled the whole country just to find out it was where we started,” Aria continued. “Talk about full circle.”

“I don’t know, it’s more of a squiggly square… or a rhombus,” Sonata said.

“Sonata, stop breathing.”

“Ha, I’m not falling for that again!”

Artemis heard two dull thuds and cries of, “Ow!”

“I swear, if you two screw up tomorrow…” She let the threat hang in the air. “We’re on the cusp of victory. One feast with the Crystal Heart will bring us back to full strength, magic or no magic.”

“Then the whole world will be ours to do whatever we want,” Aria said smugly.

“Dibs on Australlia! I’m going to get a pet kangaroo!”

“... Just get ready for bed, both of you. We have a lot to do tomorrow.”

Doors slammed shut and the room lapsed into silence. Artemis drew his lips into a thin line. That had been less helpful than he had hoped.

“Did you learn anything?” Selena’s voice made him jump.

“Nothing definite. They might try to steal the Heart tomorrow.”

“But that’s the concert.”

Artemis stood and rubbed his sore knees. “Exactly. Everyone’s attention will be drawn to the coliseum. They’d have a great alibi, too.”

“Looks like Dagi was right,” a cool voice said from behind. “The hotel has a rat problem.”

Artemis spun around, wand raised. Two pairs of eyes looked back at him from the shadows. They stepped forward, Aria looking annoyed and Sonata confused.

“That’s not a rat. It’s that old guy from a long time ago.”

Artemis bristled. “I wasn’t old then and I’m not old now!”

“Artemis, don’t fight them,” Selena said sternly.

He chose not to respond, keeping his attention trained on two of the Sirens. He chanced a peripheral glance for the third one but found nothing but darkness.

Aria crossed her arms. “Figures we’d find you here of all places. Come to take the Heart from us again?”

“It isn't yours to begin with. I’m here to make sure it stays out of your grubby hands.”

Sonata showed her hands with a triumphant smirk. “Our hands are clean, thank you very much.”

Aria pressed on like Sonata had said nothing. “Last time, you had help and you barely won. You don’t stand a chance.”

“Artemis, get out of there!”

“As I recall, it was a rather decisive battle. Besides, I’ve learned a lot since then,” Artemis said calmly. “I think I can handle you two.” Something cold and hard slammed into the back of his head, sending him to the floor and placing stars in front of his vision.

“Artemis!”

“How about three of us?”

Artemis pushed himself up to his feet. His head throbbed worse than any hangover. “Adagio,” he spat. Behind him, Adagio gave a nasty smile. He turned around. “Well, you haven’t aged a day.”

“And you’ve aged several.” She gave the metal pipe in her hand a twirl. “Did you really think you were being sneaky? I could smell the magic on you a mile away.”

“A mere oversight on my part.” Artemis kept his wand high, raising his other hand to his hat. His eyes bounced between each Siren as they closed in, flanking him from three sides. Before they got too close, he swept his hat off and shouted, “Lulamoon!” White doves soared forth, swooping and pecking at the Sirens. Artemis jumped through an opening in their circle to gain some distance.

He conjured an image of home in his head, but the headache still lingered, making the picture fuzzy. It would be a miracle if he made it back in one piece, but it was better than the alternative.

A dissonant wail broke his concentration and forced him to cover his ears. His doves scattered into the night, leaving the Sirens free to draw in close, circling him like hungry sharks. He took satisfaction in seeing the cuts on their faces and feathers in their hair. He raised his wand, but Aria struck first, grabbing and twisting his wrist until his wand dropped from his hand and rolled away. She followed up with a knee to his stomach, then threw him onto the ground.

Artemis!

Adagio leaned over him, hands on her hips. “Consider this retribution, Artemis. You left us stranded for twenty years on that island. We nearly starved to death.”

Artemis propped himself on one arm, eyes subtly looking for his wand. “I’m curious,” he said after getting his wind back, “how did you manage to escape?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Adagio said with a sultry grin.

“But I thought we didn’t know either.”

Adagio’s grin quickly flipped over at Sonata’s words.

“You kept saying you felt some magic and Aria said you were crazy, then we found a glowy portal and then we were here.”

Aria sighed and facepalmed. “You’ve reached your word quota, Sonata. Stop talking now.”

Artemis’ lips curled up. It was a start.

Adagio finished giving Sonata a death glare and turned her attention back to Artemis. “I hope you’re not as stupid as her and came here alone. Where’s the rest of your little team?”

“Wouldn't you like to know?”

“Showing false bravado? Admirable. But you won’t be singing the same tune when we’re done with you.” Adagio took a breath, and her sisters followed suit. Artemis snapped his hand out, calling his wand back from under the ventilation shaft and threw a barrier around himself just as the Sirens emitted another vocal attack. Even from within, he could hear their harmonized otherworldly wails, see the vibrations disrupting the air in front of their yawning maws.

Artemis kept his hands up, holding his force field aloft while the Sirens screamed. It was now a contest of who would break first. They needed to breathe eventually, but Artemis couldn’t hold a shield against a direct three way attack.

“Artemis, you get out of there right now!” Selena yelled.

“Love to, sweetie, I’d really love to,” Artemis said, the strain taking its toll already. To his left, Sonata stopped to take a breath. Aria and Adagio followed her lead, giving Artemis a window of opportunity. He lowered his shield and prepared to teleport, but a sonic vibration caught him in the side. He flew toward Aria, who punched him in the jaw, making him stagger back to the middle of the circle where Adagio struck him in the chest with the pipe.

“Ha, made you look!” Sonata sang.

Artemis fell to one knee, wheezing and feeling warm blood trickle down his lip. Come on, Lulamoon, you’ve still got a few tricks up your sleeve.

Adagio crossed her arms. “What do you have to say now, Artemis?”

He looked up at her with his boyish grin. “Would you like to play a game?”

“I would!” Sonata yelled, waving a hand.

Adagio rolled her eyes again. “Sure, we’ll humor you.”

“I do love a good sense of humor.” Quick as lighting, Artemis reached into his sleeve and threw an entire deck of cards at Adagio. It hit her square in the face, then broke into fifty-two separate cards that flew around with a wave of Artemis’ wand. “Fifty-two pickup!”

The cards cut into the Sirens’ clothes and skin, shallow but numerous. Artemis twisted his wand in a sideways figure eight, causing the cards to double back on themselves. While the girls shrieked and tried to fight them off, Artemis stepped back to a clear spot.

He clutched his chest, hoping he had enough strength to teleport back home. He said softly, “Lula—”

Adagio hurled her metal pipe with perfect accuracy. It hit Artemis’s right hand, knocking his wand high into the air. The cards lost their vigor and scattered on the wind. Bleeding cuts on her face and hate in her eyes, Aria charged at Artemis.

Artemis reached into his other sleeve and pulled out one end of a multicolored handkerchief. He brandished it like a whip and threw it around Aria’s arm as she drew near. It knotted itself on its own accord and reeled her in, throwing off her balance.

“Mother said never to hit girls,” Artemis said as Aria flew forward. He slammed a fist into her jaw. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.” The handkerchief released Aria as she spiraled backwards. Sonata caught her and held her upright.

“Are you okay?”

Aria shoved Sonata off and ran forward again while Artemis dove for his wand. Adagio’s pointed heel smashed down, snapping it in half, then stepped on his fingers. Artemis’ yell was cut off by Aria’s headlock. She focused her strength into her forearm pressing into Artemis’ windpipe. The handkerchief rose up to whip Aria, but Adagio grabbed it and began to tug. It stretched out for yards, but eventually the other end came out and it fell limp.

“Game over,” Adagio growled.

“Artemis! Artemis!”

Adagio laid eyes on the com set around Artemis’ ear. “Oh, so there’s your backup. Sonata, if you would.”

Sonata skipped over and plucked the microphone off him. “Helloooo?”

“You let go of my husband right now!” Selena screamed.

“Sorry, wrong number.” Sonata tossed it over the side of the roof with a delightfully evil grin. She took the long handkerchief and bound Artemis’ hands in an impressive knot.

Adagio gingerly fingered one of the cuts on her face. “A minor annoyance, nothing more. Old age isn’t becoming of you, Lulamoon.”

Artemis had a number of comebacks, but with Aria crushing his windpipe, none of them could be said. He settled for glaring defiantly.

Adagio breathed deep. “Ah, I can taste your anger already.” She pat his cheek. “But there’s no need to be upset. We’re going to take good care of you.” She smiled at his quizzical expression. “What, you thought we were going to kill you?” She laughed, a throaty cackle that grew louder each second. “Oh no, that would be too easy.” She dug her nails into his cheeks. Artemis saw volcanic fury waiting to explode just beneath a thin veil of calm. “I spent twenty years on an remote island with nothing but those two idiots to keep me company.”

“We’re right here, Adagio,” Aria said.

“Besides, it wasn’t that bad. We found fifty different ways to cook crab! And remember the seashell fort?”

“Word quota, Sonata,” Aria snapped.

The volcanic fury began to melt through Adagio’s facade. “I rest my case,” she said in clipped tones. “So no, I’m not going to kill you. Instead, you’ll get a front row seat to our greatest show yet!” She let go of his face and turned to the Canterlot skyline. “Thanks to all your fancy gadgets and technology, humanity has become a hivemind. An idea becomes a fad, and then a trend, and then everyone wants to be part of it. We sing one song over the radio, then every recording label wants to make us stars. The more the world hears us over the radio and internet, the more they want to come to our concerts.”

She spun around, her feral grin illuminated by the moon. “Thousands of teenagers packed into a crowded, sold-out stadium. Every night is a three-course meal!” She curled her fingers, crushing the air in front of her. “Now just imagine what would happen if we doubled that output of negative energy.”

“It’ll be the biggest feast we’ve ever had,” Aria said with a sadistic grin equal to her sister’s.

“We’re gonna be invincible, we’re gonna be invincible!” Sonata sang.

Artemis choked out, “You’re going to create a bloodbath.”

Adagio’s grin widened. “Oh, I hope so. After tomorrow night, the Crystal Heart will be ours, then all we’ll need is one concert to get enough power, we can get people to do anything we want, even through radio.” She snapped her fingers, and Aria finally let him go. Artemis fell forward onto the dirty rooftop, coughing and wheezing.

“In the meantime,” Adagio said, strolling forward, “you’ll make a nice magical snack to nibble on.”

“Like most trends… you’ll fade away,” Artemis panted. “And no one… will remember you.”

“History is written by the victors, Artemis.” Adagio lifted her boot. “So as far as I’m concerned, we’re already immortal, literally and figuratively.” She brought it down on Artemis’ face. An explosion of pain, then the world faded to black.

Heh… maybe I am too old for this…

9. Overture

View Online

Sleep did not come for Sunset that night. No one in the house slept. She listened to Selena and Trixie weep, then went into the kitchen and warmed up soup for both of them. The family appreciated the gesture, but the soup went untouched.

Sunset didn’t cry, but her stomach heaved and her heart hammered at double-speed. She had been moments away from turning out her light and falling asleep when Selena’s scream paralyzed her. Sunset had raced behind Trixie back to the study to find the crystal ball had gone dark, Selena shaking it with desperation, her face soaked with tears.

Artemis wasn’t dead. Sunset refused to believe that. Selena and Trixie held onto that hope as well. But it didn’t stop the creeping dread nor the air of distress that now permeated every corner of the house. It created a cold, deeper and more bitter than the late winter chill.

The three of them took residence in the living room. Sunset sat in an armchair, knees up to her chin. Selena and Trixie sat curled together on the couch, the forming stroking her daughter’s hair.

“Mom… what do we do now?” Trixie croaked.

The heavy pause spoke for itself. Sunset could see it in Selena’s puffy eyes, the urge to walk out and confront the Sirens herself. “I don’t know. But we’ll think of something.” She looked at the clock over the fireplace. “It’s almost five. You should both try to get some sleep. I’ll call the school and tell them you’ll be absent.”

Sunset shook her head. “No. I’ll go.” She certainly wasn’t up for social interaction or mental stimulation, but she needed to tell her friends. The Sirens had just made things personal.

“Are you sure, Sunset?”

“Yeah.” She let her legs down, feeling her knees pop and the blood circulate freely. “Guess I’ll get ready now.” She stood and stumbled a few steps, muscles tingling at the sudden reuse. Spot remained on Trixie’s lap, reaching up to lick her tears on occasion.

Sunset took an hour long shower, though the chill persisted. Warm and clean outside, cold and sick inside, Sunset almost decided to lay down and go to sleep instead of trudging her way to school. Still, she forced herself to get dressed, then sat on her bed, watching the clock slowly eat up the hour she had left.

“What do we do now?” Princess Twilight repeated Trixie’s question.

“Not sure.” Sunset rubbed at her heavy eyelids. “But… I think a place to start is at the concert.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Probably is. But it’s where the Dazzlings are going to be. Maybe there’s a clue somewhere about Artemis or how they’re going to take the Crystal Heart.”

“But you don’t have a ticket.”

Sunset tugged at her collar anxiously. “No. But I know where I can get one from.”

*******

“No.”

“But, Twilight—”

“I said no.”

In their first shared class of the day, Sunset had picked the farthest lab station from unwanted ears. She had expected some trepidation from Twilight, not outright refusal. But Twilight firmly stared at the textbook in front of her, scowl plain as day while Sunset pleaded her case.

“I don’t think you understand—”

“What I understand is that you want me to extort a ticket from my friend and give it to you, then lie to my friend again so you can go to a concert you just told me I couldn’t and shouldn’t go to.”

“That’s because it’s dangerous!” Sunset said in a heated whisper.

“So? You’re trying to go.”

“Someone has to!”

Twilight looked up, violet eyes hard. “And that someone has to be you?”

“Who else is going to do it?”

Twilight removed a latex glove and rubbed at her eyes. “You just told me Artemis was kidnapped by them. On top of extorting and lying, why would I agree to let you get anywhere near them?”

Sunset paused, tapping a knuckle against her chin. “You know, you’re really cute when you’re protective.”

“Don’t try to change the subject! I’m mad at you!” Twilight snapped.

“I’m not changing the subject. The subject of this part of the conversation…” Sunset snapped her mouth shut as Twilight’s icy stare became sub-zero. “Right. I’m sorry, Twilight, but I need to do something to help.”

“And I love that you do,” Twilight said warmly. The cold edge creeped back into her voice. “The part that makes me mad is the hypocrisy behind it. The concert’s too dangerous for me to go but not for you?”

Sunset held a beaker up to keep an appearance of productivity. Mr. Doodle had given them a few too many side glances. “I told you: I don’t know if the spell will hold up if you’re right in front of them.”

“What about you? What if your magic shield thing doesn’t hold up? What then?”

“Then the girls hit me with another rainbow and I learn friendship all over again.” She set the beaker down and shuddered. “I see your point. But the magic around me isn’t from this world. The source of your magic was Artemis, and now that he’s…” A lump rose up in Sunset’s throat. It proved difficult in pushing back down, but Sunset managed. “Now that he’s indisposed, there’s no guarantee the spell’s active anymore.”

Twilight took the beaker and started adding chemicals to it. “Then aren’t I in danger regardless?”

Sunset bit her tongue. She hadn’t considered that. “M-maybe. But that’s no reason to go charging into the dragon’s mouth.”

“Like what you’re about to do?”

“Stop that!”

Twilight gave a resentful shake of her head and flipped to the next page in her book. “I’ll get the ticket for you, but only because I’m worried about Artemis.”

Sunset stopped herself from cheering. “You’re the best, Sparky!”

“Don’t call me Sparky, I’m still mad.”

“And I swear, I will make this up to you. We’ll do anything you want for Valentine’s Day.”

Twilight made a noncommittal grunt and returned to her chemicals. The remaining class time was lukewarm at best. Twilight gave terse responses to anything Sunset said. Still, at the end after they washed their hands and packed up their belongings, Twilight slipped her hand into Sunset’s and gave it a light squeeze.

*******

Lunch proved no better than the class periods, only instead of tense, the atmosphere around the table was grim. Twilight had gone with Moondancer to have lunch with the theater kids in the drama room, Moondancer’s normal hangout when she wasn’t hovering over Twilight’s shoulder. Everyone else sat gripped to Sunset’s recount of the previous night.

“That’s horrifying,” Rarity said, pushing her full tray of food back. “I can’t imagine what Trixie is going through.”

“Can’t the police do somethin’?” Applejack asked.

Sunset scoffed. “No. First, we’d have to explain why Artemis was on the roof of The Castle in the first place. And second, even if they did investigate, the Sirens could probably spin a story painting them as innocent even without their magic.”

Fluttershy wiped a tear away. “So then, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to the concert to look for clues. Anything to help the Lulamoons out.”

“By yourself?”

Sunset gave a guilty shrug. “It’s not like I have a lot of options.”

Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow exchanged a similar look of guilt. “Well, darling...” Rarity said. She leaned forward, eyes flickering to the table where Sweetie Belle and her friends sat. “You don’t necessarily have to go alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, after you told us about the Sirens, Rainbow, Applejack, and myself learned that our sisters had obtained tickets to the concert.”

Applejack rubbed the back of her neck. “We snatched them up as quick as we could. Luckily, we had the excuse of tellin’ them they couldn’t go because of the riotin’ and such.”

Rainbow tagged in. “But, judging from their expressions—” she pointed a thumb at Applejack and Rarity “—they were like me and didn’t actually get rid of the tickets.”

Sunset sat straight in her seat. “So, you girls could go with me?”

“Technically, yes, we could.” Rarity twiddled her thumbs. “I just feel… dirty about it. I told Sweetie she couldn’t go and now I’m going.”

“Yeah, that seems to be a common theme today,” Sunset muttered. “Listen, I appreciate the gesture, but if it makes you feel guilty, you don’t have to go.”

“What, and leave you there by yourself?” Rainbow asked with personal offense. “That’s not gonna happen.”

“But…”

Applejack crossed her arms and sighed. “Yeah, it’s probably the most dishonest thing Ah’ve done. But it’s for helpin’ a friend. And potentially the world. ‘Sides, it’s not like we actually have to tell them we’re goin’ to the concert.”

Pinkie bobbed her head. “Yeah! We’ll just tell them we’re having a giant sleepover at Sunset’s house while we’re all doing super stealth missions right under the enemy’s nose.” She struck a series of what Sunset guessed were ninja poses.

We?” Rainbow asked.

Pinkie reached into her hair and pulled out two tickets. “Marble and Limestone wanted to go. But I was a responsible big sister and told them they couldn’t because the Sirens are actually evil brainwashing monsters who feed off negativity. Boy, was Limestone mad.” She dropped a ticket onto Fluttershy’s tray.

Sunset blinked. “Did we all just cheat people we care about into getting tickets for a show?”

Everyone but Fluttershy murmured and hung their heads in shamed agreement. Sunset patted Fluttershy’s hand and said, “Stay pure.”

Lunch ended and Sunset moved onto her last period, finding Twilight already seated. “Here,” she said grumpily, handing Sunset the ticket.

“Thank you, babe.” Sunset tucked the ticket into her pocket.

“Don’t ‘babe’ me.”

“When are you going to stop being mad?”

“Tomorrow, when I’m done lying to Moondancer about suddenly being sick, and you come back safely.”

Sunset sighed. “Fair enough.”

Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh,

“You didn't know that you fell.”

Sunset’s eye twitched. She shot a venomous glare at Lemon Hearts, walking into the classroom with her music turned up loud and wearing a Dazzling t-shirt. The realization that she would be in a stadium full of this nonsense hit her like a ton of bricks.

“Out of the fire, and into the dragon’s mouth,” she groaned.

*******

The strongest proof Sunset had that she had changed was her unwillingness to lie. Before, she could do it without batting an eye. As she paced a circle in her room, her stomach coiled and her conscience revolted. Selena had been nothing but nice, and here Sunset was, preparing to lie to her face right after Artemis had fallen into enemy claws. Yes, her intentions were noble, but that didn’t absolve the guilt. Well intentioned or not, Sunset was leaving the Lulamoons in their time of need to dive head first into danger.

“If it makes you feel any better, you’ve done worse things,” she said to herself. It didn’t help. She checked her phone. Twilight hadn’t talked to her since they parted ways after school. The rest of the girls agreed to meet up in front of Canterlot Coliseum, where the concert would be held.

Sunset threw on her jacket and a pair of fingerless black gloves. She looked in the mirror. “Soft as you’ve gotten, you still rock the bad girl look.”

“I’m disappointed in your lying, but good luck,” Princess Twilight squeaked.

Sunset rubbed her temple. “When this is over, it might be time to get professional help.” She slipped out of her room before her reflection could add anything. Downstairs, Trixie and Selena sat at the table, mugs of hot chocolate in their hands. Selena mustered a small smile at Sunset’s appearance. Trixie just stared blankly.

“Hey.” Sunset waved awkwardly. “Are you…” She shook her head. “Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you,” Selena said with a dip of her head. “How are you doing?”

“Okay, I guess. I was just…” Sunset flinched. Even if it had been the truth, it still felt like twisting a knife. “I was just going over to study with Twilight for a little bit. A distraction, you know?” Sunset wished she still had that sledge hammer to give herself a good beating with.

Selena gave a slow nod. If she was angry or disappointed, she showed no sign of it. “Don’t stay out too late, please.”

“Yeah, of course.” She stepped back out of the kitchen. Trixie’s blank stare hardened into a glare at Sunset’s retreat. Sunset couldn’t blame her.

The days had begun to lengthen again. Outside, the sun still gave the world a faint glow. The February wind still proved bitter, forcing Sunset to zip up her jacket. She started her motorcycle and let it warm up. Go to the show, see if I can’t sneak around backstage, find something useful, and leave. Easy plan.

Cars packed the highway into the city. Being a Friday evening, Sunset couldn’t say she was surprised, but she had a suspicion most cars were going to the same destination. Even with her motor skills, it proved a hassle to weave her way through traffic.

Canterlot Coliseum lay at the heart of downtown. Oblong and painted silver and gold, it held a grandiose air. Six columns of light rose to the sky and curled inward to the center, like a dying monstrosity making one last grab for the pale moon floating just overhead.

Sunset parked two blocks away and joined the foot traffic flocking to the coliseum entrance. The crowd around her consisted mostly of teens her age, but she saw many kids with their parents looking just as excited as anyone else. Shirts, hats and balloons with the Dazzlings’ faces were worn by the vast majority, but no one gave Sunset dirty looks for her lack of paraphernalia.

She broke away from the crowd and waited by the main gates. At half past six, the sun gave its final wave and disappeared behind the horizon. Sunset could faintly see her breath under the coliseum lights. Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long before her friends showed up, still looking guilty.

“We better get something good out of this,” Rainbow said.

“Well, there’s plenty of food we can get!” Pinkie said. Her smiled faltered against her friends’ withering stares. “What? It’s a two hour concert; we’re gonna get hungry, right?”

Sunset melded back into the crowd. “Come on, let’s just get this over with.” The courtyard had two bronze statues of football players, one catching a ball and the other pushing forward with the ball tucked under arm. Memorabilia stands flanked the path to the front entrance. Inflated posters of the Dazzlings hung over the doors and ticket counters.

The lines became congested as security checked off tickets. Sunset saw several teenagers hauled off by a mob of guards.

“They’re real! I swear they’re real! Please, let us in!” they screamed. Their protest fell on deaf ears.

Fluttershy shivered. “Oh, please let out tickets be real.”

They pushed up to the check in counter, and to their relief, their tickets were indeed authentic. The burly security guard handed back their stubs. “Field standing is straight ahead.” To Sunset, he said, “Box seats are to the right. Just follow the building around until you see the red carpet. Take the stairs to the top.”

“I forgot these were box seats,” Sunset said once they had moved to the concrete corridor.

“Ah can’t believe Apple Bloom got field tickets. We’ll be right in front of the stage with these,” Applejack said, staring at her stub in wonder.

“Be careful,” Sunset warned. “If things get violent or you start to feel weird, just get out of there. I’m going to watch the concert start from the box, then see if I can sneak around.”

Rarity held her phone up. “We’ll call you if we see anything suspicious.”

“Go Spectacular Seven!” Pinkie cheered, pumping a fist in the air.

“There’s only six of us here,” Applejack said.

“Twilight’s with us in spirit!”

Sunset sighed and broke from her friends. The crowd thinned out more and more as she navigated the circumference of the building. Posters of famous football matches and other concert performances decorated the walls. Concession stands offered a variety of fried and greasy food. Finally, a crimson carpet rolled out under her boots, and she followed it up a curved staircase. It broke out to the second floor, then continued up to the third, and finally to the top where another security guard checked her stub. He moved aside and let her into the box.

There were only two rows of seats in front of the large window whose glass had been retracted. Some of the seats were already filled, and to Sunset’s dismay, she recognized the hair of one of the occupants. “Oh, ponyfeathers, it’s you.”

Moondancer turned around and scrunched her nose. She muttered something in French then said, “What on earth are you doing here?”

Sunset stepped down the aisle and hovered over an empty seat. “Since Twilight is sick, she gave me her ticket so it wouldn’t go to waste.”

“Oh, my little star.” Moondancer let out a dreamy sigh. “She’s far too kind for her own good.”

Sunset leaned close and dropped her voice to whisper. “What are you doing here? I know you know what the Dazzlings really are. Why would you want to come to their concert?”

Moondancer closed her eyes. “I find their music delightfully enchanting. I just had to hear it in person. Besides, they’ve committed no crime so far. Perhaps they’ve learned their lesson.”

“They kidnapped Artemis,” Sunset said, clenching her teeth.

What?” Moondancer’s eyes snapped open. “P-preposterous!”

“It’s the truth. They’re dangerous, Moondancer; you’ve got to believe that. They’re up to something sinister that’s going to threaten everyone.”

A drowsy expression came over Moondancer, like she was trying to wake up. “Maybe… maybe you’re right.”

One by one, the stadium lights switched off, and crowd erupted into cheers. Moondancer jumped to her feet, her sleepy expression replaced by excitement. “It’s starting!”

Sunset moved to the window and looked out over the open stadium. A stage had been set up at one end zone, and green fog drifted out from underneath it.

“Hello, Canterlot!” a voice echoed out of the sound system. “Your Dazzlings are here!” Three columns of smoke erupted on the stage, and from them, three girls strolled out.

Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh,

“You didn't know that you fell.

“Oh-whoa-oh, oh-whoa-oh.”

The one Sunset recognized as Adagio stepped ahead of her sisters and posed with a hand on her hip.

“Now that you’re under our spell.”

Even with the deafening roar of the crowd, Sunset could hear the Sirens’ song plain as day. She looked over to Moondancer, who swayed in time to the music.

Well, she’s a lost cause. Let the records show that I at least tried. Sunset stepped away from the window and retreated up the aisle. No one seemed to notice or care.

“We’ve got the music,

“Makes you move it,

“Got the song that makes you lose it.

“We say jump, you say how high?”

“Put your hands up to the sky!”

Sunset exited the booth, receiving little attention from the security. “They really are not being subtle about this.” Downstairs, the corridors were empty. The people at the concessions stood transfixed at the video feeds of the show outside, though the music could still be heard quite well through the concrete.

“All right, if I were a dirty secret, where would I hide?” She walked at a brisk pace, but not fast enough to look suspicious. With everyone’s attention diverted, she realized it probably didn’t matter.

She moved toward the stands behind the stage that were empty and roped off. Security stood watch at the end of the hall, so Sunset slipped down an adjacent path. She found bathrooms and a blocked off staircase, but no guards.

With an easy hurdle, she got over the block. On the second floor, the lights were turned off, creating an eerie darkness.

Bzzzt!

Sunset jumped with a gasp at the buzz in her pocket. She pulled her phone out and flipped it open. “What’s up?” The ovation of the crowd echoed through the phone, nearly drowning out Rarity’s voice.

”Just checking in. The crowd is a little rowdy, but nothing unusual has happened so far.”

“That’s good.” Sunset kept her voice low. She appeared to be alone but kept her eyes peeled and looked over her shoulder every few seconds. “I met Moondancer in the box. She’s already lost to them.”

“Oh dear. Twilight is not going to be happy about that.”

Sunset hunched forward. She felt a little bad about Moondancer, but felt worse telling Twilight her best friend had joined the cult of the Sirens. “How are you girls doing?”

A cheer rose through the crowd again that Sunset could hear without her phone. “We’re doing fine. At least I think so. I don’t feel anything. Though I guess their music isn’t that bad.”

“Rarity?” Sunset arched an unseen eyebrow.

“I’m just saying from a subjective standpoint, it’s not utter garbage,” she said with a defensive tone. “I’ve heard worse.”

Sunset let it slide. Putting her grudge down for a second, she supposed she could agree that the Sirens did have good voices, magical or not. “All right. I’m making my way through the blocked off section of the coliseum. Keep me posted through text.”

“Be careful, Sunset.” The phone clicked off, though the throbbing bass and roar of the crowd remained. The absence of silence made Sunset’s trip through the dark more bearable. She broke off from the main path and turned down one of the smaller halls.

“This is patrol six, making a sweep of second floor, east side, over,” a gruff voice came from behind Sunset. Her heart quickened, and she sped down the hall as fast as she could. At the end was a maintenance room with the door left open a crack. She slipped inside, making sure not to move the door too much lest it squeak.

Someone placed a hand over her mouth and jabbed something blunt into her back. “Don’t move,” came a familiar voice. Both stayed quiet until the footsteps faded into silence. The voice continued, quiet but harsh. “Now, you’re going to tell me—”

“Trixie, it’s me, you dunce!” Sunset hissed between Trixie’s fingers.

“Sunset?” Trixie released her and spun her around. “What are you doing back here?” Sunset could barely make out her features in the dark.

“Same thing as you, duh. I’m looking for clues.”

“Oh… Trixie thought… well…” She cleared her throat and returned to her normal, haughty tone. “Trixie accepts your assistance in looking for Trixie’s father.” She pushed Sunset to the side and peeked out the door. “The coast is clear. Come on.”

Sunset allowed Trixie to take point, despite her gut feeling telling her they were more likely to get caught. Trixie held her wand out in front of her as she creeped along. They found another set of stairs and took down to the ground floor.

“Trixie bets they’ll keep anything important close to the stage.”

“Not a bad idea, but…” They stopped behind a pillar so Sunset could point at the line of security one-hundred feet away, standing under florescent lights. “How are we going to get past them?”

“You create a diversion, while Trixie sneaks around them with her magic,” she said with a vainglorious grin.

At least she’s starting to feel better. “Okay, how about—”

“Hey!”

Both girls flinched and became still as stone. Sunset slowly peeked around the pillar, her stomach unclenching when she saw an officer run up to the three standing watch.

“We’ve got trouble in Section G. Some of the brats are starting to get real rowdy.” His walkie-talkie crackled and he brought it to his ear. “Double that, kids in J and Q are getting aggressive as well.”

Sunset’s leg vibrated, and she pulled out her phone. On screen, a text read, “Getting dangerous. Trying to get out.” Sunset cursed and put a hand on Trixie’s arm. “All right, whatever you’re gonna do, do it fast. I have a feeling cops are gonna be all over this place really soon.”

Trixie twirled her wand, fumbled it on her wrist, then quickly caught it and played it off. “Watch Trixie be brilliant. You might learn something.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and moved after the first dispatch ran down the hall. Only one guard remained, and Sunset ran at him with the best high pitch scream she could muster.

“Oh my God, the Dazzlings! I have to meet them!”

The security guard grabbed her around the middle and wrestled her away from the door. “Sorry, little lady, VIP’s only.”

Sunset struggled against the guard’s bulk. She proved forceful enough that he had to pick her up and carry her away. Over his shoulder, Sunset saw Trixie sneak forward and point her wand at the door. A puff of smoke came out and Trixie silently gagged. She tried again, and a few sparks sputtered out of wand. The door opened and Trixie slipped inside.

The guard dragged Sunset to the front entrance. “Sorry, missy. End of the show for you.” He tossed her onto the concrete, then retreated past a second group of guards manning the entrance.

She wiped the dirt off her face and looked back to the stadium walls. “All up to you, girls.”

*******

Another foot crashed onto Rarity’s toe. She cursed whatever part of her brain that told her heels were a good idea tonight. To be fair, she didn’t expect to be standing for hours. She yanked her foot out from under the boot crushing it, and stumbled back into Rainbow, who moved back into another crowd goer.

“Hey, watch it! You wanna start something?”

Rainbow rolled up a sleeve. “You know what, I—”

Rarity held her back. “So sorry about that,” she said with a nervous laugh. “It was just an accident. Crowded field and all.”

The boy glared at them, but his attention jumped back to the Sirens the second their next verse started. Rarity spun Rainbow around and wagged a finger at her. “Rainbow, you’re acting almost as hostile as they are.”

“They’ve been shoving and glaring at us all night! Excuse me if I get a little pissed off after a while!” Rainbow yelled over the music. “We’re not getting anything out of this. Sunset hasn’t found anything, and other than the fact that the lead singer is making eyes at me, we haven’t found anything either.”

“Ah hate to say it,” Applejack said, pushing her way next to Rarity, “but R.D has a point. Sure, we’ve seen first hand how these Sirens operate, and we know for sure we’re immune, but other than that, this might have been a waste of time.”

Rarity looked around at the crowd around her, a glazed look in all their eyes while they cheered and sang along. It made her spine tingle unpleasantly and reminded her of the Fall Formal, not that she’d ever tell Sunset. She conceded to Rainbow and Applejack; while everything was suspicious, it didn’t do them a lot of good.

“You’re right,” she said with disappointment. “We should get out of here now before things get dangerous.” She looked over her shoulder to the doors at the end of the field, barely visible through the horde of people. Navigating out would prove a challenge.

Applejack spoke into Rarity’s ear. “Do ya think us leavin’ is gonna look suspicious?”

She waved a dismissive hand. “Of course not. People leave concerts early all the time. Just be polite and act casual.” She held an arm out in front as she delicately pushed through the crowd. “Excuse me. Pardon us. Enjoying the show?”

Several people grunted or shot them distasteful looks, but no one impeded their progress. See? Nothing can’t be handled with a little tact and grace. They were halfway to the door when she heard a shout from behind. Another one followed it, and even over the music, Rarity heard the distinct thud of someone hitting the floor.

She teetered off balance as someone fell onto her, but Applejack’s quick reflexes stopped her from toppling over. Rarity looked back to see Fluttershy sitting on the ground looking dazed, and Rainbow drawing her fist back against another boy.

Oh dear, was the only thought Rarity could process before Rainbow’s punch connected. The boy fell over, taking several others with him to the ground, and disrupting several more. Yells of fury and furor rose around them. The tension building up since the night began finally burst open and with it, a flurry of kicking, shoving, and punching from all sides.

Rainbow swooped down and grabbed Fluttershy, then ran ahead, using her elbow to knock over anyone in her way. Rarity danced out of the way of a nearby scuffle and followed after them, making sure Applejack and Pinkie weren’t too far behind. The chaos followed them as they pushed their way back. Cheers of admiration for the Dazzlings turned into shouts of aggression toward one another. Security moved in to break up any fight they could reach, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the volume of adolescents.

Rarity breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the corridor. She then let out a whimper at the state of her dress. The hem was torn and she could see smudges of dirt all over it. Not to mention her aching feet.

Pinkie popped in from the field last, her hair a more frizzy mess than usual. She put her hands on her hips and frowned. “You know, when I pictured a mosh pit, I thought it would be a lot funner than that.”

Rainbow dusted Fluttershy off and said, “All in favor of never doing that again, say I.”

“I,” they chorused.

“Smoke bomb!”

A wall of smoke erupted from the hall to their left. Out of the grey clouds came Trixie, running at top speed. She caught sight of them and ground her heels to a stop. “What are you…?” She shook her head. “Trixie has no time to wonder. Come on, we’re leaving!”

No one needed to be told twice. They followed Trixie past the ticket counter, through the courtyard, and out to the main gate. Sunset jumped up from her place against the wall and ran to meet them. “What happened?”

“The Dazzlings happened,” Applejack said, before she caught her breath. “We tried to get out, then lo and behold, everyone starts goin’ at each other.”

“Some jerk pushed Fluttershy to the ground just for bumping his elbow!” Rainbow yelled.

Rarity tried to straighten her dress but quickly saw the futility in it. “All in all, it wasn’t a good time. We didn’t learn anything either.”

“Not true!” Trixie said, pointing her finger to the sky. “Trixie knows they don’t have the Crystal Heart yet! And she felt it! Her father’s magic calling out to her! He’s there, somewhere under the stadium!”

“That’s some good news at least,” Sunset said. “But what do we do now?”

The others could only look back at her in equal puzzlement.

*******

Adagio could still hear her adoring crowd from her seat backstage. She breathed in the negativity: anger, irritation, frustration. She licked her lips. Simply delicious. And that hadn’t been the only thing she had tasted out there…

Her heart beat faster as the wheels in her mind turned. After two decades of torture, the universe had turned back in her favor! A vivacious smile pulled at her cheeks. Sonata could spout her dumbest nonsense yet, and she still wouldn’t be mad.

Speaking of which.

Adagio brought her head down from staring at the ceiling and looked over to the stage curtain. “What’s taking her so long?”

Aria sat across from her, looking bored as usual. “You know she takes this thing too seriously.” She sat up straight and screwed her face up into the dopiest expression she could make. “‘We have to, like, connect with our fans! Show them we care about them!’” she said in a high pitched attempt at Sonata. Finished, her face dropped back to its dour state.

“At least she’s entertained.” Fun aside, they had a schedule to keep, and Adagio would be damned if her plan was ruined tonight of all nights. She stood to fetch her sister when Sonata backed in from the curtains, giving one more wave to their fans.

She turned around, a giant smile plastered on her face. “I love signing autographs!” She wandered over to the snack table and picked up the bowl of chips before grabbing a seat.

Aria crossed her arms. “I’m surprised you know how to write your own name.”

Sonata opened her mouth to retort, but a sharp glare from Adagio stopped her cold. “None of your stupid bickering. You can do that on your way to the museum.”

“What museum?” Sonata asked.

Adagio facepalmed while Aria scowled and said, “The one with the Crystal Heart, you dunce.”

“Oh yeah. We’re doing that tonight!” She shoved a handful of chips into her mouth. “Almost forgot.”

Maybe I should go instead. Adagio looked at Aria. No, she’ll keep Sonata focused. And I’d rather talk to the press than have Sonata do it. She waved a hand. “We’ll talk about that in a minute.” She gave both of them a sharp and excited look. “Did you two feel it?”

Aria and Sonata gave each other a quizzical glance, then shrugged to Adagio. She had figured as much. “Magic!” She brought her voice to an excited whisper. “Equestrian magic!”

“Oh boy, here we go again,” Aria said with an eye roll.

Adagio clenched her fist. “I’m positive this time. Out there in that crowd was the magic I felt when we got off that wretched rock! It’s here, in this city!”

Aria continued to look unimpressed. “You said that the first time we were here, and when we looked, guess what we found.” She held her hands out. “Nothing.”

Sonata held a finger up. “We also didn’t find the Crystally Heart, but that’s here too.”

Adagio smirked. As dumb as she was, Sonata occasionally said something worthwhile. Of course, that was just basic probability. “I almost tasted that magic,” Adagio continued. “I don’t know how or why it’s here but it is.”

“Okay, fine.” Aria held her hands up. “Let’s say it is here. How do we get it, and what are we gonna do with it?”

Adagio rubbed her hands together and purred with mirth. “Well, it had to get here somehow, didn’t it? Imagine if we traced it back to the source.”

Sonata gasped. “We could go home?”

“Very good, Sonata,” Adagio said, patting her on the head. “At the very least, we could get our original forms back.”

Aria perked up, her dispassionate mask slipping. “Okay, I’ll entertain this idea if it means I don’t have to walk around looking like this anymore.”

Adagio ran a hand down the curve of her hips. “Honestly, I’ve grown to like this body. But yes, I would take our true forms over this any day.” She raised an empowered fist and grin sadistically. “With the Crystal Heart’s amplification and Equestrian magic, there won’t be a human alive who can resist us. And once we find a way back to Equestria, we’ll have two worlds to adore us!”

Sonata threw her hands in the air. “Whooo! Think of all the fans we’ll have!”

“But how are we going to find this magic, Dagi?” Aria asked, her skepticism returning.

Adagio steepled her fingers together. “Oh, I think I have an idea. I hope you girls like Canterlot. Because we’re going to be here for a while.”

10. Jokers and Thieves

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The night wind tried one last time to snatch her ponytail, but she kept a tight grip on it as she stuffed it under her black hood. The skin tight leather snapped against her ears, and she brought the mask down over her eyes while bringing her collar up over her mouth, leaving only her nose exposed.

She stood and felt the leather rub her in all the right places. She raised her arms up, proudly sticking her chest out before bending backwards and touching her palms against her heels. “Oh, that feels good.” Her collar doubled as a muffler.

A light hiss sounded next to her, and she lifted her legs over her body before bringing them down behind her and settling on her stomach. “Is someone ready for the big heist?” the woman said in a babying voice.

A black snake with white stripes slithered across the rooftop, stopping in front of the woman’s face and flicking its tongue at her exposed nose.

“That’s my Jörmungandr. So eager to help mama. Well then, let’s get this show on the road.” She rolled onto her back and jumped up onto her heels. Utility belt wrapped around her waist and laptop bag over her shoulder, she strutted over to the domed skylight. Jörmungandr quietly trailed behind her, gently rocking his body side-to-side.

“Alarm is already disabled,” she said, patting her laptop. “Wasn’t even a challenge. We’ve had a harder time stealing from babies.” She lifted a panel of glass and looked down into the Canterlot Art and History Museum. Shadows consumed most of the blue velvet carpet, driven away only by the spotlights surrounding each exhibit.

Jörmungandr slid up his master’s back and coiled his five foot body gently around her neck. The black clad woman removed a grappling hook from her belt and attached the claw to the metal frame, then slowly lowered herself into the building.

She landed in shadows, just outside the range of one security camera. With a click of a button, she recalled her grappling hook, then slunk across the floor with measured and precise steps. Her eyes browsed over the displays of Canterlot’s History. Old wagons, pottery vases, muskets, and oil paintings of mayors past.

Silence covered her, a cool blanket that masked her every movement. A sound brushed against her ear, and she instinctively dove for cover, choosing a small alcove behind a porcelain vase. It was quite nice, catching a gleam even without direct light. But, the thief was here for one thing, and one thing only.

A security guard walked past her hiding spot, flashlight in hand, eyes forward. The thief frowned even as he walked away. He wasn’t supposed to show up in this room for another six minutes.

Waiting precisely twenty seconds, she got up and moved on. She’d deal with him later if need be, but first, the cameras. She made it to the end of the western exhibit hall, having to make two more unexpected stops in the process.

There wasn’t this much security during my stakeouts, she thought, lip curling under her mask. She was going to have to leave a bit of a scene if she wanted to escape with her prize. Oh well. I do love it when they know who to blame when things go missing.

She grinned. Because, try as you might, you’ll never catch the Snake Queen Lamia!

Lamia zigzagged across the tiled floor of the decoart exhibits, avoiding the spots she knew the cameras were zoomed in on. At the back wall, Lamia reached up and pressed her hands against it with all her might until the sticky adhesive came to the surface of her gloves. When she tried to pull away, she felt a steady resistance and pulled herself up, bracing her knees against the wall. She climbed quickly, her hands making soft, squelching noises each time she moved. An air vent waited for her at the top. She switched the latch, opening the grates as wide as they could go.

“Go on, Jorgey, you know what to do.”

The snake flicked his tongue, then slid off her shoulders and into the vent. Lamia dropped down and waited behind a curtain, watching another security officer walk by. This was always the moment of truth: whether Jörmungandr could make it to the security room, and whether or not he could subdue any guards inside.

Two minutes passed, and she heard a soft hiss come from above her. Lamia stood and smiled. Seventy-four thefts, and Jörmungandr hadn’t let her down once. She cartwheeled across the room, freely enjoying the open movement. She reached the door to the security room and picked it with ease. Inside, three guards lay on the floor, their eyes glazed over and their muscles tense beneath their uniforms.

Lamia tutted and nudged one of them with her boot. “Were the big, bad policemen overpowered by a wittle snake?” There were only supposed to be two. Still, Jörmangandr proved to be her greatest asset. She kneeled down and reached into their pockets, swiping a total of eighty dollars from their wallets. Next, she reached into her belt and pulled out three vials, slipping them into their breast pockets.

While she wasn’t above killing, Lamia wanted to be remembered as a thief, not a murderer. As such, she always left an antidote for Jörmungandr’s neurotoxin. Said snake lowered himself down from the vents and coiled himself around Lamia’s neck again. She scratched him under the chin and cooed, “You’re such a good boy, Jorgey. They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

Hissss.”

“Good. Mama’s proud of you.” She looked at the large monitor in front of her, split into twelve smaller screens, each showing a different part of the museum. Lamia squatted down in front of the control panel and pulled her laptop and a USB cable from her bag. While her laptop booted up, she connected it to the computer. When the startup initialized, she opened one of the files littering the screen and ran her fingers over the keyboard. A loading bar popped up in the corner, taking only seconds to fill in.

“You guys should really invest in better security. You never know what might slither in.” She looked back at the monitors, watching the images flicker out for a moment before settling in again. To the untrained eye, everything appeared normal, especially with the timestamp still running. Lamia, however, knew it was all an illusion: the same ten second loop playing over and over again and being recorded into the security history.

Her work done, she packed up her laptop and walked out, making sure none of the remaining security guards were around. The priceless artifact collection was a quick jaunt away. Without the cameras, Lamia found outmaneuvering the roving guards much easier. Not that it had been particularly hard in the first place.

She rounded the corner and grinned, her hungry eyes falling on her long-awaited reward. Centered in the middle of the hall with surrounding gems to compliment it was the Crystal Heart. A single spotlight illuminated it from above, making its blue surface gleam with an otherwordly light. It was big enough that Lamia would need both hands to cradle it.

“Beach house in Greece, here we come.”

Jörmungandr bobbed his head in agreement.

Lamia crept closer, her reflection appearing in the glass case around the Heart. Lift, swipe, and run. She was on the homestretch now.

From the hall to her left, voices floated in, tearing through her blanket of silence. She hissed under her breath and retreated behind a pillar. “Jorgey, get ready to sick. My patience with this patrol is running thin.”

However, it wasn’t just an officer that walked in. Two figures flanked him, also dressed in black with theater masks covering their faces. The one on the left wore the white, happy mask. A black, sad mask decorated the figure on the right.

“Good job,” the sad mask said, a gruff, feminine voice coming from beneath. “Now, make sure to delete any footage of us off the cameras. And when you wake up in the morning, you’ll say you don’t remember anything.”

The guard nodded absentmindedly and walked out, stumbling a bit as he left. The sad girl doubled over and took a deep breath. “Crap, that took a lot out of me.”

The happy mask put a hand on the other girl’s back. “Are you okay, Aria?” The voice reminded Lamia of a valley girl, and she could already tell, that one was not the brains of whatever was going on.

The sad girl, Aria, waved her off. “I’m fine, just give me a sec.” She straightened up and took another breath, then smacked her partner over the head. “You could have helped.”

“You told me not to,” the girl whined.

“Whatever. Let’s just get the Heart and go home.”

The happy mask cocked her head to the side. “I still don’t get it. Why didn’t we just, like, ask the people to give it to us? Why did we have to be all sneaky about it?”

Aria held a hand to her mask. “Because, you dunce, then we’d have to explain why the museum gave it to us to the police, then to the city, and literally everyone else who asks. It’d be a waste of energy to keep manipulating everyone into just accepting it. This way’s easier.”

“But, like, it’s not gonna matter in the long run, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s annoying in the short run. Sonata, just let me and Adagio do all the thinking. It’s not your strong suit.”

“Ha! I don’t even wear suits.”

Lamia rested her head against the pillar. Well, I was right about the ditz. Still, she had no idea what they were talking about, only that they were after her prize. Well, if she had to leave two more paralyzed bodies on the ground, then so be it! The Crystal Heart belonged to her!

She lowered her arm, allowing Jörmungandr to slide down. “Sick.”

He weaved around the pillar and hissed on approach. Sonata let out a loud, “Eeeep!”

Aria punched her in the shoulder. “Shut up! It’s just a snake.”

Jörmungandr lunged at Aria’s ankle, fangs extended from his wide mouth. With surprising deftness, she stepped diagonally, moving like it was a choreographed dance move. Jörmungandr twisted and struck again, and Aria jumped out of the way, spinning her foot back to kick the snake across the room.

“Okay, as cool as that is, why the hell is there a snake here?” Aria asked.

“Maybe it’s a secret agent,” Sonata offered.

There was a soft thud as Aria facepalmed her mask. Lamia counted on a scathing retort to follow, but approaching footsteps cut the conversation short. From the same hall the two jokers had entered from, another security officer came running in.

“What the—how did you get in here?”

Jöormungandr reacted before either of them could move. He whipped around and struck like a whip, sinking his teeth into the guards ankle. The guard gasped in pain and tried to shake Jörmungandr off, his movements becoming more sluggish with each kick. The snake let go and slithered back, but the damage had already been done.

The guard fell over, twitching and spasming as his muscles locked up. He managed a few gurgles before he fell onto his back, his arms freezing by his sides.

The cool silence returned for a brief moment before Aria ruined it. “Okay, that was pretty wicked.”

Lamia pressed a hand to her forehead. Of all nights. She pushed off the pillar and stepped around it, hands on her hips as she strutted forward. “Past your bedtimes, isn’t it, kiddies? Does mommy know you’re out this late?”

“Jokes on you!” Sonata said. “We don’t have a mom!”

Aria, still eyeing the snake, sighed deeply. “Just… stop talking.” To Lamia, she said, “Who are you and what do you want?”

“Who I am is none of your business. What I want, however, is that Crystal Heart.”

Sonata put her hands on her hips and leaned forward. “Well, too bad! Finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers, and we found it first!”

“Listen, kid, it’s a bad idea to cross me. Just ask that poor man on the ground.” Lamia pointed to the downed officer. “I’m not afraid to add your bodies to the pile.”

“Tough talk for someone who’s outnumbered and outmatched,” Aria said smoothly. She snapped her fingers. “You know what to do.”

A pause. Then Sonata asked, “I do?”

“... Sing , you halfwit!” Aria hissed.

“Oh, yeah, duh!” She clutched her hands in front of her chest. “Aaah aaah ah. Aaah ah…”

Every instinct tempered by years of experience told Lamia that whatever was happening was wrong. Yet the soft melody that floated out from under the happy white mask sang to her a song of tranquility. Her muscles loosened up and her eyes started to droop.

Do I really need the Crystal Heart? These girls seem nice; I should just let them take it.

“Aaah aaah ah. Aaah—eeeeeep!” Sonata barely evaded a strike from Jörmungandr, falling on her back and rolling away as the snake struck again.

The haze around Lamia instantly dispersed, leaving her with an itch inside her skull, and several questions as to what just happened. Questions she would ask later. She had had enough of whatever freaky voodoo was going on around here.

With Aria helping to fend off Jörmungandr, no one stood between Lamia and the Heart. Approaching the glass, she threw prudence to the wind, the night’s operation having already been butchered, and grabbed the sides of the case. With a mighty heave, she flipped it back, sending it crashing to the ground.

“Hey,” one of the girls shouted. Lamia couldn’t tell which, nor did she care. She grabbed the Crystal Heart, feeling its hefty weight.

The sad mask girl jumped over Jörmungandr and charged. Her speed was impressive, Lamia gave her that, and she gave no tell of how she intended to strike.

Lamia heaved the Heart straight into the air. She blocked a low punch from Aria with the back of her arm and a high kick with her other. Lamia pushed both Aria’s arms back, then raised her right leg high while Aria regained her balance. Lamia brought her boot across Aria’s face, then quickly brought it back across, sending her spiraling to the floor. She put her hands out and caught the Crystal Heart as it fell.

“Well, this has been fun,” Lamia said, “but we really must be going now.”

Sonata flew at her, left fist drawn back. As she brought it forward, Lamia held the Heart up. She heard a satisfying thwack from the other side, and a loud whimper of pain. Sonata buckled to her knees and held her hand to her chest.

With a smirk of satisfaction, Lamia turned to leave. Something yanked on her ankle as she stepped forward, and she fell to the ground, the Crystal Heart slipping out of her grasp skidding across the floor. Aria clambered over Lamia trying to reach it, but Lamia struck out and took her back down to the ground while Jörmungandr slithered around both of them and coiled himself around the heart.

Aria twisted out of Lamia’s grasp, and both girls got to their feet. Lamia made the first move, striking high with her left hand. Aria ducked out the way and punched with her left, only to be blocked and pushed back by Lamia’s arm. Lamia brought her leg up again to kick Aria’s already crooked mask, but Aria was wise enough to duck this time. With Lamia’s leg still raised, Aria jabbed forward into Lamia’s gut and sent her to the floor.

“Get up, scatterbrain!” Aria shouted to Sonata.

“But it huuuuuurts!” she said, rocking back and forth, hand clutched tight to her chest.

Lamia flipped up to her feet and struck her palm out for Aria’s chest. Aria grabbed Lamia’s arm and threw a punch for her head. With her wild flexibility, Lamia bent backwards, forcing Aria to overextend. Lamia then dropped to her back, bringing her knees up as Aria came down. Aria wheezed at the impact to her gut. Lamia followed up and tossed Aria overhead before hopping up again.

Just in time to see happy mask Sonata rush her again with surprisingly fast punches. Lamia kept up with blocking each of them, noticing Sonata favored her right hand. She waited for Sonata to hit with her left again and took the blow to her shoulder. When Sonata recoiled, Lamia broke into her guard and made a two-fingered jab at her right shoulder, then followed it up with a full jab to Sonata’s stomach and a palm strike to the chest.

“Oooowwwww,” Sonata moaned from the ground. “My arm feels funny.”

“Freeze!” two voices yelled. Lamia uttered a stream of curses as two well-dressed officers ran in from the hall on her left, guns drawn. From the right, two more museum security rushed in, unarmed but putting Lamia into a pin.

“So, the tip we got was right,” the blonde female officer said. By the lines on her face, Lamia guessed she had never had a day of fun in her life. Her strapping male partner, however, looked like he might know how to have a good time. He had shaggy blue hair, charming purple eyes, and looked quite handsome in his suit.

Not now, Lamia chided herself. She had to find a way out of this crappy situation first. Jörmangandr kept himself curled around the heart. The handsome detective notice and pointed his gun at the snake. The other woman kept her gun on Lamia.

“Well,” she said stepping forward slowly. “I know who you are, Lamia. I didn’t know you operated with accomplices.”

“They’re not with me,” Lamia said coldly. “In fact, do me a favor and arrest them first.”

Aaah aaah ah, aaah ah. Aaah aaah ah, aaah ah.

Lamia’s muscles relaxed again and the tranquil calm washed over her. Something wasn’t right… but why did she care? The music sounded so pretty. Through a green haze, she could see the officers lowering their weapons. The two girls eased their way toward Jörmangandr, who snapped at them, coming dangerously close to Aria’s ankle.

The singing stopped and the haze cleared away. Everyone save for the two girls looked confused, but Lamia got her bearings first. She reached into her utility belt and flung a throwing knife at the blue haired officer while she charged the blonde one. The knife hit his hand knocking his gun away.

Lamia roundhouse kicked the remaining officer, knocking her off balance. She jabbed her in the solar plexus with two fingers then again in the sternum and sent her to the floor, then spun and blocked her head from the other detective’s second attack. On the other side of the room, Aria and Sonata fought off the museum guards, Sonata fighting with only one working arm.

As Lamia defended herself from his attacks, she caught sight of the name on the officer’s badge. Shining Armor. She smirked. “It’s too bad you’re a cop,” she said with a sultry purr. She ducked under his swing. “You could be my knight any day.”

Shining took a step back and raised his arms to block Lamia’s side kick. “Sorry, I’m happily engaged.”

Lamia pouted. “You’re no fun.” She dove to the side and scooped up Shining’s gun. He froze and held his hands up when she pointed it at him. “Sorry, officer, but I’m leaving with this heart.” She took two steps back.

A rough hand clawed into the side of her face, and another one grabbed her arm at the joint, forcing it down. With her unobstructed eye, Lamia could see the remaining security on the floor, while Sonata tried to fight Shining Armor.

Under Aria’s tight grip, Lamia dropped the gun, but drove her other elbow into her attacker’s gut multiple times. “Piss off already!” She threw herself to the ground, crushing Aria with all her weight. Using her momentum, she threw her legs up and back into the air and performed a backflip, freeing herself from Aria’s grasp. Unfortunately, she didn’t get out of it unscathed.

Shrrriiiip!

A quick breeze brushed over Lamia’s left eye, and a bang came undone from her ponytail and fell over her face. She jerked a hand up, finding only part of her mask had been torn, but it was enough to turn her blood to magma. She turned to Aria, still lying on the ground with the black fabric in hand.

Lamia marched over, her exposed eye wide with fury. “You meddling piece of s—”

Aaaiiie!” Sonata skidded across the floor, mask askew but still covering her face. Shining reached for his partner’s gun, but Lamia threw another knife, knocking the weapon away. She kicked Aria in the side as hard as she could for good measure, then finally turned back and grabbed the Crystal Heart and her snake.

She didn’t spare them a hateful glance as she ran down the hall, shoving the heart into her laptop bag. Footsteps echoed behind her. Without looking back, she knew Armor had followed. She made a sharp turn around a corner and pressed herself against the wall. The second Shining came into her line of sight, Lamia shouted, “Sick!”

Jörmangandr struck him in the shoulder, lightning fast. Shining cried out in pain before falling silent thanks to Lamia’s boot in his gut. He fell to the floor, going still as the neurotoxin raged through his body.

Lamia dropped another vial next to him. “This is only because you’re cute,” she said softly, keeping her face in the shadows. “See you never.” She bolted for the nearest window, throwing herself through the glass and onto the pavement.

A block away from the museum, she pulled her grappling hook out and fired at a low rooftop, propelling herself up and vaulting over the edge. She took a breath of victory, then spat in disgust. “Those brats turned this into a freakin’ disaster.” She felt the torn part of her mask and growled. “Better find a place to lay low.” She patted Jörmungandr on the head. “At least we got our prize, right, baby?”

“Hisssss.”

*******

Aria leaned against the alley wall and ripped her mask off, greedily sucking down air. Sonata collapsed next to her, moaning and clutching her arm. Aria ignored her. The image of the thief running away with the Heart in her hands blinded her everytime she closed her eyes. She sank to the floor, letting out a groan as she did. Everything hurt, most notably her head and sides. Now that she was down, standing up would prove to be a struggle. Next to her, Sonata attempted to try, feebly propping herself up before resting against the wall.
“I can’t feel my arm. Is that normal?” she asked, her mask in Aria’s direction.

Anger provided a great muffler to Sonata’s asinine questions. Aria’s patience to deal with her sister’s stupidity had reached its limits for the night. This was supposed to be easy! Aria clenched her teeth until her jaw ached. We were supposed to walk in, take the Heart, and walk out! That snake loving bitch ruined everything! It was right in front of us and it got away again!

“Adagio’s going to be mad, isn’t she?”

“Shut up, Sonata!” Aria snapped, putting as much vice into her words with what little energy she had left. It worked as intended. Sonata curled in on herself, knowing that Aria was not in the mood for one of their back and forths.

In fact, Aria realized she might have used too much vice when she heard Sonata sniffle. With a roll of her eyes, Aria lifted a hand and pat Sonata on the head. While she loved knocking her sister down, Aria couldn’t stand it when Sonata blubbered like a baby.

“Stop crying,” she said, keeping the edge to her voice. “I’m sorry, all right? Didn’t mean to snap at you like that.” She forced herself up, muscles yelling in protest. When she got steady on her feet, she held a hand down. “Come on. Can you stand?”

Sonata quickly lifted her mask to rub her eyes, then dropped it and held her good hand out. “But, Adagio’s still going to be mad, right? We didn’t get the heart thingy. And we don’t even know who took it.”

As dumb as she was, Sonata had a point. Despite the beating they had taken, Adagio wouldn’t be above punishing them further for failing to return with the Crystal Heart. Aria couldn’t entirely blame her. It wouldn’t make coming home any easier though.

She looked at the skyline, wondering where the thief was now. “You’re right. We don’t know who took it.” The gears in her mind started to turn. Adagio wasn’t the only one who could come up with a plan. “But I might know how we can find it.”

When she looked in Sonata’s direction, she could feel the blank stare from beneath the happy mask. Aria facepalmed and sighed. “Just follow my lead, stupid.”

11. The Best of Intentions

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Twilight took up the rear end of the procession, heart hammering. She wished the doctor moved faster. The smell of antiseptic and her shoes squeaking against the sterile tiles only made her more tense. After an endless walk down the blue and white checkered hall, they reached their destination, and the doctor pushed the door open. Night Light entered first, followed by Cadence, then Twilight.

Her heart stammered upon entry. Shining laid in bed, looking pale and grumpy but otherwise fine. Nevertheless, he laid in a hospital bed, the second-to-last place Twilight wanted to see him resting. Twilight Velvet hovered over him, dressed in her scrubs.

“Do you need me to get you anything, sweetie? I can get more pillows for you to make you comfy.”

“Mom, for the fifth time, I’m fine.” He broke into a relieved grin as everyone else filed into the room. Cadence rushed over and wrapped her arms around him.

“Are you okay? They just told me you were in the hospital from police work! I came as fast as I could!”

Shining patted her back. “I’m fine, I promise. It was just…” he mumbled something, not making eye contact with anyone.

"What was that?” Night asked.

Velvet crossed her arms. “Poison. It was just poison.”

Poison!” Cadence screeched into his ear. “Someone tried to poison you?”

Shining gave his mother a cross look. “Yeah. Her snake was venomous. But, she left the antidote right next to me, so it was administered almost immediately. It’s just some bruises now.”

Twilight breathed out all of the tension she had held onto since being awakened to the news her brother had been hospitalized, only to seize up again at the mention of a snake. It’s okay. Snake isn’t here. Just breathe. She stepped closer to the bed and tried to level out Cadence’s hysteria with calm. “What happened last night?”

“Well…” Shining took a second to reposition himself and get comfortable. “They needed more security for the Dazzlings’ concert near the end, so Harshwhinny and I were put on standby. After it was over, we hurried back to the museum, just in time to see it being robbed.”

Twilight tensed. “Did you see who it was? What were they after?”

Shining thumped his head on the headrest. He closed his eyes in concentration and grunted, “There were two parties. But the one with the snake, Lamia, she’s the one that got away with the Heart.

Twilight inhaled sharply.

“I never got a good look at her. Her mask got torn at one point, but she ran afterwards. Her eyes though… I think they were green? Maybe blue.”

“And even if he could remember, that’s sensitive information, Miss Sparkle,” a stern, cool voice said from behind. Twilight looked over her shoulder, finding Shining’s senior detective Ms. Harshwhinny standing in the doorway. She looked back at Twilight with her famous stoic frown and flat eyebrows, giving her an appearance of perpetual displeasure.

Shining made a half-hearted salute. “Good to see you’re up already, ma’am.”

“Caught by surprise, nothing more,” Harshwhinny grunted. But when she stepped further into the room, Twilight could see her limp. “As for the events of last night, the details remain on a need to know basis.” She glanced around the room. “All you need to know is that last night, the museum played grounds to a theft. Three suspects all got away, and the Crystal Heart was stolen.”

The tenseness that had embraced Twilight’s whole body centered itself in her stomach to the point of nausea. She leaned on Shining’s bedside for support. Oh no… oh no, no, no. First Artemis, now the Crystal Heart. What are we going to do?

“Do you at least have any leads?” Cadence asked, sounding fuzzy in Twilight’s ears.

“One,” Harshwhinny said tersely. “Fortunately, it’s the only one we need.” Her eyes scanned the room again. “But, I can see I’m interrupting a family moment. I just came by to see how you were doing, Detective Armor, but I can see you’re in good hands.” She turned for the door. “I expect to see you in my office as soon as you’re discharged. Good day.”

They watched her turn down the hall, then Night Light broke the silence with an awkward laugh. “Must be fun working for her, eh, Shining?”

Shining sank back into his pillow. “That’s one word you could use.” He sighed. “Anyway, the doctor said I should be free to go tomorrow evening.”

Velvet made a disapproving tut under her breath.

“Mom, I told you, I’m fine. I could get up and walk around right now if I wanted.”

“Oh no you don’t!” Both Cadence and Velvet said from either side. Cadence put a hand on her hip and wagged a finger. “You’re not moving until the doctor says you can.”

Velvet nodded. “I still say you need an extra day of rest, but you’ll at least wait until Doctor Stables clears you before you go chasing after thieves and criminals again.

Shining groaned and gave a pleading look to his father. “Dad, say something.”

Night gave him a guilty shrug. “Sorry, Shining. I’m smart enough not to pick a fight with your mother and your fiancé.”

Despite knowing the hidden gravity of the situation, Twilight couldn’t help but giggle at her brother’s plight. He was alive and doing fine if he could complain so much. Still, her mind ran in circles, running between the identity of the thief, what the Sirens would do without the Crystal Heart, and what it all meant for everyone else. Were things better or worse now that the Heart sat in the hands of a third party?

“You okay, Twily?”

“Huh?” Twilight looked up at Shining. “Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Just relieved you’re okay.” Now if Sunset would just text me she’s all right.

Shining reached out and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry, Twily. I’m not going anywhere.” While she appreciated the sentiment, it felt a bit redundant considering the state he was in. But Twilight put on a good face and kept up with the small talk that went around.

Eventually, Velvet had to get to her rounds and Night still had papers to grade. They gave Shining a kiss on the head, with an additional warning from Velvet not to get up before leaving.

“Why don’t me and Twily go get you some snacks, sweetie?” Cadence asked. “I know how bad hospital food can be.”

“That be nice, yeah.” Shining gave her a sheepish grin. “And maybe a comic book while you’re out?”

Cadence rolled her eyes, then leaned in to give him a kiss. “You’re such a dork. But anything for my brave knight. Come on, ladybug.”

Twilight kissed Shining on the cheek and waved as she followed Cadence out. They passed Velvet in the hall, wheeling another patient to their room. Canterlot General was pretty quiet today aside from the host of security guards occupying various beds across the second floor.

Outside, Cadence had parked her cherry red car in the front row of the parking lot. She and Twilight buckled in, and they took off down the road. Cadence kept the radio low, just enough so that Sapphire Shores made more background noise than the engine. “So, how are you and Sunset doing?”

“Fine,” Twilight said a little too quickly and tersely for Cadence to brush it away. Refusing eye contact didn’t help either.

“Would you like to add anything to that ‘fine’?” Cadence asked gently.

Twilight leaned against the door. “Really, we’re fine. She just… frustrates me sometimes.”

“Well, no partner is perfect,” Cadence said as they came to a stoplight. “I’m picking up comic books for your twenty-seven year old brother.” She reached over and stroked Twilight’s hair. “But it’s better to talk about these things rather than bottle them up.”

Twilight nibbled on the inside of her cheek. Part of the problem was that she couldn’t talk about what was bothering her. Not to Cadence at least. That would require explaining magic and evil Sirens. Still, faced with Cadence’s disarming and loving eyes, Twilight felt the need to get something off her chest.

“Sunset went to that stupid concert last night,” she said crossing her arms and staring at the light as it turned green.

Cadence shifted her focus back to driving but kept a hand on Twilight’s shoulder. “Without you?”

“I mean, I didn’t want to go. I just wish… Sunset hadn’t.” Twilight knew how that sounded and wished she could add more to it. It had already been said, and she pressed her lips closed to listen to Cadence.

She kept her eyes on the road but smiled sympathetically. “Sounds like someone’s got a small case of envy.”

Maybe, but not for the reason you think.

“You guys don’t have to do everything together, Twilight. You’re still two independent people. If Sunset wants to do something you don’t want to, that’s okay.”

“I know. It’s just…” Twilight huffed. I don’t want her doing something that puts her in danger!

Cadence gave her shoulder a light squeeze. "Well, are you and Sunset doing anything tomorrow?”

Having known her since kindergarten, Twilight knew just about all of Cadence’s tell as much as Cadence knew hers. While no resentment leaked into her voice, Twilight knew Cadence enough to know the context behind the question.

“I don’t know. Sunset said she’d make up for going to the concert without me, but she never said what we’d do.” And she hasn’t texted or called me to say she was okay! What if the Sirens got her too! Twilight tried not to hyperventilate while Cadence drove. Instead, she whipped out her phone, shot another urgent text to Sunset, then shoved it in her pocket.

”Well, I’m sure whatever it is, it’ll be lovely.”

Twilight could hear the falseness in Cadence’s voice. It was nearly impossible to pick up on unless you knew her as well as Twilight or Shining did. “I’m guessing you’ll be working all day tomorrow?”

“Yep.” Her smile strained, and her grip on the wheel tightened. “Mi Amore in the Morning’s Valentine’s Day Special! Don’t miss it!”

Twilight pat her on the knee. “You’ll get through it. You always do.”

Cadence loosened her grip and sighed. “I know. It’s just, now I have Shining to think about the entire time on top of the manipulative commercialization of this holiday. On a slightly better note, the Dazzlings are coming in for an interview.”

Twilight’s blood froze. “The Dazzlings?” Her voice cracked. “Why?”

“Not sure actually. My producer just called me this morning and told me it was happening. Maybe they want to drop a new love song.”

Twilight chose her words carefully. “Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, your fans are so accustomed to hearing only love songs and advice. What if the Si—Dazzlings, don’t have a love song? You’re ratings could plummet! Fans would revolt!”

Cadence held a hand to her mouth and laugh. “Twilight, I think you’re over exaggerating. I appreciate the concern though.”

Biting her lower lip, Twilight tried to think of another approach. She couldn’t find a subtle way around this though. No doubt, Cadence had already heard their music and was under their influence to some degree, but Twilight still had to try. “I just think this interview is a bad idea, Cady.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

Twilight weighed her options. Either she told the truth and A: sound like a crazy person, or B: possibly protect her sister-in-law. Or, remain silent and allow Cadence to go through with meeting the Sirens without even trying to help. It wasn’t a hard choice.

“The Dazzlings are actually Sirens and they use music to mind control people and make them feel negative emotions so they can feed off it!” she said in one breath.

The car fell silent as they came to another red light. After coming to a complete stop, Cadence burst into laughter. “Twilight, you’ve been reading too many of Shining’s comics.” She pat her on the head. “I know you’re mad Sunset went to their concert but don’t be silly.”

Twilight slumped in her seat. The fact that she had tried did nothing to assuage her fears. Sure, the Sirens weren’t going to do anything worse than what they did to everyone else, but it still meant Cadence was walking straight into their hypnotism.

And if the Lulamoons couldn’t get the Crystal Heart, there would be no recourse.

They pulled into a small shopping outlet and disembarked. Cadence gave Twilight a twenty dollar bill. “You go get his comic. You’d probably know what he’d like more anyway.”

Twilight faked a smile and walked off before Cadence could tell it was counterfeit. She passed through a small plaza with a fountain in the center, and an open coffee stand to the side. Twilight shuddered, remembering the last time she had been wired on caffeine. At least Sunset had gotten a good laugh out of it.

She whipped out her phone and furiously typed Sunset’s number. Twilight half paced, half stomped back and forth in front of the fountain, listening to the phone ring six times before going to the voicemail. She opened her mouth, angry rant at the ready, but as she pivoted on her foot to turn again, her scathing words tumbled back into her throat.

Stepping away from the coffee stand was a woman with a familiar presence about her. She wore a loose white shirt and baggy jeans, and a wide sun hat covered her head, falling just over her sunglasses. Yet underneath it, Twilight swore she saw red and gold hair rolled up into a tight bun.

Her stomach squirmed. No, it can’t be. The girl looked about the same height as Sunset. She had the same skin tone, too. Twilight crouched behind the fountain and reached for her phone. When the woman turned around, coffee in hand, she tipped her hat up, and Twilight saw more of her face. Leaning into Sunset so many times, sitting in her lap, reaching up to kiss her, Twilight recognized her facial structure. Her soft cheek bones, her round chin, and the way her lips folded down like she was always dissatisfied with something.

Twilight snapped a quick photo and threw herself down against the base of the fountain, aware that she was now hyperventilating. She clapped a hand over her mouth and remained completely still, praying Sunset—the other Sunset—hadn't seen her.

When a minute passed and nothing happened, Twilight chanced looking over the fountain again. Human Sunset had vanished. Twilight stood and slowly backed into the comic store, gripping her phone extra tight in her sweaty palms.

Sirens, magical artifacts, doppelgangers of my girlfriend! Twilight hit the send button for the picture and shut her phone. She looked at the display of comics on the shelves. When did my life get so weird?

*******

Sunset scrubbed as hard as she could, hoping her guilt would wash away with the dirt. If there was any dirt. Selena kept her kitchen clean as a whistle. Sunset’s knees ached from sitting on them for an hour while she and Trixie cleaned the floor with scrub brushes.

They had walked through the door at a quarter to eleven to find Selena waiting for them in an armchair. The minute they made eye contact, Sunset knew she knew where they had been. She also understood why Selena made the rules in the family. The anger in her eyes reminded Sunset of Celestia.

Pushing her brush back and forth across the tiles, Sunset’s stomach churned, too upset to be hungry despite not having eaten anything in the last sixteen hours or so. Just like Celestia, she had betrayed the trust of someone who cared about her. Yes, it was for a good cause, but it stung all the same.

Trixie paused her scrubbing. “Mom—”

“Don’t talk.” Selena sat at the island table, arms crossed and eyes closed. After yelling at them and sending them off to bed, only to wake them up at the crack of dawn to clean the house top to bottom, Selena hadn’t said much beyond basic instructions. The silence forced Sunset to reflect and agonize over her deceit. She had already apologized profusely, but Selena had been in no mood to hear it.

“Can’t believe you two would do something so foolhardy,” Selena muttered. She opened her eyes and looked down at Trixie. “Actually, I can. You’re your father’s daughter after all.”

Trixie turned her head away, but not before Sunset saw a proud smile. Sunset wished she could emulate it but couldn’t find the heart. Geez, you have gone soft. Things like this used to never bother you at all! Now here you are, scrubbing floors like an earth pony!

Sunset shook her head and scrubbed harder. Need to work on that. And at least I feel guilt. Let’s me know I actually learned something.

Her pocket buzzed. She tried to ignore it, but it buzzed again. It had been buzzing all morning, but Sunset could never find a good time to pull it out. Selena had her eyes closed, but Sunset had the distinct feeling that she was still watching like a hawk. Her phone proved persistent though, and Sunset finally yielded. She continued scrubbing with one hand while reaching for her phone with her other. She found nine texts and two missed calls from Twilight, the first time she had made contact since school yesterday.

Her eyes bulged. Oh crap, I forgot about Twilight! Sunset quickly scrolled through her messages, wincing at each of Twilight’s frantic texts asking if she was okay. They rose from concerned to angry with each message save for the last two, one of which was a file trying to upload at 22%. Stupid ancient flip phone. Sunset looked at the attached message.

'Sunset!? ‘Do you see her? She looks like you. Sort of, it’s hard to tell with her hat on, but I’m sure that’s you!’ ‘And for the love of science, answer your phone! You better be okay! Sunset, please answer.’

Sunset’s heart twisted at the last message and she started typing a hasty and typo ridden reply with just her thumb when her eyes saw the file still trying to load a few messages up. Wait, what is she talking about? The file still had 48% to load.

“Sunset, please give me the phone.” Selena’s frosty glare found her. Sunset winced, She sent her half-finished message and placed her phone in Selena’s outstretched hand. “Now go wash up while I make some lunch. Then I’ll find something else for you to do.”

Both girls sighed in relief and headed upstairs to the bathroom. At the top landing, Trixie whispered, “Trixie blames you for us getting caught.”

“Me? How the flying feather is this my fault?”

“If your motorcycle hadn’t made so much noise, we could have easily snuck back in.”

“Or maybe if you had snuck out better, your mom would never had been suspicious in the first place!” They both tried to enter the bathroom at once, only to get their shoulders stuck in the door frame. “Trixie, I am so not in the mood for this!”

“Then let Trixie go first!” Trixie wedged her way past Sunset and shut the bathroom door in her face.

“Everytime,” Sunset hissed. She leaned on the wall next to the door, mind quickly turning to more important matters. What had Twilight been trying to show her? Someone who looked just like her? Twilight couldn’t have been talking about the Human Sunset, could she?

Impossible. I’ve been here three years and no one’s ever mentioned her before. But maybe… Sunset rubbed her throbbing temple. Her human doppelganger running around was the absolute last thing she needed to happen. I need to get my phone back.

Sunset ignored the pit in her stomach and headed back downstairs. She could already smell eggs and toast cooking. Perhaps Selena would be in a slightly more reasonable mood. She stood in front of the stovetop scrambling eggs. Her lips remained tightly pressed, but her eyes had warmed a few degrees.

“Selena…” Sunset pulled her fingers and shuffled in place. “I’m really sorry about lying to you. I just wanted to help in some way. After everything you and Artemis have done for me... I know sneaking into the concert was dangerous and risky, but it was the only thing I could think of to help save Artemis. I…” Sunset sighed, out of words to defend her actions. “I’m sorry.”

Selena turned the eggs over one more time and set the burner low before facing Sunset. Her lips were no longer pressed together, and her stare didn’t freeze Sunset’s soul. “You’re a very sweet girl, Sunset, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate the gesture. I admire your drive to make something right when it’s wrong,” she said with a smile. “But this fight is too dangerous for you and Trixie. I stayed behind so I could protect you in case something happened to Artemis, and I’ll burn all of my manuscripts before I let those monsters touch you.”

Heat rose to Sunset’s cheeks. She suppressed the rare urge to hug someone other than Twilight and said, “Thanks. That really means a lot.” Sunset rubbed her arm. “The last adult I stabbed in the back kicked me out. I mean, I kinda deserved it—I was a lying brat!” Sunset’s voice steadily got louder with an added hint of hysteria. “She trusted me completely and I spat in her face! So, I’m just really glad you’re giving me chores and still care about me and aren’t kicking me out even though I, um, yeah, haha…” Sunset’s entire face burned. The toast popping out of the toaster provided her a great distraction to stare at.

After shoveling the eggs into a bowl, Selena ran a hand through Sunset’s hair and smiled. “I would hardly call what you did a ‘stab in the back’. You’re a good girl, Sunset with a big heart.” She moved to put the toast on a plate. “I just need you to stay out of trouble.”

“Right. Yeah. Sorry, I don’t know where all that came from.” Her heart clenched, remembering her ulterior motive for coming to apologize. So much for being a good girl. “I, uhh, know you’re trying to punish us, but…” She pressed a hand to her face. “Nevermind, forget it.”

“You want your phone back?” Selena asked, cutting into a cantaloupe.

“I forgot to tell Twilight I came back safe. And I think she was trying to tell me something really important.”

“That explains why it’s been ringing non-stop.” Selena reached into her pocket and handed Sunset her phone. “Here. But don’t make any plans today. I’m not finished with you two yet.”

The minute Sunset touched it, the phone vibrated again. “Understood. Thank you!” She rushed upstairs to her room, shut the door, and flipped her phone open. She got one ring before Twilight picked up. “Twilight, I’m so sorry—”

“Oh thank God, you’re okay!” A pause. “Sunset Shimmer, do you know how worried I was?”

Sunset held the phone away from her ear. She’s using my full name. I’m in so much trouble. “Listen, I can explain—”

“You better! I woke up to find my brother in the hospital and still no messages from you! And when you finally do send a message, it’s a garbled mess of typos that cuts off after the first sentence!”

“Wait, what happened t—”

“I thought you had been kidnapped! Or texted while driving and crashed! Teens our age have the highest statistic for dying in car related accidents! And you ride a motorcycle! Do you know how much worse that makes it?”

“Twilight—”

“Not to mention the fact that I think I just saw you! I mean, the other you! The you from this world and not yours—a concept I am still trying to wrap my head around! You’re actually a magical unicorn, not a human! Yep, there it is again! I’m dating a magical unicorn from another dimension and I just saw her human doppelganger! Nothing about this makes sense! This whole day has been nonstop crazy! Some random thief has the Crystal Heart, the Sirens are going onto Cadence’s show tomorrow and she won’t believe me when I say they’re evil, and I had to spend the last five hours wondering if you were even alive! And now, there’s a second you! Why is there a second you? Why is all this crazy stuff happening now? Why is it happening to me?”

Sunset heard Twilight flop onto her bed and breathe heavily like she had just finished a sprint. She gave it a half a minute before asking, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah…” Twilight took a few short breaths. “Yeah, I think I’m good.”

“All out of your system?”

“For now.”

“Okay then.” Sunset sat on her bed, only to hear something scratch at her door. She let Spot in, who quickly took up residence on her lap. “I’m sorry I didn’t call or text you when I got back. Selena was kinda waiting for us when we got home. So Trixie and I have been doing chores all morning.”

“Trixie went to the concert?”

“She snuck into the concert. But she found out the Sirens didn’t have the Crystal Heart, and that they’re holding Artemis somewhere under the stadium.”

“So he’s alive! That’s great news!” Twilight paused. “Well, I mean, he’s still being held prisoner, but it’s still better than, you know…” She cleared her throat. “But yeah, the Sirens don’t have the Heart, someone else does!”

“I know, you mentioned that during your freakout. Care to elaborate?”

“Last night, someone snuck into the museum and stole the Heart with the help of their…” Twilight gave a shuddering breath, “pet snake. It bit Shining and poisoned him, that’s why he’s in the hospital.”

Sunset grimaced. “I hope he gets better soon. But who else would want the Heart?”

“For money, I guess? It is a giant diamond… that happens to be magical.”

“Well, this is just fantastic,” Sunset said, voice bitter. She fell back onto her bed, allowing Spot to curl up on her stomach. “More complications to an already complicated game.”

“Look on the bright side, at least the Sirens don’t have it.”

“Sure, I guess. But now neither do we. And what’s this about another me?”

Twilight took a delicate pause. “I think I saw this world’s version of you. Did you see the picture I sent?”

Sunset shook her head. “Old phone. It was still loading when I called you.”

“Look at it as soon as you can. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I swear, she looked a lot like you. At least from a distance. Where do you think she’s been all this time? What would happen if the two of you met?”

Sunset closed her eyes, trying to shut out the pressure building between them. Dazzlings, diamond thieves, now doppelgangers? It was becoming too much to handle. She opened her eyes and glared at the ceiling. What the hell, universe, I thought we were cool!

“Sunset,” Twilight said gently, bringing her back, “what do we do now?”

Sunset took a second to collect her thoughts. “I don’t know. I just promised Selena I would stay out of trouble. I… I know it’s not good if there’s a second me running around. But we’ve avoided each other so far, hopefully we can stay out of each other’s lives a few more weeks at least. I’ll tell Selena about the thief. Hopefully she’ll think of something.”

“So you’re really going to leave this alone?”

“With everything else going on…. Yeah, I think so. For now, at least.” Sunset’s base instinct told her not to let it go so easily—to look into it just a little. She had always been curious about her parallel other. But to actually have a chance to meet her? What would they do? What would happen if they occupied the same space? Could reality handle that?

She brushed the thought away. Science fiction or not, Sunset wasn’t quite sure she wanted to look her doppelganger in the eye yet. “Yeah,” she said after what felt like too long a pause. “We need a break, Twilight.”

What? Why? I know I told you I was a little mad but—”

Sunset sat upright and waved her free hand as Spot tumbled onto the bed with a growl. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! No! I didn’t mean us! I meant we need a break from all this stuff going on.”

“Oh…. Oh, right.” Twilight made a feeble laugh. “Of course that’s what you meant. Ahem, right.”

Sunset let out a breath of relief for both of them. “Tomorrow, just me and you. I’m taking you to the park, we’ll have a picnic, we’ll talk, we’ll laugh, we’ll pretend just for a few hours that we’re normal and not being threatened by power-hungry monsters. Think you’re up for that?”

“Yes.” Twilight’s voice grew more excited. “Yes, that sounds like a great way to spend Valentine’s Day. I’ll even bring my violin.”

“Sounds great. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow.”

Sunset heard a hitch in Twilight’s breathing, like she wanted to say something else. It never came though, leaving just an awkward air between them. Sunset started to say something but hesitated as well. “Umm… see ya.”

“Yeah, see ya.” More awkward air.

Sunset finally broke it by snapping her phone shut and throwing herself against her bed again. Butterflies danced around her heart, then fluttered into her stomach and stayed there. “I hate you, Sparky.”

At least she could still lie to herself.

Sunset raised her phone over her head and flipped it open again. She scrolled up to the fully downloaded attachment and clicked to enlarge it. The photo was a grainy, but Sunset could see what Twilight had captured and why it had freaked her out. Twilight said she hadn’t been perfectly sure, but for Sunset, it was like looking into a mirror. The hat and shades could only hide so much.

“Sunset Shimmer,” she said softly. “It’s nice to meet me.”

12. Sgt. Shimmer’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Cadence pulled up to the studio parking lot at 5:32 A.M, before the sun had even risen. Turning off the engine, she wanted nothing more than to curl up and go back to sleep, preferably wrapped in Shining’s arms.

Her head thumped against the steering wheel. She didn’t register the pain. Her groan was for an entire different reason. “You can do this, Cadence. It’s just one day of the year.”

Her most hated day of the year. Valentine's Day.

She loved love. She loved spreading it and encouraging it. Pure, honest love. Not commercialized horse manure that told vulnerable teenagers when it was appropriate to tell someone you cared about them and that you had to do something special on this particular day otherwise you were a bad partner, while the single men and women of the world were left out and reminded they were alone.

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Being Canterlot’s Goddess of Love and Fortune, she spread the message of love and kindness through music and talk segments. Being a radio personality with a contract, she had to spread the commercialized manure around through sponsors and romantic clichés she abhorred.

“Just one day,” she grumbled. “You’ve done it before. Then, there’s a nice hot bath waiting at home.” She brought her head up, a cheery smile stuck on her face. “Happy Cadence! Perky Cadence!” she said, taking deep breaths.

After repeating her mantra a couple of times, she stepped out of her car, taking her cup of coffee and scarf with her. Her breath appeared in little puffs in front of her face as she crossed the nearly empty parking lot.

Cadence warmed considerably upon entering the radio station. She waved to Clear Note, the early morning receptionist, and headed upstairs to her studio. Her new intern Vinyl Scratch waited on the loveseat outside the door.

“Morning, boss,” Vinyl said, removing her expensive looking headphones. Her shades, however, never left her face. In the two weeks she had worked here, Cadence still hadn’t seen her eyes.

“Good morning, Vinyl. How are you?” Cadence unlocked the door and allowed Vinyl to step inside first. The studio was comprised of two rooms, the first of which belonged to Vinyl. She kept track of incoming calls and gave Cadence her cues. It also served as a staging area for guests. Visible through a glass screen was Cadence’s recording room. A large desk with mixers, mics, and other miscellaneous objects curved along the wall. A comfy black rolling chair sat in the middle.

“I’m okay. Octy got reservations for some fancy-shmancy restaurant downtown tonight, so, you know, that’ll be fun.”

Cadence held in a sigh and just nodded. She pushed into her recording room and crashed into her seat. Only fifteen hours to go. She flipped the system on, fit her headphones and mic around her head, and rolled out the kinks in her neck.

“You doing anything today?” Vinyl asked.

“A very long bubble bath,” Cadence said with relish. “Shining and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day.”

Vinyl bobbed her head. “Riiight. Forgot you hate today. Heh, irony.”

Cadence sighed. “Yes, it’s not lost on me.” She checked the clock. Only two minutes to showtime. She warmed up her voice with a few exercises and ran through her mantra again, coming out of it with her best smile.

“Ready?” Vinyl asked before shutting the recording door.

“As I’ll ever be,” she said in a chipper voice.

“All right.” Vinyl’s voice now came through a small speaker. “You’re on in 5… 4… 3…” Through the screen, Vinyl counted off the last two seconds on her fingers, then pointed to Cadence as the sign over head blinked green and read, ‘On air.’

Cadence clapped her hands and held them to her cheek. “Good morning, Canterlot!” She sang into her headset. “This is your Mi Amore in the Morning wishing you the happiest of Sundays! But not just any Sunday; that’s right, it’s that time of year again! Grab that special person in your life, partner, parent, sibling, or friend, and tell them Happy Valentine’s Day!” She had to sell it, but that didn’t mean she had to only sell it to couples.

“I’ll be with you all day, playing all of your favorite love songs, and starting at noon, I’ll be taking caller requests, so have your phones ready! Plus, I have three special guests here for an exclusive interview at three, so stay tuned!” She flipped a few switches and set the queue for the first ten songs. “Well, let’s get right to it! Start your Valentine’s Day right with some soothing love songs courtesy of your Mi Amore in the Morning!” She hit play and switched her microphone off, then slumped back in her chair. Only fourteen hours and fifty-seven minutes to go. She rubbed the space between her eyes.

“You okay, Boss?” Vinyl asked through the intercom.

Cadence sat up and took a large gulp of her coffee. “Yep! Doing great! When are the Dazzlings arriving?”

Vinyl checked a clipboard. “They promised to be here an hour before the interview.”

“Great, thank you.” Cadence leaned on one of the arm rests. Why the station and the Dazzlings wanted her to interview them still puzzled Cadence. Had the Dazzlings heard her remark that she wouldn’t play any of their songs? It wasn’t anything personal; it was in her contract: only play love songs. That was her thing. The Dazzlings could be the nicest people she ever interviewed, it wouldn’t change anything unless they wrote a love song.

Besides, every other station already played them around the clock. Something Cadence found a little odd. Sure, she liked the Dazzlings’ music and found herself humming it at odd times, but playing them every fourth song seemed overkill. No one had done that when Countess Coloratura debuted last year.

Cadence made a mental shrug. Maybe today she’d see what all the hype was about.

*******

Sunset laid the blanket out over the dead grass. Despite being the middle of winter, Canterlot Park still looked nice from the top hill. She put the basket on top and took out two bowls, two cups, a thermos, a small pot, and some bread.

“I know you don’t like Valentine’s Day that much, but still, it’s been awhile since we’ve been on a date,” she said. She sat down and patted the the spot next to her.

Twilight sat close and nuzzled up to Sunset. Her thick jacket took some of the intimacy away, but Sunset still appreciated the closeness. “Yeah, you’re right. Anytime we’re alone together, we’re usually studying.” Her pink nose twitched. “Mmm, it smells really good.”

Sunset pointed to the pot. “I made my special: vegetable ramen with egg.”

“How gourmet.” Twilight giggled. “Cadence kinda rubbed off on me in regards to Valentine’s Day. But the fact that you made all of this yourself and that we’re out having a picnic instead of fighting for a space at some dumb restaurant makes up for it.” She leaned over and kissed Sunset on the nose.

Sunset cupped Twilight’s cheek and kissed her back on the lips. “You’re cold,” she said afterwards. She dug in her bag for the ladle and opened the pot up. “Here, hot ramen before you freeze to death.”

“It’s not that cold.” Twilight took the bowl and fork from Sunset and started blowing on the heap of noodles and vegetables.

“She said while wearing her giant jacket and gloves.”

Twilight glared at her through the steam rising from her food. “You can’t go one day with being snarky, can you?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Sunset ladled herself a bowl, the poured each of them a cup of hot cocoa. “Happy February 14th, Sparky.”

Twilight raised her cup and clinked it against Sunset’s. “Happy February 14th, Shimmy.”

Sunset snorted, thankful she hadn’t taken a sip yet. “Shimmy?”

Twilight blushed. “You don’t like it?”

“I never said that. It’s just, you never call me anything other than Sunset.”

Twilight threw a hand up. “I know. But you call me Sparky all the time.” She tapped her fingers together. “I kinda wanted a pet name for you.”

Sunset’s heart fluttered in the way all the cheesy romance novels described. “Awww. Wait, what about Sunny?”

“Pinkie and Artemis already call you that. I wanted one to myself.”

“Awwww,” Sunset repeated. “Well, Shimmy isn’t bad, but keep trying.” She dug into her ramen, pleasantly surprised at how it turned out.

Twilight hummed in delight and nodded her head. “This is really good, Sunset!”

“Well, it’s one of the few things I lived off of for three years, so I hope I’m good at cooking it.” They let their quiet munching and slurping speak for themselves for a time.

Twilight set her bowl down, melancholy leftover on her face. “I know you wanted us to just forget things for a day but…” She laced her gloved fingers together. “Is it wrong for us to be having a good time when there’s so much going on around us?” She looked at Sunset directly. “I mean, the Sirens kidnapped Artemis, and the Crystal Heart is in the hands of a thief. But we’re here having a picnic.”

Sunset took her time responding. She had thought about it a lot between their conversation yesterday and now. This did feel like something her selfish version would have done: had fun while others suffered. It bounced back and forth through her head all night; she thought she wouldn’t sleep. She laid a hand over Twilight’s fingers. “I know, it kinda sucks. But we’ve done all we can right now.” She tightened her other fist. “I know Artemis is gone right now, but you know what he’d tell me if he were here?”

Twilight shook her head.

“He’d tell me to go out and have fun, and to smile more.” Sunset actually allowed herself a small smile. “Just because we’re out having fun doesn’t mean we don’t care. We can’t be consumed by bad events all the time.”

Twilight leaned against her and closed her eyes. “I know that. It just feels different when it’s happening right in front of you.”

Sunset rested her head atop Twilight’s. “It’s just one day, remember? That’s all we’re taking. We’ll get through it. I promise.” A cold wind blew over them, but in each other’s embrace, they hardly felt it.

A yawn escaped Twilight, and she leaned up and stretched. “Hold on. I need to give you your February 14th present before I fall asleep.” She reached back for her violin case and pulled it onto her lap. “I composed a song just for you.”

Sunset’s heart did that cheesy romance novel fluttering again. “R-really? Just for me.” Her cheeks heated up. “Twilight, I don’t know what to say.”

Twilight tuned her violin and tucked it under her chin. “Don’t say anything. Just listen.” She made a quick test of her strings, then began to play. It opened with a quick tempo composed of many short and sharp notes that created a harsh sound. It Twilight’s hands, it still sounded elegant, but Sunset knew it was meant to be rough. Twilight’s strokes became slower and softer, and she played in long low notes. Sorrow and loneliness welled up in Sunset, almost bringing a tear to her eye. Something else stirred within the music. Nostalgia perhaps? It wasn’t her own sadness Twilight tried to capture in her strokes, but the emotion proved strong enough for her to shed a tear. She rose up to higher notes and played a much more jovial and heartwarming melody.

Sunset thought of her time spent with her friends, getting to know each of them, their hobbies and likes. She sucked in a sharp breath, realizing why this song was written for her. This song was her. Starting from the moment she and Twilight had first met, to Sunset pouring out her all of her painful fears and sorrow, to them spending time with each other while Sunset grew as a person. Twilight drew to a close, finishing with a regal and confident flourish, the last note echoing off the hill. Sunset’s future: that she would do something incredible.

"That...” Sunset couldn’t help it anymore. She wiped away the tears running down her face. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. And-and you made it for me. It was like a symphony of angels.”

Amidst her modest blushed cheeks, Twilight said, “Huh, Symphony of Angels. That would be a good title for it.” She set her violin down and snuggled up to Sunset again. “I’m glad you liked—mmmmph!” Sunset pressed her lips onto Twilight’s and brought her to the ground.

Hands tangled in hair, bodies pressed against each other, Sunset proudly called this her first sloppy make-out session with Twilight. It was a good thing the surrounding area was empty. Twilight kept her hands on Sunset’s waist, moving them in a way that warmed her more than any winter pants.

When Sunset let up so they could both breathe, Twilight asked in a winded and hesitant voice, “We aren’t about to…?”

Sunset rolled off Twilight, face scarlet. “Oh, oh n-no, no. I was just… sorry, I got caught up in the moment. I-I mean… unless…”

Twilight sat up, glasses askew. She looked away as she took them off and cleaned them on her shirt. “N-no! I mean, not right now! I mean, we’re in public! Th-that is to say, I don’t not want to! I-I just…”

Sunset put a gentle hand on Twilight’s leg, prompting her to turn around. “It’s okay. I get it,” she said sincerely. “It hasn’t even been two months yet. And I like where we are right now.” She was relieved Twilight had shown enough sense for both of them. A primal and longing urge had started creeping up on Sunset; one that she knew she was nowhere near ready to give into.

Face-to-face again, Twilight smiled and set her glasses on again. “Yeah. This is good for us. The books I’ve read—and Cadence—say it’s important to go at a pace that is comfortable for both of us and that we communicate to make sure we both know what that pace is.”

“There’s my little nerd,” Sunset said with a laugh. She gave Twilight a much gentler kiss. After Twilight pulled away, she lowered her head into Sunset’s lap and closed her eyes.

Sunset kept one hand on Twilight’s head and used the other to lean on while she looked up at the patchy sky.This is all that I need. This is all that I want to happen right now.

“Umm… did you ever… do it with Flash?”

Tranquility broken. Sunset looked down at Twilight with a lidded glare. Twilight opened an eye and recoiled. “O-open communication!” she pleaded.

Sunset sighed and looked to the sky again. “No. Flash and I never had sex. Of any kind.” She could feel a tense breath leave Twilight.

“Sorry, pooky.”

Sunset looked down again. “Pooky?”

“No pooky?”

“No pooky.”

*******

Surprise and gratitude filled Sunset. The universe had seen fit to give her two uninterrupted, drama free, Moondancer free hours with her girlfriend. Of course, she should have known the second she let her guard down something bad was due to happen.

She and Twilight had just finished their last mugs of cocoa when Sunset’s phone went off. A second later, so did Twilight’s. They looked at each other then examined their phones. “Mine’s from Rarity,” Sunset said.

“Mine’s from Rainbow.”

Sunset flipped her phone open. “This can’t be good. Hey, Rares, what’s up?”

“Hi, Sunset!” Rarity said in a voice that sounded a little too chipper for Sunset’s liking. “How’s your date going?”

“It was going great,” Sunset said, not trying to be subtle. “Aren’t you supposed to be on a date with Flash?”

“We had brunch earlier and saw a movie. Oh, it was such a wonderful time! Ahem, but uh, that’s not the reason I’m calling.”

What?” Twilight’s outburst made Sunset fumble with her phone. Sunset looked over to see her on her feet, pacing the blanket.

“Rarity, Rainbow just called Twilight, so if you don’t want me to hear a second hand account, you better tell me what’s up.”

Rarity took a deep breath. “The Dazzlings were just on the radio, Cadence’s radio station to be exact. She just had an interview with them, and they’re hosting a city wide Battle of the Bands competition. The winner gets 50,000 dollars and a chance to open for them at an encore concert here in Canterlot.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. But I sincerely doubt it’s for publicity alone.”

Sunset looked up at Twilight, still walking the length of the blanket. A competition? And an encore performance? With them around, any competition is sure to breed negativity for them to lap up. But why a Battle of the Bands? And why let the winners perform with them? Her phone buzzed in her hand, and her screen told her she had a new message. “I’ll call you back, Rarity. Thanks for letting me know.”

“Of course, Sunset.”

Her new message was a short one from Selena. ‘Come home.’

“Right then.” Sunset tucked her phone away and stood up. “Not even a full day, huh? It was nice while it lasted though.” She started packing everything away while Twilight wrapped up her conversation with Rainbow.

“This is… unexpected,” Twilight said.

Sunset rolled the blanket up and put it in the basket. “Yeah. But it does mean we get to keep an eye on them. Text the girls and tell them to meet at my… Trixie’s house in half an hour.”

Twilight took to typing while Sunset continued to think. That Lamia thief has the Crystal Heart, so they don’t want to leave without it. Sunset lined a few of the pieces up, but she couldn’t help but think there was something missing.

She and Twilight left the park as the wind grew colder and the sun sank lower in the sky. It was a short ride back to Sunset’s house, where Selena and Trixie waited in the kitchen, along with the last sound Sunset expected to hear in their house.

“Battle! We wanna win it

“Let's have a battle, battle of the bands

“Let's have a battle, we'll go all in it

“Let's have a battle, battle, battle

“Battle of the bands!”

Sunset dropped her supplies at the sound of the Sirens’ voices. “Why are you playing that?” She raised an eyebrow. “And I thought you only listened to Mi Amore in the Morning?”

Selena gave her a glum look. “This is Mi Amore in the Morning.”

“That’s right!” Cadence’s upbeat voice came on as the song faded out. “You just heard the Dazzlings’ brand new song, tying in perfectly with their announcement of the Canterlot City Battle of the Bands! Anyone between the ages of thirteen and eighteen are eligible to sign up for a shot at winning 50,000 dollars in prize money and the chance of a lifetime! Opening for the Dazzlings themselves when they play Canterlot in an encore performance! Do you have what it takes to shine with the brightest? Remember: there can only be one winner!”

Twilight whimpered and dropped her face into her hands. “They got to her too. She only plays love songs. I tried to tell her they were evil but she wouldn’t listen to me!”

Sunset wrapped a comforting arm around Twilight’s shoulder. “It’s gonna be all right. This is all temporary, I promise.”

Selena switched the radio off. “They’re trying to extend their stay so they can find the Heart,” she said, matching Sunset’s thoughts. “I just don’t understand why they’re offering such extravagant prizes. You would think they wouldn’t want to share the stage with anyone.”

“But this means we have another chance to rescue Father,” Trixie said excitedly.

“Actually—” A knock at the door cut Sunset off. Huh, they got here faster than I thought. “Sorry, Selena, I didn’t think they’d be this quick, but I invited some friends over,” Sunset said as she went to let them in.

“Hello, Sunset,” Rarity said, standing at the front of the whole group. “Sorry your date got interrupted.”

Sunset stepped aside to let them in. “Yeah, it’s a bummer, but this is kinda important. I’m just surprised you all got here so fast.”

Applejack said, “The four of us were already at Rainbow’s house spendin’ the day together. We just had to wait for Rarity before we could move.”

“Selena,” Sunset said as she led them into the kitchen, “these are the rest of my friends.” They all gave a polite wave.

Selena smiled genuinely at each of them in turn. “It’s nice to meet all of you, truly. Sunset speaks fondly of you.” She looked at Sunset. “And I don’t want to sound rude, but why are they here right now?”

“Because I think they can help. They’re the ones that…” Sunset sighed and looked at the floor. “They beat me when I turned into a demon.” She perked up again. “They have magic now that resists the Sirens.”

All eyes were on her now. Selena gave her a trusting nod, urging her to continue. Trixie looked dubious at best but gave Sunset her attention.

Sunset took a deep breath, lining up the pieces in her head. “So, the Sirens want to have a music competition while they look for the Heart so they can feed off the negativity it’ll create. The bad news is, no matter what, they’re going to get stronger. But, I think I might know how to stop them.” Everyone leaned forward, hooked onto Sunset’s every word. “Before Artemis… left, you guys were trying to find a counterspell against the Sirens’ magic, right?”

Selena nodded. “That’s right. We didn’t find anything conclusive though.”

“That’s okay, because I think the answer was in front of us the entire time.” Sunset raised her arms. “What’s the best way to forget a song you don’t like?”

Pinkie flailed her hand about. “Oh, oh! I know! Another song!"

Sunset snapped her fingers. “Exactly! The best way to counter the Sirens’ is with more music! We need a musical counterspell! Artemis said it himself: music is one of the oldest forms of magic. If we can create a counterspell and win the competition, we can play it at the concert! Everyone who’s already being influenced will be there or be listening, so the spell will break!”

Her friends looked back at her with amazement and pride. “That’s not a bad plan at all,” Twilight said.

Selena nodded, looking contemplative. “No, it’s quite good. It just…” She pursed her lips. “It requires you girls standing in harm’s way.”

“But that’s just it,” Sunset continued, “it’s the safest plan we have. The Sirens already captured Artemis; they probably think they don’t have any enemies left to worry about aside from you. They won’t suspect a thing as long as the girls don’t pony up. The hard part is just getting to the finals and winning.”

“That’s a pretty big hurdle to jump, Sunset,” Applejack said. “Ah mean, Pinkie can play anything and Rainbow can play the guitar pretty well—”

Amazingly well.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “But the rest of us aren’t all that great.”

“It’s a competition for teenagers, Applejack,” Sunset said. “You don’t have to be amazing, just stay in rhythm and sound better than the other garage bands playing.”

Rainbow punched a fist into the air. “I’m all for this plan! We get to rock out and kick some Siren butt! We’ll make a band, save the world, get paid for it, and become stars! There’s no downside to this!”

Applejack held a hand out in front of Rainbow. “First and foremost, we’ll do it to protect our loved ones. It’s gonna take some practice, but if it means keepin’ Apple Bloom safe, Ah’ll do it.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun along the way!” Pinkie said, bouncing on her toes.

“Or look fabulous doing it,” Rarity added.

Selena yielded a sigh. “Technically, I can’t stop you girls. But since you’re all dead set on trying to help, then I’ll do whatever I can to assist.” She smiled again. “If anyone can save Artemis, I have a feeling it will be the eight of you.”

“No."

Every head turned toward Trixie. “What?” Sunset asked.

“Trixie said no!” She balled her fists. “You all just waltz in here like it’s no big deal, claiming you all have magic and can beat the Sirens and save Trixie’s father! Well, Trixie won’t be upstaged or held back by a bunch of talentless nobodies! Especially if you’re going to treat this like a game!” Her heated glower hyperfocused on Rarity, Pinkie, and Rainbow.

Selena narrowed her eyes to cold slits. “Trixie, watch yourself!”

“I am!” Trixie pointed to Applejack. “She said it herself: half of them don’t know how to play an instrument, and you want to place all our hopes on them?” Trixie ground her teeth. “Trixie won’t have it. Trixie has the magic and the skills to win the competition and save her father! She doesn’t need or want their help.”

Selena grabbed Trixie by the ear. “Enough of this foolishness. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves. They’ll have a better chance at beating the Sirens if you add your magic to theirs.”

Trixie yanked her ear free with a cry of pain. She looked at her mother with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re taking their side. I have the magic to beat the Sirens and save Dad! I’ll prove it!” She turned and ran for the stairs.

“Beatrice Lulamoon, get back down here!” A slamming door was the only response. Selena rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think she would act this way.”

Sunset responded first. “Maybe she has a point though. She does have some magic.” However weak. “If she competes as one team and the girls compete as another, we have two shots at getting to the Sirens.”

“It also means you’ll be fighting against each other, which is exactly what the Sirens want.”

“Don’t worry,” Rarity said. “If that time comes, we’ll be sure to act with cool heads and keep our confrontation graceful and dignified.”

“Even though we’re totally gonna whoop butt! Ow!” Rainbow rubbed the shoulder Applejack had jabbed.

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy said, hiding in her hair. “I don’t think I have what it takes to ‘whoop butt’, especially in front of a c-crowd.”

Sunset put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Fluttershy. You’ve already ponied up twice. And if it makes you more comfortable, we’ll keep you in the back of the group.”

Rainbow beat a fist against her chest. “Besides, everyone will be paying attention to me and my awesome guitar skills! No one will even notice you. Ow!” She glared at Applejack again.

“All right, we’ve finally got a plan,” Sunset said. “Go home, get some rest, and get ready to start practicing tomorrow. I’ll start trying to figure out the counterspell.” She walked them to the door and saw them out. Twilight made sure she was last and lingered in the threshold.

She looked down at her shoes. “Should… I be in the band too?”

“What? Of course! Why wouldn’t you be?”

“I don’t have any magic.”

Sunset shrugged. “Well, I don’t think that’s going to hinder them or anything. Besides, you’re the best instrument player out of all of us.”

Twilight looked up and beamed. She leaned in and kissed Sunset, long and soft. “Thank you for today,” she said softly when she pulled away.

Sunset gave a dazed nod. “Yeah, no problem. Thanks for the song. I really, really loved it. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you tomorrow.” They both hesitated again before Twilight turned and hurried after the group. Sunset slowly shut the door and made her way back to the kitchen, finding Selena was already gone. Off to talk to Trixie if Sunset ventured to guess.

She pulled up a chair and sat at the counter, drumming her fingers on the surface. “A counterspell, huh?”

*******

“Happy Monday, everyone,” Luna said over the PA as first period began. Sunset sat next to Rarity in the front row, pencil and paper out as she continued to scribble notes for her spell. “I hope you all had a good weekend. Due to the announcement of the Battle of the Bands hosted by the Dazzlings, we have seen this as a conflict of interest with our school’s musical showcase. As such, the showcase has been cancelled so anyone participating can focus on the battle. You can pick up official registration forms in Principal Celestia’s office along with rental waivers for the instruments in the music room. Good luck, everyone. Remember: there can only be one winner.”

Sunset lifted her head, face twisted into a scowl. “Great, looks like they got to the principals too.”

“We may as well resign to the fact that we’re the only ones not influenced in any way,” Rarity said.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Now, if Miss Shimmer and Miss Belle would stop talking, we could begin the lesson,” Mr. Noteworthy said. Sunset was almost relieved to see him acting normal.

The beginning of the day passed without incident. Sunset picked up the registration forms and a few rental papers, and discreetly filled them out during English. When lunch came around, all they needed was a band name.

The atmosphere Sunset walked into upon entering the cafeteria was a far cry from the usual warmth and openness. In fact… a chill went down her spine. It reminded her of when she had the school divided. The tables were still integrated with students from different cliques and interests, but they all seemed cut off from one another, scattered islands on a vast sea.

Sunset paddled over to hers and sat down. “Anyone else feel a mood shift here?”

Applejack nodded. “Everyone here is more tense than a pig before Christmas dinner.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and pulled out the registration form. “Anyways, I’m almost done filling this out.” Rainbow snatched it from her hand and started reading over it. “We just need a name,” Sunset said irritably.

“The Spectacular Seven, duh!” Pinkie said.

“But there’s only six of you playing.”

“Yeah about that,” Rainbow said, holding the form up. “Why aren’t you on here, and why is Twilight playing violin?”

Twilight winced like she had been hit.

Applejack looked ready to thump Rainbow again, but her eyes caught sight of the paper. “Wait, why do you have me playing bass?”

“In order,” Sunset said, counting off on her fingers. “I can’t play any instruments, and even if I could, you know why I’m not playing in the band. Twilight’s amazing on her violin, so be thankful she’s here. And because, Applejack, if I have to go through the whole competition hearing you twang on your banjo, I guarantee by the end of it, either it or you will be broken in half.”

Applejack crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.

Rainbow snickered. “She’s got a point, A.J. But then, why can’t Twilight play something else? A violin is going to cramp our rock and roll style. We already have a tambourine.”

“And a keytar,” Sunset said, patience starting to strain. “You’re not a rock band, you’re pop. Get over it. Now, names?”

“Little star! Little star!” a voice sang.

Ponyfeathers.

Moondancer danced over, a form of her own in hand. “My cosmic flower, I’m sure you heard the news! A music competition with fabulous prizes!” She swooped down and took Twilight’s hands into her own. “What do you say, Twily? You and I, on stage together, bringing an air of class and refinement to the drove of ameture performers and homemade bands doomed to toil in obscurity! Your sweet strings and my delicate keys could sweep them all away into stardust!”

Sunset smiled, but felt a muscle in her cheek straining. “Well, as one of the ‘homemade bands doomed to toil in obscurity’ Twilight is playing with us.”

"Yep, a violin in a now pop band,” Rainbow said, making a poor attempt to hide her bitterness.

Twilight turned her hurt look into a sharp glare. “Moondancer,” she said sweetly, “could you give me a second? We need to have our first band meeting.”

“Of course,” she said. Sunset took some satisfaction on seeing her put out. Irritation replaced it as she joined Twilight in staring Rainbow down.

“What’s wrong with the violin?” Twilight asked in a heated whisper.

Rainbow held her hands up in defense. “Nothing. I’m just saying, having it in a pop band seems weird. How many pop songs on the radio do you hear with violins? Now, if we were still a rock band…”

“Rainbow, get over it. Twilight’s playing violin in a pop band. End of discussion,” Sunset said.

“Actually…” Twilight spared a glance to Moondancer. “Maybe I should play with her instead.”

If looks could kill, Sunset would have committed second-degree murder on Rainbow. “Why?”

Twilight wrung her hands. “Well, like I said yesterday, I don’t have any magic. And I know you said it won’t effect anything, but we don’t know that for sure.” She dropped her voice lower. “Besides, if I play with Moondancer, we can help make sure other bands don’t make it too far. Then in the semi-finals, I’ll have a bad day and get us disqualified, helping you girls make it to the end.”

“That’s rather devious of you, Twilight,” Rarity said. “But certainly appreciated.”

“It’s a fair compromise, right?” Twilight asked Sunset. “Rainbow gets her violin free band, I get to spend some time with Moondancer and play violin, and I’ll help you girls save everyone!”

Sunset heard the slight resentment in Twilight’s voice and wanted to sock Rainbow square in the mouth. ‘No’ formed on her tongue, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Twilight had sound points. Still, Sunset couldn’t look Twilight in the eyes. “Yeah, it’s a good plan. I’m sure you two will sound great together."

Twilight kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry, we’re just friends. I’m doing all this to help you, okay?”

“I know. I appreciate it, really.”

Twilight nodded and stood from the table. “Moondancer!”

Moondancer reappeared in an instant, as if coming from thin air. “Yes, my little star?” Her eyes shone with hope.

“I’ve decided to team up with you. It’ll be just like old times!”

Moondancer threw her arms in the air and spun around. “Oh, joyous day! The Muses have granted me their favor!” She took Twilight by the arm and whisked her off. “Marvelous, simply marvelous! Come now, we have so much to do! Compose, practice, dress up! We’re going to shake the heavens, you and I!” As they exited the cafeteria, Moondancer looked back with vain triumph in her eyes.

She wrote you a song. Remember, she wrote you a song. Even then, Sunset couldn’t help but clench her fists under the table. She turned back to Rainbow, who now found her fries were incredibly interesting. Applejack raised her fist and slugged Rainbow in the shoulder.

“Ow!”

"Thank you, Applejack.”

“No problem, sugarcube.”

Pinkie picked up the form. “Well, we can’t be the Spectacular Seven now. Anyone else got a name?”

Rainbow rubbed her arm. “How about the Rain—”

“Rainbow, I swear to every god listening, if you try to name this band after yourself, I will reach over and strangle you until you’re purple,” Sunset said in a dark monotone.

“...booms. We can be the Rainbooms. That’s totally what I was going to say.”

Fluttershy raised her hand. “I like it.”

Pinkie nodded. “We are going to shoot a rainbow at the Sirens, right? I say it fits.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and wrote ‘Rainbooms’ at the top of the paper. “All right, you girls are officially the Rainbooms.”

“What about you, Sunset?” Rarity asked.

“Consider me your band manager, I guess. You girls focus on practicing, I’ll worry about everything else.” The lunch bell rang soon after, and everyone shuffled into the halls, bumping elbows and brushing shoulders without acknowledgement or apology. And it’s only going to get worse, Sunset thought.

“Hey, Rarity!” The rest of the girls stopped and looked back as Flash strolled up to them.

Rarity twirled a finger through her hair and smiled. “Hello, Flash dear. How are you?”

“I’m good. Totally psyched about this Battle of the Bands. Once my band wins, my music career will be set!” He straighten the collar of his jacket and gave Rarity that smile that made other girls swoon while Sunset inwardly gagged. “So, do you wanna come listen to my band practice after school?”

Rarity’s smile became pained. “I’d love to, Flash, but… the girls and I are set to practice after school as well.”

Flash stared dumbfounded at her. “Practice? For what?” Sunset could tell he already knew the answer.

“The Battle of the Bands. We’re competing as well.”

He looked over Rarity’s shoulder to the other girls for a moment, then stared back at her. “You’re joking, right? Aside from Rainbow, none of you play any instruments. You don’t even have a band.”

Rarity wilted, still trying her hardest to give a polite smile. “It’s not a joke, Flash. Most of us have some musical background, we’re just learning to play different instruments.”

Flash’s calm veneer split, revealing the scowling teen beneath. “I can’t believe you.” He jabbed a finger at her. “I can’t believe you’re going to compete. Against me! I thought you liked me!”

“Flash, you don’t understand!”

“I understand that you’re trying to take my one chance at proving to my parents that I can be somebody—that music isn’t just a hobby! You knew how badly I wanted that!”

Sunset stepped in front of Rarity. “Lay off, Flash! This isn’t just about you, okay?”

Flash narrowed his eyes. “It never is, is it? Not when you’re around. You just like seeing me miserable, don’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

He banged a fist against the locker. “Every time something good is about to happen to me, you’re around and it goes away. The first Twilight comes to Canterlot, you turn into a demon and then she goes home. The second Twilight, turns out she likes you instead. I start dating Rarity and have a shot at my dreams, you turn her against me to make sure I lose!”

“You’re out of your mind!” Sunset yelled, blood boiling.

“And you’re out of your league! There’s no way I’m going to let you beat me this time!” He snorted and stomped past them, hands still curled. “I can’t believe I thought you changed! We’re not friends, Sunset.” He looked back at Rarity. “And whatever we were, we’re not that anymore.”

They watched him go, as did the small crowd that had gathered during the escalation. Applejack gently ushered them to keep moving to class while Sunset kept an arm around Rarity’s shoulder. She looked more shellshocked than anything, but soon, the tears started falling.

Yeah. It’s only going to get worse.

13. Vs. The World

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Trying to rent instruments had been a battle in and of itself. Sunset counted them lucky they didn’t need an electric guitar, as that had been the first to go. Getting the bass for Applejack and drum set for Pinkie required some aggressive maneuvering, as everyone who wanted to compete crowded around the music office, rental papers in hand, and pushing and shoving to be the first in line.

How many of these kids even know how to play an instrument? Sunset wondered as she shoved Roseluck out of her way. Not that she could think much of it; half her friends barely played either, yet here they were. Still, they were doing it out of necessity. Everyone else just wanted their ten seconds of fame.

Mrs. Carol, head of the music department, waded through the sea of students to get to her office door. “Okay, okay, settle down please,” she said, trying to ignore the papers being shoved in her face. “Just let me get to my office first and—ooof! Please, no shoving! You’ll all get an instrument, I promise!” She finally got to her door and opened it up, allowing the students to pour in before she even made it to her desk.

Agile and forceful, Sunset ended up at the front of the line. Someone pulled on her hair, and she kicked her boot back into someone’s shin. She smiled sweetly at Mrs. Carol and laid her papers on the table.

“Hello, Miss Shimmer,” Mrs. Carol said in a tired voice. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Sunset said, pressing herself against the desk thanks to the crowd behind her. “Sorry about the mob.”

Mrs. Carol waved a hand while she read over the papers. “It’s fine. I’m just glad the students are taking such an active interest in music now. So, you need a bass, a drum set, a tambourine, and a keytar?”

“Yes, please.”

She stamped all the forms and handed Sunset a key. “They’re all yours. Take good care of them, and good luck!”

“Thank you.” Sunset turned to find the mob glaring at her. She stuck her tongue out and pushed past them, ignoring the unsavory whispers. Just like old times. She met the girls in front of the band room and they loaded the instruments into the back of Applejack’s truck. Not wanting to bother with trying to book the room for practice, the girls headed out to Sweet Apple Acres.

The paved roads of the city gave way to gravel, then dirt as they rode out to the edge. Farmland rolled in front of them with the Everfree Forest spread out just over the last hill. Applejack made a left and pulled into her long driveway, Rainbow tailgating right behind.

The last time Sunset had been here, the trees had been full of golden leaves, their apples just plucked from harvest. Now, the trees were skeletal, naked branches clawing at the sky. Stepping out of the car, Sunset found the ground hard and cold, and the grass limp and brown. She knew all of it would be alive come spring, but still found it a sorry sight.

The group moved everything into the barn while Applejack herded the animals out to graze. The smell of cows, pigs, and hay still lingered. Sunset pinched her nose. “Well, this isn’t ideal, but it’ll have to do.”

“Hey, no fair!” three voices said in unison.

Sunset turned and found Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo standing at the mouth of the barn, instruments in hand. Apple Bloom pointed an accusatory finger. “We were gonna use this for our practice space! You stole our idea!”

Applejack walked back into the barn, wiping her hands on her pants. “Sorry, sugarplum, we got here first. Why don’t y’all go practice on the hill outside?”

Apple Bloom gave her sister a vicious glare. “Don’t ‘sugarplum’ me. You know the acoustics are great in here. Ah can’t believe you’re trying to sabotage us already!”

“I can’t believe you’re helping her,” Sweetie said to Rarity.

Rainbow stepped up. “Hey, quit with the accusations! Why would we want to sabotage you?”

“To make sure we can’t see the Dazzlings,” Scootaloo said with venom. “Just like the way you took our tickets.”

Applejack waved her hands in a calming motion. “Ah told you before, it was for yer own good. Those concerts are dangerous.”

“Stop treating us like babies, Applejack,” Apple Bloom said, stomping up a puff of dirt. “We’re in high school now; Ah don’t need you hovering over me like Ah’m a little chick.” She held up her guitar. “And Ah’ll prove it by winning the Battle of the Bands!” She turned on her heel and stormed away, her two friends following along after another set of glares to their older siblings.

The three of them sighed, and Applejack tipped her hat over her eyes. “Today just ain’t our day.”

“Tell me about it,” Sunset and Rarity said, both of them emotionally drained. The girls finished set up and took their positions. Fluttershy stood in the back next to Pinkie while Rarity and Applejack flanked Rainbow in the middle. Sunset sat on a crate to the side, a pen and notebook in her lap. Everyone looked at her expectantly.

“What?”

“What do we play?” Rainbow asked. “You’re the one making the counterspell.”

“Oh…. well…” Sunset pulled at her hair. “The spell isn’t ready yet. Besides, you girls need basic practice anyway. So just, I dunno, play some composition pieces or something. We need to win the competition before we can play the spell anyway.”

“Alrighty then,” Applejack said, giving her bass a few plucks. “Guess Ah’ll get used to playin’ this. Can’t be too hard.”

“We can practice with ‘Shine Like Rainbows’,” Rarity suggested. “That’ll be a good song to play at the preliminaries on Saturday.”

Sunset smacked a palm against her forehead. “Right, you’re gonna need at least three other songs to sing through the battle. I’ll see if I can’t try to compose something else too.”

Rainbow waved a hand. “Don’t worry; I’ve already got some songs written and ready to go.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Are they all as egocentric as your first one?”

“No!”

“Umm, I also wrote a song or two,” Fluttershy said from the back.

Sunset clapped her hands. “Well, this is great. We’ll just tune them to the new instruments and use them to practice. Hop to it, girls.”

The first hour of practice wasn’t easy on Sunset’s ears. Many strings were off key and Fluttershy rattled her tambourine either too softly to hear or off beat from everyone else. As they practiced, Sunset kept her pen tapping against her paper. How did one make a musical counterspell exactly? Was it in the lyrics? Or did the girls just need to pony up while singing? She thought about the Sirens and their hit song. Right in the chorus, they bragged about everyone being under their spell, and lo and behold, it came true.

Sunset scribbled a few lyric ideas. Might as well cover both bases. The lyrics would be the easy part; it was the composition that would prove tricky. She only had two classes worth of experience.

A flash of light caught her attention. Looking up, she found Rainbow hovering a foot off the ground, pony ears up and wings spread wide. She played a quick solo and laughed. “Still awesome!”

Good to see that still works. “Yeah, make sure you don’t do that at the competition. We don’t want the Dazzlings to know we’re onto them. Or get disqualified.”

“Right, right,” Rainbow said with a casual wave. “Be awesome, but not too awesome. Tough, but I think I can manage.”

No one else had ponied up by the end of the day, leaving Sunset to wonder if that was a good or bad thing. She had a page full of notes and ideas, but hardly anything she could call concrete yet. She had at least a few weeks, but wanted time so the girls could practice.

Rainbow dropped her off at home, and stepping through the door, Sunset could hear an electric guitar coming from upstairs. She found Selena in the kitchen, slowly putting together a casserole. “I take it Trixie’s still mad?” Sunset asked.

Selena smacked her serving spoon onto the counter. “I don’t know where she gets this stubbornness. Even Artemis isn’t this foolhardy. I don’t know what she thinks she’s trying to prove, saving him and beating the Sirens by herself; I’m already proud of her!” She sighed and looked at Sunset with sorrowful eyes. “I know she doesn’t want it, but you’ll be there for her if something happens, right?”

“Of course,” Sunset said automatically. Unapologetic as Trixie was, Sunset wouldn’t let anyone else in her pseudo family get hurt.

“Thank you, Sunset,” Selena said, her sorrow turning to gratitude. She moved over to the cutting board and began dicing green onions with a little more vigor. “How was your day?”

Sunset took a seat at the table. “I’ve had better. Twilight joined Moondancer because she didn’t think she could help us, not having magic and all. Flash hates me because he thinks I’m out to ruin his life, and the sisters of my friends think we’re trying to sabotage their chances of winning.”

“That’s a lot to handle in one day. I’m sorry to hear it.” Selena set the knife down and washed her hands. “How’s the counterspell coming?”

“It’s… started.” Sunset put her notebook on the table, and Selena came over and started reading through it. “I’m trying to think of lyrics to counter everything the Sirens say in their songs.”

Selena nodded. “You’re off to a good start. I don’t know what you’re going to rhyme with ‘orange’ though.”

Sunset took the notebook and scribbled it out. “Yeah, I knew that was dumb.”

*******

Saturday came all too soon. Sunset considered it good fortune she shared three classes with Twilight, for Moondancer snatched her away every lunch and after school, always with a look of sheer elation, and a hint of smug satisfaction if Sunset caught her eye.

Practice for the Rainbooms had been slow but steady, with them running through ‘Shine Like Rainbows’, ‘Awesome as I Wanna Be’ (to much disgruntlement), and a few short instrumentals Rainbow had thrown together. In between practice, Sunset had a few of them test chords for her composition of the counterspell. She had the first verse down and had an idea of how she wanted it to sound.

In the meantime, they had the preliminary auditions to get through.

The Battle of the Bands would be hosted at the Canterlot Fairgrounds, not too far from Sweet Apple Acres. When the Rainbooms arrived, a large crowd had already gathered around the three stages set up. Stands for food and Dazzlings memorabilia flanked the outskirts.

“Boy, they’re sure goin’ whole hog, aren’t they?” Applejack said when they settled in the dirt parking lot. “The Dazzlings are havin’ people eat this competition idea up like it’s the greatest thing since apple fritters.”

Rarity stepped lightly, trying not to get dirt on her new designer boots. She had dressed fancy for the occasion, sporting a new purple dress with fake glittering diamonds around the waist. “The least they could do is put in a paved pathway.”

“Ah told you we were goin’ to the fairgrounds,” Applejack said, annoyed.

“Yes, but I didn’t think it would be so… dusty. It’s going to completely ruin my ensemble.”

Sunset messaged her temple. Personally, she didn’t think the judges would care about a little dirt as long as they didn’t look like hobos on stage. “You can come with me to check the schedule then,” she said. “There’s grass further in.”

“I’ll go too,” Rainbow said. “The rest of you stay here and guard the equipment. I don’t trust any other band out here today.”

A justifiable paranoia, Sunset thought as they moved to the heart of the fair. Like Canterlot High on Monday, tension polluted the air, creating a toxic atmosphere that made Sunset’s skin crawl. Collectively, a dull murmur could be heard through the crowd, but upon further inspection, Sunset saw only bandmates talking to fellow bandmates with no outside communication. Just like lunch.

And like renting equipment, Sunset had to fight her way through the crowd gathered in front of the scheduling board. She found the Rainbooms under the 2:00 P.M. column, giving them three hours until showtime. She pushed her way back to Rainbow and Rarity finding them staring open mouthed down the main thoroughfare.

Sitting on a black grand piano being carried by four muscular men was Moondancer, legs crossed, hands folded, and surveying everyone beneath her like she was a princess and they her loving subjects. Twilight walked beside her, trying not to look too embarrassed.

“Set it next to the stage, gentlemen,” Moondancer said while Twilight broke away to the Rainbooms.

“Hi girls,” she said, still looking flustered. “Hi, Sun.”

Sunset drummed her fingers against her lips. “Nah. Keep trying.”

Twilight sighed exasperatedly and leaned up to kiss Sunset. “How’s everything coming along?”

“They’re all getting better, but I guess our first test will be today.”

“Pffft.” Rainbow waved a hand. “Please, we got this on lock. We sound awesome! We just have to make sure we don’t sound so awesome we let you-know-what slip out.”

Sunset glanced over to Moondancer, stepping off her piano. “How’s your practice coming along?”

Twilight brightened like a purple lamp. “It’s been a lot of fun! I forgot how well Moondancer can play! We wrote a lot of great songs and I can’t wait for you to hear them!” She dimmed and cleared her throat. “I mean, it was okay. Just fine.” She wrapped herself around Sunset and leaned into her. “I’ve missed spending time with you though.”

“Awwww,” Rarity gushed.

“Make way! Here comes Trixie and the Illusions!” Trixie pushed her way past Twilight and Sunset, barely sparing them a glance.

“I’m guessing she’s still mad?” Twilight asked.

Sunset gave a sad nod. “Yep. Now all we need is—” Someone shoved past her from behind, and she turned to see blue spiky hair disappear into the crowd. “And the gang’s all here.”

“Attention everyone,” a perky voice said over the loudspeakers, “Please gather at the center stage so we can begin the competition! We have a few announcements to make and a special guest performance!”

The voice sounded familiar to Sunset, and one look at Twilight confirmed her suspicions. “That was Cadence, wasn’t it?”

Twilight gave a regretful nod.

Everyone migrated toward the center of the fairgrounds and gathered in front of the stage. Indeed, Cadence stood front and center, smiling and waving to her admirers. She caught sight of Twilight and gave her an extra large smile.

Twilight returned it halfheartedly. “Why is she here?” she whispered.

Rainbow shrugged. “Celebrity judge maybe? The Dazzlings did announce this thing through her station.”

“Hello, everyone!” Cadence said once the crowd had calmed down some. “I’m Mi Amore in the Morning, but you can call me Cadence! It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Canterlot’s first Battle of the Bands!” She let the crowd roar before continuing. “From today’s preliminary auditions, eighteen bands will move on to the quarterfinals. Nine bands from there will make it to the semis, and three bands will move on to the finals! From there, only one will win the battle and get to play with the Dazzlings!” The crowd cheered again.

“Of course, I will be one of your judges! And now, here are the others!” Cadence gestured to the curtain behind her, where green smoke began to rise up from underneath. “Your favorite songstresses and your judges, The Dazzlings!”

What?” Sunset and the girls chorused. The curtains rose and the Sirens sauntered out, fog drifting with them. They rose their arms and began to sing, the pendants around their neck glowing in the sun.

Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.”

Sunset clapped her hands over Twilight’s ears and pressed down as hard as she could. Twilight squirmed in discomfort but Sunset refused to let up.

Me and you, you and me,

“Why don't we see who is better?

“We don't have to be one and the same thing.

“Oh, what's so wrong with a little competition?

“Are you afraid of failing the audition?

All around her, Sunset could see agitation flowing through the crowd. They were caught between adoring the Dazzlings and trading quiet insults and competitive glares. And looking closer, Sunset saw something she hadn’t noticed before: a green shimmer in each of their eyes, the same green as the fog flowing off the stage.

Well that’s ominous.

By the time the song ended, the crowd was in an angry murmur. Sunset let go of Twilight, allowing her to take off her glasses and rub her ears.

“Are you feeling okay?” Sunset asked.

“I think so?” Twilight set her glasses back on. Sunset couldn’t see any green in her eyes, but couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in her stomach.

Adagio stepped up to the center mike. “We hope you enjoyed our little performance. Now, it’s your turn to dazzle us and prove which one of you is the best in Canterlot!”

Everyone broke into a scramble, shoving and shouting and scrambling over each other to get to their instruments. Sunset huddled close to her friends while the frenzy swarmed around them. As it thinned out, they linked arms and pulled themselves away, finding a safe space near a corn dog stand.

“Great,” Rarity said, dusting her dress off. “The Sirens are the judges, and everyone’s nice and riled up. It’s like they expect us to actually battle.”

“More power for them if we did,” Sunset said. “I thought they might be here, but I didn’t expect them to be judges.” She looked at Rarity and Rainbow. “Now it’s super important you don’t give away your magic. If they see it, there’s nothing stopping them from knocking you out.”

Rainbow put her hands on her hips. “You know, it’s gonna be really hard to show off my awesome guitar skills if I have to hold back this much.”

“We’re here to save the world, not make you look awesome,” Sunset snapped.

“No reason we can’t do both.” Rainbow wilted at Sunset’s guttural growl. “Right, save the world first. Got it.”

Sunset ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “Okay. We’ve still got a few hours before you go on, so let’s—”

“Twilight!” Moondancer came around the corner, eyes passing over Sunset, Rarity, and Rainbow. “There you are! I was worried you had been captured by a rival band.” Her eyes finally found the others, however briefly. “Come, come; we’re due on stage in twenty minutes and…” She licked her thumb and rubbed it against Twilight’s cheek. “Sweetheart, you have a little smudge right there.”

Sunset wished she had magic just long enough to set Moondancer on fire. “Hey!” she said loudly, draping an arm around Twilight and turning her away from Moondancer’s hand. “Good luck, baby, I’m totally rooting for you!” She pulled Twilight in and gave her a long kiss. She kept her eyes close, choosing to imagine Moondancer’s expression of pain and sadness. Sunset released Twilight and finished rubbing the dirt off her cheek.

“Uhh, thanks,” Twilight said, partly dazed. “Good luck to you, too.” Moondancer quickly draped an arm around her and led her away, giving an extra venom filled glare to Sunset.

Sunset turned away and held her arms while she looked at the ground. “I feel sick.”

“Why?” Rainbow asked.

Rarity closed her eyes and tutted. “Because she kissed Twilight to prove a point. And only to prove a point. Isn’t that right, Sunset?”

She just nodded. Sunset was the jealous type; she knew that. But to kiss Twilight in front of Moondancer like that—to show Moondancer the one thing she couldn’t have… Sunset cringed. Perhaps the Sirens’ magic brought out her old habits. Or she wasn’t as reformed as she thought.

Rarity put a hand on her back. “It’s okay, darling, just breathe it out.” Sunset did as she was told and exhaled a tight breath. “There,” Rarity said soothingly. “Now, you know what you did was wrong, and you can make up for it the next time you see her. There’s no need to beat yourself up over it. To be honest, I can’t say I blame you.”

Sunset unwrapped herself and feebly gestured to the parking lot. “Let’s go see the others. We still have to unpack.”

Rainbow quietly scoffed behind them and shoved her hands in her pockets. “Relationships are so weird.”

*******

Sunset bounced back enough to see Twilight and Moondancer’s duet. Moondancer had managed to change before going on stage, switching to a sparkling white, ruffled dress with a long back hem. She took her seat at the keys of her grand piano while Twilight sat on top.

The judges sat at a table in front of the stage with security guards forming a perimeter around them. Even so, a few fans hovered dangerously close to the Dazzlings.

Moondancer opened, fingers daintily dancing across the keys. She hit every note with perfection, making her piano sing a sweet, melodious song. She smiled confidently, her eyes on Twilight the entire time. To Sunset’s pleasure, Twilight kept her eyes closed in concentration.

Their instruments flowed together seamlessly. The song washed over the noisy crowd, drawing their attention and silencing them.

When the duo finished, Sunset was one of the few who clapped. The rest muttered to one another in angry or jealous whispers. Sunset saw Cadence restraining herself from leaping to her feet to give Twilight a standing ovation.

“Thank you, girls, that was excellent!” she said, giving them her biggest smile. She scribbled what looked like tens in every box on the scoresheet. The Sirens just smiled approvingly while they got up and moved to the next stage.

That’s a tough act to follow, Sunset thought. I feel bad for the next band.

“We are Sex Bob-omb! One, two, three, four!” Sunset heard a clash of instruments and stuck her tongue out. There was one band not making it to the quarterfinals.

“Excuse me, miss!”

Sunset turned around, finding a woman with a mic and a man with with a camera standing only a foot away from her. Sunset leaned back from the mic in her face. “Umm, hi?”

“Inside Scoop from Channel 14 News,” the woman said. “May we have a moment of your time for your thoughts on the Battle of the Bands?”

“Sure, I guess,” Sunset said, still eyeing the mic hovering close to her cheek. She had never been interviewed before.

“Excellent!” Scoop brought the mic back to herself. “What do you think of the competition so far? Are you nervous? Worried? Intimidated by some of the other bands?” She pressed the mic back to Sunset.

Sunset took half a step back. Her ears filtered in the loud mess of noise from the current band and she scoffed. “Intimidated? No. I mean sure, a fair amount of them have some talent but it’s nothing to get nervous about.”

“So do you think you can win? What’s the name of your band and what music do you play?”

“Oh, well, I’m not competing myself. I’m sort of a band manager/stage hand for my friends. They’re the Rainbooms, and they’re a pop band.”

“And you think they have the best shot?”

Sunset shrugged. “With some practice, I think they have a good chance.”

Scoop turned her back to Sunset and looked at the camera. “There you have it! The Battle of the Bands is heating up with talents like the Rainbooms expecting to sweep the competition.”

Sunset leaned over Scoop’s shoulder. “That’s not what I said.” Neither Scoop nor the cameraman paid her any mind. He pointed to another group of kids and they moved on. Sunset stood in the middle of the dry grass, face sour. “Why do I have the feeling this will somehow come back to bite me?”

“Sunset!”

Oh, what now? She turned around to find Pinkie running toward her, a corn dog in her hand.

“We have a teensy tiny problem!” She took a bite out of her corn dog and chewed for a second. “You have to come with me, quick!” She grabbed Sunset with her open hand and dragged her off.

Sunset learned not to resist whenever Pinkie led her somewhere, but it didn’t stop her from glaring at the back of Pinkie’s poofy hair. They went across the field to the third stage, where Flash and his band were trying to set up. Unfortunately, they seemed to be in a heated argument with the other Rainbooms and Sweetie, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo.

Rainbow and Flash were inches away from butting heads. “Fluttershy wrote the song,” Rainbow said heatedly. “It belongs to her!”

“And Sunset practically begged us to play it!” Flash argued. “We have as much right to it as you do since we actually performed it!”

Apple Bloom jumped up between them. “We actually sang the lyrics though! So we have every right to perform it too!” The three of them stopped taking turns and tried to talk over each other, growing louder with each incoherent sentence.

Sunset pieced together which song they were arguing about and sighed. She walked over to Fluttershy, hovering on the edge of the group, away from the main confrontation. “Aren’t you going to say something? ‘Shine Like Rainbows’ is your song.”

Fluttershy played with her fingers. “Well, I mean, I would like it if we could sing it today. But, they do have a good point. I don’t want anyone to be upset.”

“Sweety, you’re too nice for your own good,” Sunset said, patting Fluttershy on the head. She rolled up her sleeves and marched toward the arguing trio. Time to make some enemies.

She wedged her way between Flash, Rainbow and Apple Bloom. “All of you shut up!” She glared at the opposing band members. “Fluttershy wrote the song. It’s hers. She’s in our band. Ergo, we have first dibs on ‘Shine Like Rainbows.’ Further, I helped finish the song, so I get some say in this too. We get the song, you two can beat it.”

The members of Flash Drive and the Crusaders met her with heated and unforgiving glares. Flash looked ready to spit on her. He turned away, fists tightened, and helped his band finish their set up. The Crusaders turned their hateful glares on their sisters before walking away, noses in the air.

Sunset dropped her arms. “Just when I think I’m done, I get to be the villain again. It’s not nearly as fun as I thought it would be.”

“Yeah, but you helped us out,” Rainbow said reassuringly. “And you sent them away without this turning into a fight. So, positives, right?”

“Sure.” Sunset knew what a used battery felt like. Between the Sirens, Twilight and Moondancer, and making enemies out of her old friends, she was emotionally drained. She still had two hours before the Rainbooms went on; two hours filled with mediocre to average music, soggy popcorn, and numerous shouting matches between the other competitors.

The old me would be having a ball right now, Sunset thought, watching Bon Bon and Derpy get into it. She resumed helping Pinkie set up her drums. Over on the center stage, Trixie and her band finished their song to scattered applause. It didn’t come as a surprise to Sunset, but most bands went completely ignored by the other competitors.

Trixie proved to be Cadence’s opposite. Though she gave a theatrical bow, Sunset could see Trixie fighting not to jump down and tackle Adagio.

Sunset adjusted the hi-hat and stepped back. “All right, Pinks, you’re good to go.” She looked at the others, already set up and in position. She breathed out the butterflies in her stomach. “Well, break a leg, girls.”

“Don’t worry, Sunset,” Rarity said, “I’m sure we’re good enough to claim one of eighteen spots.”

Sunset gave them a thumbs up and stepped into the backstage shadows as the judges came and took their seats. “Band number twenty-six,” Cadence said, “The Rainbooms.”

“And what will you be playing for us today?” Adagio asked.

“It’s a song that’s totally ours and no one else should be playing it!” Rainbow shouted. Leaning forward, Sunset saw why. Flash chose that moment to walk past the stage. He and Rainbow exchanged burning glowers, trying to incinerate each other.

“Dash, you’re an idiot,” Sunset said under her breath. She saw all three Sirens take a collective breath and grin at one another.

When Flash stalked off, Rainbow gave a nod to Pinkie, and she tapped her drumsticks together, counting off, “One, two, three, four!”

“Once… upon a time,

“You came into my world and made the stars align,” Applejack sang while she softly strummed her bass. As Sunset had found out over the week, all her friends (save for Fluttershy who refused to open her mouth unless they sang together) had pretty good voices.

Rarity took the next verse. “Now, I can see the signs,

“You pick me up when I get down so I can shine.”

As one they sang, “Shine like rainbows, ohohoh.” Sunset saw Fluttershy’s mouth move but couldn’t hear her voice. She supposed it didn’t matter in the end, but it would have been nice to hear Fluttershy. Sunset had a gut feeling she had a lovely voice.

Looking out to the crowd, Sunset found Twilight watching with a smile on her face. Even from the stage, Sunset could see the tiny dimples in Twilight’s cheeks, and her perfectly aligned, sparkling teeth. It wasn’t a complete recharge, but it sparked something warm in Sunset again.

She shifted her attention back to the girls. ‘Shine Like Rainbows’ proved to be a good, mellow song for an opening act. They had practiced it enough times, everyone managed to get through their parts without any noticeable mistakes.

As the song neared completion, Sunset swore she could see all of them beginning to sparkle. She gripped the side of the curtain as a soft light started to envelope each of them when they reached the final chorus. She wasn’t hallucinating; they were about to pony up.

I specifically told you not to do that! Sunset looked around frantically for some way to stop them. A bucket rested a yard away, and thinking of nothing else, she ran and gave it a hard kick toward the stage. It bounced and clattered, startling Fluttershy enough to drop her tambourine and throw off the closing line. As the bass line faded, the Rainbooms turned back and gave Sunset mystified looks. Luckily, all of their glitter and glow had disappeared.

“Sorry,” Sunset said with a sheepish wave of her hand. “Clumsy me. Tripped on the bucket.”

Cadence wrote something down but gave them an encouraging smile. “Well, distraction aside, that was lovely, girls.”

“I’ll say,” Adagio purred. “A little saccharine, but still enjoyable.”

Sonata bobbed her head. “I thought it was super cute and catchy!” She looked over to Aria who gave an uninterested shrug.

Sunset wiped the sweat gathering at the top of her forehead. Three out of four judges was pretty good.

Rainbow unplugged her guitar from the amp. “What was with the bucket?” she whispered to Sunset as the judges walked away.

“You were all starting to glow. I had to do something.”

Rarity looked at her keytar. “Really? I didn’t feel like I was doing anything extravagant though.”

“Me neither,” Applejack said. “Ah was just tryin’ to have a good time.”

“I always have a good time!” Pinkie banged on her drums then tossed her sticks into the air. They came back down and disappeared in the labyrinth of her hair.

Sunset hoisted the amp up and walked it off stage. “The point is, you sounded good and you didn’t give yourselves away. I think you managed to survive to next week.”

Fluttershy followed her, arms full of cables. “So, what do we do now?”

Sunset set the amp down on the grass to catch her breath. “You keep practicing. I’ll keep writing.” She looked out into the moving crowd. Twilight had disappeared again. “And we hope for the best.”

*******

Adagio opened the door to their hotel suite and graciously let her sisters in first. She found herself in a good mood again today. One that almost made up for the seething anger she had felt all week after her idiotic and incompetent sisters had come home without the Crystal Heart!

Thankfully, they hadn’t had any public appearances, because Adagio was sure she had left bruises.

Sonata jumped onto the plush couch and curled against a pillow larger than her head. “That was so much fun! I’m like, so full right now!”

Aria sat next to her and put her boots up on the table. “Full, sure. But that was a total borefest. Almost all of those ‘bands’ sucked.”

“You’re just mad because none of them played your screamo death metal junk.”

Aria grabbed another pillow and pushed it onto Sonata’s face.

Adagio stomped her boot. “Enough!” Her good mood didn’t extend to putting up with their shenanigans. Aria released the pillow, allowing Sonata to sit up with a gasp of air. Adagio messaged her temple. She could see a hot bath in the near future. “I think I already know the answer to this, but did either of you feel what I felt out there?”

“Nope!” Sonata said chipperly.

To Adagio’s surprise, Aria nodded her head. “The Equestrian magic. Those Rainblossom girls were dripping with it.”

“Oh, was that what that was? I thought something tasted like Fruity Pebbles.”

Adagio ignored her. “The point is, despite your dismal failure last week—”

“We said we were sorry!” Aria shouted, throwing her hands up. “Forgive us for not anticipating another thief and her pet snake would be there! And I told you, I’ll handle it!”

“You better,” Adagio growled. “Everything else is going to plan. But if we want to be all-powerful, we still need the Heart.” She crossed her arms and smiled. “But, hearts and Equestria aside, I noticed something else at the fair today.”

Sonata cocked her head. “Was it the popcorn? I thought it was pretty soggy. The corn dogs were good though!”

Aria shifted her leg and kicked Sonata. “Continue.”

“There was human magic there too,” Adagio said without missing a beat.

Aria looked up at her. “What? You think Apalla was there spying on us?”

“No.” Adagio’s smile widened. “I think there’s a new Lulamoon in play. One who will do anything to save her dear daddy.”

*******

As far as hideouts went, Lamia had used worse. Much worse, in fact. Sure, the old factory she took refuge in now had a slight cockroach infestation and no central heating whatsoever, but it had a kitchen, working lights, and running water. It showed signs that someone had lived here once, but they had long since left. She found a few old clothes in a dresser in the foreman’s office that were close to her size.

Lamia laid on the stale mattress tucked against the wall. Jörmangandr curled himself around the Crystal Heart under the desk and snoozed. It was a pretty boring existence.

Still, Lamia made do. She had been fortunate enough to find an old t.v a few blocks from her new squaller. Tiny with a cracked screen, but it still worked fine. And since the factory still had working outlets, she could actually use it!

Soon she would have a plasma screen. How many inches? Maybe seventy. And surround sound! Set in the middle of her living room in her new villa waiting for her in Greece. All she had to do was bide her time until her trade went down. Then she could say goodbye to the Crystal Heart and hello to millions and millions of dollars!

She reached for her coffee cup, tasting her lukewarm cinnamon latte. The news came back on, the color a little faded on the tiny television screen.

“Today marked the beginning of Canterlot City’s first Battle of the Bands, hosted by the newest pop sensation, the Dazzlings,” the anchor said. “Here’s Inside Scoop with a look at the competition.”

Lamia rolled her eyes. She had given up pop music after Sapphire Shores sold out. Now she only heard the drivel when she went grocery shopping. She took another sip of her latte as Inside Scoop cut to some of her interviews.

“They’re the Rainbooms, and they’re a pop band,” a familiar looking girl said.

Too familiar.

Lamia spat her coffee onto the floor and bolted off the mattress to get as close to the screen as she could. Even with the muted colors, she could see the familiar red and gold hair, even styled the same way it had been in high school. Her eyes, the same shade of teal, her mouth leaning toward a perpetual frown, arms crossed with indifference.

“With some practice, I think they have a good chance,” the girl said.

Sunset Shimmer stared at her doppelganger, mouth agape. She kept staring even as the picture transitioned back to the news room.

“What. The. Fuck.”

14. The Factory

View Online

Eighteen bands moved on from the preliminaries, the Rainbooms being one of them. Moondancer and Twilight, known as Moonlight Requiem (Sunset had almost torn the paper in half) Flash Drive, Trixie and the Illusions, and the Crusaders all made it as well. Five bands from Canterlot High. Normally, this would be seen as a triumph, maybe even a lunchtime celebration. Instead, the bands ignored each other, while the rest of the jilted competitors ostracized them all.

Sunset had almost forgotten what the scornful stares and whispers from her peers felt like. It all came rushing back on Monday as she walked on campus. As hard as it was, she picked up her old mask of cruel superiority and petty anger, if only to keep everyone else’s negativity away. It was worn and cracked, and no longer sat well on her face.

She took it off and smiled at Rarity upon entering first period. Rarity gave a lukewarm reception. Sunset dropped into the chair next to her. “Tough morning?”

Rarity nodded. “Sweetie Belle is no longer talking to me. Nor is half the fashion club.”

“Aren’t you the president?”

“Not if this keeps up.” Rarity slouched in her chair. Sunset knew she had to be upset if she wasn’t correcting her own posture.

Come lunch, Sunset would find Rarity was not the only one having trouble. Apple Bloom refused to talk to Applejack, and the soccer team ignored Rainbow during practice. Sitting at their table near the center of the cafeteria, a dark cloud hung over the Rainboom’s heads. Any way they looked, someone gave them an unwanted glare.

“Geez,” Rainbow said, resting her cheek in her hand. “Now I know how Sunset felt after the Fall Formal. Uh, no--”

Sunset raised a fist.

“Nevermind!”

Sunset lowered her fist. “Just ignore them. Once we beat the Sirens, everything will go back to normal.”

“We grow ears and shoot magic when we play music,” Applejack said. “Normal, we ain’t.”

Normal or not, Sunset couldn’t wait for the students to snap back to their senses. Having divided the school, seen it come back together, seen it turn briefly against her, and now seen it divided again, she much preferred the touchy-feely school unity.

She also preferred when Moondancer didn’t have an excuse to drag Twilight away from their table.

While it was a thin silver line, Sunset found solace in the fact that classes proceeded like normal. No one in her AP Physics class played the Dazzlings music while they worked, giving Sunset ample silence to concentrate on her assignments. Even without outward distractions, however, her mind tended to wander off. Artemis, Twilight, her friends, her possible doppelganger, the Crystal Heart, an unfinished spell, and the fate of the world. She tried not to think about it all at once lest her brain explode.

She carried the notebook containing the spell with her at all times in case she found a moment to work on it. While she wouldn’t admit she was stuck, Sunset noted she still had some progress to make and was merely… stalled at the moment.

The bell dismissing school rang, and she packed up her stuff. She would have plenty of time to have a breakthrough while the girls practiced this afternoon.

The Rainbooms gathered in front of the marble horse statue at the front of the school, then piled into Applejack and Rainbow’s cars. Being free of the school’s negativity rejuvenated their spirits, and by the time they arrived at the farm, everyone had the strength to smile again.

“So, how’s that magic spell thing coming?” Rainbow asked while she plugged in her guitar.

Sunset’s smile folded. “It’s coming. You know, just gotta make sure it’s perfect.”

“Would you like some help?” Fluttershy asked.

“No, I got this. Just keep practicing.” Sunset got comfortable on a hay bale in the corner of the barn and took her notebook out. Help would be appreciated, but she couldn’t distract her friends from doing their part of the job just because she couldn’t do hers.

Fluttershy gave her tambourine a little shake. “Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s good enough to be a counterspell or anything, but I did write a new song for us to play.”

“Hey, me too!” Rainbow said.

“Oh, well, you can go first, Rainbow,” Fluttershy said with a polite smile and bow.

“Sweet!” Rainbow ran to her bag and rummaged through it. “Hey, if your song doesn’t work, Sunset, mine’s awesome enough to beat the Sirens.”

“I’m sure it is, Dash,” Sunset said, not looking up from her paper.

“This one ain’t as conceited as your last one, is it?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow took the lyrics from her bag. “‘Awesome As I Wanna Be’ is not conceited. And to answer your question, no, it isn’t.”

Applejack snatched the lyrics from her. “Hmmm. Well, aside from the chorus, this ain’t half bad.”

“Well, let’s give it a whirl!” Pinkie said, spinning her drumsticks on her fingers.

They spent the next hour and a half practicing their individual chords and learning the lyrics. Everyone except Fluttershy had one solo line, though she lent her voice to the chorus. At a quarter to six, they were ready for their first run through. Pinkie started with a steady beat on the kick before everyone sang the opening verses.

“We used to fight with each other.

“Oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh.

“That was before we discovered.

“Oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh.

“That when your friendship is real.

“Oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh.

“Yeah, you just say what you feel.

“And the music, yeah the music,

“Gets us to the top!

“As we learn how the rainbow...

“Rainbow rocks!”

Rainbow belted out a series of wild guitar riffs, her entire body beginning to glow in the process. The rest of the Rainbooms started to glow as well, sprouting pony ears and their respective wings and horn. By the time the song finished, all of them hovered just off the ground, and the barn walls reflected their shimmering aura.

Sunset applauded as they giggled and cheered at their performance. “For a first run through, that sounded really good.”

“It felt really good too,” Rarity gushed. She kicked her feet, pedaling herself higher into the air. The aura faded away and she fell back to the floor in a gentle descent. She took out her compact and examined herself. “I still say I could come up with some great accessories for my horn. They can match the ensemble I have planned out for the rest of the competition!”

“You have dresses planned for the entire battle?” Rainbow asked.

“Of course. I have outfits for all of you.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Rarity, we’re not here to play dress-up. We go in, beat the Sirens, and go home.”

“Well who says we can’t look fabulous while doing it?”

Rainbow glided overhead. “I’m okay with a few outfits as long as they look cool. I don’t want my band to look like one of those bubblegum pop bands.”

Your band?” Applejack raised an eyebrow.

“Our band,” she corrected herself. “Though I am the band leader.”

“Keep tellin’ yourself that.”

The magic timed out, and Rainbow crashed to the floor, her wings evaporating into blue wisps. “Lame,” she grumbled, massaging her tailbone.

“I think that’s enough practice for today,” Sunset said, snapping her notebook shut. She had made some progress too, successfully coming up with one new line!

Fluttershy stepped out of her back corner. “But we didn’t get a chance to practice my song. I mean, it’s okay, you all worked hard today, and Rainbow’s song was great…”

“Ponyfeathers,” Sunset said, slapping a hand against her forehead. “I’m so sorry, ‘Shy, I totally forgot. We’ll try your song tomorrow, I promise.”

Fluttershy beamed.

The girls tore down and packed their gear away, but when Applejack pushed the barn door open, she found a note taped to the other side. “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”

“What is it?” Pinkie asked, trying to read over Applejack’s shoulder.

“Apple Bloom’s so mad, she won’t even talk to me anymore. She just left this note.” Applejack gave it a shake before reading it aloud. “‘Dear ‘sister’, Ah must inform you that tomorrow, Mah band has claimed dibs on the barn to practice for our inevitable win in the Battle of the Bands. Both Big Mac and Granny Smith agree that you’ve been hoggin’ the space. Failure to comply will result in a whuppin’ from Granny. Signed, The Crusaders.’”

Rarity hung her head. “She probably got the idea from Sweetie Belle. She only communicates with me via sticky notes.”

“At least they’re leaving you messages,” Rainbow said. “Scootaloo won’t even look at me.”

“So, umm, where do we practice now?” Fluttershy asked. “The band room is booked all week.”

Sunset tapped her skull. “Give me a sec. I’m sure I can think of something.” A secluded place with good acoustics and where they wouldn’t be bothered anymore. Trixie had dibs on her home, and none of the other girls had enough space for all of them. Sunset almost wished she had a place of her own again. Like…

“The factory!” she shouted.

“You mean the old dump you used to live in?” Rainbow asked.

“Yeah! You can practice in the main room! No one will bug us there! It’s perfect!”

“Save for hygiene,” Rarity muttered. “But, I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. We’ll convene after school and head to the factory for practice. Good thinking, Sunset.”

“It’s what I do.” She picked up the drum case and helped heave it out of the barn. Yep. It’s what I’m good for: coming up with ideas. Executing them… Her ratio of successful plans to failures was… disheartening to say the least.

She rode with Rainbow back home, arriving to the Lulamoon household to find Trixie blaring her guitar from her room again. Sunset made her way to the second floor, finding the study door open and Selena sitting at Artemis’ table. She looked up and gestured for Sunset to come in.

“How was your day?” Selena asked, setting a book face up on the desk.

“All right. Yours?”

She gestured to the book. “I still can’t find anything on musical counterspells, but I think I might have found how the Sirens got off that island.” She tapped a finger on the top of the open page. “A leygate.”

“What gate?”

“A leygate.” As Selena began to explain, Sunset stepped closer and followed along in the book, looking at a picture of the world with many silver lines crisscrossing everywhere. “I remember Artemis talking about them a while ago. A long time ago, when magic was prevalent throughout the world, veins of magic would run through the planet. These were called leylines.” She put a finger on a silver dot at a junction of several lines. “Leylines were connected by leygates: sort of spots where there was a large influx of magic.”

“‘Magic attracts more magic,’” Sunset whispered, remembering Artemis’ words.

Selena nodded. “Leylines could be created if two places in the world were very magical. The magic would seek each other out and connect.”

“Okay, so they were like magical vents,” Sunset said. “But what does that have to do with the Sirens getting out?”

“It’s just like you said: they’re like vents—passages. Leylines were unique and powerful in that you could ride them to anywhere in the world.”

Sunset’s eyes widened. “Ride them?”

“Yes. If you found a leygate, you could step in and ride the magic current to the other end, almost instantaneously. It was like teleporting over long distances.” Selena leaned back in her chair. “Technically speaking, leylines are underground, so the Sirens bypassed Artemis’ barrier—”

“By tunneling under it,” Sunset finished. “That’s why Artemis didn’t notice anything—the shield is still up, they just got around it!”

“The last question is how?” Selena drummed her fingers on the armrest. “You need two sources of magic to create a line. I guess being magical sirens stuck in one place would create some magical energy, but what would they connect to? Artemis’ magic alone wouldn’t be enough to create a gate.”

Sunset went rigid, shoulders locking in place, heart freezing in her chest. Her mind moved a mile a minute, however. The crown, the blistering pain, the power, the rainbow.

“Sunset, what’s wrong?”

Her knees buckled, and she lurched forward, using the sides of the desk to stop herself from hitting the floor. “The Fall Formal,” she said breathlessly. “That stupid crown… and the Elements of Harmony… It was me. I created all that magic. It must have been enough for the leygate to form. I… I let the Sirens escape. This is all my fault.” The revelation fell on her shoulders and she arched her spine to counter it. But the guilt crashed on top and proved too much for Sunset to carry. Her school, the city, Artemis, possibly the whole world was in danger because of her! Because she had to be a greedy, spoiled brat! Because she had demanded power and respect!

“One day…” she whispered, blinking and realizing she was kneeling on the floor. “I can’t go one day without being reminded of how badly I screwed up.”

“Sunset.” Selena placed a hand on her back. “You made a mistake.”

“I was fully aware of what I was doing,” Sunset said bitterly. “And now, my actions are going to doom the world.” She brushed Selena’s hand away. The guilt and anxiety drained out of her, leaving her cold and empty. “I need to lay down for a bit.”

Selena helped her up, looking like she wanted to say more but let Sunset be. Sunset dragged herself out of the study and into the hall, finding Trixie leaning against the wall, watching her with harsh eyes. Sunset couldn’t bring herself to explain, or snap, or apologize, or even make eye contact. She just kept walking, closing her room door behind her.

Spot looked up from the bed and gave a sympathetic whine. He curled against Sunset as she laid down, numb to the world around her. Princess Twilight didn’t make a sound.

*******

Unease and guilt followed Sunset into her dreams, if they could be called that. She tossed and turned most of the night, caught between brief moments of sleep where the Sirens would mock her with demonic laughter as the night of the Fall Formal played back in front of her, and lying awake, eyes toward the ceiling while she reflected on her past with a heated self-loathing she hadn’t felt since her friends broke up right before the Winter Ball.

Her alarm finally went off, playing one of the rock and roll songs Flash had shown her. She let the whole song play out before turning over and switching it off.

The lead ball in her stomach told her today was a good day to stay in bed. Her heart, as strangled as it was, told her to get up and be with her friends. Her brain demanded to know how she was going to tell them she had unleashed ancient evils upon the world.

I could not. That’s an idea. What they didn’t know wouldn’t bite her in the flank.

“Haven’t you learned by now to tell your friends the truth?” Princess Twilight asked in a tired voice.

“I’m not lying to them,” Sunset said, equally tired. “I’m just not telling them something.”

“That’s more or less the same thing.”

Sunset groaned. She gently tucked Spot out of the way and rolled out of bed, feeling a large knot in her shoulder. “It’s going to be one of those days.” On the bright side, she had class with Twilight. The downside, Sunset knew she couldn’t fake a cheery attitude all day, and Twilight would ask her what was wrong. If Sunset said ‘nothing’, then she’d be lying, and Twilight was the last person she wanted to lie to.

“Rocks and hard places,” she murmured on her way to the bathroom, only to find it occupied by Trixie. Asking her to hurry was a futile act. The condemning glare she had given Sunset in the hall said that she had heard the vital parts of last night’s conversation. Sunset would be lucky if Trixie ever talked to her again. Heck, if Artemis came back and learned Sunset had set the Sirens free, Sunset might have to make the factory cozy again.

After patiently waiting for Trixie to run down the clock before school started, Sunset cleaned and got dressed, foregoing her breakfast and avoiding eye contact with Selena, even when she wished Sunset a good day at school. Riding her motorcycle, Sunset barely made it before the first bell rang.

Twilight waited for her at the lab table in the back. “Shim, you look terrible.”

Sunset readied a remark, but decided to discard it. She’d go with Shim for now. “I didn’t sleep well last night.” Still telling the truth.

Twilight scooted closer, allowing Sunset to pick up her subtle lavender perfume. “Is everything okay?”

“You mean besides literally everything not being okay?” If Sunset hadn’t been so tired, she would have worried about sounding unnecessarily snarky.

Twilight didn’t seem to mind. In fact, after making sure Mr. Doodle wasn’t looking, she snuggled against Sunset, settling into the crook of her neck. “Does this help?”

“A little,” Sunset admitted. She felt warm from Twilight’s body heat but cold on the inside from the guilt.

“Moondancer has theater today, so we can’t practice. Which means I get to see you girls instead.”

Sunset brightened. While it didn’t absolve her guilt, it at least gave her a reason to smile.

“Miss Sparkle, Miss Shimmer, no PDA in my class!” Mr. Doodle snapped.

Twilight bolted up and moved her chair back, her face bright red. “Sorry, sir.”

Being with Twilight gave Sunset just enough energy to stop her guilt from eating her alive. To her friends, she still looked worn, but the simple explanation of a lack of sleep stopped them from prying any further. Her pestering conscience chastised her each time she said it, but it remained the truth, even if it was a half truth.

When the school day concluded, the Spectacular Seven gathered in the parking lot for the carpool to the factory. “Are you sure that’s the only place you can practice in peace?” Twilight asked, helmet in hand as she prepared to join Sunset on her motorcycle.

“Is Shining going to let us practice in the garage?” Sunset asked.

“No.”

“Then yes.” Sunset’s bike roared to life, making the other vacating students jump. With Twilight securely fastened around her waist, she pulled out of the parking lot and took to the streets, moving fast but not enough that her friends couldn’t keep up.

They kept to the surface streets and made their way to the other side of the suburbs, where all the nice houses gave way to older and seedier locals before turning into warehouses and factories still waiting to be torn down. The roads hadn’t been repaved in years, leaving them cracked and uneven. Trash clogged the gutters and gathered at the base of the chain link fences.

The old neighborhoods gave off a different atmosphere. While the newer ones created a serene quiet broken only by children playing, a dreary silence born of neglect and disuse coated these buildings. Only the roar of Sunset’s bike was strong enough to break it, leaving it thicker after she left.

The girls arrived to the factory, looking exactly as Sunset left it two months ago: the garage door sealed shut and the windows brown from dirt and age. Sunset led them to the blue door in the alley while the others brought their instruments. She tried the knob. The door was unlocked but stuck like always. She shoved her shoulder into it and it burst open.

The checkered floor wasn’t as dusty as she thought it would be. Sunset flipped the light switch, finding surprise in all of the hall lights turning on. Like the windows, the bulbs had a layer of grime on them, creating a dim light, but light nonetheless. Sunset followed the hall to the other end and pushed open the door to the factory floor. Dust motes danced in the open space. A draft blew over everyone as they stepped onto the concrete. As cold as the hallway had been, the room proved a few degrees cooler.

Sunset never liked coming in here when she had lived in this desolate factory. The room was too large and filled with too much nothing to be comfortable. The high windows and grey walls created the impression of a prison more than anything—a prison designed by giants. Even with all their equipment laid out, the Rainbooms barely took up the back wall.

Rainbow plugged her amp in and shot her hand back as a wild spark jumped from the outlet. “Are you sure this place is safe?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘safe’,” Sunset said, pulling up a corner and taking her notebook out. She heard Fluttershy mewl and rolled her eyes. “It’s fine. The worst you’ll do is blow a fuse or something.”

Twilight stood awkwardly, watching the girls finish with set up while stealing glances at Sunset. After a minute of deliberating, she walked over and asked, “Do you need any help?”

Sunset shook her head. “No thanks, I’ve got this.” She kept her eyes down while she lambasted herself for her first outright lie. At the present moment, Sunset had nothing. A nothing greater than the room had held before they occupied it. But she had to have something. She set the Sirens free. The least she could do was give her friends the means to put them down.

“Right, of course. I’ll just, umm…” Twilight’s awkward stammering was cut off by a loud guitar riff courtesy of Rainbow.

“Waaaaah!” Thud!

Everyone froze at the second set of noises. They had come from none of the present party. Sunset bolted to her feet and looked up at the window to the manager’s office hanging over them. It sat wide open, and the single bulb inside emitted its weak glow.

“Something tells me we’re not alone.” She stood up and crossed over to the door.

Twilight grabbed her by the wrist. “Wait, what if they’re dangerous?”

Sunset wiggled her wrist loose. “I’ve handled dangerous things before. Besides, five of you have instruments.”

Pinkie scratched her head with the drumstick. “You want us to hit them with a rainbow?”

“I want you to hit them with something,” Sunset said with an irritated undertone. Before she could reach the door, it swung open with a violent crash.

“What the hell do you kids—” The speaker stopped, fist raised, mouth open as she stared at Sunset. “Holy shit…”

Sunset stared back, recoiling with her mouth hanging open as well. “Holy sun…”

An iron fisted silence choked the room as everyone stared between Sunset and the newcomer. She stood an inch, maybe two taller than Sunset, had deeper lines drawn into her face, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. But those differences were negligible. To everyone in the room, the girl looked exactly like Sunset Shimmer.

Sunset took a step back, bumping into Twilight who looked torn between fascinated and terrified. Sunset only gave her a short glance to make sure she hadn’t fainted. Her own attention remained locked on her mirror image. Noise slowly returned to the room. Sunset could hear her heart hammering, then the collective breathing of her friends, finally, the creaking and moaning of the factory. Sunset tried to say something, but all that came out was a distressed squeak.

Oh Celestia… it’s her… I wasn’t ready! Not with everything else happening! It hasn’t even been a week and she managed to find me! Or did I find her? Dammit all! Okay, say something, anything! “Meeep…”

It was, at least, a great impression of Fluttershy.

The other Sunset recovered first, slowly lowering her fist and turning her back to the group. She took a deep breath, raising her hands to her chest, then slowly lowering them as she exhaled. “I’m going to turn around,” she said. Her voice was just a little lower than Sunset’s. “When I do, there won’t be a second me there. Because that’s just impossible.” She turned around before Sunset had a chance to duck out of the way. “Holy shit,” she said again.

Twilight intervened, putting a hand on Sunset’s shoulder and taking a half step in front of her. “I know this looks a little strange, but—”

“I saw you on t.v,” the other Sunset continued, ignoring Twilight. She paced back in forth in of the threshold. “First I thought I was just dreaming or had some bad Chinese food. But then I tried to look you up and found some records at one of the high schools, but I thought, maybe they were still mine, just with some mistakes. But here… ho-ly shit!” She made one more loop, then repeated her breathing exercise and gave Sunset a piercing glare. “Okay. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’ll give you ten seconds to explain why you look like me before I get violent. And I promise, there may be seven of you, but I can riverstomp each and every one of your asses.”

Sunset heard Fluttershy mewl again, and snapped out of her shell-shocked state. She took a deep breath of her own and cleared her throat. “Um, hi.” Great start. “Listen, uh, I know this looks weird, and the explanation is… well, weirder, but we mean you no harm.”

“What, are you aliens?” Sunset could hear the sarcasm in the other Sunset’s voice. It sounded both familiar and incredibly foreign coming from her.

Sunset flinched. How did she answer the question? She had never made a plan for this scenario; she had just hoped she would never run into the native Sunset, or knock her out if she did. What did she do now? Tell the truth? Even if she did, the other Sunset would think she was crazy and call the police. Sunset would be carted off to prison for supposed identity fraud. Or to a secret lab to discover how she looked exactly like this girl!

It’s not too late to knock her out, a voice whispered in Sunset’s head. She considered it, but she could see the tension in the other Sunset’s muscles. She was ready to move at a moment’s notice. Something told Sunset that earlier threat wasn’t hollow.

With no lies at her disposal, Sunset resigned to the truth and hoped she could find a nice spot in the Everfree Forest to hide. “Look, they’re all human.” She gestured to the girls. “They’re my friends. My name… well, my name’s Sunset Shimmer. I’m like you… but from another dimension.” She looked for disbelief or confusion or even anger in the other Sunset’s face, but she hid behind a stoic mask.

“Uh-huh,” she said with a simple nod of her head. “You’re really gonna have to sell that if you don’t want me to beat you into next Tuesday.”

Sunset held her hands up. Even in monotone, she sounded threatening. Is this what everyone else has to deal with? I’ll have to get better at that. “Okay, I’ll explain everything; you deserve that much. On the stipulation that you don’t hurt my friends, even if you don’t believe me.”

The other Sunset mulled it over for a moment then shrugged and leaned against the door. “Fine. Start talking.”

“All right.” Sunset inhaled. “My name is Sunset Shimmer, I was born in a world parallel to this one called Equestria where everyone here has a version of themselves over there and vice versa, only in Equestria, everyone is a pony, and I mean a magical pony—unicorn, pegasi, or earth ponies that are in tune with nature. I was a unicorn and the star student of the princess who rules over the land, only I was also a spoiled brat who thought she deserved more, so I ran away through a magic mirror that only opens once every thirty moons, or two and a half years on your calendar. That was three years ago. I’ve been living here ever since. Last fall, the portal opened again and I tried to steal a magic crown that would give me ultimate power, only it backfired and bad stuff happened, and instead, I had to force myself to become friends with them which turned out not to be so bad after all. Now we’re here trying to practice for the Battle of the Bands which we have to win or else really bad things will happen to the entire world.” Sunset inhaled all of the air she had lost during her rant and slowly released it along with the knot in her gut.

Human Sunset stared long and hard at her, occasionally glancing to everyone else like she was looking for some sort of confirmation. “I’ve told some stories in my day,” she said slowly, “but that one takes the cake.” Her stone face cracked and she smiled. “Another dimension? Full of ponies? Either you’re insane or you’re telling the truth, because there’s no way in hell you could make all that up on the spot.”

Sunset brightened. “So you believe me?”

“No, I’m leaning toward crazy.” She cracked one of her knuckles.

Twilight tensed and ducked behind Sunset. She held an arm out to shield Twilight and shouted, “Wait! I can prove all of it! Sort of.”

The other girl crossed her arms. “I’m waiting.”

Sunset looked back at the Rainbooms, all of them wearing matching worrying frowns. “Girls, pony up. Please.”

“And hit her with a rainbow?” Pinkie asked.

“Do what?”

“No!” Sunset shouted. “Just play!”

“‘Shine Like Rainbows’,” Pinkie said. “One, two, three, four!” The start was a shaky, but each Rainboom fell into their groove and delivered a powerful rendition of the song. Sunset kept her fingers crossed and legs slightly bent in case she had to jump out of the way, either from a rainbow beam or a swinging fist.

As the song progressed and nothing happened, the knot in Sunset’s gut returned, and she felt ready to vomit. On the last chorus, her friends came through and ponied up in a brilliant flash of lights, their features bursting into existence. Sunset jumped and cheered, and turned around to see the other Sunset’s jaw hanging down.

She snapped it shut as the song ended. “Okay… first, that song was fruity as hell. Second, I believe there is some freaky voodoo shit going on…” She hesitated and looked up in thought for a moment. “But why do they look like furries and you don’t?”

“Furries?” Rainbow asked indignantly.

“When I came here, I brought magic with me that they harnessed due to reasons. Similar reasons are why I don’t want to pony up. Bad things will happen if I do.”

“Ominous,” Human Sunset said. She straightened up and took a step closer to Sunset. “So let me get this straight. I have a twin from another world made up of freakin’ ponies who came here and apparently brought magic that turns her friends into anthro furries. Am I with it so far?”

“You know, it’s pretty simple when you say it like that,” Pinkie said.

She pointed at Twilight still hiding behind Sunset. “So what’s her deal?”

Sunset kept her protective stance. “She’s just human. Super smart, but no magic. Long story about how she got wrapped up in all this.”

Her twin rubbed her temples. “Okay, so it’s down between a really bad mushroom trip or you’re telling the truth. And I haven’t touched the stuff since that time in Puerto Rico, so…” She looked at Sunset, pursed her lips, then gave a tired grin. “Sunset Shimmer, it’s nice to meet… me.” She extended her hand, and Sunset flinched back, almost knocking Twilight down. Human Sunset retracted her hand, eyes wide. “What, will the universe explode if we touch?”

“I don’t know. That’s one reason why I never looked for you.”

Twilight stepped around Sunset to stand between the two. She straightened her glasses, a precursor to her ‘lecture mode.’ “That logic is purely science fictional even by—” She gave a limp wave of her hand “—all of this. You’re still two fundamentally different people even if you look the same. Even if you are magic, Shim, unless you’re made of dark matter, nothing should happen between the two of you.”

Human Sunset shrugged. “Well, if the nerd said it, it must be true.”

“Hey, only I get to call her a nerd.”

“All right, don’t get your panties in a knot, kiddo.”

“And don’t call me ‘kiddo.’” Sunset felt heat rising to her cheeks.

Rainbow leaned over to Applejack. “If they start fighting, who do we root for?”

“Sunset of cour—oh. Err…”

Human Sunset stepped into the room but remained close to the door. “So, how about some names to your colorful faces?”

“We are the Spectacular Seven!” Pinkie gave a drum roll and ended with a crash on her symbols.

Sunset fought to keep her grin down. “That one is Pinkie. That’s Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, and this is Twilight Sparkle,” she said pointing at each of them in turn.

“So, crazy, jock, hick, preppy, doormat, and nerd,” Human Sunset said, mimicking Sunset’s finger. “Wow, it’s every high school cliché in one room. You’re like the Breakfast Club part two.”

Sunset didn’t know if that was an insult but felt a rush of aggravation regardless. “Whether or not you can kick our butts, don’t insult my friends.”

“Yeesh, you’re wound tight. I’m just trying to break the ice a little.” She started circling around Twilight and Sunset. “So, how long have you two been dating?”

Sunset involuntarily flinched. She couldn’t say why; she was perfectly comfortable with her relationship with Twilight. Perhaps she didn’t expect the other her to pick up on it so quickly.

“About two months,” Twilight said, blushing.

“Cute. I wouldn’t have pegged myself to be a lesbian.” Human Sunset shortened her circle to just around Sunset, pausing and humming every few seconds. Sunset felt like one of Rarity’s dresses. Human Sunset stepped back and nodded her head. “Yeah, eight out of ten. I’d do me.”

Heat rushed to Sunset’s cheeks again, but she narrowed her eyes. “Wait, eight out of ten?”

That’s the part of the sentence that worries you?” Twilight said, her voice rising a pitch.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Rarity muttered, “but this Sunset is more crass than our Sunset.”

“I heard that,” Sunset said, still processing that her doppelgänger rated her as only an eight. She waved her hand. “Anyway, I have questions for you.”

She shook her head. “Listen, it’s cute you’re a lesbian and all, but I wouldn’t actually do myself. I’m not into that.” She put a hand on her chin. “Although, I don’t think there’s anyone else who can say they’ve slept with another version of themselves.”

The heat in Sunset’s cheeks rose to a burn. Sweet Celestia, Rarity is right! What is wrong with me? “That is not the question I was going to ask!”

“Oh. Then what’s up?”

Sunset took a second to recompose herself, pinching the bridge of her nose and wishing she had never gotten out of bed this morning. “What are you doing here?”

Human Sunset pointed a lazy finger. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that? If you’re a unicorn from magical pony land, why’d you come here?”

“I…” Sunset rubbed and arm and looked at the ground. “Like I said, I was a spoiled brat who thought she deserved everything. When my teacher wouldn’t give it to me, I tried to find power on my own.” She lifted her hand to her forehead. “I didn’t know this world wouldn’t have any magic. What started as a rebellion turned into an exile. And even if I wanted to go back, I’ve got two more years until the portal opens again.”

“Hardcore.” Human Sunset turned her palms to the ceiling. “Well, kids run away from home all the time. Don’t sweat it too much. Besides, two years? It’ll fly by like that.” She snapped her fingers.

Sunset made a noncommittal grunt. She felt Twilight place a hand on her back and found her reassuring smile. Sunset smiled in return, but frowned upon facing the other Sunset again. “You never answered my question.”

“Hmm? Oh, right.” She copied Sunset’s familiar stance of crossing her arms over her chest. “If you must know, I’m squatting here for a bit. I like to roll from place to place. See the world, ya know? It’s just not the most lucrative job, so I can’t stay in fancy five star hotels.” She kept eye contact with Sunset the whole time, but her head tilted from left to right as she spoke.

Either that’s a verbal tic, or she’s lying. Sunset looked up to the window of her old bedroom. Even if she was lying, what was she trying to hide? More importantly, did Sunset want to know? Today had already given its share of revelations, most of them told by her. But finding her doppelganger pushed the limits of Sunset’s mental and emotional energy. Plus, the fact that she released the Sirens continuously slammed into the forefront of her mind. She could forget about making headway in the counterspell today.

On the other hand, her human counterpart stood right in front of her! Sunset wanted to know everything about her; see where the course of their lives overlapped and diverged. Curiosity, exhaustion, residual guilt, and the occasional prickle of tension all stirred together in Sunset creating a reaction that would have left her hysterical had she been gifted with any less composure. Instead, she sighed loudly and pictured herself strangling her plushie back home.

“You okay there, kiddo?”

Sunset opened her eyes. “I said don’t call me that. And I’m fine, I’m just… processing.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose again. “How are you staying so calm?”

Human Sunset shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve traveled the world; I’ve seen some weird shit, and this is by far the weirdest. But, talking this all out has made it a bearable weird.” She leaned to one side. “Or, my mind is just dead set on thinking this is a dream and is just rolling with it.”

“I wish this was a dream. This makes life a lot more complicated.”

“Tell me about it.”

Both of them shared a short laugh, born of awkward humor and tinged with a faint bitterness. The awkward laugh turned to silence until Human Sunset spoke again. “So, you kids need to practice for the band thing?”

Pinkie nodded. “We need to win so we can go beat up the Dazzlings before they hypnotize everyone!” She tapped her drumstick on her cheek. “Which, since the Crystal Heart got stolen should be a lot harder for them, right? But, we still gotta break the spell everyone else is under so the school will stop being all grumpy and everyone can go back to being themselves!”

The other Sunset raised an eyebrow. “I only followed about half of that. The Dazzlings hypnotize people with a crystal heart?”

Twilight spoke up. “It turns out, Sunset isn’t the only magical person around. The Dazzlings are actually Sirens and use their voices to get what they want, in addition to feeding on negativity. The Crystal Heart is an artifact that doubles the output of emotions felt, so it would potentially make them stronger. We have to stop them so they don’t do that.”

Human Sunset’s eyes widened. “Oh God, I just stepped into a freakin’ anime! You got the power ups, the super villains and everything!” She shook her head. “Maybe that’s why I’m not flipping out: I have something to relate this to.”

Rainbow laughed. “Hey, if we were an anime, I’d totally watch us.”

Sunset pressed the bridge of her nose harder. “Listen, we have nowhere else to practice. Is it cool we stay here for a bit? The world’s kinda at stake.”

“Hmmm.” Human Sunset looked up at rafters. “Well, if I said no, I’d be stuck with a ratty t.v that only gets six channels. You’ll serve as slightly more entertaining, so yeah, knock yourselves out.” She looked back at them with expressionless eyes. “Just stay out of my room.”

“I think we can manage that,” Rarity said.

“Thanks… Sunset,” Sunset said.

“You’re welcome, kiddo,” Human Sunset said, grinning at Sunset’s grimace.

“One more thing,” Sunset said as the other turned to leave. “I don’t know who you talk to but, could you keep the whole magic and doppelganger thing a secret? We really don’t need people knowing about that.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, walking away with a swagger in her step, “my lips are sealed.”

*******

Adagio took her time walking down the stone corridor, the heels of her platform boots throwing echoes in front of her. She held her arms behind her back and hummed merrily. Even with their setbacks, everything was unfolding quite well. She could feel herself getting stronger everyday! The tension all throughout the city stretched tighter and tighter. All she and her sisters had to do was keep pushing the right buttons, and the rest would take care of itself.

They would have magic! They would have an adoring legion! And then, they would take Equestria!

She reached an unassuming metal door, painted beige like the rest of the wall. It might have blended in if not for the handle and the ‘Restricted Access’ sign. She turned the handle and stepped inside, flicking on the light switch as she did. Really, the room was nothing more than a spacious storage unit, but it served the perfect size for what Adagio needed to store.

In a chair at the far end, wrists tied behind his back by chains bound to the floor, fingers bent at odd angles, was Artemis. He leaned back in his chair, bruised and cut face toward the ceiling. As Adagio stalked closer, he lifted his head and looked at her with his good eye. “Great, the noise is back,” he said listlessly.

Adagio put on a sweet smile. “How are you today, Artemis?”

“Perfectly well, thanks for asking.” He rested his head back. “Now, go away.”

“Tsk tsk.” Adagio closed the distance and cupped a hand around Artemis’ cheeks, making sure to press her fingers into one of the purple spots. “It’s proper etiquette to look at your host when speaking.”

Artemis stared blankly at her, but Adagio could feel his cheeks expanding and… getting warmer? She ducked and twisted out of the way, throwing herself against the back wall as a jet of scarlet flames flew from Artemis’ mouth. Adagio lifted her hand and chopped the back of his neck, putting an end to the fire. She spun to the front and delivered a fist to his gut. Artemis doubled over and coughed up puffs of smoke.

Adagio grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head up again. She took a calm breath and asked, “Did you really think that would work?”

He coughed a few more times and smiled weakly. “I’m an optimist.”

“You’re an idiot.” She moved her hand back to his cheek, this time keeping her nails pressed against his skin. “But I have to give you some credit. This whole time, I’ve yet to make you angry. It’s really hard to feed off your magic if keep so calm, Artemis.”

He smiled at her, then winced as her nails dug in and started dragging down.

Adagio kept her own calm composure. She didn’t have to get upset, not over a game she had already won. “Are all Lulamoons as stubborn as you?” She took her nails out, wiping the skin and blood off on Artemis’ shirt.

“It’s a good family trait.”

“I’m sure.” Adagio crossed an arm over her chest and rested her other arm on top of it. “I wonder if your daughter inherited it as well.”

Artemis’ eyes widened and the color drained from his face.

Got you. “Oh, was I not supposed to know that?” Adagio let her smile overtake her face. “You and Selena were certainly busy over the last two decades, weren’t you?”

In a restrained voice, Artemis said, “Please, leave my Trixie out of this.”

“You see, I’d love to, Artemis, I really would. But it seems your little Trixie has already signed up to be in our little contest. I wonder, how far is she willing to go to try and save you?”

“Adagio, I’m warning you…”

A hollow threat if she ever heard one. “What’s the matter? You don’t think your daughter can stand up to three big bad Sirens?” She reached down and pat him on the head. “I can promise you this, Artemis: we won’t touch one hair on her pretty head. No, we have something much better in store for her. You may be resistant to our hypnotism, but there are more ways to skin a cat.”

Artemis gnashed his teeth together, tears falling from his eyes. “When I get out of here—”

Adagio kicked his chair back. He landed on his fingers and let out a cry of agony. “Please, spare me the cliché.” She turned for the door. “When it’s all over, I’ll let you have your reunion with Trixie. It’ll be the last happy seconds of your lives.”

Behind her came the sounds of struggle, then Artemis let out a scream of despair. Adagio paused in the threshold and took a deep breath, feeling a surge of energy. She switched the lights off and slammed the door, then carried on down the hallway, laughing softly to herself.

15. Devils and Doppelgangers

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After the other Sunset returned to her room, practice resumed, although everyone’s minds were clearly elsewhere. As Sunset predicted, she failed to write anything for the counterspell, spending the next hour and a half staring at the paper and glancing up to the window for another glimpse at her parallel.

The other Sunset had it open a crack and would peek out from time to time, but didn’t say anything. Sunset couldn’t imagine what she thought about all of this. Perhaps she was freaking out as much as Sunset and just hid it better.

Twilight stayed at her side the entire time, asking if she was okay every time Sunset’s frown became too deep. It snapped Sunset from her thoughts long enough to remember that she couldn’t think of anything for the spell, then she would stray to the events spiraling out of control around her. She gave Twilight a flimsy placated smile she knew wasn’t selling at all. Twilight was just waiting for them to be alone.

Their practice session wound down, and the girls packed up their instruments and headed out the door. Human Sunset came down to see them out, leaning on the doorway as they filed into the alley.

“So, should I expect to see you girls again?”

Rarity gave her a beseeching smile. “Well, it would be very convenient if we could practice here. That way we don’t have to fight our sisters for Applejack’s barn space. But, this is your… living space, so we’ll respect your privacy if you say no.”

Sunset crossed her arms. “Funny, I don’t remember getting the same deal when I lived here.”

“Don’t act like you regret us bugging you,” Rainbow said.

Human Sunset shrugged. “Sure, you can come practice here for a bit. I got nothing better to do. Just don’t expect snacks or anything.” She gave them a peace sign. “See ya, mini me.” She stepped back and closed the door with her heel.

“Yeah, see ya,” Sunset said. She walked out to the main street, briefly ignoring her friends.

“You okay, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, stepping behind her.

Sunset pressed a palm to her forehead. “Disoriented. But yeah, I’m fine, I think.”

“Look on the bright said,” Rarity said, “as crude as she is, she seems nice.”

“Guess this means Sunset here was the evil twin all along,” Rainbow said.

As strong as the urge was, Sunset didn’t have enough energy to thump Rainbow. And she was technically correct. Unless her new twin had ever turned into a demon sometime in her past, Sunset was the worse of the two. It wasn’t a surprising fact, but it still stung a little.

Twilight shot Rainbow a scolding look. “Sunset isn’t the evil twin. Neither of them are evil now.” She rubbed a hand on Sunset’s back. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine. I just need to sleep. It’s been a long day.” She walked over to her motorcycle and pulled out hers and Twilight’s helmets. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Everyone said goodnight and exchanged their farewell hugs before parting ways. Though they were all headed in the same direction, Sunset sped ahead of everyone else, feeling Twilight hold on with extra force. She slowed down some when they entered the newer neighborhoods.

She pulled in front of Twilight’s house and walked her to the door. Spike could be heard pawing at the other side, whining for his master. Twilight gave the door a pained smile, but focused her attention on Sunset. She put her hands on Sunset’s shoulders and leaned up to kiss her lips.

Sunset kept a hand on the small of Twilight’s back, keeping them gently pressed together until Twilight slowly pulled away. “Hey, look what we did,” Twilight said.

“What?” Sunset looked at where they stood then looked at Twilight. “Oh. Well, looks like something good came out of today.”

Twilight moved a hand down to Sunset’s. “How do you really feel about meeting her?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t know what to expect or what I would say if I ever did run into her. I’m glad she’s not out to kill me or turn me into the FBI, but…” Her shoulders dropped, heavy from the gravity of the situation. “The fact that there’s two of me occupying the same city is… weird. Sometimes I wish I could be normal like you.”

Twilight shifted her eyes down to the porch. “Being normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Honestly… I want to be like you, Sunset. You and the girls. I want to be special.”

Sunset used her free hand to rub Twilight’s cheek. She braced herself for the sincere but overly sentimental sweetness that was about to pass her lips. “Twilight, you are special. Maybe you don’t sprout magic pony accessories when you play music, but you’re the smartest girl I know, and the way you play violin is a magic of its own. You always see the best in people, even me. That’s not an easy thing to do.” She leaned in to Twilight’s beet red face. “You’re special to me, Sparky.”

Before their lips could meet, the porch light flashed on, startling them apart. Twilight sighed. “Shining’s home.”

“Guess two kisses here would be pushing our luck.” Sunset took a half step back. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Sparky.”

Twilight nodded, but darted forward, pecked Sunset’s lips again, then retreated inside the house, smiling as she closed the door in front of her.

Sunset laughed as she stepped away. Night had fallen, and while she felt marginally better, Sunset wanted nothing more than a quick meal, and a long sleep.

Like Spike with Twilight, Spot eagerly greeted Sunset when she returned home. She picked him up and carried him as she walked through the house, finding the kitchen empty. A warm casserole dish sat on the counter, portions of it already missing, but the lack of human activity struck Sunset as odd.

She heard noises coming from the backyard and went to the screen door to investigate. Out back, under the light of the waxing moon, Selena danced with one of her swords through a complicated set of slashes and lunges. She moved with such agility and grace, it looked like its own magic.

Her furrowed brow and controlled shouts showed a level of concentration Sunset did not want to disturb. She moved upstairs, wanting to take a shower before eating and heading to bed. She paused at Trixie’s closed door. The light shone from the crack, but Sunset couldn’t hear anything on the other side. She thought of knocking, of trying to talk to Trixie to get her to not hate her again. Something in her heart told Sunset the effort was futile for the time being. Trixie saw her as an obstacle to clear in order to save Artemis and prove some sort of self worth. Until that happened, she and Trixie were at odds.

Sunset entered her room and set Spot on the bed. If the Rainbooms were the ones to beat the Sirens, would that deepen the anger Trixie felt? But as long as they saved Artemis, it would all be fine, right? As arrogant and obnoxious Trixie was, Sunset didn’t want her as an enemy again. Though their one-on-one time was fleeting, they had been enjoyable to some degree.

Tumult emotions rolled inside her with no release other than sighing and screaming into her pillow.

Just deal with everything one day at a time. Focus on the spell, worry about Trixie and the other Sunset later.

“This would be so much easier if you hadn’t given into all this friendship nonsense,” someone hissed in her ear.

Sunset squeezed her eyes shut to block her out. “It’s your fault all this happened. But I’ll put it right. My friends will put it right.”

“That’s the spirit!” Princess Twilight cheered.

*******

Human Sunset greeted them at the factory the next day. She wore a poncho and shorts that showed off curves Sunset knew she didn’t have.

“So, no girlfriend today?” she asked while the Rainbooms set up.

Sunset got comfy in the corner again. “No. She’s in another band with her friend, and they have practice today.”

She must have let some bitterness slip because her doppelganger sniffed the air. “Is that jealousy I smell?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a little jealous.” Sunset brought her notebook up to cover her face. “But I trust Twilight not to do anything.”

Human Sunset, or as the others had taken to calling her, Shimmer, shook her head. “Oh, you sweet, summer child.”

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Shimmer said, holding her hands up. “You’re probably right. She seems way too innocent to do anything.” She weighed her hands. “Then again, it’s always the quiet ones…”

Sunset mustered up her best death glare. It rebounded harmlessly off Shimmer. She retreated on her own with a shrug and a faint smirk.

Is this what it’s like to have an annoying big sister? Sunset didn’t care what Shimmer said, Twilight wouldn’t cheat on her.

Moondancer’s actions were another story.

Focus. Sunset stared at her paper and tapped a pencil against her skull while the Rainbooms practiced their newest song. Why was she struggling so much with this? When it came down to it, all she had to do was write a song about friendship and let her friends do the rest of the work. She knew something about friendship now; this should have been easy.

She did know about friendship, didn’t she?

Of course I do! Otherwise, the Elements would still be cursing me! All she had to do was apply what she knew to song lyrics.

Twenty minutes later, the page remained blank.

Sunset beat the notebook against her head. She had started out pretty well! Now, everything in her head sounded stupid! Maybe they could just sing ‘Shine Like Rainbows’ again. That’s pretty friendshipy.

“You’ll lose brain cells that way,” Shimmer said, leaning over Sunset again.

“Well, maybe it’ll unlodge a thought with it.” Sunset put the notebook aside and pulled her knees up to her chin. “This needs to be perfect if we’re going to beat the Sirens.”

Shimmer took a seat next to her. “Gotta hand it to you, kiddo, the fact that you’re trying to save the world from some evil voodoo is pretty ballsy.”

Sunset turned her head toward Shimmer. “Would you do the same thing?” she asked, ignoring Shimmer’s terrible word choice.

“Nah. I’m not exactly the hero type.”

“Even for your friends?”

“Don’t have too many of those.” She stretched her arms behind her head and leaned back on the wall. “And don’t try to tell me how great friendship is and all that rainbow garbage. I like being alone. Not cause I hate the world or I was abused as a child, I just like keeping to myself. Your life may play like an after school special, and hey, more power to you for wanting to save your friends. But I’d rather do things for myself.”

Sunset sank her chin into the space between her knees. This Sunset was indeed her. How she acted before she found friendship. Minus the want of power and magic. Was this how Sunset would have ended up eventually? Moving from place to place with no purpose? Jaded and alone and not caring if the world burned?

She received an immediate ‘yes’ from her soul, and recounted her blessings, thanking her friends for being there when she needed them. The cynical part of her brain told her it was completely nonsensical, and that her human counterpart had a point, but Sunset knew friendship was magic.

Yep. Still sounds cheesy.

Shimmer tilted her head to the ceiling, looking at the pipes and ductwork running along the surface. “That wasn’t the best pep talk, was it?”

“You were trying to give me a pep talk?”

They broke into soft snickers. “Listen, mini me,” Shimmer said, “I don’t really understand all this magic stuff you’re trying to do. But I know that, if you think about it too hard, it’ll blow up in your face.” She got up and spread her arms wide. “Sometimes, you just gotta wing it.” She strolled back into the hallway with a swagger.

Sunset spared a glance to her notebook. “‘Wing it’, huh?”

“Ugh! Come on, A.J. You’re still coming in too flat!” Rainbow said, drawing Sunset’s attention back to the band.

“Ah only sound flat next to your bombastic showin’ off! Maybe you should tone it down a bit more!”

“I’m already playing at half-awesome, I can’t go any lower!” She turned her shoulder to Applejack. “Maybe if the rest of you picked up the slack…” she muttered.

“Ah heard that!”

“Rainbow, let me remind you the rest of us are still on a learning curve,” Rarity said, straining to keep the gentleness in her voice.

“All right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m just tired of being penalized for my awesome skills.”

“You can show off every iota of skill once we’re up against the Sirens, Dash,” Sunset said. “In the meantime, suck it up.”

Rainbow huffed, blowing a bang out of her face. “Fine. One more time, ‘Shake Your Tail’ from the top.”

*******

Saturday meant the quarterfinals for the Battle of the Bands, and though there were only eighteen left, the crowd of spectators proved bigger than the one the previous week. The three stages had been set up again, and now makeshift stands for viewers had been constructed on the outskirts. A few parents of some of the participants waved banners of their child's band.

Sunset walked back to the parking lot, having checked the schedules for the day. “Okay, you’re on at 3:30, so we’ve got a little over three hours to kill.” She looked at her gathered friends. “Rainbow and Rarity still aren’t here?”

The group had decided to meet up at the fairgrounds instead of joining beforehand. However, when Sunset arrived, she found their lead guitar and keytar missing.

Applejack gave a disgruntled sigh. “Rarity texted me sayin’ she needed time to find the right outfit for today. I kept tellin’ her this wasn’t a fashion show, but she got all, you know, Rarity on me!”

Sunset leaned against Applejack’s truck. “Well, it can’t take her three hours to find a dress, even if she is in Rarity mode. The heck is Dash?”

“A soccer game!” Pinkie said, clicking her phone.

“What?”

“Yep! She just texted me! ‘Totally scatterbrained and team didn’t remind me! Soccer match! Will be there for song, swear it!’”

Fluttershy threw her hands over her mouth. “We’re missing Rainbow’s soccer match? But, but we’re her cheering section!”

“‘Shy, I think Rainbow can go one game without us boosting her ego,” Sunset said. “She better be here on time though otherwise, we’re going to have a problem.”

“Well, in the meantime, there’s a cotton candy vendor calling my name!” Pinkie skipped off toward the concessions.

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.”

Pinkie stopped as a mob of fans rushed past her, heading for the center stage. Sunset looked between the gap of stalls to see the Dazzlings on stage, moving with hypnotic grace while green mist floated around them. The fans congregated with frightening speed and cheered on the Dazzlings as they sang their battle anthem once more.

Sunset broke into a run, gnashing her teeth together. Are they going to sing this every time? She circled the outer edge of the crowd, eyes frantically scanning for a purple bun or thick framed glasses. “Twilight!” she yelled over the music. When she failed to get a response, she pushed her way into the crowd, unafraid to fight back against the unruly mob with her elbows and balled fists. Even as she fought her way to the front, she found no signs of Twilight.

The crowd spat her out at the foot of the stage where the music was loudest, hammering against her eardrums. Sunset found herself boxed in on all sides with everyone around her sporting misted green eyes and looks of adoration toward the trio on stage. Sunset raised her head the exact moment Adagio looked down, and their eyes met.

Lust, power, greed, vanity, and cold intelligence. Sunset saw so much of her former self not just in Adagio’s eyes, but in the brief wicked smile she flashed. Sunset tried to smile back with the same dopey expression everyone else had. Adagio looked away to sing the next line, and Sunset took that moment to push her way back into the crowd.

Does she know? She can’t know, that’s impossible. But that smile… Sunset shivered. It was a smile of absolute certainty, like Adagio knew she had already won the game.

Sunset reemerged from the crowd again on the opposite side of the stage as the Dazzlings ended their song. “Welcome to the quarterfinals of the Battle of the Bands!” Adagio said. “Only nine teams get to move onto the semis. Who is it going to be?” Voices shouted over each other, clamoring to prove they were good enough to proceed. “Well then, let’s find out!”

The band players quickly dispersed while the spectators continued to cheer. Sunset still couldn’t see any signs of Twilight. A pit rose in her stomach that followed her back to the parking lot. It diminished slightly upon seeing Rarity had arrived, then turned in disbelief upon seeing what she wore.

Today’s outfit consisted of a pink jacket with gold pleats and button straps, with a floral hem that covered a purple skirt. She had pink knee high boots with more button laces and thick heels. Over her eyes were blue goggles with pink lenses. Her hair was done in a ponytail with her bangs swept to the side.

“I know I’ll regret asking,” Sunset said as she approached, “but what are you wearing?”

“Do you like it?” Rarity turned to each side to show off. “I put the finishing touches on this morning. I really love the color scheme!”

“Rarity, you look like Sergeant Pepper,” Applejack said with a fold of her arms.

“I will take that as a compliment. And there’s no need to be jealous, Applejack.” She gestured to her car. “I made outfits for each of you.”

Applejack’s eyes widened. “Oh no! Ah am not playin’ dress up today! Rarity, we’re here to win, not have a fashion show!”

“And part of winning is in the presentation, darling.” She spun again. “There’s no point in going up there and looking like ragamuffins. We’ll stand out much better if we play with style.”

“Isn’t standing out for us bad?” Fluttershy asked.

“Only if we pony up,” Pinkie said. “New outfits sound like they’ll be fun!”

Rarity nodded in satisfaction. “See, Pinkie agrees with me.”

Sunset massaged her temple. She had done that a lot recently. “Just… be careful, Rarity. When I was up there, me and Adagio locked eyes and… I don’t know, I think she might know something.”

Applejack shook her head. “C’mon, that’s impossible. She doesn’t even know who we are.”

“Unless she’s psychic,” Pinkie mused, stroking her chin.

“Just be cautious, for me,” Sunset urged.

Rarity patted her head. “I give you my word, Sunset, everything will be fine.” She looked around. “Now, where is Rainbow?”

“Soccer match,” Sunset said, her shoulders falling.

“Oh.” Rarity put on a crooked smile. “I’m sure she’ll make it here in time.”

Sunset pulled out her phone. “She better. In the meantime, Twilight’s supposed to play soon, and I need to make sure she’s still okay.”

“And I need more cotton candy!” Pinkie said. “So I’ll come with you.”

“Pinkie, this isn’t…” Sunset sighed. “Fine, whatever.” She turned back to the stages, Pinkie skipping by her side. She broke off to get her sweets while Sunset continued to the right hand stage. Moondancer’s black piano gleamed in the sun. Its owner walked out, wearing a red dress with purple stars along the sleeves and collar. Twilight followed after her, violin in hand and wearing a ruffled purple skirt and lace blouse. It looked like it was meant to show cleavage, but Twilight had it buttoned up to her neck.

“Okay, Moonlight Requiem,” Cadence said, “what will you be performing today?”

Moondancer took her seat and gestured for Twilight to take her position on top the piano. “We’re going to play a rendition of ‘Love Story’ if it pleases the judges.”

Cadence dipped her head. “By all means, please begin.”

Moondancer started with a cluster of notes, and Twilight jumped in with a high string. She dropped to her lower chords while Moondancer played slow keys. It sounded rather somber for a love song, but both players delivered their very best. Twilight opened her eyes for a moment and gave Sunset a quick smile.

“She’s pretty good,” someone said next to her.

“Yeah, she’s—eeepmmph!” Sunset covered her mouth, cutting off her shriek of surprise. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.

Wearing thick shades and a wide sun hat, Shimmer stood by her side, admiring Twilight and Moondancer. “Seeing if any of you kiddies have any musical talent. I’m surprisingly impressed so far.”

Sunset flailed her arms. “You can’t be here! If someone sees me and then sees you—”

“They’ll be confused as hell and it’ll be hilarious.”

Sunset spun her around and pushed against her shirt, herding her behind the stands and back to the parking lot. “No, no, no, no! My life is already complicated enough. I do not need people asking why there are two of me walking around.”

Shimmer stopped allowing Sunset to push her and became immovable, grounding her heels in the dirt. “Mini me, lighten up will you, no one is going to figure out who’s beneath this hat.” She put her hand out to ruffle Sunset’s hair. “Seriously, you worry too—”

When she made contact, Sunset’s world spun, then faded out and faded in to something completely new.

She was a child standing on a playground. A larger boy stood in front of her, holding his hand out.

“All right, Shimmer, fork it over.”

“Come on, it’s all I have for lunch!” Sunset heard herself say, tears in her eyes.

“Not my problem your parents are broke. Now, gimme!” He pushed her onto the black top and loomed over her. “Or do we have to pay a visit to Mr. Swirly?”

Sunset felt her fear spike. She reached into the pockets of her dirty jeans and handed over eight dollars. “There, just leave me alone.”

The bully snatched the cash from her hand, counted it up, then held his hand out expectantly, making a fist with his other.

Sunset choked back a sob and dug into her back pocket, turning over the last two dollars.

“Hah, nice try, street brat,” he said, snatching the money and walking off, leaving Sunset to openly cry.

Shimmer ripped her hand away and doubled over, breathing hard, with Sunset in a similar state. “The fuck was that?” Shimmer exclaimed, staring at Sunset like it was her fault.

Sunset rubbed her head. “I… don’t know. Did you see something too?”

“Y-yeah. I saw… ponies. Super bright ponies. And they were reading a story to me… and I called them mom and dad.” Her eyes doubled in size. “What did you see?”

“Well…” Sunset flinched. She felt like she had violated someone’s privacy. “I saw—”

Shimmer roughly grabbed her and dragged her under the stands. She pressed Sunset up against one of the metal poles, holding her by her jacket collar. “What did you see?” she asked, her voice a low, lethal whisper.

“I saw you being bullied on the playground!” Sunset said, heart racing. Maybe it was because she couldn’t see Shimmer’s eyes that she found herself terrified.

Shimmer held her in place a moment longer, then set her on the ground and turned away. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

Sunset wanted to agree with her, especially now that something weird occurred if they touched. But she found herself compelled by curiosity from what she had just witnessed. “Something tells me that bullying scene isn’t what you were worried about me seeing.”

Shimmer started walking away.

“I already told you my secrets,” Sunset said, marching after her. “What are you trying to hide?”

“You told me all of that because you didn’t have a choice.” Shimmer looked over her shoulder, her face unreadable. “I still have my choice.” She tapped a finger to her forehead. “What goes on up in here, stays here. So do me a favor and keep out.” She picked up her pace, heading down the dirt road and back toward the city.

Sunset stood on her own, faintly hearing the next band start to play. She raised her hand to her hair, feeling where Shimmer had pressed her palm. They had looked into each other’s memories. Why? Was it because they were parallels of each other? Would the same thing happen if Twilight were to ever meet the princess?

Guess my fears weren’t entirely unfounded. But what was it that Shimmer didn’t want her to see? And was it Sunset’s place to pry, even if she had told Shimmer her secrets? Let it go for now. More important things to worry about.

She doubled back to the stages and found Twilight packing away her violin. Moondancer sat on the edge of the stage, gently kicking her legs. “Why, hello, Sunset. Did you enjoy our act?”

Sunset looked at Twilight as she spoke. “Yeah, the parts I heard. Sorry I missed the rest of it, I had stuff to deal with.”

“That’s all right.” Twilight snapped her case shut and stood up. “I’m a little hungry. Wanna get something to eat?”

“Sure!” Sunset said with a brightened smile. “I’ll treat!” She cast a quick, smug look to Moondancer, who only gave her a cat-like smile in return.

“You two go have fun.” She turned her nose up. “I’d rather not sully my tongue with second-rate fair food anyway.”

Sunset helped Twilight off the stage and led her to the snack vendors. “Are you okay?” she asked, checking Twilight’s eyes for any green haze.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“The Dazzlings’ singing earlier?”

Twilight looked thoughtful for a moment. “Oh, right. Well, I don’t feel any different. I guess Artemis’ spell is still working.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way.” She dropped her voice lower. “Shimmer was here for a minute.”

Twilight stopped walking. “Really? Why? What if someone sees both of you?”

“That’s what I tried to tell her. But that’s not the problem.” Sunset looked over their shoulders then back to Twilight. “She touched me on the head, and for whatever reason, we both saw memories of each other. She saw my parents reading to me, and I saw her being bullied as a kid.”

Excitement, then confusion and worry crossed Twilight’s face. “That’s… odd. Fascinating, but odd. What would the precedence be for that? Because you’re the same person but from different worlds? Maybe it’s some sort of spacial mechanism for understanding between parallel versions of people. But what triggers it and why? How does it exist in the first place? Maybe—”

“Sparky, focus!” Sunset said, snapping her fingers. “I haven’t even gotten to the weirdest part.” Though Twilight’s geek out relieved Sunset of worry. “Before I could even tell her what I saw, she flipped out. She’s hiding something.”

Twilight shrugged. “I mean, naturally, right? Seeing someone else’s memories… it’s kinda like reading their diary.”

“No, I mean, she’s hiding something. Not an embarrassing moment or secret crush, she’s got something big.”

“What makes you say that?”

Sunset fiddled with her collar. “Because she looked like she was ready to beat my face in and ran off afterwards.”

Twilight hummed. “That is rather suspicious. Do you think we should be concerned?”

“Hard to say. I could be wrong but… she was definitely freaked out by more than just the memory exchange.” They stood in line and bought a hot dog and fries to share, then joined the others back in the parking lot. Rainbow still hadn’t arrived.

Sunset checked her phone again. One hour until they performed. “I’m going to kill her.”

“To be fair, she is the team captain,” Twilight said.

“Nah, still gonna kill her.”

“So, what do we do if she doesn’t show up?” Pinkie asked. She had switched into one of Rarity’s outfits: a purple tank top with a double skirt of blue and pink, and yellow leggings.

“Hope Trixie’s magic is good enough to beat the Sirens,” Sunset said. A brief silence fell over them while they each exchanged glances. “Rainbow better show up.”

But as the minutes ticked by, Rainbow neither appeared nor texted. Fear and anger bubbling inside, Sunset helped the rest of the Rainbooms set up on the left stage.

Applejack plugged her bass in. “Ah swear, if she’s hopin’ to make some sort of dramatic entrance, Ah’m gonna put my boot up her—”

“I’m here!” Rainbow ran onto the stage, still in her soccer uniform, but guitar in hand. “I’m here, I made it!” She tried to give a confident grin, but faltered under everyone’s withering glares. “I know, I know, I’m sorry! I spaced, my bad! But I’m here now!”

“And you look positively filthy,” Rarity said, pinching her lips.

Rainbow looked down at the grass and dirt stains over her uniform and legs. “Well, I didn’t have time to change if I wanted to make it on time.”

“Did you win?” Fluttershy asked.

A full, genuine grin spread across Rainbow’s face. “Of course we won! And I made the winning shot! You should have been there! It was totally… eh heh, um, nevermind,” she said, seeing the glares return.

Sunset pointed to the curtain. “You can recount your amazing feats after you make it to the next round.” She stepped away as the curtain parted and the Rainbooms took their places.

“Welcome back, Rainbooms,” Adagio said with a soft smile. Sunset tried to read into it but found nothing. “Ready to wow us?” She frowned as her eyes settled on Rainbow. “I do hope your act is better than your appearance.”

Rarity made an audible tut.

Rainbow’s face turned scarlet. “You can count on that!” she said hotly. “‘Rainbow Rocks’ on three! One, two, three, hit it!”

Pinkie opened with the rhythmic thumping of her drums, setting the beat and tempo of the song. “We used to fight with each other.” It was hard to tell with everyone singing in unison, but Sunset heard Rainbow’s voice crack. If the judges heard it, they gave no tell.

Sunset didn’t have to worry about making a racket this time. When the song ended, none of her friends looked remotely close to ponying up, though they did look a little less tense.

“Thank you, Rainbooms, that was well done,” Cadence said cordially. Sunset bit her thumb knuckle. Would ‘well done’ be enough to survive? Would being Twilight’s girlfriend help or hinder their chances? Cadence was pretty nice; maybe Sunset could work into her good graces.

She shook her head. “Fair and honest. No more cheating. Of course, the world is on the line.”

Rainbow unplugged her guitar and set it in its case. “So, how did we sound?”

“Not bad,” Sunset said, waving her hand back and forth. “You were a little pitchy at the start.”

Rainbow huffed. “Excuse me, I just played two hours of soccer. What’d you expect?”

“So much for always being awesome,” Applejack said, passing by.

“Why you…”

Sunset threw her hands out. “Girls! No fighting. You’re going to give them more power.” Cadence and the Dazzlings had moved on, but Sunset didn’t want to take any chances.

Twilight climbed onto the stage. “That wasn’t bad, girls. But Rainbow’s voice cracked a little.”

Rainbow grumbled, but continued wrapping up cords.

“Don’t worry though, there’s only three bands left, and the way everyone else has been playing, I think we both have a good chance at making it to the next round.”

“Right,” Rainbow said. “And with you throwing the competition next week, that’s one less band to worry about.”

Twilight frowned, her brow creasing. “What?”

Sunset put a hand on her shoulder. “It was part of our plan, remember?”

“Oh… right.” Twilight’s aura shifted and became cold to Sunset’s touch.

“You okay?”

Twilight stepped out of Sunset’s range but forced a smile. “Yeah. Sorry, guess I got a little caught up in everything for a moment. I’ve just been having a lot of fun performing with Moondancer is all. I know what you’re all fighting for.” Her smile tightened a little more. “I’ll be sure to, you know, throw our performance off next week.”

Sunset reached her hand out. “Twi…”

She took another step back. “I should go. Moondancer’s my ride home. I’ll call you later.” She turned and hopped off the stage.

“Twilight!” Sunset ran to the edge, watching Twilight disappear into the crowd. Soul-crushing hollowness, like she had felt when she learned of the Sirens’ reason for freedom enveloped her. Twilight couldn’t have succumbed to the Sirens’ magic. She had seemed fine a few hours ago. But if she had… what was Sunset to do?

She looked back to her friends. They all gave her worrying looks, but could offer her no explanation.

“I’m sure it’s fine, Sunset,” Rarity said with a slight shake in her voice. “Maybe she really did get a little swept up in the heat of the moment. It happens to the best of us.”

“Yeah…” Sunset looked over the crowd again. “Maybe.”

*******

Trixie and her band had been the last to perform today. As a result, much of the crowd had parted ways before they had even begun playing. Not that Trixie cared. Her mother also couldn’t attend, out of fear of being seen by the Sirens. Not that Trixie cared about that either.

She didn’t need anyone’s support, and for once, she didn’t want anyone’s adoration. She just wanted her father back.

She sat down in her car, instrument packed away, and wiped a tear from her eye. She supposed it wouldn’t have been bad to have the first two things.

“Get it together.” She patted her cheeks. “You can do this. You have to do this. You’re just as good as Sunset and her talentless friends. Magic is in your blood! Make your ancestors proud!” She made to start the engine when she realized her cape was missing. She looked at the back seats but couldn’t spot it amongst her equipment.

Trixie got out and headed back to the stage, hoping she had left it hanging on one of the chairs. That was one of her father’s capes; the last thing she wanted was to lose it.

Vendors closed and locked their stalls as she walked past. The stages and stands would be left erected for the duration of the tournament. The setting sun lengthened the shadows everything made, covering the fairgrounds in cold darkness.

Butterflies fluttered in Trixie’s stomach. Had she played good enough to make it to the next round? She thought she had sounded good. She had been practicing all week. Stop doubting yourself! If Sunset’s friends made it, then you definitely did. Was it wrong that some part of her wanted them to fail? She should have been happy they were trying to help, but all Trixie could draw upon was resentment. They were meddling in something that clearly wasn’t their business!

And for her mother to ask them for help instead of her—Trixie! Her own daughter.

Trixie balled her fists. Now was her chance to show everyone who had ever doubted her! She would win! She would beat the Sirens! She would save her father! And she would do it on her own!

Trixie walked around to the back of the stage, behind the curtains, and started searching for her cape. Even in the dim lighting, it couldn’t have been too hard to spot.

“Looking for this?”

Her blood froze in her veins. Reaching into her pocket, she spun around and pointed her wand at Adagio, standing ten paces away with Trixie’s cape in hand, and a wry smile on her lips. Her sisters stood behind her, looking equally smug.

“Oh, someone’s quick with the trigger,” Adagio said. “We just wanted to give you your cape back. With a response like that, someone might think you didn’t like us.”

“Well, duh, she doesn’t like us,” Sonata said. “We kidnapped her dad, remember?”

The smiles fell from Aria and Adagio’s faces, and Aria crossed her arms. “I should buy a muzzle for you.”

“Enough of your asinine game!” Trixie tightened her grip on the wand. “Trixie wants her father back. Now!

“Or what?” Aria asked, her smirk returning. “If Artemis couldn’t beat us, what chance do you have?”

“Now, now,” Adagio said with a gentle wave. “Let’s give her a chance. I’m sure our fans and the police would love to know why we were ‘helplessly assaulted by a jealous competitor since we decided she wasn’t good enough to advance’,” she said in her best distressed voice.

Trixie clenched her jaw, but slowly lowered her wand. “You won’t get away with this. One way or another, I’ll make sure you lose, and no one will remember you.”

“Hey, that’s what your dad said!” Sonata chirped. A dark shadow crossed her face as she smiled. “And look where he is.”

Blood roaring in her ears, Trixie snapped her wrist up. “Lulamoon!” A bolt of magic fired from her wand for Sonata.

Adagio stepped in front and waved Trixie’s cape. The magic bolt reflected off of it and headed back toward Trixie. She threw herself onto the ground, letting the magic hit the curtain where it left a deep burn.

“Wowee, Dagi! How’d you know it would do that?”

“Lucky guess actually.”

“Should have let it hit her.”

Trixie looked up to see the three Sirens walking toward her, spreading out to surround her on three sides. “Honestly, there’s no need for hostilities, Trixie,” Adagio said. “You said you wanted to see your dad again, right? Maybe we could work out some sort of… deal.”

Dread sank its cold claws into Trixie’s stomach. “Trixie… I won’t make a deal with you!”

Aria shrugged. “All right then. So, what do you think your dad’s preferred method of death is?”

“Okay, okay! Please!” Tears fell from Trixie’s eyes. “What do you want?”

Adagio knelt in front of her. “Honestly? Nothing. It’s what you want, Trixie.” She put a finger under Trixie’s chin. “You’re here to prove something, aren’t you? It isn’t just about trying to beat us. I can see it right here in your eyes.”

Trixie shut them, hoping it would also stop her tears.

“No, no. No need to hide it,” Adagio said in a gentle, almost motherly voice. “It’s okay. Let me guess… no one takes you seriously? You’re overshadowed by your father’s heroic exploits and talents? Are you afraid of losing to these clearly inferior bands? Or maybe something of all three?”

“Stop it,” Trixie choked.

“Ding, ding, ding, it looks like we have a winner!” Adagio patted Trixie’s cheek. “Then you’re going to love this deal because it only benefits you.”

Trixie opened her eyes again. “What is it?”

“Sabotage.”

“What?”

“That’s it. I don’t care how you do it honestly, just make the other bands look bad. Give us a reason not to let them onto the next round. Find their dirty secrets, break their instruments, steal their songs, it doesn’t matter.” Adagio kept her gloved palm against Trixie’s cheek, slowly digging her nails into skin. “If we see you do it, we’ll just turn a blind eye. Then, all you have to do is play better than everyone else. Sounds easy, right? You’ll win, prove you’re the best, and we’ll even let you have your father back.”

Trixie winced. “Too easy. What’s in it for you?”

Adagio just kept smiling. “Nothing of value. I told you, this deal is here only to benefit you. See? We’re not complete monsters.”

“I highly doubt that.” Trixie bit her lip. She had nothing to bargain with. They held every card, including the most important of all. Sure, Trixie had sabotaged before, but this felt different. Last time it was out of petty spite, this time, she was furthering her mortal enemies’ plans.

But her father…

“I’ll do it,” she said under her breath.

Adagio’s smile widened, showing off her sharp teeth. “I was hoping that’d be your answer.” She stood up and turned with her sisters to go. “Just make sure you don’t tell anyone. Especially your mother. I’d hate for her to have to become a widow.” All three of them broke into laughs, and as they stepped away from the stage, Adagio dropped the cape onto the grass.

Trixie got to her feet, legs trembling. She walked over and picked up her cape, looking at the stars and moon printed on the back. Her tears fell anew, and she clutched it against her chest.

“Daddy, please forgive me.”

16. Revelations

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Twilight didn’t call until late Sunday afternoon, giving Sunset nearly twenty-four hours of anxiety. She pounced on her phone the second she saw the call was from Twilight. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” There was a slight edge to Twilight’s voice. Sunset wanted to attribute that to her constant pestering of Twilight’s well-being. But she knew it wasn’t fine. Nothing was fine.

Sunset didn’t know how to broach the topic. If Twilight was aware of the Sirens’ powers, would she be able to put up a better resistance? And what would Sunset say anyway? ‘Twilight, you’re being manipulated by evil magic, stop it.’

“How are you?” Twilight asked, her voice soft again. Sunset realized she had been silent too long.

“I’m fine,” she said, dragging the words from her mouth. “Uhhh…” She looked at the clock. 4:53. “I know it’s late, but do you want to come over?”

“I can’t. Moondancer is coming over to work on some music.” She at least had the courtesy to sound guilty.

“Oh.” Sunset tried not to, but couldn’t help but feel molten fury course through her. She couldn’t say anything else, lest it seep through.

“Sorry,” Twilight said. “I’ll see you tomorrow though.”

“Yeah, see you.” They both lingered on the line until Sunset could no longer handle the awkward silence and hung up.

The world slowly fell to pieces around her—because of her—and all Sunset could do was watch. She tried to hold it together, but the shards just slipped through her fingers, cutting them open.

The spell around Twilight was fading; Sunset knew it. It was a special kind of torture, knowing she couldn’t do anything.

She sat up on her bed. Perhaps she couldn’t, but maybe someone else could. It was a long shot, but Sunset had to try. She pat Spot on the head, her signal that she would be back soon, and walked down the hall.

“Trixie?” She knocked on the door.

“Go away,” a subdued voice answered.

Sunset knocked again. “Please, Trixie, I need your help.”

“Don’t care.”

Sunset tightened her fist. “It’s not for me, it’s for Twilight. Look, I know you’re mad at me. I know you think I’m trying to upstage you or replace you, but I’m not! Trixie, I want to save Artemis and the rest of the world as much as you do! We’re on the same side; we shouldn’t be fighting! Whatever spell Artemis used to protect Twilight is fading and I need you to recast it.” She rested a hand against the door. “Please?”

She thought she heard covers shift, but Trixie gave no response.

Sunset smacked her palm against the wood. “Fine!” She stomped back to her room and slammed the door shut, startling Spot. “Sorry, buddy.” She sat down, and he cuddled up to her, stretching his neck up to lick her face. A sweet gesture, but not enough to make her feel better.

What if our plan doesn’t work? What if everyone stays hypnotized even if we beat the Dazzlings? Sunset looked at her notebook sitting on her bedside table. All the faults in her plan burned through the cover and blinded her, all of the uncounted variables, like her inability to write a counterspell or if her friends could create a rainbow with only five members. Was all their practice in vain?

“Don’t give up yet,” Princess Twilight said, her own squeaky voice tired. “You can’t let your friends down.”

Spot barked and wagged his tail. Sunset scratched him behind the ear. “I’m not giving up. I’m just wondering if we can win.”

To that, Princess Twilight said nothing.

*******

Sunset looked around, but the grassy field appeared empty. Yellow flowers grew in small patches here and there. She stooped down to pick one, rolling it between her fingers.

“Sunset!”

She turned around. On a hill stood Twilight, waving with a cheerful smile. But as Sunset ran toward her, a bouquet of roses in hand, a shadow rose up behind Twilight. It formed into Moondancer, wearing a calculating smile.

“Little star,” she said sweetly, “look what I have for you.” A floating palace materialized above her, purple waterfalls cascading off the sides. Flowers of every bloom coated the walls and ran up the towers.

“Bye, Sunset!” Twilight said, swooped up in Moondancer’s arms. They jumped into the sky, vanishing into the castle with heartfelt laughs. Laughs that slowly became twisted as clouds stormed the clear skies. The grass around Sunset caught fire, burning away the flowers until ashes and skeletons remained. The ground broke apart, and the Human Sunset climbed up from the molten depths. She looked at Sunset with empty eyes.

“There can only be one!” She reached for Sunset with an enormous hand.

Sunset turned and ran, stumbling and jumping from rock to rock over pits of boiling magma. She didn’t have the luxury or the courage to turn around. Over her, the black sky roared in tumultuous fury, dropping fists of lightning around her. She came to the edge of the world, darkness spiraling out beneath her. With nowhere left to go, she jumped.

The fall was much slower than she anticipated. In fact, she swore she was floating. She fanned her arms out, finding her movements slowed by gallons of water. She swum downwards until she broke the surface, gasping for breath. The night sky was calm and filled with stars that sparkled on the water. Sunset swam until she found a small island.

She washed up on it, thinking she had finally found shelter, but as she looked up to explore the island more, she found her scarlet colored demon smiling back at her.

Sunset jumped back, fists raised and teeth clenched. “What do you want?”

“Why, to help you of course,” she said, spreading her arms wide. “You want to save your friends, right? You want to beat the Dazzlings, don’t you?”

Sunset lowered her fists a fraction. “Yeah?”

Her demon drifted closer. “Well, you have the power.” She pointed a claw at Sunset’s heart. “Right here. All you have to do is let me back in.”

“Not going to happen!”

“Would you rather have your friends brainwashed by rejects from the eighties?”

Sunset jabbed a finger. “No! But I’m not going to let you have your way with them either!”

The demon rolled her eyes. She leaned back and crossed her legs, floating in midair. “So reluctant to do anything. You have all the power to take what you want, but you don’t use it. Friendship has made you soft. You used to be feared. You used to be respected.”

“That wasn’t respect; they hated me! I’m not going back to that!”

“But think about what you could accomplish.” She drifted around Sunset whispering to her from every side. “With all your power, you could get rid of the Sirens and everyone would hail you as a hero. Then, things could go back to the way they were. You, the undisputed queen of Canterlot High, maybe even the entire city! Everyone will be eating out of your hands! And you’ll have your precious Twilight back from Moondancer.”

Sunset’s jaw tightened. “I certainly don’t need your help to win back Twilight.”

“You’re right. You don’t. You have the ability all on your own.” She stopped by Sunset’s ear. “The one thing Moondancer can’t have. All you have to do is seal the deal.” She leaned in close. “Go ahead. Deflower her precious Twilight.”

Sunset whirled around and slammed her fist into the demon’s cheek. She spiraled back, shock and fear scrawled on her face. Sunset slammed a boot into the sand. “Torment me all you want! Mock me, insult me, drive me insane; I don’t care! But you will not force me to take advantage of Twilight! Especially just to spite Moondancer!”

The demon rubbed her mouth. “You didn’t seem to have a problem with it when you were kissing her.”

“Rrrrgh!” Sunset ran at the demon, but she vanished in a puff of smoke.

“Fine. But when the world comes crashing down around you, don’t say I didn’t give you a way out.” The island beneath Sunset faded to white. The buzzing of angry wasps filled the void until she realized it was her alarm clock.

*******

The Rainbooms had made it to the semi-finals. The Crusaders had not. Sunset found out online before heading to school Monday morning. Only nine bands remained, and four of them came from CHS. She could only imagine the tension waiting for her at school, not to mention what Rarity and the others were going through with their sisters.

Sunset closed her laptop and grabbed her bag. No sense in delaying the inevitable. She left the house on foot, paranoid someone would deface her bike again in lieu of her friends’ victory. The walk gave her white clouds painted on the sky in thin brush strokes, and an abundance of early morning sunlight.

The fresh air helped ease Sunset’s nerves. The Rainbooms had advanced to the next round. They still had a chance. She would prove that dark phantom of hers wrong: she didn’t need its help to beat the Sirens! Sunset would finish the counterspell and her friends would make everything right again!

Her thoughts turned to Twilight. What could Sunset do in the meantime to help her? Did she need help? What if Sunset was over thinking things and Twilight was actually fine? The churning in her stomach quashed that idea immediately.

And what about the other Sunset? Would she still allow the Rainbooms to practice in the factory after what had happened on Saturday? Though she supposed the barn could be used again since the Crusaders were out. Sunset still felt obligated to check in on Shimmer just to see she was okay.

She walked onto campus, receiving dirty looks or being flat out ignored by other students. She continued onto her locker, remembering a time when she reveled in their disdain and misery.

“I have to admit, I’m surprised you made it this far,” someone said behind her as she stowed her bag away. She looked over, finding Flash leaning on the other locker with a smug smile that he didn’t wear well.

“My friends and I are full of a lot of surprises,” Sunset said, keeping her face neutral.

“Well now, you’re playing with the real bands… and Trixie. I hope your friends have a surprise good enough to make it to the finals. Even though you’re still going to lose to me.”

“Pre-mature gloating. Coming from you, it’s not cute.” Sunset pointed a thumb at herself. “We’re going to win, and you’ll thank us for it later.”

Flash rolled his eyes, magnifying Sunset’s urge to hit him. “What do you mean ‘we’? You don’t do anything, you just watch the others do all the hard work while you sit back and reap the benefits. Again.

Sunset recoiled at the jab. All of her old plots and schemes rushed to the forefront of her thoughts, times when she had forced Snips and Snails or other pawns to do her dirty deeds while she kept her hands cleaned. “That isn’t true! This is a team effort! I’m trying my best to help them!”

“Right, you filled out the paperwork. Great job.”

I wonder if blunt force trauma to the head is enough to break the spell. “How my band operates is none of your business!”

“‘Your’ band has nothing on mine. I bet you don’t even know what you’re doing.” Flash turned to leave, but not before Sunset saw the hint of green in his eyes. “We’ll knock you out in the next round, because there’s no way you deserve a spot in the finals.”

She watched him go, clenching her fists until her palms locked up in protest. She shook them out and grabbed her textbook, then slammed her locker as hard as she could. The force caused the locker next to hers to pop open, not that she cared.

Walking into first period, Sunset found Rarity with a surprising lack of make-up. Sunset realized she had never seen Rarity without it. She sat subdued, shoulders hunched and head down.

“Sweetie told me she hated me and never wanted to talk to me again,” she said weakly as Sunset took her seat. “I know it’s just the spell talking but…” She wiped her eyes. “I’ve never heard her so angry before.”

Sunset reached over and gave Rarity the best one-armed hug she could. Rarity sniffled, tugging at Sunset’s heartstrings. “Don’t worry. In two weeks, everything will be back to normal.”

Rarity pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. “Right. Two weeks. We can do this. So the counterspell is coming along then?”

“Yep!” Sunset said with false cheer. “I think I’m almost done! Just gotta tweak it a bit!”

“That’s wonderful news! I knew we could count on you, Sunset.”

Sunset faced the board, holding onto her smile even as Mr. Noteworthy walked in. I’m a terrible friend.

The hostile atmosphere at lunch had shifted. Instead of each group of students harboring hate for one another, every band that had been knocked out so far pooled their hatred together to focus it at those remaining. The isolation aspect remained the same, however.

Sunset couldn’t see Twilight amongst the throng of students. She could only imagine what her and Moondancer were doing. She forced her attention to her friends. Like Rarity, Applejack and Rainbow had been scorned by their sister and surrogate sister respectively. The Crusaders occupied a table on the other side of the room with a few more of their friends, stoutly refusing to look the Rainbooms’ way.

Applejack slammed a fist onto the table, startling everyone out of their sullen moods. “Those stupid Sirens are tearin’ mah family apart! If Ah ever get mah hands on any one of them…” Sunset had seen her tackle Bulk Biceps to the ground once. She had no doubt Applejack could follow through with her threat.

“Hi, girls.” Twilight dropped into the seat next to Sunset. “Sorry I’m late.” She gave up her faint smile upon seeing everyone’s despondent dispositions. “What’s wrong?”

“Everything,” Rainbow said, dropping her head against the table.

“The Crusaders got knocked out of the competition and now, the girls won’t talk to us,” Sunset explained.

Twilight shrugged. “Yeah, I saw. Honestly, I’m surprised they made it to the quarterfinals. I mean, I couldn’t count the number of times Sweetie’s voice cracked. And Scootaloo kept playing C chords when she clearly should have been playing in A.” She let out a very un-Twilight snort.

Rainbow raised her head to join Rarity in glaring at Twilight. Digging into her lunch bag, she didn’t seem to notice. Sunset took a deep breath, deciding to tackle this problem head on. Maybe she could talk sense into Twilight. Before Sunset opened her mouth, three pairs of footsteps approached the table. The Crusaders stopped, arms crossed and eyes pointed past Sunset and at their older sisters. Sunset had to hand it to them, they actually looked a little intimidating.

“You lied to us,” Apple Bloom said between her teeth.

Applejack sat up and looked back with affronted eyes. “Lied? About what?”

Scootaloo took over, her cheeks flushed with anger. “You said we couldn’t go to the Dazzlings’ concert because it was dangerous. You took our tickets. Then you went to the concert yourselves!”

Rainbow winced. “Scoots, you don’t understand.”

“No, we understand perfectly,” Sweetie said. “You extorted tickets from us! That was all our allowances from two months!”

“How did you know we went to the concert anyway?” Rarity asked.

“Diamond Tiara saw all of you there.”

“Almost all of us,” Twilight grumbled under her breath. She actively avoided eye contact with anyone else.

“Admit it!” Apple Bloom said, slamming her palm on the table. “You’ve been out to sabotage us from the beginnin’! First you wouldn’t let us go to the concert, then you hog our music space! Why are you tryin’ to make our lives miserable?”

“Ah’m not tryin’ to make your life miserable!” Applejack said, standing from her chair. “Y’all don’t understand what we’re tryin’ to do, and are makin’ up this story of us messin’ you up.”

“Though she is right about the extortion,” Twilight said.

“Not helpin’!”

The Crusaders decided they had had enough and turned to leave one by one. Apple Bloom gave Applejack a holier-than-thou smile. “Wait ‘till you get home. You’re gonna be in so much trouble.” She mimed a belt smacking into her palm and joined her two companions.

With them gone, Sunset turned back to Twilight, who decided to make eye contact again. Sunset wished she hadn’t after seeing the anger and irritation in them. “So, am I the only one who didn’t go to that concert?” Twilight asked bitterly.

Rarity leaned over. “Sunset, did you forget to tell Twilight we went with you that night?”

Sunset tapped her fingers together. “That may be something I neglected to mention, yeah.” She tried to smile. “But hey, at least I didn’t go alone, right?”

“No, you got to go play hero with all your other magically endowed friends while I sat on the sidelines because it’s ‘too dangerous’ for nerdy me.” She grabbed her lunch bag and stormed off.

“Sparky, wait!” Sunset got up from the table, but Twilight broke into a run, exiting the cafeteria in a storm. Sunset paused at the door, wondering what chasing after her would accomplish. How much of that was the Sirens’ doing, and how much were Twilight’s own feelings?

She’s going straight to Moondancer though. Sunset pushed through the door and into the hall, but that moment of hesitation had given Twilight the time she needed to make herself scarce. “Twilight!” Sunset called. It went unanswered.

She returned to the cafeteria, head hung in defeat, and sat back at their table. The hollow feeling born from the revelation about the leygates returned to feast on Sunset’s misery. She slumped in her chair, dreading what her next encounter with Twilight would be like.

Pinkie pushed her peas around her plate. “Even I’m having a hard time putting a positive spin on this.”

Sunset looked at her own food, appetite completely gone. Pinkie without any positives was a bad omen to be sure.

*******

Twilight sat in the music room, angrier now than she had been at lunch. Third period had given her a whole two hours to think about what Sunset and her friends did behind her back—what they were doing right now! Apparently, in this circle of friends, magiclessness equaled uselessness.

She ran her bow across her violin strings and received a harsh screech. She took a deep breath and tried again, receiving a much softer sound. She had to remember she could never play stressed. Stupid girls stressing me out. Maybe this is how they intend to make me drop out this round. The violin made another screech, and she took another breath and slowed down.

I’m supposed to be helping them though. They have the magic to beat the Sirens. Her playing grew a little faster. But who’s to say I can’t find my own way to do it? She raced her bow across the strings. Just because I don’t have magic doesn’t mean I can’t do something significant!

Scrreeeeeech!

Twilight winced at the worst dissonant sound yet. She set the instrument down and got up from her stool to stretch. She needed a short break before Moondancer arrived.

As if summoned by Twilight’s thoughts, the door opened and Moondancer stepped in. “Little star, are you ready to begin?” She frowned. “Sweetness, you look upset.”

Twilight looked away. “It’s nothing. I’ll feel better when we play.”

“Naturally.” Moondancer glided over and put an arm around Twilight’s shoulder. “But I still want to hear what’s troubling you. You know I always have an open ear.”

“I know.” Twilight nibbled her lip. What did she say without giving magic away? Then again, did she care who found out her friends had magic? They had all gone behind her back and were now working without her. She supposed she could be the better girl one more time. Still, how did she put her feelings into words? “It’s… I think my other friends don’t appreciate me. They think I can’t handle myself.”

“Utter nonsense!” Moondancer swooped around and cupped Twilight’s cheeks. “You are the most brilliant star in the night sky—the first one anyone sees! They have no choice but to admire your radiance! And even if those so called friends of yours can’t see it, I certainly can. You have all the qualities befitting a princess.”

Twilight’s eye made a subtle twitch.

“And if push came to shove, I’m certain you could find a way to handle yourself.” Moondancer released Twilight’s cheeks and took her hands instead. “You’re just as good as they are! Nay, you go beyond them! And if they can’t appreciate your talents, then I say fie on them! I’ll shower you with all the praise you could ever want.”

Twilight blushed. She gripped Moondancer’s smooth and slender hands. “Thanks, Moony. I’m glad someone believes in me.”

Moondancer smiled sweetly. “I’m always rooting for you, little star.” She swept an arm out toward the piano. “And if these ‘friends’ of yours doubt your abilities, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to prove their folly! Come with me, fair Twilight, for we are fated for victory! Our names will be written in the stars, and all will weep at our beauty!”

Excitement pumped through Twilight’s veins. Winning sounded amazing! Having everyone recognize her musical genius! Making Rainbow eat her comments about the violin! Proving to Sunset she could handle herself! All she had to do was beat the last eight bands.

Wait, wasn’t there something I was supposed to do? Twilight’s heart hardened. Right, she was supposed to drop out next round to let her friends win. They were supposed to save the day and be heroes while Twilight sat and watched.

She furrowed her brow. Why did she have to roll over and give up? She was more musically inclined than all of them put together! If they wanted to win, they would have to do it fair and square! She gave Moondancer a fierce nod. “Let’s do it, Moony!”

Moondancer’s lips curled into a voracious smile. “As you wish, my cosmic flower.”

*******

Sunset told the rest of the Rainbooms what had occurred between her and Shimmer on Saturday, leading them to practice at Sweet Apple Acres for the day. Their reception, however, was not the warmest. Applejack stepped out of her truck and was summoned immediately by her grandmother into the house. The others stood around for nearly an hour before Applejack returned, rubbing her bottom.

“So, uh…” She winced with every step taken. “Apple Bloom told Granny about the whole ticket thing so…”

Rainbow winced in time with her. “She beat you with the belt.”

“Ah wish that’s all she did.” Applejack straightened her posture though her eyes still hung low. “Ah can’t be in the band anymore.”

What?” everyone shouted.

“But Applejack, we need you,” Sunset said. “The fact that Princess Twilight isn’t here to round off the elements already makes me concerned that we can’t throw a strong enough rainbow. But if you’re not there, then I know we can’t do this!”

Applejack lowered her stetson over her eyes. “Ah’m sorry. But Ah’m supposed to come straight home after school until the contest is over; Granny’s orders. Mah hands are tied.”

Sunset tugged on the sides of her hair. “This is bad. You girls need practice, and you need to play together.”

Rainbow snapped her fingers. “Relax, Sunset. There’s an easy fix to this.” She gave a mischievous grin. “Just tell Granny you’re with some other after school group, and we go back to the factory and practice.”

“Ah’m not lyin’ to mah granny!” Applejack said hotly. “Look what just happened the last time Ah did somethin’ dishonest!”

“Yeah, but it’s for a good cause,” Rainbow argued. “Or do you want Apple Bloom to hate you forever?”

Applejack clenched her fists repeatedly, then dropped her shoulders and looked away. “It’s a pointless excuse anyway. She said no matter what, Ah’m to come home the second the bell rings.”

Sunset kicked a loose pebble. “Well, I hate to say it, A.J, but if you can’t lie, that only leaves one option.”

“And that is?”

“Open rebellion.” A dark grin flickered across Sunset’s face. “Don’t lie. Just resist. You’re already in trouble, what else can your granny do to you? Besides, the fate of the world is just a little more important than listening to your elders.”

Rainbow pumped a fist. “I like this plan!”

Rarity tutted. “As much as I hate to admit it, they do have a point. This is for our sisters and everyone else under the Sirens’ spell. If we have to break a few rules to save them, then so be it.”

Applejack rubbed her butt again. “Ah’m achin’ already. But you’re right. Ah owe those hate spreadin’ hogs, and Ah’m not quitten’ until the debt’s been paid.”

Pinkie pointed a finger west. “Back to the factory! I hope Shimmer won’t be too mad.”

“You and me both,” Sunset said. They all piled back into their cars, Applejack casting one more tentative glance at the house before switching the engine on and pulling out onto the road. “It’ll be fine,” Sunset said, putting a hand on Applejack’s shoulder. “You’re fighting for the right reasons.”

“Ah know. That doesn’t mean Ah feel good about it.”

Sunset gave a solemn nod and looked out the window. She had been telling everyone things would be fine. But the way things had spiraled, perhaps she was only propelling a lie. No! We can do this! They can do this! Minor setbacks, but nothing can stop us!

They arrived in front of the old factory and piled out. Before they pulled their instruments from the trunks, Sunset said, “Let me go in and make sure we’re still cool.”

Rarity nodded. “Good idea. Would you like us to come along?”

“No. I think we need to talk alone for a sec.” The girls wished her luck, and Sunset stepped up to the blue door. She knocked three times. “Hello? It’s me!”

No one responded.

Sunset thought there was a low chance her voice would carry through the door and upstairs. Still, it didn’t hurt to be polite. She knocked again, waited five seconds, then forced the door open. The hall light flickered, reminding Sunset of those cheesy horror films. She walked up the stairs, nostalgia washing over her as she neared her old bedroom. She had once coveted this place as her sanctuary, free from those crazy girls trying to be her friend. She had plotted and schemed here, creating lies and sowing mistrust between the students of Canterlot High just so she could stay in power.

Not too unlike the Sirens.

She pushed the thought away as she came to the top of the stairs. The door to the foreman’s office had been left slightly ajar. She knocked and it widened, revealing a room devoid of Shimmer. “She must be out somewhere.” Sunset gulped. “Hopefully with a disguise.” The room hadn’t changed much in Sunset’s absence. A set of old sheets stretched over the mattress she had once called a bed, a duffle bag containing dirty clothes sat near the door next to a box of Chinese takeout, and an old t.v sat propped against the wall, a large crack running across the screen. What Sunset found odd was the large rubber snake curled under the desk. She took a step further into the room, seeing something glittering underneath it. “Wait…”

She took another step, the sparkling blue stone becoming more prominent the longer she stared at it. “The Crystal Heart,” she said breathlessly. It was here! Under a fake snake!

The snake flicked its tongue and rose its head to Sunset. That’s not fake… She stepped back. A live snake and the Crystal Heart… Sunset’s heart constricted, her mind coming to one possible conclusion. The human me is Lamia. But… She bumped into something soft and solid behind her.

“I had one rule,” Lamia said, low and threatening. “Don’t go in my room. And you had to break it.”

Sunset turned around and met with a solid jab to her shoulder. Her entire arm went numb, and she sagged to one side. She tried to curl her fingers, but they refused to respond. “What? How? You’re…” She took a small step back, remembering the snake sitting under the desk. “You’re Lamia.”

Lamia narrowed her eyes. “I was really hoping to keep that quiet. I only needed another week, then I could have been gone and you wouldn’t have known anything.” She sighed and shrugged. “Guess I can’t win them all.”

Sunset’s mind continued to reel. She couldn’t decide which concerned her more presently, her dysfunctional arm, or her criminal doppleganger. “I don’t understand. Why are you Lamia? What did you do to my arm?”

She held up a finger. “‘Why?’ Because it’s fun and I’m good at it. Short and simple. ‘What?’ I hit one of your pressure points and paralyzed your arm for a bit. It’ll wear off in about an hour.”

“I… you…” Sunset took a deep breath, pushing down her urge to scream. “Why do you have the Crystal Heart?”

Lamia leaned on the door. “I stole it, clearly.” She smirked. “But I’m guessing you want a more detailed answer than that?”

Sunset let her glare give a sufficient enough answer.

“All right. For the money, duh. Do you want to know how much this baby is worth on the black market? A. Lot. Like, I would never have to steal in this lifetime or the next one. You think they would have had more security around it. But, it was annoying enough to get with those Dazzling-Siren whatevers interfering.”

“So that’s it? You’re just going to give the Crystal Heart to the highest bidder? Even after we told you what it does?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Then, me and Jörmangandr here are moving far away to the biggest house we can buy.”

The snake behind Sunset let out a happy hiss.

“Besides,” Lamia said, “you should be happy I’m selling it away. That way, the Dazzlings can’t have it either.”

“Unless they steal it from the next person who has it! You need to give it to us so we can keep it safe!”

Lamia threw her head back and laughed. “Funny joke, kid. You’ll keep it safe? Trust me, you and your friends can’t stand up to me, and I almost lost to those other magical freaks. If they really wanted it, they’d take it from you like candy from a baby.”

“Oh yeah, what’s your excuse then?”

“I’m trying to get rid of it as fast as I can. I already have a few bidders. In a few days, the heart will be out of the city and away from the Dazzlings. I’ll have my money, and they won’t have the Heart, everyone wins.” She patted Sunset’s head, and the world melted away again.

Sunset stood inside a dojo, watching other kids spar against one another in their gis and head gear. Some of them were a lot bigger than her.

“Gymnastics and judo. Are you sure about this, Shimmy?” her father asked.

Sunset just gave a determined nod. She’d show those bullies one way or another.

Lamia ripped her hand away and clutched it close to herself. “Crap, I can’t believe I forgot about that!”

Sunset pushed her good hand against her forehead. The experience left an odd tickling in her brain. “Listen,” she said, fighting through it, “if you don’t turn over the heart—”

“You’ll what? Turn me over to the police? Newsflash, kiddo, we look almost alike. If I wanted to, I could sneak back into the museum without my mask on, steal something, and blame it on you. Then what would you do? Tell them your alternate twin did it? I can make myself disappear. Until you stuck your nose around, Sunset Shimmer had dropped off the face of the earth years ago.” She crossed her arms, smirking. “You’re my get out of jail free ticket. And if worst comes to worst, I still know your deep secret. So, thanks for handing me all the cards!”

A roar clawed at Sunset’s throat, begging for release. She swung her fist at Lamia, who grabbed it with ease, then slammed her palm into Sunset’s stomach, sending her to her knees. Sunset wrapped an arm around her middle as she tried to breathe, failing the first few times before air filled her center again. She sputtered then glared up at Lamia. “I hate you.”

Lamia shrugged. “Hey, we can’t all be heroes, kid. And I’m only presenting what will happen if you try to rat me out. We can keep this relationship perfectly civil as long as you keep your mouth shut. We’ve both got sweet gigs going on. Would be a shame if they got ruined, wouldn’t it?”

Sunset bit back a slew of profanities her other seemed fond of. She spent that energy instead to get back to her feet. “Fine. We’ll play it your way.”

“Sweetie, we’ve always been playing it my way. It just took you this long to notice. Oh, don’t give me that look, you know I’m right. Tell you what, you and your friends can keep practicing here if you want, I don’t care. Go do your saving the world magical girl thing.” She leaned in, a shadow crossing her face. “But if they blab, not only will I take you down, I’ll take down each and every one of them. My computer can hack anything; shouldn’t be too hard to find, or even make up something that could screw their futures.”

“Bitch,” Sunset hissed.

Lamia hovered a finger over Sunset’s nose. “Only if you cross me.” She squeezed past Sunset, being careful not to touch her, and fell back onto her bed. “Now get out of my room.”

Sunset gladly obeyed, moving as fast as she could. A numbness different from the one in her arm spread to the rest of her body. Not only was her human counterpart a thief, she was also a near perfect imitation of Sunset less than a year ago. Manipulative, egocentric, cocky, vindictive. Sunset leaned on the stair railing. So this was her in a world without magic and friends?

“No matter how far I go, there’s always something that reminds me of what I’ve done.” Sunset supposed she deserved it; she had been awful. But she had been trying to get better—she was always trying! Apparently, the universe didn’t see it as an excuse not to show her what she had once been.

She finished her climb down the stairs and walked out to her friends waiting in the alley. “So, how did your talk go?” Rarity asked.

Sunset rubbed her numb shoulder. “Um…” If she didn’t tell her friends, they couldn’t have a chance of accidentally telling someone else. Their futures could still be protected. “It went okay, we just talked, you know?” Sunset stared at a space in between Rarity and Fluttershy. “We can still practice here, just keep interactions with her short. She’s, uhh… on edge.”

“Roger dodger!” Pinkie said with a salute. “Maybe some music will cheer her up!”

Sunset watched the girls carry in their instruments, chills running down her spine. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe she should have just kept them away from the factory entirely. She tried to move her arm again, but it hung limply in place.

Lamia. Sirens. Sunset was right. Nothing was fine.

17. Boiling Point

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The week leading into the semi-finals had not been kind to any of the Rainbooms. Applejack came to school everyday disgruntled and snappy, and found it hard to sit for long periods of time. Rarity had also been punished for using Sweetie Belle’s ticket, forcing her to rebel against her parents, though her punishment seemed a bit graver.

“If I keep practicing with you girls, my parents said they’ll stop paying the rent for my shop,” Rarity told them Tuesday, her mascara running.

“Hey, with the prize money we’ll win, you can just buy your own shop,” Rainbow said, trying to alleviate the mood. No one cracked a smile.

Sunset faced her own trials as well. Though she shared classes with Twilight, she seemed aloof and distant, even when they worked together. Every time Sunset asked what was wrong, Twilight rebuffed with a simple, “Nothing. Everything’s fine.” But she no longer kissed Sunset on the lips, or gave Sunset her brilliant smile. She no longer tried to give endearing pet names or use terrible puns. Twilight gave a peck on the cheek as a greeting, and a simple hand wave as a farewell.

The hollow, sucking feeling manifested itself as a permanent fixture in Sunset’s stomach. Twilight’s cold demeanor only made up one part of her mounting anxiety. So far, interactions between Lamia and the girls had been minimal, with Lamia popping in to say hi, or making snarky comments from the window that their music belonged in an after school special. But the dread that Lamia could potentially ruin any of them, even Sunset herself if she wanted to…

Then, there was still the counterspell. After testing a few parts individually, Sunset finally had a draft of the composition, and on Thursday, they tested it out. Everyone had a copy of the score and lyrics. Rainbow stood in front of the microphone, trying to balance playing her new chords while reading the lyrics.

“Hey, hey, listen,

“We got a message for you!

“We’re not all alike,

“But our friendship is true!”

Sunset winced at a spot of feedback and stepped away from the speaker.

“Yeah, we're really different.

“But we still get along!

“So hey, hey, listen to our song!

“You may think you're in control,

“But we're here to prove you wrong!”

“Okay, that’s enough, stop, stop!” Sunset waved her arms. The instruments slowly fell silent, and Sunset secretly breathed a sigh of relief.

“Yeah, not gonna lie,” Shimmer said from her window, “that was pretty bad.”

“Yeah, thank you.” Sunset hunched her shoulders.

“Like, really, really bad.”

“Okay, thanks!”

“Like, that was one of the worst songs—”

“Thank you for the feedback, I get it! Go away now!”

Shimmer shrugged and shut her window again. Sunset pressed her copy of the song to her face and groaned.

“Ah hate to say it, Sunset. But she has a point,” Applejack said, reading through it. “Ah mean, ‘With the magic of friendship, gonna stop your evil plan.’ Ah know they ain’t bein’ subtle, but this is just… obvious.”

“It looked a lot better on paper,” Sunset said, muffled by the page. She lowered it, eyes wide and a grin stretched ear-to-ear. “But it’s fine! It’s fine! It just needs some tweaking! Everything will be fine!” Her voice cracked.

Rarity took her keytar off from around her shoulders. “Darling, are you all right?”

“I told you, I’m fine!” Sunset waved the paper. “This is all that matters. I just need to fix it some more. It’ll be ready by next week, Sunset guarantee!”

Rarity nodded, unconvinced. “You also seem to be snippy with Shimmer. Everything fine between you two?”

“You mean besides invading each other’s minds whenever we touch? Yep, our friendship couldn't be better!”

Applejack followed Rarity’s lead and took her bass off. “Okay, maybe that’s enough practice for today. We’ll play through ‘Shake Your Tail’ tomorrow to get ready for Saturday.”

Everyone gave an exhausted sigh of relief and began taking down their equipment. Sunset’s skin prickled at the release of pent up tension and disappointment. She looked at the song in her hand, realizing she had crumpled it on impulse, and shoved it into her pocket. As much as she wanted to burn it to ashes, she needed something to work off of.

Clean-up proved sluggish, and even with six pairs of hands, it took longer than normal to get everything squared away. Even Pinkie had less energy than usual. She gave a confident smile whenever anyone was looking, but Sunset caught contemplative frowns from the corner of her eye.

When Sunset thought on it, no one had ponied up since they had first performed in front of Lamia. Perhaps transformations also rely on morale? It was a hypothesis to explore at a later date. Sunset just hoped they had enough cheer or magic or whatever to pony up when they confronted the Sirens. If we confront the Sirens. She shook her head. They will confront the Sirens, you will watch from afar. You just need to write a freakin’ song that will actually work!

Shimmer gave them a casual goodbye as the Rainbooms left. Sunset made it a point to ignore her completely: the walking, talking reminder of what she had once been, and what she could have potentially become. The girls split with half-hearted goodbyes of their own, Rarity and Applejack off to face another round of punishment from their families. The looks on their faces as they left turned Sunset’s hollow nausea into a sickening vortex. She wished she had never told them to rebel. But she needed them to play.

Her conversation with Flash played in her ears as she mounted her bike. Was she just using them? Making them do all the work while she sat on the sidelines? I’m writing the song that will help them win! But truth be told, any of them could do that. Fluttershy’s songs could have—

She kicked herself mentally and slapped a hand against her handlebars. Fluttershy had mentioned she had written songs over a week ago and they still hadn’t gotten to them! Of course she’s not going to say anything, she’s Fluttershy! Sunset made it a point to remind them to try one of Fluttershy’s songs after the semis.

The tangent had been enough to stop Sunset from spiraling into darker thoughts. At least until she tried to fall asleep later on. Sleep hadn’t come easy to her the past week. She spent hours tossing and turning, sitting up and reaching for her notebook to try and piece together an idea. When sleep did come, demons and Sirens plagued her, with Twilight nowhere to be found.

Sunset rose Friday morning with bags under her eyes, complemented by her unruly bedhead. She groaned wearily at her reflection and stepped into the hall just as Trixie got out of the bathroom. She stopped and gave Sunset a castigating glance.

“Trixie thinks that’s a good look for you.” Her hair whipped back at Sunset as she turned down the hall.

First thing she’s said to me in weeks. I’ll take it. Sunset cleaned herself up and set out for school, exchanging a sober goodbye with Selena. You can do this, Sunset told herself. After today, just one more week of this hell, and everything will go back to normal. Celestia willing. In the meantime, she had a spiteful school and an emotionally manipulated girlfriend to deal with.

Sunset’s heart sank into the tar pit that had become her stomach. Must be nice being Lamia. The only thing she has to worry about is getting caught by the police.

Twilight sat at a lab table up front, reading a book when Sunset walked into their chemistry class. She leaned over and gave Twilight a kiss on the cheek to stir her out of her word world. Sunset thought she saw a smile, but Twilight responded to her advance with, “You know there’s no PDA in class.”

Sunset took her seat, hunching her shoulders. “Right. Of course.”

“It’s nice to see you though.”

“Right back at ya,” Sunset said listlessly. She sat up and squared her shoulders, bracing herself for the upcoming conversation. Sunset wasn’t stupid; Twilight’s exposure to the Siren’s music, her cool demeanor, her free time spent practicing with Moondancer. Dropping out of the competition was probably the absolute last thing Twilight wanted to do. Still, Sunset had to hope that enough of her Twilight was cognizant enough to remember what was at stake. “Twilight, listen—”

“I know what you’re going to say.” Twilight didn’t bother looking up from her book. “I haven’t forgotten our agreement.”

Sunset pressed her fingers together. “Okay… but are you going to keep to it?”

Twilight flipped the page but didn’t respond.

“Twilight…”

“Why do you have to be the ones to win the tournament and beat the Sirens?”

Sunset’s brain momentarily paused on the ‘win the tournament’ part. “Because we need to play the counterspell in front of as many people as possible and hit the Sirens with the Elements of Harmony,” she said slowly. “So, unless you plan to beat the Sirens over the head with your violin—which I would not be opposed to if you did—this is the only way.”

“Right. Of course.”

“Twilight.”

She looked up from her book. “I will consider it come tomorrow.”

“Consider it? Twilight, I just said—”

“I acknowledged your claim and will factor it into my performance tomorrow.” She returned to her book as Mr. Doodle walked in, followed by the sound of the bell.

Sunset curled her fingers. When Twilight started talking technical, it meant the discussion was over. At least for the time being. She remained adamant in her refusal to discuss it further when she packed her bag at the end of class with lightning speed and disappeared for all of passing period. She reappeared in their AP Economics class just as the bell rang, and departed just as quickly when the bell for lunch sounded.

Sunset stomped her way to lunch, not having been this frustrated with Twilight since their very first interactions many months ago. She can’t avoid me forever! She dropped into her seat and crossed her arms and legs.

“Hey to you, too,” Rainbow said.

“Sorry,” Sunset said, glaring at the tabletop. “Twilight’s being… aggravating right now. I don’t think she’s going to throw the round tomorrow.”

Applejack sighed. “Well, Ah can’t say Ah’m surprised. Just remember, it’s not her fault. It’s the Sirens.” She paused. “And whatever idiot thought it good to set them free.”

Sunset did her best not to wince, biting her tongue instead. A karma six months in the making. Why give me happy things in the first place if they're just going to get ripped away? Oh right, because the universe hates me.

Rarity took a seat on Sunset’s right, hair frazzled and eyes puffy, either from lack of sleep or crying. “It took me all night, but I put the finishing touches on everyone’s outfits for tomorrow!”

“Rarity, for the last time, this ain’t—”

“Applejack!” Flames danced in Rarity’s eyes. She leaned across the table and whispered, “My parents have defunded my entire business. I need to promote my clothes at this competition in order to make enough money to keep my store open. Designing clothes is the only joy I have right now, and so help me, if you try to take that away, I will run needles through you until you’re nothing but a pincushion!

Everyone at the table looked at Rarity in horrified silence. Applejack pressed herself as far as she could into the back of her chair. “Right. Of course, sugarcube. You can do whatever you want.” She brought her hat over her eyes.

Rarity straightened up and smiled like nothing had happened. “Good. So long as we understand each other.”

“Wow, that’s something I would have expected out of Sunset,” Rainbow said. She caught Sunset’s eye. “I’m not sayin’ it this time.”

“Good.” No one spoke after that, not even when they parted ways for their last period. Sunset made it to AP Trigonometry before Twilight did and waited in the back. One way or another, they’d finish their conversation.

Twilight did not share Sunset’s conviction. She walked in, rolled her eyes at Sunset’s seat placement, and took her normal desk at the front of the class, where Ms. Vector could watch her like a hawk.

You’re really trying to test my patience, aren’t you, Sparky? When class ended two hours later, Sunset found the answer to that question was a resounding yes. Twilight packed her bags and made it through the door just as the bell finished ringing. Sunset bolted after her, shoving past students trying to reach the exit. She could just see the back of Twilight’s head at the other end of the hall. “Twilight!” she yelled, but Twilight refused to look back.

“Trouble in Eden?”

Sunset broke from the main tide of students just to find Moondancer standing off to the side, holding herself with smug dignity and poise. Sunset stopped, her frustration with Twilight drowned out by a wave of agitation. However, looking Moondancer in the eye, it fermented into something Sunset couldn’t quite explain. “Moondancer,” she said evenly.

Moondancer smiled. “It seems—”

“There is a long list of people I do not want to see right now, and you are literally at the top of that list. In fact, you are so far ahead of the second person on that list that I might have to make a new one just for you. I have a list of the reasons why you are on the list of people I should not, would not, and could not like; a list so long, I could write both my undergrad and graduate thesis on ‘the reasons why I do not like Moondancer’ in single-space, eleven point font, and still go beyond the maximum page requirement for both papers. If I want to see how much I hate someone, I now have to grade them on a scale of one to you. It’s like the universe compounded together everything I hate about the world into one walking, talking, Shakespeare drama piece so nauseating that Shakespeare himself is rolling in his grave. If we were somehow the last two people on earth and had a chance to procreate, I would rather jump off the nearest cliff. And the reason I’m telling you this, Moondancer, is because there’s no way I can catch Twilight and make her listen to me right now. But here you are, about to spout more nonsense in an attempt to make my head spin more violently than that girl in The Exorcist, and with the month I’ve had, and the week to follow, this is probably my only chance to blow off some steam. In fact, the only reason I haven’t gotten violent is because, for some unfathomable reason, Twilight considers you her best friend and would be upset if I put my boot up your ass but, oh boy, is that rope wearing real thin. So I’m going to say this once, you poetry-spitting, flower-dancing moonchild. If I hear one more purple-covered word spew from your mouth, I swear to the darkest force listening, I will snap. And I will not apologize for ensuing damage to your mental or physical well-being. Okay? Okay.”

Moondancer’s smile had dropped to a thin frown, then a puckered line throughout Sunset’s tirade. They exchanged stares while a few lingering students hung around, expecting a punch to be thrown. Moondancer closed her eyes and turned down the hall to where Twilight had gone off. She stood in place a minute longer, then carried on, hands folded in front of her.

Sunset’s lips quivered into a smile. “Anger management at work.”

Rainbow ran up to her side, grinning ear-to-ear. “That was awesome!”

“Yeah.” Sunset deflated, sagging her shoulders. “Let’s hope she doesn’t repeat that to Twilight.” She let Rainbow lead her away. Though she now had anxiety over Twilight being even more mad with her, Sunset couldn’t deny she felt better. She was at least glad Rainbow got a kick out of it, and when she recounted the event to the rest of the Rainbooms at practice, it got a laugh out of almost all of them.

“Wait, wait, hold on,” Applejack said between chuckles. “Ah wanna hear it straight. What did you call her?”

Sunset thought back. “A poetry-spitting, flower-dancing moonchild.”

Applejack, Pinkie, and Rainbow roared with laughter. Rarity had a hard time stifling her own giggles. Fluttershy, however, barely cracked a smile. “I know you don’t like her, Sunset, but don’t you think that was a bit mean?”

“Fluttershy, she hates me too. It’s a mutual hatred. Besides, I really was not in the mood to hear whatever she was going to say. Maybe now, she’ll keep her mouth shut.”

“Doubt it,” Rainbow said.

Fluttershy crossed her arms, making her tambourine rattle. “Two wrongs don’t make a right and you know it. And besides, I’m sure she doesn’t hate you. She’s just… a little upset that you’re dating her best friend… that she used to like.”

“She had like, three years to make a move. Not my fault she didn’t. I’d gladly tolerate her if she didn’t want to hold a grudge.”

“Maybe if you show her some kindness, she’ll stop holding a grudge.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Fluttershy, like I told Moondancer, I’d rather jump off a cliff. I tried to play nice, and as long as Twilight’s around, I’ll continue to not contemplate ways to cause her mental, physical, or emotional trauma. But that’s the furthest extent of my kindness.” Sunset leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. “Now, if you want to go make friends with her, be my guest. Kindness is your element, not mine.”

Fluttershy made a frustrated huff and rattled her tambourine again. The girls got into position to practice and started off their set with one of Fluttershy’s songs to try and appease her. By the end, she looked calmer, but wouldn’t make eye contact with Sunset or Rainbow. They moved on to a couple of run throughs for ‘Shake Your Tale’ before calling it a night. No one ponied up, but it looked like Rainbow had gotten close.

“Break a leg, heroes,” Shimmer said from the stairs as they filed out. “I’m rooting for you, little sentai rangers.”

Rarity froze, scrunching her face in revulsion. “That’s disgusting! We’re nothing of the sort!”

Rainbow doubled back. “No, sentai, groups of heroes, magical girl stuff. Not… the other thing.”

“What other thing?” Sunset asked. Rainbow leaned over and whispered into her ear. Sunset made a face identical to Rarity’s. “That’s disgusting!”

*******

With only nine bands left, the crowd for the semi-finals proved smaller than last weeks. The losing bands had taken their family and friends with them, leaving behind those who just wanted to see bands go at it, not caring who won or lost. The first band didn’t go on until three in the afternoon, giving the Rainbooms plenty of time to relax and calm their nerves, or in the case of Sunset, hunt for Twilight.

This fairground isn’t that big, she has to be around here somewhere. Though it wasn’t big, the grounds proved to have many holes to hide in. Sunset made two rounds around the fairground and still couldn’t find any trace of Twilight or Moondancer for that matter. However, on her third round, while walking behind the leftmost stage, she found Trixie skulking about, wand in hand.

Sunset stepped up behind her. “What are you doing?”

Eeeeeek!” Trixie whipped around, quickly stowing her wand away. “Nothing!” She cleared her throat and adjusted the clasp of her cape. “Trixie was just scoping out the competition.”

“Uh-huh.” Sunset saw the sweat gathered on Trixie’s brow, and the way her pupils erratically moved. “Trixie, are you all right?”

“Trixie is just fine, thank you very much! She wish she could say the same thing about you! Today is the last day your band plays in this competition!”

“For the last time, we’re on the same side, Trixie!”

Trixie paid her no heed and stomped on by. But as she pushed past, Sunset swore she saw something other than pride and vanity in her eyes. Fear? Sunset watched her go, making a mental note to keep an eye on her. She then resumed her search, circling around the stage before entering the heart of the grounds again. Even with the light breeze, the day proved to be a warm one. Wearing her leather jacket probably didn’t help. Sunset wiped a little sweat from her brow and decided to take a break with her friends in the parking lot. Upon arriving, her eyes fell onto Rarity in her new outfit.

Sunset gave herself a second to choose her words carefully, looking for the least scathing comment. “Rarity, you look like a windchime.”

Applejack let out a cough that sounded like, “Told ya.”

Pinkie took a bite out of her cotton candy. “I still say she looks like a hippy.”

Rarity wore a glittering beige jacket with metal chimes dangling from the arms. There were more around the hem and decorating the boots. The jacket covered a white shirt and purple skirt. Around her head was a band that matched the jacket. Rarity stuck her nose in the air. “I needed something that would stand out and get people to notice. ‘That’s so unique! Wherever did you get it?’ Why, darling, it’s a Rarity original.”

Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose. “As long as it doesn’t impede your playing, I don’t care what you wear.”

“I’m glad you said that, because I have outfits for everyone!”

Applejack let out a long, agonized sigh but said nothing. Upon Rarity’s reveal of everyone’s outfits, Rainbow spoke up, holding her dress aloft.

“Rarity, I can’t wear this. It’s not nearly cool enough.”

“But, Rainbow, it fits you to a T. Besides, it goes great with our Wondercolt accessories!” She pulled out a pair of Wondercolt ears and tails. “We’re singing ‘Shake Your Tail’ after all.”

“You still have those?” Sunset asked, remembering the flash mob led by Princess Twilight.

“Of course! Just in case the school needs a little bit of spirit!” She jumped and waved her hands.

“I get you’re trying to promote your business,” Rainbow said, “but don’t you think you should have run this by the band leader first?”

“Sunset said it was okay.”

Rainbow scrunched her nose. “I meant me!”

Pinkie took another bite of her candy. “I thought Sunset was the leader?”

“She doesn’t even play an instrument!”

“No, but this whole thing was her idea,” Applejack said.

Rainbow gestured to her guitar case. “Yeah, but I play lead guitar and I’m lead vocals. Plus, I wrote most our songs.”

Fluttershy crossed her arms and turned away. “I wrote songs too. We just barely play them.”

“Girls, we’re off topic now,” Sunset said, moving her hands in a placating manner. “It doesn’t really matter who the leader is. And if it helps Rarity out, just wear her costumes for one song. Come on, it’s for a friend.”

Rainbow shoved her hands in her pockets and looked skyward. “Fine. For a friend.”

“Besides, it’ll be fun dressing up again!” Pinkie said. She put her mouth around the remaining cotton candy and swallowed it whole.

Sunset reeled back. “Right. You girls get dressed. I’m going to go look for Twilight again.” She didn’t get far in her search. Upon returning to the main event area, Sunset found the first band had begun playing, or at least, they were attempting to.

A boy playing a saxophone furrowed his brow each time he blew his instrument only for bubbles to float out instead of music. He gave it a vigorous shake and tried again, but to no avail. His bandmate on the keyboard didn’t fare much better, hitting off keys every third note. By the confusion on her face, Sunset believed it was more than her just having a bad day.

Over on the middle stage, she could see the members of the next band frantically running back and forth searching for something. One of them looked like she was on the verge of tears.

Trixie, please tell me you haven’t stooped this low…. Again.

A finger tapped her shoulder, and Sunset turned around, spirits further dampened on finding Flash with his hand held out. “All right, give them back,” he said.

Sunset looked at his hand. “Give what back?”

“Stop playing dumb and just hand them over!”

She smacked his hand away. “The only thing I see you asking for is a knuckle sandwich!”

Flash balled his fist. “My guitar pick and the drum sticks. We had them fifteen minutes ago, and now they’re gone.”

Sunset crossed her arms. “And you think I took them?”

“Well gee, who else has a penchant for sabotaging others by any underhanded means she can think of?” Flash crossed his arms as well.

“Here’s an idea: maybe you misplaced them.”

“I know exactly where I left them, Sunset. Just give them back and maybe I won’t tell the judges you tried to cheat.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “I don’t need cheap tricks to beat you. Now, I suggest you keep moving before I lose my cool.”

Flash stood firm. “You don’t scare me, Shimmer.” They stood their ground, neither flinching from the other’s intense glare. The electricity between their eyes threatened to spark something much more explosive until Flash finally took a step back. “This isn’t over.”

She watched him go, easing up her scowl when he turned away. He’s gonna move up to second on the list if this keeps up. She shoved her hands in her jacket pockets, and felt her fingers brush against something that shouldn’t have been in there. She pulled out a blue guitar pick and resumed her scowl. Horse apples. Trixie, why?

After searching fruitlessly for Twilight for another twenty minutes, and seeing the second band have to forfeit because one member couldn’t find her clarinet, Sunset returned to her friends once again, finding them all dressed up. She marched over to Fluttershy and put Flash’s guitar pick in her hand.

“Find Flash and tell him you found it by the food court.” She closed Fluttershy’s palm around it and leaned forward. “Tell him you found it,” she said carefully.

Fluttershy, now dressed in a green shirt and pink vest with a pink and blue double skirt, tilted her head. “Umm, sure. Why—”

“Just do it,” Sunset said in a snippy tone she usually saved for Rainbow. Looking hurt, Fluttershy walked away, guitar pick in hand. Sunset made a mental note to apologize later.

Applejack stepped over. Rarity’s outfit for her consisted of a simple orange dress with a wide skirt that ended above her knees, black pants, and brown boots with apple prints stitched into them. Her hair, was done up in two long pigtails.

Now that Sunset really looked at her, she didn’t think Applejack had enough hair for pigtails of that length.

“Why did you have Flash’s pick?” she asked, voice flat and eyes lidded.

“Trixie’s making sabotage rounds.” Sunset looked Applejack up and down, taking note of her hunched shoulders and bent knees. “You’re having a great time, aren’t you?”

“More fun than a hog in a mud bath,” she said between her teeth.

Sunset jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Well, the second band had to quit early, so the middle stage is ready for set-up. Let’s go.” She looked over at Rainbow, trying to examine herself in the side-mirror of her car. “C’mon, Dash!”

Rainbow turned, showing off a blue and purple shirt with a large v-neck, purple plaid skirt, and fishnet leggings of all things. She tugged at the choker around her neck. “I can’t tell if I love or hate this.”

Rarity waved her arm, making her wind chimes jingle. “You look great, darling! It really puts together the ‘rocker’ look! Sunset, I made an outfit for you too!”

Sunset paused from picking up the amp. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, Rarity, but I won’t actually be on stage.” She took one look at the puppy-dog eyes Rarity gave and yielded. “Sure, I’ll—”

Rarity held the outfit out in front of Sunset before she could blink. “Here! I think it really brings out the yellow in your hair.”

“Right.” Sunset took the clothes, wary of the slightly manic look in Rarity’s eye. She headed for the restrooms to change while her friends continued set-up. A few minutes later, Sunset joined them on the center stage wearing a sleeveless yellow blouse and a ruffled knee length skirt with wispy cloud patterns.

Oh, I get it. I’m the rising sun. Hah.

Rainbow tested her guitar chords, nodding as she made the correct adjustments. “All right, I know we haven’t had the best week. But we’re halfway to beating the Sirens and putting this all behind us. Another win today puts us in the finals, so let’s just go out there, forget about our problems, and let the music do all the talking.” She looked down at her outfit again. “Hopefully it’ll say more than this,” she muttered.

Pinkie bounced in her seat. “Go out there and have fun! I am totally down for this plan!”

“Good luck, girls,” Sunset said, giving a thumbs up. “I’ll be on the lookout for Trixie to make sure she doesn’t try anything funny.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Come on, it’s Trixie. She’s a minor annoyance at best.”

Not when there’s more than her pride at stake. Sunset slipped onto the other side of the curtain and hopped off stage. The band from Crystal Prep was still playing, giving Sunset time to make a choice: hunt for Trixie, or hunt for Twilight. At this point, there was very little she could do to sway Twilight back to her side, so Sunset would have to leave it to fate. She could stop Trixie from interfering, however.

Like Twilight, Trixie proved hard to find. Sunset moved through the crowd, checked under the stands, and snuck around behind the stages, but couldn’t find hat nor cape of Trixie. By the time Sunset returned to the main field, the Rainbooms had taken the stage and were ready to go.

We've just got the day to get ready,

“And there's only so much time to lose.

“Because tonight, yeah, we're here to party,

“So let's think of something fun to do.

Sunset cupped her ears. It almost sounded like Rainbow’s mike was going out. She disregarded the thought when Rarity’s windchimes floated into the air, taking her arms along with them. Rarity’s eyes filled with panic, and she struggled to bring her arms down to her keytar. Applejack furrowed her brow, glaring at Rarity like she was doing it on purpose.

For the love of the sun, Trixie! Sunset whipped around, trying to find the saboteur. Turning to her left, she finally saw Twilight and Moondancer make their way toward the other stage. Sunset flinched toward them on instinct, but turned the other way to keep searching for Trixie.

Whatever force was controlling Rarity began slowly dragging her away from her microphone. She stretched her neck forward to keep her voice heard as her part of the song came up. “Do your thing, erk, you know you’re an original!” she grunted, sliding back.

Your ideas are so funny that they’re criminal.” Applejack finally caught on that Rarity was not acting that way by choice, but could only watch confused as her friend flailed about.

Sunset spared a glance at the faces of the crowd goers. They certainly seemed interested, but not the least bit concerned over the happenings on stage. A single spotlight flashed upon Fluttershy, and she froze like a deer in headlights. She looked upon the crowd staring back at her, and for a moment, Sunset thought she might faint.

Fluttershy took a large step to the right, but the light followed her. She stepped again, then stepped to the other side while trying to find her rhythm again, but the light proved persistent. Finally, she dove for cover behind Pinkie, her tambourine barely audible over the drums.

As she weaved through the crowd, Sunset finally caught sight of Trixie hiding behind a crate of supplies in between two of the stages. Sunset balled her fists and ran around to the other side. Trixie’s back was angled toward Sunset, her attention engrossed in the mayhem she was causing on stage. Her wand moved back and forth, dictating Rarity’s actions and occasionally moving the light to try and shine on Fluttershy again.

“That’s enough, Trixie!”

Trixie jumped, jerking her wand hand up. Rarity also leapt into the air before her arms were momentarily freed. “Go away, Sunset before Trixie jinxes you too!”

“Trixie, I know you want to win,” Sunset said, trying her hardest to keep her voice calm, “but this isn’t the way to do it. And you’re sabotaging the one team trying to help you!”

“Not true. Trixie is sabotaging everyone.” Trixie flicked her wand, and Rarity’s arms flew into the air again. “This one just happens to be really easy. One magnet charm, and your friend is Trixie’s marionette.” She tried to give a haughty smirk, but the tips of her mouth came up forced.

“Trixie, I know you’re scared—”

“Stop trying to empathize with Trixie! You don’t know what I’m going through! Stop trying to be some stupid hero! This is my fight and I’ll win it without your help!” Trixie flung her arms down, and a loud tearing sound could be heard from the stage. Sunset looked over to see Rarity’s sleeves had been completely torn off, leaving her on the brink of tears. Trixie stowed her wand away and turned her nose up. “Good luck getting to the finals now.” She shoved her way past Sunset and disappeared around the corner.

Shake your tail, ‘cause we’re here to have a party tonight!” the girls finished, trying to sound as peppy as possible.

The curtains closed around the Rainbooms as their song ended, and Sunset hurried back on stage. “Are you girls okay?” Rarity ran past her, fully in tears.

“Define ‘okay’,” Rainbow said sullenly.

“Ah thought you said you would be keepin’ an eye on Trixie?” Applejack said, pointing a finger at Sunset.

“Hey, I tried to stop her! I spent most of the song trying to find her!”

Pinkie stepped up to Sunset’s side. “Besides, it’s not Sunset’s fault one of us spent most of the time running back and forth across the stage.”

Fluttershy wilted. “I got scared.”

“It was a light. A light!

Rainbow slumped against one of the support beams. “Ugh, with a performance like that, it’ll take a miracle for us to advance.”

“We’ll worry about that in a second,” Sunset said. “I’m going to go check on Rarity.”

“Ah’ll go with you,” Applejack said. They set out for the parking lot, finding Rarity curled inside her car with a blanket over her.

Sunset tapped on the window. “Rarity, it’s us.”

Rarity groped around until she hit the unlock button and allowed them to open up the door. “That was the most humiliating moment of my life,” she said, keeping herself wrapped in the blanket. She briefly stuck her head out to give Applejack a sharp glare. “Thanks for the help by the way!”

Applejack huffed. “What’d you want me to do? Stop playing my part too? Two instruments missing and one off key, we’d never make it to the finals like that. We’ll be lucky if we pull it off as is. Maybe next time, you’ll wear something more practical.”

Rarity fully emerged from her cocoon, eyes red and narrow. “My choice of clothing is not the problem here, Applejack! How was I supposed to know someone was going to bring a magnet to the fair?”

Sunset wedged herself between them and held a hand up before Applejack could respond. “She’s right, Applejack. The only one to blame here…” Sunset sighed. “Is Trixie.” And me, but I’ll handle that later. She laid a hand on Rarity’s shoulder. “I understand if you want to go home. I don’t think there’s much left here for any of us, really.”

Rarity mulled it over before nodding. “I think a long bath would be nice after a day like today. I’ll see you girls later.”

They exited the car and allowed Rarity to finish composing herself before she drove off. Applejack turned her head back to the stages. “Today’s been about as smooth as old bark on a tree.”

“Where do you get these from?”

Applejack shrugged. “It’s a gift.”

“Return it.” Sunset ignored Applejack’s annoyed grunt and marched back to help the others finish take down. Flash Drive had taken the stage, with Flash having his guitar pick returned. His drummer had improvised by using two thin branches as drumsticks. Even so, as Sunset walked around the stage, she heard the unmistakable snap of a guitar string. Flash cursed but tried to continue playing like nothing happened.

Sunset admired his determination if nothing else. From the corner of her eye, she could see Rainbow wincing every time Flash missed or had to improvise a note.

The Rainbooms loaded their equipment up and gathered around Applejack’s truck. “Ah say we get while the gettin’s good,” she said. “No sense stayin’ around to see this trainwreck.”

Sunset looked to the sun, steadily sinking to the horizon. “You’re probably right. But I want to see if Twilight keeps her word or not.”

“Ah hate to tell you this, sugarcube, but Ah’m pretty sure she’s playin’ for keeps, just like the rest of them.”

Hearing it turned Sunset’s stomach, but she knew Applejack was right. Still, even if Twilight was trying to distance herself from Sunset, Sunset still wanted to be there to watch Twilight play.

Applejack rolled her neck and sighed. “All right, Ah can already tell by that look in your eye you’re gonna go anyway. Might as well tag along.”

Rainbow groaned. “Yeah, fine. Guess I don’t have anything better to do.”

“Inspiring as always, Dash,” Sunset deadpanned. Back at the stages, Twilight and Moondancer were prepping their act, while Flash was setting down. He locked eyes with Sunset, grabbed his guitar, and jumped off stage toward her.

As he approached, he held his guitar aloft. “Mind explaining this?”

“It’s called a ‘guitar’. I would think you knew all about them,” Sunset said unable to help herself.

Flash’s face began to turn red. “I meant the string!”

Sunset crossed her arms. “Boy, you’re determined to blame me for your misfortunes, aren’t you?”

“Because I know you caused them!”

“I’m not sabotaging you, Flash! In case you hadn’t noticed, Rarity—the girl you’ve had puppy-dog eyes for recently—was just dangled around like a puppet! We’re both being messed with!”

“Okay, by who then?”

Sunset bit her tongue. As much as she would have loved to get the heat off her, she couldn’t sell Trixie down the river. “I don’t know, but it’s not me!” She found herself caught between Flash’s skeptical lidded eyes and Applejack’s questioning eyebrow.

Flash gripped the neck of his guitar. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. We still put on a better performance than your band. Enjoy the view from the stands, ‘cause that’s where you’ll be come next weekend.” He stormed off, leaving a chill in his wake.

The tension broke upon a loud squeak that emanated from Moondancer’s piano. Sunset turned, finding they had begun performing for the judges. Twilight kept her eyes closed and performed with every bit of grace and artistry Sunset had come to expect. Moondancer played equally as well, but every time she hit a certain key, a loud squeak sounded from within the piano. Her eyes flew open as it happened a third time, then a fourth. Upon the fifth, she slammed her hands against the keys, the squeak mixing in with the dissonant noise. She willed Twilight to slide off the top, then propped it open and reached inside.

From within, Moondancer pulled out a rubber duck. She stared at it, long and hard, her expression blank. “Hilarious.”

Pinkie thought so. She laid on her back, holding her sides while she laughed up a storm. Sunset gave her a sharp kick when Moondancer and Twilight looked down at them.

Moondancer flung the duck into the crowd. “May we start again?” she asked in her sweetest voice.

“I think we can allow that,” Cadence said.

Twilight took her place atop the piano again, and her and Moondancer began their duet anew. Twilight still refused to look at her friends, and played with no intention of losing. But as the song progressed, her notes slowly fell out of tune. Sunset focused on the violin pegs, and could see them slowly turning. Twilight played through, teeth clenched as she redoubled her efforts to keep her music sounding perfect.

Thankfully, the song ended before she could fall completely flat. Cadence cringed as she wrote something down. “That was… good, girls.” She and the Dazzlings stood and moved onto the next band.

Twilight set her violin aside and made her way down to the grass. Mouth thin, eyes narrowed, she marched straight toward Sunset, stopping when there was only a foot between them. She crossed her arms and tapped her shoe against the ground.

“Oh no, I know what you’re thinking,” Sunset said. “We did not put that duck in Moondancer’s piano.”

“But it was pretty funny,” Pinkie said.

“Not helping!”

Twilight kept her eyes locked with Sunset’s. “I’m just finding it very convenient that after you told me to throw the match, Moondancer and I run into a set of complications.”

Sunset shook her head. “You can’t seriously think I’d stoop this low and sabotage you of all people?”

“Well, I know you’ve resorted to underhanded tricks in the past, so I wouldn’t put it past you,” Twilight said heatedly.

The barb struck Sunset through the heart, and she staggered back. “Of all the people I thought would have believed me,” she whispered. “Twilight, you know me better than that.”

“I also know how badly you want to win.”

“Yeah, for all the right reasons,” Sunset said, starting to raise her voice. “You know that. Why are you trying so hard to win?”

“To prove to you I can handle myself! You seem to trust everyone else but me!”

“Well, I trusted you to throw the match here, and look how that went!”

Twilight balled her fists. “See? That’s all I am to you! A tool to help get what you want! Well not this time! Trust me when I say, Moondancer and I are going to win, even with your cheats!”

“We didn’t cheat, but now I’m starting to wish I had!” Sunset yelled, her cheeks splotchy. “Go ahead and try to win!” She lowered her voice to a challenging whisper. “I’d love to see how you fight off the Sirens.”

Twilight let out a scream of frustration and stormed off, but not before a hint of green flashed across her eyes. Sunset watched her go, a sickening cold quickly replacing the furious heat that had burned through her.

Moondancer stepped off the stage and stood by her ear. “Remember when I said you would screw things up on your own?” she asked, voice filled with smug satisfaction. “Well, this is that moment. And you performed wonderfully!”

The furious heat returned with a vengeance, and a sound came from Sunset’s throat that she couldn’t quite identify. It sounded like a fire-spitting cat, but she was too busy lunging at Moondancer, nails aimed for the girl’s throat, to notice.

Applejack sprung forward and got Sunset into a full-nelson just as Moondancer jumped back. “No, Sunset, she’s not worth it!” Applejack yelled in her ear.

Sunset heard, but it didn’t register. “Let me go! Just give me ten seconds and I’ll rearrange her pretty face!” If there was any consolation, it was that Moondancer had at least looked scared for a brief moment. Her victorious smirk returned until she hid it behind a hand and walked away, tittering softly, a green light in her eyes as well.

Applejack didn’t let Sunset go until Moondancer was well out of sight. When she was finally released, Sunset fell to the ground, feeling numb and frozen from the inside out. The tears fell on their own, the only release she could give without screaming to the sky.

She wanted to slap sense into Twilight. She wanted to dropkick Moondancer into next week. She wanted to bury the Sirens ten feet underground.

But with her friends arms wrapped around her, Sunset knew all she needed right now was their support. It was all she had left.

18. Winners and Losers

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They weren’t broken up; Sunset refused to believe that. She and Twilight were just taking a short break due to magical influences. Influences Sunset planned to beat into submission if she ever got the chance.

The rest of her weekend had been quiet thanks to Rarity and Applejack still being punished. Sunset’s phone sat quiet on top of her notebook for the spell. She stared at them both, waiting for either one of her friends or Twilight to call, or for inspiration to strike.

Neither happened.

I suppose it won’t matter if we don’t make it to the finals. Monday couldn’t come fast enough, and in that anticipation, the weekend dragged on as long as it could. Sunset’s nights were filled with dreams absent of Twilight and filled with a trio of laughter and occasionally a scarlet inferno.

When she awoke at six o’clock on Monday, it was in a cold sweat. Realizing the day had changed, Sunset booted up her computer and navigated to the Battle of the Bands website. Heart pounding in fear and anticipation, she looked for the semi-final results.

Three names appeared in the final’s brackets: Moonlight Requiem, Trixie and the Illusions, and The Rainbooms. Sunset clapped a hand over her mouth to stop from screaming. They still had a chance! Their fight wasn’t over yet!

Her spirits plummeted when her eyes grazed across her notebook. She now only had a week to rewrite the song and finish the counterspell. All that time wasted. Every wrong note and stupid line.

It’s okay! You work well under pressure! You can do this! She wouldn’t fail, not after all the hard work her friends had done!

Her surge of confidence only lasted until she reached school. Before she walked through the front doors, she felt the eyes of suspicion and doubt lock onto her. It only intensified when she entered the rotunda. Everyone briefly paused to make scrupulous faces at her before walking away.

They already know who moved on. Sunset clenched her fist. And they think I cheated! Sunset stomped to her locker. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” she said to herself. “They can think what they like. We got there on our own, even with Trixie’s meddling.” She traded her backpack for a textbook and continued her stomp to class, pausing when Flash came into view at an intersection. They locked eyes for a moment, and Sunset could almost taste the waves of hatred pouring off of him. Flash squared his shoulders and kept walking, keeping his head down.

Sunset sighed. “Sorry, Flash. Maybe you’ll thank me someday.” Class went by at a snail’s pace, and Sunset could hear all the unsavory rumors about her and the Rainbooms while she and Rarity did their group work. Neither of them paid it too much heed. Rarity shared Sunset’s mentality; they had made it to the finals, that’s all that mattered.

In fact, despite having the cynicism of the entire school upon them, practice held a steady, upbeat tone. Smiles and compliments were passed around, and it almost felt like things were back to normal.

“One more match, girls!” Rainbow said, punching a fist into the air. “We can do this! Then we’ll send those Sirens packing back to their island where they belong!”

A collective cheer rolled through the factory, and the girls broke into song. Sunset nodded along, a warm flicker stirring in her heart. She scribbled a line in the notebook. That’s it. One line at a time.

“So, I guess our partnership is about to come to an end.” Lamia slid up to Sunset and leaned against the wall.

“Looks like it,” Sunset said, relishing the thought.

“Well there’s no need to sound so excited about it. I might get the impression you don’t like me.”

Sunset lifted her eyes from the book. “You are fifth on the list of people I hate right now. Granted, that’s only because I’m counting the Sirens as one person, but the point still stands.”

“Harsh. Well, come this weekend, I’ll be rich and out of your hair.” She looked over Sunset’s shoulder. “How’s that deus ex machina coming along?”

Sunset snapped it shut. “Just fine, thanks for asking. While you’re off making a profit from a stolen magical artifact, we’ll be saving the world.”

Lamia shrugged and pushed off the wall. “Like I said, we can’t all be heroes. Have fun saving the people who hate you.”

Sunset rapidly clicked the button on her pen. I hope that snake bites her someday. Huh, this is a new form of self-hate.

The Rainbooms finished their set, but still hadn’t ponied up. There had been a few sparkles and light glows, but nothing more. Sunset still considered it a step in the right direction.

Rainbow took a seat on an empty crate. “So when we win, what are we going to spend the prize money on?”

“Whatever you guys want,” Sunset said. The prize money had been the furthest thing from her mind. Thinking on it now, she supposed it would be a great financial boon. Then she remembered she had no bank account and would be forced to carry around hundreds of dollars in cash.

“We could have one heck of a party with that kind of moola,” Pinkie said, spreading her fingers. “Think about it! Fancy location, full catering, super awesome decorations!” She gasped. “A bounce house! We could get a bounce house! With a slide!”

“Personally, I’d like a weekend spa trip with all the accommodations,” Rarity said with a dreamy sigh. “Deep tissue massage, mud bath, facials, seaweed wraps.”

“Or, we could be practical and put that money away for our futures,” Applejack said.

Pinkie pretended to think it over. “Nah, party sounds better.”

“I say we use the money to record an album, go platinum, and become superstars!” Rainbow said.

Applejack gave a definitive shake of her head. “You can go start your solo career if you want. After this, Ah’m done with pop bands. The only instrument Ah’ll be playing is my banjo.” She glared at Sunset as she said it.

Fluttershy nodded in agreement. “I’ll be glad when we don’t have to play anymore. I don’t like being on stage.”

“Gee, I wouldn’t have guessed by the way you were playing hide-n-seek on Saturday,” Pinkie said with a bite. “I was hoping being in a band would be fun, and so far, it’s been kinda disappointing, so sorry, Dashie but you can count me out.”

Rarity huffed. “So sorry this didn’t live up to your expectations, Pinkie. We’ve been a little busy stopping everyone from turning into brainwashed zombies!”

Sunset stood and clapped her hands. “Okay, I think we’re good for today! Let’s pack it up and try some more tomorrow!” The looks of frustration in her friend’s eyes gave her dangerous flashbacks to the week before the Winter Ball.

Indeed, clean up was tense and silent, the elation from before completely evaporated. Sunset bade the girls farewell and got half-hearted returns. As she rode home, her thoughts turned to Trixie. Sunset hadn’t told Selena of Trixie’s saboteuring and wondered which was worse: keeping it a secret or ratting her out? On one hand, there was a chance Selena could talk sense into her. On the other, it could sully Trixie’s feelings for Sunset further.

If they wanted to win, Sunset couldn’t afford any more underhanded tricks. And Trixie already didn’t like her. But, Sunset remembered the fear in Trixie’s eyes, a fear that hadn’t been there before. Concern and anxiety maybe, but not terror. Would telling Selena just push her into a corner and force her to act out?

Sunset arrived home and walked through the front door, scooping up Spot as he ran toward her. She nuzzled him all the way up to Trixie’s door, then set him down and knocked. “Trixie?”

A beat. Then, “What?”

“I just want to talk.”

“Trixie doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Sunset leaned on the doorframe. “Trixie, tell me what’s wrong. I know there’s something else going on.”

“Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. It’s none of your business.”

“Trixie, I just want to help,” Sunset said, too tired to be annoyed with Trixie’s flippant attitude. “Is there anything me or your mom can do?”

“No, there isn’t!” Sunset heard Trixie’s voice crack. “Now go away!”

Sunset lingered for a moment. “Okay. But if you want to talk, you know where I am.” She waited for any response. When none came, Sunset returned to her room. Before she closed the door, she was sure she heard a sniffle from down the hall.

*******

Come Tuesday, Sunset’s brief sense of victory had been completely extinguished. Even within their shared classes, Twilight refused to speak or even look in Sunset’s direction. She took a different lab partner during chemistry and sat on the opposite side of the room for economics and trigonometry.

Band practice ran more smoothly than school, but still had its speed bumps; side comments and small barbs made against one another. Lamia’s usual snark didn’t help either.

Sunset poured every second of her free time into making the counterspell perfect. With each passing day, her heart clenched tighter, and she found herself pulling harder and harder on her hair. Time loomed over her, it's indomitable shadow shaping itself to look like the Sirens.

She scribbled and scratched, sketched and erased, filled page after page of her notebook with half-finished ideas and sappy lyrics about friendship.

“See? In the end, you haven’t learned anything,” her reflection taunted her while she laid on her bed Wednesday evening.

Sunset kept the notebook clutched to her chest. “I can do this. I can do this.”

“No you can’t. You’re powerless. You had one job and you couldn’t even do that right.”

“I can do this. I can do this.”

“Look at everything you’ve already lost. Look at how far you’ve fallen. Artemis, Twilight, and soon, all your friends will be gone.”

“I can do this. I can do this.”

“If you gave in again… if you reclaimed the fire right here in your heart…”

Sunset forced her eyes closed. “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this,” she repeated until sleep overtook her.

She stood in the center of a stadium, the crowd cheering wildly. In front of her were the Sirens, towering like colossi.

Adagio opened her mouth and let loose an ear-piercing caterwaul that knocked Sunset off her feet. She rolled across the stage, stopping at the back of Rainbow’s legs.

Sunset got up to see all of her friends walking away, heads bowed in defeat, instruments destroyed. “Girls, wait!”

Applejack looked back at her with scornful eyes. “Thanks for nothing, Sunset.”

Sunset yelped and dropped the notebook she had been holding, now smothered in flames. She spun around to see the Sirens stalking forward with sharp-toothed smiles.

“You can still win.”

Sunset clutched at her heart, burning hotter and more wildly than the notebook at her side. The heat coursed through her veins until she thought it might incinerate her from the inside out.

“Just give in!”

She cried out in pain, and at her shout, the Sirens started to withdraw. Dragging her hand from her chest, Sunset saw it dyed bloody red and curled into claws instead of fingers. Her hand rose, palm toward the cowering Sirens. Sunset’s pained yell became malicious laughter, and a scarlet inferno tore across the stadium, and drowned the Sirens in a hellish blaze.

“No!” Sunset started awake, sweat pouring down her face. Spot jumped off her stomach and pressed against her neck, whining softly. Sunset sat up and took in quivering breaths of air. “It’s… it’s okay, buddy.” She set him in her lap and stroked his fur. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Princess Twilight sat on her nightstand, completely silent.

*******

Though the finals were on Friday, Sunset couldn’t stand another day in Lamia’s presence, so with only three bands left, she snagged the music room for Thursday’s practice. The school day leading up to it dragged on slowly, time seeing fit to nearly come to a standstill while Sunset shared a room with Twilight.

Sunset would have gone through her entire penance again if it meant Twilight would talk to her, ask her about magic, scold her whenever Sunset became too abrasive.

Goosebumps ran across her body as she thought about their dividing argument on Saturday. Had she just been using Twilight to further her own goals? Had Flash been right all along?

But Twilight volunteered to drop out of the competition. That’s on her, right? But then, what of trust? Did Sunset not trust Twilight with more dangerous roles? She strangled her pencil. I trust her! We’re just dealing with magical forces she has no defense against! She’s spinning this back on me like it’s my fault! I’ve been trying to keep her safe! Sunset eased her grip and took a breath. She’s not in her right mind. Don’t blame her.

From her seat in the back of the class, Sunset had a perfect view of the back of Twilight’s head. Sunset dropped her chin onto her desk and sighed again. Their picnic seemed so long ago, done by another version of themselves. Shifting a little, she felt something poke her just above her cleavage. She reached into her shirt and pulled out her cutie mark necklace given to her by Trixie at Christmas. Putting it on had become such a daily routine, sometimes Sunset forgot it was even there.

She held it in her palm, smiling at the perfect likeness, the red and gold chasing each other in an eternal dance of duality. It was funny. After all these years, she still wasn’t quite sure what her cutie mark meant. But just looking at it gave her hope. It flickered and sputtered, but Sunset clung to it.

School let out, and the Rainboom’s final jam session began back where it all started. The girls positioned themselves on the bandstand with Rainbow at the front, tuning her guitar.

“So, any particular reason we’re here instead of the factory?”

Sunset made an innocent shrug. “I thought we could use a change of scenery.”

Everyone raised an unconvinced eyebrow at her..

Either we’ve been friends way too long, or I’ve really lost my touch at lying. “Okay, I got sick of Shimmer and her smug attitude.”

“You mean your smug attitude?” Rainbow said with a smirk.

“Dash, stop trying to make it onto the list of people I hate.”

“All right, no more of that,” Applejack said. “What are we gonna play tomorrow?”

“‘Awesome as I Wanna Be’!” Rainbow said automatically. Everyone groaned. “Come on! We haven’t played it at the fair yet, and it’s the next song we’ve practiced the most.”

Sunset opened her mouth to protest, but realized Rainbow had a point. Now would be a really good time to finish that counterspell. “Yeah, fine, indulge her ego one more time. We’re never singing it again after this.”

“Hey, you’ll thank me when this song gets my band—”

“Our band!”

“—to win the finals.”

Sunset made herself comfortable in the corner. “Just shut up and start playing.”

*******

Moondancer exited the theater department and hurried down the hall, not wanting to keep Twilight or the limo waiting. Since the Rainbooms had managed to snake their way into the band room today, she and her precious flower had to go back to the manor to practice.

I suppose there are worse fates. She smiled, bemused by her own humors. Yes, this week had almost been perfect. She had Twilight all to herself, just like years past. They had joked and laughed and read and played, and it filled Moondancer’s heart until she thought it fit to burst. The only thing that marred it was…

She curled her fingers at her side. Even with a chasm between them, Twilight still turned her eyes for Sunset. She would speak nothing of the fiery-haired harpy, but Moondancer could see the desire in Twilight’s poise, and at the furthest point of her absent stares.

Moondancer stopped and breathed, keeping herself collected. Hers was a jealousy that Othello would find troubling. But she could not help it. Twilight: pure, gentle, with an intellect that put all others to shame. Sunset: wild, temperamental, with a dark aura that made Moondancer’s skin crawl. Yet Twilight drew to her like a butterfly to sweet nectar.

I know not what foul spell you’ve cast that I cannot break, Sunset Shimmer, but I will have my due. One more victory should serve as a coup d'etat to your foul game, then I can move on to what really matters. Her mouth curled into a frown as she remembered Sunset’s verbal flaying from last week. I’ll consider your loss tomorrow recompense for your words. Though I will admit… it was a well-worth monologue. You have my reluctant applause.

Her walk took her past the music room, where she paused out of curiosity and peeked through the window. She thanked the moon the room was sound proof, as she could see Rainbow Dash wailing away on her guitar, no doubt making obstreperous noise that would wake Hades. Moondancer turned to go, sickened by the very thought of Rainbow Dash’s ‘contribution’ to the musical arts, when the guitarist began to glow. Moondancer snapped her head back, seeing wings sprout from Rainbow’s back and pony ears pop out from under her elongated hair. The rest of the girls glowed in a similar manner, but none of them underwent the same transformation. Sunset walked into view with a content smile. She spoke to Rainbow, who proceeded to make a loop in the air with her newfound wings.

Moondancer stepped away from the door. New scenarios and possibilities wrote themselves within her mind. She folded her hands in front of her and continued her walk.

“Interesting, and… quite curious.”

*******

It was a very small crowd that greeted the last bands after school on Friday. With all three bands coming from Canterlot High, it left little room for diversity. Pinkie’s sisters sat in the stands not too far away from Night Light and Shining. Anyone else’s family either wouldn’t or couldn’t come.

Each band got a stage all to themselves. The Rainbooms had the center stage and would be the last to perform that night. Sunset paced behind the curtain, chewing the top of her pen. “This is it,” she said between nibbles.

“Yeah, that’s the eighth time you’ve reminded us,” Rainbow said irritably. “Quit pacing and sit down somewhere; you’re making me nervous.”

Sunset found a chair to collapse in and bounced her leg up and down. “Sorry, I can’t help it. We got this far, but what if it all goes wrong tonight?”

Applejack gave the best confident smile she could muster, though Sunset could see the strain in it. “It won’t. We’ll win the finals, beat the Sirens, and put this whole mess behind us.”

“Right.” Sunset clutched her necklace. “We can do this.”

On the stage to their left, Sunset heard Trixie pouring her heart and soul into her last song. Sunset got up from her chair and stuck her head out from the curtain to watch. Trixie took center stage, wearing a purple dress with a yellow belt embedded with a blue jewel, and yellow boots Rarity had gagged at. Her hat and cape fluttered in the breeze, the stars glowing under the stage lights.

Ya better believe,

“I got tricks up my sleeve.

“See me dominate,

“'Cause I'm powerful and grea-ea-eat.”

She looked right at the Dazzlings, eyes inflamed with passion.

I'm here to take you down a peg!

“Oh, whoa, oh-whoa-oh-whoa-oh-oh.

“By the time I'm done, you're gonna beg!

“Oh, whoa, oh-whoa-oh-whoa-oh-oh.

Trixie looked over to Sunset now, her smile haughty as she swayed back and forth.

To be in my band, application rejected!

Rejected,” her bandmates chorused.

Don’t look so sad and so dejected,” Trixie sang in a babying voice.

Sunset pulled her head back. Well, she brought her A game today. Though she’s not exactly being subtle. Sunset swallowed a lump in her throat. I hope the Sirens don’t see the family resemblance. Someone grabbed her by the collar and dragged her back to the chair.

“Sit,” Rainbow commanded.

Sunset squirmed but did as she was told, at least until she heard Twilight’s violin from the other stage. She sprung up and ran back to the curtain, Rainbow facepalming in the meantime.

Moondancer and Twilight played flawlessly, uninterrupted by any of Trixie’s tricks. Even with just the two of them, Twilight kept her eyes closed, lost in her own world of heavenly music.

Their last duet was a long one, soft and slow, packed with sorrowful emotion until the last minute when they sped up, almost racing each other to the end of the song. Twilight ended with a flourish, and despite everything that had happened between them, Sunset found herself clapping with the tiny crowd.

She retreated behind the curtain again as the judges drew near. “Okay. This is it. I have complete faith in you girls!”

Rainbow picked up her guitar. “Sunset calm down. We got this.”

Sunset breathed. “Right. Yeah. I’ll just be over here. Good luck.” She carried herself over to the side as the curtains parted.

“And last but not least, the Rainbooms,” Adagio said with a purr. “I hope you can give us a showstopping performance.”

“Count on it,” Rainbow said. She gave a nod to the others.

Pinkie gave a quick, unenthusiastic sigh, then perked up and counted them off.

Hey! hey! hey! hey! hey! hey!

“Awesome as I wanna be!”

Sunset gripped one of the support rails. We should have picked a different song.

First you see me riding on a sonic boom.

“Got my guitar shreddin' up my latest tune.

“There is nothin' you can do to beat me.

“I'm so good that you can't defeat me!

Sunset looked out to the judges. Aria didn’t look impressed, and Adagio was impossible to read. Sonata bobbed her head along in delight, but as Sunset had seen throughout the competition, she liked just about everything.

I’m awesome! Take caution!

“Watch out for me, I’m awesome as I wanna be!”

Rainbow’s wild playing aside, the rest of the girls struggled to look inspired. Pinkie forced a smile the entire time, and Fluttershy kept a thin mask of disappointment while she shook her tambourine. Sunset saw their moods dip further south when Rainbow entered her guitar solo.

What was I thinking when I said we could play this song for the finals? Sunset’s eyes widened to saucers as she witnessed a blue glow surround Rainbow, and sparkles manifest themselves around her head and back. No, no, no, no! A slew of profanities flew through one half of Sunset’s mind while the other searched for a solution to the looming tragedy. She looked behind her, and gave the chair she had been sitting in a hard kick.

The noise made Fluttershy jump, but Rainbow was still lost in her own world. The blue aura intensified, and any second now, Rainbow’s pony features would burst forth and their entire plan would be ruined. Sunset pulled at her cheeks. There was no time to close the curtains, no time to find a big enough distraction, no time to do anything except…

Sunset broke into a sprint, preemptively regretting the next ten seconds of her life. She ran onto the stage, turned to her side, and shoulder tackled Rainbow to the floor. The song came to a crashing halt, Rainbow’s guitar smacking against the stage and sliding from Rainbow’s hand. The crowd gasped, and Sunset heard a few gales of laughter. She didn’t look up, choosing to believe none of them came from Twilight.

Sunset, what the actual hell?” Rainbow yelled in her ear.

“Uhh… there was a spider on your back?” Sunset tried to look guilty in front of the judges. It proved easy with all of her friends glaring at her. Rainbow threw Sunset off and stood up to grab her guitar and make sure it hadn’t been damaged.

Cadence cleared her throat. “Well… nice job, girls. I think we’ve heard enough.”

Sunset continued to lay where she had fallen. This was it. Their gambit was over. All she could do now was hope Trixie won and somehow pulled a miracle out of her pocket.

“Nice performance, Raingoons.”

Speak of the devil. Sunset turned her head and saw Trixie leaning against the stage.

“I especially loved the part where you sabotaged your own friends, Sunset.”

Sunset smashed her teeth together, then screamed to the sky, “I haven’t sabotaged anyone!” It at least got Trixie to back up a foot. Sunset took that as her chance to get up and join the others backstage in a very cold reception.

“Mind explainin’ what happened out there?” Applejack asked, crossing her arms.

“Rainbow was about to pony up! I panicked!” Sunset threw her arms in the air. “What did you want me to do?”

“Give us a signal?” Rarity offered. “Throw something at her? Unplug her microphone? Anything other than that?”

“I’m sorry, did you miss the word ‘panic’ in that last sentence?”

Rainbow snapped her guitar case shut. “Well thanks to your ‘panic’ we can kiss everything we know and love goodbye. Thanks a lot, Sunset.”

Sunset curled her fists and hunched her shoulders. “Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t such a narcissist!”

Rainbow stepped over and got in Sunset's face. “Hey, at least I have some self-confidence, unlike you! ‘Oh boo-hoo, woah is me! I turned into a raging she-demon so I’m going to sit in the corner for the rest of my life!’”

Sunset drew her fist back, but Applejack grabbed her arm before it came forward. “Sunset, will ya quit tryin’ to pick fights with everyone!”

Everyone’s trying to pick a fight with me!”

“Attention, everyone!” Adagio called over the mic. “We have the winners of the first Battle of the Bands!”

Applejack let go of Sunset’s arm. As a group, they rushed to the edge of the stage, standing over the other bands and the judges. The air stilled as everyone waited on baited breath.

“This year’s winner, the best band in Canterlot is…”

This is it. Sunset inhaled a nauseating breath. Do or die. And she was almost positive they were dead.

Adagio pointed a finger at the center stage. “The Rainbooms!”

“What?” Twilight yelled.

Impossible!” Trixie said with equal volume, tears already in her eyes.

Moondancer stood with her mouth hanging open for a moment before remembering her dignity and turning away with a pout.

The Rainbooms looked to one another, stricken by confusion and disbelief. Sunset knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this defied all explanation. They had won? Even after her mid-song tackle of Rainbow? Their plan was still alive?

“Congratulations, Rainbooms,” Adagio continued, either oblivious to their confusion or reveling in it. “You’ll get to perform in front of Canterlot and the entire world live on Sunday as our opening act!” She swung a reaching arm out. “And all the bands that participated will get free tickets to the show!”

Said bands gave no response.

Adagio just continued to smile. “We can’t wait to see you come Sunday! It’ll be a show to remember!” She cackled as she walked away with her sisters in tow, leaving the crowd to turn to the Rainbooms. Sunset looked down on them and saw nothing but contempt for the Rainboom’s ill-earned victory.

Twilight marched away, glasses fogged to the point where Moondancer had to guide her. Trixie had vanished completely, leaving her band mates to clean up the rest of their equipment. The crowd slowly dispersed into the settling evening, leaving the Rainbooms on stage to ponder their fortunes.

One by one, they walked back to finish putting their instruments away. Rainbow sat her guitar case upright and leaned on it. “We won,” she said, dazed.

“Yeah,” Applejack said with an absent nod.

Fluttershy sighed. “This doesn’t feel like a victory.”

“It isn’t,” Sunset said. She kept a distance from the others. “They saw an opportunity to create even more anger and resentment: give the victory to the one band who deserved it the least.”

After a beat, Pinkie asked, “So, what do we do now?”

Sunset picked her notebook up. “They were dumb enough to let us win. So now, let’s finish this once and for all.” They weren’t quite the harmonious smiles she had been looking for, but her friend’s expressions told her they were ready for a showdown.

*******

Trixie had beat Sunset home, ran upstairs, and locked her door. Sunset found Selena in the kitchen, bags starting to appear under her eyes. She sipped her mug of tea, then said, “I can take a guess that Trixie didn’t win, so please tell me it was you.”

Sunset nodded. “It wasn’t the most conventional win, but we did it.”

Selena breathed a sigh of relief. “Then all we need is a plan for the big event. Even if the Sirens don’t suspect anything, they’ll still try whatever they can to get as much negative energy as possible.” She gave Sunset a look of sympathy only a mother could know. “But first, you should get some sleep. You look exhausted.”

Sunset shook her head. “I’ll sleep better when this is all over. Besides, I’m not the only one who needs rest.” For a moment, Sunset thought she might have crossed a line with the sharp look Selena gave her.

A second later, Selena cracked a tired smile. “You’re right. This hasn’t been easy for any of us.” She looked over to her sword leaning against the wall. “But I intend to help put an end to this and bring my family back together.” She focused her attention back to Sunset. “At least go wash up. Hot water is good for clearing the mind.”

There was little point in arguing. Besides, Sunset never said no to a hot shower. She headed upstairs, Spot at her heels. As she sifted through her drawers to find pajamas to change into, she heard a soft knock at the door. She turned and stared at Trixie in the threshold, holding herself so tightly, Sunset was afraid any sudden movement might break her.

Trixie looked at Sunset, not with contempt or disdain. Her purple eyes held only heartbreak. “Trixie…” She cleared her throat and wiped her eyes. “I… I just… You won, so…”

Sunset took a step forward, and as she suspected, Trixie slowly crumpled, sliding down to her knees, face wet with tears. Sunset joined her on the floor while Spot settled in her lap. Trixie pressed her face into Sunset’s shoulder and let out a slow sob.

“Please… I just want him back.”

Sunset wrapped her arms around Trixie. “Don’t worry. I promise, we’ll bring Artemis home.”

Showdown in Canterlot I: All Heart of the Plan

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Sunset, Selena, and Trixie sat at the dining room table, a map of Canterlot Coliseum laid out in front of them. After an hour of comforting Trixie, and a quick shower, everyone was ready for their war council. A small X was drawn on one of the corridors that ran under the stadium.

Selena tapped her finger on it. “We know Artemis was last here. Fingers crossed that he hasn’t moved, but odds are, the Sirens will want every last drop of misery in one location.”

Trixie tapped her fingers together, keeping herself tucked as tightly as she could. “A-actually, Mom… I have something I should tell you.”

“What is it?”

“I…” The tears started falling again. “They… they made me sabotage the other bands,” Trixie said, her voice cracking from the strain of holding her cries back. “They s-said if I did, they’d keep him alive and-and give me a chance to save him.”

Selena moved over and wrapped Trixie in a tight hug. She ran a hand through her daughter’s hair and gently shushed her. “It’s okay, sweetheart. It’s gonna be okay.”

“I’m s-sorry. I couldn’t tell you, or they’d… I’m sorry.”

Sunset eased back in her chair. The look of fear that replaced the normal stubborn and haughty look in Trixie’s eyes now made perfect sense. And as much turmoil Trixie had caused, Sunset couldn’t fault her for it. The blame rested solely with the Sirens.

Sunset played with her fingers. Well, since we’re being honest. “I have something to say as well.”

Trixie and Selena looked over to her. “What’s wrong, Sunset?” Selena asked.

“I…” Sunset bit her lip. Come on, we’re already halfway there. Still, she was attempting a huge gamble, not just with her future, but with her friends’ as well. But just talking about it won’t hurt them, right? She stopped overthinking it; her mind was made up. “Remember how the Crystal Heart was stolen by a thief named Lamia?”

Selena gave a wary nod of her head. “Yes?”

“Well… I may kinda know who and where she is.”

Trixie gaped at her. “What? You met Lamia?”

Sunset sank lower into her chair. “‘Met’ is an understatement. Lamia is… well, she’s me. At least, the human version of me. You know, from this world.”

Selena and Trixie stared blankly at her for several seconds. “Artemis would get a kick out of this,” Selena said. She rubbed the bags under her eyes. “All right, perhaps you should start from the top.”

So, Sunset recounted her encounter with Lamia, the odd phenomena that occurred with they touched, and how Sunset had stumbled on her secret and what would happen if she said anything. It felt like releasing air out of an overinflated balloon in her chest. While it was still pretty full, Sunset felt like she could breathe a little better.

A contemplative silence filled the room after she finished talking. She looked down at her feet, waiting for either Lulamoon to speak.

“Okay.” Selena rubbed her eyes again. “Are there any other secrets either of you would like to reveal?”

Trixie and Sunset shared a look. “No.”

“I think that’s everything.”

“Good.” Moving back to her seat, Selena said, “So, we know who has the Heart. Getting it back would be tricky if we don’t want this Lamia to retaliate. On one hand, the concert is the day after tomorrow, so it’s a slim chance the Sirens will get their hands on it.” Selena raised her other hand. “But, supposedly, she’s getting rid of the heart sometime this weekend.”

“Maybe even tonight,” Sunset said.

“And I’d hate to lose the Heart to some random black market dealers. Who knows where it could end up.”

Trixie held her hands up. “Where else could it go that would be worse than the Sirens?”

Selena stared at the map, unresponsive to Trixie’s question. Before Sunset vocalized her building curiosity, Selena said, “Regardless of who could get it, I think it would be important to keep track of a powerful magical artifact like that.”

“So what do we do?” Sunset asked.

“Let me worry about the Heart.” Selena tapped the map. “I want you to focus on Sunday. Your job, Sunset, is fairly simple. You get your friends to go up there and play the counterspell to break the hold over everyone. Mine and Trixie’s job is to find Artemis and release him. Then, between your performance and theirs, we have to sneak in and use the pocket dimension to seal them in Artemis’ hat.”

Sunset leaned to one side. “Won’t everyone be a little suspicious if the Sirens don’t show?”

“The spell should be broken, so they won’t care much beyond general curiosity. And it’s better we take care of them behind the scenes than on the stage.”

At this point, Sunset couldn’t bring herself to care too much about the details. They had a plan, and while Sunset could see various ways it could go wrong, it was better than nothing. They had been relying on luck and chance all month; it wouldn’t hurt to rely on a little more. All Sunset needed to do was…

Selena stood from her chair. “That’s the general gist of it anyways. We can iron out a few more of the details tomorrow with your friends. In the meantime, how about dinner?”

Sunset’s stomach rumbled in agreement. Now that she wasn’t filled up on tension and anxiety, she realized she hadn’t eaten in almost eight hours. She happily devoured the pasta Selena made, sharing the dinner table with Trixie for the first time since the competition had begun. It was a quiet meal, still tense with anticipation for what was to come, but Trixie sat close to Sunset, and they traded encouraging smiles with pasta sauce over their mouths.

Food in their bellies and a long day of preparation in front of them, Sunset and Trixie bade Selena goodnight and headed upstairs. They paused in front of the bathroom, the split between their rooms. Trixie wrung her hands. “Listen, Sunset… I wanted to say I’m sorry. You were just trying to help and I got jealous, and somewhere along the way, I got up in the competition, and the Sirens, and—”

Sunset put a hand over Trixie’s mouth. “I get it. And apology accepted.” She lowered her hand. “Look, I know we’re both still getting used to living with each other, but like I told you before: I’m not here to take anything away from you. Trixie, you’re his daughter. No matter what I do, he’s going to love you. I’ve seen it in his eyes; he’s already proud of you.”

“I… I know.” She wiped a quick tear from her eye. “It’s just—and don’t tell anyone I said this, but…” Trixie dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Sometimes I doubt my magical abilities.”

“Really? No way!” Sunset said, trying her hardest to keep a straight face and even voice.

“It’s true!” Trixie pulled her wand from her pocket and twirled it between her fingers. “My father’s done all these amazing things in his lifetime. He makes magic look so easy. And when I’m practicing with him, I think it’s easy too. But when I’m by myself… everything suddenly seems so complicated.” She held her wand up in front of her face. “The Lulamoons are part of an ancient lineage. We can trace our blood back to Merlin himself. We’re some of the last natural magicians in the world. We were given a sacred duty.” Her wand arm fell. “Sometimes I wonder if I can live up to it.”

Sunset won the fight against the smirk trying to work its way onto her face and eased into a sympathetic frown. “I can see how that would put some pressure on you. But I know, and I know you know, Artemis would be happy with whatever you did with your life. Even if you aren’t the best magician, you’re still a Lulamoon.” Sunset gave her a confident grin. “You’re still the Great and Powerful Trixie.”

Trixie giggled, then cleared her throat and straightened up. “Trixie thanks you for your kind and very true words.” She gave Sunset a remorseful look. “And again, she’s sorry she messed with your band.”

Sunset shook her head. “You can apologize to them tomorrow, but I think they’ll understand.” She wrung her hands. “But, um, maybe you could do me a favor?”

“Trixie supposes she could lend her amazing talents to those in need.”

“Glad you’re feeling better,” Sunset deadpanned. “Listen, can you snap Twilight out of the Sirens’ trance? Please?” Sunset added, not afraid to show her desperation.

Some of Trixie’s smugness disappeared. “Oh, well…” She rolled her wrist uncertainly. “Father’s spell was designed to keep influences on the mind out. I guess the Sirens just wore away at it until it finally broke. I mean, I could put it up maybe, but they’re kinda already in her head, so…”

“So it’d be pointless,” Sunset said, her shoulders dropping with her heart.

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” Sunset turned to her room, determined to finish the spell tonight. “Just means I have something to fight for.”

*******

Tonight was finally the night!

Duffle bag packed, hood and mask on, Jörmangandr around her neck, Crystal Heart tucked in the backpack, Lamia was all set for her rendezvous of fortune. By the time tonight was done, she would be a rich woman! Did she feel concern over selling a magical and potentially dangerous artifact on the black market?

Not in the least!

Whatever happens after this isn’t any of my concern! She slung the duffel bag over her shoulder and bade her cramped living space goodbye. She walked across the hall to the rooftop exit ladder and clambered up, forcing the old hatch door open.

The flat rooftop of the factory greeted her, along with a brisk night wind. She had set the meeting time for here, just after midnight, and it was currently five ‘til. Not being an amateur, she triple checked the surrounding area for any police or FBI, then plotted out several escape routes in case anything went wrong.

“Are you excited, Jorgey?” Lamia said with a coo, scratching him under the chin. “We’ll never have to steal again. Except for fun of course.” He hissed and pressed against her hand.

Their client was one Dr. Caballeron. Lamia had heard of him in a few circles; a wealthy entrepreneur who liked to own some of the finer arts. It took some haggling, but they had finally settled on the generous price of twenty million dollars.

Lamia shuddered in delight. She loved it when she won!

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.”

Shit! Lamia recognized that sound. It had nearly ruined her theft of the Crystal Heart in the first place. But what was it doing here? And where was it coming from?

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,

“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.”

Three directions at once? She spun in place, trying to pinpoint the noise. Was this all a set up? Did I even talk to Caballeron? Her mind began to go hazy. What was she doing up here in the first? Did she need the Crystal Heart? She was sure someone could get a lot better use out of it than she could.

From either side and directly in front of her, three figures climbed onto the rooftop, their voices heavenly and sweet. They sauntered closer, their features still obscured by the dark. Jörmangandr hissed wildly, but Lamia felt herself falling deeper and deeper into their music. She slid the backpack off her back and held it out to the approaching figure. It was so easy. Why even think when they could do it for her?

The singing stopped, and something silver flashed between Lamia and the girl with an outstretched hand. They both jumped back, Lamia’s thieving instincts kicking in. The fog started to clear away, and she saw a fourth figure standing between her and a girl with an impressive mass of frizzy orange hair. Lamia had seen her on television once or twice and knew this was Adagio. Which meant the girls to her left and right were Sonata and Aria, though she wasn’t sure which was which.

But then who was the figure standing between her and Adagio, katana drawn, blue ponytail waving in the wind?

“I came for a heart,” she said. She raised her sword in a defensive stance. “But I’ll take four if I can.”

*******

“Well, well, well!” Adagio spread her arms. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you again, Selena! How’s life without that oaf of a husband of yours?”

Selena tightened her grip on her sword. “Your show is over, Adagio. If I have to go to jail for slitting your throat, then so be it. At least your malice will be at an end.”

“Bold words from someone without any magic.” Adagio put her hands on her hips. “Artemis couldn’t handle us at half strength. Do you really think—”

Selena stepped and swung horizontally, forcing Adagio to leap back, a look of surprise and brief panic flickering across her face. The second she landed, Selena followed up with a second attack, forcing Adagio to backflip to a safe distance.

Adagio glared over Selena’s shoulder. “Don’t just stand there, you idiots! Either grab her or the Heart!”

Sonata and Aria snapped to attention and picked a target, Aria engaged Lamia while Sonata came up behind Selena and let out an ear-piercing wail. Selena grit her teeth against the screech but stood firm and lunged for Sonata with her blade. Sonata leapt back out of its range, ending the scream. Selena then spun around and slashed at Adagio, keeping her back.

Adagio inhaled and released a soundwave strong enough to send Selena across the roof. Her back skidded across the rough surface, but she used the momentum to roll up onto her feet. A second scream from Sonata made her flinch back and weaken her guard, allowing Sonata to plant a boot into Selena’s gut. Selena staggered but didn’t fall, and swung her sword to graze Sonata across the stomach.

On the other side of the roof, Adagio sung, filling the air with her hypnotizing melody, and a foul green mist. The fight between Aria and Lamia slowed down, with Lamia fully removing her backpack and dropping it to the floor before reaching into her belt and throwing a small knife at Selena.

Selena danced to the side, letting the knife fly past her, then spun again to avoid Sonata’s poor lunge. As she passed, Selena swung her combat boot into Sonata’s back and sent her tumbling to the ground. Turning back, Selena found Lamia coming at her, brandishing a longer knife, and the snake around her neck bearing its fangs. Selena extended her arm as far as she could and met the knife with the strong side of her blade while staying just out of range of the snake. With a sharp twist of her wrist, the knife dropped from Lamia’s hand.

As Lamia backed up, Selena jumped forward, scooped the knife up, and hurled it at Aria, retreating with the backpack. It cut across her shoulder, and Aria yelled in pain, but kept running toward Adagio who had stopped her song.

“Pleasure doing business with you!” Adagio took the backpack and jumped off the roof, Aria in tow, gripping her shoulder. Selena whipped around to Sonata, who blew a raspberry before jumping from the roof as well.

Selena heard a woosh of air, and spun her blade to knock the last throwing knife out of the air. The split second distraction gave Lamia a head start to grab her duffle bag and run, but Selena proved faster. She grabbed the knife she had just deflected and threw it low, stabbing Lamia in the calf. She collapsed to the ground with a loud curse.

As Selena marched toward her, the snake reared up to bite. Selena slapped it across the face with the flat of her blade, and it recoiled to its master’s side.

Lamia turned over and glared at Selena through her mask. “Who the fu—whoa!”

Selena leveled her blade at the thief's throat. “No cursing in my presence.” She raised the tip to touch Lamia’s chin. “What were you doing up here, Snake Queen?”

“Why the hell should I tell you anything?”

“Because if you don’t, I’ll cut the head off your snake,” Selena said calmly. “Now, talk.”

Lamia grumbled something probably foul-mouthed, but said, “I was going to make a trade with someone. What’s it to you?”

“The Crystal Heart for money?”

Lamia narrowed her eyes. “Who are you?”

“A concerned mother.” Selena reached down and grabbed Lamia by the front of her suit and hauled her up, kicking the snake away at the same time. With one hand, she held Lamia by the collar, and kept her sword against Lamia’s throat with the other. “I came here tonight to take the Heart back and give you a warning. I can still do at least one of those things.” She kept her face completely neutral, but looked Lamia dead in the eyes. “If you do anything to hurt Sunset Shimmer or her friends, I will hunt you down to the ends of the earth and cut you to ribbons.”

“You don’t scare me.”

Selena spun Lamia forward and slashed with her sword. The back of her mask fell off, and with it, Lamia’s red and gold ponytail. Her hands frantically scrabbled over the back of her head, running over where her hair now ended at the nape of her neck.

“You… You…”

Selena sheathed her sword. “I think the police should be able to tell Sunset and you apart now.” She raised her hand to block Lamia’s quick attack, then did it again with her other arm. Lamia struck a series of quick blows, each of them deflected by Selena. She dropped down and swept her leg out, knocking Lamai over.

Lamia laid on the ground, panting. “Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit!” She pounded her fist into the ground. “I hate you!”

With a small, “hmph,” Selena turned for home. “Remember this defeat next time you threaten Sunset or her friends. I won’t be so lenient in the future.” She stalked off, having far more pressing matters to deal with now. Even as she exited the roof, she heard Lamia cursing at the night sky.

*******

Sunset had stayed up most of Friday night working on the spell, and woke early Saturday morning to continue. In fact, she only left her room when her friends arrived to discuss their plans for tomorrow and get a little practice in before the show.

Eight girls gathered around the living room table. Selena paced in front of them, hands held behind her back. “I’m afraid I have some bad news. The Sirens are in possession of the Crystal Heart.”

Sunset almost choked on the apple she had been eating. “How?

Selena spoke slow, carefully choosing her words. “I had a contact tell me the possible whereabouts of Lamia and I went to investigate last night. I happened to find her in the middle of her trade with the Sirens of all people. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop them,” she said bitterly.

Trixie gaped at her. “Mom, you went and fought the Sirens on your own? After you told Trixie and Sunset we were reckless for going to the concert?”

“I wasn’t expecting to find the Sirens.” She put a hand on Trixie’s shoulder. “But you’re right. That was reckless of me. That’s why you do as I say, not as I do.”

“Okay, so they have the Heart,” Rainbow said. “On a scale of one to ten, how bad is that?”

Selena looked at her with grave eyes.

“Okay. A ten. That’s… really, really bad.”

“Understatement of the century,” Sunset said. “How does this change our plans though?”

“Not by too much,” Selena said. She tapped the map on the table. “Your job stays the same. Trixie and I just have to find Artemis faster so we can go after the Crystal Heart and get it away from the Sirens. As long as it’s in the area, it’ll feed off the strongest emotion there. I have a feeling they’ll keep it close to the stage though.”

Sunset raised her hand. “Maybe I can do that. I’m not actually part of the band. Once the girls are squared away, maybe I can sneak around and get the Heart.”

Applejack frowned. “Seems mighty dangerous. You sure you wanna do that on your own?”

“Everyone will be focused on you and the Sirens. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

Selena sighed. “I feel like telling you not to do it because it’s too dangerous would be both pointless and hypocritical of me. So please, just be careful, Sunset.”

Sunset gave her a thumbs up and a smile. She then pulled out her notebook. “It’s not perfect yet, but I’ve got a new counterspell to try out.”

Rainbow picked up her guitar and headed for the backyard. “Let’s hope it’s better than the last one. Ow!” She rubbed the back of her head where Applejack had thumped her.

It certainly wasn’t as bad as their first attempt. Sunset made a few adjustments as they practiced to make the song sound as harmonious as possible, but something about it still didn’t sit right with her. The lyrics? The melody? She flipped back through the dozens of pages she had gone through, looking over the scratched out lines and eraser marks. Was this really all she had to show for her month of labor? She closed the book as her friends played through the last lines.

The sun had just set, and as much as Sunset would have loved to play a few more times to find what was missing, she knew the neighbors would start to throw a fit hearing the same song a sixth time. “That’s enough for today, girls. You should go home and get some rest.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna need it to kick the Sirens’ butts!” Rainbow took her guitar off and rolled out her shoulder. “Not a bad song, Sunset.”

“Do you really think it’ll be enough to win tomorrow?” Fluttershy asked.

“It has to be,” Sunset said, feeling her stomach dance. She yawned, her lack of sleep creeping up on her. “I’ll make a few more adjustments before the show.”

“Not too many,” Applejack said. “We still need to be able to play it.” She packed her bass and looked over to Pinkie. “Err, Pinkie, do you think it’d be all right if me and Rarity spent the night at your house?”

Pinkie’s inflating smile gave her enough of an answer.

The girls departed into the cloudless night. In twenty-four hours, one way, this will all be over, Sunset thought, staring at the half moon. She closed the front door after Rainbow disappeared around the corner, and leaned against it. They’ll win or lose because of you. If the spell doesn’t work…

It has to work! Sunset pushed herself up and walked upstairs, meeting Trixie at the top.

“Do you need any help?”

“No, I…” Sunset yawned. “I got it. Just a few tweaks.” She yawned again. “Thanks though.”

Trixie allowed her to past, but looked dubious at Sunset’s reassurances. Sunset shrugged it off upon entering her room. Writing the spell was her job—her responsibility. If she couldn’t do that, then what good was she?

“Maybe Trixie can help you make it better,” Princess Twilight said.

Sunset climbed onto her bed. “Not to doubt Trixie’s skill, but… I doubt it. Besides, if this fails—and it won’t—I want the blame to only fall on me.”

“Ah yes, just like it always does whenever something goes wrong,” her demon said from the mirror.

“You, I’m ignoring.” Sunset looked down at the spell for anything she could possibly change, but after only a few minutes, everything just looked like nonsensical squiggles. She rubbed her eyes, but that only made the squiggles dance. When she blinked again, the squiggles surrounded her on all sides, jeering and throwing fruit at her.

She raised her arms to block the rain of tomatoes and oranges and squash. The food splattered against her, leaving her drenched in pulp and juice. The Sirens continued to sing on the other side of the stadium, growing larger with every verse. Sunset looked around for her friends, but they had all vanished.

Adagio took to the skies and flew at Sunset, claws raised and fangs bared. Sunset turned and ran, aiming for the wooden door at the end of the field. She would never make it in time; Adagio was too fast, too powerful!

The Siren closed in, hand outstretched. Sunset reached her own hand out for the doorknob. With her other hand, red and demonic, she unleashed a ball of fire against Adagio’s face. She screamed and recoiled, clutching the side that had been burned while Sunset opened the door and ran inside.

She slammed it shut and gripped her demon hand, beholding it with horror. “No! I don’t want this!”

“Whatever is the matter, Sunset? You sound terrified.”

Sunset looked from the checkered floors at her feet, to the book cases lining the finely painted walls. A glass window hung open, letting a warm breeze tossle the silk curtains. She turned her eyes on the figure standing in a patch of sunlight on the other side of the room, her back to Sunset.

Her pastel mane and tail rippled out like flowing water, and her alabaster coat shone in the sun’s light. Her ears stood at attention, waiting for Sunset’s response.

Sunset ran her tongue through her dry mouth. She couldn’t still her pounding heart upon seeing the pony in front of her. “Princess…”

“Tell me what’s wrong, Sunset?”

She looked down at her corrupted hand. “I… Everyone is counting on me to finish this spell and I don’t know if I can do it. And… and I’m afraid that maybe there’s another way to beat the Sirens and I have the means to do it. But I don’t want to win at that cost.”

“I see.” The Princess chuckled. “Even as a filly, you had this silly notion that you had to do everything on your own. Sunset, you’re strong and independent, but you’re not alone. It’s okay to ask your friends for help.”

“But they already have enough to do! They already have to save the day; I can’t ask them to do this too!”

“You’re struggling and you’re in pain, Sunset. Even with what they’re going through, your friends would want to help you any way they could. As for your other problem… I think you just need to believe in yourself more.”

Sunset’s demon hand changed back to normal, and she flexed her fingers. “You always make everything sound so easy,” she whispered.

“And you always make everything harder for yourself.”

A blush crept across Sunset’s face. “I kinda do, huh?” She took a step further into the room. “Princess—”

“Shhh. None of that. I already know.” The room began to fade to white as Celestia turned her head to Sunset. Her purple eye smiled lovingly. “You can do it, Sunset.”

Sunset snorted awake and immediately spotted the drops of spittle on the spell page. She quickly dabbed it off and wiped her mouth. Somehow, she had managed to fall asleep sitting cross-legged on her bed. Outside, the mid-morning sun shone through her window. It was almost time.

She showered and got dressed, joining the Lulamoons downstairs. Trixie wore her cape, clutching the clasp like a life preserver. Selena wore a long blue skirt and black combat boots. On her head was one of Artemis’ hats.

Sunset sat down to the plate of eggs and toast Selena had laid out. The radio played from the kitchen counter, Cadence’s chipper voice coming in loud and clear. “Make sure to tune in to the Dazzlings’ encore Canterlot performance tonight, featuring the winners of the Battle of the Bands, the Rainbooms! Tickets are already sold out, but you can watch the whole concert live tonight at six!”

A question popped into Sunset’s head, and she turned toward Selena. “You’ve been listening to the Sirens music this entire time, and you’re not hypnotized. How?”

Selena smiled confidently. “I’m trained in seven styles of swordplay and three martial arts. Not only does that train you physically, but it tightens your mental focus as well. The only person on this planet who can tell me what to do is my mother.”

“So with enough mental fortitude, you can stop magical influences?”

“It isn’t easy. But yes, it can be done.”

Sunset looked back at her eggs. She made a mental note to tell Twilight later. There will be a later. We’ll break the spell, I know we will!

The rest of the Rainbooms arrived after breakfast for a few more hours of practice. Because of Sunset’s impromptu nap, she had to make more changes on the fly. Her vivid dream made it hard to fully concentrate. Did she really talk to Celestia despite their dimensional distance?

It sounded just like her. It looked just like her. But, how could she have done that? And why didn’t she talk to me before.

Stupid question. You know why she didn’t want to talk to you.

Okay, then why is she talking to me now?

“Earth to Sunset!” Rainbow waved a hand in front of her face. “We finished the song a minute ago!”

Sunset snapped her head up. “Oh, right! Great job, girls!”

“Were you even listening that time?” Applejack asked.

“Yes… mostly. Just take it from the top one more time.”

Everyone sighed but did as asked, playing through one last time before they packed everything up and piled it into their cars. Sunset rode with Selena and Trixie in a silent drive. Their collective fear created a chill that numbed Sunset’s hands. There was no turning back now.

We made it this far. Just a little bit more. Sunset raised a trembling hand to her necklace. Just a little more.

They pulled into the parking lot of Canterlot Coliseum, already filling up with spectators. When everyone had their instruments out of the cars, Selena lined the girls up one last time.

“Whatever happens in there, be careful. The Crystal Heart is going to amplify any negative energy in the air, so it’s vital that you all keep cool heads. Understand?” The girls nodded, and Selena relaxed her stern expression. “And thank you, girls, for everything that you’ve done.” She nodded to Trixie, and together they walked to the main gate.

Sunset led her friends to the performer’s entrance, keeping the notebook pressed against her chest. Here we go.

*******

Adagio set the Crystal Heart into the center of the altar at the back of the stage. She stepped back with a victorious smile. “Isn’t it beautiful?” She looked back at her sisters. “I have to hand it to you, Aria, you really came through this time.”

Aria shrugged nonchalantly, wincing at the cut on her shoulder. “It’s easy to pretend you’re someone else on the internet.” She smirked. “Having knowledge on how the black market works also helps.”

“And that explains the shrunken heads,” Adagio said with a bemused sigh. “At any rate, we’re finally here, girls. All the magic and power we could ever want is about to be delivered to us on a silver plate.”

Sonata tapped her chin. “Why would the Rainbooms bring silver plates?”

Aria and Adagio ignored her. “So, what should we do about Selena and Trixie?” Aria asked.

Adagio smiled, showing off all her teeth. “We won’t have to do anything. In one hour, we’ll have a legion of adoring fans who’ll do whatever we ask.” She raised her arms toward the Crystal Heart. “After twenty years, our dreams are finally about to come true! The whole world will be eating out of our hands!”

“Eeeww, why would we want them to do that?” Sonata asked, dragging Adagio from her reverie. “Who knows where all their mouths have been.”

Adagio facepalmed while Aria let out a tired sigh. “Go back to sleep, Sonata.”

Showdown in Canterlot II: Welcome to the Show

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Two stagehands led the Rainbooms down one of the corridors under the coliseum. Even down here, beneath a layer of concrete, Sunset could hear the first stirrings of the crowd above. Aside from the squeaking wheels of their music and wardrobe cart, it was the only noise the girls had in the dim hallways. The stagehands finally stopped at a large door with a star marked on it.

“Here’s your stage,” one of them said as they opened the door. “Show’s in one hour, so make sure you’re ready and on the platform by then.”

Sunset quickly understood what he meant upon walking inside. A metal dais rose from the center of the room, red signal lights around its edges. She could see grooves in the ceiling where it would split open and bring them up onto the field. “That’s pretty—” The door slammed shut behind her and her friends. “Cool.”

“Is it just me, or did they already seem off?” Rarity asked.

Applejack climbed up onto the stage. “We’re in the Sirens’ territory now. Wouldn’t surprise me if they have the entire staff under their thumb.”

Sunset flipped her book open. “We knew what we were getting into when we came here. We have our instruments and we have the spell. As long as you girls get up there and pony up, it doesn’t matter what the Sirens do at this point. We’ve got an hour. Let’s set up, have a play through, then I’m going to see if I can find the Heart.”

“Now, now, let’s not do anything hasty,” a voice said from the ceiling. The girls looked around until Pinkie pointed out a PA system in one of the corners. “Hello, Rainbooms,” Adagio said with sadistic glee. “Enjoying your stage so far? Sorry it’s a little under-decorated. We figured you wouldn’t mind too much.”

“Actually, I kinda do,” Pinkie said. “You couldn’t have given us a background or some color? Steel grey is so boring!”

Adagio was silent for a moment. “You know what, I’ll have some set designers work on that right after the show.”

“Well there’s no point if they do it after the show, ‘cause no one will—oooooooh!” Pinkie’s face fell. “We’re not gonna be in the show, are we?”

“Ding, ding, ding! That is the correct answer! … No, Aria, we’re not trading Sonata for her.”

Sunset ran to the door and tried the knob, but it refused to turn. She kicked it with her boot, only to be rewarded with a sore toe. She spun around and leered at the PA. “What’s the matter, scared we’ll upstage you?”

“You? Upstage us? Ha! You really think you got this far on skill? Your band is terrible! Laughably bad! You have a tambourine player no one can see and can barely hear, a bass player trying to strum it like a banjo, a keytarist with terrible fashion sense, and a lead guitar who hogs the stage with her mediocre voice and flashy guitar. The only one who’s half-decent is your drummer, and that’s not saying much.”

Sunset watched as one by one, her friends’ faces fell into shock and hurt, save for Rainbow who grit her teeth while her cheeks turned bright red.

“No, Rainbooms, we picked you to win from the outset. We wanted to make sure you got to the cusp of victory, so it would taste all the more bitter when you lost.”

“But why us?” Applejack shouted.

“You mean you haven’t figured it out?” Adagio asked in a mocking sweet voice.

The dots connected in Sunset’s mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut as she leaned against the door. “They knew. They knew the entire time.”

What?” Rainbow whipped her head between Sunset and the speaker. “How?”

“Because we could taste your magic from a mile away.” Adagio laughed. “If you were trying to be subtle, you failed at that too.”

Rainbow let out a feral growl, then yelled, “Why don’t you come down here and face us in person?”

“Because, as tempting as that sounds, we have a show to get ready for. Soon, all of your friends and family, everyone you care about, the entire world will be under our spell! And with the power of the Crystal Heart and your Equestrian magic—”

Sunset’s eyes flew open.

“—I think even you’ll have a hard time resisting us. If not, then it’ll be fun to watch you fight against your loved ones. Ta ta, Rainbooms. I hope you enjoy the show!” Her laugh carried over the sound system before it cut out, leaving the room silent.

“Ah can’t believe it.” Applejack fell back onto the stage and held her head. “This entire time, we’ve been playing their game. We never stood a chance from the start.”

Pinkie knelt beside her. “Come on, we can still win somehow, right?”

“Win?” Rainbow let out a sarcastic bark of laughter. “We’re screwed! We’re locked under the stadium…” She pulled out her phone. “With no signal, while the Sirens have the Crystal Heart and are about to sing a song to brainwash everybody! If we don’t starve to death down here, our friends are going to open that door and maul us because the Sirens told them to! And even if we did somehow get out, we’d have to go out there and play a song that probably wasn’t going to work in the first place!”

Fluttershy burst into tears and threw herself into the nearest corner, burying her face into her knees.

Applejack threw a hand out. “Great, now look what you did.”

Rainbow threw her hands up. “I’m just being honest! You know, the element you’re supposed to represent!”

Applejack stood and rolled a sleeve up. “Oh, you want some honesty? I’ll give it to ya. You’re a loudmouth show-off with an ego a mile wide! This band is just an excuse for you to flaunt your guitar skills, and that’s a word Ah use loosely! Maybe if you spent less time wailin’ on that thing and more time helpin’ us, we wouldn’t sound so bad!”

Pinkie threw herself between the two of them. “Hey, remember how Selena told us to not fight with each other? Well, you’re doing the opposite of that! We were supposed to be a band and play together! But you’ve all done more fighting than playing!”

“Fine then!” Applejack tore her glare away from Rainbow and stared at the wall. “Since Dash is committed to the idea that we lost, consider this mah resignation.”

“Good, I didn’t need you in my band anyway!”

Our band!” Pinkie and Rarity screeched.

“Like it matters anymore!” Rainbow crossed her arms and faced the opposite wall.

Sunset slid down the door, barely cognisant of her friends’ exploding tempers. “How did they know it was Equestrian magic?” she whispered. “Are they from Equestria too?” She wracked her brain, trying to remember any mention of singing monsters from her history classes. She ground her train of thought to a halt. “Focus. How are we going to get out of here?” She pulled her phone out of her pocket. Like Rainbow said, there were no bars down here.

Minutes went by without any noise. Everyone stood apart, stewing in their own anger and despair. Sunset had nothing left to say, nothing left to give. The Sirens had won before the game even started. Sunset ran her hands down her face. Everything she had done had been for nothing. All she could do now was wait for the end.

“No!” A lingering spark shot through Sunset, and she jumped up and backed away from the door. “We’ve gotten this far; it can’t end here!”

“Sunset, we got here on a fluke,” Rarity said lifelessly.

“I don’t care! I’m not giving up without a fight!” She ran at the door and slammed into it with all her might. Her shoulder yelled in pain, but she backed up again and ran into the door with even more force. The door shuddered but refused to yield. “I’m not going to let some stupid Sirens—”

Bam!

“Take over the world!”

Bam!

“I started this!”

Bam!

“And I’ll end it!” She ran into the door one more time. Like all the assaults before it, Sunset failed to make it do anything more than wobble. She gripped her aching shoulder, wincing at the touch, and sank to the ground again.

“What do you mean you started this?” Rarity asked.

Sunset tightened her grip, doubling the pain. She deserved it. She couldn’t face her friends as she spoke. “It was me, okay? I set the Sirens free. The magic I unleashed the night of the Fall Formal created a leygate—a magical, underground tunnel the Sirens used to escape.” She could feel the lump starting to swell in her throat. “So I’m the reason why.” She let go of her shoulder and reached for the notebook. “And Rainbow’s right. The counterspell wouldn’t have worked. There is no counterspell—there never was a counterspell!” She threw the book across the room. “I just couldn’t do it, okay? I couldn’t do the one thing I said I would do! Go on! Go back to hating me! This is all my fault anyway.” She wiped the hot tears on the sleeve of her jacket, but they kept falling.

Rarity approached from behind and gently put a hand on her good shoulder. “Sweetheart, why didn’t you ask for help?”

“Because I should be able to do this on my own! Magic is the one thing I’m good at! You all had your own things to worry about; I couldn’t bug you about something I should have been able to do!” Sunset took a shuddering breath and looked down at the floor. “I bet Princess Twilight could have handled this just fine.”

“Maybe.” Rarity sat down and pulled Sunset into a hug. “But maybe because she would have asked us to help. I admit, I don’t know much about magic, but I would have been more than happy to help you write a song.”

“I write songs all the time,” Fluttershy said between hiccups. “We just never play them.”

Sunset gave her a guilty frown. “I know, and I’m sorry. You girls made me leader, and I haven’t been doing a good job at it.”

Applejack sat down on Sunset’s other side. “Don’t blame yourself for that part. We’ve all done a good job at getting under each other’s skin. Maybe we aren’t under the Sirens’ control, but they’re still making us snippy.” Applejack let out a deep sigh. “And yeah, maybe you did set them free. But it wasn’t on purpose, even if it did happen when you were at your worst. You were tryin’ to help us fix it. That’s what counts.”

The inflated balloon sitting in Sunset’s chest deflated even more, until only fear over their impending doom kept it aloft. She leaned into Rarity’s hug. “Thanks, girls. I’m just sorry it wasn’t enough.”

“Quit apologizing.” Rainbow turned around and cracked her knuckles. “And start coming up with a way out of this mess.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you spouting doomsday ten minutes ago?”

“Yeah, and now, I’m over it. Sunset’s right; we can’t stop here, not without a fight! Let’s get out there and hit those Sirens with a rainbow, because, screw what Adagio said, I know our band is awesome!” She cleared her throat. “At least, it would be if I learned to stop being a show-off.” She walked over and helped Fluttershy to her feet. “And if I listened to other people’s inputs.”

“It’s amazing how much you learn right before the end of the world,” Pinkie said cheerfully.

Sunset stood up. “The world’s not ending. Not without a fight first. We can still do something, we just have to get out of here.” She paced in front of the door and tapped her skull. The control panel for the stage must have been on the other side of the door. “Come on, use your head.” She paused and looked at Rarity with a knowing grin. Rarity’s eyes brightened, and she shared the grin with Applejack, who passed it to Rainbow. Rainbow grinned at Pinkie who looked at Fluttershy and found the girl wearing a smug grin of her own.

Pinkie looked at all her friends grinning at her and her pupils shrank. “Oh no.”

*******

Trixie followed her mother through the overcrowded stadium. Passing by a clock, she saw there were only five minutes until the show started. As the crowd began migrating to their seats, Trixie and Selena slowly pushed their way back against the tide. They were met with angry shouts and shoves, and Trixie was tempted to push and yell back, but her mother’s calm but firm hand on her back kept Trixie from losing her cool.

With the entire stadium packed to the brim, sneaking into any unauthorized area would be even harder than the previous concert. Security marched everywhere, and maybe it was Trixie’s imagination, but they seemed to linger around her and her mother more than anyone else.

They made their way to the northeast part of the coliseum, where Trixie had found the hallway her father’s magic had emanated from. The lights were on this time, and screaming fans filled the seats. Trixie stuck her tongue out while she and her mother pretended to wait in line for the bathroom.

Six o’clock rolled around, and the coliseum lights dimmed in anticipation. The sun lingered on the horizon, giving an orange hue to the sky that faded with each passing minute. As the last of the crowd moved to their seats, Selena and Trixie moved behind a pillar to watch the two security guards in front of one of the restricted doors.

“How should we get through?” Trixie asked in a whisper.

“Normally, I’d say one of us provides a distraction while the other sneaks in.” She flipped the hat off her head and reached inside, retrieving a black scabbard. “But, there’s safety in numbers. And, if the two of us just happen to cause a big enough distraction to slow down the show, well, that’d be a shame, wouldn’t it?” She winked at Trixie.

Trixie nodded eagerly. “Got it.”

“Good. Stay close to me.” Selena emerged from their hiding place with Trixie right behind her. But as they stepped up to the security guards, three more walked down the hall from either side with a clear purpose.

“We got a tip two people matching your descriptions might cause a problem here tonight,” one of them said. “Ma’am, drop the sword and please come quietly.”

Selena put a hand on the hilt and took a relaxed breath. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline.” She widened her stance and gestured for them to approach her. One of them took the challenge and ran at her, at which, she nimbly spun to the side and swung her sheath out to smack the guard in the back of the head, knocking him to the floor.

Trixie cheered, then yelled as one lunged for her. She jumped back, staying a hair out of reach. As the man regained his footing, Trixie pulled her wand out and aimed it at him. You can do this. You’re the Great and Powerful Trixie, capable of amazing feats of magic! The man reached for her again, and she ducked back, willing her wand to do something to defend her.

It let out a feeble spark.

Come on, do it for Dad! Trixie jumped back and shouted, “Lulamoon!” A bright bolt surged from the tip of her wand and connected with the guard, creating a column of smoke. When it cleared, a green toad sat croaking on the floor.

Selena pushed another guard back and looked over her shoulder. “That better be reversible.”

“I’m sure it is,” Trixie said, too enamored with her handiwork to worry about future consequences. She screamed as someone grabbed her from behind in a bear hug. She flailed her legs trying to kick him but to no avail.

“Trixie!” Selena ducked under a swinging fist and jabbed her hilt up into her assailant’s chin. She kicked out with her boot, toppling him backwards, then ran toward Trixie, only to be cut off by two more guards.

Trixie turned her wand over in her hand and jabbed the side into her jailer. “Lulamoon!” She fell to the ground and rolled over to see her handler twitching uncontrollably as electricity coursed around him. “Strange, Trixie wanted another frog.”

As more guards came into the hall, the hair on Trixie’s neck started to rise. The cheers outside had turned to decries and impatient jeers. Trixie looked at the nearest clock and saw it was 6:15. Where are the Rainbooms? She swung her wand and shot another stunning spell at an approaching guard. “Mom!”

Selena grabbed the arm of a woman wielding a taser. “I know. Something’s wrong.” She twisted the woman’s wrist and kicked her back. Swinging the sheath of her sword, she made her way closer to Trixie. “I’ll create an opening. You go find your father, then find the girls.”

Trixie gave a hesitant nod. “Okay.”

Selena gave her a confident smile. “You can do it. I know you can.” She ran and jumped forward, dodging two guards, and swung her sheath back to strike both of them.

Trixie ran forward, being careful not to step on the frog. She pulled a smoke bomb from her pocket and tossed it over her shoulder, right into someone’s eye. The bomb still went off, and smoke clouded around his head and began to fill the hall. Trixie reached the door, unlocked it with a flick of her wand, and slipped inside.

She slammed it shut behind her, dimming the noise of the fight. The discontent of the crowd still made it through the walls, however. She allowed herself a moment of triumph and punched her fist into the air. She had just taken out three guards! Wait until she told her dad!

She pointed her wand down the hall and closed her eyes. Magic acted like smells in that everyone who could use it had a particular scent, or rather feel. Artemis’ magic felt like joviality and laughter. It was faint, but Trixie still felt it down at the end of the hall. She broke into a run, wand out in front of her.

The hall curved, and another security guard came into view. “Hey, what are you—”

Lulamoon!” Trixie’s wand let out a green bolt that made contact, and the man’s eyes crossed. At first, Trixie thought the spell hadn’t done anything, but then the man sat down on his hands and feet with a blank look on his face.

“Ribbit! Ribbit! Croak!” He hopped past Trixie.

Trixie watched him for a moment then mentally shrugged. “Close enough.” She made it to the door Artemis’ magic came from, almost missing it for the way it blended into the wall. She unlocked it and threw it open, casting a beam of light into the dark room. She stepped forward, then immediately jumped back as a large ax flew past her head and clattered against the wall.

“What?” Artemis’ weary voice came from the darkness. “Did you forget about your own trap?”

Trixie felt for the light switch and flipped it on. At the back of the room, her father sat strapped to an overturned chair, clothes dirty and tattered, and face bruised and untrimmed. She double check nothing else in the room would kill her, then ran to her father’s side. “Daddy! Daddy, it’s me!”

Artemis stretched his head up and looked at Trixie with tired eyes. “This dream again. Funny, I don’t remember going to sleep.”

“No, it’s really me!” Trixie put a hand against his face. “See?”

His eyes unclouded, and he stared awestruck at Trixie. “My little moon… it’s really you,” he breathed. Trixie let out a relieved sob and threw her arms around him. “Shhh, it’s okay, little moon. I’m okay.”

“I-I m-missed you so m-much!” Trixie gasped and pulled herself away to sit him up. She pointed her wand at the chain around his wrist. “Lulamoon!” They unraveled, freeing Artemis’ dislocated fingers. Trixie let out another sob and gently took his hand into hers. “Look what they did to you!”

Artemis winced. “It’s not as bad as it looks. The pain went away around… how long have I been in here?”

Trixie wasn’t sure why, but she laughed. It was weak and watery, but it released some of the tension stirring around in her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her father again and clung tight. “I love you.”

“I love you too, buttercup.” He nuzzled the top of her head. “But please tell me you didn’t come here by yourself. Where’s your mother?”

A guard flew past the door and skidded across the floor.

Artemis chuckled. “Nevermind, I found her.”

Selena paused at the threshold to clip her sword to her belt. She looked at Artemis with a whirlwind of emotions spinning behind her eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Come now, we both know I’ve been through worse,” Artemis said with a smile.

“True.” Selena stalked across the room, pushed Trixie out of the way, and lifted Artemis out of the chair by his collar. “You said you were just getting information,” she said through clenched teeth. She gave her husband a vigorous shake. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Artemis laughed nervously. “I love you?”

Selena glared at him for a long minute. “Good enough.” She pulled him forward and kissed him hard on the mouth.

Trixie looked away, her pretend gag turning into a content sigh.

“Attention, everyone!” Adagio’s voice rang throughout the stadium. “It seems the Rainbooms have forsaken their victory and decided not to perform tonight.” A tumultuous cry came from the crowd. When it started to die down, Adagio continued, “So, we’re skipping straight to the main event! Here come your Dazzlings, everybody!” The cheers of the coliseum echoed down the hall and into the room. Trixie then heard a faint bass line.

“I’m just in time for the finale it seems,” Artemis mused. “So, what’s our plan, family?”

“We need to find Sunset and her friends,” Selena said quickly. “They have the magic to cancel out the Sirens’ spell. Barring that, we find the Crystal Heart to stop them from getting anymore power.”

“Excellent!” Artemis stood, then immediately lurched forward, stopped only by Selena.

She put his arm around her shoulder. “You’re in no condition to go wandering around on your own.”

“But what about—”

“We’ll go together!” Trixie said, raising her wand. “As a family! The Lulamoons!”

Artemis’ smile stretched from ear-to-ear. “That’s my girl!”

*******

Twilight sat in the VIP box with her arms crossed and lips pursed together. Several others shared her sentiment, including Moondancer.

“Winning the contest, then not showing up to the actual show? I’d call it rude, but that would pay them a compliment!” Moondancer huffed. “I would never speak ill of the Dazzlings, but I think they picked the wrong band to be the winner.”

Twilight nodded, too angry to vocally agree. What was Sunset thinking? Hadn’t she gone on and on about how badly she needed to win this? And now, none of them have the nerve to show up? Twilight felt like she had been slapped in the face.

“The only silver lining I see to this is that we don’t have to endure their disharmonic cacophony.” Moondancer straightened up in her seat and pointed to the field below. “Look, it’s starting!”

A green fog spread out across the dark, empty field while a bass thrummed over the cheers of the crowd. Twilight’s heart hammered in excitement. She’d been waiting all weekend for this! At the west endzone, part of the field opened up and a circular stage slowly rose, spotlights flashing into the sky. Three figures stood silhouetted by the blinding light of a heart shaped diamond set into a large alter.

“Canterlot! Are you ready?”

Twilight and Moondancer screamed the way only teenage girls could, mixing their voices with everyone else.

“Ahh, ah-ah, ahh…”

This was much better than having to sit through another of the Rainbooms’ songs. She still couldn’t believed they hadn’t shown up. Was this a part of the plan Sunset hadn’t trusted Twilight with? It didn’t make much sense if it was.

Twilight furrowed her brow. Why was she so hung up on this? She should be enjoying the music. But something about her friends not being there set her on edge. What if something had happened to them? What if they were hurt?

And the music. She rubbed her ears. Why did it sound so… annoying? Corrupt? A second ago, it sounded like a heavenly choir, now Twilight wished the Dazzlings would shut up so she could think straight.

She blinked and shook her head, and it was as if a fog slowly lifted from in front of her eyes. What? Twilight looked around, seeing everything for the first time. What am I doing? Her eyes widened. What am I doing!? She cringed at the words she had spoken to Sunset. How could she have even thought that?

Heart racing, Twilight jumped from her seat. Something was wrong! Her friends were in trouble, she knew it! She had to do something before the Sirens finished their song. Twilight looked down at Moondancer, swaying back in forth to the music. “I’m, uuhhh, going to the bathroom!”

“That’s nice,” Moondancer said dreamily as Twilight sprinted up out of the box.

“Ah-ha, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah,

“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.”

Twilight ran down the hall as fast as she could, pulling out her cell phone in the process. She dialed Sunset’s number, but it only went to voicemail. “I hope it’s because she’s mad at me and not because she’s hurt.” Twilight slid to a stop to gain her bearings and think. Her heated argument with Sunset and counterfeit feelings crept up on her until she forced them back down. “I can’t believe I let those Sirens get to me. I know better than that. Sunset trusts me. She wouldn’t undermine me, ever!”

The Sirens raised their voices, giving Twilight incentive to keep running. They came up from the stages beneath the field. If they’re on the west end, then maybe my friends are on the east end. It was a good place to start. Twilight just hoped they were somewhere in the coliseum, otherwise…

Even as she ran through the halls, she couldn’t help but wonder, why had the spell stopped working on her? Had Artemis’ protection spell decide to kick back in on its own? Questions for later. She ducked behind a pillar as a group of angry looking guards ran by. She counted to five, then continued sprinting, ignoring the iron ball growing in her side.

She came up to one of the restricted doors with only one guard in front of it. All right, Twilight. How can you get around him? He was a little on the scrawny side. Maybe Twilight could take him in a fight. A cynical part of her brain laughed at her as she continued gasping to regain the air she had spent. Okay, any other ideas?

A commotion to her left grabbed her and the guards’ attention. From around the corner hobbled Trixie with Artemis leaning on her shoulder. Selena appeared a moment later, knocking back a hounding officer. The guard at the door leapt to attention but was struck by a spell from Trixie, and when the smoke cleared, he was left with a frog’s head. He raised his arms and ran in a circle, croaking.

“Stop doing that!” Selena yelled.

“But it’s fun!” Trixie yelled back.

“I concur,” Artemis said with a grin.

Twilight ran out from behind the pillar, and threw her hands up when Trixie pointed her wand at her. “It’s me! Don’t turn me into a frog!”

Trixie raised a suspicious eyebrow. “What do you think of the Sirens’ music?”

“It’s terrible and right now consists of them singing the same few notes over and over again.” Trixie kept her wand level for a few more seconds, scrutinizing Twilight’s face. She lowered it, and Twilight let out a breath of relief. “I don’t know why the spell stopped working on me, but I can think clearly again, and I need to find my friends.”

Footsteps came from behind Twilight, and she turned to find a host of bruised and furious guards running toward her and the Lulamoons.

Selena ran in front of her and held her sword sheath out. “You go find the Rainbooms. We’ll hold them off. Just make sure they get up there and put an end to the Sirens’ music.”

Twilight ran for the door, forfeiting any argument. She just hoped the Lulamoons would be okay against what looked like the entire security force. The hall on the other side of the door was dim and cold, but Twilight’s furious sprint quickly warmed her up.

The music above her picked up again, and Adagio began to sing in a smug tone.

“Welcome to the show,

“Ah-ah-ah-ah, ah,

“We're here to let you know,

“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah…”

Twilight skid to a stop ten feet away from another guard in front of a door with a star on it. Found them!

“Our time is now,

“Ah-ah-ah-ah, ah,

“Your time is running out.”

A reminder Twilight didn’t need. The guard turned his head and looked at Twilight with surprise. “Hey, how did you get down here?” He moved toward her.

“Um, well, see…” Twilight backed up. What do I do now? What would Sunset do?

He grabbed her wrist, and in an act of desperation, Twilight threw her knee forward into his groin. The man instantly released her and let out a squeal of pain as he fell to his knees.

Twilight punched a fist into the air. “Yes!” Sure, she had just assaulted a civilian, but it was for a good cause! She ran up to the door, hearing a loud thud as she approached.

“Okay, one more time,” she heard Sunset command. “We still need Pinkie conscious for this.”

“It’s okay, my hair cushions the concussion!

Twilight wrenched the door open just as Applejack and Rainbow had finished backing up, holding Pinkie like a battering ram. Twilight knew she shouldn’t have been surprised after all the time she had spent with them so far, but she still couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. “Um…”

“Twilight?”

*******

Sunset stared into Twilight’s eyes. The clouds of green anger were gone, restoring the starry universe of compassion and curiosity to normal. Sunset stepped around Rainbow and Applejack. “How…” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You’re okay.”

Twilight played with her tresses. “Yeah. I don’t know why really. It’s like I just woke up from a really grumpy nap.” She inched forward. “Sunset, I’m so sorry if I hurt you. I knew why you girls had to win, I volunteered to forfeit, but everything just got…” She made a wild gesture with her hands. “Knotted up in frustration, and I felt like I had to prove something.”

Sunset took her by the arm. “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have yelled at you either.”

“But you had every reason to yell at me.”

“You weren’t in the right mind and I knew that. I still shouldn’t have—”

“Oi!” Rainbow yelled. “Will you two just kiss and make up already! We still have a world to save!”

Sunset realized how close she and Twilight were to each other and finished closing the distance. She moved her hands to cup Twilight’s cheeks while she kissed her soft lips. Everything melted away; all of her fears and anxieties disappeared in the moment. She had Twilight back, she had her friends behind her. For a few glorious seconds, the world was realigned.

They broke away, panting. “I missed you,” Twilight said.

“I missed you too.”

“Yaaay, we’re all friends again,” Pinkie said with a hint of delirium. “We should sing a song.”

A song… The wheels in Sunset’s mind turned at rapid speed.

“Feel the wave of sound,

“As it crashes down!”

Sunset felt a pressure in the atmosphere. Dark magic was happening on stage, and a voice in the back of Sunset’s mind told her she should be angry, furious that the Sirens had gotten this far, that her friends had been incompetent, and that she had failed in her own bid for world domination not too long ago.

Instead, she focused on the solace being with her friends brought. That focal point made the music seem quiet and distant.

Music is magic!

“‘Music is magic,’” Sunset whispered, “and so is friendship.” She lifted her head, eyes shining. “That’s it! I can’t believe it—the answer’s been right in front of me the entire time!”

Rainbow finally set Pinkie back on the ground. “So what is it?”

“It’s you girls! It’s your friendship, duh!” Sunset paced in front of them, gesturing with her hands. “Artemis said music is one of the oldest magics in the world. So is friendship.” She held her hands out to them. “Your magic comes from Equestria and mingles with this world, so it’s activated by music, but it’s fueled by friendship! That’s why you get stronger when you play together! You do it as friends, as a team! And that’s why you stopped ponying up at practice; you girls were fighting with each other and lost that spark of friendship.” She glared at the ceiling. “And that’s why the Sirens wanted us to win just to lock us down here, to leech off your Equestrian magic while we fought.”

“So, what about the counterspell?” Applejack asked.

“You already have the counterspell,” Sunset said, grinning from ear to ear. “You just have to go out there and play. It doesn’t matter what, as long as you do it together.” She looked over her shoulder, down the hallway. “The Dazzlings may have the Crystal Heart, but it reacts to the strongest emotion it feels. In the time I’ve spent with you girls, I’ve never seen this much love and affection from any group of friends. If your love can overpower their hate, you can win this.”

Rainbow punched a fist into an open palm. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go show those Sirens they messed with the wrong town and the wrong friends!” She looked back at Fluttershy. “And I think I know the perfect song to play.”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened like a kid on Christmas Day.

Applejack put a hand on Rarity’s shoulder. “And if we’re about to save the world in front of an audience, it’s only appropriate we look our best.”

Rarity squeed like a foal on Hearth’s Warming. “Time for the fastest wardrobe change ever!” She grabbed Applejack by the hand and pulled her toward the clothing rack.

Twilight slipped a hand into Sunset’s. “Good job, Sunset.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you, Sparky.”

Rarity returned and grabbed both of them by their free hands. “Don’t think I forgot about you! I even have a dress for you, Twilight, just in case!” She pulled them forward, ignoring their cries of surprise. As she handed Twilight her outfit, she leaned over to Sunset. “And for the record, I think you make a great leader, Sunset.”

Sunset blushed and looked away. “Come on, we’ve got a show to put on.”

Showdown in Canterlot III: Curtain Call

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Power!

It all coursed through Adagio’s veins. Absolute power, infinite magic, all the animosity and bitterness of everyone in the stadium! The spotlights shone on her and her sisters while the Crystal Heart spun behind them with a dark red hue, amplifying their magic. Soon, everyone watching the broadcast would fall under their spell as well.

The power swelled as she continued to sing, lifting her up into the air.

We will be adored!

“Tell us that you want us!

“We won’t be ignored!

“It’s time for our reward!”

She felt the magic reach a crescendo and manifest around her body. Her ears became equine, her hair lengthened down to her legs, and a pair of translucent wings sprouted from her back. Her sisters underwent similar transformations, and their jewels glowed with a sinister ruby light.

Now you need us,

“Come and heed us,

“Nothing can stop us now!”

Adagio thrust her arm out, and a ring of light, the same bloody red as her pendant flew out over the crowd. She saw the free will leave their eyes, obedient, expressionless pupils replacing them. Her cackle echoed across the stadium. They had won! Equestrian magic, the Crystal Heart, it was all theirs!

Oh-oh, oh-whoa-oh!

“I've got the music in me!

“Oh-oh, oh-whoa-oh!”

From the other side of the field, a stage rose up, spotlights flashing, white smoke mixing in with the green fog. Adagio stared dumbfounded at the seven familiar faces across from her, dressed in sparkling, colorful outfits, tattoos of cutie marks over their eyes, playing their instruments and smiling like they were friends. Why weren’t they at each other’s throats?

Sunset Shimmer, wearing a ruffled red dress with orange and yellow folds, and black leggings, pointed a finger at Adagio. “Hey, Sirens! Listen to this!”

*******

Don’t need to hear a crowd,

“Cheering out my name!” Fluttershy sang, her voice clear as a crystal bell, with the happiest smile Sunset had ever seen on her.

“I didn't come here seeking

“Infamy or fame!”

Sunset and Twilight hummed and looked on as the rest of the Rainbooms joined in, a glow already starting to settle around them.

“The one and only thing,

“That I am here to bring,

“Is music, is the music,

“Is the music in my soul!”

One by one, they ponied up; quick, bright flashes that left them with their equine features. The stage reflected the rainbow of colors swirling around them. Silhouettes of butterflies, apples, and rainbows danced in the air. Sunset reached out to touch one, feeling it pass through her with a warm, comforting breeze.

Gotta break out!

“Out!

“Set myself free, yeah!

“Let it all go!

“Go!

“Just let it be, yeah!”

All of their instruments played together in harmony, none of them trying to outdo the other. A white ring of light spread out from them, passing through Sunset before she had time to flinch. It continued over the crowd, erasing the blank looks on their faces, and turning their absent moans into cheers.

“Find the music in your heart!

“Let the music make you start,

“To set yourself apart!”

The Crystal Heart behind the Sirens began to slow, its red light fading. Sunset cheered, jumping up and down with Twilight in hand. They were doing it! Her friends were doing it!

“So you Rainbooms want to have a real battle of the bands?” Adagio yelled. “Fine!” A malicious grin spread across her face. “Let’s battle!” She raised her arms, and the musical accompaniment to their song swelled, drowning out the Rainbooms. The Crystal Heart sped up again, and the audience fell back into its stupor.

“What we have in store,

“All we want and more!

“We will break on through,

“Now it's time to finish you!”

The soulless crimson light shining from the Sirens’ pendants became blinding. Sunset shielded her eyes, squinting through her fingers to see what was happening. The pressure in the atmosphere increased again and pressed against her spine like the world was trying to get her to bow to her new overlords. The night sky now had a grim orange hue, and black clouds swirled over the coliseum.

As the light from the pendants began to dim, Sunset saw the crimson glow had moved to all three of the Sirens’ eyes, drowning them in it. Sunset’s gaze moved even higher, and she staggered back, mouth agape at the three creatures rising up behind the Sirens. “So they are from Equestria…”

The beasts appeared to be astral projections, as Sunset could just barely see through them. They had equine body shapes and front hooves, but that’s where the similarities ended. Fins and webbing grew from their backs and behind their front legs. Long tails extended from where their rear legs should have been. They looked down at the Rainbooms with sharp teeth and narrowed eyes. In the middle of their chests were jewels that resembled their pendants.

Twilight pressed herself closer to Sunset. “What are those things?”

“They must be the Sirens’ true forms, or at least some version of them,” Sunset said. Staring up at the behemoths, she had an idea of how her friends felt looking up at her during her demonic rampage. The Sirens’ human bodies just hovered in the air, while their projections roared and flew across the field.

Fluttershy backpedaled across the stage. “Sunset, what do we do?”

“Just play!” she yelled.

As the Sirens circled around them like hungry sharks, Rainbow jumped into the air and wailed on her guitar. The blue aura surrounding her body spread to her instrument, and to her surprise, a rainbow colored lightning bolt shot from the headstock. Sonata narrowly avoided it, and the Sirens broke formation.

Rarity followed Rainbow’s lead and played her keytar with all the passion she could muster. A hailstorm of diamonds rained forth and peppered the Dazzlings, leaving numerous nicks against their astral forms. Adagio roared in response and unleashed a soundwave from her gaping maw.

Fluttershy’s butterflies intercepted the attack, halting the wave in its tracks. She played again, unleashing another swarm that got a speed boost from a soundwave played by Rainbow. The butterflies arched through the air and crashed against Aria’s face.

“I have so many questions!” Twilight yelled.

“Not now, Sparky!”

Sonata evaded a bombardment of glowing apples and came around for another attack. She opened her mouth, but instead of music, a ball of blue energy shot forth.

Pinkie rattled on her drums, and a large party balloon burst into life in front of the stage, absorbing the attack and ricocheting it out of the coliseum.

Rainbow stepped up to the mike and let out a long note that turned into a soundwave and hit the Sirens as they regrouped. Adagio snarled and let out a wail of her own, her red vocal rings crashing against Rainbow’s white. The other Rainbooms joined in, adding their voice to the chorus, and the remaining Sirens fell behind Adagio and sang as well.

The two forces struggled against each other, the Rainbooms pure harmony against the Sirens eerie and haunting melody. The sound grew louder, and Sunset had to press her hands against her ears to stop her eardrums from throbbing.

Rainbow’s cheeks turned a darker shade of blue as she sang her lungs out. Her foot slid back and her knees began to buckle. The Sirens pressed onward, the rings of their music smashing down over the Rainbooms. At the Sirens’ crescendo, Rainbow fell back, the mike falling from her hand. The others fell to their knees, gasping for breath, and Pinkie threw her hands up to cover her ears.

“Girls!” Sunset and Twilight called.

The Sirens circled them again, laughing in dissonant tones. Adagio stopped in front of them and licked her jagged teeth. “Curtain call, Rainbooms!” She formed a ball of energy in her maw, an act copied by her sisters.

Sunset held Twilight close, tears falling from both their eyes. They had gotten this far. They had put up a good fight. At least Sunset could die knowing that. Though Twilight closed her eyes, Sunset couldn’t look away from the oblivion about to befall her.

The Sirens unleashed their magical fireballs, only for each one to slam against a blue-tinted shield over the stage. Smoke poured all around them, but when it faded, Sunset could see Trixie and her parents at the top of the stands, Trixie looking like she had just run a mile.

“Lulamoons!” Adagio bellowed. She flew up toward them, another energy ball in her mouth. It hit a smaller shield, and forced Trixie to one knee. Artemis kept a hand on her shoulder, while Selena unsheathed her sword and pointed it at Adagio.

Adagio hissed, and her human body raised a hand, fingers curled. At her beckoning, members of the audience rose and turned toward the Lulamoons, hate filling their absent stares. The Lulamoons pressed together, but stood their ground against Adagio and her new army.

Sonata and Aria slammed against the barrier around the Rainbooms, forming larger and larger cracks with each blow. The Rainbooms looked on, still dazed from the Sirens’ vocal assault. Twilight took Sunset by the hands. “They need you, Sunset!”

Sunset withdrew from Twilight’s hold. “Me? Why?”

“Because you’re the last person here with magic! You need to sing with them!”

“Twilight, my magic is dark!” Even as she said it, Sunset could hear her demon laughing somewhere deep inside her. “I can’t let that out; it’ll just make everything worse!”

Aria slammed the dome again, and magical shards fell and disintegrated in midair.

Rainbow struggled to her feet. “I don’t know. At this point, it’s really hard to say things could get worse.”

Twilight grabbed Sunset’s hands again and looked into her eyes. “Sunset, please, listen to me.”

Sonata hit the barrier, creating a large fissure.

“I know you’re scared. I know you had a dark past. But you’re good. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, they’ve all seen it!” She pointed to their friends. “We’ve all watched you come a long way to where you are now. Yes, you can be temperamental, and maybe you still have things to learn, but your heart is good and so is your magic!”

Selena deflected Adagio’s attack, but not without singeing the hem of her dress. She ducked out of the way of a feeble grab by one of the audience members, and retreated into the second shield held up by a increasingly haggard looking Trixie.

“Sunset, you’re the last chance we have of saving everyone! So please, help us!”

Sunset’s hands trembled in Twilight’s hold. She looked out to the Lulamoons fighting, and to her friends getting back to their feet. “Twilight, I really want to,” she said, voice trembling harder than her hands. “But, what if I lose control?”

“You won’t.”

“But—”

Twilight grabbed Sunset by the shoulders and pulled her forward into a powerful, loving kiss. She pulled away and looked at Sunset with a fierce resolve. “You won’t. And if you still don’t believe in yourself, then believe in me—in all of us. We know what you are deep inside. We believe in you!”

Sunset pulled away, giving one more glance to the scene around her. The audience, her friends, perhaps even the whole world was now depending on her.

Yes, tap into this power! Unleash it!

Dark magic. Sunset knew that was all that awaited her. But if she didn’t do something, everyone she knew and loved would perish. I can still make a difference.

Yes you can!

I can beat the Sirens.

Destroy them!

I can save my friends! Sunset slipped out of her jacket and handed it to Twilight. “Hold this.” She picked up the fallen microphone and stepped over to the center of the stage. “Pinkie, give me a beat!”

Pinkie grinned and saluted, then gave a steady tap of her drums just as the forcefield fell to pieces.

Sunset narrowed her eyes at the looming monsters. Something swelled within her heart. Dark or light, she couldn’t say, but it rose through her and shined in the words of her song.

“You’re never gonna bring me down!

“You’re never break this part of me!”

Adagio stopped her onslaught of attacks and turned her attention back to Sunset.

“My friends are here to bring me ‘round!

“Not singing just for popularity!”

Rainbow and Rarity stepped up on either side of her, glowing anew. “We’re here to let you know,

“That we won’t let it go!

“Our music is a bomb and it’s about to blow!”

“And you can try to fight,

“But we have got the light,

“Of friendship on our side!”

A new rainbow wave burst across the field, pushing the Sirens back to their stage. Their human bodies cringed and desperately clutched their pendants, and the crimson glow faded from Adagio’s eyes, replaced for the first time by uncertainty. Behind her, the Crystal Heart slowed once more, and its red light dimmed.

Now, it was Sunset’s turn to press her attack, her friends right behind her. Their voices rang out in singular harmony. “Got the music in our hearts!

“We’re here to blow this thing apart!

“And together, we will never be afraid of the dark!”

Shimmering dust swirled up around Sunset, lifting her off the ground. She hesitated in the song for a second when she felt the magic pulse through her. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she forced herself to think only about Twilight and her friends. The magic pulsed again, this time, coalescing in a golden aura around her body.

Magic.

It didn’t shock and burn her like the crown had. It didn’t drag all her worst features to the surface and drown her in the darkness of her own desire. No, it soothed her, filled her with light and resolve, and encouraged her to keep singing.

“Here to sing our song out loud!

“Get you dancing with the crowd!

“As the music of our friendship,

“Survives, survives!”

The magic took hold of Sunset, tickling her as her ears vanished and reformed on top of her head in their equine state. Her hair lengthened into a ponytail that dropped down to her ankles, and her golden aura expanded to envelope her friends and lift them back into the air. Sunset looked down at Twilight, who smiled with pride and fantastic awe. Sunset reached a hand down, and Twilight took it, the golden glow spreading across her too and lifting her up to Sunset.

Seven voices sang as one, “Got the music in our hearts!

“We’re here to blow this thing apart!

“And together, we will never,

“Be afraid of the dark!”

The golden glow turned the purest white, and a rainbow shot into the air above them, rapidly gathering clouds against the grim sky.

Adagio screamed with fury, and her beast responded in turn, only to be cut off mid roar by a bright light emanating behind her. The Crystal Heart had stopped moving entirely, and instead of red, it now shone a beautiful blue. It began to spin in the opposite direction, faster and faster until it was only a blur. A wave of azure pulsed from the heart and swept over the crowd, banishing the hypnotic hold over them. The mob around the Lulamoons look confused for a moment before being swept up in the spectacle happening on the field. In an instance, the entire arena cheered and even sang along with the Rainbooms.

“Here to sing our song out loud!

“Get you dancing with the crowd!

“As the music of our friendship,

“Survives, survives, survives!”

Sunset looked above them and almost dropped her mike. She marveled at the most impossible sight she had ever seen; a magnificent white alicorn, sparkling like stardust, and with a mane comprised of all the colors of the rainbow emerged from the clouds. It spread its wings over the stadium and pointed its glowing horn down at the Sirens.

“Celestia?” Sunset said in whispered amazement.

The alicorn reared its front legs and let out an ethereal whinny before tossing its head forward and unleashing a beam of light upon the Sirens. They screamed in agony, their projections crumbling to pieces while their human forms raised their hands like they could block out the light. Above their wails, the sound of shattering jewels echoed through the stadium.

When all the lights faded away, the stadium was left in an eerie calm. The sky had returned to normal, the celestial alicorn fading into nothing. The Sirens laid on stage, wings and ears gone, and the shattered remains of their jewels in front of them.

Adagio pushed herself onto her hands and knees and looked at the shards like they were her deceased dog. She gathered some up in her hands and got to her feet. Sonata and Aria looked uncertain, but they did the same and cleared their throats.

We WiLl Be AdOrEd!

“TeLl Us ThAt YoU wAnT uS!”

Boos and jeers from the crowd immediately drowned out their caterwauling. Popcorn and hot dogs were hurled onto the stage, splattering the Sirens with condiments. They backed up, tears in their eyes, then ran off the stage as fast as they could.

The crowd’s attention turned back to the Rainbooms, and a roar of ovation rippled through the air. Standing on the ground again, their pony features still activated, the girls smiled and waved.

Sunset took a deep breath, broken by the giggle she couldn’t suppress. “You know, it’s nice to not be on the receiving end of that rainbow.”

Twilight half-hugged, half-tackled her. “See? I told you you were good!”

Rainbow put an arm around Sunset’s neck and pulled her into another hug. “Way to go, Shimmer! You really came through this time!”

“Your singing voice is fantastic, darling!” Rarity said.

Sunset laughed. “I don’t know. It’s not as good as Fluttershy’s.”

Fluttershy tried to hide her blush with her tambourine.

“We all did a great job,” Applejack said. “Ah don’t think we’ll have to worry about those Sirens anytime soon.”

Rainbow raised a fist. “And if they do show up again, they’ll have to deal with the most awesome group of friends in existence!”

Pinkie stood from her seat and yelled into the mike, “We are the Spectacular Seven! Good night!”

*******

Artemis’ boisterous laugh was the first thing Sunset heard upon exiting the underground hall. “That was, as you girls so aptly put, spectacular!” He limped over and pulled Sunset into a hug.

Sunset gently wrapped her arms around him. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“Thanks to all of you.” He stepped back and leaned on Trixie again. “You all showed such bravery and magic! I’m proud of each and every one of you.”

Cheers rang out through the hall, and mobs of fans ran from around the corner, heading straight for the Spectacular Seven. The security guards jumped in front of them, keeping the tide back.

“You girls rock!”

“You’re amazing!”

“How’d you do all those cool effects!”

“Sunset, marry me!”

The guards held them at bay while the girls made their retreat out the back of the coliseum. Selena looked over her shoulder with an amused eyebrow raised. “Either they’re really dedicated to their jobs, or they conveniently forgot I beat them to a pulp half an hour ago.”

Once in the parking lot, they found there was nothing to protect them from the jubilant swarm anymore. Kids and teenagers ran up to ask for an autograph or a picture. Some asked if they were going on tour, and a few even asked what happened to the Sirens.

Sunset pondered it herself. The Lulamoons had been too tired to chase after them, but had recovered a few remains of their ruby necklaces when they took back the Crystal Heart. Without them, it looked like the Sirens had no power, but Sunset still found herself weary.

She couldn’t focus on it too long though. Fan after fan ran up and asked her to sign something. She had never received attention like this before: honest admiration and adoration. It left butterflies in her stomach in the most pleasant of ways.

The night only got better as Flash and the Crusaders eventually pushed their way to the front of the crowd. The Crusaders ran to their respective sisters in tears, hugging them and apologizing profusely.

“Ah don’t know what we were thinkin’!”

“I’m so sorry for saying I hated you!”

“We’ll do anything to make up for it!”

Applejack just squeezed her little sister in the tightest hug she could muster. “Forget about it, A.B. It wasn’t your fault. Ah’m just glad everythin’s back to normal.”

“Speak for yourself,” Rainbow said. She looked Scootaloo dead in the eye. “You wanna make things up to me, squirt?”

Scootaloo bowed her head. “Yeah. I’m really sorry—”

“Upbupbup!” Rainbow held a hand out. “I don’t wanna hear it. Here’s what you gotta do to make things right.” She lifted Scootaloo’s head up and grinned. “You. Me. Soccer. Tomorrow. Bring as many water bottles as you can, ‘cause I’m gonna put you through the work out of your life!”

Scootaloo broke into a grin of her own and hugged Rainbow around the middle. “Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”

Flash shuffled his way toward Rarity, engrossed in a tearful hug with Sweetie Belle. He patiently waited until they were done before trying to speak. “Rarity, I…” He rubbed the back of his head. “You know I didn’t…” He tried to smile. “You sounded awesome.”

Sunset facepalmed.

Rarity crossed her arms. “Is this your way of apologizing?”

“No! I mean, I am apologizing, but like, not just by saying I’m sorry. Which I totally am! But I wanted to do more than that because I kinda acted like a jerk and—”

Rarity put a finger on his lips. “It wasn’t your fault. But, if you really want to make it up to me, you can start with dinner,” she said, eyes lidded.

“Gag me,” Sunset said.

Flash looked in her direction and held a hand to his face. “Man, Sunset. I don’t even know where to begin to apologize to you.”

Sunset walked over to him, raised a fist, and slugged his shoulder. “There. Call it even.”

Flash tried to laugh as he rubbed his new bruise. “All right, that’s fair.”

Artemis gave a weak limp of his arm. “Well, this has been one extraordinary night! I say, we go out to eat as a celebration! You’re all invited!”

Selena looked incredulously at him. “Artemis, your fingers are broken! You need to go to a hospital!”

“Hospital? Pffft, that’s why we have magic at home. Besides, I haven’t eaten a decent meal in Lord knows how long.”

Trixie helped him to the car, Selena fussing the entire way. The others followed close behind, with Sunset and Twilight bringing up the rear. With everyone still trying to leave, walking through the crowd was slow going, and for a while, neither of them said anything.

Twilight kept her eyes forward, but leaned a little closer to Sunset. “You know… even when I was mad and spending all that time with Moondancer… I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

Sunset looked over. “Really?”

“Mmhmm. Some part of me always knew what I was doing was wrong. I just couldn’t focus on it. My mind just kept on coming up with reasons why you were wrong.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Sunset squeezed her hand. “Magic is tough to overcome. And hey, you snapped out of it, right?”

Twilight adjusted her glasses. “Yeah. I just wish I knew why.” She fell silent for a second, then cleared her throat. “But, um, where I was going with that was, well…” Twilight’s cheeks turned red. “I think Moondancer likes me.”

Sunset stopped and put on her best surprised face. “Noooooooo! Really?”

“Really! I’m just as shocked as you!”

“Are you sure?” Sunset asked, fighting not to smile.

“I think so! I mean, nothing happened between us, I promise, but just, the way she talks about me and looks at me sometimes…”

“Wow, this is so unexpected! I never would have been able to guess this!”

“Right? I can’t believe she has a crush on me and you’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?”

Me? Of course not!” Sunset finally broke and laughed at Twilight’s trying-to-be-aggravated stare. “I’m sorry, it’s just way too easy!”

Twilight sighed and shook her head. “How long have you known?”

“Since she first walked down the hall.”

Twilight took Sunset’s hand again and started after the others. “Well, I’m glad you’re taking this all in stride. I was afraid you might be a little jealous.”

“Nah,” Sunset said, trying to convince herself of the lie. “You picked me. And if you still thought about me while being influenced by hypnotic creatures from another world, then I think we’re in a good place.”

They stopped again, and Twilight leaned up to kiss her. Sunset stroked Twilight’s hair, while Twilight kept a hand on the small of Sunset’s back. The taste of watermelon chapstick danced on Sunset’s lips. For the moment, it was the best taste in the world.

“I missed you,” Twilight said when they broke apart.

“I missed you too.”

*******

Moondancer leaned against the front gate, nursing her headache as she watched the ‘Spectacular Seven’ bask in their victory, swarmed by adoring fans and showered with praise. At least Twilight was counted among them. Sure, this could have been a victory for herself, but no, not today. Moondancer’s triumph would come another day.

She closed her eyes and sighed, continuing to massage her temples. Hot tea; that would be the first thing she asked for upon arriving back to the manor. She cracked an eye open and frowned at the sight of Twilight walking away with Sunset. Her head throbbed again at the same moment, but she bore it. A little mental agony was a small price to pay to see her sweet star unscathed, even if she was still in the clutches of another vile creature. For how long she had maintained that mental warding spell for Twilight, Moondancer was grateful a migraine was all she got.

She rested her head back and closed her eyes. Fortune proved bittersweet tonight. On one hand, the Sirens had been defeated without Moondancer having to play her cards too early. How fortunate was she to discover that within Canterlot there were six more magic wielders in addition to her family? Sure, they were mediocre at best, and nearly gave Moondancer a heart attack with how close they came to losing. But, they solved the problem for her, allowing her to return her attention back to the real goal.

And the Rainbooms, or rather, the Spectacular Seven, had put on an entertaining show… in a plebeian sort of way.

Moondancer sighed. On the other hand, she had pushed Twilight back to Sunset. The price paid to stop the Sirens from becoming even larger pains in Moondancer’s side. It had agonized Moondancer to see Twilight hypnotized by dark magic, but at the same time, it had brought them closer together. Now, Twilight was free from their spell, but back under Sunset Shimmer’s.

“Oh, how you vex me, Sunset.” Moondancer lowered her head in time to see the demon’s vivid hair vanish into the crowd. “What sort of sorcery is this that you wield?” She narrowed her eyes. “Hide behind all the light you wish; I see your darkness. And someday, I’ll make Twilight see it too.” She stood up, keeping two fingers against her temple.

Her own magic was not strong enough yet, but soon, it would be. She slowly stepped away from the stadium, pulling her cellphone from the folds of her dress. “Enjoy your victory now, Sunset. Because when everything is said and done, I will be the only one basking in the applause of the world.”

Volume I:

End

Volume II: Phantoms Past—1. Étoile en Avant

View Online

“We’re all connected. Tied together by invisible threads that link our souls. The more we laugh and share and love, the stronger those threads become, until they’re unbreakable.

“Likewise, souls themselves have the power to become stronger. Every experience, every triumph over adversity helps us grow a little more.

“Trust in your soul. That’s where the magic is.”

Volume II

Phantoms Past


Greens, browns, and glints of blue danced in a kaleidoscope above her head. The earthly colors dominated, making the flashes of blue a treat.

Her boots sunk into the grass as she weaved between the trees. They stood close together, their branches interlocked with their leaves fanning over one another.

In the brief flashes the trees allowed, Sunset saw a dazzling blue sky lit by the ever elusive sun. The breaks in the trees provided circles of sunlight that guided her along her way.

She was almost there. Just through the forest. Just up the slopes. She could almost see it.

Her heart raced faster as she neared the end of the forest. She could see light streaming out from in between the trees. From the corner of her eye, an elegant white figure caught up to her, nimbly maneuvering through the trees on angelic wings.

Celestia gazed lovingly at her. “Do you want to come home, Sunset?”

Sunset opened her mouth to speak as she ran, but she reached the end of the forest first. She burst through the trees, only to find herself falling through darkness. Celestia did not appear to catch her; Sunset fell alone, her hand outstretched.

Despite the thick veil of night that surrounded her, Sunset could see shadows moving about. They circled closer, trapping her in the center of a vortex. Distorted music began to play, screechy and haunting and full of misery. Try as she might, Sunset couldn’t block out the noise.

“You think one song is going to absolve your guilt?” The shadows around Sunset thickened into three outlines, and far below her, she could see the light of a fire.

One of the shadows materialized to resemble Adagio. “You were the one who set us free in the first place.”

Aria appeared on Sunset’s right. “Look how close we got to winning. All thanks to your arrogance.”

Sonata formed on Sunset’s left. “Thanks for not finishing us off. Next time, we’ll make sure to take you out first.”

Sunset raised her arms to block them out as they lunged at her, but a pillar of fire engulfed all three of them, turning them to ash and leaving behind agonizing screams.

The blaze then swirled around Sunset, wrapping her in an inferno. “Look how much more magic you could have gotten! You could have taken control, right there and then!”

“I don’t want control anymore!” Sunset yelled.

A face appeared in the fire. “We both know that’s not true. You had your taste of power, and now, you’ll just want more until you’re satisfied. I’ll be waiting, Sunset. Waiting for you to beg me to help you win!” The face roared and raced toward her, and the heat became blistering…

*******

Sunset sat up in a cold sweat, wrestling her arms free from her sleeping bag to wipe the perspiration from her brow. She steadied her breathing and urged her stomach to settle down. When it continued to churn, she quietly wiggled her way free from her bag and stood up. Her eyes made out the familiar outline of Twilight’s bedroom, perfectly organized save for the overflow of books near the bookshelf. Twilight herself slept in her bed, her back currently toward Sunset.

Quietly, as not to wake her or Spike, Sunset shuffled out the room and down the hall to the bathroom, shutting the door before turning on the lights. The sharp transition blinded her momentarily. After she blinked the spots away, her reflection greeted her, hair messy, pupils dilated. Other than the beads of sweat, she looked as fine as she did any other school night.

Sunset turned the faucet on and cupped some water to her mouth, then splashed some on her face. She took a deep breath of air and slowly exhaled it. “You’re fine. You’re good, just like Twilight said. You don’t want power.” She looked down at her hands. Sure, now she had power. Through harmony, her equine magic had manifested earlier that very evening to help her friends defeat the Sirens. She didn’t need anything more than that.

Still, even with the magic of friendship flowing through her, Sunset could hear the voice of her old self, still scheming, still wanting revenge. Maybe she would never truly be rid of it. She had been terrible for a very long time.

Sleep still pressed on the back of her eyes. The events of the day had left Sunset exhausted, and she had planned to sleep like a log. Her subconscious had other ideas it seemed. She was ready for another try though, and crept back to Twilight’s room, leaving the door open a crack as per her parents’ instructions. In celebration of their victory and getting back together, Twilight had insisted on a sleepover while the rest of their friends got to reconcile with their families. Sunset thought the Lulamoons could use a little alone time, and had happily agreed.

She shimmied her way back into her sleeping bag and was convinced she had run her errand without waking Twilight up.

“Sunset?” a groggy voice asked.

Ponyfeathers. Sunset looked over to Twilight’s bed, its outline slowly coming into focus. She could almost see Twilight looking at her. “Go back to sleep, Sparky.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just wanted some water.”

Twilight was silent, but even in the dark, Sunset knew it was the ‘patiently waiting for an explanation’ silence. Sunset sighed, exasperated and touched by Twilight’s persistence. “It was just a bad dream, okay?”

She heard Twilight shuffle under her blankets. “I thought you didn’t have those anymore?”

“I don’t… for the most part. They just kinda come up now and again. Usually when I’m stressed out or something.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Sunset shook her head, then realized Twilight couldn’t see her. “No, it’s just leftovers from this week probably. Besides it’s…” She looked at Twilight’s alarm clock. “Almost one. We still have school in the morning.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” Twilight’s blankets shifted again. As Sunset adjusted herself, Twilight spoke up again in a very meek voice. “Umm… if you wanted to… you know… share the bed… if it made you feel better…”

Sunset’s face heated up. “You mean, sleep next to you? In your bed?”

“Y-yeah.”

Her heart kicked into overdrive, and Sunset wished she had gotten more water for her parched throat. “O-only if you want me to.”

“Only if you want to.”

Sunset crawled out of her sleeping bag and eased her way onto the bed and under the covers, cuddling up to Twilight in her night shirt and pants. She could see Twilight clearly now, her hair bun undone, letting purple and pink strands fall over her shoulder. She tried to look shy, but by her eyes, Sunset could tell she was quite pleased to have company. “You know, if your brother finds us…” Sunset said, only half joking.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Even Shining knows to knock before coming into my room. And we’re not doing anything.” She pressed herself a little closer to Sunset.

They stared at each other for a long time, smiling and giggling and stroking each other’s hair. A primal urging rose up from within Sunset, and she appeased it by kissing Twilight on the mouth, long and soft until they needed to breathe. Twilight giggled some more, then turned over and scooted her back into Sunset. Sunset wrapped an arm around her and closed her eyes. “Good night, Twilight.”

“Good night, Sunset.”

Sunset felt the sleep quickly take over. She thought she heard Twilight whisper something else, but she was too far gone to properly hear it.

*******

Moondancer leaned on her balcony, overlooking the front yard and the driveway. She could hear the last remnants of the party downstairs and see the cars driving away one by one. She let out a sigh of satisfaction. The last thing she had wanted to come home to was one of her father’s business parties. Normally, she could tolerate smiling and waving and pretending to be interested in the lives of her father’s business partners, but her headache from earlier still persisted. She had even less of a desire to stand at perfect attention tonight.

She looked up at the moon, and rested her head against the banister. A cold mountain breeze rippled across her light dress, making her shiver, but she paid it little mind. “I wonder, do actors ever forget who they are sometimes? Jump from one role to another and another, and forget where you started?”

She held a hand to the moon. “I haven’t forgotten my purpose though. I know what I fight for. I will make this world beautiful.” She stood up and reached into her shirt to pull out a silver, heart-shaped locket. She flipped it open and smiled at the two pictures inside. One was of Twilight, glasses falling down her nose and a shy smiling gracing her perfect face. The other was of a much younger Moondancer on the shoulders of a silver-haired woman, both of them laughing in the middle of the garden.

“For you, my shining star. And for you, Mother. Everything I do is for your sake.” She snapped the locket shut. Below her, she could hear the last of the socialites move out into the driveway, talking and laughing, her father amongst them.

Moondancer turned back into her room, shutting the balcony doors behind her. With the noise dying down, perhaps now she could meditate in peace. She took a sip of the now cold tea left for her by the vanity, swallowing with a grimace. The price paid for ruminating in the moonlight for so long. Despite its low temperature, she finished her tea, allowing it to help clear her mind. Positioning herself in the center of the room, she sank down onto the purple satin carpet and sat cross-legged, hands on her knees. Eyes shut, she began to breathe slowly through her nose.

Let the magic flow. Warmth flowed from her heart and spread through the rest of her body. Let go of all other thoughts. Hard to do with the night’s events still fresh in her mind. With as far as she had come in her training, her magic wouldn’t have been enough to defeat the Sirens without backup. She had strained herself just trying to free Twilight.

Oh, Twilight. Moondancer had known from the first moment she had seen her that Twilight was to be the reward for her suffering. Moondancer had been patient. She had been nurturing. She had turned her back for two seconds and this Sunset Shimmer waltzes in and bewitches her sweet flower.

That’s what it was: bewitchment. Sunset wasn’t human, Moondancer was sure of it. She didn’t know what game Sunset was playing, but she had Twilight in her thrall, and Moondancer would find a way to set her free. Twilight was hers—the only bright spot in this dreary drama of life.

Soon, you’ll be safe and sound, my star. Moondancer let the thoughts fall away, freeing her mind and soul. I’ll get stronger and do what I must for you.

“One would think you knew someone would step up to beat the Sirens,” a cool, deep feminine voice said from Moondancer’s doorway.

She didn’t flinch at the intruder’s sudden presence. Instead, she clenched her teeth and hands, and said, “I know you come from some backwater country, but I would have hoped that from my urgings alone you would have learned the basic courtesy of knocking.”

“Moondancer, who were those girls at the concert?”

Moondancer eased her gritted teeth into a content smile. “What’s this? I know something you don’t? I should savor this feeling; who knows when it will come again.”

“Moondancer.” The woman’s voice didn’t change in tone, but Moondancer felt the pulse of irritation all the same. “I know one of them is your pretty little Twilight Sparkle. Who are the rest?”

“Concern yourself not with Twilight.” Moondancer moved her hands to the center of her lap and crossed her fingers. “They call themselves the Spectacular Seven.”

“And how long have you known they had magic?”

Bringing her fingers up to her mouth, Moondancer thought on the best response. “Long enough to know they had a chance to win.”

“And if they failed?”

“Well, I’m sure you and your brilliant mind would have come up with something.” She unlaced her fingers and waved a hand. “I assured you the Sirens would not pose a threat for very long, and was I wrong? They’re gone, the board is clear again.”

The woman drummed her fingers against the doorframe. “Save for seven new pieces.”

“Six. Twilight has no magical powers. She does not need to be part of this.”

A pause. “Perhaps not, but I’m beginning to think she’s a hindrance to your focus. I gave you a decent leash, Moondancer, and I’m already starting to regret it.”

Years of self-conditioning gave Moondancer the strength to not give any tells. She exhaled slowly through her nose and said in her pleasant voice, “Have you checked any of your magic monitors in the last few hours?”

“No, I haven’t.”

Moondancer smiled. “See that you do. I’d love to hear what they say. And when you’re done marveling at the results, I’ll be here.”

The woman made a ‘harrumph’ but didn’t leave. “In the meantime, I want to know about these magic wielding girls. Especially the red and yellow haired one. What is her name?”

A growl escaped as Moondancer spoke. “Sunset Shimmer.”

Silence. Then a faint whisper of, “Impossible.”

“Something troubling you?”

“Unimportant,” she snapped. “The rest of them, who are they and where did they get these powers?”

With a slight raise of her shoulders, Moondancer said, “Astute questions of which, I’m afraid I do not have concrete answers to. Perhaps with time I could discern more about their origins but… oh yes, of course, I believe you claimed my ‘leash’ to be too long.”

The room dropped a few degrees, leaving goosebumps to rise on Moondancer’s skin. She heard the hiss of shadows behind her, flowing freely through the air. “You’re pushing me, Moondancer,” the woman said, still maintaining her calm veneer. “Don’t forget your place.”

Moondancer opened her eyes, a shadow crossing over them. “I’ve never forgotten my place.”

An extra layer of darkness smothered the air, sucking away the light from the lamps and chandelier. Darkness crawled down the back of Moondancer’s neck, cold, oily, unnatural. She pressed her teeth together to keep from gasping in disgust.

The shadows vanished in an instant, returning the natural light to the room. “You are to gather all the information you can about these girls and their magic by any means necessary and report it to me. Is that understood?”

Moondancer tilted her head to the side, just enough to see the woman’s shadow on her wall. “Crystal.”

“Good. And later, we’re going to have a talk about your obsession with this Twilight Sparkle.”

Moondancer turned her head back toward the balcony. A rush of cold wind and an absent feeling told her her unwelcome guest had departed. She placed her hands back on her knees and closed her eyes in meditation.

“It is not an obsession,” she whispered. “I am merely protecting the last joy this life has given me.”

*******

A curtain of purple greeted Sunset as she woke up to Twilight’s alarm going off. Spike got up first, wedging his way between the two girls to lick Sunset’s face until she sat up. “All right, I get it.”

Twilight sat up next and took Spike into her lap. “Did you sleep better?”

Sunset stretched her arms over her head. “As a matter of fact, I did. Must be your soft bed.” She bounced up and down a few times. “Seriously, this is nice.”

Twilight rolled her finger around one of her messy locks. “Oh… well, I’m glad you liked it.”

Sunset wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled Twilight close. “I’m joking. Sleeping next to you was what I needed.”

There was a knock on the door, pushing it open a hair, and Sunset jumped back onto her sleeping bag just as Night Light said, “Twilight, I’m opening the door. Don’t make me regret letting you and Sunset share a room.” The door pushed open and Night stuck his head in, finding Sunset tucked into her sleeping bag, and Twilight on her bed, smiling innocently.

“Morning, Dad!”

“Uh-huh.” He scrutinized each of them in turn, and Sunset learned where Shining had gotten his glare from. “You’re off the hook for now. Hurry and get ready for school.” He pointed from his eyes to Sunset’s. “I’m still watching you, Miss Shimmer.”

When he backed out of the room, Sunset and Twilight shared a muffled giggle. “Who would’ve guessed you of all girls would lie to her parents,” Sunset said.

“It’s not lying!” Twilight said defensively. “We didn’t do anything.”

Sunset couldn’t help but put on her raunchiest grin. “Did you want to do something?”

Twilight’s face immediately turned scarlet, and she threw a pillow at Sunset. “G-go get dressed!”

“I’m not hearing a no!”

“Sunset!”

“Okay, okay, I’ll change.” Sunset got up and started unbuttoning her pajama top.

Twilight jumped off her bed and shoved Sunset into the hallway, Sunset laughing the entire time. Even after Sunset had changed and brushed her teeth, she came back to find Twilight’s cheeks were still a light shade of red. Sunset chose not to persist in her teasing, knowing she was probably toeing a line already. She didn’t want to make Twilight, or herself for that matter, more uncomfortable on the subject than two teenagers needed to be.

Sunset helped Twilight tidy her room up, then joined her downstairs where breakfast was being prepared. The news was on in the living room, showing pictures of last night’s concert while the news anchor narrated.

“Social media and the music industry are abuzz with questions about last night’s performance featuring the Dazzlings, and the winners of Canterlot’s Battle of the Bands, the Rainbooms, or as they announced themselves on stage, the Spectacular Seven. Before the concert started, it was reported the Spectacular Seven would no longer be playing. However, in the middle of the show, they appeared with an impressive display of special effects and empowering music. But what stunned the crowd the most was what came afterwards. After what appeared to be an actual battle of bands, the Dazzlings tried to sing again, only to deliver the worst singing anyone had ever heard. No one has seen them since they fled the stage, leaving behind many questions. Was this all a publicity stunt? Did the Dazzlings fake their talents? Where are they now? And will the Spectacular Seven play again?”

“Well, girls?” Twilight Velvet asked as she set a plate of eggs and toast in front of Sunset. “Will the Spectacular Seven play again?”

Sunset traded a look with her girlfriend and shook her head before digging into her eggs. “Having a band is more trouble than it’s worth.” She thought about the rush of magic, the feeling of light within her, and protecting her friends from peril. “But, if the world needs us to be a band again, we’ll be there.”

”Stirring words from the band leader,” Night said, taking his bowl to the sink. “That reminds me, Twilight, how’d you end up on stage with them? I thought you and Moondancer had made a band?”

Twilight froze, her fork full of eggs halfway to her mouth. “Uhh, good question! You see… umm…”

Seeing Twilight had hit her limit of parental deception, Sunset tagged in. “We thought it’d be a cool twist to show that there were seven members of our band instead of just five! Besides, Twilight has a great singing voice!”

“I really don’t,” Twilight mumbled into her eggs. They finished up breakfast and hopped into the car. Night dropped them off in front of the school, giving Twilight a peck on the cheek, and Sunset another stern glare that she knew had no real weight behind it.

Students across the grounds and in the halls had only one topic on their minds. They repeated their own personal tales of what they did at the concert last night, and whispered their own theories as to what happened to the Sirens. They halted their conversations to wave and cheer at Sunset and Twilight as they passed by, some even handing out compliments, or asking where the Dazzlings were.

The duo stopped by Twilight’s locker first. “I’m surprised we got out of that with relative ease. I thought they would have asked more questions,” Twilight said while she dialed her combination.

Sunset leaned against the locker next to her. “It’s just like the Fall Formal. Weird stuff happened, but no one wants to look too far into it. Yeah, they have questions, but they won’t go looking too hard for answers because ‘it can’t be magic’. The human psyche is fascinating. It does help that almost everything that happened last night can be explained by pyrotechnics and special effects.”

Twilight traded her backpack for a book and closed her locker. “That just makes me want to look into magic even more. Where did that giant pegacorn—”

“Alicorn.”

“—right, alicorn come from? How did waves of light manifest into something… well, physical enough to look like it did physical harm to the Sirens and their amulets? Or for that matter, how did the girls playing their instruments create projectiles? And why were they shaped like butterflies and diamonds?”

Sunset led the way to her locker to get her history book. “Well, to take a shot at the last question, it probably has something to do with their pony counterparts’ cutie marks.”

Twilight gripped the sides of her head. “Uugh, there’s so much I want to understand! None of this magic makes any sense!”

“Twilight, remember what I said. I’ll teach you everything I can. But if something doesn’t make sense even after you’ve thrown all the science you can at it, then maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense.”

Twilight lowered her hands and exhaled. “Right. You’re right. Getting worked up over nothing.” The bell rang, and she kissed Sunset on the lips before running off. “See you at lunch!”

Sunset watched her go until she disappeared into the crowd. Everything’s back to normal, she thought contentedly. Yes, but for how long? She shut the cynical thought away as she slammed her locker and pushed on to her first period.

Rarity beamed as Sunset drew close. “Good morning, dear. How was yours and Twilight’s evening?” She winked.

“Just fine, Rarity,” Sunset said, easing into her chair. She could play Rarity’s game, but there was a chance Rarity would take whatever Sunset said seriously. Sunset wasn’t ready for the consequences of that.

“That’s it? Just fine?” Rarity asked, a twinkle in her eye and a coy smile on her lips.

“Rarity, stop trying to live vicariously through me. You have Flash.”

“Yes, but you two are just so cute! I’m happy you’re back together where you belong.”

Sunset closed her eyes, finding Twilight waiting for her with a smile. Together where we belong. With the Sirens gone, all Sunset had to worry about was Moondancer butting her pretty head in where it didn’t belong. But if mind-controlling sea ponies from another world couldn’t split them apart, maybe Sunset had nothing to worry about.

Except the future and Twilight eventually moving away to go make something of herself, leaving you alone again.

Thank you, brain, you’re a ball of sunshine.

The bell rang again, and Luna came over the PA. “Good morning students. Glad to see so many of you up bright and early despite last night’s excitement. And speaking of which, congratulations to the Rain—ahem, I mean the Spectacular Seven for winning the Battle of the Bands, and their amazing performance last night.”

The room broke into applause, of which Sunset just leaned back in her chair and soaked it in. Luna continued with the general announcements, ending with a reminder that spring break began at the end of the week. With everything going on, Sunset had nearly lost track of their school schedule. A vacation sounded heavenly after everything she had been through so far.

Mr. Noteworthy started class the second Luna was finished, sparing no praise for Sunset or the Spectacular Seven. Geez, a few naps in his class, and he hates me forever.

*******

The start of Sunset’s lunch was interrupted every few minutes by someone running up to the Spectacular Seven’s table to tell them they were awesome. Sunset outgrew the praise after the third wave of freshmen. Rainbow, however, took it all in stride, taking pictures and signing autographs for any and all who asked.

“Figured I better get used to it,” she said, putting her shoes up on the table and reclining in her chair. “I am going to be a soccer star someday. Or a track star. Or both.”

“If she don’t die from a swelled head first,” Applejack said behind her hand to Sunset. They both shared a quiet snicker.

“This is quite the turnaround from a week ago,” Rarity said. “I know they were all being influenced, but it’s still a bit overwhelming.”

Sunset took a sip of her soda. “Maybe some part of their brain is telling them to make up for everything they did and worship us like the saviors we are.”

“Sunset.” Twilight nudged her.

“What? I’m just putting out a hypothesis. Even if it should be true.”

“I’ve got a ‘hypothesis’ for you girls,” Rainbow said. “What are we gonna do with our prize money? Now that we’ve officially won, we can officially talk about how we’re gonna spend it.”

“Didn’t we already talk about this?” Applejack asked.

“Yeah, but that was before when we were all mad at each other. New day, new answers.”

Applejack shook her head. “Well mah answer hasn’t changed. Ah’m puttin’ my cut away for a rainy day.”

Rarity nodded. “Agreed. Well, about the answer not changing part. I still say a weekend retreat is just what the doctor ordered. Maybe I won’t spend all of it. Just as much as it costs to get a really good deep tissue massage. I have stress knots like you wouldn’t believe.

“I still want a party!” Pinkie said, confetti popping out behind her.

Rainbow put her hands up. “You always want a party.”

“Thank you, Captain Redundant,” Sunset said, putting a hand on Twilight’s shoulder to stop her from looking where Pinkie’s confetti had come from.

Rainbow straightened up in her seat. “Well, I wanted to get a record label, but I decided to put my music career on hold for a second. Being an athlete is still priority number one.”

Sunset made a loud slurp with her drink. “Get to the point, Dash.”

“My point is that I decided I want to live in the now! We’re about to get ten-thousand dollars and go on spring break! Do you know what that means?”

“We’re about to end up on an episode of Girls Gone Wild?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow pointed and grinned. “Close! We won’t get too crazy, but we should totally go on vacation together!”

“That’s…” Sunset set her drink down. “Actually, that’s not a bad idea.”

Rarity clapped her hands together. “That’s a marvelous idea actually! That fulfills most of our individual wishes! I’ll get a spa date, Pinkie will get her party, and we’ll all get to spend some relaxing time together!”

“The seven of us on vacation together sounds wonderful,” Fluttershy said. “But would our parents even allow that?”

Rainbow stood up and raised a confident fist in the air. “Come on, we’re all good students and have good grades!”

Twilight and Sunset shared a blank look with her.

“...Decent grades. But we’re responsible. And we’ll pick some place that’s still in the state.”

“Oh yeah, narrowing the possible places where we could cause or get into trouble down to one state will definitely get our folks to sign off on this,” Applejack said.

“Why you gotta be like that, A.J?”

She shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, sugarcube, Ah’m just being realistic. Ah’m not sayin’ spendin’ quality time with you girls is bad, but we’re all seventeen… ‘cept for Pinkie technically.”

“Still four!”

“And there’s no way all our parents will let us go out without someone supervising us,” Applejack finished.

Rainbow slouched back in her chair. “Killjoy.”

“Would one or two adults really ruin our time together?” Twilight asked. “We weren’t going to do anything illegal, right?” She looked at a quiet Rainbow. “Right?”

“Twilight,” a voice sang.

Sunset and Rainbow managed a quick groan before Moondancer made her way to the table. She gave a deep bow, then took Twilight by the hands.

“I’m so glad you’re unharmed! I was so worried when you never came back to the booth, but then I saw you down on stage facing those nasty Sirens and for a moment, I thought I was going to die!” She swooned, then looked over at six nervous faces. “But how surprised was I that you girls of all people carried a gift like my own family’s! You saved the day and cast those monsters back into the abyss!”

Rarity let out a high-pitched laugh. “Darling, w-what are you talking about? Magic? Pffft, we don’t know what you mean. We’re just six regular girls who—”

“Drop it, Rarity,” Sunset said, keeping her eyes locked on Moondancer. “She’s a Lulamoon. She knows what the Dazzlings really are.”

“Indeed.” Moondancer released Twilight and put a hand to her forehead again. “And I curse my fate that I did not inherit any of my mother’s magical gifts, leaving me vulnerable to their dastardly hypnosis.” She clasped her hands together and made a deep bow. “You must forgive me for any transgressions I might have committed. I fear I was not myself.” She rose her head. “Especially toward you, Sunset. May you find it in your heart to look beyond any of my past actions that may have hurt you.”

Clever little… All eyes turned to Sunset as she struggled to curve her mouth up into a smile. “Of course, Moondancer,” she said, fighting not to choke on her own words. “It’s all water under the bridge.”

Moondancer put a hand to her heart and sighed. “You don’t how happy that makes me. By the way, you have a lovely singing voice.”

“Thank you.” Sunset dug her nails into her palm under the table.

Moondancer rested her chin in her hand and made a soft hum, looking at none of them in particular.

“What is it, Moony?” Twilight asked.

“It’s nothing, really. Idle curiosity. And you know what they say about it and the cat.” She shifted from one mid-heel sandal to the other, the sparkle of curiosity growing brighter in her eyes. “But I simply must ask, where did you acquire such abilities? Magic isn’t common place in this world, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

“None of your business,” Sunset said, her forced smile becoming a superior grin. “We keep that on a need to know basis.”

“It’s kinda a long story anyway,” Pinkie said. “And I already ate my food, and I can’t sit through a long story without at least three snacks.”

Moondancer dipped her head. “Very well. I shall respect your privacy. Still quite fascinating. I hope you’ll continue to use your powers for the greater good.” She leaned over and gave Twilight a hug. “At the very least, keep my little star nice and safe.” She bounced up and backed away. “I’ll leave you to your friendship bonding for now. I’m sure you have some catching up to do. Au revoir!”

Sunset waited until she exited the cafeteria. “Okay, so she knows we have magic. How many ways can this go wrong?”

Rainbow began packing her lunch away. “As long as she doesn’t blab to anybody else… oh man, we’re gonna get probed, aren’t we?”

“Relax, girls. Moony can keep a secret this important,” Twilight said. “And who knows, maybe she has a good understanding of how magic works! I could ask her for her thoughts on my notes!”

“You can try, but somethin’ tells me that girl ain’t all that interested in the sciencey part of magic,” Applejack said. The bell rang, dismissing them from lunch. They herded out of the cafeteria and into the halls, still getting the occasional note of praise. The girls broke off to their classrooms one by one, until only Sunset, Rainbow, and Rarity remained, waving goodbye to Pinkie.

“See you girls later!” she said, skipping down an adjacent hall.

Rarity smiled and waved after her, then whipped around and grabbed Sunset by the shoulders, eyes wide and maniac. “Do you know what we’ve done?” she hissed.

“Said goodbye to our friend Pinkie? You know, the happy one?” Sunset said blandly, masking her startlement.

“Thanks to all this mess with the Sirens, we forgot her birthday!

Sunset paled. “Celestia’s auxiliary feathers, you’re right!”

Rainbow tugged at her collar, trying her hardest to put on a joking smile. “I mean, we didn’t technically forget. It was on February 29th, which didn’t exist this year, so we’re in the clear.”

“Rainbow!” Rarity yelled, letting go of Sunset.

“I know, okay? I already feel horrible! Why didn’t she say anything though?”

Rarity looked down the hall Pinkie had traversed. “You know how she is. She’ll find any reason to throw a party except her own birthday.”

“Why not?” Sunset asked.

Rainbow scratched her head. “I asked her a long time ago. She said something about it being in her ‘party code,’ throwing a party for yourself, especially on your birthday, is just selfish.”

“And with us dealing with the Sirens and starting to get on each other’s nerves, she probably didn’t feel like reminding us of the matter,” Rarity said.

“With how boring her family is, she probably hasn’t even had a party since before we fell apart the first time.” Rainbow jumped at the loud clang of the locker next to her.

Sunset rubbed the back of her hand. “Spider,” she said nonchalantly. “Look, clearly there’s only one thing to do. We use our prize money to give Pinkie the best birthday she’s ever had.”

Rainbow punched a fist into the air. “Oh yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

“Genius, Sunset! We’ll go all out!”

Sunset gave a thumbs up with her still throbbing hand.

2. Prepping Party Plans for Pink Party Planners

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“You want to throw my sister a party?”

Five uneasy smiles met the stone-faced girl in front of them. Maud Pie’s unflinching and lifeless eyes managed to fix a gaze on all the girls at once, mesmerizing them. She blinked again, eyelids moving slower than her speech, giving the girls a short window to correct their civil smiles.

Like most afternoons after school, Tuesday proved busy for Sugarcube Corner. But, also like most afternoons, the Spectacular Seven, currently the Canterlot High Five with the absence of Pinkie and Twilight, found a booth large enough for all of them plus their guest.

“Yes, Maud,” Rarity said, unanimously agreed by a silent vote to be the group’s spokeswoman. “We really want to do something special for her this year, and since you’re her older sister and she speaks so fondly of you, we were hoping you could tell us what she would like.”

Maud nodded very slowly. If Sunset didn’t know any better, she would have sworn Maud was actually made from stone. The gray skinned girl continued to keep all of them locked in her gaze, staring silently. Even with the chatter of the students around them, Maud’s silence made each of them fidget in their seats. Sunset rubbed her hands together to stop goosebumps from popping up. Fluttershy hid inside her pink waterfall of hair. Even Applejack kept her hat tipped a little lower than usual.

“Pinkie likes everything,” Maud said, each syllable clearly defined. “She’ll be happy with anything you do.”

Rarity’s smile strained further, becoming lopsided. “That’s all you can tell us? Nothing she’s ever wanted to do, or something she likes a little more than everything?”

Maud’s wide-ranged stare honed in on Rarity, forcing her to push back against the seat cushion. “She likes all of you a lot.” She then reached into her pocket, pulled out a small rock, and set it on the table. “Boulder wanted to say hi.”

Sunset stared at the pebble then back to Maud. Oh, now I see the family connection. They’re both crazy.

Maud gave Boulder a gentle poke. “Boulder agrees that Pinkie will be happy with anything you do.” She took another look at everyone’s dejected faces. “Pinkie also loves to go to new places.” She scooped Boulder up and tucked him into her pocket before scooting out of the booth. “And bounce houses.” It took her over a minute to get from the table to the door.

“Well, that wasn’t a complete waste of our time,” Sunset said, crossing her arms.

“Pinkie did say she would spend her cut of the money on a party with bounce houses,” Applejack said. She lifted her hat up. “Boy, that Maud is… a character.”

“If by ‘character’ you mean an unfeeling, emotion draining zombie, then yes, she is.”

Rarity snapped her fingers. “That’s enough, Sunset. She’s still Pinkie’s sister.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure who I feel more sorry for in that situation.” Sunset cleared her throat. “Okay, I’m finished.” She forgot how powerful Rarity’s glare could be sometimes.

Rarity pulled out a notebook and pen. “So, ‘exotic locations’ and ‘bounce houses’.” She clicked the top of the pen. “It’s a start. Where’s somewhere Pinkie’s always wanted to go?”

“Wherever she hasn’t been,” Rainbow answered. “Like Maud said, we could take Pinkie anywhere and she’d be happy.”

“Well, it has to be in our budget—”

“Of ten thousand dollars,” Sunset said.

“Plus, we still need a chaperone,” Rarity finished, glaring at Sunset again.

“First things first,” Applejack said, standing up. “Let’s make sure we actually get our prize money. Then we can decide the who and where and how.”

The way Applejack said it flipped a switch in Sunset’s brain, making her wonder for the first time if the Sirens had meant to give out a grand prize at all. Their goal was world domination. They had set up the contest, but that didn’t mean they had to follow through with anything promised.

Everyone seemed to catch onto the same wavelength and exchanged uncertain frowns, but Rainbow clicked her tongue and said, “Don’t worry. The city helped put on the event, I’m sure they’ll pay us.” They left the pastry shop, a shadow cast over the bright idea of them being rewarded for their efforts.

“So,” Sunset said, pushing the conversation out of the gloom. “How do you think Pinkie’s tutoring session went?”

*******

“Okay, one more time,” Twilight said, her bun coming undone, and several hairs out of place. She put the chalk against the board. “Factor 4x2 + 12x + 5 .(2x + 5)(2x + 1). And show your work this time!”

Pinkie stared at the problem unblinking for several seconds, then stooped over her paper and scribbled like mad. “Done!” She held it out to Twilight who snatched it away.

On it was a picture of a large duck with sharp teeth, a sun in an ice cream cone, and a baby alligator wearing a crown. And scribbled in the crown was the correct answer.

“Did I get it right?”

Twilight could only walk back to the board and smack her head against it.

*******

Seven teenagers at city hall was an odd sight on a Wednesday afternoon. Office aides gave them polite but scrutinizing smiles, and as they sat in the lobby waiting for their name to be called, Sunset couldn’t help but feel there was an unseen camera watching them.

Six of the girls sat patiently on a bench, while Pinkie stood up, making faces at her reflection in the polished mirror-like granite floors. “Does anyone else feel like they’re floating in space when they stare at these?” she asked after her giggling had subsided. “I mean look! The ceiling is down there, but it’s also up there! Wooooo!” She waved her arms and glided around the floor. “I’m in space!”

“Hard to believe she’s graduating, isn’t it?” Rainbow asked.

Sunset snorted. It was harder to believe that at the beginning of the school year, Pinkie had tied with Rainbow for people she hated the most. With Rainbow, however, it had been a mutual hatred. Pinkie had been the only one out of the five to genuinely want to accept Sunset into the fold with no promise to a certain princess influencing her actions. Sunset had hated her for her boundless optimism, and hyperactive and childlike nature. Now, she found it endearing and sometimes relieving. The least she could do was give Pinkie a good party.

“Ahem, err… ‘Spectacular Seven?’” One of the aides stopped before them, double checking her clipboard. “The Mayor has time to see you now. Right this way, please.” She cast them a scrupulous glance, then turned to the doors in the back.

Pinkie led the march, grinning back at her friends. “I’m so happy when people call us that!”

Mayor Ivory Scroll’s office had plush carpet instead of granite flooring. Two of the walls were made entirely out of fully stocked book shelves, while a large window was placed in the back, giving a great view to the park behind city hall. Ivory Scroll herself was a small, middle-aged woman with beige skin and fluffy gray hair. She straightened her green tie and adjusted her half-moon spectacles as the girls walked in. By the teetering smile on her face, Sunset already knew something was wrong.

“Hello, girls,” Ivory Scroll said as her aide exited. “Congratulations on winning the Battle of the Bands”

“Thank you,” they all said.

“Sorry to come in like this on such short notice,” Rarity said.

“Yeah, we weren’t really sure how this all worked since the Dazzlings bolted,” Rainbow said. “We thought it’d be easiest to come talk with you.”

Ivory Scroll adjusted her tie again. “Yes, you’ve all worked very hard and performed very well.”

Sunset pursed her lips. “Miss Mayor, what’s the matter.”

She sighed and walked to the other side of her desk, taking a seat in her large chair. “Again, you all did very well, and you should be proud of yourselves for winning but…” She took her glasses off and sighed again. “Girls I hate to tell you this, but there is no prize money.”

What?

Applejack muttered, “Ah figured,” under her breath.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.” Ivory Scroll cleaned her glasses and set them back on her face. “The Dazzlings never put up the money. They never even filled out any official paperwork to host this event!” She slumped her head into one hand. “I don’t know how this even happened. They came into my office one day and told me what they wanted to do. I thought it was a great idea, and… that’s it. I’m so embarrassed.”

Sunset stepped forward. “Don’t be, Miss Mayor. The Dazzlings hoodwinked a lot of people. It’s not your fault.”

The mayor lifted her head and cracked a relieved smile. “Thank you for understanding. I wish I could give you girls something. But taking ten thousand dollars out of the city budget… the council would have a field day with me.” She looked over her glasses, eyes shining with sincerity. “I’m sorry for all of this trouble. I can’t make any promises but, if there’s anything I can do for you girls, just let me know.”

Rarity nodded on their behalf. “Thank you, Miss Mayor.” They left her to her paperwork, and hid their disappointed faces until they were well outside the building.

“I shouldn’t be surprised, but come on!” Rainbow threw her hands in the air. “I can’t believe there was never any prize money! I mean, I can, but it still sucks! All that hard work was for nothing.”

“Yep, saving all those people and stopping eldritch horrors. That was just a consolation prize,” Sunset said dryly.

“You know what I mean! What are we supposed to do about our par—vacation plans?”

Sunset shoved her hands in her jacket pockets. She glanced at Pinkie, looking as bummed as the rest of them, but still maintaining her usual happy-go-lucky glow. Maybe they didn’t have ten thousand dollars, but they could still give her a good party, right? And maybe they couldn’t go anywhere extravagant, but they could still spend spring break together.

“We’ll come up with something,” Sunset said. “We’ll have an awesome vacation, I promise.” Seeing the hope on their faces just filled Sunset with guilt. Why lead them on? A simple week of hanging out would be just as awesome, right?

Because I owe them. I owe them for ruining their vacations in the past. I owe them for having to fight the Sirens. Another part of her said that she needed to let the past go. Sunset stoutly ignored it. She had debts that needed to be paid.

Downtown Canterlot was a hive of activity even this late in the day. Streets and sidewalks were crowded with people doing last minute errands or trying to get home from work. Being surrounded by the tall office buildings reminded Sunset of her version of Canterlot, only instead of marble, these buildings were constructed of steel and glass. They reflected the sun much better, sending an orange glow all throughout the city. The walk from city hall to the parking lot wasn’t long, but proved a hassle thanks to all the foot traffic.

“See you girls tomorrow,” Rarity said, getting into her car. “Let’s all brainstorm some vacation ideas. Sunset’s right, we can still make this work in our favor.”

Sunset took Twilight home on her motorcycle, slipping through traffic with Twilight holding on for dear life. They returned to suburbia with plenty of light left in the sky. With spring only days away, the lawns had begun to turn green again, and flowers were starting to bud in the gardens.

“Would you like to come inside?” Twilight asked as they got to the porch. “I’m sure mom would love to have you over for dinner.”

“Maybe tomorrow.” Sunset gave a sheepish grin. “I should probably go and actually spend an evening with the Lulamoons.”

Twilight smiled, but Sunset could see a hint of disappointment in her eyes. “That’s fair.”

Sunset bent her head and kissed Twilight on the nose. “Hey, tomorrow, I’m all yours. We’ll do whatever you want.”

The excitement on her face was enough to make anyone smile. “Can we talk more about magic?”

“Sure. You can ask all the questions you want.”

Twilight squeed and kissed Sunset on the cheek. “I’m going to go recheck my notes! See you tomorrow!” She bolted inside, sparing Sunset one last smile before closing the door.

“Well, I’ve got twenty-four hours to brace myself,” Sunset said, heading back to her bike.

*******

Sunset entered the kitchen, finding Artemis sitting at the table, trying to spin a fork between his fingers. As he tried to cross it between his ring and his middle, the fork slipped and clattered against the granite. “Rats,” he said, flexing his hand. His frown flipped over at the sight of Sunset. “There you are! I was starting to worry you forgot where you lived.”

Sunset playfully rolled her eyes as she sat down next to him. “How are your hands feeling?”

Artemis held them up. “Well, got all the bones knitted and everything. Just a little stiff. Should be back to normal just in time for vacation. Lord knows I could use one.” He snapped his fingers, flinched, then shook his hand out. “That reminds me! We’re taking our annual trip to Las Vegas next week! The lights, the activities, the fake magicians! We always have a good time! Would you like to accompany us?”

“Oh, wow, I’d love to, but…” Sunset took a page out of Twilight’s book and started playing with a loose piece of hair. “The girls and I are already making plans. And we’re trying to throw a birthday party for Pinkie.”

“How unfortunate for us,” Artemis said, snapping his fingers and wincing again. “But, she’s lucky to have a friend like you. If we had the money, I’d offer to take all your little friends with us. You all could use a reward.”

“Speaking of a reward,” Trixie said, walking into the kitchen with Spot in her arms, “where’s our cut of the prize money?”

Sunset skipped over the fact that it would only be her cut since Trixie wasn’t part of the winning band. “There is none. The Sirens lied about it.”

Trixie handed Spot off to Sunset and harrumphed. “Trixie shouldn’t be surprised, but she’s still furious.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.” Sunset pressed her nose against Spot’s and rubbed them back and forth. “What’d you do with those pendant shards?” She asked Artemis.

“Selena put them in the ‘trunk-of-things-we-found-but-will-never-sell-because-they’re-too-dangerous.’ Boy, that’s always a mouthful.”

“I’m less surprised that you have a trunk like that, and more surprised this is my first time hearing about it.”

Artemis shrugged. “Haven’t had to open it in almost ten years. Don’t find too many dangerous objects these days. Hopefully because there aren’t too many left to find.”

Selena came in from the backyard, and set down her sword. “Okay, you three. Either help me with dinner or take your magic conversation to the next room.”

********

Twilight flipped to an open page in one of her notebooks and scribbled ‘birthday/vacation ideas’ at the top, then slid it to the center of the table. “So, who would like to share first?”

Rarity held a hand up. “Well, the most practical thing would be to have a nice surprise party and rent out a bounce house. Maybe even a DJ.”

“Hold on.” Applejack leaned across the lunch table. “Between the six of us, how much money do we even have to spend?”

Sunset coughed. “Uhh, about… zero from me.”

Rainbow laughed and tugged on her shirt. “Same.”

Twilight tapped her fingers together. “I get a small weekly allowance… but I already spent it on books.”

Rarity sighed and held a hand to her face. “Store sales have been good this week, but I can’t pay for this on my own.”

“Maybe we could try to raise the money first?” Rainbow said. “Like, a bake sale or something?”

“The best baker outta all of us is Pinkie, and we’re not gonna have her raise money for her own party,” Applejack said.

“Would it really be so bad just to have a simple party with cake and ice cream?” Fluttershy asked. “It’s the thought that counts, right? As long as we’re all together.”

“What’s this about a party?”

Sunset jumped at Moondancer’s appearance behind her. “We need to put a bell on you.”

Moondancer ignored her and looked at the notebook. “Planning ideas for a birthday and a vacation? Quite an endeavor. Have you come up with anything yet?”

“Does the blank paper tell you anything?” Rainbow said under her breath.

“Not yet,” Twilight said, shooting Rainbow a warning look. “We’re thinking of just keeping it simple.”

“Simple is always nice.” Moondancer smiled like a pampered cat. “Or, rather that, you could all accompany me on my spring ski trip!”

Applejack choked on her juice. “Say what now?”

“I had the intentions of renting a lodge up yonder mountains before spring makes its triumphant debut, banishing the last vestments of winter. A few days of picturesque views, folksy communities, and slopes dusted with icy powder.” She twirled then gestured to all of them with a little bow. “Then, the thought occurred to me that it would be even better with friends!”

What friends? Sunset bit her tongue to keep from saying it outloud.

“Moondancer, that’s very generous of you,” Rarity said gently, “but I don’t know if we can accept such a gift.”

Moondancer made a flick of her wrist. “Pish posh. Consider it a thank you for saving the world. And it’ll be a great way for all of us to bond!”

Sunset and Rainbow immediately locked eyes with one another. No, Rainbow, we can’t push her down the mountain.

But it’ll be so easy!

I know.

Twilight looked at their empty list. “Moony, are you sure about this? What did your dad say?”

Moondancer rolled her eyes, and Sunset could actually see scorn in them. “Please, my father won’t care. He’s not even going. It was just going to be my butler and I. So again, I insist you all join me.”

The restraint on Rarity’s modesty broke, and she burst into excited giggles. “Well, if you insist, we’d love to join you! I haven’t been skiing since I was a little girl!”

Rainbow shrugged. “Sure. I’ve always wanted to try snowboarding. Seems pretty rad.”

The cafeteria door burst open, and Pinkie shuffled in, panting and sweating. She collapsed into the chair next to Sunset and pressed her face into the cool surface of the table.

“I… ran all over… the school... looking for that leprechaun you saw. It must have gotten away.” She took a deep breath and sprung up, smiling and full of her usual pep. “So, what’d I miss?”

“Apparently, we’re goin’ on a ski trip for spring break,” Applejack said.

“Yippee! I’ve never been skiing before! Are we going to stay in a cabin?” She gasped. “What if it turns into one of those scary movies where there’s a murderer out to get us and only two of us get to survive for the sequel? Oooh, oooh, maybe it’s one of those survival movies where a blizzard gets us stuck, and we have to work together to stay alive, but one of us has to sacrifice herself to save the group! Or maybe…”

“Well, Maud did say Pinkie liked to travel,” Twilight whispered into Sunset’s ear.

“Yeah, I think she’ll have a good time.”

*******

“Come on, I want to show you this! It’s finally ready!” Twilight took Sunset’s hand the second her boots were off and led her through the house, Spike barking at their heels. She stopped at the door to the garage and hopped up and down.

“Someone didn’t sneak you caffeine while I wasn’t looking, did they?”

Twilight stopped bouncing and gave her a deathly serious look. “No. I’m never having caffeine ever again. At least, not in that large of a dose.” She bounced on her toes again. “But that’s not important!” She opened the door and flipped on the light switch. “Welcome, Sunset, to my laboratory!” She gestured dramatically.

A long workbench had been set up next to a desk with a dual screen computer and a seismograph against the right wall. Sea charts, star charts, world maps, the periodic table, and several other posters had been set up everywhere, taking up any blank wall space. A telescope sat in one corner with a tarp hanging loosely over it. On the opposite wall of the desk were shelves and filing cabinets already alphabetized and organized by subject. Next to them were other machines and wires currently unplugged. Close to the door were boxes of random machine parts and papers, and against the garage door was a movable blackboard and whiteboard.

Twilight ran to the center of her ‘lab’ and spun in a circle with her arms out. “Isn’t it great? I have all the room to do all the research I want!”

Sunset came up behind her and gave her a few extra twirls before taking Twilight into her arms. “Does this mean I’m going to see less of you now? I know how much you love science.”

“Not as much as I—” Twilight snapped her mouth shut and turned a deep crimson. “Love spending time with you!” she said loudly.

Sunset raised an eyebrow but smiled when she asked, “You okay?”

“Yep, I’m fine! I’m just so excited about this!” Twilight continued in her outdoor voice. She brought it back down and said, “Don’t worry, you can still be my number one assistant.”

Spike gave an indignant bark.

Twilight giggled. “Would you mind being moved down to my number two assistant? Spike does have seniority.”

“Darn, beaten out by a dog.” Sunset knelt down and scratched him behind the ear. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

They took turns scratching Spike on the belly and throwing his ball around before cracking down on their magic and science lesson. Twilight pulled out a binder from the shelf and set it on the workbench. “This is everything I know so far about Equestrian magic along with some notes about similarities and contrasts to conventional science.” She pulled up a rolling chair and prepared her notebook, giving Sunset starry eyes when she was ready.

Sunset walked over to the whiteboard and took a deep breath. She had never thought herself much of a teacher. Relax, you’re just telling Twilight what you know. It’s just like any other night you’ve done this. Only in a lab. She made three circles and drew a horn, a set of wings, and a horseshoe in them. “So, there are three types of ponies in Equestria: unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies. Umm, did I tell you this already?”

Twilight nodded eagerly.

“Right, right.” Sunset shifted her weight and looked back at the board. “Well, they each have their own type of magic. Earth ponies are tied to, well, you know, the earth. They’re the best at growing crops, tending to animals and plants, and have superior strength and usually longer lives. Pegasi use their magic to fly, push clouds and manipulate the weather. Both their magics are internal, instinctual things they just do. Unicorns are different.” She tapped the picture of the horn. “Our magic can be externalized and turned into an energy or aura that can manipulate the world around us. It’s, ummm… kinda like how humans got opposable thumbs and big brains to help them survive.”

Twilight’s hand flew across her page as Sunset spoke, head bobbing up and down, a sign that Sunset could keep going.

Sunset erased the symbols of the three tribes and drew a fat pony with four stick legs and a triangle for a horn. She was many things. An artist was not one of them. “Let’s focus on unicorn magic, since I’m a unicorn and that’s what I know the most about.” She drew squiggles around the horn. “Now, first thing you have to accept about this is, nopony is one-hundred percent sure where our magic comes from.”

Twilight’s pencil stopped for a second. She took a deep breath and said, “Okay.”

“Now, there’s a few theories. The most popular one is that all unicorns have a sort of ‘mana pool’ within them, but no scholar has actually been able to prove that one exists. We can measure it all we want, we just don’t know where it’s coming from.” She heard Twilight huff over her scratching pencil. “It acts like another limb or muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. However, most unicorns are bound to a set number or type of spells, usually focused around their special talent. It’s possible for them to learn other spells, it would just be a lot harder. For ponies like me and… the princess, our talent revolves closer to magic itself, making it easier for us to learn, well, everything.

“Magic also acts a lot like stamina. We only have so much magic we can do before we get tired. This is the only drawback, really. Pegasi could move clouds all day if they wanted to, and still be able to keep doing it. If we drain out all our magic, then that’s it. No more until we take a nice, long rest.”

Twilight took a pause. “From what it sounds like, your type of magic is the most diverse. Couldn’t you use your magic to grow food or push clouds?”

Sunset couldn’t help but grin. “Yeah, we could. Granted it wouldn’t be as efficient as the other races, but there’s nothing really stopping us. That’s why unicorns are the best.”

“I’m getting some unicorn supremacist vibes,” Twilight said, leaning back in her seat.

“Not my fault we’re awesome.” Sunset turned back to the board and continued to explain everything she could about how unicorn magic worked, the focus it took to cast a spell, the different schools of magic one could learn, how magic could be channeled as pure energy. It was here that Twilight got hung up.

“You said it’s like stamina,” she said, looking back at her notes. “It fuels your spells like levitation or animation. How do you use it as raw power? What form does it take?”

“I guess you could say it’s a plasma?” Sunset rubbed her chin. “Huh, never thought about that.”

“But then what form does magic take originally? How does it get from that to a plasma? Is that what the rainbow was made out of?” Twilight got up and went to the blackboard next to Sunset. She picked up the piece of chalk, tapped it twice against the board, then began to scribble like mad. “You got hit by the rainbow. Describe to me what it felt like.”

Sunset hunched her shoulders. “It burned,” she said between her teeth. “And it was very bright. And you know I hate talking about this.”

“Uh-huh.” Twilight scribbled Sunset’s response, then came to an abrupt stop. “Oh!” She dropped the chalk. “Sunset, I’m so sorry! I got caught up in thinking again!”

Sunset released the tension in her jaw. “It’s fine.”

Twilight wiped her chalky fingers on her pants. “No, it was insensitive.” She took Sunset by the hand. “I should have known better. I’m sorry.”

“Really, it’s fine. I need to stop being so sensitive about it.”

“I think you have every right to be sensitive about it. We can stop if you want.”

Sunset looked at the boards, hers covered in eraser smudges and poor drawings, and Twilight’s already decorated with tiny handwriting and a diagram. “No. I said I would give you a magic lesson, and that’s what I’m going to do.” She tapped Twilight’s nose. “Just… think before you speak, okay?”

Twilight bobbed her head. “Deal!”

The lesson continued, moving away from rainbow friendship lasers and back to magic proper, Sunset trying her best to explain how magic became pure energy. Twilight with her furious notetaking wrote down every word Sunset said, even some of her ‘umms’ as Sunset found out later.

The night wore on until Shining came in to remind them they still had school in the morning. He stopped and stared at Twilight’s blackboard drawings. “What are you two even doing in here?”

“Learning!” Twilight said chipperly.

“I’m teaching Twilight about magic.”

Shining ran a hand down his face. “Right. The whole ‘from another dimension’ thing. Jury’s still out on whether or not I believe you.”

“She’s telling the truth! I have proof, see?” Twilight pointed the board. “Well… kinda. I’ll solve all of this eventually.”

“In the meantime, you both need sleep.” Shining gestured them out of the garage. “Always nice seeing you Sunset,” he said as they walked to the front door.

“Likewise, Detective.” She gave Twilight a short kiss and Shining a toothy grin. “See you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Shim!”

Sunset flinched on her way down the porch steps. Yeah, we’re gonna have to talk about that later.

3. Cold Complications

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“Spring break, spring break, spring break, spring break!” Pinkie chanted, banging her fists against the lunch table. “Oooooh, I’m so excited!”

Rarity lifted her tray up. “I’m glad, Pinkie, but could you please stop that? You’re making the jello shake right out of the bowl.”

Pinkie clapped her hands together and bounced in her seat instead.

“Good enough. Anyway, my parents said I can’t go unless there’s a responsible adult. And Moondancer’s butler doesn’t count.”

“Same,” Applejack said. “And there’s no way Big Mac is going up the mountain again. Not after what happened last time.” She got a faraway look in her eye, then shuddered.

“I could ask Shining,” Twilight said. “He has some vacation time saved up. And he’s a detective. That should be good enough for all our parents.”

“Oh yeah, I should probably tell the Lulamoons I’m going to the mountains with their cousin,” Sunset mused. Part of her begged to go along with them to Las Vegas instead, but that would mean leaving Twilight with Moondancer in the mountains. Potentially alone. I’d rather get mauled by a bear.

Just because it was the last day before break didn’t mean any of the teachers let the students slack, especially the seniors.

“I expect you’ll begin receiving your acceptance or rejection letters from your colleges of choice,” Ms. Vector said in Sunset and Twilight’s last period. She walked down the rows, handing them test packets. “Even if you do get accepted, they can still revoke it if your grades slip in the last few weeks.”

Sunset looked down at the tiny equations crammed onto the first page. These definitely weren’t in last night’s homework.

“Consider this a taste of what you can expect next year at your prestigious universities. You have one hour. Begin!”

Sunset tapped her pencil in the blank space under the first answer. The closer time moved to their graduation, the more teachers talked about what they would face after school, usually college or universities. Sunset leaned on her arm. She didn’t have that luxury; she didn’t even have the option of joining the army like some other students planned. She couldn’t go home, no matter how much she wanted to.

She was stuck.

In a few months, all of her friends, even Trixie, would move on to something bigger and better. What would Sunset do then? Keep living with the Lulamoons and work in the Emporium? Even if the Lulamoons did think of her as family, that felt awkward.

Stop thinking about it. That’s still months away. You have time. You’ll think of something. Maybe. But there were only so many moves she had left in this game. And even if she found an out, she was going to be separated from her friends and Twilight. Nothing could stop that. Could she let go when that time came? Say goodbye to the girls who had taught and given her so much?

Say goodbye to Twilight?

She snuck a glance to her left, watching Twilight as she pressed her face close to the paper, pencil racing to keep up with her mind. How could Sunset give up her favorite person in the world? The truth was, she couldn’t. Sunset loved Twilight too much.

Her hand jerked, leaving a black line through question four. Whoa, hey, you can’t use that word! You can be smitten, you can have a crush, you can be head-over-heels, and you can be in love. But you cannot, cannot love her! Especially now! You know what we do to people we love.

“Thirty minutes left!” Ms. Vector barked from her desk.

Sunset looked down at her paper. She had only solved two of the problems, and the packet was three pages, front and back. Daydream later, get to work!

Half an hour later, she turned in a nearly complete packet; only the last two questions went unanswered. Pretty good for a cram test. They spent the last forty-five minutes reviewing old material before Ms. Vector named the pages they had to complete over the break.

The bell sounded their freedom, and the students of CHS bolted for the front doors, cheering and raising their hands to the bright blue sky. Sunset stretched her arms up and let them rest behind her head. “So how should we spend our newfound freedom, Sparky? Join the girls at Sugarcube Corner? Another magic lesson?”

Twilight clasped her hands behind her back. “Actually, I was thinking we could just hang out. We haven’t gone on a date in a while. Plus, I have more than enough magic notes to go through for the time being.” She kept her head bent toward the ground.

Sunset thought to tell her she didn’t need to feel guilty about what had happened last night, but pushed past it. “It hasn’t been that long since we went on a date, has it?”

“Valentine's Day.”

Sunset clapped a hand over her eyes. “Wow. Horsefeathers.” She reached and took Twilight’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “I’d love to go on a date with you. What did you have in mind?”

“You pick. You always come up with good ideas.”

Her intentions were more than obvious now, but if it would make her feel better, Sunset would take the bait. “It’s a nice day. How about some ice cream on the terrace?” You’re really gonna have to try harder in the future.

Twilight squeezed Sunset’s hand back and leaned into her shoulder. “That sounds great.” They stayed like that, walking in sync all the way to the ice cream parlor four blocks down. Sunset got two scoops of strawberry, paid for by Twilight who got a bowl of mint chocolate chip. They ate on the terrace outside, watching other kids and couples mill about the plaza of the small shopping outlet.

Sunset bit into the top scoop, using her lips instead of her teeth. Cold and creamy silkiness slid down her tongue, leaving the strawberry flavor to dance on her taste buds and make her shudder in sweet delight.

“Is it berry good?” Twilight asked with goofy smile.

“It was until you said that, you dork.” Sunset went for another bite and hummed in contentment. When she lifted her face, she saw Twilight giggling behind her hand. “What?”

She reached for a napkin and stretched her arm across the table, wiping Sunset’s mouth. “You’ve got strawberry all over your mouth.”

Sunset licked her lips and leaned closer. “The better to kiss you with, my dear.” She wiggled her eyebrows.

Twilight snorted. “And you think I’m a dork.”

“Yes, and a very cute one at that.” Sunset began taking licks out of her ice cream instead of bites, savoring the flavor. “How’s yours?”

“I’m enjoying it e-mint-sly.” Twilight took another spoonful, trying to look as nonchalant as possible at Sunset’s half-lidded stare.

“If this ice cream wasn’t so good, I’d shove your face into it.”

“Now that’s just cold.”

“Twilight!”

She broke into a fit of laughter, clutching her sides before her hands shot to her head. “Ahhh! Brain freeze!”

It was Sunset’s turn to laugh as she watched Twilight curl in on herself and massage her temples. She scooted her chair over to provide assistance, rubbing the top of Twilight’s head. “And that’s a sign from the universe telling you to cool it with the puns.”

Twilight raised her head, giving Sunset a pseudo-annoyed look. “Was that on purpose?”

“You’ll never know.”

Once Twilight’s brain freeze subsided, they resumed enjoying their frozen treats, their silence broken by the occasional giggle or slurp, until Sunset started munching on the cone. She popped the last piece of it into her mouth when Twilight spoke again. “Sunset, when the portal opens again… are you going to go back to Equestria?”

Sunset slowed her crunching, enjoying the sweet flavor before facing the bitter question. “I… well… what brought this on?”

Twilight stirred around the last remains of green and brown. “I was just thinking. I know you didn’t apply to any colleges… you couldn’t really. I just wanted to know what your plans were for the future.”

Sunset crossed her arms and legs. “I don’t have a plan yet. But I’ll think of something. I always do. I could go back to Equestria. I mean…” She loosed some of the tension in her shoulders. “It’s home. I have an identity there. And I’d love to see my parents and Princess Celestia again.”

“Would you stay there?”

Twilight had kept her voice even, but after their time together, Sunset could pick up on the smaller wavers in her tone. Sunset looked away from her, focusing on the plaza fountain. “I don’t know. The time dilation between our worlds is weird. Time looks like it moves faster in Equestria. Sure, it’d be two years for you guys, but for me… it’d be a while. I’d be older when I came back. Unless the mirror decides to age me down again. It’s... complicated right now, Twilight. I don’t have an answer,” she said, rubbing the space between her eyes.

“It’s all right.” Twilight played with her fingers over the table. “I kinda sprung it on you out of nowhere. I was just curious. I… I want to spend as much time with you as I can.”

Sunset grinned. “It’s a good thing we’re going on vacation together, huh?”

“I can’t wait! There’s so many things we could do up in the mountains! I could get flora and fauna samples and…” She dropped her hands and stared intently at Sunset. “Wait, ‘again’?”

“What?”

“You said the mirror could age you down again. What do you mean?”

Sunset reflected on her words, then smacked a palm to her head and shifted in her seat. “Oh… that. Heh… funny story. Ummm, out of curiosity, how old do you think I am?”

“Seventeen? Eighteen?” Twilight answered, her voice getting higher.

“And how old do you think Shimmer is?”

“I don’t know, twenty-five maybe?” Twilight’s mouth hung open. “Wait… What?

Sunset let her arms drop as she sighed. “Yeah, I don’t get it either. But when I came through, the mirror took a few years off my life. Maybe the default setting is ‘teenager’ so you can fit in to CHS. But, I should be whatever Shimmer is. So… yeah.” She smiled in the face of Twilight’s paralyzed shock.

“That means our age difference is… at least eight years,” she said, dazed.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, Twilight,” Sunset said earnestly. “I was afraid you’d, well, react like this.”

Twilight cracked a forced smile. “React like what? I’m fine! Totally fine! Why wouldn’t I be fine? Age is but a number! So what if my girlfriend’s a magical pony turned into a human and is actually eight years older than me? I’m not bothered, nope, not one bit!” Her eye twitched.

Sunset shook her head, feeling a headache come on that wasn’t from the ice cream. “Twilight, please tell me this isn’t going to affect us? I look like a teenager, hell, I act like one more often than not. But I know we’re both mature enough to not let this be an issue.”

Twilight took deep breaths, bringing her hand in and out from her chest. Her pupils returned to normal size and she exhaled one final time. “You’re right. You’re right, I’m sorry. I just got… a little overwhelmed. Every time I’m getting used to this ‘dating a magical girl from another dimension’ thing, there’s another twist thrown in.”

A heavy pall settled on them, weighing down their shoulders. Sunset looked down at the back of her hands and bit her lip. That’s why I waited so long to tell you. I didn’t want to unload so much at once. And I really hoped it wouldn’t matter. Twilight’s fingers drumming on the table made Sunset look up, but Twilight still had her head down.

So much for our nice date. Sunset lifted a hand, wanting to put it over Twilight’s, but held back. “Sparky, you’re right. I know it’s overwhelming at times, and I’m sorry. I guess it’s not just my personality you have to get used to, it’s… everything about me.” She dropped her hand.

Twilight snapped up. “No! That’s not… Sunset that’s not what I meant! You’re not hard to get used to… I mean, you were, and the whole situation is weird…” Twilight cupped her face, pushing her glasses into her hair. “This is all coming out wrong. I should have never brought any of this up.”

“No, you had a right to know, and it’s okay to be frustrated.”

“I don’t want to be frustrated because now you’re upset! And I know this age difference shouldn’t matter, but I can’t just ignore it! You’re technically twenty-five! And I just turned seventeen! But you’re in the body of a seventeen year-old! So it shouldn’t matter, but it just keeps piling up and I keep thinking how different we are and—” Twilight snapped her mouth shut and slid her glasses back down. “I’m going to stop talking before I say anything else I regret.”

Different. Sunset couldn’t deny Twilight’s point; they literally came from two different worlds. Still, it stung like a barb. Sunset rose slowly from her chair, deciding now would be a good time to cut her losses. “Look, it’s been a long day. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, and I’m sorry I come with all of this… you know, weird stuff. I’ll give you time to process all of this.”

“Sunset wait!”

Sunset stopped and kissed Twilight on the forehead. “I have to go pack for our vacation. I’ll see you later” She made a brisk walk for the exit, leaving Twilight halfway out of her seat. It wasn’t the best way to leave her girlfriend, but Sunset knew it was the least painful or awkward.

I don’t know who you’re trying to fool. We both knew this was never going to work, her conscience whispered into her ear. Like Twilight said, you’re too different from each other. She actually has a future, you don’t. It’ll all come crashing down sooner or later. Even now, the foundation is starting to crumble.

Sunset picked up her pace while clenching her fists so her nails dug into her palm. “Not even home and I’m already bugging me.” But her voice had a point. She and Twilight were on two different paths. What happened when they diverged too far? Twilight had potential, she could make something of herself. And Sunset would be damned if she held Twilight back.

*******

A few short texts were the only communication Sunset had with Twilight leading up to the day of the trip. On Sunday morning, Sunset slipped in her portion of the supplies for Pinkie’s surprise party into her suitcase, then lugged it downstairs, maneuvering her way past three other bags while Spot circled around her legs. She parked her bag by the front door, pausing to catch her breath and give her puppy a goodbye hug.

“A four day ski trip!” Artemis said, popping up behind her. “Not quite Las Vegas, but sure to be a good time!” He clapped Sunset on the back. “Go ‘shred those slopes’ as you kids say.”

Trixie facepalmed for Sunset. “Dad, no one says that.”

“Bah, I can’t keep up with your lingo.” He waved his hand, putting extra motion into his fingers. “Give Moondancer our love. When we all get back, I’m going to pay her a surprise visit. I’m ashamed to say I’ve been failing in my duties as an uncle.”

Sunset made a tiny nod of her head. The only thing she would give Moondancer was a cold shoulder. And a shove down a hill if she got lucky. “Thanks for lending me some snow clothes, Selena.”

Selena set down the duffle bag she was carrying. “You’re welcome, sweetie. Have a fun time up there. And remember, you’re getting back before us.” She gave Sunset a sharp look. “So don’t do anything irresponsible while we’re gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” After hearing what Selena had done the night of the concert, the last thing Sunset wanted to do was make her mad. She picked up her suitcase and headed out the front door, giving everyone one more wave goodbye and Spot a peck on the head. Rarity waited in the driveway, popping open the trunk of her car as Sunset walked up.

“Good morning, Sunset!” She already had a baby-blue scarf wrapped around her neck.

“Rarity, it’s still, like, sixty degrees. Aren’t you hot with that on?” Sunset asked, packing her suitcase away.

“Never too early to accessorize.” Rarity closed the trunk and jumped into the driver’s seat. “Oh, I’m so excited! It’s no day spa, but a mountain resort with my favorite friends in the world? Heavenly!”

“And Moondancer.”

“Don’t sound so pessimistic, darling. I know you two don’t see eye-to-eye, but we’re on vacation. Enjoy yourself, have fun, go skiing with Twilight.”

Sunset kept her head toward the window as they rode up to the Upper Villa to meet the others. She had to share a mountain with Moondancer while her and Twilight were… awkward. Is it too late to go to Vegas? Forty-five minutes later, they were driving past the expensive and gaudy houses to the manor sitting at the top of the Upper Villa. Everyone was already there, including Shining and Cadence.

Rarity and Sunset got their luggage out and joined the group by the fountain. “Cadence, I’m surprised to see you here, though it is a delight,” Rarity said.

“I convinced my producers to give me a bit of a vacation. I told them it would be good practice for my intern.” Cadence looked out to the city like she was trying to find her radio station. “Vinyl can handle a few days without me. I hope.”

Sunset shuffled her way toward Twilight and Moondancer. Twilight waved. Sunset smiled and waved back. Twilight didn’t make eye-contact but said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

“As am I!” Moondancer said, cutting off any response Sunset might have had. “Everyone’s gathered! Now we’re just awaiting the arrival of our mode of transport.”

Something told Sunset to watch the skies. “Please tell me we’re not taking a private jet there.”

“Of course not,” Moondancer said with a laugh that only fueled Sunset’s desire to kick her. “Father’s using it for business. We’re taking the helicopter.”

I hate you. Sunset heard the beating of propellers before she saw the copter itself. It rose up from behind them, making a full lap around the manor before touching down at the front of the large driveway, wind whipping everywhere. Sunset had to shield her eyes to prevent any debris from blinding her. The propellers of the white, executive helicopter slowed but didn’t stop.

“Hop in, everyone,” Moondancer said, leading the way. “Porter will take all your bags, don’t worry. Find a seat; there’s room for all of you!”

Sunset climbed in, finding two rows of reclining seats along an aisle of plush red carpet. With an exasperated huff, she sat down in the second row and kept her head resolutely toward the window. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Twilight take the seat on the opposite aisle of her.

“All right,” Shining said, stepping onto the helicopter, “it should go without saying that I expect all of you to be on your best behavior. I get the pleasure of reporting back to all your parents. And the police station if necessary.”

“Stop trying to intimidate then,” Cadence said, coming up behind him. “I’m sure we’ll all have a nice wholesome time.” She looked over them with a mischievous glint in her eye. “But when you girls turn twenty-one, I’ll show you how to really party.”

Moondancer climbed in last, wearing a pilot’s cap. “Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking.”

Sunset slumped against her window. Can I go home yet?

“Thank you for accompanying me on this trip! I do hope you enjoy yourselves. Our helicopter ride should only be a little over an hour. Should you feel airsick… don’t throw up on the upholstery. Enjoy the ride!” She took the seat in front of Twilight, twisting around to talk to her.

Sunset heard the propellers quicken their rotation, and the ground start to sink beneath her window. Canterlot spread out before her, from the sprawling downtown metropolis to the quiet suburbs rich with tall, budding trees. The helicopter turned northwest, heading beyond the Upper Villa and into the mountain range beyond Canterlot.

Pinkie played music from her phone, and her, Rarity, and Rainbow danced in their seats. Twilight pulled out a book, occasionally indulging Moondancer in conversation. Applejack tilted her hat over her eyes and took a nap, while Fluttershy knitted, her body turned as far from the window as possible.

Sunset craned her neck around. “You okay, ‘Shy? You look a little pale.”

“Mmmhmm.” She kept her lips pressed together and stared intently at her project.

“It’s okay, Fluttershy, we’ll be there soon.”

“Okay,” she squeaked out between her lips.

Sunset looked back out the window, watching the mountainous landscape pass underneath her. In her three years in this world, not once had she been outside of Canterlot. Everything she knew about Earth had come from books and the internet. If anything, she’d get to see something new.

Clouds gathered and thickened, and white fluff started to swirl past the window. After several minutes of staring at swirling grey clouds, the copter started its descent onto the snowy mountain top. It was like Sunset had stepped two months back into winter.

They floated over a small town of brown buildings with rooftops covered in snow, giving them the appearance of gingerbread houses. Just a little further, they could see the ski lifts heading higher up the mountain. At its base, next to a small forest was the resort, a three story wooden lodge surrounded by large looking houses, even from the height they were at.

The helicopter landed outside the main lodge, and everyone made a mad dash to the door, the freezing temperatures leaving goosebumps on their exposed skin. Fluttershy made it in first, collapsing on the closest couch and taking a deep breath while Rainbow rubbed her back. Moondancer brushed the snowflakes out of her hair and strolled to the front desk. The young man working looked like he had spent too much time in the cold. His skin was a pale blue with his spiky, slicked back hair a much darker shade. He didn’t appear to be too much older than the girls.

He looked past Moondancer to the helicopter parked outside the lobby. “I’m guessing you’re Moondancer checking in?”

“Indeed I am.” She flipped out a debit card and slid it across the counter. “Your ski resort looks very nice.”

“Yeah, it’s rad, right? It’s actually been in my family for five generations,” he said. Sunset thought he sounded more like a surfer than a skier. “So if you need to know anything, I got you covered.” He flashed his teeth and winked.

Moondancer didn’t bat an eye. She just smiled politely and opened her hand to take her card back. While she paid, Sunset wandered aimlessly around the lobby, looking at the fake plants in expensive looking vases and wooden carvings of bears, deers, and wolves. She stopped and looked at a carving of a white wolf near the window. It was on the prowl, body low to the ground, staring off to the left. Even as a carving, its deep blue eyes pierced into Sunset, like it was reading her soul. She shivered and rubbed her arms, despite feeling the full blast of the heater.

“Come along, everyone!” Moondancer called. “Soarin here will show us to our living quarters.”

Everyone quickly grabbed a jacket from their luggage and followed Soarin out the back door. Sunset looked back at the wolf, but couldn’t see its soul-reading eyes from her new angle. The houses were arranged in a semi-circle behind the lobby, and they were led to the one at the center.

“All the houses come with fully functional kitchens, and the store is only a twenty minute walk from here,” Soarin said as they walked. “The main building has a sauna and a spa tub.”

Rarity clapped her hands and giggled, her teeth chattering the entire time.

“Help desk closes at midnight, but we do have an emergency line you can call. Slopes close at nine. There are hiking trails through the forest and one that goes to the summit. Technically, they’re open all day, but we strongly discourage you from walking them at night. That’s when the animals come out.”

Their lodge was made from dark wood and had large circular windows in the front. It stood two stories high, but looked wide enough to fits Sunset’s house and Twilight’s right next to each other. The group walked up the log steps onto the wrap around porch and through the double doors. A spacious living room greeted them, light pouring in from the windows. A sunken fire pit took up the center with a couch curling around it. The living room opened up to a large kitchen with a nook separating to two rooms. Two hallways split off leading to the bedrooms and bathrooms, while a staircase took up part of the back wall.

“Hope you all enjoy it,” Soarin said. He winked again at the girls before leaving everyone to their house. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“Ain’t this the bees knees?” Applejack asked, crashing on the couch. “Won’t lie, Ah could get used to a place like this.”

“This place is awesome!” Rainbow ran upstairs and shouted from the balcony, “I’m mad we’re only here for half a week!”

“Speaking of our stay here,” Moondancer said, clapping her hands, “let us discuss room assignments. There are five rooms and ten of us. How fortunate! Naturally, the master bedroom will go to our esteemed chaperones who made this group trip possible.” She beamed at Cadence and Shining.

Sunset rolled her eyes. Kiss up.

“After that, well, I would assume Sunset and Twilight would share a room—”

“Hold on,” Shining said. “I trust you two, but not that much. You’re not sharing a room together.”

Sunset saw the advantageous gleam in Moondancer’s eye. “Oh! Well in that case, I’ll bunk with Twily!” She took Twilight by the arm. “Let’s see the bedrooms upstairs! I want a room with a view!”

“Oh, okay!” Twilight said, caught off-guard.

Both Sunset and Cadence glared daggers at Shining. He held his hands up. “What?”

Rarity gently guided Sunset down one of the halls. “Don’t worry, darling, you and I can share a room. I always appreciate your company.” Their room sat at the end of the hallway, just past the bathroom. Sunset walked across the blue carpet and picked the bed further from the window. Rarity shut the door behind them and turned on the soft light. “Moondancer aside, is everything all right between you and Twilight?”

How does she always do that? Sunset climbed onto the bed and stared up at the wooden ceiling. “I don’t know. We kinda got into a… well, it wasn’t really an argument. Just a sort of… complication.”

Rarity opened the curtains, giving them a wonderful view of a thick cluster of trees. It at least added more light to their dim room. “What sort of ‘complication?’”

“Well… first we got onto the topic of whether or not I was going to go home and stay there or not, and that was left open-ended because even if I do, I still have to wait until the portal opens. Then I mentioned the time dilations between worlds and how I might get aged down again—”

Again?

Sunset grabbed her pillow and pressed it over her face. “When I first came through, the portal took a few years off my life I guess so I could fit into high school. I should be Shimmer’s age. When I told Twilight, she sort of got overwhelmed by all of this magic stuff again.”

Rarity sat on the side of Sunset’s bed and pat her knee. “Well, she’s been through a lot in the past few months. This is all still new to her.”

“I know. But everything that pops up, she thinks that makes us more different from each other.” Sunset sat up and threw her pillow to the side. “I mean, how much do we even have in common? We’re both smart and we like chess… that’s it! She’s sweet and caring, comes from a nice family, and actually has a future to look forward to! I… have none of those things!”

Rarity’s patting turned into a swat. “Sunset, you know I hate it when you degrade yourself like that.”

Sunset crossed her arms. “I won’t apologize for telling the truth.”

“Well here’s a truth for you: Twilight picked you for a reason.”

“Yeah, still trying to wrap my head around that. Ow!” Sunset pulled her knee out of Rarity’s smacking range.

“Twilight picked you in spite of your differences. And I would say both you having an incredible intellect is enough of a common ground. Furthermore, both of you are sweet and caring people, you just seem to want to think otherwise about yourself.”

Sunset pulled her legs up and rested her chin on her knees. “I just don’t know what to do, Rarity. I wish I didn’t have all this magic stuff affecting her and me, or any of you girls for that matter.

Rarity swished her hand. “So we’ve had two encounters with magical beings from another dimension and we pony up when we play music. It’s not like it’s interfered with our lives. Just made them more exciting.” She swallowed. “And perhaps nerve-wracking and soul-crushingly dangerous for a few weeks. But look, we’re stronger for it!”

Sunset groaned and pressed her face down.

“The point is, we can handle a little weirdness, Sunset. So you’re a few years older than the rest of us; age is but a number! You still look like a teenager, and you technically have the body of one, so anything you and Twilight do is still legal.”

“Rarity!” Sunset looked up, her face turning a bright shade of red.

“What? That’s clearly what Twilight’s worried about,” she said casually.

“No it isn’t! Twilight has more class than that!”

Rarity gave Sunset a patronizing smile. “Of course she has enough not to say anything right now. But she’s clearly thinking about later on down the road.”

“Can we please not talk about the future right now? I don’t even know if we’ll be together long enough for that to happen. She’s going off to some fancy college and I’m going to be stuck here.”

“Long distance relationships are a thing, dear.” She looked Sunset in the eyes. “If you really love her, you’ll find a way to make it work, differences aside. You do love her right?”

Sunset bit her lip and looked at the trees.

“Sunset?”

“I mean, love is thrown around so carelessly by teenagers. I definitely have strong feelings for Twilight that go past friendship, but do I call it love? I want it to mean something when and if I actually say it. I want her to know this isn’t some passing phase.”

Rarity stood and stretched, letting out her famous dreamy sigh. “Oh, Sunset. So mature… and so naive. It’s that kind of response that tells me you do love her. But, I’ll let you move at your own pace. For now, you should just go spend time with her. If you’re worried about being too different from each other, there are plenty of activities around here you can bond over.” She opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

“But if you do get around to using the ‘L’ word…” She narrowed her eyes. “You better tell me.”

She shut the door, leaving Sunset alone in their room, clutching a pillow against her stomach.

4. Fire and Ice

View Online

Sunset sat in her room, absently pondering and staring at the trees outside until Applejack knocked and poked her head in. “Hey, Sunset. Pinkie wanted to go check out the town. You wanna come with?”

She snapped out of her doldrums and nodded, tossing the pillow aside. “Yeah, sounds like fun.” Rarity had a point, Sunset needed to spend as much time with Twilight as possible, and she couldn’t do that moping in her room.

Bundled up in warm jackets and scarves, everyone filed out of the house and off the resort. The town of Hollow Shades reminded Sunset of old settler towns she had seen in pictures, rustic and modest. Cars were scarce among the streets, as were any children or teens judging by the abundance of elderly faces.

Snow covered the sidewalk in a fine layer while a light flurry fell on everyone’s heads. They left behind two columns of footprints as they walked along to the town square. Standard tourist shops greeted them, ranging from jewelry, to cheap local trinkets and wood carvings, to an old fashioned post office.

“So, Pinks, where do you wanna go first?” Rainbow asked.

Pinkie’s eyes honed in on the candy store, and she zipped toward it without a word.

Applejack sighed. “Let’s go make sure she doesn’t spend all her money on the first day.”

A sugary display awaited them inside, candy in every shape and color stacked in jars on shelves. Sunset saw Pinkie salivating as she ran down an aisle of gummy worms and gumdrops. She’s found the promised land. Sunset indulged herself and bought a small bag of sour balls and taffy. Rarity offered to buy candy for Pinkie as long as she promised to keep it under fifteen dollars.

It turned out, fifteen dollars could buy a lot of candy.

Pinkie walked out with two huge bags full, most of it being rock candy. “For Maud!” she said with a skip. “She loves rock candy!”

Rarity and Moondancer gravitated toward the jewelry shop next, bringing Twilight and Sunset with them. Sunset gagged at the collection of gaudy, overly-priced earrings and necklaces, and stood near the entrance while her friends shopped.

Twilight approached her wearing a sapphire pendant. “What do you think, Sunset?”

First response: it looks dumb. Second response? Sunset smiled. “I think anything looks good on you, babe.” She saw Rarity give a small nod of approval.

“I agree absolutely,” Moondancer said, coming up behind and unfastening Twilight’s necklace. “But I think these suit you much better. They’re more you.” She handed Twilight a pair of amethyst earrings shaped like stars.

Sunset ground her teeth behind her thin smile. I’m not losing this game today. She followed Twilight to a mirror, watching her try on the earrings. “You know, I think I saw a museum on our way here. You wanna go check it out?”

Twilight vigorously nodded her head, frowning when one of the earrings came out. “Of course. I’d love to learn about the local history.”

Taking her by the arm, Sunset led her out the shop, giving Moondancer a smug grin over her shoulder. Moondancer smiled back, but Sunset could see the muscles in her cheeks straining. She followed after anyway, keeping a fair distance back.

“Are we going to the slopes now?” Rainbow asked as they walked outside.

“Nope, we’re going to the museum!” Twilight said chipperly.

Rainbow turned her head skyward and groaned, letting out a warm cloud of air. “Screw that, I’m going back to the house. Come get me when we’re going to do something fun.” She stomped off, making sure her boots left deeper imprints in the snow.

Twilight frowned. “People like her are the reason museums might go extinct someday.”

“Don’t worry. People like us can help them stay in business.” Sunset winked.

Twilight lips twitched upwards for but a second. “Sunset, I’m sorry about the other day. I didn’t mean to freak out or upset you. The age thing is…” She made a flailing motion with her hand. “Pretty weird. But, I’ll get over it. You’re right; we’re both mature enough to handle this.”

“It’s fine. I know this magic stuff is… tough to handle sometimes.”

“That’s why I’m trying to understand it. I just… wasn’t expecting another curveball.” Twilight looked away, no longer meeting Sunset’s eye.

Sunset ignored the deep fluttering in her core. “Well the good news is, I’m pretty sure that’s the last of them. You know all of my dark secrets,” she said jokingly before the revelation sank in. Twilight knew everything bad about her but was still here…

Twilight snuggled up closer to Sunset. “Yeah. I guess I do.”

Sunset’s playful smirk returned. “But I feel like I don’t know all of yours.”

She rolled her eyes, but a faint blush crept onto her cheeks. “That’s because I don’t have any dark secrets to tell.”

“But you do have secrets.”

“Hey look, we’re here!” Twilight pointed to the museum entrance, flanked by two life-size bear statues. “I wonder what we’ll learn inside! We won’t know standing around out here in the cold!” She took the lead, practically dragging Sunset up the steps and into the warm building.

They walked across the dark wood floor to the reception counter, Sunset casually glancing at the tapestries and portraits on display in the front room. “Tickets for two—”

“Three!” Moondancer said, hurrying up from behind.

“Oh, Moony…” Twilight shuffled her feet. “I didn’t know you were still behind us.”

Moondancer pouted. “Oh no, am I interrupting some personal time?”

“Yes,” Sunset said.

“No! I mean, not officially… I mean… well…” Twilight trailed off, looking between Sunset and Moondancer.

“Don’t worry, I promise I’ll give you two your needed space. I just want to learn about the culture as well.” Moondancer stepped around them and paid for all three tickets before skipping along.

Sunset gently pulled her arm out of Twilight’s hold and looked down at her, trying her hardest not to narrow her eyes. “Out of curiosity… have you had a talk with Moondancer yet?”

Twilight drummed her fingers together. “That may be something I’ve neglected to do.”

“Twilight.”

“I’m sorry! I just… don’t know how to bring it up.”

“It’s easy.” Sunset slapped on a fake smile. “‘Hey, Moondancer, just in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m dating Sunset Shimmer, who’s totally smart and hot. Which means I’m no longer available for your totally obvious affections.’ Then you do that cute thing where you push your glasses up.”

Twilight pushed her glasses up. “I would never use ‘totally’ in a sentence like that.”

Sunset steered her into the next room. “So I ad-libbed a bit. Point is, please talk to Moondancer before we go home.”

“I will, I promise.” She turned around and looked up at Sunset. “But are you sure you two are getting along?”

Sunset spun her around again and kept guiding her forward. “We’re getting along just fine.” Her stomach churned at the lie. “She’s almost part of the group.” She tightened her throat to keep the bile down.

The two of them took a self-guided tour through the museum, Moondancer popping in on them at random intervals. They read documents and saw paintings from the town’s founding almost two-hundred years ago, looked at muskets and cannons used in wartime, and examined tapestries and other artifacts from the indigenous people who had lived on the mountain before Hollow Shades was built.

Being only the size of a large house, the museum only had a total of six rooms with things worth exploring. The last room Twilight and Sunset entered was filled with more statues and carvings, each with their own plaque. They browsed the collections of animals and artistic carvings before Sunset stopped before another model of the white wolf she had seen in the lobby of the resort. It’s blue eyes were just like the other one, and stared into her soul.

She looked the plaque. “Harbinger. An omen that haunts the mountains. Appears before the strike of tragedy.” Sunset frowned. “Boy, that’s heartwarming.”

“I find it quite interesting.”

Sunset jumped and spun to glare at Moondancer. “We really need to put a bell on you.”

Moondancer put on a thoughtful look. “Musical accompaniment could improve my entrances.”

“Nevermind.” Sunset turned for the exit. “Come on, I’m sure Rainbow is bored out of her skull by now.”

The white silhouette of the sun could be seen through the clouds, and the snowfall had decreased to tiny flakes. The lights around town began to flicker on, guiding the girls back to the resort.

As they walked around the main lobby and into the circle of houses, a wad of fresh snow collided with Sunset’s face, knocking her off balance and onto her bottom.

“Rainbow did it!”

“Shut up, Pinkie!”

Sunset scooped up a handful of snow as she bounced back to her feet and flung it at Rainbow, hitting her in the gut. Sunset ducked under another snowball, which carried on to hit Twilight. She corrected her askew glasses and grabbed a handful to fling at Applejack.

Moondancer took a step back out of the escalating snow war. “Well, I can see you girls are in the middle of something, so I’ll just—” Six snowballs pelted her, with Sunset’s scoring a direct hit to the face. “Very well then.” She bent down to get some snow, getting struck again by Sunset when she came up.

It’s just like they say, Sunset thought as she rolled another snowball, revenge is a dish best served cold. Boy, that sounded lame even up here. She attacked Moondancer again, but the performer had gotten her bearings and gracefully ducked out of the way. She returned fire, catching Sunset on the shoulder. Sunset made sure not every snowball ended up in Moondancer’s direction, occasionally aiming for Rainbow or Twilight, but for the next twenty minutes, she and Moondancer waged a cold war.

There were few places to hide out in the icy circle, leaving the girls exposed to every attack that came their way. Sunset dodged and weaved as best as she could, being careful to keep her traction on the slippery ground. Her jacket acted as a good buffer against the cold slush pelting her.

Between the battle cries and shouts of surprise, Sunset thought she heard a wolf howl in the gathering shadows. She paid it little mind as she ran across the battlefield to get some distance from Rarity and Applejack’s conjoined attacks. The heel of her boot jerked to the side, throwing her balance into disarray and leaving her at the mercy of gravity. She fell face forward into the gravel, her forehead taking most of the blow.

The laughter immediately deceased, and she felt someone quickly raise her into a sitting position. “Ouch, you okay, Sunset?” Rainbow asked.

Aside from the sudden dizziness, Sunset felt fine. “I think so?”

Before she could raise a hand to inspect the damage, Twilight ran over and pulled a tissue from her pocket, applying it to Sunset’s forehead. “You’re bleeding!” She pulled the tissue away to show a deep crimson stain.

It was only after Sunset saw the blood that she felt the sting of the cut. “Oh, wow.” She let Twilight lead her inside while the tissue was reapplied.

Shining and Cadence were snuggling close together in front of the central fire pit when the eight girls tromped in. Shining bolted up and hurried to Sunset’s side. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Sunset said with a wave of her hand. “I slipped on the ice. It’s just a little cut.”

“A little cut?” Twilight said, her voice rising. “You might need stitches! Look how much you’re bleeding!”

“Here. let me see.” Shining guided Sunset to the couch and peeled the stained rag off. He dabbed the cut every time it overflowed with blood. “It’s deep, but not deep enough to need stitches. You will need some disinfectant and a good band aid though.”

Moondancer drifted to the front door. “Allow me! I’ll go see if the front desk has quality medical supplies.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow, then winced, realizing she had injured the skeptical side of her face.

Twilight sat next to her. “You’re okay? You’re not light headed, are you?”

“Sparky, I’m fine. I told you, it was just a little cut.”

Cadence came over with a fresh wad of tissues. “I think it’s just a touch more than a ‘little’ cut. Are you sure she’ll be okay?”

“Yeah, it’s better than it looks. She might be lightheaded for a bit though,” Shining said.

“Well then, now would be a perfect time to start dinner!” Cadence clapped her hands together and hurried off to the kitchen.

“Here, Miss Cadence, let me help with that!” Applejack followed after.

Twilight took the paper towels and dabbed at Sunset’s cut, and when Moondancer returned after a lengthy ten minute trip, Twilight applied the disinfectant and put the band-aid on. Sunset relished the flash of contempt in Moondancer’s eyes.

Dinner for ten took a while, but Applejack and Cadence made a wonderful meal of venison stew (and a lentil for Sunset and Fluttershy), salad, bread, and an apple pie for dessert. The dining table couldn’t seat all of them, so they gathered around on the couch, turning on the central fire pit.

With warm food, warm fire, and warm Twilight pressed against her, Sunset forgot about her new injury. The girls and Shining talked about things they had seen so far in town. Fluttershy had been to a herbalist shop selling natural remedies to colds and pains. Shining and Cadence had explored the forest, seeing several deer, and if Cadence was to be believed, the shadow of a bear.

“It was just the shadow of a bush,” Shining said, taking her empty plate away.

“I know what I saw!”

Moondancer dabbed her mouth with her napkin and set her plate aside. “Speaking of animals, I learned of an interesting folk legend about a wolf that haunts these mountains.”

“Oooh, oooh, scary story!” Pinkie bounced in her seat, then settled down and got cozy between Applejack and Rainbow.

“You mean that Harbinger wolf?” Sunset asked, raising her other eyebrow.

“The very same.” Moondancer stood up and moved in front of the fire, throwing a dramatic shadow over her. She lifted her hands and spread her fingers. “The white wolf, known only as Harbinger,” she said in a mystifying voice.

“Said to be a manifestation of negative energy. It appears as a bad omen, bringing with it tragedy or ruin.” She raised her arms up, then slowly lowered them, twiddling her fingers. “Last it appeared, a blizzard befell the town, blocking all roads coming in and out.”

She hunched her shoulders and curled her fingers. “It feeds off the strife that comes with the tragedy it brings, and is drawn to the darkness within people’s hearts.” Her eyes fell on Sunset. “So beware. If you see it, you can only blame yourself for the tragedy that follows.”

She made a small curtsy at the polite applause given and fell back into her seat on Twilight’s other side. Sunset rolled her eyes at Moondancer’s theatrics, but thought of the two wolf statues she had seen. Their eyes had seemed so alive. Odd that they’d keep a statue of the bringer of doom in a hotel though. Even if it is for tourists.

Slices of apple pie were passed around before Applejack gave Pinkie command of their night activities. With no board game big enough for all of them, Pinkie had them all play card games, ranging from Go Fish to Blackjack. Shining watched her with a raised eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. It went a long way in helping his win streak.

Afterward, the girls broke up for individual night activities. Sunset helped Rarity braid Fluttershy’s hair while the others engaged in small talk and board games.

“You don’t think Moondancer’s story was true, do you? Fluttershy asked softly, playing with the folds of her shirt.

“Please,” Sunset scoffed, “she’s just trying to be dramatic. The ‘darkness within people’s hearts’? Sounds like something out of Rainbow’s cheesy video games.”

Rarity picked up a pin and neatly pushed it through Fluttershy’s pink mane. “I’m sorry, but don’t you come from a land where friendship can be weaponized with magical necklaces?”

“I still stand by my point.” Sunset didn’t doubt the possibility of a magic wolf existing or having existed in the past, but she was positive Moondancer had embellished some part of her tale.

Pinkie made them all mugs of hot chocolate, then Shining ordered them to bed so they would have an early day at the slopes. Twilight gave Sunset a kiss goodnight, then gave an extra soft one on her band-aid. They went their separate ways, Sunset following Rarity and her self-satisfied smirk.

“Looks like you two are back to normal,” Rarity said, digging out her pajamas. “I’m guessing you talked it out?”

Sunset pulled out her toothbrush and shrugged. “Sort of. She said she was sorry for freaking out, I told her it was okay and that I had no more dark secrets. So, you know…”

Rarity’s jaw twitched. “Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there for the full context, but it sounds like you did less of smoothing things out and just sort of… rolled it up and pushed it to the side.”

“Why talk about what we already know? This whole thing is weird, she acknowledged it, I acknowledged it. I think we’re on the same page.”

This time, the entire left side of Rarity’s face twitched. She stood up, pajamas in hand. “Fine, have it your way. You make it quite easy to believe you’re not really older than the rest of us.” She turned her nose up and made for the bathroom.

Sunset looked after her, head tilted in confusion. Realizing it wasn’t worth the effort this late at night, she changed into her pajamas and prepared for bed.

As she laid down, arms behind her head, thoughts of the day continued to move about. Here she was, miles away from the only city she had ever known in this world. There was certainly a thrill to it, but it wasn’t as life-changing as Sunset thought it would be. Maybe it was because all her friends were with her.

Home is where the heart is and all that.

She thought of Twilight, and Rarity’s disgruntled words creeped up on her. What more did she want out of Sunset? Twilight was trying to look past the magical weirdness… well, she was trying to study it for her understanding, but that was almost the same thing.

Is she trying to understand it so she doesn’t feel… different from me? Sunset turned over and stared at the wall. She couldn’t do anything to change who she was, as much as she wanted to. Despite what Rarity thought, talking it out wasn’t going to do anything other than establish what Sunset and Twilight already knew.

Sunset’s eyes slid shut, Rarity’s light, rhythmic snoring putting her to sleep. Me and Twilight are talking again. That’s good enough for me.

She opened her eyes, staring into a matching pair. Sunset slid her hand across a polished floor, watching her reflection mirror her actions. She stood up and looked around, finding herself on the walls and ceilings, dozens of her moving their heads left and right.

“You seem lost, little sun,” a cold voice said.

A pair of hands grabbed Sunset’s ankles, and she looked down to see a sharp toothed version of herself through the floor. Sunset kicked and struggled, but only managed to lose her balance and hit the ground.

“We’ve had this conversation before: you can’t run from yourself!” The mirror Sunset’s eyes turned black as she dragged the real one down. Sunset tried to pull herself up, but the grip was too powerful, and she fell, watching the other Sunset smirk and laugh.

The world turned dark around her, and while the other Sunset had stopped yanking on her legs, she felt crushed by the shadows surrounding her. “Twilight’s right, you know.” Two balls of fire exploded into life on either side of Sunset. They glided forward before moving in opposite directions, leaving trails behind them. “You’re just too different from her—from all of them.” The twin fires came back together at the tip of her wild hair, and Sunset beheld a fiery outline of her demon.

Sunset tried to argue, but when she opened her mouth, darkness poured in, coating her tongue in acrid bitterness.

“They’re all still goody two-shoes. They haven’t sinned the way you have! They haven’t tampered with black magic and tried to take over the world!”

“My… magic’s… good now!” Sunset sputtered out.

Her demon sneered at her, the fire burning a darker shade of red. “Ha! Cover it up with as much glitter and sparkles you want! You and I both know what we’re really capable of! What I’m capable of! And since you won’t go back to it on your own…” The face rushed forward, banishing the darkness but leaving Sunset smothered in the searing flames. “I’ll have to make you use it by force!”

The inferno swirled around Sunset, slowly sucking away her oxygen. She grabbed her throat and fell to her knees, taking desperate, shallow breaths. The fire dissipated, allowing her to suck down a lungful of ash. She coughed and heaved, the foul air stinging her eyes. When the tears subsided and she could see, a fresh wave nearly overtook her.

Canterlot High and the surrounding neighborhood were nothing more than charred skeletons with some buildings still burning. Smoke rose into the blood red sky, blocking out the sun. The grass had all burned away, replaced with pools of magma.

“I can’t wait to burn down everything you care about.”

Sunset’s trembling legs dragged her through the demolished courtyard of the school. Lying amongst the rubble were all of her friends, broken, bleeding, or staring absently into the sky. Her shaking grew worse with each one she passed. Applejack and Fluttershy. Rainbow and Pinkie. Rarity and Flash. All of the Lulamoons.

Twilight sat slumped against the broken entryway, her head bowed. Sunset ran up to her, breaking into hysterical sobs as she drew near. “Twilight! Twilight, please don’t be gone too! Please!”

Twilight dragged her head up, her eyes robbed of all hope and joy. “Why, Sunset? Why did you do this?”

Sunset rocketed up from her bed, letting out a short yell before stuffing her fist into her mouth. She looked over at Rarity, still sleeping with her beauty mask on.

The vivid sights and smells of her dream rushed back, and Sunset kept her hand over her mouth as she jumped out of bed and rushed to the bathroom. She managed to force everything back down, but her skin remained sweaty and clammy, and her hands shook violently. Her reflection in the mirror shared her wide, bloodshot eyes. Sunset remembered what her last reflection had done, and quickly backed out of the bathroom.

She retreated to the kitchen to get a glass of water for her barren throat. Her hands still shook, splashing the water in the cup, but she made sure not to drop it. Transitioning to the living room, she huddled on the couch, keeping her knees tucked against her chest.

I don’t understand. I should be over it now. I screwed up, I know I did. But I served my punishment, right? I understand friendship. I understand harmony! My magic at the concert… Sunset pressed a hand to her face. Had she been right the entire time? Had she defeated the Sirens, only to leave the world vulnerable to something more dangerous?

Sunset could hear the laughter in the back of her head, feel the heat of the flames against her skin. “No, I’m good now. I have to be.”

“Sunset?”

She jumped, splashing herself with what little water remained in her cup. “Twilight!” Sunset looked over the couch, finding her girlfriend standing at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in a nightshirt and pants. “What are you doing up?”

Twilight shuffled over. “I’m not sure actually. I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. I just felt like I needed to get up and come downstairs.” She sat down next to Sunset, but left a little space between them. “Why are you up?”

Sunset cracked an uneven smile and shook her empty glass. “Just needed some water.”

Even in the dark, Sunset could see Twilight’s skeptical look. She reached over and put a hand over Sunset’s. “You’re shaking. And you’re burning up.”

Sunset slid her hand out of Twilight’s hold and curled in on herself again. “I feel cold,” she said. She had no energy to play her usual game.

Twilight moved to the fireplace and turned it on, keeping the flames low. She returned to the couch, settling closer to Sunset. “What’s wrong?”

A simple question with a simple answer. But Sunset’s tongue stuck to her mouth like glue. Instead, she leaned onto Twilight’s shoulders and closed her eyes, unable to look at the fire.

“It’s funny how things repeat themselves,” Sunset said carefully, her tongue allowing her to talk as long as she danced around the subject.

“What do you mean?”

“I remember at the sleepover… at Halloween. My first sleepover. You found me in the kitchen. You found me at probably my lowest point.”

Twilight lovingly ran her fingers through Sunset’s hair. “I didn’t really know what to do. I just wanted you to feel better.”

Sunset hummed at the touch of Twilight’s fingers. “This reminds me of that night.” Her voice grew softer. “That’s the first time I revealed my secrets to you.” It started to quiver. “Maybe it’s the first time I realized I might have liked you. I just didn’t want to admit it.”

Then, she was crying into Twilight’s shoulders while Twilight fully embraced her. “I thought it was over, Twilight! I thought I was done having nightmares! But they just keep coming—she keeps coming! Over and over again to haunt me! I see everything on fire! I lose all control of myself! I see all of you girls, gone, dead!”

“Sshhh.” Twilight rocked her back and forth. “It’s just a bad dream, Sunset. It can’t hurt you.”

“Yes it can! I know it can! It’s too real! It’s not just a dream, it’s a prediction!” Sunset clawed at the front of Twilight’s shirt. “I knew it—I knew using magic was a bad idea! It’s like she’s sitting right there! Right on the edge of my heart. One mistake… one mistake and I’ll… I’m scared, okay? Scared of what’ll happen next.”

Twilight lifted Sunset’s head up, tears filling her own eyes. “But, Sunset, your magic is good. You proved that.”

Sunset shook her head. “It’s still magic. It’s still power. That’s all she wants: power. And I gave her an opening.”

“Sunset… you’re talking like she’s a separate person.”

As far as Sunset was concerned, she was. Her demon represented everything she tried to push away. She was nothing but a shadow of a past life. A shadow that had her claws deep in Sunset’s heart. “She’s my darkness, Twilight. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t get her to go away.”

Twilight brought her in for another hug, and moved her mouth to Sunset’s ear. “She might be darkness. But you, Sunset Shimmer, you’re in control. And you’re light. I know you are, and that will never change. You’re the brightest light I know, and I… love the way you shine on all of us.”

“Twilight…”

“And we’re here to help you, too. We care about you too much to let anything bad happen to you.” Twilight brought them face-to-face again. “We’re here for you. We’re your lights when you can’t see your own. We won’t let the darkness get you.”

Sunset saw several things in Twilight’s eyes. Her shocked and scared reflection, honesty, hope, compassion… and love. It was just like Halloween. Except for one difference.

Their own gravity brought them closer together, and they closed their eyes as their lips made contact. Sunset tasted the salt of both hers and Twilight’s tears, as well as the sweet mint from her toothpaste. She started slow, kneading and caressing Twilight’s lips before pressing on into her mouth. They fell over with Sunset on top, her legs straddling Twilight’s waist.

Sunset ran her hands up and down Twilight’s cheeks while Twilight played with Sunset’s shirt, slowly moving up her stomach to her chest. Both of them made soft moans at the other’s touch and the increasing intensity of their kisses. The hot, primal longing welled up in Sunset again, and here in front of the fireplace, with snow swirling outside, she thought both of them might be ready to give into it.

Go ahead. Deflower her precious Twilight.

The burning desire turned cold, and Sunset ripped herself off of Twilight, sitting up and panting while keeping a hand over her heart.

Twilight lifted her head up. “What’s wrong?” Sunset heard the hint of disappointment in her voice.

As her heart rate fell back to normal, the mocking snickers of Sunset’s demon grew fainter. Sunset slumped against the couch and closed her eyes. She couldn’t do it. Sunset wanted to believe going all the way with Twilight would be on her own terms, but with her demon floating around, all it felt like was a victory for her dark lust, and a slight against Moondancer.

That’s not fair. To either of us. She opened her eyes, Twilight still watching her with concern. “It’s nothing,” Sunset watched the flickering flames in the fireplace. “I just… don’t want to get caught by your brother. I’d hate to ruin the trip for everyone else because we got in trouble.”

“O-oh… yeah, I guess that would be bad.”

Sunset placed a hand against Twilight’s cheek again. “Thanks for being here though. I really appreciate it.”

Twilight smiled, her face glowing in the fire light.

Go ahead, say it.

Sunset opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Her conversation with Rarity returned to her. Saying those words were a giant step forward. Sunset wanted there to be weight behind them, not just a spur of the moment passion like she almost had just seconds before. Thinking on it, Sunset was glad nothing had happened between her and Twilight.

Yes, Sunset wanted weight to her words. At the same time, while she knew this wasn’t some passing teenage romance, she couldn’t anchor Twilight down with those three words. She had to be ready to let her go in a few months. She had to be ready to make the cut as clean as possible.

She still found herself lying down next to Twilight on the couch, settling into the crook of her neck. They wrapped their arms around each other and closed their eyes. Sunset was just happy to hold onto Twilight a little while longer.

5. Harbinger

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Sunset awoke the next morning to a blanket draped over her and Twilight. Twilight hogged most of it, but Sunset felt the warm wool over part of her arm and leg. She lifted her head, finding the living room still empty, and laid back down, snatching some of the blanket away from Twilight to properly cover herself up.

Twilight grunted but didn’t put up too much of a fight. Instead, she rolled into Sunset, pressing her against the back of the couch.

You can’t make anything easy, can you, Sparky? Sunset wiggled her arm free from underneath herself and wrapped it around Twilight. They stayed curled on the couch for another hour, Sunset not fully sleeping, just enjoying Twilight’s presence.

A soft cough made Sunset turn over and look up to see Moondancer, her face puckered like she had eaten a particularly sour lemon. The creeping sense of superiority and dominance fueled Sunset’s relief that she hadn’t done anything last night. As priceless as Moondancer’s face was, Sunset refused to use Twilight’s virginity as a victory.

“Morning, Moondancer,” Sunset said, barely able to keep the smugness out of her voice.

With obvious strain, Moondancer put on a courteous smile. “Good morning, Sunset. How’s that cut on your head? It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

Sunset felt the bandage under her bangs. “Nope, it’s holding up just fine.”

“So glad. I would hate to see something happen to you.” Once she got her mask together, Sunset had to admit it was hard to find cracks in it. Only Moondancer’s eyes showed her loathing.

Twilight yawned and sat up, leaning against Sunset. She squinted her eyes. “Oh, good morning, Moony.”

Moondancer reached into her pocket and pulled out Twilight’s glasses. “Here you are. I had a feeling you would be needing these.”

Sliding her glasses on, Twilight looked about the room. “What time is it? Is everyone still asleep?”

“I should hope not. I made my rounds to knock on everyone’s door in an attempt to get them up for breakfast. There’s a cute little diner in town that I would love to sample. Local cuisine is always the best.”

Twilight slid off the couch and onto her feet. “Who left us the blanket?”

Shining walked into the room, straightening his jacket collar. “You’re welcome.” Cadence, following close behind, winked at Twilight and Sunset.

Cheeks pink, Twilight headed upstairs to get dressed. Sunset returned to her own room, finding Rarity lacing up her pair of designer snow boots.

“Did you and Twilight have a good night together?” she asked, not bothering to look up.

“How did you—”

“Please, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where you went last night.” She looked up with her coy smile. “So, did you have a good time?”

Sunset opened her suitcase and picked out her outfit for the slopes. “We had a nice, meaningful talk, then we cuddled and fell asleep.”

Rarity nodded in approval. “All I could hope for.” She stood up and looked herself over, twisting left and right. “Do you think this white jacket will blend in too well?”

They finished getting dressed and ready for the day. When they came back into the living room, most of the others had assembled, including a very eager Rainbow, goggles already down over her eyes.

“This is gonna be so awesome! I can’t wait to get up there and show off my awesome shredding moves!” She jumped up and down, upsetting her goggles.

“You ain’t never been snowboardin’ before,” Applejack said. “How do you know you’ll be good at it?”

“Because I’m good at any cool sport!”

“Ha! Cool sport! I get it!”

“Shut up, Pinkie.”

Before heading up the mountain, the group squeezed into the town diner, taking up two tables in the corner. The host looked intimidated by their mob, but the waitress acted like it was another typical day. Sunset guessed large tourist parties weren’t too rare around here.

Still, with ten people, breakfast moved slow. Too slow if Rainbow’s constant fidgeting was anything to go by. Sunset thought she and Pinkie might have switched bodies.

The waitress brought out a smorgasbord of food varying from crepes to french toast, pancakes to omelettes. The feasting went quick, and afterwards, snowboarding was the last thing Sunset felt up for.

But, once Moondancer paid the bill, the girls waddled their way to the base of the slopes, the ski lifts rising out of powder white hills that rolled up the mountainside.

The girls purchased their skis and snowboards, and were directed to the beginners hills not too far up. Outside, the sun had returned, reflecting off the white snow and making it gleam.

The lift came around, taking everyone up in pairs of two. Rainbow jumped on first, taking Pinkie with her and rocking the chair as they landed. “Last one to the top is a rotten egg!” Rainbow yelled.

Her competitive spirit burning through her lethargy, Sunset hooked an arm around Twilight and took the next lift. Their feet left the ground, and they were gently cradled up the mountain. Getting off on the first stop, it wasn’t a long trip, and the scenery hadn’t changed too much. Sunset could see more of the forest spread out to her right, climbing up the other side of the mountain.

She and Twilight hopped off, finding Rainbow already strapping her boots to her board. “Time to reach a whole new level of awesome!” She straightened up and hopped her way to the edge of the slope.

“We need to work on expanding your vocabulary,” Sunset said, laying her own snowboard down.

Rainbow pulled her goggles down. “You need to work on keeping up with me.” With one more hop, she pushed herself over the edge and down the slope, flailing her arms to keep her balance. Sunset had to give her some credit, Rainbow lasted longer than expected. She made it a fourth of the way down before a small bump threw her onto her face.

Sunset cupped her hands to her mouth. “So how’s that new level of awesome?” She saw Rainbow raise a rude finger from her place in the snow.

While Rainbow picked herself up and kept boarding, the rest of the group arrived, Fluttershy and Moondancer bringing up the rear.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Moondancer said, “the worst that can happen is you get some snow in your hair. Skiing is perfectly safe.”

Fluttershy looked down the hill with wide eyes. Seeing Rainbow twist and fall only made her waddle back.

Twilight made her way to the edge, Sunset scooting next to her. “I read a beginners book about skiing before we came up here.”

“Of course.” Sunset playfully rolled her eyes.

“And the basic stance is to have your feet shoulder width apart and position your toes inward so it makes a pizza shape.” Twilight demonstrated, wobbling a little as she found her balance. “From here, I just have to shift my center of gravity. It’s the default position for beginners. I also looked up snowboarding techniques.”

“Why didn’t you offer Rainbow any?”

“From the way she spoke, I thought she already knew what she was doing.”

Sunset looked at the bottom of the slope, where Rainbow had fallen on her face again. “There are few times where Rainbow actually knows what she’s doing. This ain’t one of them.”

Twilight gave Sunset a few pointers while she strapped on her snowboard. Goggles down and helmet secure, Sunset wriggled her way to the top of the hill. Adrenaline flowed through her, escaping from her mouth as puffs of hot air.

“See you at the bottom?” Twilight asked, leaning forward.

“How about I race you? Loser has to buy hot chocolate later. Ready, set, go!” Sunset hopped forward, letting gravity do the rest of the work. She heard Twilight yell in surprise, her voice lost over the wind rushing through Sunset’s hair. She kept her back straight and knees bents, keeping her center of gravity at her core. For her first time on a snowboard, she thought she was doing pretty good. She made sure to keep a straight path for the bottom, doing minimal turning so as not to fall like Rainbow.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Twilight speeding after her, pushing her poles against the snow to keep up. Sunset knew not to lean forward lest she lose her balance, but couldn’t think of a way to keep Twilight from catching her. Soon, they were neck and neck, speeding down the snowy hill, the end in sight. Sunset couldn’t help it. She put a little lean into her front foot, and she nosed past Twilight. A small bump near the bottom threw off her balance and, like Rainbow, she flailed her arms to keep steady. The result was a face full of snow and a giggling Twilight skiing past her.

Sunset rejoined her by the ski lift, brushing the snow off her face. “One day, I’ll actually beat you in something.”

“If you challenge me to a foot race, I’ll probably lose.” They got back on the chairs and started their ascent again. Twilight ran a thumb across Sunset’s bandage. “The fall didn’t hurt, did it?”

“Nah, I’m fine.” The cold actually soothed her cut some.

Below them, their friends skied and snowboarded down the hill, Rainbow showing some improvement after following Sunset’s example. Pinkie being Pinkie looked like a natural skier, her giggles reaching Twilight and Sunset. Moondancer looked right at home as well, going so far as to jump off one of the small hills and catch some air. Despite her apprehensions, Fluttershy looked like she was having fun. Her descent was slow but well controlled, and Sunset thought she saw a smile under her bundled face. Shining and Cadence had borrowed a page from Twilight and Sunset, and were racing skis against snowboard, with Shining in the lead. Applejack and Rarity moved at a more leisurely pace, holding a conversation as they descended.

They all spent the first hour on the shorter hills, learning the ropes and falling into the snow. It didn’t take long for Rainbow to grow ambitious again and take the lift to the intermediate hill. Sunset watched her go alone, though she intended to join Rainbow eventually. “So, place your bets. How many times will Dash eat the snow?”

“Ah got five bucks. One for each time.”

“Oooh, oooh, ten dollars for two times!”

“Ten dollars on the idea that she’ll fall one time, but it’ll be quite the tumble,” Moondancer said.

“Let’s just hope she doesn’t hurt herself,” Shining said, following Rainbow with his eyes.

Fortunately for all involved, Rainbow appeared to have gotten a good grasp on her new sport and made it down the mountain without one fall.

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Sunset said, anticipating the gloating that would arrive with Rainbow’s return. She decided to prolong it by taking another trip downhill before trying her hand at the bigger course.

Unfortunately, her trip hadn’t been long enough. As she rode the lift back, she caught a good earful of Rainbow’s bragging. Instead of hopping off, she took the lift to the next level. If Rainbow could do it, then so could she. Sunset rode down the hill, feeling a sharper pull of gravity with the steeper slope. She rushed by her friends, hearing their encouraging shouts. With her speed picking up, she got the kick of adrenaline she normally felt when riding her motorcycle. She hit the bottom and turned her snowboard to stop, kicking up a wave of powder.

Upon her return, most of her friends had moved onto the intermediate hill as well, save for Fluttershy and Cadence. They spent another hour riding the hills before many decided their cheeks were numb enough. Rainbow complained about only ‘just getting started’ but complied with returning to the cabin. They still had another day to try the top hill before throwing Pinkie her official birthday party.

Shining turned the fireplace on first thing when they got inside, while Cadence and Applejack took to making lunch. They prepared more soup, and after three hours in the snow and wind, Sunset couldn’t have been more grateful.

It was only mid-afternoon, and Sunset still had some energy left. She looked at Twilight, resting with her head on Sunset’s shoulder. “Hey, if you’re not too sleepy, you want to go for a hike in the forest. I bet there’s some great flora and fauna you could look at.”

Twilight made a sleepy nod and rose to her feet. “Let me go get my notebook and pencil. And maybe a few sample bags.” Her eyes grew more awake as thoughts of science danced through her brain. “Darn, I should have packed my microscope. Now I’ll have to wait until we get home to look at them.”

“Oh darn.” Sunset snapped her fingers with a cheeky grin. She nudged Twilight with her foot. “Hurry up and get ready, nerd.”

Fluttershy meekly rose her hand as Twilight left the room. “Um, Sunset, do you mind if I come along too? I’ve wanted to look at the forest since we got here, but it’s okay if you say no.”

“Err…” Sunset had intended it to be just her and Twilight, but Fluttershy curling in on herself in anticipation made Sunset want to reconsider. At the same time, she was sure Fluttershy could find someone to go with her in an hour.

Rarity looked prepared to come to Sunset’s rescue, but Moondancer rose from her seat and said, “I think a hike through the woods is a marvelous idea. Let’s seize the day! It would be a crime to waste our vacation cooped up in a cabin when there’s a frosted forest to frolic in.”

Applejack stood up too. “Ya know, that sounds like a good idea.” She completely missed the frustrated glare Rarity gave her.

Rainbow put her hands behind her head and leaned back against the couch. “You go have fun. Imma stay here and nap.”

“Big surprise,” Rarity said, rolling her eyes. “Pinkie, would you like to do something?”

Pinkie, having finished her soup, had moved on to gnawing on her rock candy, bits and pieces sticking to her mouth. “Is buying more candy an option?”

Rarity tapped her fingers together. “How about we go to the spa instead? My treat.”

“Okay!”

Twilight came back with her boots and research gear. “Ready to go?”

“Sure!” several voices answered her. She looked at Sunset with mild confusion and disappointment. They had been on the same wavelength about making this a private trip.

“Have fun and be safe,” Shining said, though Sunset could see the small amount of satisfaction in his eyes. Sunset led the four other girls out into the forest, the aroma of damp bark and soil overpowering her nose.

Fluttershy inhaled deeply. “Don’t you just love the smell of nature? It’s so clean and fresh.” She took out a camera and hopped excitedly. “I hope we see a snowy owl.”

Aside from their time spent at the animal shelter, Sunset rarely saw Fluttershy this excited. She couldn’t begrudge the girl for wanting to come along. Applejack and Moondancer on the other hand…

The path wound through the forest, naturally flowing between the trees, becoming more narrow or widening into small glades. Most of the snow had been pushed to the side, making it easier to see, but there were parts of the path that became indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor.

Moondancer skipped and twirled whenever she had the room for it. “So, Applejack, tell me about yourself,” she said, spinning around her. “What’s it like growing up on a farm? It sounds so enchantingly rustic.”

Applejack watched her with puzzled skepticism. “It’s a lotta hard work,” she said slowly. “You get a good ethic outta it though. A good sense of values.” She began to ease up. “And it is pretty fun. Wide spaces, animals to play with and nurture. Crops to take care of. Then, come harvest time, you get to see the fruits of your labor. Literally!”

“Delightful! Growing your own fruits and vegetables sounds magical,” she purred. “Is there a secret to your success?”

“Nah. Just good ol’ blood, sweat, and tears.”

“Wonderfully impressive,” Moondancer said with a flourish of her hand. “And what of you, demure Fluttershy? Tell me of yourself. You hardly talk.”

Fluttershy held her camera close to her chest. “Oh, um… I like animals. I volunteer at the local shelter every weekend.”

“How humanitarian! Such a pure soul within those beautiful eyes.”

Fluttershy turned pinker than her hair, and moved her camera to hide her face. “Th-thank you.”

They paused to watch a deer graze at tufts of grass poking free of the snow. Fluttershy snapped several quiet pictures while Twilight wrote down observations. Sunset leaned over and saw she had also tried to sketch it, and had to bite down on her fist to stop her laughs from spooking the deer. Twilight’s sketch looked like it had been composed by a fourth grader.

After it passed, Twilight smacked Sunset with her notepad.

“I’m sorry!” Sunset said, still snickering. “Hey, it’s a lot better than what I could do.” Sunset recalled the fat, stick-legged ponies she had drawn during their magic lesson. At least Twilight’s deer had supportive stumps for legs.

The path started a gentle incline up the side of the mountain. If they were quiet enough, they could hear some of the shouts from the skiers on the far side. Fluttershy got her wish and spotted a snowy owl perched in a tree. They spent ten minutes watching her snap pictures and imitate owl calls to get its attention.

As the sun fell behind the mountain and turned the sky orange, the girls reached the end of the path, coming out to a railed off cliff that overlooked the mountain range.

“Whooowee, look at that view,” Applejack said, tipping her hat up. “Sure glad Ah came out for this.”

“That makes one of us,” Sunset said under her breath.

Moondancer raised her arms like she was welcoming the oncoming night. “Moments like this are when you feel truly alive! You can see the whole world before you.” She reached a hand out. “It’s calling out, just asking you to take it!”

As Sunset’s eyes completed their roll, she spotted something blooming on the edge of the cliff just outside the rail. Twilight spotted it too and ran for a closer look, crouching down and gasping loudly. Sunset crept closer and looked at the flower that had Twilight entranced. Its wide, curled petals sparkled red and gold, matching Sunset’s hair, and it released a fragrant smell that reminded her of summertime.

“I don’t believe it,” Twilight whispered. “It’s a Chinensis Solruptis, commonly called a Sunburst Rose. They grow in high elevations and only bloom at sunset but… I thought it would be too cold for any to grow up here.”

“There’s a flower that only grows at sunset?” Sunset asked, leaning in for a closer look. In the rays of the dying sun, it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. A few drops of condensation from the rail fell onto it, giving it a breathtaking glittering effect.

Twilight took out her notepad and scribbled while Fluttershy snapped a picture with her camera. Sunset just stared and committed the scene to memory. She glanced over at Twilight and held back a sigh. Boy, this would have been romantic if it were just the two of us. Twilight looked up, and Sunset saw a similar thought pass through her eyes. She reached her hand over and took Sunset’s, rubbing her thumb over the back. Sunset smiled. Close enough.

She looked past the flower and into the mountain range sprawled out beneath them, miles and miles of trees and large hills. Bringing her eyes closer to home, she saw the drop the cliff offered to the forest floor, and a sudden unease filled her gut.

“Okay, I’m getting a bad sense of deja vu. Can we go back now?”

“It is gettin’ pretty late,” Applejack said, moving out of the way so Sunset could scurry back a safe distance from the edge.

Even as they proceeded back, a chilly wind washed over them, prompting them to hustle. There were no lanterns to guide them back, leaving the girls to rely on their phones for illumination. “I hope this doesn’t disturb any of the animals,” Fluttershy said.

A low growl froze them in their tracks. Sunset slowly raised her phone up, revealing more of the path until it was obscured by something black and fuzzy. Its large body flinched back at the sudden light, and it let out another growl.

Twilight made a long and low, “Eeeeep,” at the sight of the black bear. Its nose sniffed the air, and it slowly pawed its way closer to the group.

“Yeah, I think it’s a little disturbed,” Sunset said, heart pounding.

Moondancer eased a foot back. “Perhaps one of you could use your magic on it? Make sure it stays calm?”

“Doesn’t work that way.”

“Okay,” Fluttershy said, her voice surprisingly calm. “Just slowly back up. Don’t make any sudden movements or look aggressive.”

They complied. Sunset could hear their collective hearts thumping in their chests. She couldn’t believe Cadence had been right about the bear. She could believe only they had the bad enough luck to run into it. She kept her breath even and slow, as opposed to Twilight who made short hyperventilations. While it didn’t seem angered, the bear continued to follow after them.

“Perhaps we should turn off the lights?” Moondancer asked, her high pitched voice cracking.

“What, and stumble around in the dark?” Sunset hissed.

Twilight squeaked out in a voice even higher than Moondancer’s, “I read that a bear’s short legs make it harder for it to move downhill. If we could find one…”

The bear let out a short roar and picked up it’s pace toward them.

Sunset jerked her light toward the trees to her left. The gaps between them were fairly narrow, but also had copious amounts of underbrush. She took Twilight by the hand and yelled to everyone else, “This way!”

She ducked between the trees, hearing the bear roar again with earnest. They stumbled and crashed through the undergrowth, tree trunks knocking their shoulders and branches whipping their faces. The bear tried to catch up, creating an even louder disturbance then them, but after running single file through a narrow space, the animal’s cries grew more and more distant.

Once Sunset thought they had put enough distance between them and the bear, she slowed to a stop, leaning against a tree to catch her breath. Twilight collapsed into the snow, gasping and coughing. Sunset knelt down and lifted Twilight to a sitting position. “Deep breaths. That’s it, just take it easy.”

Twilight regulated her breathing, interrupted by the occasional cough. She wiped the sweat and snow off her pink face before clearing her glasses. “Are we safe?”

Applejack cast her phone light around. “Depends on your definition of ‘safe’.” The sound of the bear was gone, replaced by an eerie and unsettling silence. The light didn’t reveal much, only a thicket of trees in every direction.

Moondancer let out a short scream, making everyone jump. She held up the sleeve of her pink jacket. “I can’t believe it! Designer made and it’s been torn! Why is fortune so quick to turn against us?”

Sunset groaned. Would anyone really be mad if we lost her here?

Fluttershy huddled close to Applejack. “How are we supposed to get back now?”

Fully recovered, Twilight stood and held her phone flat in her hand. “Don’t worry, I have a compass.” She watched the digital compass’ needle spin for moment before it settled in one direction. “That way’s north, and we came from the west.” She pointed. “So, if we keep walking that way, we should make it back eventually.”

Moondancer clapped her hands. “That’s my little star, brilliant as always!”

While Twilight had the compass, she wasn’t eager to lead the way, allowing Sunset to take her place. Their footsteps filled the air with the soft crunch of snow, but the lack of any natural sound around them kept Sunset on edge. Fluttershy’s teeth chattered somewhere behind her, only compounding the tension.

The narrow beams of light their phones provided intensified the darkness just beyond. While it wasn’t cloudy, the tall pine trees and their copious branches blocked out much of the starlight above. They proceeded at a slow pace, navigating through the dense foliage with Fluttershy warning them not to step on anything that might look endangered.

Sunset held her tongue about them being the ones in danger, and instead wondered why they hadn’t found the path yet. Their trek wasn’t perfectly straight, but they kept moving in a westward direction. They hadn’t run that far off the road, had they?

Something in the air changed. Sunset felt it when the wind blew over them. Before, the silence had come from the lack of any wildlife around them. Now, Sunset knew the silence came from them being watched. She didn’t say anything to her friends, but slowed her footsteps and strained her eyes to see into the darkness.

To their left, a bush rustled, causing both Twilight and Fluttershy to jump a mile in the air. Sunset shushed them and slowly panned her light toward the bush, gaining no further reaction. She turned to the path again and jumped back at the pair of bright blue eyes reflecting her light.

The rest of its body came into view, and Sunset immediately recognized it from the carvings all around town. A brilliant white coat adorned it, brighter than the snow. It held its body proud, standing tall as it slowly crossed the girl’s path. It’s ears stood up, it’s long tail waved behind it in a slow, hypnotic fashion. Sunset moved her phone so she wasn’t shining the light in the wolf’s eyes, and realized its coat glowed in the darkness.

Twilight sucked in her breath and made another, “Eeeeeep,” at the sight of it.

“She’s beautiful,” Fluttershy said in whispered awe.

The wolf flicked her ears and looked at Fluttershy for a moment before her piercing blue eyes fell on Sunset. They were just like the statues’, gazing directly into her soul. She could feel it shiver deep within her, not with fear but… anticipation. A warning. Sunset stared back, entranced by the wolf’s presence. Something otherworldly radiated off it. Magic?

The wolf blinked, breaking her spell over Sunset and turning to stare down Moondancer. Her shoulders seized up and her pink cheeks paled again. The wolf’s gaze didn’t linger quite as long as it did with Sunset, but enough that it left an impression. She looked at the group as a whole before moving on, keeping a slow gait.

While Sunset still tried to process whether or not they had actually come across the mythical Harbinger, Fluttershy said, “Um, this is going to sound crazy but, well, I… I think she wants us to follow her.”

The wolf looked over her shoulder, ears flicking again, then kept moving.

“You want us to follow a wild wolf?” Twilight asked in a panicked whisper.

“Normally, Ah’d agree with you, Twi,” Applejack said. “But Ah don’t know. Somethin’ about that creature seems different. Like she was tryin’ to talk to us.”

Twilight opened her mouth, snapped it shut, and looked at Sunset with desperately curious eyes. Sunset just nodded her head. This was definitely a magic thing. Fluttershy took that as an end to the debate and gently pushed past Sunset to follow the wolf. She easily navigated the forest, occasionally pausing to let the girls catch up.

In a few short minutes, the trees opened up, and they found themselves on the main road with the lights of the cabins in the short distance. The wolf walked onto the other side of the trees, quickly vanishing into the darkness.

“Thank you!” Fluttershy called after her.

Applejack patted herself down, clearing off all the stray leaves and twigs. “That’s enough adventure for one night. Let’s get back before Shining sends out a search party.”

Noise returned as they neared Hollow Shades, gentle hoots and children giggling as they stayed out late. Still, the girls returned to the circle of cabins with a subdued air around them. Anxiety and confusion knotted up inside Sunset. The Harbinger appeared to bring calamity, and showed up before people with dark hearts. At least, that’s what Moondancer had said. The fact that it had appeared before Sunset and looked her in the eyes… and her dream from last night. Did it sense a darkness still within her? Were her fears justified?

But it had also led them back to civilization. And Sunset didn’t feel any malevolence when their eyes met. The imprint those blue eyes left on her soul felt like the wolf just wanted to tell her something.

Sunset pushed the door to their luxury cabin open. The first thing she saw was Shining pacing in the living room with a phone to his ear.

“The first girl is about five-foot three with purple hair and—” He whipped his around and stared at the girls as they stepped in. “Nevermind, they’re here.” He closed the phone and scowled. “Where have you been?” The question was for all of them, but his eyes were on Sunset.

“We had the luxury of running into a bear and then got lost,” Sunset said, tugging her boots off.

“And you didn’t think to call or text one of us?”

Sunset hesitated. “Uh, well, no. I mean, we were never in any real danger, right?” She looked over to the others who remained silent. “The point is, we didn’t get stranded or hurt.”

Shining rubbed the sides of his head. “No, the point is, you scared me and Cadence half to death.”

She held her arms up. “Sorry, all right? Not our fault stuff happened. We’re back, and we’re fine.”

As she made her way to the couch, she heard Shining mutter, “Yeah, something always happens when you’re around.”

Sunset flinched. Perhaps her and the wolf had something in common.

*******

Sleep was restless, but Sunset managed to avoid having any nightmares. She woke up, got dressed, and quietly discussed the possibility of a magic wolf with Twilight while breakfast was being made.

“Magic did used to exist in this world. Maybe it’s not as gone as Artemis thinks,” Sunset said.

“Yes, but what if the legends around it are true, too? Does that mean something terrible is about to happen? What are we going to do?” Half of the couch shook with the vibration from Twilight’s restless leg.

“Look, I still think Moondancer might have been exaggerating some of that story.” Sunset held her palms up. “And even if it is true, maybe some of our own magic will counter it? If it happens, it happens. We can’t wait around being paranoid forever.”

Sunset said it, but ever since she had gone to sleep, the idea that disaster could befall them at any minute kept her from properly resting. The wolf had stared at her though. Did that mean she would face a coming tragedy? It had also locked eyes with Moondancer. At least karma has a balance.

After breakfast, the girls returned to the slopes for their second day of skiing and snowboarding. Unbeknownst to Pinkie, they had every intention to cut it short so they could set up her surprise party. In the meantime, the group started on the intermediate slopes, with even Fluttershy willing to try. It took some coaxing, but she finally pushed herself over the edge and down the hill, a muffled scream coming from her scarf.

As her screams pittered out, Sunset and Rainbow watched with mixture of amusement and concern. “Do you think she’s having fun?” Sunset asked, seeing Fluttershy keep a rigid stance all the way down. She reached the bottom and fell over.

“I think she enjoyed it.” Rainbow hurried down after her. Sunset had another brief experience of deja vu as a blur came down from the top hill and rushed past Rainbow, catching enough air off a jump to do a flip with his skis. He landed, sending a flume of snow up in Rainbow’s face as he reached the bottom and knelt over Fluttershy before helping her up.

As they rode the lift back up, Sunset saw it was the young man from the reception desk, Soarin. He kept a smooth smile as he talked to Fluttershy, whose face was mostly unreadable with her scarf over her mouth. Her eyes only showed confusion.

They hopped off the ski lift, and Soarin greeted everyone with a wave and another smooth smile. “Nice to see you’re all having fun. My parents gave me the day off, so I decided to spend it up here.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “How convenient, him getting the day off when there are pretty girls in his backyard,” she whispered to Sunset.

“If any of you girls are beginners, I’d be happy to give you a few pointers,” Soarin said. “I was just telling your friend Fluttershy here the best way to hold your body while going downhill.”

Shining looked ready boot him off the mountain, but Rainbow came up on the next ski lift, face red, and Sunset doubted it was from the cold. “Thanks, but no thanks, Soarin kid. We’re doing just fine on our own.” She squeezed her way between him and Fluttershy. And glared.

Soarin took a step back, still trying to look cool. “Right on. So how long have you been skiing for?”

“Long enough.”

Sunset held herself from making a sharp remark. She was supposed to be on Rainbow’s side after all.

Seeing his chances of wooing dwindling by the second, Soarin gave them a friendly wink and went on his way, flipping off another jump on his way to the bottom.

Rainbow snorted. “He thinks he’s so cool. I could do that with enough practice.”

“He did seem kind of nice,” Fluttershy said.

“Please, that’s just an act. He only wants one thing from you, ‘Shy.”

“What’s that?”

As a collective group, no one quite had the heart to answer her. One by one they slipped down the mountain, leaving Rainbow to awkwardly explain. Over the next hour, the group had to deal with Soarin occasionally passing them by on the hills, winking, waving, or performing any manner of trick. Sunset merely ignored him, but Rainbow’s face tightened more and more as time went on.

“That’s it!” she said as Soarin flew past, coming from the top slope. “I’m going to show this guy I can be just as cool as he can!”

“Why?” Applejack asked.

“So he’ll stop showing off!”

“You mean showing you up?” Sunset said, smirking in satisfaction at Rainbow’s scowl. Rainbow hopped back over to the lift zone and waited for it to take her to the top. Sunset shook her head and followed in her footsteps. “Someone should go to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.”

Sunset waited for the next chair and followed her to the peak. From the top, Hollow Shades with its short gingerbread buildings with snow icing looked like a Christmas postcard. The freezing wind blew harder up here, making Las Vegas sound more like heaven. She hobbled up to Rainbow, wrapping her arms around herself.

“You didn’t have to come with me,” she said.

“And you don’t have to be a showoff trying to rise to any challenge, even when they aren’t challenges, but here we are.” She looked down the powdery hill. “What do you plan on doing anyway?”

Rainbow pushed her snowboard to the edge of the hill and strapped her back boot in. “I’m gonna slide down this hill and pull off a flip. If he can do it, so can I.”

Sunset brought her gloved hands to her lips, took in a deep breath, then pulled them away. “Dash, in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve had quite a few dumb ideas. This one might take the cake.”

“Or, it’s the best one yet.”

“No, it’s really not!”

But Rainbow dismissed her and pushed over the hump, sending herself down hill. Somewhere in the distance, Sunset heard a wolf howl.

“Oh, Celestia.” She strapped her boot in and jumped down after Rainbow, unsure of what she could even do.

Wind and snow stung her face as she chased Rainbow down. With only a day of practice, Rainbow had clearly improved, but Sunset could see the occasional wobble. They passed under Soarin as he rode the lift back to the top just as Rainbow went off her first jump, touching the front of her board with her hand. She landed, wobbled again, but kept going.

“Rainbow!” Sunset shouted, but the rushing wind was too loud for her to take notice. She could still hear the wolf howl in her ears though, and a cold sweat broke out on the back of her neck. One of the larger jumps loomed close, and Rainbow made a beeline for it. Sunset could only cross her fingers and hope that the dread bubbling up in her was nothing more than superstitious paranoia.

Rainbow caught a large amount of air, and at the height of her jump, she thrusted her body forward in her attempt to flip. She rotated halfway through before gravity threw her back against the ground, her left shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. Sunset didn’t hear the cracking of bone, but she heard Rainbow’s anguished scream.

Sunset reached her and jerked her board to a stop. “Rainbow!” She unstrapped her boots and gently turned Rainbow onto her back. “How bad is it?”

With her teeth clenched so tightly, Rainbow could only make pained grunts. She gripped her shoulder, refusing to let Sunset examine it.

Soarin slid to a stop next to them, all traces of his smooth, cool attitude gone. “Here, let me take a look.” He unzipped Rainbow’s jacket and pushed the collar of her shirt down, revealing a rapidly swelling purple bruise. He gingerly ran a finger along her collarbone until she let out another shout of pain.

Soarin grimaced. “Yeah, it’s broken. Hold on, we’ll get you to the hospital.”

He rushed down to the base of the mountain, leaving Sunset alone with her wounded friend, the rest of the group still on the hill yards below them, unaware of what had happened. The wolf howled from the forest, and Sunset thought of its piercing blue eyes foretelling trouble.

“Something always happens when you’re around.”

Sunset clenched her jaw and looked away from Rainbow’s pain contorted face. “I’m sorry, Dash.”

6. Kindness and Laughter

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A small two story building served as Hollow Shades’ hospital. Sunset had never been to one in the human world, but she had a feeling they weren’t usually this empty. Aside from her own large party, there were two parents sitting with their son who kept a hand over his eye.

Fluttershy rocked back and forth in her chair, alternating between biting her nails and tugging on her hair. She kept her eyes on the door, sometimes going minutes without blinking.

Sunset reached over and pulled her hand away from her bangs. “Stop that, you’re going to pull your hair out. Rainbow’s going to be okay.” Sunset believed her own words but couldn’t shake the guilt that had followed her down the mountain. If she hadn’t been here, would things have turned out different? Would the Harbinger have stayed away without her darkness to attract it?

The doors opened, and Rainbow walked out beside Shining, her arm held up in a sling and her face dour. Fluttershy bolted from her seat and rushed over, being careful not to touch Rainbow’s shoulder.

“Are you okay? How much does it hurt? What were you thinking? I know what you were thinking! That meany, Soarin got into your head! But you shouldn’t have done something like that! Is there anything I can do for you?”

Rainbow held her good arm up. “‘Shy, I’m fine, really,” she said in a tired voice.

“The doctor said it was a pretty clean break,” Shining said. “As long as she doesn’t overexert herself, it should heal up in about two months.”

Rainbow let out a bemoaned sigh. “There goes most of track season. I can’t run like this! What if a talent scout was hoping to see me?” Her sigh became a frustrated shout, and she rested her head against Fluttershy's shoulder.

Fluttershy stroked her hair. “You still have those soccer scouts that were interested in you. You could still get scholarships for college.” She led Rainbow to the front entrance, the others following close behind while Shining checked out.

Pinkie bounced up to Rainbow and Fluttershy. “Here, I got you a lollipop to make you feel better, Dashie!” She pulled out one of the comically large lollipops swirling with rainbows. “Can I sign your sling later?”

Rainbow tried to smile, but it was weighed down with guilt. “Thanks, Pinkie. And sure, you can sign it when we get home.”

Sunset shared the guilt Rainbow held, as did everyone else but Pinkie. Thanks to the accident, Shining decided it would be best for them to leave now, meaning no surprise party. Sunset was sure the others weren’t exactly in a party mood anyway. Still half the reason they had came up to Hollow Shades was to give Pinkie a good birthday.

Back at the cabin, everyone began packing their things while Moondancer called for the helicopter. Sunset hid her portion of the party supplies in the bottom of her suitcase, swearing they’d still give Pinkie a great party when they got back home.

There was a knock on her and Rarity’s door, and she looked up to find Twilight. She waved and stepped across the threshold. “Just wanted to see if I could help with anything.”

Rarity neatly folded her clothes and packed them away. “Thank you, darling, but we’re just about finished. You’re more than welcome to stay though.”

Twilight sat on the edge of Sunset’s bed. “I’m glad a broken clavicle is the only injury Rainbow got. She’s pretty lucky all things considered.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said absently.

Twilight tapped her fingers together. “I mean, there was a statistically slim chance she could pull off that kind of acrobatic feat with only one day of practice.”

Sunset appreciated Twilight’s attempt, but the guilt remained. “Twilight…”

“Okay, magic or not, there’s no way a ghost wolf caused Rainbow to hurt herself.” She crossed her arms defiantly. “Nor was it drawn here by any of us being evil. There’s no proof—even with the magic you’ve shown me—that suggests such a thing.”

“True.” Sunset closed her suitcase. “But this is also magic from this world, which I know a lot less about.”

“Didn’t you say a wolf helped you find the road last night?” Rarity asked.

“Yes! See, the ghost wolf helped us. Why would it turn around and curse us?” Twilight paused and slapped a hand to her forehead. “Another sentence to fall under the list of ‘least scientific things I’ve ever said’.”

Sunset picked up her suitcase and headed for the living room. “Look, it happened. We can’t prove if it was magically influenced or not.”

Following behind Sunset, Twilight gasped and grabbed her hand. “Maybe we can!” As soon as Sunset set her luggage down, Twilight yanked her to follow, leading them back to the main lobby. She swirled her head around until she locked onto Soarin, sweeping the front mat clear of snow and dirt. “Soarin!”

He looked up and smiled in a guilty fashion. “Hey, sorry about your friend. I kinda feel like it might be partially my fault.”

“Eh, Rainbow’s always hot-headed,” Sunset said.

“That’s not what we wanted to talk to you about,” Twilight said. “Well, not exactly. You’ve lived here your whole life, right?”

He nodded. Yeah?”

Twilight pointed to the wolf statue. “What can you tell us about that wolf?”

Soarin raised his eyebrows. “Oh, Harbinger? Yeah, she gets kinda a bad rep. You see, she’s been haunting my family for generations. They thought seeing her was a bad omen and something terrible was about to happen. When my great-great grandfather moved out here, she followed, and every time she howled, something bad happened not long after.”

He swung his arms out. “Then one year, there was this really bad blizzard! Like, massive! Some of the villagers got lost in the forest trying to get home before it hit. My grandpa was one of them. With all the snow falling, they thought they were doomed. But then, even in all the white, they saw Harbinger’s coat glowing just bright enough to stand out. With her bright fur and blue eyes, she led them to safety.

“After that, my family came to realize, she didn’t bring bad luck, she came to warn people something bad was about to happen. So, she’s less of a harbinger and more of a messenger and a guardian.”

Sunset grit her teeth. “I knew Moondancer was playing up that story.”

Soarin nodded with a dreamy light in his eyes. “Yeah, she was pretty interested in the legend too. Why, did you run into Harbinger?”

Twilight nodded. “Last night, we got lost in the forest and she led us back.”

“Wicked!” He frowned. “I guess she was trying to warn you about your friend.”

“Yeah…” Sunset remembered the way Harbinger had looked at her though. Had she been trying to tell Sunset about Rainbow, or was it a different message meant for her? Still, a weight lifted from her shoulders. The wolf wasn’t attracted by darkness. It didn’t come thanks to Sunset.

Don’t get all cozy, a voice hissed. You still have a tendency to land your friends in some dangerously hot water.

“Thank you for all your help, Soarin,” Twilight said. “We really appreciate it.”

Soarin put on his cool smile again. “Anything for such a pretty face.”

Sunset put her hands on Twilight’s shoulders. “Hahahaha, don’t even think about it, pretty boy.” She turned Twilight toward the back door, glaring at a sheepish looking Soarin as they walked out.

“Well, I was half right,” Twilight said. “I knew the wolf wasn’t attracted to ‘our dark hearts’ or whatever. Moondancer was just trying to scare us.” She rubbed her chin. “How does a wolf know when something bad is about to happen though? It’s not like predicting the weather. I mean, if you know a person well enough, you could predict their future actions based off of habitual patterns and probability, but you’d still have to account for external forces and—”

“Remember when I said there are still some things you can’t explain with magic?” Sunset asked.

“Yes,” Twilight said, knitting her brow.

“This is one of them. Magic ghost wolf can predict bad luck.” Sunset shrugged. “I’ve heard of stranger things.”

Twilight huffed. “How infuriating.”

*******

The flight home was quiet with Rainbow brooding in the back and Shining disgruntled upfront, Fluttershy and Cadence trying to cheer them up respectively. They landed in front of Moondancer’s stately manor just as the sun touched the horizon.

“Sorry about your shoulder, Rainbow,” Pinkie said sincerely. “But I hope you still had fun?”

Rainbow gave her a weak smile. “Did you have fun?”

Pinkie hopped into the air. “Are you kidding? I had a blast! And I brought back plenty of rock candy for my whole family!” She pulled out her bag of sweets.

Rainbow’s smile grew. “Well, if you had fun, then I had fun.”

Shining put a hand on her back. “Come on, Rainbow, we’ll take you home.” Shining sighed. “So I can explain to your dad what happened.”

“Hey, don’t worry too much. It was my fault; I’ll take the heat off it. Besides, this isn’t even the worst injury I’ve gotten. I broke my hand in fifth grade pretty bad.”

Fluttershy shuddered. “I remember that.”

Just as the last of their luggage had been taken out of the helicopter, the front doors to the manor opened up, and out stepped a tall, pale man with a blue suit and slick purple hair pulled into a ponytail. His purple eyes swept over the crowd, stopping on Moondancer, who Sunset noticed kept her expression exceptionally neutral.

“Moondancer,” he said, stepping down the driveway, “I was under the impression you’d be returning tomorrow.” His voice betrayed his rigid and straight posture, sounding bored and dismissive.

“Yes, well, we had a bit of an accident while snowboarding and thought it wise to come home early,” Moondancer said, folding her fingers in front of her.

“Sorry, Mr. Night Shade,” Shining said, taking a step forward. “We actually had a few incidents, and I thought it best if we just went home before anything else went wrong. I hope it’s not an inconvenience.”

Night Shade waved an equally dismissive hand. “No, it’s fine. As long as you’re all fine.” He turned to Moondancer. “We have a guest. Unpack your things and join us in the parlor, please.” He dipped his head to the rest of the group. “Good evening.”

Moondancer cleared her throat as the doors closed behind her father. “I suppose I should hurry along then. Thank you all for coming with me on this little retreat. I had a wonderful time. Rainbow, I do hope you feel better soon.”

Rainbow grumbled out a begrudging, “Thank you.”

“Twilight, my sweet, I will correspond with you soon.” She twiddled her fingers at Twilight and Sunset and hurried inside. Everyone else gathered their things and loaded their cars.

Sunset and Twilight kissed one another goodbye, promising to talk later that night. After a round of hugs, she and Rarity were on the road home.

“We didn’t get around to the party, but at least Pinkie had a good time,” Rarity said.

“Yeah.” Sunset leaned against the window. “Still, I want to actually show her that we care. Give her something personal. I know Maud said she’d be happy with anything, but…”

Rarity hummed, tapping a finger against her lip. “I might have an idea. But I’ll need to double check it first before I get any of our hopes up.” They stopped by Rarity’s home first. Trixie had left Spot in the care of Sweetie Belle while everyone was away.

Opening the front door, Sunset and Rarity found the two in the living room. Spot wore a tutu around his middle and looked rather miserable. Sweetie had a boom box playing and was apparently trying to teach him how to dance. She froze, cheeks scarlet when she saw her sister and Sunset in the doorway.

“R-Rarity! I thought you weren’t coming home until tomorrow!” her high pitched voice cracked.

Rarity pressed a hand to her mouth, trying not to laugh. “There were a few complications. I’m glad you were having fun without me though.”

Sunset picked Spot up and helped him out of the tutu, receiving a generous lick as a sign of gratitude. “Thanks for watching him, Sweetie.”

“N-no problem!” She smiled sheepishly.

Rarity dropped Sunset off in front of the Lulamoon’s house. “Are you sure you’ll be all right by yourself, sweetheart?”

Sunset pulled her suitcase out of the back seat. “Don’t worry; it’s not like I’m not used to it. Besides, I have Spot.”

“Well if you need anything, just give any of us a call.”

She nodded and waved as Rarity drove away, heading inside once her car had disappeared around the corner. She led Spot inside, listening to the pitter-patter of his feet against the wood floor. Without any of the Lulamoons, the house was unusually quiet. The homey feeling that Sunset usually experienced had diminished. The numerous photos and tapestries kept it alive, but it wasn’t the same without the living things. It reminded her a lot of her old factory hovel.

She knew going upstairs would only lead her to talk to Princess Twilight, pushing her further into a past she was trying to crawl out of. She carried Spot to the living room instead. “Come on, let’s go watch a movie. Something with a lot of explosions.”

*******

Fluttershy walked up the steps to Rainbow’s front door, basket over her arm. She gave the doorbell a gentle push and waited patiently for a response. Rainbow’s dad opened the door and smiled brightly at her, gesturing her inside.

“Hey, little Flutters. Here to see the patient?”

She nodded and held up her basket. “I thought I’d bring over a few things to make her feel better. How’s she doing?”

Rainbow Blaze walked her through the den and to the stairs. “Moping more than usual. Last time she broke something, she just complained about how bored she was. This time…” He sighed. “She’s really down about missing out on her last year of high school sports.”

Fluttershy lowered her eyes. “I can’t imagine how that feels.”

He patted her on the shoulder. “But, if anyone can cheer her up, it’s you, right?”

Trying to put on her most confident smile, Fluttershy nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

“Atta girl!” He directed her upstairs, and Fluttershy followed the familiar hallway to Rainbow’s room. She gave a soft rapt on the open door.

Rainbow looked up from her messy bed and waved Fluttershy in. Fluttershy stepped over a discarded pair of running shorts and set her basket down on a clean part of the carpet. She looked over the extensive collection of medals and trophies against the sky blue walls.

“Hi, Rainbow.” Fluttershy sat down on a corner of the bed, dusting away some chip crumbs.

“Hey, ‘Shy,” she said listlessly. She flipped a page of the comic book propped up on her leg. “What’s up?”

“I came over to take care of you for a little bit,” Fluttershy said, making sure not to make eye contact. She reached for her basket. “I brought you some cookies…” She pulled out a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies. “Some medical herbs that my mom says will bring some of the swelling down…” She took out a small box of green, sweet smelling plants. “A couple of movies, and a bunny for you to snuggle with.” Last out of the basket was a small brown rabbit with a twitching nose.

Rainbow leaned her head back and let out a sigh that to anyone else would have sounded ungrateful, but Fluttershy, having known her since first grade, heard the appreciation. Even when it was just the two of them, Rainbow had to keep up her ‘cool’ act.

“You know you didn’t have to do that, ‘Shy. Especially the rabbit.”

The rabbit was the first thing she reached for.

As Rainbow brought the bunny to her chest, Fluttershy opened the tin of cookies and held one out for Rainbow to eat. Realizing her good arm was occupied, Rainbow leaned forward and ate from Fluttershy’s hand. “Thanks,” she said, her cheeks reddening a little. “Oh wow, these are your best yet!”

Fluttershy looked down again, playing with the folds of her skirt. “I’m glad you like them.” She let Rainbow finish the cookie before looking up again. “So, how are you feeling?”

This time Rainbow’s sigh was one of discontentment. “Sunset was right. Getting worked up over Soarin’s stupid tricks was stupid. It didn’t help that he was trying to act all cool in front of us, especially you.”

Instead of looking down again, Fluttershy used her tried and true method of hiding behind her hair. At first, she thought he was just being nice. But his show-offy nature brought out Rainbow’s competitive side, and lead to her injury. The thought sparked a rare jolt of anger.

“Look where trying to show him up got me.” She weakly waved her arm, wincing at the slight movement. “Do you know how hard it is to take a shower with one hand and limited movement?”

“Umm, no?”

“Pretty hard.” Rainbow scratched the bunny behind the ear, falling silent for a minute. “I’m competitive,” she said softly, “that’s who I am. I play to be number one. I should have been smart enough to know not to compete with someone who’s been skiing for years. Now I can’t compete in the stuff I’m actually good at.” She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes closed.

Fluttershy scooted across the bed and pulled her into a hug. Rainbow let out a few choked sobs she tried to pass off as grunts. “I just…” She regained her composure, but stayed in Fluttershy’s embrace. “I can’t believe I’m going to end senior year like this. What if the soccer scouts say no? What if I don’t even get into any colleges? What am I supposed to do then?”

“You pick yourself up and keep training,” Fluttershy said firmly.

“But—”

Fluttershy lifted Rainbow up and looked her in the eye, feeling one of those fleeting moments of total confidence. “You want to go to the Olympics or the World Cup, and the road there is never easy. Maybe you won’t get noticed the first time, or the second time. But you’re a champion, Rainbow Dash. And champions never quit. I’m sorry you got injured, and I know how much it hurts, but I also know you’ll overcome it and get stronger! Someone will see your talents and whisk you away to be a legend.”

Rainbow stared in awe for a second before breaking out into a wide grin. She hugged Fluttershy again. “What’d I do to get an awesome friend like you?”

Fluttershy sighed contently, burying her face in Rainbow’s hair. “Helped me out of a tree.”

“Oh yeah. Heh, good times.” She rested her head against Fluttershy’s neck. “Thanks, Fluttershy. You’re the best.”

Her stomach fluttered with warm butterflies. “You’re welcome, Rainbow. And I’ll be here rooting for you, every step of the way.” The warm butterflies left her stomach and spread through her body, leaving every inch over tingling, especially her ears and back. It actually felt very familiar…

Fluttershy gasped as her wings materialized behind her, and her pony ears popped up on the top of her head. She and Rainbow broke away, gaping at one another.

“Whoa! How did you—”

“I-I-I don’t know! I was just hugging you—”

“I know! I thought we only did that with music—”

“But I have wings again—”

“I know! It’s totally awesome!” Rainbow looked at the door. “Crap, we should close that before my dad comes up and sees.”

Fluttershy crossed the room with a single, involuntary flap of her wings. She gently shut it and deliberately walked back. “Oh my gosh! What do we do?”

Rainbow reached for her phone. “Don’t panic. Let’s just call Sunset and see what she thinks.” While Rainbow dialed, Fluttershy thought to Twilight and her previous experiments, and hoped they wouldn’t have to go through another, possibly more extensive round. “Dammit, I got her voicemail. Hey, Shimmer, call me or Fluttershy back; we kinda have a bit of a magical situation here.”

“What do we do in the meantime?”

“Well, it usually goes away after a little while. Just hang out here and hope my dad doesn’t walk in.”

Fluttershy wasn’t sure why, but her cheeks heated up. “O-okay.” She sat on the bed again. “I-if you want, we can watch a movie. Or you can try some of the medicine.”

“Sure, why not?” Rainbow sat a little straighter and moved the rabbit onto her blanket. “I’ll try your mom’s hippie medicine. No offense.”

Only because it was from Rainbow did Fluttershy not take offense. She pulled a small bowl from the basket and started to grind and mash the herbs up with her hands, getting it into as fine a paste as she could. She smeared her fingers with it and held it up to Rainbow’s collarbone. “Please hold still. I’ll be as gentle as possible.”

Rainbow closed her eyes and snickered. “Two things. One: you’re Fluttershy—I’d be scared if it wasn’t gentle. And two: that’s what she said.”

Fluttershy was glad Rainbow had her eyes closed. This time, her blush rose from her cheeks all the way to her pony ears. “R-Rainbow!”

“Sorry, sorry! It was too easy!”

Hand now trembling, Fluttershy ran her fingers over the inflamed area, brushing it as lightly as possible. Rainbow cringed but said nothing. As her fluster died down, Fluttershy started to hum, massaging Rainbow’s shoulder just a little harder.

A pink glow enveloped her hands and spread to Rainbow’s injury. Fluttershy yelped and quickly pulled away, but the glow remained in both places.

“What? What happ—whoa!” Rainbow gaped at the phenomena. “What’s going on now?”

“I don’t know! I’m sorry!” Fluttershy wailed. The pink glow faded from her hands, taking with it both her wings and ears, leaving in its place a faint exhaustion that made her head light. The glow lingered on Rainbow’s shoulder a second longer before vanishing as well, leaving Rainbow with wide eyes.

Very slowly, she wiggled her fingers, then carefully removed her arm from the sling. She and Fluttershy traded looks of pure astoundment as she rolled her shoulder and stretched her arm out.

“Awesome,” Rainbow said breathlessly.

*******

Sunset’s mouth hung open as she watched Rainbow wiggle and flex her arm. Her eyes turned to Fluttershy, trying to hide her blushing face.

“So you ponied up,” Twilight said, pacing next to Sunset, “then rubbed Rainbow’s shoulder and her clavicle just healed.”

“Well, I was using medical herbs too,” Fluttershy said.

“Yeah, I doubt it was the herbs,” Sunset said.

Twilight raised a hand. “It could have been a catalyst,” she said with a strain in her voice. After another minute of pacing, she collapsed onto the park bench next to Sunset. “Catalyst or not, Fluttershy has healing abilities now. How? Why?

“I’m trying to figure out how she ponied up without music,” Sunset said. “That’s been the trigger so far. Why did it change now?”

Twilight jumped up. “Excellent question! Perhaps if we recreate the entire scene with the right stimuli, we can find out!”

Rainbow’s hand jumped to her shoulder. “I’m not breaking anymore bones!”

“Girls!” Rarity rapped her knuckles on the picnic table. “Focus, please. Rainbow, I’m more than delighted to see you healed up, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious as to how it happened, but we’re here to put together Pinkie’s party.”

Applejack walked over, carrying a box of sodas and cups. “Yeah, and Ah would appreciate a little help. You got two arms again, Dash, so Ah don’t wanna hear any excuses.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes but said nothing as she went to assist. Sunset got up and filled bowls with candy before working on the horse-shaped pinata. I feel like I should be offended by this. Once it was strung up, she helped a wheezing Twilight finish blowing up balloons. All the while, the loud hum of the bounce house’s air tank provided them with background noise.

Sunset had to hand it to Rarity; using their favor with the mayor to rent the biggest jumper without having to pay for it was pretty ingenious. The house was large, pink (much to Sunset’s chagrin), and even came with a slide. Other kids walking through Canterlot Park looked at it enviously, some of them loitering around, no doubt to try and spot the birthday kid and ask if they could join in.

As Sunset stepped back and looked at their colorful handiwork, she couldn’t help but snort. “This looks like a party for a five year old.”

“Well, Pinkie is technically four, so…” Applejack shrugged.

“And now we just need our guest of honor,” Rarity said, setting the cake down on the table.

“Want me to go get her?” Rainbow asked.

Rarity shook her head. “No, she should be here any minute.” While they waited, Twilight continued to press Rainbow and Fluttershy about their miracle yesterday. Sunset occupied her time by shooing kids away from the picnic area. Nice as she was now, little kids still bugged her.

They heard Pinkie’s high-pitched giggles before they even saw her. “I’m so excited! You know how much I love surprises, Maud! Oooh, oooh, can I make more guesses? Is it a giant cake? Did you find the lost city of Atlantis? Did you find a leprechaun?

Maud led Pinkie across the field, her expression as deadpan as ever. Pinkie had a blindfold over her, but that didn’t stop her from bouncing and skipping. The girls gathered around as Maud brought her up to the table.

“Here you go.” She took Pinkie’s blindfold off.

“Surprise!” everyone shouted. “Happy birthday, Pinkie!”

Pinkie’s eyes lingered on the large bounce house in the center before they darted to the table covered in snacks and a large cake, then to the pinata hanging from a tree, and the Twister mat being pinned to the grass by several rocks. Her mouth hung open just slightly, but she showed no reaction otherwise.

Rarity stepped forward. “We wanted to throw you a party while we were up in the mountains, but that didn’t work out. So, we threw this together instead, with some help from the mayor.”

Fluttershy put her hands together and bowed her head. “We’re so sorry we didn’t celebrate your birthday earlier, Pinkie. I hope you can forgive us.”

Pinkie looked over the festivities again before her eyes stopped on her friends in front of her. Then, Sunset saw something she had never seen before. Pinkie bit down on her lip, her eyes filling to the brim with tears. She made several short hiccups, trying to keep her oncoming emotions down. Sunset had seen Pinkie blubber and wail with dramatic fashion at happy or sad moments in movies, but never this. This was honest vulnerability.

“Are you okay?” Sunset asked.

“I… I…” Pinkie furiously rubbed her eyes. “I thought… you had all forgotten. B-but, I couldn’t be mad. W-we had to fight the Sirens, and we w-were all getting m-mad at each other, and m-my birthday isn’t on a r-real day anyway. So I didn’t say anything.”

Applejack walked over to her and embraced her first. “Ah wish you had said something, sugarcube. Ah reckon a party might have helped keep our heads on straight.”

Rainbow joined in on the other side. “You throw parties for us all the time! The least we could do is throw one for you, celebrating the most important day of your life!”

Pinkie’s entire face trembled, and she broke into a sob and a laugh, burying her face in Rainbow’s shoulder. “I can’t believe you did this for me! You’re all the best!” Everyone joined in on the hug, even Sunset, though she was last and stayed on the outside.

Once Pinkie got a few sobs out, she broke free from the circle and threw her arms up, her cheerful smile back and face glowing with pink mirth. “This is the best surprise ever!” She froze and looked again at Rainbow. “Dashie! Your arm’s fixed!”

“Huh? Oh yeah.” Rainbow waved. “Long story. We’ll talk about it later. Today’s about you!”

Pinkie pulled Rainbow into a bear hug, managing to take some of her air away. After a loud squee, she said, “Come on, besties! Let’s party!” She dropped Rainbow and kicked off her shoes, then dove into the bounce house.

The others followed suit, Sunset ditching her jacket as well so her spike cuffs wouldn’t poke a hole anywhere. She had never been in a bounce house before, believing it to be far too childish for the likes of her. And while she still found it childish, by no means did that make it unfun.

Outside, Maud sat by the cake, petting Boulder with her finger. She looked at her sister laughing with her friends, and smiled.

*******

Lamia thought her measly cat-burglary days were over. She had graduated onto bigger and better things: bank vaults for clients, high-clearance information labs… the museum for one lousy diamond!

She took a controlled breath, pressing a hand to her heart. “Easy, girl. Stay calm. You’re on duty.” But even with her measured breathing, her blood boiled at the thoughts of what could have been. She had been this close to selling the Crystal Heart and making out like a bandit, pun intended! She could have been rich! She could have been in Greece!

That damn sword woman! Those damn dazzle siren whatevers! And that tattle-telling bitch of a doppelganger! Lamia clenched her fists, her latex gloves making a light squelch. I don’t know how, but I’ll make them all pay. I’ll ruin you, mini-me.

Jórmangandr hissed into her ear, reminding her that she had been sitting in the branch of the tree for too long. She had a job to do. It wouldn’t make her as much money as selling the heart, but it was a start. Lamia raised her infrared binoculars and peered between the eaves of the trees. Thirty yards in front of her sat a tall marble wall with golden fence spikes running along the top. Beyond it was a three story manor complete with an extravagant garden. Yes, the people in the Upper Villa sure knew how to spend their money. A glass gazebo, a babbling stream, and the latest security monitors hanging above the back entrance.

Lamia knew robbing any house in Canterlot’s richest neighborhood would be a challenge. So why not just go for the richest and the fanciest? Either go big or go home. The last light inside had flicked off almost an hour ago, leaving the mansion thinly illuminated by the garden lanterns.

Lamia had thrown this heist together in a little less than a week. She had learned the floor plans, caught glimpses inside to make sure they had valuables worth stealing, and had gotten a reasonable idea of their schedule. The house was always occupied by the staff, but everyone went to bed just after midnight.

Slipping her mask on, Lamia climbed down the tree, Jórmangandr wrapped around her neck like always. She crept up to the manor wall and reached into her near empty bag, producing a small black box with an antenna and a single switch: her short-ranged EMP for when she needed to disable lower-level security systems. Rich as these people were, they security they had was still second rate to what Lamia normally had to deal with. She flipped the switch, counted to ten, then tossed the box back into her satchel.

“Let’s have some fun, Jorgey.”

With the grace and agility of a cat, Lamia scaled the wall and grabbed hold of the fence posts at the top, using them to vault over and land on the other side in a crouch. The stream snaking through the garden helped mask her footsteps as she crossed over toward the house. She used the ivy growing along the back wall to help her ascent, keep her weight perfectly distributed so it wouldn’t snap on her. When the ivy ran out she gave the marble a firm press with her hands until the sticky adhesive came to the surface. She reached the roof and walked over to the side of the house. None of the back windows were safe to use, so she opted for one that led to an office.

She crawled down the wall to the second floor and peered through the window first. Darkness stared back at her, shifting until she could start to make out shapes. Like the floor plans told her, a large office sat on the other side of the glass. Already, Lamia could see a glass case full of chalices made from precious metals.

Lamia pried a hand from the wall and reached into her utility belt. She pulled out a thin, sharp metal object and placed the tip against the window, slowly and carefully making a wide circle in the glass. Her tool made a quiet squealing noise as it went, sending a bead of sweat down Lamia’s face. This was always the hardest part. Once she had made a full circle, she pulled up and waited to see if anyone had heard her commotion. When no one came to investigate, she placed a hand on the circle, pushing it inward, the glass sticking to her palm. She climbed into the room and set the glass down.

Now for my prizes. She approached the glass cabinet, smiling at her reflection, though she couldn’t see it behind her cowl. It took only a bobby pin to pick the lock. She lifted the first chalice, silver with four rubies embedded into it. A thousand. Maybe two. She placed it in her satchel and reached for the next one, made of sapphire with moons carved into it. Oh, you’ll fetch a pretty good price.

“You should either be commended for your bravery—”

Years of training and honed instincts taught Lamia not to scream in surprise. But her entire body locked up and her heart drilled into her chest.

“—or reprimanded for your foolishness,” a light, refined voice said behind her.

Lamia didn’t need to tell Jórmangandr to sic, he flew off her shoulder with a loud hiss, striking at whoever was unfortunate enough to catch her in the act. Only, the satisfying sound of fangs in skin never came. She turned around and went rigid a second time. Jòrmangandr floated in the air, covered in a purple glow, squirming but unable to break free. She looked beyond him to the girl holding her hand out, emitting a similar glow. Lamia recognized her from the Battle of the Bands, she had been the prissy princess playing piano with her doppleganger’s girlfriend.

Small world. Lamia whipped out a throwing knife and hurled it at her. The girl flung her other hand out, and the knife stopped in mid air.

“Caught in a corner, the alley cat begins to bare its fangs and hiss,” the girl said in a sing-song voice. She pushed her hands forward, and both Jórmangandr and the knife flew back toward Lamia. She ducked out of the way, her snake’s tail still slapping her across the face, but she managed to avoid being stabbed by her own knife.

“Pray tell…” The girl stepped into the office, wearing only a silk nightgown that flowed down to her ankles. “What possessed you to think this was a good idea?”

Lamia had to admit, for a teenage girl being robbed, she was surprisingly calm. Of course, having glowing magical powers probably helped. Instead of answering, Lamia rushed up and struck out with her open palm. The girl spun to the side, ducking under Lamia’s follow-up hit, then merely pushed her hands out again. Neither of them touched Lamia, but it felt as if a giant socked her in the stomach and threw her across the room. She hit the wall and slid to the floor.

The girl took a deep breath and brushed a lock of hair from in front of her eyes. “Hm? Oh, I know who you are.” She drew closer to Lamia. “Yes, the Snake Queen. To what do I owe this unsavory pleasure?”

Holding her sore ribs, Lamia glared up at her, teeth bared. “Freaking magic! Have I actually stepped into some goddamn anime? Does every teenager have magic now?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You mean you’ve met others like me?”

Lamia clamped her mouth shut. She shouldn’t be wasting her breath talking to this heiress, she should be looking for a way out of this mess. She had gotten out of tighter spots before; there was no way some teenager would get the better of her, freaky magic powers or not.

On cue, Jórmangandr sprung again, aiming for the girl’s ankle. She jumped at the last possible second and hovered in the air, aiming her hand at the snake. A small bolt of light shot forth and hit Jórmangandr along the back. He flailed in pain and quickly recoiled to his master’s side.

Lamia used that brief window to throw out her second knife. She didn’t look to see if it impaled her target; she scooped up Jórmangandr and made a bid for the window. She collided with solid air and fell onto her back, her nose sore from the collision.

“So sorry, but you haven’t been given permission to leave.” The girl was on the ground again, examining Lamia’s throwing knife. “Hmph, how mundane and tasteless. Though, I suppose I can’t expect much from a common thief.”

Lamia rolled up and backward, aiming a kick for the prissy girl’s face. Instead of being shoved back by an invisible hand, Lamia froze, hanging upside down in midair.

“And so the thief stumbled into the castle, and found more than she bargained for. How could she have known the princess was also the dragon?”

The flowery sweetness in her voice made Lamia want to throw up.

Pressing her fingertips together, she made a slow circle around Lamia. “Now, shall I call the police? Or perhaps deliver you to a darker power?” A dark light sparkled in her eye. “No one would miss common filth like you.”

“Are you threatening me?”

She held the back of her hand to her mouth and laughed. “Oh, I don’t make threats. To borrow a cliché, I make promises.” She lowered her hand and smiled the way a cat smiled at a mouse. “I promise to do neither if you cooperate with me.”

Lamia made a growl that rose into a hiss. Hard as she tried, she couldn’t get her body to move an inch. Why? Why when I’m at the cusp of having everything, it gets ripped away! First those divas, now this bitch! Was this karma; payback for all her previous crimes? But she knew people who had done far worse and were living the high life.

Two roads stretched before Lamia. The short one led to her imprisonment after the cops hauled her away. The second, she couldn’t see. She’d be at the mercy of this magic empowered child. She’d either permanently lose her freedom, or play puppet until she found an opportunity to cut the strings.

She would have spat if she could. “Fine. I’ll play your game. What do you want?”

With a flip of her red and purple hair, the girl said, “First, tell me, who else did you encounter that wielded magic?”

Lamia narrowed her eyes at the thought. “More teenage brats like you. They call themselves the Spectacular Seven or something like that. I think your friend Twilight is with them?”

“Of course,” she said bitterly. “I assumed that’s who you were referring to. A relief I suppose, though now I’m curious as how you came across them.”

“Long story. Let’s just say I owe their leader a debt.”

“Oh?” An excited gleam overtook the girl’s eyes. “A grudge against one Sunset Shimmer perhaps?” She made a small laugh. “Perhaps you and I will get along, Snake Queen. I do not hold Sunset in the highest regard either.”

Lamia wondered what the girl would say if she took off her mask. The blood was beginning to go to her head, making it feel heavy. “All right miss…”

“Moondancer. Or My Lady.”

“Yeah, not gonna happen. Moondancer, either tell me what you really want, or let me go. As much as I love hanging around like this… I don’t!”

Moondancer rolled her eyes and her wrist, and Lamia flipped over but remained in the telekinetic field. “You see, Lamia, there is an item that I’ve long had my eye on, but have had no means to obtain it. Perhaps you could recover it for me?”

Lamia smirked. “You want me to steal something?”

Recover. There’s no need to be so crass about it. Besides, it’s a family artifact, so by technicality, it already belongs to me.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”

Moondancer dropped her hand, and the field around Lamia vanished, dropping her roughly onto the floor. “Do this for me, and I’ll reward you quite handsomely.”

Lamia got to her feet and dusted herself off. “It’s not like I have much of a choice, do I?”

“Not really. But as I said, I do keep my promises.” Moondancer made a dainty bow. “I promise, you will be rewarded, no strings attached.”

Lamia never believed in ‘no strings attached’, but figured this was her only way out without getting magically mauled. With an irate sigh, she said, “Fine, kid, you’ve got a deal.”

7. Star-Crossed

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Sunset could only stand to be inside the house for so long, even if she did have Spot for company. Lucky for her, Twilight was on another magic kick and demanded Sunset’s presence. So, Sunset took Spot over to the Sparkle’s house. While she and Twilight tried to science the heck out of magic, their dogs shared a puppy playdate.

Spike and Spot got along pretty well, spending the first two minutes of their introductions circling and sniffing every inch of each other. Spike then leapt at his favorite chew toy, and Spot grabbed the other end, initiating a friendly game of tug-o-war.

Twilight whipped out her phone and snapped a few pictures. “They’re so cute together! Just like us!”

Sunset blushed and giggled. Twilight remained the only person who could get her to do that. “Come on, let’s leave them to get acquainted.” They ventured into Twilight’s lab, Twilight immediately pulling out a new set of notes.

“Okay, first thing’s first: how did Fluttershy pony up without music?” She tapped a pencil against her lip and paced the lab in a circle. “More importantly, how did she heal Rainbow’s arm? Fluttershy gave me a sample of her mom’s medicine and it’s just a composition of natural herbs, so it can’t have been that. No, it was definitely magic. But where did it come from? Last time she ponied up, all she could do was shoot butterflies, which I still have questions about as well!”

Sunset took to a rolling chair and spun herself around as she listened. She had given it a lot of thought after Pinkie’s party. “I might have a theory as to why she ponied up.”

Twilight rushed over with an eager smile, paper and pencil ready.

“Well, they were first exposed to magic with the Elements of Harmony and the giant rainbow and blah-blah-blah,” Sunset said, rolling her hand.

“Don’t just say ‘blah-blah-blah’, I need details!”

Sunset groaned. “You know that whole story though. The point is, they got their Equestrian magic at the Fall Formal. That magic has been interacting with what’s left of the magic in this world, which up until now, the best way to do that was through music.” Sunset tapped her chin. “But there’s something else Artemis said. ‘Magic attracts more magic.’ Maybe, and this is a big maybe, the magic in this world is starting to come back?”

“How?”

“Well, we summoned a giant alicorn to shoot a rainbow at the Sirens,” Sunset said casually. “Maybe that generated more Equestrian magic into the world for other magic to be attracted to.”

Twilight pursed her lips as she scribbled. “I’m not quite sure I follow. How would this attraction even work?”

Sunset got up and walked to the whiteboard. “Well, magic’s a little like radiation.” She drew a unicorn horn and a squiggly blob around it. “Unicorns have to use external magic to interact with the world. It kinda leaves invisible residue behind. Normally, it doesn’t do anything. But, I have read reports of highly concentrated areas of pure magic. Weird stuff starts happening there. Things levitate on their own, animals are more sentient, the weather can’t be tamed. The most infamous area in Equestria like that is the Everfree Forest.”

“That doesn’t quite explain why magic is attracted to itself,” Twilight said with a frown.

Sunset made a poor attempt to draw protons and electrons. “It’s kinda like atoms. There’s a certain bond in magic that causes it to seek more out. It’s probably a lot more prominent in this world because there’s so little of it.”

“It’s desperate to find more of its type of bonding. Fascinating! It almost sounds sentient!”

“Yeah, magic sometimes feels like it does what it wants instead of what you tell it,” Sunset said with a hint of bitterness.

“Imagine if we could somehow track and contain that magical radiation!” An excited gleam filled Twilight’s eyes. “Think of how far in my research it could take us.”

Sunset couldn’t help but snicker a little. “Good luck with that, Sparky. You’re a genius, but I’m not sure even you could build something that could catch magic. I’m not even sure if magic could be used to catch magic.”

Twilight just hummed in thought. “Maybe if we just got something saturated in magic. Perhaps I could design something that would allow me to study it like a type of wavelength. The monitors at school got close.”

“Sounds a little more feasible.”

Twilight shook her head, snapping out of her scientific reverie. “We’re off topic though. How does more magic in the world correlate with Fluttershy ponying up without music?”

“Because…” Sunset drew a music note, an equal sign, and a six pointed star. “Music was our catalyst to interact with this world’s magic. But, if there’s more magic in the world now, maybe we don’t need music anymore to cross that threshold.” Sunset made a slash across the equal sign.

“But then, what triggered Fluttershy’s transformation?”

Sunset returned to her seat. “That, I don’t have an answer to yet. I also don’t know where her healing powers came from. Pegasi in Equestria can’t do that, I know for certain.”

Twilight made an annoyed grumble. “I guess that’s as far as we’ll get with this mystery for now. One of you girls needs to pony up again before I can make a clear hypothesis.” She sat down in the other rolling chair with a forlorn sigh.

“I can still give you your magic lesson. There’s plenty of things left to discuss.”

Twilight brightened and picked up her notebook again, listening intently as Sunset talked about the laws that governed magic.

“Sort of like the laws dictating the conservation of energy, Magus’ First Law of Magic states that pure magic cannot be created or destroyed. It can be dispelled, disrupted, moved, changed, etc.”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait!” Twilight threw her hands up. “Two major questions! One: if it can’t be destroyed, then what happened to the magic in this world originally? Where did it all go? And two: didn't you just say you generated more magic with that rainbow? Isn’t that creating?”

“Yes, we generated Equestrian magic. I should have said we expelled a giant amount from our bodies. We got that magic from Equestria and released it into the world, we didn’t create it.” Sunset leaned to one side. “As to where this world’s magic went… you got me beat. And keep in mind, this is how Equestria works. I could be completely wrong about how magic works in this world.”

Twilight slapped her notebook against her head. “And this is why we have these sessions. One day, I’ll make sense of this world’s magic!”

She took less offense to the remaining laws, like the inability to conjure food from nothing, or create true life from something other than reproduction.

“I mean, necromancy is also a thing, but you can’t bring anything truly back from the dead.”

Twilight nodded and wrote. “Quite a common thing in most fantasy novels. Gives credence to the idea of the soul I suppose. Once the soul goes to… whatever happens next, it can’t come back.”

“Do you believe in souls, Twilight?”

She bit the top of her pin. “If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you no. Now? I think… yes, souls exist. I don’t know what they are… but we all have one.”

Sunset wasn’t sure why, but the answer made her smile.

After an hour of discussion, Twilight slumped back in her chair with a sigh. “I think that’s enough for today.” She looked over her notes. “This is all so fascinating, but it’s just notes. I need testable data—something physical to analyze.”

“Sorry, Sparky. I can’t help you there.”

“Not yet. But when we find out what’s triggering these pony transformations, we might be able to turn them on and off at will. Imagine all of the scientific possibilities then!” She organized her notes, stood up, and stretched. “In the meantime, let’s do something a little less mentally stimulating.”

“Watch T.V?”

Twilight shook her head. “I was thinking more violin practice. You haven’t done it in a while, and you just spent the last hour or so teaching me. I thought I could return the favor.”

Sunset stood up and nodded as she stretched her arms over her head. “Yeah, that sounds good. I guess I could torment your ears for a while…. Though I see your eyes are having a good time.”

Twilight shot her eyes up from Sunset’s displayed chest. Her face turned scarlet. “I-I mean…. They were right there! You were probably doing it on purpose anyway!”

Truth was, Sunset might have been showing off just a little, but there was no way she’d admit it. She just laughed at Twilight’s flustered face and followed her out of the garage. Spot and Spike were curled up together on the living room rug, a sight that made Sunset and Twilight d’aaww. They left the puppies in peace and moved to Twilight’s room, shutting the door behind them.

“I’ll try not to sound too terrible,” Sunset said, getting comfy on Twilight’s bed. “I’d hate to wake them up.”

“I’m just happy they got along so well,” Twilight said while she rummaged under her bed for her violin case. “Imagine if we lived together and our dogs didn’t get along.”

Sunset’s ears stopped at ‘lived together’. Her brain conjured up an image of her and Twilight living in a small two-story house on the edge of the city. Not in the suburbs because Sunset hated the cookie-cutter design. Theirs would be unique, maybe Mediterranean style. And she’d have a strawberry bush in the backyard. And of course, there’d be a room for all of Twilight’s lab equipment. And a big kitchen! Sunset was learning to cook from Selena—she’d make home cooked meals for Twilight every day! Well, not every day, Sunset knew she’d be tired coming home from work and they’d just order a pizza and then curl up on the couch by the fireplace and—

“Sunset?”

She blinked, not realizing just how far into her fantasy she had gotten. Twilight held the violin and bow in front of her.

“Sorry. I, uh, dozed off there for a sec.” Sunset took the instrument, keeping her eyes down. She didn’t know why she bothered thinking that far ahead. Twilight’s future laid somewhere else.

Twilight instructed Sunset through the basic strokes. It had been over a month since Sunset had last practiced, but she managed to not get a wailing sound out of the violin, producing a decent facsimile of music. She moved up and down the scales a few times, then moved on to playing easy songs like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’

“That was really good for a month without practice,” Twilight said. “Hopefully we can be more consistent from here on out. I think you could become really good at this.”

Sunset looked at her fingernails. “Yes, well, people have called me a prodigy. It’s only natural I excel at everything I try.”

Twilight playfully nudged her in the ribs. “Okay, miss prodigy. Let’s see if you can play something like this.” She took her violin back and settled into position. Two quick strokes, then a flurry of short notes. She repeated it four times then moved onto longer, deeper sounding chords. It actually sounded rather ominous to Sunset, like the march of some invading force, and a dark one at that. She liked it a lot but didn’t expect Twilight to play anything like it. She reached a softer part of the song where her bow barely flitted over the strings, making it sound even more sinister. It returned and ended with grandiose flair, and Twilight looking quite proud of herself.

Sunset clapped. “I’ll admit, that’s a hard act to beat. Wouldn’t expect something so dark out of you though.”

“It’s the Imperial March, of course I’d learn how to play that. And it’s not that dark.” Twilight paused. “Okay well, maybe.”

“The Imperial March?” Sunset asked.

Twilight blinked. “You know, Darth Vader’s theme?”

It was Sunset’s turn to blink. “Who what now?”

“You’ve never seen Star Wars?” Twilight screeched.

Sunset rubbed her ears. “Heard of, yes. Seen, no.”

Twilight gently set her violin down, then yanked Sunset by the arm and dragged her downstairs. “Shining! Shining!”

Shining was sprawled out on the couch, eyes drooping shut when Twilight hit the ground floor and screamed his name again. He sat up and stared in agitation. “Yes, Twily?”

“Sunset’s never seen Star Wars!”

Some of the bleariness left Shining’s eyes and he looked at Sunset with curiosity and amusement. “I’m starting to believe you are from another world. Well, get comfy you two. I guess we’re having a marathon today.”

Twilight sat Sunset down, bouncing in excitement. “I’ll go make popcorn! You’re going to love this!” She ran off into the kitchen while Shining set up the television.

My girlfriend’s a nerd in reading, science, and movies. Well, at least she’s well-rounded.

*******

Less than an hour later, Sunset was well hooked on this ‘space opera’ as Shining and Twilight called it. The effects were a little outdated, but the story and universe were quite interesting, even more so with Twilight whispering trivia into Sunset’s ear. Sometimes, Sunset had to get her to stop so she could actually enjoy the film.

Them, when the giant space station showed its true power…

“Twilight, can we build a Death Star?”

“No!”

*******

“Okay, so, Darth Vader used to be the old dude’s apprentice before he joined the dark side because, power?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but, yes.”

“And that didn’t remind you of anyone else? Like, at all?”

“... Oh. Sunset, I’m so—”

“Don’t say it. As long as you’re aware of the parallels.”

“And you’re on the good side now!”

“Mmm.”

*******

“Twilight, can we build a lightsaber?”

“... Maybe.”

*******

“You know, I take back my previous complaints. If I’m compared to Darth Vader, I might take it as a compli—holy crap, he’s Luke’s father? How did I not see that coming?”

“Yeah, this kinda invented that cliche.”

“This movie is awesome!”

*******

“Twilight, can we please build a Death Star?”

“No!”

*******

After three films and over seven hours, the credits of the last movie rolled. Twilight pushed herself off Sunset’s shoulder and yawned. “Well, what’s your final verdict?”

Sunset rubbed her weary eyes. “I’ve have been seduced by the powers of the dark side. Who would’ve thought being a nerd would be this exciting.”

Twilight clapped her hands together. “Yes! I knew you’d like it. And see, Vader ended up being good in the end, too!”

“He also died.”

“The point,” Twilight said loudly, “is that he made the right choice in the end. And even with him being evil, Luke still cared about him.” At Sunset’s noncommittal grunt, Twilight rolled her eyes and continued. “And now that you’ve seen Star Wars, I can show you something even better! My personal favorite, Star Trek!”

“Didn’t you say there were prequels to these?”

Shining blew a raspberry as he got up from the couch. “Don’t even bother with those, they’re all terrible.”

Twilight whispered into Sunset’s ear. “I’ll show you when he isn’t around. They’re… not the best compared to the original trilogy, but they complete the story. And if you grew up with them, they’re good enough.”

Sunset wondered just how far into nerdom she was falling and if it was too late to climb out. But the giddy look in Twilight’s eye, and the fact that they now had something else to bond over made it worth it.

The grandfather clock in the next room struck nine, and Sunset decided she had imposed on Twilight’s hospitality long enough. She gathered Spot up and kissed Twilight good night, promising that, yes, they could watch Star Trek tomorrow.

“Are you sure you don’t want to spend the night?” Twilight asked.

“She’s sure!” Shining called from the kitchen.

Sunset gave her another kiss. “Maybe next time.”

*******

Only twelve hours later, Sunset knocked on Twilight’s door, holding Spot with her other hand. His tail was already wagging in preparation for his playmate. Spike barked on the other side of the door, and Spot responded.

The door flew open, unleashing Spike, followed by Twilight with a cocktail of emotions stirring in her eyes. They flickered between hope and despair, and her smiling lips quivered in nervous anticipation and hopeful anxiety. She waved a stack of letters in front of Sunset’s face.

“You’re just in time! You won’t believe what came in the mail today! Come on! Mom’s waiting in the kitchen! I’m glad you’re here though! Shining and Dad left for work, but I wanted more than one person here when I open these! Or maybe it would be best if you left and came back later! I don’t want to have a meltdown in front of you! Unless I get in, in which case, I want you here so we can celebrate! But not like a rubbing it in your face celebration, just a—”

Sunset clapped a hand over Twilight’s mouth. “Hey, Sparky. I’m fine. Yes, it is a nice day. I had a dream about Star Wars last night. Now, when I move my hand, you’re going to start from the top and calmly tell me what you’re babbling about. You sound like Pinkie.”

Twilight nodded and Sunset put her hand down. “I got my acceptance letters today! Or rejection letters! I haven’t opened them yet!”

Today’s butterflies were toxic, as Sunset felt both excited and nauseous. “That’s… wow, yeah, that’s nerve wracking.” She put a hand on Twilight’s shoulder and pushed her back inside so she could also step in and finally put Spot down. Spike had been doing a good job at clawing up Sunset’s pants. “Don’t worry, acceptance or not, I’m here for you. But come on, let’s be honest, with grades like yours, I’m sure you got in.”

“But they want more than grades! What if I didn’t do enough extracurricular activities for them? Yes, I was in orchestra and I did the Summer Space Cadet Program five years in a row, and I’m sure the science fair helped too, but other students have been part of the student government or already studied abroad! Some of them have five-hundred hours of community service! Why didn’t I go down to the soup kitchen once in awhile?”

“Twilight, sweetie—” Sunset was echoed by Mrs. Velvet, stepping into the front room. “I know you’re nervous, but I think you’re overthinking this now,” Velvet finished.

“I’m not overthinking, I’m underprepared!” Twilight took several short breath before a crooked smile crossed over her. “I know, I’ll just not open them! I can’t be rejected if I can’t read them!”

“You also can’t be accepted,” Sunset said pointedly.

“Yep! Schrodinger's letters! I’ll just stay here, master the violin and join the symphony.”

Mrs. Velvet plucked the letters out of Twilight’s sweating palms. “How about we save that for a plan C? Twilight, you’re smart, well-rounded—”

“Not in sports!”

“—And brave,” Velvet finished. “You can open a few letters. And Sunset and I will be right here with you. We could even wait for your father and brother to get home if you want, but you’re opening those letters today and meeting your future head on.”

Twilight took several more gulps of air and made a loud swallow. Her face remained pale, but she nodded and took the letters back, taking a seat at the dining room table. “Okay, okay, I can do this. First… Oxford.”

Hearing the envelope tear open, Sunset felt her own heart tearing in two. Having Twilight move away was one thing, but moving to another country? Another continent? It was insult to injury. Be supportive. This is about her, not you.

Twilight pulled the folded letter out and began to read, her mouth moving, but words remaining inaudible. She quickly slammed the letter against the table and pushed it away like it was contagious. “That’s fine! I didn’t want to go to Europe anyway!” she said in a high-pitched voice.

“Sweetheart…” Velvet hugged her from behind. “It’s okay, it’s okay. You’ve still got plenty of other choices.”

Eyes wet, but tears refusing to fall, Twilight stared pensively at the first letter. “They said they wanted me to get some real college experience here first before considering taking me as a transfer student. It’s fair I guess… I was just looking forward to seeing the world.”

“Just because they said no doesn’t mean you still can’t,” Sunset said, mentally kicking herself for the slight relief she had upon seeing the rejection. She wanted to feel more disgusted with herself, but too much of her was glad Twilight was staying on this half of the world.

“Okay.” Twilight took a fresh breath. “Let’s look a little closer to home. I probably would have gotten homesick anyway.” She picked up the second envelope and tore it open, putting another tear in Sunset’s heart in the process. “This one’s from Yale.”

“Fingers crossed!” Velvet said.

Twilight’s eyes scanned over the letter. She bit her lips and tossed it aside to join Oxford, then buried her head in the crook of her arm.

“Sweetie, it’s okay! It’s gonna be okay!” Velvet cooed while Sunset moved in for a tighter hug.

“I was right! I should have done more outside of school!” Twilight sobbed into her arm. Sunset wasn’t sure which killed her more: Twilight’s pain, or her own selfish joy. “If Yale said no, then Harvard’s going to say the same thing!”

“You don’t know that,” Sunset said. She kneeled by Twilight’s chair and took her hand. “Hey, look at me. If they’re dumb enough not to accept you, then that’s their loss. They don’t know what they’re missing. Twilight, you’re brilliant and compassionate and driven, and one of these schools knows that! Come on, don’t give up yet.”

Velvet rubbed Twilight’s back. “Listen to her, Twily. Do you know I got rejected from five out of the seven schools I applied to? Yes, it stung, and yes, I didn’t get my first choice. But all those rejections just made my acceptance letters all the sweeter. And I guarantee at least one school here said yes.” She slid another envelope in front of Twilight.

She raised her head and wiped her eyes on her sleeve before taking and opening the manila slip. Sunset watched her face as she read, and there was not a look of devastation or pain, but disbelief that quickly rose to euphoria. “‘D-dear Miss Sparkle, we hope this letter finds you well. After a long examination process from thousands of worthy candidates, we are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to consider enrollment at MIT this autumn!’” Twilight hugged the letter and screamed, causing both Spike and Spot to bark in alarm.

Velvet jumped up and threw her hands in the air. “There you go! I knew you got into at least one! Congratulations!

“MIT is one of the best science schools in the country! It was one of my top choices! And I got in! I got in! Sunset, I got in!”

Sunset smiled wide, hugging and kissing her on the cheeks. “I’m so happy and proud of you, Sparky!” She meant it, too. Seeing tears of joy flowing behind Twilight’s glasses, Sunset’s heart soared. She wanted to be there for Twilight’s victories and defeats and root for her every step of the way. It crashed back down when she remembered that it wouldn’t be possible, the letter in Twilight’s hand proved as much.

But Sunset kept smiling. She smiled when Twilight got into Harvard and Polytech and the Institute of Science. Every acceptance letters for Twilight was a defeat for Sunset, but she refused to dampen Twilight’s moment. By the end, Twilight could barely get any words out, she was sobbing with joy.

“It’s okay,” Velvet said, kissing Twilight’s wet face. “I’ll call everyone and tell them the good news. You two enjoy the moment.” Velvet hurried off to the kitchen, leaving Twilight to throw her arms around Sunset’s neck.

Sunset closed her eyes and just held her. Remember this moment. Soon, that’s all you’ll have left. Memories. “I’m so happy for you,” Sunset repeated for umpteenth time.

Twilight hiccuped and set her glasses down as she pulled herself off Sunset. “I-I don’t e-even know wh-which one to ch-choose. I was t-too scared of getting rejected from everyone.”

“Whichever you choose, they’ll have gotten a great girl,” Sunset said.

“Wait until the girls find out. Oh my gosh! They must have gotten their letters, too! I hope they all got into the schools they wanted! This is all so exciting! I can’t believe this is happening! This is happening, right? I’m not dreaming, am I? Ow!” Twilight grabbed her arm.

Sunset rubbed her fingers together. “Does that answer your question?”

Velvet returned, phone in one hand and tissues in the other. “Here, your dad wants to say congratulations!” She handed Twilight the phone and quickly wiped up her face before she could speak.

“Hi, Dad! I know, I can’t believe it either!” Twilight got up and went into the kitchen.

“You should be getting your letters any day, too,” Velvet said.

“Huh? Oh, right! Yeah, can’t wait!” Sunset said, smiling straining. She had almost forgotten about the string of lies she had told the Sparkles last year. Most of them still hadn’t been resolved with anyone other than Shining. She couldn’t wait to tell them she hadn’t gotten into any schools.

“Imagine if you and Twilight went to the same college together. It’s be so romantic. Plus, Twilight needs all the help she can get when it comes to making more friends.”

“I’m sure she could manage on her own. She’s really come out of her shell.”

Velvet walked around and gave Sunset a hug. Sunset locked up for a second but forced herself to relax. “And we owe a lot of it to you, Sunset. You and the girls are a great influence on her.”

Sunset could only laugh, trying her best not to make it sound nervous. “Well, you know… heh, heh.”

Velvet let up and pat Sunset on the head before joining Twilight in the other room. Sunset watched Spike and Spot chase a ball around, barking when the other got a hold of it. It served as an amusing distraction for a minute, but Sunset couldn’t hide from her sour thoughts. She looked at the pile of acceptance letters on the table: roads Twilight could take toward a promising future, options on how she wanted to shape her life. Sunset had no such luxuries.

Stop making this about you! But Sunset couldn’t help it. Because whatever Twilight did would affect her, for better or worse. And Sunset knew if she said anything, there was a chance it would influence Twilight’s decision, and Sunset couldn’t allow that.

She wanted Twilight to be happy and successful. And for that to happen, Sunset knew she couldn’t fit into the picture.

Twilight stepped back into the room, and Sunset put her smile back on. “I’m sorry. I wanted us to watch more movies, but Mom is going to be calling everyone nonstop and having me talk to them—”

Sunset held her hands up. “Hey, it’s your big day. I’m not going to get mad because your family wants to congratulate you. A little jealous maybe…”

Twilight gave her a gentle nudge before throwing her arms around Sunset again. “I’m really happy you were here for all this too.”

Sunset leaned into her and sighed. “Yeah. So am I.”

8. In the Shadows

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“Nobody make any plans for tomorrow night!” Pinkie said as she ran up to the park table where the rest of the Spectacular Seven were already gathered. “Because you’re all invited to my ‘Congratulations on Getting into College’ party at Sugarcube Corner!”

The girls cheered, and Sunset politely clapped in approval. That’s all it had been the past twenty-four hours: texts and snapshots of acceptance letters and plans and hopes. Sunset played her part and cheered for all of her friends with sincerity, ignoring the tightening vice around her heart.

They’re all going to leave. Even Trixie’s going to move out eventually. She had run these thoughts in her head ever since the year began, but now that time drew horridly short, and her friends stood at the crossroads of their futures, the fact was an overbearing monster that wedged its way into Sunset’s every thought. What was she going to do without the comfort of her friends? She had spent so long climbing out of that deep pit she had dug herself into, gotten so used to leaning on their shoulders…. Where did she go next?

All of the confusion and panic lay buried beneath her encouraging and optimistic smile. Her friends were happy. That was all that mattered. Pinkie was going to culinary school and even considering taking some business classes so she could start her own catering company. Fluttershy was off to become a veterinarian while Rainbow had gotten an offer from a few schools for her athletic abilities. Rarity had been accepted to a fashion institute in New York that Prim Hemline had graduated from, as Rarity would happily remind everyone. Applejack was the only one not leaving the city, as she was perfectly content to just take a few classes at the local university while she continued her work on the farm.

At least I’ll have one friend still here.

“This is all so wonderful!” Rarity said. “It seems like just yesterday we were freshmen. Now here we are, about to take our first steps into the real world!”

“Just think of how much fun we’re all going to have!” Pinkie said, bouncing on the bench seat. “College parties!”

“College football games!” Rainbow said, punching a fist in the air.

“Academic libraries,” Twilight said dreamily.

“Ah reckon we’ll all have a lot of stories to tell,” Applejack said.

There was a slight lull in the conversation before Fluttershy quietly asked, “Do you think we’ll… still keep in touch with everything going on?”

“Of course we will,” Pinkie said automatically. “We’re best friends! We’ll text and voice chat and meet up every vacation.” She narrowed her eyes. “Or else.”

Applejack chuckled. “Can’t argue against Pinkie’s famous ‘or else.’ And she’s right. Sure, it won’t be the same, but we’ll all keep in touch. It’d be a crime if we didn’t after what we’ve been through together.”

Sunset wanted to believe that. But she had seen close friendships end over dumber things than time and distance. They might keep up contact for the first few months, but after that…

But they are the Elements of Harmony. Maybe they can beat the odds. It was small, but it was hope enough for Sunset to cling to. The girls talked for an hour more with Rainbow finally asking the question Sunset knew would come.

“So, what are you gonna do next year?”

Sunset nonchalantly shrugged. “Oh, you know. I’ll just be hanging out. Work with the Lulamoons. Maybe I’ll ride around the country on my motorcycle.”

Twilight tried to give her a look of confidence, but it came out closer to pity. “That could be fun. I know a lot of students like to backpack around Europe after they’re done with school.”

“See? I haven’t seen that much of this world. Exploring could be good for me. You know, as long as I never have to show my I.D. to anyone.” Sunset took her phone out of her pocket and checked the time. “I should go. The Lulamoons should be back soon and I want to be there when they come home.”

The girls bade her farewell, and Sunset made her way home. She brought in the mail, finding two college letters for Trixie. What would she even study? She tidied up the house, not that there had been much of a mess to begin with, and watched T.V with Spot on the couch.

The front door opened and Sunset heard Artemis shout, “The Lulamoons have returned! Please, hold your applause.”

And, I miss the quiet. Sunset got up and greeted them in the other room, all three of them wearing star-shaped sunglasses. “You look like you had a good time.”

“Of course we did!” Artemis pulled Sunset into a one-armed hug while he gestured wildly with his other hand. “The lights! The food! The white tigers! It was all stupendous! We wish you had been there!”

“Trixie did get you a souvenir cup though.” Trixie reached into her bag and pulled out a white novelty cup with palm trees that lit up.

“And I got a new wand!” Artemis pulled a wand from his sleeve and twirled it in his fingers. “I suppose I was due for a new one anyway. This one’s a little more flexible too, so it should be a bit more durable.” He stepped back with a flourish and tapped the top of Sunset’s head. “Lulamoon!”

Sunset felt something wet trickle down her scalp, but when she reached up for a feel, her hair was dry. Pulling a handful around for a look, she saw it was blue and gold instead of red. “Change it back.”

“Glad to see your sense of humor is as robust as ever! Lulamoon!”

Before her eyes, the blue slid out of her hair, replaced by its natural crimson. “Glad to see we still haven’t established personal boundaries.”

Like he hadn’t heard a word she said, Artemis wrapped an arm around Sunset again. “So! Tell us all about your mountain adventure! I’m sure it must be quite the yarn spinner!”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Well, Moondancer took us there in her stupid private helicopter—”

“A high-flying beginning!”

“—we stayed in a fancy cabin and went snowboarding—”

“A flurry of excitement!”

“—got chased by a bear—”

“Full of pulse-pounding thrills!”

“—and Rainbow broke her shoulder—”

“And tragic spills!”

“—then Fluttershy somehow magically healed it.”

“But with a heartwarming ending!” Artemis frowned. “Wait, what now?”

Sunset ducked out from Artemis’ hold. “Yeah, we don’t know either. Fluttershy went to visit Rainbow when we got home, ponied up without music, and healed Rainbow’s broken bone.”

“Hmm…” Artemis tapped his wand against his chin, turning it various colors. “That’s quite the phenomenon. Perhaps your grandstanding at your showdown with the Sirens triggered something? It’s hard to say; yours is a different type of magic from what I’m familiar with.” He mumble a few things under his breath, unaware his chin was currently green.

“We also ran into a wolf spirit on the mountain.”

Artemis looked up and broke into a grin. “You’re just a supernatural magnet, aren’t you? And what did the spirit want?”

Sunset shrugged. “Not sure. The people living there said it comes to warn you when something bad is about to happen. It showed up, and then the next day, Rainbow broke her arm. But… it looked right at me though. Like it was trying to tell me something else.”

He nodded sagely and walked into the kitchen. “If I’ve learned anything it’s to never ignore advice from a spirit. But, don’t let its warning consume you, otherwise you’ll just end up paranoid. Whatever will happen will happen.” He looked back at Sunset. “But I know you’re tough enough to face anything life throws at you.”

Sunset’s cheeks burned, and she looked away as she smiled.

Trixie followed them and spotted the mail on the counter. “My letters are here!” She leapt across the kitchen and snatched the mail up. “And now, for the moment of Trixie’s greatest triumph yet!”

“Fingers crossed,” Sunset said. Hey, if she doesn’t get in, that means we get to hang out together... I must be pretty desperate if I’m willing to spend the next two years with Trixie. Not that Sunset wanted Trixie to fail, but if anyone in her friend group had the least likely chance to get accepted—

“Eeeeeeeeeeee!” Trixie jumped up and down and waved her arms like a desperate bird. “I got into Everton! I got into Everton!” She stopped and cleared her throat, holding a hand to her chest. “I mean, they would be foolish not to recognize Trixie’s natural intellectual gift. Good for them.”

Selena wrapped Trixie into a powerful hug, raining kisses on her forehead. “I’m so proud of you!”

“Haha!” Artemis set off mini fireworks from his wand. “That’s my girl! First stop, college, next stop, the world!”

Sunset smiled and gave Trixie a thumbs up. “Congrats, Trix. Pinkie’s having a party tomorrow night for everyone.”

“Trixie supposes she could make a guest appearance,” she said in her boastful tone, a smile stretching from ear to ear.

With one last roll of her eyes, Sunset quietly slipped upstairs to her room. She left the door open. Closing it would make it seem like something was wrong, and give Princess Twilight an excuse to talk to her. She laid on her bed and looked at the decorative multicolored lights hanging from her wall.

Friendship isn’t easy… but it’s worth fighting for. Sunset recalled her own words from the Winter Ball. This wasn’t a fight to be had though. Time would move forward and her friends would move on. She just had to accept that. Then what was the point of all this if it’s just going to all go away?

Would you rather have been lonely the entire time? A squeaky voice in her head asked.

Get out of my thoughts!

I am your thoughts!

“Sunset?”

She startled and and jerked her head, finding Selena in her doorway. “Oh, hi. I guess I didn’t hear you.”

Selena stepped in and sat on the edge of the bed. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine.” Sunset put her hands up. “Really, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? Because we can talk if you need to.”

“I appreciate it, but there’s really not much to talk about.” Sunset leaned against the headrest and stared at the window across from her. “So everyone’s moving on with their lives; that’s great! I’ll find a way to move on, too.”

Selena watched her for a time before standing up. “Well, either way, you’ll always have a home here. Artemis and I have really enjoyed having you. And you saved our family. That’s not a debt I’ll forget anytime soon.”

Sunset ignored the voice telling her she was the reason they had been in danger in the first place and just smiled. “Thanks.”

*******

Sunset and the Lulamoons arrived at Sugarcube Corner on Saturday just as the sun went down. The first sight to greet them inside was a large rainbow banner with ‘Congratulations!’ written across it. Several tables hosted platters of cupcakes with different frostings and sprinkles, and a bowl of blue punch sat on the center table.

“Ha! My teeth are rotting just looking at all this,” Artemis said jovially. “Moondancer!” he cried, making Sunset jump.

Moondancer looked away from Twilight and gasped, throwing her hands to her cheeks. “Uncle Arty!” She ran over and embraced him a warm hug. “It’s been too long!”

“Yes it has, little Moonflower! You know you’re welcome at our house at any time.”

Preferably when I’m not there, Sunset thought, moving away while they caught up. Pinkie hadn’t just invited their core group of friends, Sunset saw several other students and their parents. Unsurprising since Pinkie made friends with everyone, but Sunset hadn’t been expecting an actual party.

She waved to Roseluck and Vinyl having a conversation at the punch bowl, and smiled at Sandalwood in the corner. Her friends were spread out across the shop, talking and congratulating their peers. Naturally, Sunset gravitated toward Twilight, but halfway there, Amethyst Star wandered onto her path.

“Hey, Sunset! How’s your vacation going?”

“Not bad. Yours?”

Amethyst smiled. “It was pretty boring until a few days ago when all my letters came in at once. I still can’t believe I got accepted into every school I applied for! Now I’m trying to decide where to go, and get scholarships to help my parents pay for it. So, where did you get accepted into? You’ve always had the highest GPA in school, I bet you got in somewhere nice.”

Sunset felt her face twist into an awkward grimace. “Actually I, uh, well, didn’t apply anywhere this year. I decided I wanted to… find myself. You know, go exploring and see the world.”

“Hey, that sounds like fun! My parents would never let me do anything like that. I never would have expected that out of you though.”

“Yep, I’m just full of surprises!” Sunset said with an overabundance of pep. She picked up a blue cupcake and smiled at Amethyst until she moved on. When she left, Sunset stared at the pastry morosely.

“You really going to explore the world?”

Sunset glanced over her shoulder and found Flash looking sympathetic. “I don’t know. Maybe. Wandering aimlessly sounds a little better than sitting aimlessly.”

“I guess so.” Flash picked up a purple frosted cupcake and tapped it against Sunsets, mixing the frosting. “Well, maybe this’ll give you another reason to go see the world. I’m going to Canterlot University.”

“Really?” Sunset said with a snicker. She frowned. “But what about your music career?”

“Hey, it’s still my number one priority, and one reason I’m not leaving town. But…” he sighed with his whole body. “I know not everyone makes it in that business. So, it’d be a good idea to have a back-up plan. Maybe I’ll get a degree in electrical engineering.”

Sunset nodded in understanding. “And… what about you and Rarity?”

Flash stared at the swirls of his cupcake. “Umm… we haven’t had that conversation yet. I think I’m still climbing an uphill slope from the Battle of the Bands.” He flinched at his own words. “What about you and Twilight?”

“We haven’t had that conversation either.” She took a small bite and chewed slowly. “I’m not even sure what I’d say to her.”

“I know. Long distance relationships aren’t easy, but I know they can work.” Flash looked over at Rarity engrossed in a discussion with Rainbow and Amethyst. “Good luck to both of us.”

Sunset gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder. “Yeah, good luck.” She resumed her walk toward Twilight, only to see her talking to Micro Chip, a giant smile plastered on her face. Sunset’s heart sank, and she found an empty table to sit down at while she finished her cupcake.

Applejack slid into the seat across from her. “You okay, Sugarcube?”

“Yeah.” Sunset waved a hand. “I’m fine.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that look,” Sunset grumbled. But Applejack persisted with her hard stare. “What do you want me to say?”

“Ah want you to tell me how you honestly feel about all this. Ah can see something is eatin’ at ya, and Ah have a pretty good feeling Ah know what it is.”

Sunset folded her arms on the table and rested her head against them. “So maybe I’m a little sad you’re all moving away. It’s not a big deal. I’ll get over it. You all deserve to move on and have futures.”

Applejack put a hand on Sunset’s elbow. “Ain’t no reason to be ashamed you feel sad, Sunset. Ah’m sad too. Ah’m gonna miss all you girls when we move on. It’s natural. What’s important is makin’ the most of the time we have left. It’s not as good as the real thing, but havin’ good memories helps when the distance feels too great.”

“I know. It’s just…” Sunset let the words die and lifted her head. “You’re right. I should stop moping and just enjoy the time we have left.”

“That’s the spirit.” Applejack stood and pointed to Twilight. “Go on now, Ah’ve seen you lookin’ at her like a lovesick puppy.”

Sunset stuck her tongue out as Applejack laughed and walked away. She looked at Twilight and squared her shoulders. Just enjoy what time you have left.

*******

Lamia stared absently at the tower, still amazed and annoyed it even existed. Eccentric freaks. The lights in the house were all off, the Lulamoons having left ten minutes ago.

She had been watching the house for several days, when it had been empty half the time. But Lamia had waited on Moondancer’s insistence that Artemis was a wild card. He could have showed up any second.

“It’s better to know for certainty where everyone is, is it not?”

Though she hated conceding a point to the spoiled princess, Lamia knew Moondancer was right. As much as she wanted to go down there, rob the Lulamoons blind, and give the little Sunset a kick in the ass, she waited patiently.

Her watch blinked green and she rose from her rooftop perch. “Showtime, Jorgey.” She jumped to the next roof, closing her distance to the target.

With her usual elegance, she landed in the backyard, avoiding the well kept flower bush. Ten bucks says the study is in that stupid tower. She looked up to the single window decorating it. “Let’s hope there’s not some magical disintegration spell on it,” she whispered to Jörmangandr coiled around her shoulders. He hissed and she nodded her head. “You’re right, let’s take the inside, just to be safe.”

Lamia opened her satchel and pulled out her short-range EMP. She flipped the switch and waited a few seconds before putting the box away and walking up to the back door, taking out her lock pick from her utility belt. In a matter of seconds, she pulled the door open and stepped inside, glad to hear the sweet sound of silence.

It broke after a few steps into the kitchen. A small dog came running at her, barking and trying his best to be intimidating. Lamia swooped down and pinched the side of his neck. The dog instantly fell over, his eyes drooping shut.

“Good night, puppy.”

“Hissss.”

“No, you can’t eat him.”

She paused when she entered the living room, staring at the abhorrent amount of pictures and tapestries coating the walls, all of them depicting tender family moments or scenic gatherings. The warm feeling emitting from the show of familial love nauseated Lamia. She hurried up the stairs and located the door to the study.

“What do you think, Jorgey?” Lamia asked, examining the closed door. “Booby trapped?”

“Hissssss.”

“I know. I hate magic too.” Lamia took out a set of pliers and a nail file. She held the file with the pliers and scooted closer to the door, giving it a series of pokes. “Well, it’s not bursting into flames.” Sweat gathering on her brow, Lamia reached for the knob, giving it a slow turn. She jumped back as it creaked open, arms raised in self-defense. When nothing assaulted her, magical or otherwise, she pushed the door open with her foot and poked her head inside.

It looked like something a kooky old man would have. Shelves filled with books and odd looking baubles and doodads. A ship-in-a-bottle sat on the large desk, its main mast lying on its side. Lamia took her time slinking across the room, constantly surveying anything that looked like it might come to life or screech like an alarm.

Keeping her body low, Lamia snuck behind the desk and looked at the bottom of the back shelf. There sat the silver chest, shining even in the dark. She reached into the neck of her body suit and pulled out the key Moondancer had given her, silver with a handle shaped like a crescent moon.

“The chest is magically sealed. Even with your talents, you’d be hard pressed to break in. This is your golden ticket.”

“And how did you come across this?”

“... My mother gave it to me.”

Lamia inserted it into the lock and gave it a turn. With a click, the lid snapped open, and Lamia pulled it up, beholding the contents. It looked like an assortment of random junk. There was an old black notebook, a hand mirror, broken ruby shards…

She sifted through the box until she reached the bottom, her fingers brushing against something cold and metallic. She scooped it up and brought to eye level. It’s dark coloring made it hard to define in the shadows, but the brilliant gem in its center and the feel of engraved wings on the side gave Lamia no room for doubt.

“Well, you fit the bill. Time to scoot.” She pocketed her prize and closed the chest, taking the key with her. As she stood up, the sound of a sword being unsheathed came from the door. Lamia swore and bowed her head. “How the hell did you know?”

“You think we would leave this room without some security?” Selena said, stepping inside. “Artemis knows whenever someone enters.”

“And he sent you to deal with me? That’s cute.” Lamia turned around, seeing Selena’s sword pointed at her.

“My turn to ask a question. How did you open the chest and what did you take?”

Lamia tsked and wagged a finger. “That’s two questions. I’m afraid that’s grounds for disqualification.” She rolled to the side, popping up and side-stepping Selena’s first swing. Lamia struck out with her palm, and Selena braced it with her shoulder before swinging again. Lamia ducked in time, but felt the wind swish over her head.

I can’t fight her like this. She has a long reach in a short space. Lamia kicked at Selena’s shins, getting her to drop to one knee. Selena made a forward stab, but Lamia jumped to the side again, lining herself up with the window. She turned and threw herself through it, shattering the glass and ripping through the screening. She hit the grass with a roll, letting out a curse as the impact still sent a violent shock through her body.

Looking back at the window, she saw Selena glaring down at her. Lamia lifted her middle finger and broke into a run. She was almost glad Selena had caught her in the act. It made victory all the sweeter.

*******

Sunset held the pan while Trixie swept up the broken glass that had fallen inside the study. Sunset sucked on her teeth all the while, wondering where Lamia had gone and why she had wanted to break into the Lulamoon house anyway.

Artemis closed the chest and sighed. “Well, this is a fine pickle.” He stored it away and sat down in his armchair, tapping a finger against the desk.

“What did they take?” Trixie asked.

“That’s the pickle. I’m not sure. Everything I remember putting in there is still there. But we’ve used that chest for a number of things over the years. If this Lamia character did make off with something, I’m wondering how dangerous it actually was.”

“It was in the off-limits trunk,” Selena said testily. “Of course it’s dangerous to some degree.”

Artemis rested his cheek in his hand and let out a huff. “I still can’t believe this Lamia is the human version of you, Sunset. You’re bright, brave, and fun, and she’s… a thief. I’d find it hysterical if we hadn’t just been robbed.”

Sunset said the pan down and made an uncomfortable laugh. “Yeah, funny how things work like that.”

Trixie crossed her arms and made a huff similar to her father’s. “Trixie wants to know how she even got inside. The chest is enchanted; only the right key can unlock it, and father only made two.”

“I’m guessing you have one,” Sunset said. “Who has the other?”

Artemis steepled his fingers together, a forlorn light in his eyes that aged him greatly. “Apalla had it. And it was buried with her.”

“Oh.” Sunset bit her tongue. She let the silence hold out a little longer before speaking again. “So, what do we now?”

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do right now,” Artemis said with a sigh. “Unless we know what she actually took. And involving the police would become a messy business with doppelgangers and magical artifacts involved. For now, we keep an ear to the ground.”

Sunset shoved her hands in her pockets. She had half a mind to go find Lamia and take back whatever had been stolen. And give her a good kick for stunning Spot. But odds were, she was no longer hiding out in the factory. And unless Sunset could get her good magic to flare up, Lamia would beat her in a fight.

Artemis motioned to the broken window. “Trixie, be a dear and fix that for me, please.”

“Watch and be amazed!” Trixie cried, brandishing her wand. She pointed it at the collected glass shards. “Lulamoon!” They sprung out of the pan and fit together back inside the pane. However, while they stuck together, the cracks remained, giving it stained glass effect without the color.

“I-I can do it better!” Trixie said, preparing her wand again.

“Actually, I think I like it like that,” Selena said.

“Really?”

“Agreed,” Artemis said. He flicked his wand at it, turning it blue. “See? Perfect.”

*******

“And that, class, sums up our review of the history of the now outdated String Theory.” Twilight set the piece of chalk down and dusted her hands off. She turned to the rows of chairs rising up in front of her. Her audience of Smartypants dolls clapped in admiration with a few of them still writing down her detailed and well-organized lesson. She took a bow and adjusted her glasses. “Any questions?”

“Professor Sparkle!” One of her students thrust his hand in the air. “As the founder and leading mind of all things magi-tech, what are your opinions about the potential for perpetual energy?”

“An excellent question,” Twilight said to the reporter. “Once we find the source of unicorn magic, I believe we can eliminate the need for any fossil fueled devices and create sustainable living for all!” She basked in the applause of the press and stepped away from the podium, ducking behind a curtain.

“That was brilliant, Sparky!”

A pair of strong, comforting arms wrapped around Twilight from behind, and soft lips kissed her cheek. Twilight melted into the embrace, resting her head beneath Sunset’s chin. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Sunset playfully rolled her eyes. “Please. You would have done just fine. I’m glad I could share this with you though.

Twilight twirled around and faced Sunset, slipping a hand under her shirt. “I love you.” She pushed herself up on her toes.

Sunset stooped down. “I love you, too.”

Twilight bolted up from her desk with a loud snort. Half her vision had gone white with blue lines and black veins weaving throughout it. There was also something wet on the side of her mouth. She reached up and pulled off a piece of paper, taking a thin line of drool with it.

Checking her clock, she saw it was 9:32 P.M. Pinkie’s party must have taken more out of me than I thought. She wiped the drool from her lips, remembering how close she had come to kissing dream Sunset. Her stomach fluttered. She had used those three legendary words again. Sunset had spent several nights running through Twilight’s dreams. Logical, given their relationship. But lately, things were different in the sleeping world. Her dream self had more courage than her, daring to speak out about the innermost workings of her heart.

Twilight had tried in the waking world, but something always stopped her, usually herself. Three little words carried a lot of weight. What if Sunset didn’t say it back? What if Twilight didn’t actually mean it? ‘Love’ was thrown around so carelessly by teenagers. Twilight wanted it to mean something when she said it. Did she even… L word Sunset? She was in love with her, and Cadence said there was a difference. How did she know when the transition happened?

More than that, what did they do afterward? Twilight was moving on to college, Sunset was… not. What was the point in saying that word when they were just going to say goodbye later? Could they handle a long-distance relationship? Even if they could, what if Sunset went back to Equestria? Twilight’s empty stomach roiled at the notion. Being a city or state away was one thing. Different worlds? And worlds where time didn’t align with each other.

Like a quick cut, the idea that Sunset was at least half a decade older than she looked sliced through Twilight’s thoughts. She pressed a hand to her head, trying to push it out. Age is just a number. And she looks eighteen. On top of everything else facing them, Sunset’s age was the least of Twilight’s concerns.

She reached for her phone. In situations like this, she knew there was only one person to turn to. Just as Twilight got to her contacts screen, a knock came from her door.

“Twilight,” a melodic voice sang, “special dumpling delivery!”

Twilight stared at her phone, then looked to the door. There’s no way this is a coincidence. She got up and pulled the door open, finding Cadence waving a bag of Chinese take-out.

“Are you secretly psychic? Or do you just know when I have a relationship problem?”

Cadence waltzed in and sat on Twilight’s bed, taking time to scratch Spike on his stomach. “Nope! I guess I’m just in the right place at the right time.” She set the food on the bedside table and gave Twilight a more serious look. “But, if you have a problem, you know I’m all ears.”

Twilight closed the door and sat down next to her. “It’s not a problem per se… or maybe it is?” She wrung her hands. “Sunset is… but I’m going to…” She pulled her hands apart and took a deep breath. Just start at the root of the problem. “Cadence… when did you know you loved Shining?”

Cadence’s eyes widened and sparkled. “Ah, I see.” She let out a dreamy giggle. “Well, Shiny and I had been going out for a few months. It was winter, and there was a flu bug going around. I got it and was home sick from school.” She giggled again. “So after school, Shining trudged through the snow and brought me a container of soup he made himself. He even spoon fed it to me in bed.”

“That sounds romantic.”

“Not as romantic as you’d think. I was a sniffling, coughing, nauseated mess.” She leaned in to Twilight. “And between us, your brother isn’t the best cook. I played it off that I didn’t have my appetite back, but the soup he made was terrible.” They shared a short laugh, leaning on each other’s shoulders.

“But, as I was lying there, listening to him talk and realizing what he had done for me, it just sort of clicked. I didn’t know yet if he would be the one, but I knew I loved him, and wanted to make an effort to make him the one.” She rested her chin in her palm and wiggled her eyebrows. “Now, tell me about you and Sunset. I saw you two cuddled on the couch during our vacation.”

Twilight turned her face to hide her red cheeks. “I mean… we’ve only been together a few months. We haven’t even know each other for a whole year. And there’s so many things that make us different from each other. But every time I close my eyes, I see her. And I just feel so great every time we’re together, even when she’s being all Sunset. But I don’t know if that’s love or just teenage hormones!” Twilight grabbed her pillow and buried her face in it. “Cadence, tell me how to feel!”

Cadence rubbed a hand on her back. “Ladybug, I can’t tell you how to feel or who to feel it toward. Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s just infatuation. You have to decide that. It’s hard sometimes, but you just have to trust your heart. And if you make a mistake along the way, it’s not the end of the world.”

Twilight lifted her eyes but kept her mouth buried in the pillow. “Maybe I need to collect data.”

“Twily, love isn’t a science experiment. You can’t measure it. Heck, we can barely define it.” She ran a hand through Twilight’s hair. “Maybe you’ll have some eureka moment about your feelings for Sunset. Or maybe they’ll just creep up on you when you least expect it. Or maybe, you already know the answer.”

“Mmph.” Maybe love couldn’t be quantified or controlled, but she could at least match her feelings up to other people. She needed to be absolutely sure about this feeling before she went and told Sunset.

Cadence pecked her on the cheek. “Come on now, Ladybug, don’t make me eat all these dumplings by myself. I can’t afford to get fat before my wedding.”

*******

“You’re late.”

Lamia hadn’t even finished climbing onto the balcony before she heard Moondancer’s overly sweet voice. She pulled herself over and glared at the richly dressed girl through the slits in her mask. “So sorry, your highness. The traffic here was just unbelievable.”

Moondancer sat at a balcony table, a cup of tea in her hands. “Sarcasm. The uncultured and desperate response plebeians give when they don’t have an intellectual answer.”

“Do you want this thing or not?”

Moondancer held her hand out. “I expect to receive it regardless. I simply hope you’ll hand it to me instead of me forcing it from you.”

The urge to punt her off the balcony and into the garden burned strong, but Lamia knew better than to pick a direct fight. She reached into her satchel and tossed Moondancer her trinket and the key. “Now, my payment?”

“Yes, don’t worry,” Moondancer said with a lazy wave of her hand, using her other to put her key away in her blouse. “Your money will be transferred to whatever offshore account you have.”

Lamia stroked a hissing Jörmangandr. “It’d better. Or else.”

“Please, don’t waste your breath. You’re hardly in a position to make threats.” Moondancer looked up. “But, I’m a lady of my word. You will get your money.”

“Hmph.” In a position like hers, Lamia knew there wasn’t much to do but hope Moondancer indeed kept her word. “So what now? Am I dismissed or—”

A chill crawled down her spine. In front of the balcony door, the shadows shifted and rose up, blacker than the night. It formed into an archway, inky darkness spilling out of it along with a cold wind. From the depths emerged a tall, lean woman wearing a black suit that hugged her body. A large coat, the color of a coming storm, sat draped over her shoulders, hiding her arms. A rose-colored mohawk complimented her dark purple skin. She carried herself out of the black gateway with calm superiority, keeping her chin up the entire time.

Lamia recognized her. And when the woman’s blue eyes locked onto her, she knew the familiarity was reciprocated. She turned, ready to jump off the balcony, but a cold and oily hand, wrapped around her neck and slammed her against the hard tile before flipping her over to look at the evening sky. She lowered her eyes to find a pulsing black arm stretching away from her neck and into the coat of her captor.

“I don’t believe in luck,” the woman said cooly, closing the distance to Lamia, “but this is a serendipitous occasion.”

“H-hey there, Tempest,” Lamia smiled weakly, trying to get her hands around the shadowy arm strangling her. It was tangible oddly enough, but the sensation burned like battery acid. “Long time, no see. This arm thing is new.”

Jörmangandr lunged, fangs bared at Tempest. Just as when he had attacked Moondancer, a sinister glow enveloped his body, pausing him in midair.

Tempest looked down at her, her face impossible to read, though with the scar over her right eye, she always looked perturbed. “Taking help from a thief? I thought you were better than that, Moondancer.”

Moondancer carefully and quietly slipped her prize down her large sleeve. “I’m doing what you asked. I’m gathering information on the Spectacular Seven ‘by any means necessary.’” Her eyes flickered to Lamia, delivering a hard look that she quickly understood.

Tempest snorted, her grip around Lamia’s throat tightening. “So you resorted to common filth. Then again, I suppose you’re not so common anymore.”

“One uses any and all resources available.” Moondancer knit her brows. “But, pray tell, how do you know the Snake Queen?”

“She had the nerve to steal from me,” Tempest said with a dangerous edge.

“It was nothing personal, I just saw a good—” The pressure tightened, cutting off the rest of Lamia’s airflow.

Tempest looked up at Jörmangandr. “I’m surprised you didn’t sell him like you black market thieves commonly do.” Her grip loosened just enough for Lamia to talk again.

“It crossed my mind. But he’s so adorable. And a great partner. See? He found a loving home. Aren’t you glad I helped you rescue him?”

“And then stole him from me.”

“The details get murky at some point—ack!” Her air passage was forced closed again.

“Well, since you were kind enough to bring him back, I’ll just keep him for now.” Tempest snapped her fingers, and Jörmangandr vanished in a wink. “Now, what am I going to do with you…” She leaned closer. “Sunset Shimmer?”

Moondancer spat out her tea and pounded a hand against her chest. “I beg your pardon?”

Tempest slid a normal hand from her other sleeve and pulled off Lamia’s mask, revealing her pixie cut red and gold hair.

“I… but… that’s… how?” Moondancer’s head fell to one side. “I find myself lost beyond words.”

“Perhaps if you had done what I asked, this wouldn’t have caught you so off-guard,” Tempest said coldly.

“Information gathering takes time,” Moondancer said with equal chill.

Tempest turned her eyes back to Lamia, dismissing Moondancer. “You’re helping Moondancer, hm?”

Lamia frantically nodded her head, her lungs begging for just a scrap of air.

“Hmph.” Tempest reached into her collar and withdrew a golden medallion. It was triangular in shape, though it didn’t have a top point. Odd runes were engraved in its center, seeming to move and undulate in the darkness.

Something deeper than fear burbled to life in the pit of Lamia’s stomach. It quickly spread through the rest of her body, leaving her paralyzed. She didn’t know what this medallion was, but she wanted it far away from her. But Tempest held it over her head, a satisfied smile crossing her lips.

“Let’s see how long my ‘information gathering’ takes.” She dropped the medallion a little lower and removed her shadow arm from around Lamia’s throat.

Despite her new freedom, Lamia could still hardly breathe, let alone move. What is this? More magic? What is she doing to me? Her body trembled. She couldn’t look away from the glowing artifact. Memories forced their way to the surface of her mind. Her parents screaming at each other. Being bullied on the playground. Shoplifting from the mall. Being brought home for the first time by the police.

“Stop it,” she grunted.

Tempest’s smile widened. “What? I thought you were tough, Sunset? All these experiences made you strong.” Her voice never rose or changed pitch, but Lamia could hear the satisfaction.

Her fingers twitched under the strain of trying to move any part of her body. Lamia felt like an open book with Tempest reading every page. Cold tendrils creeped through her, down into her very soul, poking and prodding it, and making her tremble. She wanted to curl up into a ball far away from this place. She could see the looks of disappointment on her parents’ faces. Feel the punches and kicks from the ‘initiation’ test her gang members had given her. Hear their struggling yells as the cops arrested them one-by-one.

I’m all alone. I don’t have anyone left in this world. I’m going to die alone. I didn’t want this. But what did I want? Vitriol and fury began to rise up from the sorrow. Magic! Fucking magic! Her soul quivered with rage. I don’t know what she’s doing, but she needs to stop! Her anger turned into energy, and she clenched a fist, forcing her arm to rise.

“Look at that. The thief has enough will left to fight.”

Moondancer set her tea cup down with a loud enough clatter to get both Lamia and Tempest to notice. “That’s enough. You’ve proven whatever point you’re trying to make. Either take her or leave her, but stop making her writhe on my balcony. It’s uncouth.”

Tempest stared at Moondancer, long and hard. She slowly retracted the medallion and hid it within her shirt once more.

Lamia jumped to a sitting position, gasping for air. She pressed a hand onto her chest, making sure that her heart—that her soul was still there. Sweat trickled down her entire face, and her body still involuntarily shivered.

“Congratulations, Lamia,” Tempest said, “you work for me now. Help Moondancer gather information on the Spectacular Seven, and I won’t have to do that again.”

As she walked away, Lamia climbed back to her feet, staggering back. “Y-you can’t just—”

“I believe I can. Unless you want to leave your precious snake behind.” Tempest looked over her shoulder, smirking. “I expect good results.” In the same vein as her entrance, a void of darkness appeared from nothing, allowing her passage. She stepped in, and it closed around her, vanishing into the shadows of the night.

Lamia slumped back, resting against the balcony rails. “Fu—”

“Please don’t curse in my presence,” Moondancer said, pouring herself another cup of tea. “It’s vulgar and unbecoming.”

A string of foul words crossed Lamia’s mind, but she didn’t have the strength to relay them.

“So, other Sunset.” Moondancer took a deep breath. “That’s going to take some time getting used to. Since Miss Shadow galavanted off, care to share something? Because you’re clearly not the Sunset Shimmer I’m familiar with.”

Lamia turned her head, feeling her body begin to return to normal. “I’m from here. Mini me is from some other world,” she said dismissively. “Sounded like a load of bull until her friends went anthro on me.”

Moondancer slowly set her cup down, the gears visibly turning in her head. “Fascinating.” She steepled her fingers together and leaned forward.

“Why don’t you tell me more?”

9. Uptown Blues

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Sunset stood in the shower early Monday morning, turning thoughts over in her head as the hot water cascaded down her back. A night of dancing and laughing and cupcakes could only numb the pain for so long. She had spent most of Sunday thinking about the future whenever she wasn’t wondering about Lamia. She still hadn’t told her friends about the thief's real identity, or the most recent theft she had committed. She supposed there wasn’t much of a point.

What’s the point of doing anything now?

She raised her face to the hot water. No, don’t think like that! She wanted to hold onto Applejack’s words and think only of the good times they still had waiting for them. But thinking of the future just brought her mind to the inevitable conclusion.

Was this really to be her fate for the next two years? Sitting around aimlessly waiting for the portal to open while her friends got to go live their lives? It felt like the aftermath of the Fall Formal, when Sunset sat in her hovel and stewed over her justified defeat and reaped the consequences of her actions. Only this time, she wasn’t mad, she was just…

Jealous? Slimy and malicious, the word slithered into her brain.

She turned her head to let the water fall into one ear, hoping to drown the disgusting thoughts out. “Why would I be jealous? They earned everything they’re getting.”

Yes. They fought for it, just like how you fought for your crown. You fought for everything in your life. Yet this is where you end up. Look at them, the girls who beat you. Why do they get to live happy lives and you return to squalor?

“Stop it,” Sunset growled. “I cheated and hurt people on my way to the top. They fought fair and square. I am not going to stoop to being jealous of my friends for their successes.”

As much as she loved the idea of hiding in the shower, she knew Trixie would pound on the door any second. Sunset turned the water off and stepped out, wrapping a towel around herself. She cleared a small space in the fogged mirror.

I see green envy in those eyes of yours.

“They’re always that color!” Sunset said furiously.

“Stop talking to yourself and hurry up!” Trixie yelled, banging a fist on the door.

Sunset quickly brushed her teeth and ran a comb through her hair. She exited the bathroom, rubbing shoulders with Trixie on her way out. Sunset stomped into her room, being careful not to step on Spot, curled up on the carpet next to her bed.

“I’m not jealous of my friends and their accomplishments,” Sunset reaffirmed as she slipped her clothes on. “I’m sad and miserable, sure, but what else is new?”

“That’s right!” The voice always sounded like a rubber mouse being stepped on. The Princess Twilight plush doll gathered dust on top Sunset’s wardrobe. “It’s not fair to be mad at them for getting what they worked for.”