Oops! I'm Equine Again

by MythrilMoth

First published

Sunset Shimmer suddenly turns back into a pony.

Sunset Shimmer has finally rebuilt her life at Canterlot High. She has friends, she's in a band, people like her, everything's going great...

And then out of nowhere, she turns back into a small talking unicorn.

Now, with the help of her friends, she has to figure out why she's suddenly a pony in a human world, and whether or not she can become human again...or will have to leave her new life and go back to Equestria.

(Cover art vector sources: Elsia-pony, TheShadowStone)

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Space Unicorn

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~Smiiiiiiiile! Come on and smile! Come on and smile!~

Sunset Shimmer groaned as Pinkie Pie's ringtone blared out of her phone. The sun blazed through her window, but she was still bundled up in her bedsheets. She had a splitting headache, and didn't particularly feel like getting out of bed, or even reaching for her phone to answer it.

Fortunately, she didn't have to. "Answer call," she said. "Speakerphone."

Her phone chimed acknowledgement, ending the obnoxiously cheery ringtone. "Sunset Shimmer~~!" Pinkie's voice rang out from the speaker.

"Hey Pinkie," Sunset replied in the loudest strained groan she could.

"Wow, you don't sound so good," Pinkie said. "You okay?"

"I feel like dog doo," Sunset said. "My head's killing me and I feel cruddy all over."

"Aww," Pinkie said. "Well, you go ahead and rest, okay? I'll tell the others you're not feeling well. Are you staying home from school today?"

"I think so, yeah."

"Okay. I'll let Principal Celestia know you're sick. I'll check on you later!"

"Thanks. Goodbye." The phone beeped twice and fell silent. With a groan, Sunset rolled over, facing away from the window, and went back to sleep.

~Space Unicorn! Soaring through the stars!~

Sunset stirred from the depths of sleep, awakened by the obnoxious ringtone Rainbow Dash had programmed into her phone. She'd kept it as a reminder that she needed to constantly undermine Dash's ego, but now she just wanted to smash her phone into a million pieces.

Her head was still killing her.

With a frustrated groan, Sunset snarled, "Answer call. Speakerphone."

"Hey Baconator!" Rainbow called cheerfully. "You outta bed yet?"

Sunset rolled her eyes. "I'm sick, Rainbow," she said. "I think I have like, the flu or something."

"Wow that blows. Well, we're all comin' up to check on you in a few minutes, okay? Don't get us sick!"

"What? Wait—!"

The phone beeped twice, indicating the end of the call.

With a frustrated groan, Sunset threw off the covers and rolled out of bed...

...and went down in an ungainly sprawl of limbs and bedsheets.

With a startled yelp, she struggled her way out of the sheets tangled around her, then fought to right herself. As she rose to her feet, she realized something was terribly wrong.

Her pajamas didn't quite fit right. In fact, she felt trapped in them.

Her balance was off.

Her hands and feet felt...wrong. But not wrong, just...different.

Old instincts kicked in, and Sunset found herself on all fours. Only instead of feeling the sting of floor slapping against fleshy palms, she felt the solid strike of hoof on floor. She blinked and looked down.

Hooves. Hair. "What...?"

She made a mad dash for the bathroom, scrambling up onto the sink. Leaning forward, she realized she could just barely see the top of her head in the bathroom mirror.

Ears. Horn.

She dropped back to the floor, unmindful of the chill of the tile on her bare rump. "I...I turned back into a pony...?"

Her doorbell rang.

Her eyes shrank to pinpricks.

"Oh horseapples."

"Sunset Shimmer!" Pinkie's voice called from outside as the doorbell rang a second time. "We're here to check up on you!"

Sunset scrambled to her hooves and bolted out into the front, leaning against the door. Coughing loudly, she called—in as raspy a voice as she could muster—"You can't come in! I—*koff, hakk*—have a fever and—*hakk, koff*—I don't wanna get you girls sick!"

"Good heavens, darling!" Rarity's muffled voice replied. "You do sound a little hoarse."

Sunset facehoofed. *She did not seriously just say that.*

"Well then jes' let me in, sugarcube!" Applejack called. "Ah don't never git sick! Ah'll tidy up an' cook ya some good hearty soup an'—"

"No, really, I'm fine! I just...need some rest..."

"Maybe we should just let her rest," Fluttershy said so softly it almost didn't carry through the door.

"And we will!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "Right after we make sure she's comfortable and has good food and—"

And then the worst possible thing happened.

Sunset stared in horror as what was supposed to be a locked door slowly opened.

"No," she whimpered.

"—fluffy pillows and clean laundry!" Pinkie finished as she pushed open the door.

"Uhh...Pinkie Pie? You shouldn't go around pickin' locks like that," Rainbow said. "I know Sunset's our friend and all, but...you kinda just broke the law there."

"Oh, don't be silly!" Pinkie giggled. "Now, where's our poor sick friend?"

Sunset had quickly thrown herself into the bedroom closet and slammed the door behind her. She hid behind all the hanging shirts and jackets and jeans there and pressed her back flat against the wall. Her little pony heart hammered against her ribs. "Can't let them see me like this," she muttered. "Can't let them find me..."

"Well that's odd," Rarity said from outside in the bedroom. "She wasn't in the foyer, she wasn't in the living room, and she isn't in here..."

"She's not in the bathroom either," Fluttershy said. "Goodness, where...where could she be?"

"We all heard her, right? I mean...she's here, right?" Rainbow said confusedly.

"Is she playing hide and seek?" Pinkie wondered. "Because that's a silly thing for a sick person to do."

"Somethin' ain't right here," Applejack said. "This ain't like Sunset at all."

"Maybe she...just doesn't want us to see her when she's sick," Fluttershy said. "It might be embarrassing for her."

"Eh, so she's sick, big deal," Rainbow said. "It happens. It's nothing to be embarrassed about."

"But where could she possibly be?" Rarity wondered. "I mean, we've looked everywhere...Pinkie Pie, do come out from under the bed."

"Didn't find Sunset Shimmer but I found some really weird magazines!"

"Oh my," Fluttershy gasped.

Sunset's face turned three shades paler.

"There's only one place we ain't looked yet," Applejack said.

The closet door's knob turned...

Sunset gathered her magic into her horn, ignoring the terrible headache, and teleported into the shower.

"Huh, that's funny," Applejack said from the bedroom. "Ah thought fer sure—"

"Found her!" Pinkie said, throwing aside the shower curtain. "Silly Shimmy, hiding in the shower, that's always the FIRST place the psycho...killer...looks?"

Sunset looked up at the bright, blinking blue eyes and confused face of her cheerful pink friend.

Pinkie blinked at her, a comical expression on her face.

"Uh...hi?" Sunset said.

"Pinkie Pie, you shouldn't barge in on people in the shower!" Fluttershy called from the door. "It's terribly rude!"

Pinkie slowly turned to face Fluttershy. Wordlessly, she pointed over her shoulder.

Fluttershy stared at the amber unicorn sitting in the tub, wearing Sunset Shimmer's hair, with Sunset Shimmer's teal eyes locked in an expression of fright and mortification.

Fluttershy's eyes widened.

A tiny squeak emanated from her dainty lips.

Then, without warning, that squeak turned into an overjoyed SQUEE and Sunset Shimmer found herself swept off her hooves and pulled into a painfully tight cuddle, with Fluttershy nuzzling her cheek. Big bright blue-green eyes stared at her from an absurdly excited face. "Oh my goodness, you're the most adorable thing ever!" Fluttershy squealed. "I had no idea Sunset Shimmer had such an adorable critter living with her!"

"Uhh...Fluttershy?" Pinkie said in an uncharacteristically soft tone. "I'm...pretty sure that is Sunset Shimmer."

Fluttershy blinked. "Huhwha?"

Sunset finally came to her senses enough to give Fluttershy a look that was equal parts annoyance and embarrassment. "Mind putting me down, Fluttershy?" she asked.

Fluttershy stared at her. Her mind visibly seized up.

"Oh...my...goodness..."

Fluttershy fell sideways, still clutching Sunset Shimmer. Pinkie caught her and, with an apologetic glance at the unicorn, gently dragged Fluttershy out into the living room. Snorting, Sunset followed.

"Hey, what's goin' on in there?" Rainbow Dash called from the bedroom. The others were filing out into the hall behind her. "What's all the ruckus?"

"Girls? We...have a teeeeeeensy little problem," Pinkie said as she gently laid Fluttershy out on Sunset's sofa.

As the girls emerged into the living room, Sunset stared them down defiantly. "If any of you crack a joke, you'll find out what it feels like to get bucked in the face," she said.

The girls stared at her, eyes wide.

Then, Rainbow Dash snickered. "Pfft...BAHAHAHAHA!" She sank into a chair and slapped her knee, doubling over in laughter. "Oh. My. GOSH!"

"Whoa nelly," Applejack said.

Rarity blinked several times, then coughed daintily. "So, Sunset darling!" she said in a falsely cheerful tone. "You've decided to be a pony today! That's...quite bold!"

Sunset rolled her eyes.

Fluttershy groaned and sat up. "P-pony," she whispered. "Sunset Shimmer..." She gasped suddenly, and was on the ground beside Sunset with her arms wrapped around her so fast Sunset swore she teleported.

Rainbow fell off the chair laughing.

Sunset groaned and sat down, not bothering to try to escape Fluttershy's cuddle attack.

Applejack scratched her head. "So uhh...wanna fill us in here, sugarcube?" She blinked, then added, "Would you like a sugarcube? Think Ah got one here somewhere..."

Rainbow exploded into fresh peals of laughter.

"Save it for the tea, AJ," Sunset said. She sighed and extracted herself from Fluttershy's embrace, then trotted over to her kitchenette. The girls watched as cabinets opened seemingly of their own volition, a kettle flew over to the sink and was filled with water, then floated over to the stove, which turned on. Cups and saucers and spoons and napkins started flying all over the place.

Rainbow stopped laughing. "Whoa. That...that's awesome. How are you doing that?"

"I'm a unicorn," Sunset said. "Basic levitation is something every unicorn masters before they're out of elementary school." As she waited for the water to boil, Sunset rummaged around in her cupboards, pulling out assorted snacks. Her refrigerator opened, and milk, honey, butter, and jelly floated out onto the kitchen counter.

"That's...that's a terribly useful skill to have," Rarity said.

"So...how come you're a pony now?" Pinkie asked. "Oh! Did you catch some weird pony pox or something? Is it contagious? Are we all gonna turn into ponies?"

"I don't know what happened," Sunset said. "I just woke up like this. I didn't even know I'd changed back into a unicorn until Rainbow Dash called and woke me up. All I know is I woke up with a splitting headache and feeling cruddy all over this morning and I went back to sleep without even getting out of bed. Then..." She shrugged. "This."

"Well," Applejack said into the ensuing silence. "Ain't that a worm in yer apple."

"You look kinda...weird for a pony," Rainbow said suddenly. "I mean, you don't...look like the horses we have here. You're..." She made a vague gesture with her hand. "Really tiny. You look more like...umm...a big dog with hooves. And pony ears. And a pony face. Except your pony face looks kinda...human...ish?" She looked around. "Help me out here, girls?"

"I think she's adorable," Fluttershy said dreamily.

Sunset groaned. The kettle whistled, and she set about making the tea. A few minutes later, six teacups and saucers sat on the living room table, as well as a pitcher of milk, honey, and assorted snacks.

"So...are you stuck like this, or whut?" Applejack asked.

"I have no idea," Sunset said. "I'm honestly..." She sipped her tea. "I don't know why this happened. I don't even know how it happened." She grimaced. "But it's...it's not good. I can't exactly go to school like this." She snorted. "Heck, I can't even leave the house like this."

"Yyyeah, that...might draw some weird attention," Rainbow said. She perked up. "Hey! I know! Write to Twilight!"

Sunset facehoofed. "Why didn't I think of that from the beginning?"

"Because you were too busy freaking out about the five of us seeing you like this and hiding all over the apartment from us until I found you and then all this happened?" Pinkie said.

Sunset blinked. "Oh yeah," she said in a deadpan tone. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it!"

Fluttershy leaned into Sunset's field of vision, a hopeful smile on her face. "Can I...can I brush your mane?" she asked.

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Sure," she said.

"I'll get your brush," Rarity said, standing up and smoothing out her skirt. "And your journal, while I'm at it. And a pen of course. Err, where do you keep it?"

"Middle desk drawer in my bedroom," Sunset said. "Thanks."

"Of course, darling."

"So what's with the sun-shaped marks on your butt?" Rainbow wondered. "They look like that symbol you wear on your shirt all the time..."

"My Cutie Mark?" Sunset said. "That's...a little hard to explain."

Rainbow snickered. "Cutie Mark? Seriously?"

A throw pillow threw itself at her.

Rarity returned a moment later. "Your phone was vibrating, darling," she said. She laid a hairbrush, the journal, a pen, and Sunset's phone on the floor in front of her, then sat down and picked up her tea.

"Thanks, Rarity." Sunset sighed and looked at her phone. "A text message from Principal Celestia. Wonderful." She frowned at her hooves. "Uhh, can one of you...? I don't trust the voice text on that phone."

"I'll do it!" Pinkie picked up the phone. "Fire away!"

Sunset cleared her throat. "Something has come up and I might be out of school for a little while. It's related to where I come from. Please ask my teachers to give all my assignments to one of the girls, they'll get them to me and hand them in for me."

Pinkie finished typing the text and sent it. "Okie-dokie-lokie!"

"Now that that's out of the way..." Sunset sighed and picked up the pen in her magic as she opened the book.

Dear Princess Twilight,

For some reason, I've changed back into a unicorn. I need your help to figure out what happened and if there's some way to reverse it.

Sunset paused.

Worst case scenario, I may need to...

Sunset sighed, her entire body drooping.

I may need to return to Equestria permanently.

The girls collectively gasped.

Please write back QUICKLY. I don't exactly have a lot of time here before someone other than my friends finds out about this.

Your friend,
Sunset Shimmer

Sunset closed the book and laid down flat on the floor.

"Leave?" Fluttershy whispered. "You...you'd leave? Forever?"

Sunset looked up at her with sad eyes. "If Twilight can't figure this out? I may have to."

Back in the Saddle

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Rarity drummed her fingernails on the arm of the chair in annoyance. "Rainbow Dash, could you please turn off that repulsive garbage?"

"No way!" Rainbow replied. "Fajeeta's about to fight Sof Taku! I never get to see this episode!"

On Sunset's living room television, a Neighponese cartoon about overly muscular men in gaudy ponchos and sombreros was playing. The two men on the screen were glaring at each other while hunkering down and grunting as though straining to take a massive shit. Rainbow and Pinkie sat watching the screen with rapt attention.

"Let 'em watch their silly cartoon, Rarity," Sunset said. "I don't mind." Behind her, Fluttershy sat running a brush though the unicorn's mane.

Rarity sighed. "Now I wish I'd gone with Applejack to get the food," she said.

Fluttershy gasped suddenly. "Can...can you even eat human food?" she asked Sunset. "I mean...is it safe?"

Sunset shrugged. "Shouldn't be a problem. I mean, you eat pretty much the same stuff here that we eat in Equestria. Well, except you eat a lot more meat and preservatives than ponies do."

Rarity turned to look at her with interest. "You said more meat," she said. "Does that mean—"

"Just fish and poultry, and not all that often," Sunset said. "Well...and I think pork sometimes maybe? I've seen it served, I know earth ponies raise hogs and hogs aren't sapient back home, so..." She frowned. "Huh. Actually, I never really thought about the pigs before..." She shrugged. "Anyway, we don't eat a lot of it, and we don't eat the meat of anything sapient, like cows or sheep."

"I should hope not," Rarity said, shuddering.

"Wait wait," Rainbow said. "Cows talk where you come from?"

"Sure do," Sunset said. She laughed. "I bet it makes milking them pretty awkward."

"Oh my," Fluttershy said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable milking a cow that could talk."

"Do they like, get off on it?" Rainbow wondered. "Are they like, 'oooh yeah, pull my udder, baby—'"

"RAINBOW DASH!" Rarity snapped harshly.

Pinkie rolled around on the floor giggling helplessly. "Tha-that was so, so wrong!"

"Can we please not talk about this again ever?" Fluttershy asked, her cheeks burning.

"Seconded," Sunset said with a sick grimace. "I'm gonna have nightmares about perverted cows forever now."

Applejack returned, carrying three large bags of takeout food. "Did Ah miss anythin'?" she asked.

"Just pervy cows," Rainbow said.

Applejack blinked. "If'n you say so." She went to the kitchen and started unpacking bags; Rarity got up to help her. Working together, the two of them swiftly laid out dinner for six.

"So, any new ideas on what t' do about this?" Applejack asked as they tucked in.

Sunset sighed. "All we can do is wait for Princess Twilight." She frowned. "Oh my gosh...what if she tries to come here? What if—"

"What if she comes out of the portal and doesn't change?" Rarity asked. "Yes, that thought had occurred to me as well. I mean, we've all been aware for some time now that the two of you are...not exactly human, but until now I'd never given much thought to the whole thing." She tilted her head. "Do you think she'll change if she comes through? Or will she change and then have this happen to her too?"

Sunset shrugged. "I have no idea. I don't even know why this happened."

Halfway through dinner, the journal began to glow and vibrate. The girls all looked at one another apprehensively.

Sunset took a deep breath, opened it, and read:

Sunset Shimmer,

I sent Spike through the portal as a test to see what would happen. When he came back, he reported that he didn't turn into a dog this time. Luckily nobody saw him, but until I understand what's going on, I can't risk coming to your world.

While the portal was open, I did notice one strange thing. The thaumetric pressure between our two worlds had a much more even reading than it did the last time I was there. I'll need to consult with Princess Celestia and do some research in Starswirl the Bearded's library in Canterlot, but I have a theory, and if I'm right...this isn't the only thing that's about to happen to your world. You need to be careful and watch out for yourself. I know you can take care of yourself, but don't take any crazy chances.

It may take a while to research the change in thaumetric pressure and what it means. I'm closing the portal in the meantime, and I recommend you tell Principal Celestia what's going on. At the very least, it'll make it easier for her to understand the situation and cover for you at school.

I'm sorry, but you'll have to deal with this for now. Best of luck! I'll get back to you as soon as I possibly can.

Your friend,
Princess Twilight Sparkle

Sunset closed the journal and floated it over to her living room bookshelf.

"So...Twilight can't fix this?" Pinkie asked, worry in her eyes.

Sunset sighed. "I don't know if she can or not," she said. She sank low to the floor, her ears pinned back. "I don't...want to have to go back to Equestria and leave you girls," she said. "But if...if Twilight can't find a way to make me human again..."

"It doesn't matter," Rarity said. "Friendship conquers all, does it not? Whatever happens, we'll find a way to remain friends for life."

"You bet we will!" Rainbow agreed.

"Always," Fluttershy said with a smile.

Sunset sniffled. "Thanks..." She frowned. "Thaumetric pressure," she mused, rubbing her muzzle with a hoof. "Thaumetric pressure...leveling out..."

"What the heck is whatever that is?" Rainbow asked.

"Well, you know how the weather behaves according to atmospheric pressure?" Sunset asked. At Rainbow's confused headshake, she groaned. "The rest of you pay attention in science class, right?"

"When th' pressure's high, th' air is dry," Applejack said. "When th' pressure's low, she's gonna blow."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Something like that." She stood up and began to pace. "Well, the flow of magic behaves a lot like the flow of air currents. In Equestria, all that means is that some places, like Canterlot, have a higher concentration of magic than other places, like the Buffalo tribe lands. Ponies shape the flow and pressure of magic in Equestria by using—or not using—their innate magic.

"But until I brought Twilight's crown through the portal, this world was a virtual magical dead zone. Magic couldn't exist here because the world itself suppressed it, and the only time magic of any kind ever really functioned was when the portal was open. The portal is an anomaly in this world's natural thaumetric pressure."

Sunset looked around at her friends. "But then you all became connected to the Elements of Harmony," she said. "You manifested Equestrian magic. Then the Sirens, whose magic had been suppressed by this world's thaumetric pressure, became more powerful when they entered a pocket of thaumic turbulence, namely CHS." She frowned. "Using the journal to force open the portal, then all the magic we unleashed at the Battle of the Bands..."

"Sounds t' me," Applejack said slowly, "like yer sayin' Equestria's a big pitcher full'a lemonade, an' our world's a big empty glass. An' all this pony magic stuff goin' on lately done poured us a big tall glass o' lemonade."

"That's...actually a pretty good analogy," Sunset said. "We've flooded this world with so much Equestrian magic that whatever force turns ponies into humans when they cross the portal...broke. Ponies and their magic can exist in their natural state in this world now." She frowned. "But if that's the case, then..."

"So is there any way we can, y'know, pour this magic lemonade back in the pitcher?" Rainbow asked.

Sunset shook her head. "I don't know, but...if there's a way to fix this, it has to happen on Princess Twilight's side." She gestured with a hoof. "I think, anyway. It's been a long time since I studied this kind of thing, but I'm pretty sure they'll have to find a way to suck all the Equestrian magic back through the portal."

"Oh! Like cleaning up an oil spill?" Fluttershy asked. "Or sucking the venom out of a snake bite?"

Everyone stared at her.

"...wow, Fluttershy," Sunset said after a moment. "For someone who likes the idea of talking magical ponies, you sure make us sound like a bad thing."

Fluttershy ducked her head. "Sorry," she said softly. "I just...I wanted to try making an analogy too..."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Anyway...the biggest problem with that is that all the magic has to go. Which means..." She swallowed. "I'll have to be turned human again and drained of my natural magic, or...or go back to Equestria. And...the portal would have to be sealed. Forever."

The others gasped. "You mean...we'd never see you or Twilight ever again?" Pinkie said softly, her hair wilting.

"That's worst-case scenario!" Sunset said, making a placating gesture with her hooves and smiling reassuringly. "Don't worry, I-I'm sure Princess Twilight will come up with a better solution!"

In the tense, miserable silence that followed, Rarity cleared her throat. "Well then," she said. "Until we hear back from Twilight, we'll simply have to deal with this situation as best we can. You'll need to ask Principal Celestia to come over here so you can explain everything to her, of course. The rest of us will need to tend to your shopping and bringing you homework assignments and such." She paused. "And I'll need to take your measurements so I can create a wardrobe for you. Not to be indelicate, darling, but...you're quite naked at the moment."

Sunset frowned. "Well, yeah...I might have lived in Canterlot, but I was never one for dressing up like the elite snobs..."

Rarity's cheeks turned slightly pink. "Err...yes, well...my point is..."

"Yer twat's a-showin'," Applejack said.

Sunset planted her rump firmly on the ground, eyes wide and mouth flat. "Yeesh," she said. "Sorry, it's just...ponies don't really pay attention to that. Not like here." She ducked her head. "But...you're probably right. I guess I'll need something to wear until all this is settled." Her ears fell. "Even though I'm probably not leaving this apartment anytime soon..."

Fluttershy hugged Sunset tightly. "It'll be alright," she said soothingly. "We're all here with you, no matter what."

"Yeah!" Pinkie agreed, joining the hug. "Bestest friends forever!"

"Uh-huh!" Rainbow said, grinning confidently.

"You betcha!" Applejack chimed in.

"Absolutely, darling!" Rarity said.

"WONDERCOLTS FOREVER!" the six of them cheered, jumping into the air.

And then the five human girls spontaneously grew pony ears and tails, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy grew wings, and Rarity grew a horn out of her forehead.

They all paused and blinked at one another.

"Whuh-oh," Applejack said.

Horse Fever

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Rarity stared at herself in the mirror, prodding the horn sprouting from her forehead with a finger. "I feel as though I've just gotten the worst pimple in the history of pimples," she complained.

Sunset frowned. "Okay, the rest of this? I should've seen coming. Rarity growing a horn? That's unexpected." She tilted her head. "Wait a second...I think the Rarity in the other world is a unicorn..."

"So...are we stuck like this?" Applejack asked, flicking an equine ear. "Like, for good?"

Sunset shrugged. "At least until Princess Twilight figures out what's going on and finds a way to fix it." She sighed. "At least you girls are still human..."

"I wonder...can I do magic with this thing?" Rarity asked.

"Probably," Sunset said. "I can teach you basic levitation if you want."

"How come Fluttershy, Rainbow, and Rarity get cool extra stuff like wings and horns and me and AJ just get ears and tails?" Pinkie asked.

"Just a guess? Your pony counterparts are earth ponies," Sunset said. "Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are obviously pegasi, Rarity's apparently a unicorn, but earth ponies, well..."

"They're jes' regular ol' ponies?" Applejack guessed.

"Well, no," Sunset said. "They're more connected to the land, they're better at hard physical labor, they're a lot stronger and sturdier..."

"So they're th' farmers," Applejack said.

"And miners and blacksmiths and gardeners and stuff," Sunset said. "They're also pretty good at cooking and baking, if I remember correctly." She snorted. "There used to be this whole big caste system and the earth ponies always got shafted, but that was before Equestria was founded and the three pony tribes realized they were equal." She sighed. "Still, the unicorns in Canterlot can be pretty snobby sometimes and look down on earth ponies...it's just one of those things that never completely goes away."

"Umm...Sunset Shimmer?" Fluttershy asked. "If...if we can't go back to normal, are...are we going to have to leave too?"

"I don't know, Fluttershy," Sunset said. "I just don't know." She bowed her head. "I'm sorry, girls. None of this would ever have happened if not for me."

"Big deal!" Rainbow said. "So things got a little weird and we all turned part pony. You know we all love havin' this awesome pony magic!"

"Yeah but...do you really wanna be stuck that way?"

"Are you kidding?" Rainbow cried, flapping her wings. "It'd be awesome!"

"Shoot, it ain't that big a deal, sugarcube," Applejack said. "We'll get used to it."

"So...what do we do now?" Fluttershy asked. "I mean...aren't we all kind of in the same boat as Sunset Shimmer now?"

"Eh, I think the rest of us can manage," Rainbow said. "I mean, the ears and wings and stuff, it's all in our videos and they're all over the web, right? Sure, it might freak people out a little, but we can get through it."

"Lucky you," Sunset muttered. With a sigh, she said, "I guess...for now, we need to call Principal Celestia..."

Fluttershy yawned. "I don't know about you girls, but...I'm getting tired..."

"It is rather late," Rarity said.

"You girls can sleep over if you want," Sunset said. "I think I've got enough extra pajamas for everyone." She sighed. "Not like I'll be needing them anytime soon..."

"Buck up, sugarcube," Applejack said. "Twilight'll git all this sorted out. You jes' gotta have faith."

Sunset smiled. "Yeah. You're right..." She smiled at her friends. "You girls go get ready for bed. I'll call Principal Celestia and ask her to...to come over tomorrow." She grimaced. "This...is gonna be really embarrassing..."

* * * * *

Fortunately for all concerned, the next day was Saturday.

After the girls had all settled in for the night, Sunset had made herself a bed out of throw pillows and blankets in the living room, having surrendered her own bed to Rarity.

When Sunset awoke the next morning, she wasn't alone. Slender, strong arms were wrapped around her, and her face was buried in a wave of cottony-soft, cherry blossom pink hair.

She rolled her eyes. "Fluttershy," she said. "Wake up."

Fluttershy blinked her eyes open, smiled dreamily, and hugged Sunset tighter, moaning sleepily.

Sunset groaned. "Great. I'm a living hug pillow."

The quiet beep of a cameraphone, followed by muted giggling from Pinkie Pie, drew Sunset's attention. She looked up in alarm to see Rarity and Pinkie standing over them; Rarity had her phone out and pointed at her. "GAH!" Sunset cried. "Rarity, you didn't!"

"Sorry, darling, but I simply couldn't resist," Rarity said, covering her mouth and laughing daintily. "It's simply too adorable a scene to have stumbled upon."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "That better not end up online..."

"I wouldn't dream of it!"

"Good." Sunset wriggled around and groaned. "So...you just gonna stand there, or would one of you like to get her off of me?"

"Get Fluttershy to let go of a critter? Are you loco in the coco?" Pinkie shook her head. "We're just gonna go make breakfast for everybody." She tilted her head. "Do ponies eat eggs?"

"Yes. Yes we do."

"Okay then." Pinkie padded off to the kitchen, Rarity right behind her. Fluttershy made a happy cooing noise; Sunset sighed and smiled.

"Alright, five more minutes," she said. "Then we're having a talk about personal space..."

Ten minutes later, the smell of breakfast drew Fluttershy awake, but not before the others had walked in on the spectacle and had a good chuckle (or deranged cackle in Rainbow's case) at Sunset's expense. For her part, Fluttershy was absolutely unapologetic about the entire thing, having decided that Sunset required cuddling and that it was her duty to oblige. After breakfast, Sunset's phone rang. Using her magic and the voice answer, she spoke to Principal Celestia for a few minutes. "She's coming over at around ten," Sunset said. "Vice-Principal Luna is coming with her."

"The rest of us better hurry and get cleaned up, then," Applejack said. "Why don't you shower first, Fluttershy? You spent all night huggin' a horse, after all..."

"HEY!" Sunset cried. "Are you saying I stink?"

"Sunset Shimmer smells lovely, Applejack!" Fluttershy protested. She paused, then sniffed herself. "But I don't. And I do have a lot more hair to wash..." She sighed. "I'll be as quick as I can..."

As Fluttershy padded off to the bathroom, Rainbow Dash shook her head and turned on the television. "Man, I wonder what Luna and Celestia are gonna think when they see you like this..."

* * * * *

Celestia sat across from Sunset Shimmer, blinking rapidly, one hand covering a small, silly smile as she fought not to giggle.

Luna wasn't making it easy.

"Who's a silly pony?" Luna cooed. She sat beside Sunset Shimmer on the floor, scratching the little unicorn behind the ears. "Who's a silly pony? Yes you are! Yes you are!"

Sunset twitched an ear in irritation. "Could you stop that?"

"Luna, please stop, we need to be serious now," Celestia said mildly. She coughed delicately. "So, Sunset Shimmer...about this...condition..." She glanced around the room at the other girls, frowning mildly at their magical modifications. "Is this something I need to be worried about?"

"I honestly don't know," Sunset said. "I mean, I'm from Equestria, and these girls have Equestrian magic after that whole thing at the Fall Formal." She frowned. "And the Dazzlings...I wouldn't be surprised if something like this has happened to them too. But I don't think anyone else should be affected by this." She gestured with a hoof. "We'll have to wait and see what Princess Twilight has to say, of course. She's researching all this back in Equestria."

"So these girls aren't going to turn all the way into small equines?" Celestia asked.

"They shouldn't," Sunset said. "They're not from Equestria. This is my true form. The portal turned me human when I first came here." She shrugged. "Whatever's going on broke something and changed me back into a pony."

"I think I like you a lot better this way," Luna said.

Sunset smirked at her. "You're just saying that because I had way bigger boobs than you," she said.

Celestia exploded with light, musical laughter. Luna crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out childishly at Sunset. "Well, I certainly hope this doesn't turn into something like the Fall Formal or the Battle of the Bands," Celestia said once she sobered up. She tapped her leg with a long finger. "The last thing we need is an outbreak of horse fever or something. I do think it might be better if the students and faculty at CHS are made aware of the details of your...present condition..."

Sunset's ears wilted. "Please no," she whimpered. "I'll be a laughingstock..."

"Alright," Celestia said. "We'll keep this secret for now, and simply make certain your teachers provide you with your schoolwork. Girls, do you mind taking care of that for her?"

"Not at all," Rarity said. "We've already agreed to do precisely that, as well as her shopping and errands." She frowned. "Provided, of course, our own transformations don't become...problematic."

Celestia nodded. "Well then. If you need any help with anything, be sure to give me a call." She stood. "Come on, Luna. We need to give these girls some space."

Luna pouted, but stood to join her sister. As they walked to the door, Luna paused. "One last question, if I may."

Sunset nodded.

Luna looked around the apartment. "How can an unemployed full-time high school student with no parents afford this place?"

Sunset chuckled. "The money I brought with me from Equestria had an obscenely good exchange rate. Once I knew how things worked here, I made some investments."

"Most enterprising," Luna observed.

Sunset shrugged. "A bag full of real gold coins can get you pretty far here if you're smart about it."

"Indeed," Luna remarked.

With that, the two sisters left. Sunset exhaled heavily.

After a long moment, Applejack frowned. "Ah thought you said you conned some rich old guy inta adoptin' you right before he croaked an' changin' his will to set you up for life?"

Sunset gave her a half-lidded stare. "You think I actually want to admit that?"

Applejack shrugged. "Ah see yer point..."

"Sunset," Rarity said suddenly. "You mentioned the Dazzlings. Do you...do you think they'll..." She grimaced. "Do you think they'll get their magic powers back?"

Sunset frowned. "I hope not," she said. "We destroyed the source of their power, so I honestly don't know what this'll do to them." She grimaced. "We'll probably find out sooner or later, whether we want to or not."

The others looked at each other uncomfortably.

"Anyway, for now, you girls just...do whatever you were gonna do today," Sunset said. "I'll be okay, really."

"Shoot, sugarcube. Ah ain't jes' gonna leave ya like this."

"Yeah, I'm stickin' around a little while longer," Rainbow added.

"I'm not going anywhere," Fluttershy said with a silly smile.

"I do need to stop by home and get my measuring tape and my sketchbook," Rarity said. "I'll be back right after, though."

"I'll do any shopping you need!" Pinkie said.

Sunset smiled gratefully at her friends. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you all..."

"Hey, what're friends for?"

* * * * *

In a run-down townhouse on the other side of the city...

Three girls with pony ears and translucent, fin-like wings stood in a loose circle in the living room.

Aah-aaa-ah, aaaaah-ahh...
Aah-aaa-ah, aaaaah-ahh!

Adagio Dazzle narrowed her eyes and smirked wickedly.

"It's a start..."

Bring On the Dancing Ponies

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"So can you shoot like, fire out of that thing?" Rainbow asked.

Sunset, Rainbow, Applejack, and Fluttershy were enjoying a light lunch of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. Sunset habitually kept both real bacon and tofu bacon in stock, which worked out nicely for her friends; Applejack and Rainbow were eating real bacon, while Fluttershy and Sunset were eating tofu bacon.

Sunset swallowed a bite of her sandwich, took a sip of her soda, and answered, "Basic fire spells are pretty easy, though back home they're usually discouraged."

"But you totally could like, shoot fire at a bad guy."

Sunset shrugged. "Yeah, but I'd rather use a stun spell. It's less taxing to cast and doesn't carry as much risk of collateral damage."

Rainbow snorted. "Booooring."

"Say that after you're forced to spend six hours replanting and repairing a very precious garden of rare flowers by hoof," Sunset grumbled.

Applejack raised an eyebrow.

Fluttershy tilted her head. "How do you...do things like that with hooves, anyway?"

Sunset shrugged. "Same way you do it with hands." She demonstrated by picking up first her sandwich, then her drink with her front hooves, manipulating them just as easily as with hands.

The others stared at her.

"Duuuuude," Rainbow said.

"How'n th' heck...?" Applejack wondered.

"That. Is. So. Amazing!" Fluttershy said, clasping her hands under her chin.

Sunset grinned. "You think that's something?" She aimed her horn over at her guitar, which rested against the wall. It floated over to her; she propped herself up in an awkward sitting-on-her-haunches position, took the guitar in her hooves, and shredded a short, wicked solo.

Rainbow's jaw hit the floor. "Okay BULLSHIT!" she cried. "You did NOT do that with HOOVES!"

"That...that ain't even possible," Applejack said.

Sunset teleported her guitar back over to its stand and shrugged, dropping back to all fours. "We're not like the ponies and horses you know here," she said. "All ponies have certain basic types of innate magic. Hoof magic and Cutie Mark magic, in particular. No matter which pony type you are, everypony has Cutie Mark magic and everypony has hoof magic. Hay, even donkeys and cows have hoof magic, and they're not even magical creatures."

"Hoof...magic?" Fluttershy asked.

Sunset paused, tapping her muzzle with a hoof. "Think of it like...grabby hooves, or magnetic hooves," she said. "We can grab whatever we want to grab with our hooves, manipulate fine objects..." She chuckled. "Of course, some ponies would rather use their mouths than their hooves for certain things, and there are things hooves are clumsy for." She shrugged. "Still, there isn't much you can do with your hands that ponies can't do with their hooves. For example, you know Octavia Melody?" The girls nodded. "I'm willing to bet her pony counterpart plays the cello just fine with hooves." She frowned. "IF she plays the cello, that is."

"You have cellos in Equestria?"

"Cellos, violins, banjos, guitars," Sunset rattled off with a shrug. "Pretty much the same musical instruments you have here. Well, probably not keytars or synths."

"Or anything that uses electricity, right?" Rainbow asked.

"Oh, we have electricity," Sunset said. "It's just...it's really more for hospitals and stuff. It's really more of a fad than something everypony uses."

"Weird," Rainbow muttered. "So what else can you do? With your magic, I mean."

Sunset tilted her head. "Well..." With a wicked grin, she conjured up a small grey cloud. It spat out a tiny lightning bolt which missed Rainbow Dash by inches and filled the living room with a loud crack of thunder. Fluttershy shrieked and dived behind the couch. After the thunder settled, she peered up over the back of the couch, eyes wide.

"Th-that was s-s-scary," she whimpered.

"Crap! Sorry, Fluttershy," Sunset said.

Rainbow stood up and prodded the little cloud with a finger. "Huh," she said.

"Yeah, that's a pretty weird sight," Applejack agreed. "A li'l ol' raincloud jes' floatin' inside th' house."

"It's not that," Rainbow said. She poked the cloud again; it drifted a couple of inches. Rainbow's brow furrowed. She pressed her palm flat against the cloud and shoved it.

It floated across the room, passing over Sunset's head, and coasted to a stop just above Fluttershy, who squeaked and ducked for cover.

"Hey 'Shy, try pushin' it back over here," Rainbow said.

Fluttershy timidly stood up, eyeing the little cloud warily. Trembling and averting her gaze, she hesitantly placed her hand on the cloud and gave it a feeble push.

After a second, she blinked and turned to stare at the cloud. "Wh-what?" Forgetting her own fear, she curiously poked the cloud, much as Rainbow had done earlier. Frowning, she gently seized it with both hands and moved it around in the air. The cloud obligingly went wherever she directed it, never changing shape or slipping through her fingers. She took her hands away and studied them. "H-how did...?"

Applejack chuckled. "Heh, magic cloud huh? That looks like fun, let me try." She got up and walked over to Fluttershy. "Ready for a serve, RD?"

"You bet!" Rainbow stood up, bracing herself and grinning.

Applejack drew back a hand and prepared to serve the cloud like a volleyball. She slammed her hand confidently forward...

Her hand passed right through the cloud. Caught off-guard, she pitched forward over the couch and ended up face-first on the floor. "Ow," she said. She picked herself up, giving the cloud and Sunset an annoyed glare. "Real funny."

"Wasn't me," Sunset said. She tilted her head. "Oh right, pegasus magic! Huh. Didn't think about that."

"Pegasus what now?" Rainbow asked.

"Pegasi control the weather in Equestria," Sunset said. "They have magic that lets them walk on clouds, make clouds, move clouds, shape clouds, force clouds to rain, all that good stuff." She shrugged. "You and Fluttershy are part-pegasus now, so apparently you've got cloud magic."

Fluttershy gently pushed the little cloud across the room to Rainbow while Applejack picked herself up. "Huh," Applejack said. "Well Ah'll be." She frowned. "So can Ah do any crazy pony magic stuff?"

Sunset thought about that for a moment. "Well, you're probably a lot stronger now."

Rainbow snorted. "Applejack's already pretty strong to begin with."

"Wait a second," Sunset said with a frown. "If Pinkie Pie has earth pony strength now, she needs to be warned..."

* * * * *

Pinkie Pie frowned at the stand where the handbaskets were kept at the supermarket nearest Sunset Shimmer's apartment. It was presently empty. "Crud," she muttered. With a sigh and a shrug, she walked over to the larger, wheeled carts. She started to pull out the first cart in the train...

It wouldn't budge. The next cart was determined to come out with it, and neither cart would separate from the third cart down the train.

"Grrr...!" Pinkie grabbed the handle of the second cart firmly with one hand, then jerked sharply on the cart she was trying to pull out.

With a ringing, snapping sound, the entire back of the cart came off in her hand. A surprised Pinkie tipped over, flailing her arms in midair as she crash-landed on her butt. "Ouchies!" Pinkie stared at the broken grid of steel wires in her hand, blinking stupidly. "Huh, that's—"

"Miss customer, what you do?" a short, thickly-accented man with squinty eyes in a red apron and a nametag shrieked at her, running out of the store.

"Sorry, I think this cart was kind of...really defective," Pinkie said as she stood up, gingerly swinging the piece of shopping cart between two fingers.

The man gasped sharply. "You break cart!" he cried. "You pay! I sue you!"

"Dude, it's just a shopping cart," Pinkie said. A crowd was starting to gather. "And if it fell apart just from me trying to pull it out, I just did you a favor. What if somebody had put their kid in that?"

"Cart fine before! You break cart!"

"Look..." Pinkie read the man's nametag. "Mr. Sum Ding Wong, I'm really sorry, but it was just an accident! I mean, it's obviously a faulty cart, right?" She looked around at the other customers who were gathering and whispering. "Right? Carts don't just fall apart like that, right?"

There were some nods and murmurs.

"The carts here always have stuck wheels," one woman said.

"This same little man screamed at me when a wheel snapped off a cart once!" another woman said.

"CUSTOMER ALWAYS BREAK CART!" Mr. Wong screeched.

"Maybe if you didn't have such shitty carts," a boy Pinkie recognized from school said. Several of the bystanders nodded in agreement.

Mr. Wong waved his arms at the crowd. "YOU NO BITCHING NOW!" he said. "ALWAYS CUSTOMER FAULT! YOU SHUTTING UP!" He turned to Pinkie and pointed a shaking finger at her. "YOU! THIS ALL YOUR FAULT! YOU NO SHOPPING HERE! I SEE YOU AGAIN, I CALL POLICE!"

Pinkie blew on her curly forelock in irritation. "Well fine!" she said. "Be that way! I'll take my business somewhere ELSE!" She punctuated this statement with an angry stamp of her foot.

The pavement cracked.

Everyone stared.

"AHH! NOW YOU BREAK FLOOR TOO! YOU GO AWAY! GO!"

"FINE! I'm GOING already! SHEESH!"

As Pinkie walked away from the angry little man and his store, her phone rang. She pulled it out and saw it was from Sunset Shimmer. "Hey Sunset, might be a little late getting back. Ran into a little trouble at the grocery store."

"What kind of trouble? Was it...was it your ears?"

"No, just an angry little manager throwing a temper tantrum."

"Oh. Okay. Well, anyway, I just wanted to warn you to be careful. You might have earth pony magic now, which means you might not know your own strength..."

Pinkie skidded to a stop, blinking. "NOW you tell me!" she cried. "Great, now I have to bake that really annoying screaming guy an apology cake for breaking his grocery cart and his floor!"

"Uhh...yeah...I think maybe you should just leave that one alone...just be careful, okay?"

"Okay!" Pinkie hung up, put her phone back in her purse, and sighed. "Well, at least now I know I'm like, Megagirl..." She giggled. "Hey, maybe I can get Rarity to make me a superhero outfit!"

* * * * *

Rarity groaned in frustration as she stared at the absolute mess that was her inspiration room.

If it had been the same mess she'd left the day before, that would have been one thing. Alas, it was a different mess entirely. And Rarity knew exactly who to blame.

"Sweetie Belle..."

Grumbling under her breath, Rarity began searching her upturned inspiration room, looking high and low for the things she needed. "I swear, if she took my measuring tape...or my sketchbook..." Rarity threw her head back. "WHY ME?" she screamed. "First I get turned into some magic horse girl, and now THIS? Why must you hate me so, universe!" She sank to her knees and began sobbing dramatically. "I just want my measuring ta-ha-haaape and muh-my ske-he-he-hetchbooooook..."

Her horn began to glow.

Her measuring tape and sketchbook flew out from under the drawing table and landed neatly in front of her.

She blinked. "Oh, there you are!" She swept them up in her arms and cradled them. "You naughty little things. Don't ever hide from me again!"

All smiles, all traces of her dramatic sobbing fit forgotten, Rarity skipped lightly out of the room, closing the door behind her without ever touching it.

* * * * *

"Good afternoon, Twilight," Celestia said as she entered the cavernous Aethenaeum of Starswirl the Bearded. "The guards told me you'd arrived at the castle and come straight here."

"Princess Celestia!" Twilight said without looking up. "Sorry I didn't stop by the throne room to greet you, but I'm kind of in a rush here."

"It's quite alright, Twilight. What has you so perplexed?"

Twilight looked up. "Something strange has happened to the portal. Well...not the portal itself, but..." She frowned. "Sunset Shimmer's turned back into a pony. We're not entirely sure why. I sent Spike through the portal and he didn't change into a dog. And while I was monitoring the portal, I picked up some strange readings."

"That's troubling," Celestia said. "Is...is Sunset alright?"

"She's fine, the others are looking after her," Twilight said. "She's more concerned about why this is happening. Also, she...probably can't leave her house right now. Evidently, a talking unicorn might draw the wrong kind of attention."

"Oh my."

"In any case...I think the thaumetric pressure balance of that other world is changing," Twilight said. "There's been too much Equestrian magic over there lately."

Celestia frowned, rubbing her muzzle with a hoof. "Hmm...yes, it's usually not a good idea to expose an alternate world to too much magic from your own world. Or vice versa." She flicked an ear. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"I need to review all of Starswirl's notes on dimensional travel and thaumetric pressure," Twilight said. She looked at the piles of books and scrolls on the reading table; her ears wilted. "There's a loooooot of notes."

Celestia nodded. "I'll clear my schedule," she said. "If Sunset Shimmer is in trouble, I won't rest until I've helped you help her."

"Thanks," Twilight said. Her brow furrowed. "I think there's one other pony we should ask for help. I'll be right back." Without further word, she disappeared in a bright magenta flash.

Celestia's ears folded back. "Sunset Shimmer...be strong, my little pony..."

* * * * *

"Wow, Moondancer!" Minuette said cheerfully as she munched on a brightly frosted cookie. "These turned out way better than the last batch!"

"Do you like them?"

"Mm-hmm!"

"I'm glad," Moondancer said with a smile. "I've spent the entire last week studying Intermediate Baking For Prancing Pony Parties. Baking's a lot harder than it sounds!"

Twinkleshine giggled. "You can't learn to be a good baker just by reading a book, silly! You need to learn from a real baker. Somepony with experience!"

Moondancer's eyebrows drew down. "Hmm. Yes, I suppose that makes sense. Perhaps I should speak with Donut Joe, or that Pinkie Pie from Ponyville."

"If anypony can teach you how to bake perfect party cookies, it's Pinkie Pie—"

"MOONDANCER!"

A bright burst of magenta magic lit the table, dazzling the four mares sitting there. When the light faded, a frantic-looking Twilight Sparkle hovered above them, wings gently beating.

"Oh, hey Twilight!" Moondancer said. "I just made some party cookies. Would you like to try one!"

"There isn't time, I—" Twilight paused. "Actually, yes, I think I will." She lowered herself to the ground and sampled one of the brightly-frosted, sprinkle-bedecked cookies. "Mmm," she mumbled as she munched. "Not bad!"

"I'm thinking of asking your friend Pinkie Pie for pointers," Moondancer said.

"Yeah, she'd definitely help you," Twilight said. After a second, she shook her head. "But we don't have time for cookies right now! Princess Celestia and I need your help!"

Moondancer blinked. "You need...my help?"

"What's up, Twilight?" Minuette asked.

"Is there anything we can do to help?" Twinkleshine chimed in.

"Sorry girls, but this is something only Moondancer can help with," Twilight said. "I need the best magical researcher in Canterlot, and right now, that's you, Moondancer."

Moondancer tilted her head. "You're just as good a researcher as I am. No, even better. Why—"

"Starswirl's library has over three hundred books on the subject we're researching, and time is of the essence!" Twilight said. "Celestia and I can't do this by ourselves! Moondancer, we need you!"

Moondancer's jaw dropped. "Starswirl's library? The rumored private library?"

"The one in the castle catacombs deep inside the Canterhorn, yes!" Twilight said.

Moondancer's eyes lit up. "I'm your mare!" she proudly declared. "Let's go! Sorry girls, royal duty calls!"

"Good luck, you two!" Minuette said cheerfully.

"Let us know if there's anything we can do!" Twinkleshine added.

"Be sure to tell us all about it later!" Lemonhearts chimed in.

Twilight teleported Moondancer onto her back and took off like a shot for the castle.

"So what exactly is it we're researching?" Moondancer asked once they were airborne.

"The effects of thaumic seep between alternate dimensions and a way to reverse the damage," Twilight said.

Moondancer blinked. "Wait, alternate what?"

"It's a long story..." And as they reached the castle, Twilight began to fill Moondancer in on the portal, the human world on the other side, Sunset Shimmer, and everything else. By the time she was done, Moondancer's brows had almost disappeared into her mane.

"Okay, that's...the strangest thing I've ever heard," Moondancer said. "And you're certain all this alternate dimensions stuff is real?"

"It's very real," Twilight said. "And Starswirl and Celestia have traveled to many more worlds than just the two I've seen." She grimaced. "And we may have put the world Sunset Shimmer lives in in terrible danger..."

Twilight led Moondancer down into the catacombs and into the Aethenaeum. Moondancer gasped as she looked around. "Wow," she breathed.

They soon approached the reading table where Celestia stood. The elder alicorn fixed them with a grave expression.

"Twilight," she said without preamble. "We just got a message from Sunset Shimmer." She held up the journal. "Your other friends—the human counterparts of your friends here—have developed pony magic."

Twilight's eyes widened. "Oh no," she said, ears folding back. "It's...it's exactly what I was afraid of." She swallowed heavily. "Moondancer, Celestia. Celestia, Moondancer. Let's get to work." She fixed both of them with a solemn gaze.

"A storm is coming."

Horse to Mexico

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"Okay so," Aria Blaze said, ticking off points on her fingers. "We have our wings back, we have pony ears. We have our voices back, but we don't have our gems back." She frowned. "So...do we actually have our powers back, or what?"

"I don't think so," Adagio said. "Not entirely, anyway." She examined her fingernails. "It's strange that we transformed at all, especially after what those...Rainbooms did to us."

"Maybe we could try it out and see?" Sonata suggested. "I know the perfect pla~ace!"

Aria facepalmed. "If you say—"

"Let's go to LOS TACOS HERMANOS!" Sonata cried enthusiastically.

"—that," Aria finished lamely, groaning.

Adagio shrugged. "It's not a bad idea...for once. We need to be someplace there are people, and since it's Saturday, Los Tacos Hermanos is likely to be packed." She frowned. "Besides, I'm hungry, and tacos actually sound good right now."

* * * * *

Rarity frowned thoughtfully as she stretched her measuring tape along the length of Sunset Shimmer's body. "Hmm," she mumbled. "I...I have to be honest, darling. I have no idea what I'm doing here." She tilted her head. "How does one measure a pony for clothes?"

Sunset's muzzle furrowed. "Croup, dock, haunch, shoulders, hip?" she guessed. "I...honestly don't know. To be honest, the only time I ever wore a dress was at formal affairs like the Grand Galloping Gala."

Rarity grimaced. "I...I'm sorry, darling. I just don't know if I can—"

Fluttershy rolled her eyes. "Give me that," she said, snatching the measuring tape away from Rarity. She crouched down next to Sunset and began taking numerous measurements, a frown of concentration on her face. Sunset squirmed uncomfortably. "Got it," Fluttershy said. She took Rarity's sketch pad and started drawing.

"Hey!" Rarity cried. She moved over to take her sketch pad back, then paused, looking at what Fluttershy was drawing. "Oh...oh my," she said. Her lips quivered. "That...that might actually...yes!"

Applejack squatted down next to Sunset. "Might wanna run," she stage-whispered.

Sunset's ears wilted.

The door opened, and Pinkie Pie walked in. "I'm ba~ack!" she called. She carried four bulging bags of groceries. "Sorry it took so long, I had to go ten whole blocks to find a decent supermarket."

Sunset stared at her. "Wow, Pinkie! I only sent you after a couple of things!"

"Oh, I know!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "But I saw so many good things on sale I just knew you'd like! Besides, the rest of us will be stopping by so often, it's a good idea to stock up, don't you think?"

"I guess," Sunset said. "Here, I'll help you put that stuff away."

Rainbow's phone rang. "Hey Dad," she said into it. "Yeah, I'm still at Sunset's place. Yeah..." She sighed. "Yeah, I'll be home later on. Probably around dark." She pocketed her phone and looked around miserably. "I'm gonna have to go soon," she said.

Applejack checked the time on her own phone. "Shoot," she said. "It's gittin' mighty late, ain't it? Ah'm gonna need t' git on home soon too."

"Oh, I do wish I could stay," Fluttershy said, "but...I'm going to need to go home too..."

Sunset smiled. "Hey, don't sweat it, girls. You being here last night and all day today? That's more than I could ask for. Besides, your families need to know about...all this," she said, gesturing with a hoof. "I'll be fine by myself, don't worry! Just go home and relax for the rest of the weekend, take care of whatever else you normally do..."

"If...if you're certain, darling," Rarity said.

"Positive," Sunset said cheerfully.

The girls gathered up their things and, with farewells and promises to call and text often and to check in with her on Monday, left the apartment. Once they were gone, Sunset locked the door behind them, then trotted into the living room, curled up on the couch, and sighed.

"I wonder how Twilight's doing..." She lowered her head into her hooves. "I don't want to be stuck like this any longer than I have to..."

* * * * *

"This is magic I've never even heard of before," Moondancer said. She frowned; her bushy eyebrows drew together in the center of her forehead. "I've spent my entire life doing research, and only in the last few months have I really started to realize just how much I don't know."

"Don't despair, my little pony," Celestia said. "I'm millennia old and I'll be the first to confess I don't know anywhere close to as much as some ponies think I do." She frowned. "For instance, I honestly don't remember ever seeing you before, even though you were a student at the School for Gifted Unicorns—"

"Whose attendance rolls you do not oversee personally," Moondancer said, adjusting her glasses, "because the school is merely named for you."

"Well...technically, I founded the school," Celestia said. "But I haven't had much direct involvement in its administration for quite some time."

"Focus!" Twilight snapped. "Ahem. Your Majesty."

"Forgive me," Celestia said. "You're right. We need to stay on task." Her ears wilted. "I must do everything I can to help Sunset Shimmer..."

"Wouldn't it be easier just to have her return to Equestria and seal the portal forever?" Moondancer asked. "I mean, doesn't she belong in our world in the first place?"

Twilight sighed. "I don't want it to come to that if I can help it," she said. "Sunset Shimmer has found friendship for the first time in her life. I remember when...when I first met my friends in Ponyville. I...I was so happy to have met them, and then I realized I might have to leave..." She smiled and wiped away a tear. "When Princess Celestia assigned me to Ponyville to study friendship, it made me so happy, and...and it didn't take long for me to feel like I was where I belong." She looked up at Moondancer. "Sunset Shimmer is where she belongs. I feel it in my heart. And...and I don't want to take that away from her."

"Nor do I," Celestia said with sadness and resignation. "As much as I would love to see my former student again, to forgive her and ask her to forgive me...I can't fathom separating her from her friends, from her life in the other world..." She frowned at the book she was reading. "Somewhere in all this mess, Starswirl has the answer. He has to."

Moondancer's muzzle crinkled thoughtfully. "Friendship and belonging..." Shaking her head, she selected a new book from her pile and began scanning the text.

*I may be new to this whole friendship thing, and I don't completely understand what's going on, but...I'll do whatever I can.*

* * * * *

Pinkie's tummy rumbled as the girls reached the curb. "I don't know about you girls, but I'm starving," she said. "I skipped lunch."

"I could do with a bite myself," Rarity said.

"I could eat," Rainbow agreed with a shrug.

"Heck, Ah'm not gonna make it home by dinnertime no-how," Applejack said.

"Oh, umm...well...I wouldn't mind a quick bite," Fluttershy said. "I'm still full from lunch, though."

"Hey, why don't we all go to Los Tacos Hermanos?" Pinkie suggested. "It's not too far from here, and I've been wanting to go there!"

"Sounds good to me," Rainbow said.

"Heck, Ah could go fer a taco or two," Applejack agreed.

"I suppose...as long as they have a low-fat taco salad," Rarity said.

"I'll probably just get chips and salsa, but I'll go with you girls," Fluttershy said.

"Okay, let's go get our taco on!" Rainbow declared, throwing a fist in the air.

Fifteen minutes later, the girls arrived at a modest-sized fast food restaurant. The parking lot was crowded, and several cars were queued up in the drive-thru. "Maybe we should...go someplace else," Fluttershy whispered.

"Nah," Rainbow said dismissively. "It's cool. It just LOOKS crowded! Trust me."

The five girls entered the restaurant and looked around. Two thirds of the tables were occupied, and two lines of customers stood at registers. After several minutes, they stood across the counter from a brown-skinned man of indeterminate age, who had short dark hair, faint wrinkles, wire-rimmed glasses, and a placid expression. "How can I help you, ladies?" he asked, raising an eyebrow slightly at their unusual appearance.

"Gimme th' number two combo," Applejack said. "An' a large soda."

"I'll have the number four," Rainbow said. "And the fiesta nachos and a large soda."

"I'll have the gigante nachos, two crunchy beef tacos, and a large soda," Pinkie said.

"I'll have a taco salad with extra sour cream and a medium soda," Rarity said.

"I just want some chips and salsa and a medium water," Fluttershy said. After a moment, she added, "Oh, and a bean and cheese soft taco, I guess."

The cashier finished ringing up their order and gave them their total. They each pulled a few bills from their wallets and pooled the money, handing it over; they split the change, then moved to an empty table to wait for their food.

As they waited, they noticed they were drawing quite a bit of attention. People were whispering; some had their phones out and were taking pictures. Fluttershy hid her face, Applejack frowned, and Rainbow posed proudly, flaring her wings.

"Yeah, our lives are gonna git crazy," Applejack said.

Almost five minutes later, their food was ready; Pinkie and Applejack brought it to the table.

"Aww yeah!" Rainbow cried as she unwrapped the first of her four tacos. "Fartbomb time!"

"Ugh!" Rarity huffed. "You are so crude sometimes, Rainbow Dash!"

Applejack chuckled as she peeled the wrapper off a burrito and took a huge bite.
"So," she said after chewing for a moment, "y'all reckon we'll have a hard time at school on Monday?"

"I doubt it," Pinkie said. "I mean, the whole school's seen us like this already. Sure, we might get some funny looks, but they'll get over it." She frowned. "Honestly? As crazy as things are at our school lately? I'm pretty sure Sunset Shimmer could go back to school the way she is now and by about Thursday nobody would even care."

"I don't think we should try that," Fluttershy said. "Especially not when there are still people who have a grudge against her. Like...Trixie."

"Ugh, Trixie," Rainbow groaned. "Yeah, Trixie seeing Sunset right now would be the worst—"

Aah-ah-aaah, aah-aaah!

Rainbow blinked, bits of lettuce and beef hanging out of her mouth, as she looked up, eyes wide.

The other girls followed her gaze.

"Whoa nelly," Applejack said, her ears folding down.

The Dazzlings stood in the center of the restaurant, making as much of a spectacle of themselves as they could. With their new fin-like wings and pony ears, that wasn't very difficult; they stood in a circle, backs to one another, and raised their voices in perfect harmony. Several people were watching them curiously. A few phones were pointed at them.

"Oh no, not again," Fluttershy whimpered.

Rarity frowned. "How could they possibly have their magic back?"

Pinkie tilted her head. "I don't think they do," she said. "Look. Nobody's getting all mind-control-eyes. It's...it's more like they're just curious."

Indeed, as the Dazzlings fell silent, there was some polite applause, then everyone went back to their food and conversations.

"Huh," Applejack said, tilting back her hat and scratching her head. "Ain't that a thing."

Rainbow stood up suddenly, slapping her palms on the table. "YO! ADAGIO!"

The Dazzlings—along with half the restaurant—turned to face Rainbow.

"Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, you big walking hairpile!" Rainbow pointed dramatically. "You may think you're back on top, but we've got Equestrian magic too!"

Adagio smirked. "Well, well, well. If it isn't Rainbow Dash. Love the new look."

"Rainbow," Rarity hissed, "you're making a scene..."

Rainbow ignored her. "If you sucky Sirens try to start anything, we'll kick your sorry butts again!"

Adagio laughed theatrically. "My, my. I do believe the gauntlet has been thrown down."

"Uhh, Adagio?" Aria said nervously. "We don't have any magic."

"Yeah, we'd need like, lead pipes or guns or something to take those girls on," Sonata said.

Adagio rolled her eyes. "We will meet again, Rainbooms!" She swept dramatically to the doors. "Come on, you two."

"But...I never got my tacos," Sonata whined.

Adagio paused. "Oh, for..." Facepalming, she rejoined the customer queue. A lot of the restaurant patrons started chuckling at her; she glared murderously at them.

"Wow," Fluttershy said quietly to her friends. "I almost feel sorry for them. They're...kind of pathetic."

"Still...we probably should tell Sunset Shimmer about this," Rarity said. "I don't think we should dismiss them so easily. After all, they have transformed..."

* * * * *

Twilight, Celestia, and Moondancer, all nursing headaches, decided to take a late afternoon tea break. "I shall need to leave shortly to attend to the sun," Celestia said. "You two should break for the evening soon. Get some rest so we can get an early start."

"I'm pulling an all-nighter," Twilight said. "I can't just—"

"Twilight," Celestia said mildly, "whenever you pull an all-nighter, your judgment and, frankly, your sanity lapse severely." She smiled. "I seriously doubt Sunset Shimmer's world will fall apart overnight if you stop to get a good night's sleep." Draining her teacup, she left the Aethenaeum.

"She's right," Moondancer said. "You need to pace yourself. I know how it is to get lost in research and let hours and hours pass until it's almost dawn, but...this is important, right? You need to keep a clear head."

Twilight sighed. "You're probably right. I just—"

The journal started glowing and vibrating. Blinking, Twilight opened it.

My friends just ran into the Dazzlings. They've grown wings and ears and have their voices back. We don't know how much of their magic they've regained, if any at all.

Twilight's eyes widened and her ears pinned back. "Oh no," she whispered.

Moondancer sighed. "Should I get Lemonhearts to keep the coffee coming?"

"Yes," Twilight said. "Coffee. Lots of coffee."

A Kind of Pony Magic

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After finishing up their meal, the Rainbooms left Los Tacos Hermanos and, after letting Sunset Shimmer know about the Dazzlings, went their separate ways, each apprehensive about their families' reactions to the transformations they had undergone.

When Applejack got back to Sweet Apple Acres, she heard the other Apples conversing around the kitchen table and smelled fried chicken and cornbread. Applejack was confused by this, given the time—the sun had set half an hour ago, about an hour later than the Apples usually ate supper.

"Ah figured y'all done et by now," Applejack said as she wandered into the kitchen. Fried chicken, cornbread, green beans, mini corn-on-the-cob, and a big jar of apple butter sat on the table, with her family sitting around it.

"We jes' set down," Granny said as she spooned green beans onto her plate. "Th' lights went out, Ah hadda wait fer 'em t' come back on afore Ah could—" she looked up at Applejack. "—cook," she finished quietly, staring at Applejack's ears. "Welp. Ah reckon Ah'm startin' t' have that there dementia."

"Sis?" Apple Bloom asked, eyes wide. "Whut...whut happened?" She looked around the table. "Y'all're seein' this, right? Applejack's got pony ears?"

"Eeyup," Big Mac grunted, absently spreading apple butter on a hunk of cornbread.

Applejack sat down, helping herself to some fried chicken. "Somethin' went wacky with th' portal to Equestria," she said as she accepted the beans from Granny and dumped some on her plate. "That crazy pony magic we all got from Twilight's crown, it's kinda stuck now. An' it's stronger. Mah friends all ended up like this too, an' Sunset Shimmer..." She shook her head. "Well, Ah wasn't sure if Ah ever believed her an' Twilight about whut they was back in that Equestria place. Now Ah know they was tellin' th' truth." She sighed. "At least with me it's jes' th' ears an' the ponytail. Oh, an' Ah guess Ah'm even stronger now than Ah already was?" She shrugged and grabbed some cornbread. "Rainbow Dash an' Fluttershy grew wings, an' Rarity grew a horn." She put one hand to her forehead and extended her index finger in an approximation of a unicorn horn.

"Y'don't say," Granny said, still staring at her.

Applejack shrugged and tore into a piece of chicken. "Anyhoo, Twilight's tryin' t' fix it, but until she figgers out whut done gone wrong, Ah'm stuck like this."

Apple Bloom brightened. "Twilight's back?"

"Nah, she's workin' on it from her end," Applejack said. "If'n she came here, she'd draw too much attention." She tilted her head. "She ain't human, y'see. She's some kinda...winged unicorn thing. Sunset showed us whut Twilight really looks like." She shook her head. "Might cause a fuss if she came through lookin' like that."

Big Mac raised an eyebrow. "Winged unicorn," he said.

Applejack shrugged. "Hey, would Ah make up somethin' like that?"

Big Mac considered that. "Nope."

"Well...so long as this don't give you some kinda rabies or horse cancer or somethin'," Granny Smith said. "You yung'uns, Ah swear..."

* * * * *

Fluttershy unlocked the front door, stepped inside, and removed her boots. "I'm home," she called out softly.

"Welcome home, sweetie!" Fluttershy's mother called from the kitchen. "I just thawed out a chocolate cream pie, would you like a piece?"

"Oh...yes, please," Fluttershy said. She wasn't a big eater, but she had a hard time saying no to desserts, especially cold ones. She stepped gingerly through the living room toward the kitchen. "Umm, Mom? There's something you need to know about..."

The kitchen was silent for a minute. Fluttershy's mother sighed. "You're not in trouble at school, are you?"

"What? Of—of course not! Besides, it's...it's Saturday..."

"Oh. That's right." Another pause. "You're not...you're not pregnant are you?"

Fluttershy let out a mortified squeak. "MOM!" she squealed. "You know better than that!"

"It's not...drugs, is it?"

"No!" Fluttershy cried. "Also, I'm not gay, I didn't get arrested, I didn't get a tattoo, and whatever else you're thinking isn't right either!"

Fluttershy's mother emerged from the kitchen, wiping a knife with a paper towel. "Then what is it de—oh. Oh my." The knife fell from her hand and clattered on the floor, sending chocolate crust crumbs scattering across the carpet.

Fluttershy ducked her head, her hair covering her face. "Umm...I have wings," she said meekly.

Her mother tilted her head, examining her curiously. She walked around behind her. "Those...aren't fake, are they?" she asked. Fluttershy flexed them, then spread them wide. Her mother gasped. "I just thought, you know, when you and your band friends did this thing...it was special effects or CG or something," she said. "It's...it's real?"

"It's magic," Fluttershy said. She turned to face her mother, then pointed at her head. "The ears too."

"I hadn't even noticed those," Fluttershy's mother said, eyes wide. "So, umm...you and your friends practice magic? You're not...you're not worshipping the devil, are you?"

Fluttershy groaned, blowing on her hair in frustration. "NO, Mom," she said. "And we're not practicing magic. It's..." She tapped her foot, frowning. "It's complicated," she said. "It has to do with two friends of ours who aren't from here, and a magic land, and I can't really explain it." She ducked her head, looking up at her mother sheepishly. "Umm...I might have these for a while. We don't really know how to make them go away yet. Rainbow Dash has them too."

Fluttershy's mother let out an irritated snort. "I always knew that girl was a bad influence on you," she muttered. She sighed. "Well, come on in the kitchen. Have some pie."

Fluttershy followed her mother, resolving to eat two pieces of pie.

She deserved it.

* * * * *

Sweetie Belle prodded Rarity's horn. "Weird," she said.

Rarity groaned. "Please stop that."

"Does it hurt?"

"No, but it's annoying."

Sweetie Belle prodded Rarity's horn again. "Weird."

"Sweetie Belle, I'm warning you," Rarity growled.

Sweetie Belle prodded Rarity's horn again.

Rarity's horn lit up with a baby blue glow. Sweetie Belle's eyes crossed and she made a funny little squeak.

"Now," Rarity said, clearing her throat delicately, "what have we learned about touching a lady inappropriately?"

"Bad touch is bad," Sweetie Belle squeaked, her cheeks flaming red.

* * * * *

Rainbow Dash strutted boldly into the house. "Dad! Your new and improved, twenty percent cooler daughter is home!"

Rainbow Blaze walked in from the fitness room, dressed in shorts and a tank top, a towel slung around his sweaty shoulders. His rainbow bangs dripped sweat. He blinked at his daughter. "Buh?"

Rainbow stretched and flexed her wings, flying a few feet off the floor. She grinned cockily. "Whaddya think?"

Blaze shrugged. "Cool." He went back to the exercise room. "There's pizza in the fridge," he called behind him.

* * * * *

Pinkie Pie tiptoed into the house, her eyes wary, her ears alert. She idly wondered if perhaps she'd have improved hearing now, like a dog, what with the cute little pony ears on her head.

She pressed her back flat against the wall of the entry foyer and slowly peeked out into the living room. Limestone and Maud were sitting on the couch, watching the Rock Channel. As in actual rocks, not rock music. It was all about rocks.

Everything was all about rocks.

Not that Pinkie had anything against rocks. She just preferred rock to rocks.

She slowly crept across the living room, inching her way around the side wall, toward the stairs, hoping to escape notice—

"Stay off my boulder holder!" Limestone growled.

Pinkie froze in her tracks. She looked down at the floor.

There was a bra lying on the floor. She'd just stepped on it.

She frowned. "Why is your bra lying around on the living room floor? Again?"

"That's none of your business!" Limestone snapped as she turned to scowl fiercely at Pinkie. "All you need to know is STAY OFF—" Her tirade stopped short. She grabbed the remote for the living room lights and turned them on full power. She stood up, taking three slow, deliberate steps toward Pinkie. She pointed a trembling finger at her head.

"TAKE OFF THOSE RIDICULOUS COSPLAY EARS!"

Pinkie flinched back. "Umm...I kinda can't. And they're not cosplay ears, they're—OW!"

Limestone had grabbed Pinkie's ears and was pulling fiercely on them. It hurt a lot. "NGGGGH!"

Pinkie whined in pain, then shoved her sister. Limestone went flying across the room, crashing into a sturdy granite shelf full of dozens of interesting rock and mineral samples. Limestone groaned in pain.

"OHMYGOSHI'MSOSORRY!" Pinkie gasped out, rushing across the room and kneeling next to Limestone. "Are you okay?"

"PINKAMENA DIANE PIE! Surely you are not roughhousing with your sisters in the family room?"

Pinkie grimaced as her mother walked into the living room, clad in her dressing gown and sleeping bonnet. "H-hi Mom," she said. "I'm sorry, I really am! Limestone was pulling on my ears and it really hurt and I just—"

"Pinkie Pie has horse ears now," Maud said tonelessly from the sofa, never taking her eyes off the television. "Also I think she's developed some kind of super strength. Also, this was all Limestone's fault. Also, she left her bra lying around on the floor again."

Cloudy Quartz's mouth pressed into a thin, disapproving line. "You girls would do well to follow Marble Pie's example," she said. "She is the most quiet and well-behaved child in this house." She shook her head. "Pinkamena, Limestone, you two clean up this mess. Limestone, stop leaving your unmentionables in scandalous, indecent places." She paused, then studied Pinkie's ears. "Your father and I will have a long talk with you about your lifestyle choices in the morning, Pinkamena." She shook her head and muttered to herself as she shuffled out of the room. "Honestly. Children these days, coming home with tattoos and rap music and horse ears..."

The sisters watched her leave, then turned to look at one another. Fury was written across Limestone's face, but that was nothing new. She turned her scowl on Maud. "I thought you were on my side!" she snarled.

Maud slowly looked away from the television, regarding Limestone with a dispassionate expression. "That's what you get for calling Boulder a pussy," she said calmly before turning back to the Rock Channel.

One Trick Pony

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Sunday morning found Sunset lazily watching cartoons on TV. The good cartoons, the ones for older kids, not the cheesy ones on the cartoon channel.

With a big bowl of cereal in front of her and a tall glass of orange juice on the table, she almost forgot about her bizarre predicament.

Almost.

The fact that she was using her magic to eat was a subtle reminder of the situation.

After breakfast, she washed her dishes, then started cleaning the apartment. It was a bit of a mess after the events of the last couple of days. The simple act of cleaning house focused Sunset's mind and had a calming effect upon her; she even started whistling to herself as she vacuumed up crumbs and polished the living room table.

With her housekeeping chores done, Sunset pondered what to do with the rest of her day. Ordinarily, on a Sunday, she'd either go out with her friends or do some shopping, maybe take in a movie. None of which she could do in her present situation, and her friends were all spending today with their families at her own behest.

"I guess I could get in some guitar practice," she thought out loud. "Or catch up on some reading...maybe there's a good movie on TV..."

Her musings were interrupted by the doorbell. She frowned; other than her friends and possibly Celestia, nobody should be dropping by on a Sunday. Even if her rent was due or there was a problem with the apartment or something, the landlord wouldn't show up on a Sunday, and her neighbors didn't generally interact with her...

She trotted over to the door. "Who is it?" she called.

"It's Flash," the muffled voice of Flash Sentry said from the other side.

Sunset's eyes widened and her ears pinned back. "Oh horseapples," she muttered.

"I found a book you left over at my place and wanted to return it," Flash said.

"Oh! That's...that's nice," Sunset said. "Listen, can you just leave it outside?"

"Uhh...actually, I also kinda wanted to talk. We...haven't talked in a while, really, and—"

"You mean ever since you broke up with me?" Sunset snapped.

"Yeah, and...I wanted to, y'know, talk about that and...about us still being friends. And, well..." He paused. "I don't feel comfortable talking about this through a door. Can...can I come in?"

"No!" Sunset cried. "I mean...sorry, it's just...I've been sick, and I'm naked, and—"

"I can wait for you to put some clothes on, and...and if you've been sick, I can like, help you out with stuff. I did wonder why you weren't at school Friday." Flash paused. "Look, I just...I just really wanna talk. Please?"

The pleading tone in his voice made Sunset close her eyes and sigh. *Dammit...he's not going away unless I yell at him some, and I don't want to hurt his feelings by being a bitch to him just because I'm embarrassed to be seen like this...*

Taking a deep breath, Sunset unlocked the door and opened it.

Flash blinked. "Sunset?"

"Down here."

Flash looked down, blinking stupidly, his mouth forming a small 'o'.

"Well?" Sunset said, stepping aside. "Get in here and close that door before anyone sees this."

"Uhh...what the...huh?"

Groaning, Sunset seized Flash in her magic, dragged him inside, and slammed the door, locking it. Once she set Flash down, he shook himself vigorously, then rubbed his eyes. "Whoa, what just—" He stared at Sunset, eyes widening. "...Sunset? Is...is..."

"Yes, it's me," Sunset said. "This is my real form. I've turned back into a pony for some reason. Twilight's trying to figure it out back in Equestria."

Flash's jaw dropped and his shoulders slumped. "Your...your real fo—you're a horse?"

"Pony," Sunset corrected. Then, with a vicious and slightly petty smirk, she added, "Twilight's a pony too, y'know." Savoring Flash's deer-in-the-headlights stare, she couldn't resist twisting the knife a little more. "That's right, guitar-boy. That cute nerd girl you've been bumping into things spacing out over is a prancing pony princess."

Flash staggered over to the sofa and collapsed. "Whoa," he said. As Sunset sat across from him, he took another look at her.

Then his eyes rolled back in his head. Sunset caught him with her magic before he could faceplant onto the floor and laid him out on the couch. She chuckled to herself. "I think that went well..."

* * * * *

Sonata Dusk wandered sleepily downstairs, dressed in short, tight shorts and a loose tank top, her hair a complete mess. Her ears twitched at the sounds of Adagio and Aria sniping at each other. Scratching herself, she padded into the kitchen, pulled out a skillet, and started making breakfast tacos. She didn't need to check first to know the other Sirens hadn't had anything but coffee yet this morning.

"Those girls have REAL magic," Aria said. "They were dripping with it."

"No, really? I didn't notice," Adagio said.

"What's goin' on here, Adagio?" Aria asked. "The last time we faced those Raingrooms, they just barely put on the whole pony ears and rainbow laser light show when they sang that lame friendship song. Now they're what, permanently part pony?" She frowned. "Kinda like us?"

"That...seems to be the case," Adagio said. She sighed. "Only they got the better part of the bargain." She frowned. "Something very strange is happening..."

Aria rolled her eyes. "Duh," she spat. She glanced at Sonata. "You know, not every meal has to be tacos."

Sonata shrugged. "Yeah, I know. That's why we're having gyros for dinner tonight."

"Gyros?" Adagio asked, tilting her head. "Do you even know how to make those?"

"Sure," Sonata said with a shrug. "I mean, I'll have to use the crock pot because we don't have a rotisserie, but other than that, it's not much harder than making a taco."

Adagio shrugged. "Whatever you say. You're the one who knows how to cook."

Aria shook her head. "How is it Sonata's a ditz at everything except making food?"

"Well you two don't know how to cook," Sonata pointed out. "Someone's gotta keep us all alive here." She frowned. "Besides, the last time Adagio tried to cook, there was a pound of hair in it."

Aria snickered.

Adagio glowered at Sonata. "Anyway," she snapped tersely, "we need more info on this whole magic thing." She frowned. "Which means somehow, we need to sneak back into Canterlot High."

"Ugh, that place," Aria groaned. "Fine."

A plate with two expertly made breakfast tacos landed in front of each Siren. Sonata sat at the table with her own plate and a sunny smile. "Eat up!"

* * * * *

Flash shot bolt upright on the sofa. "THE BOOBS WERE A LIE!" he cried.

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Welcome back, Flash."

Flash looked over at Sunset, his face taking on a green tinge. "You're a—"

"Pony."

"I...I made out with a..."

"Girl who used to be a pony," Sunset supplied.

"And...and Twilight..."

"Also a pony."

Flash shot off the couch and bolted for the bathroom. Sunset raised an eyebrow as she heard him empty his stomach.

A few minutes later, Flash staggered back out, pale and clammy. "Oh God," he groaned.

"Wow, you really know how to make a girl feel special," Sunset said.

"But...but I kissed...and wanted to do stuff with..." Flash gulped. "Animals."

Sunset blew on her mane. "Look, asshole," she said, "I've kind of had a really crazy weekend, my life has just been completely upended by unexpectedly turning back into my true form, this world may actually be in deep trouble, Twilight's busy trying to figure out what's going on, and the last thing I need is for you to have some shallow chickenshit freakout on me." She pointed a hoof at the door. "Now, you can sit down and we can talk like civilized beings, or you can get out right now and prove you're a jerk. And believe me, Twilight would not be impressed by you acting like a jerk."

Flash blinked dumbly. "I just..." He put his head in his hands. "Sorry. This is a lot to take in."

Sunset sighed. "Fair enough," she said. "I'll make lunch while you take a minute to think."

Flash remained lost in thought until a plate with a microwave pizza for one landed on the table in front of him, along with a bottled cola; a similar meal landed on the other side. Next, two bowls of fresh green salad landed on the table; the one beside his plate had a copious amount of Thousand Island dressing, while the other salad was drizzled in Balsamic vinaigrette. He looked up as Sunset sat down across the table; a faint pale green aura surrounded the horn protruding from her brow. A similar aura surrounded a pizza cutter which was floating over the table, cutting the two pizzas into precise quarters. The pizza cutter floated over to the kitchen sink; Flash watched as the sink turned itself on, rinsed the pizza cutter, then turned itself off. His eyes tracked back to Sunset as a fork floated off the table, seized a large bite of salad, and stuffed it in her mouth. She eyed him as she chewed. Blinking dazedly, Flash grabbed a slice of pizza and nibbled on it. "How...how did you..." He tilted his head at the pizza, then at the sink.

"Magic," Sunset said. "I'm a unicorn."

"Right," Flash said. "Is...is Twilight—?"

"Twilight has magic too," Sunset said. "She's an alicorn...that's a little harder to explain." Sunset sipped her cola, then levitated her pizza and took a delicate bite. "It's..." She frowned, then shook her head. "It'd be easier to show you. If I can remember how this spell works..."

Sunset closed her eyes and concentrated. Her horn flared brightly. A square expanded in midair between them, surrounded in a rippling green aura. Slowly, it filled with an image of an angry purple pony with Twilight Sparkle's hairstyle, a long, tapered horn, and large, feathery wings. An array of ponies who looked eerily familiar fanned out behind her, all with dangerous expressions on their faces.

After a moment, the image disappeared, and Sunset opened her eyes.

Flash shook his head in disbelief. "Okay...umm...wow." He paused for a bite of salad. "She looked...kinda pissed," he said after a moment.

"Well, yeah," Sunset said. "That was the night I stole her crown." She grimaced. "That's...the only time I've ever actually seen Twilight as a pony," she said. "I guess maybe I saw her wandering around Canterlot when she was a little filly, but I don't really remember."

"The others...were they...?"

"Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rarity," Sunset said. "Equestria and this world are parallels. Every single person you know has a counterpart somewhere in Equestria." She paused. "I think anyway."

Flash gulped. "Even...even me?"

"Probably."

"And...and you?"

Sunset grimaced. "I'd rather not talk about this world's Sunset Shimmer, if it's all the same."

"And...Twilight?"

Sunset sighed. "Yeah...there's probably another Twilight here somewhere. I...kinda hope we never run into her. It'd be...awkward."

"Hmm." Flash ate in silence for a few minutes. "So, uhh...you turned into a human when you came here so you'd fit in, but now you can't change anymore?"

"I didn't have anything to do with turning myself human," Sunset said. "The portal did that. I don't entirely understand how it works. I'm not even sure Twilight does. The only pony who really understood all this dimensional magic was Starswirl the Bearded, and he's been dead for centuries." She paused for some salad, then said, "All I know is when I came out of the portal in this world, I was human. When I went back to Equestria, I turned back into a pony." She shrugged. "Only now, something's gone wrong. The portal's magic is out of whack, I'm a pony, the other girls all have their pony ears and ponytails and wings and Rarity even has a horn now, the Dazzlings have some of their magic back but didn't change all the way back into their true forms..." She shook her head. "All I know for sure is that Twilight said the thaumetric pressure readings—" She looked up at Flash, who had a slice of pizza halfway to his mouth and was just staring at her in much the same way he used to stare when she was tutoring him in math. She groaned. "Nevermind. Let's just say weird stuff's happening and it looks like Equestrian magic is leaking into this world."

Flash snapped out of it, blinking several times. "Oh," he said. "Is...is that a bad thing?"

"Well, it's certainly inconvenient," Sunset said. "I mean, I can't exactly go out like this. People would freak."

"Yeah..."

"Best case scenario, Twilight finds a way to fix it and I get to be human again and get on with my life. Worst case scenario, I have to go back to Equestria and abandon my life here because I can't be human again." Sunset sighed. "That's assuming the effects are limited to anyone who's actually been exposed to Equestrian magic. Something Twilight said bothers me. If too much magic leaks into this world, things could get...weird."

* * * * *

"Brother, please...you need to stop with all this witchcraft stuff. If Father found out, or Mother..."

"Father is a fool. Besides, if I choose to explore the secrets of the ancients, that's my right. It's my life, and I'll do with it whatever I wish. I have no interest in following in Father's footsteps."

"But Father's work as Ambassador is important!"

"Father kowtows to fat, bloated foreign politicians! He does nothing of substance! I refuse to be subservient to others, holding a pretense of power! I desire true power!"

"But—"

"Go ahead, then. Run to Mother. Run to her in tears and tell her everything."

"...you know I won't do that, Brother. I couldn't...but please..."

"Either help me or get out of my sight."

"Brother..."

Horse to Water

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Flash had hung around for a little while, asking questions and receiving a crash course on Equestria, ponies, and what kind of life the girl he had been crushing on lately actually lived. He'd left late in the afternoon with a lot to think about and a promise to help keep Sunset's little secret.

Monday dawned cloudy and cool. The weather news on television predicted periods of rain throughout the day.

After breakfast, Sunset received a message from Twilight.

Sunset Shimmer,

I'm sorry I haven't been in touch since the other day. We've been busy here. Princess Celestia suggested moving the mirror and the portal generator from my castle back to Canterlot and setting it up in the Aethenaeum, but I wasn't sure trying to move it again would be a wise idea—the last time I moved the portal across my own castle, I almost didn't get it working again. Instead, we decided to create a second stable portal into your world using Starswirl's research here in Canterlot. Moondancer—she's a friend of mine who's helping with the research—had reservations about it, because she thinks we might just be making the problem worse, but we're confident we can collapse the portal with minimal impact to both dimensions if it contributes to the thaumetric instability. Besides, with the original portal closed for now, I don't think we need to worry too much about the negatives—especially since we're racing the clock here no matter what we do.

Last night, Celestia, Luna, and I created the new portal. It's stable, we've tested it, and it works. It doesn't come out at CHS, though. It seems to come out at some other school—I looked around for a few minutes, and I think it's called Crystal Prep? Does that ring any bells?

We'll be using the second portal to advance our research. Unlike the original portal, this one is permanently open, so we're being extremely careful. Don't worry, I don't think we'll have to deal with a bunch of teenagers wandering into our world, and we've got guards watching the portal just in case. We've also asked Cadance to come to Canterlot and watch over the portal while we're researching. Celestia's suspended her court until we're done with this. She's worried about you.

I'll let you know as soon as we have any new information. If anything strange happens there, be sure to write me back immediately.

Your friend,
Princess Twilight Sparkle

Sunset smiled as she read the letter. *Wow. I have FOUR princesses working to fix this. I really don't deserve such kindness...*

She wrote back a short reply saying nothing had changed that she was aware of, then stretched and looked around her empty apartment.

The girls were at school, she'd already cleaned the apartment from top to bottom, and she wouldn't have any schoolwork to deal with until the girls dropped by later...

With a sigh, Sunset turned on the television and looked for anything to watch to keep her distracted.

* * * * *

"Twilight, are you SURE this portal is a good idea?"

A pair of pegasus guards stood to either side of a large, utilitarian crystal mirror that stood in Celestia's throne room. One of the guards was Flash Sentry; his eyes occasionally flickered over to the newest alicorn princess even as he struggled to remain firmly at attention. Cadance sat upon Celestia's throne. The great doors to the throne room were closed; unicorn guards stood to either side of them.

Twilight had emerged from the Aethenaeum for a breath of fresh air and to take a few readings on the emanations from the new portal. "Honestly? No. But even if the other portal was stable enough to move, we haven't ruled it out as the cause of the thaumetric imbalance yet. It's safer to use this new portal as a control while we research the problem and try to find a solution that doesn't entail slamming the door on that world forever." She levitated a hoofheld crystal device up to the portal and took a reading; the crystal glowed green and let out a soft, ringing chime. "So far so good." She looked at the guards. "Just be careful. I don't think someone from the other world will accidentally stumble into the portal, but be on the lookout just in case."

The guards nodded. "We won't let you down, Your Highness," Flash said.

Twilight smiled, then turned and teleported back to the Aethenaeum.

Cadance raised an eyebrow at Flash Sentry. "That's never going anywhere. You know that, right?"

Flash sighed. "Yeah, I know..."

The other guard snickered.

* * * * *

Twilight Sparkle shrank against a row of lockers, clutching her books protectively against her chest, as the new foreign exchange students walked past. While she was far from the most social student at Crystal Prep, nobody she'd ever met made her skin crawl like the son of the Kentarosi Ambassador.

*If he'd at least wear the school uniform, maybe...* Twilight shook her head. *No...he'd still be creepy.*

Everything about the Kentarosi teen oozed malice—his tall, lean figure, the foreboding red hue of his skin, his hard-edged face, his shaggy silver hair, his tiny, pointed silver goatee, his sharp, cold eyes. Even the way he dressed—a metal mesh muscle shirt, tight black leather pants, and steel-toed boots—made him look brutal and dangerous. Principal Cinch had tried, several times, to enforce the uniform code, but had given up when it became obvious making a fuss would lead to an international incident.

At least his brother was a nice boy, if a bit of a wimp. Despite having a bushy brown mane of hair and a broad, leonine face, the younger brother was short, slow, pudgy, and every time Twilight had heard him speak, he'd done so in a plaintive, whining tone that annoyed even her.

"Didn't know you were into the bad-boy type, Twily," a voice said into her ear.

"GAH!" Twilight jumped, nearly dropping her books. Flustered, she looked at Dean Cadance, who was giving her a teasing smile. "Dean Cadance!" Shaking her head, she adjusted her glasses. "I'm not," she said. "I just..." She frowned. "He creeps me out. Every time he walks past, I get nervous. I feel like..." Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed. "Like he's going to suck out my soul or something."

Cadance laughed. "Well...I can't say I blame you," she said. "He is a little...intense."

"Why this school of all places?" Twilight moaned.

Cadance shrugged. "The Ambassador wanted his sons to have the finest education money can buy," she said. "And to hob-knob with the children of influential people." She sighed. "Honestly, though? Tirek's a brute, and only the students with the worst disciplinary records want anything to do with him." She shook her head. "And then there's Scorpan. The kid's a doormat if ever there was one."

"I've noticed." Twilight shook herself. "I'm almost late for class! I'll catch up with you later."

* * * * *

Adagio checked her reflection in the mirror to make sure her ears were completely hidden beneath her hood, then put on the red-tinted sunglasses she'd picked up. Beside her, the other Sirens were similarly attired; Aria wore a baggy sweatshirt and a ball cap, with black glasses, while Sonata wore a hoodie and star-shaped blue sunglasses. "Alright, girls," Adagio said. "Blend in, stay out of sight when everyone's in class. Keep your ears and your wings hidden. And Sonata, for the love of all things unholy, stop farting."

"Can I help it if last night's gyros gave me the toots?"

"YOU COOKED THEM, SO YES!"

* * * * *

As the insipid teacher droned on about the early colonial days, Tirek pretended to pay attention while studying something far more interesting and personally fulfilling.

Since his early teens, Tirek had been fascinated with the legends of magic, especially dark magic, that pervaded his homeland and the bordering territories.

Three years ago, he had met an old scholar, Master Sendak, who had spent the greater part of his eighty years researching ancient legends of magic that transcended the bounds of space and time. The legends described beings that appeared from shadows and mirrors; strange beings with inhuman forms, who later adapted human appearances and walked among ordinary people. Sendak had taught Tirek many things, and had given him an ancient relic, a black crystal pendant which was said to react to and locate sources of magic.

Then Tirek's fat fool of a father had been assigned to the Embassy in Canterlot, and had forced his entire family to travel with him. Tirek often suspected it was because Father knew of his association with Sendak and wished to steer him away from such a bad influence.

The other students at Crystal Prep annoyed Tirek to no end. If he could get away with it, he would bludgeon half of them into the ground. His few weeks at the school so far had been an agonizing torture test.

Today, however, something had changed.

This morning, when he arrived at the school, the black crystal began to vibrate faintly. If he held it cupped in the palms of his hands, it shone with a faint, steady pink light.

Elation gripped his being. Providence had smiled upon him. Somewhere, at this very school, was proof of the magic he had sought.

He tapped his pen against his desk as the teacher droned on. Lunch drew ever closer, and with it, the opportunity to seek out the source of magic...

* * * * *

"Well, the portal's holding, and it doesn't seem to be adding to the problem," Twilight reported as she rejoined the others in the Aethenaeum.

"That's good," Celestia said. After a pause, she added, "This portal...you're certain it wouldn't take me to Sunset Shimmer...?"

Twilight shook her head. "Even if it would, I can't let you do that, Celestia."

Moondancer raised an eyebrow. "You can't let the ruler of Equestria do whatever she wants?"

"It's for her own protection," Twilight said. "And for Equestria's. We can't afford to let anything happen to you, Celestia." Her eyes hardened and softened at the same time. "Which means if you even think about going through that portal, I will stop you."

Celestia bowed her head, sadness in her eyes. "You're right. I...I'm being selfish enough as it is, abandoning my duties for this."

Twilight sighed. "You'll get to see her again one day, I promise. Just...right now, we need to focus. Moondancer, do you have anything new on thaumetric pressure inversion?"

Moondancer pushed up her glasses. "Actually, yes. I found a journal entry Starswirl made about a world he visited..." She frowned and levitated a book. "One world he visited, the portal was damaged by a local magical inversion weapon." She cringed. "His description of the resulting catastrophe is...very colorful."

Celestia seized the journal and scanned the entry. Her eyebrow quirked. "It looked like Discord had the Trots all over everything," she read. "Yes...that's certainly Starswirl's style."

"It is?" Twilight asked, wrinkling her muzzle.

"In his private journals," Celestia said with a smile. "I once heard him go off on a fifteen minute rant about griffons and their breeding habits that made Luna cry."

"Yikes."

Moondancer's eyebrows rose dramatically. "Fascinating."

Celestia continued reading, her brow furrowing. "Oh dear," she said. "I...seriously hope nothing like this happens to the human world."

Twilight sighed. "I may have to risk a trip over there myself," she said. "But I'll have to do it carefully, I'll have to do it without being seen, and before I go, I'll need to see if I can adapt that spell I used to turn myself and my friends into Breezies to turn myself into a human." She frowned. "I'll need to work fast, because it won't last very long even if it works."

"It should be easier than the Breezie spell," Celestia said. "You've been human twice already."

"That's true." Twilight flicked an ear. "In any case, I'll need to be there in person to see how bad the situation is, but...I need to prepare first. Which means testing the spell and seeing how long it will last first."

"Well...no time like the present," Celestia said.

Twilight nodded. "Alright." She closed her eyes and concentrated. Her horn glowed brightly. The dust in the air seemed to sing.

After several long moments of magical buildup, Twilight had transformed from an alicorn into a naked teenage girl. She looked up, blinking. "That...felt strange," she said. She stood, wobbling slightly as she adjusted to her new center of gravity. "Well?"

Moondancer stared at her. "That's what's on the other side of that portal?"

Celestia tilted her head. "Well, you certainly succeeded in becoming human," she said. "There is...one slight problem, though."

"There is?" Twilight looked down at herself and blinked. "Oh ponyfeathers."

"I don't get it," Moondancer said. "What's wrong?"

"Humans wear clothes all the time," Twilight said. "I can't go over there like this." She frowned. "I'll need to get Rarity to come to Canterlot and do something about this. It's a good thing I left Spike in Ponyville..."

"Can you...please change back now?" Moondancer asked. "Sorry, it's just...this is too weird."

"Can't," Twilight said with a helpless shrug. "No horn in this form. I'll have to wait for it to wear off on its own. Besides, I need to know how long this spell is going to last, or this was all for nothing." She walked over to a desk and started writing a letter.

* * * * *

At lunch, Pinkie seemed perturbed.

"What's up, Pinkie?" Rainbow asked.

"You girls are gonna think I'm crazy, but...I think the Sirens are sneaking around the school."

"Yeah, we noticed," Rainbow said with a shrug.

"They're a bit hard to miss. They're quite...conspicuous," Rarity said.

"Shouldn't we be doin' somethin' 'bout that?" Applejack wondered.

Rainbow shrugged. "It's not like they can do anything. Just keep an eye on 'em, if they start messin' with the portal or anything, we'll kick their butts and hand 'em over to the cops."

"We should probably let Sunset Shimmer know when we go over later," Fluttershy said.

* * * * *

Princess Cadance sighed with boredom as she finished her afternoon snack. Tasked with guarding the new portal, with no royal duties to take over from her aunt, there was little to do except sit and watch a mirror that wasn't doing anything.

As it was late in the afternoon, the guards were in the middle of shift change, meaning she had the throne room to herself for a whole five minutes. She stared curiously at the mirror, its surface cool and inviting.

And on the other side of that crystal mirror was a strange world she had only heard about second-hand from Twilight.

"Hmm..."

Surely a quick peek couldn't hurt...

Rising from the throne, Cadance trotted over to the mirror and, hesitating only briefly, poked her head through...

After the kaleidoscope of bright lights and colors faded away, she found herself staring out at...a bathroom.

A public bathroom, with toilet stalls and hot air hand dryers and paper towel dispensers.

Really, it looked almost exactly like the girls' bathroom at her own high school.

She felt her hooves strike the tile surface of a long lavatory counter. She heard a surprised gasp.

She looked up...

A familiar pink face with familiar lavender, rose, and cream hair stared back at her with familiar violet eyes.

The small-nosed creature blinked several times, eyes comically wide.

Cadance blinked. "Oh," she said quietly.

After a long, awkward moment, she muttered a sheepish, "Sorry," then retreated back through the portal, leaving a very confused human Cadance standing there in stunned silence, an uncapped lipstick forgotten in her hand.

* * * * *

At a quarter to four, Sunset got a text from Fluttershy saying she and Rarity would be dropping by.

At a quarter past four, the doorbell rang. Sunset unlocked the door and let her friends in. She blinked in confusion at what Fluttershy and Rarity were lugging with them. Between the two girls, they carried several bolts of cloth wrapped in plastic, a folding easel, a large designer's sketchbook, and two large plastic cases. "What in the...?"

Rarity took off her backpack and rummaged around in it, handing Sunset a folder. "Here's your assignments and homework, darling," she said. She dug a few textbooks out and laid them on the living room table. "I got these from your locker."

"Thanks." Sunset watched Fluttershy set up the easel and the design book, then clear a workspace on the floor. "And the rest of this?"

"Oh, we're just going to work on a few nice little outfits for you," Fluttershy said brightly. "Oh, and I'll need to use your table there."

"Okay." Sunset cleared the table, using her magic to carry all her school stuff to the bedroom. When she came back, she discovered Fluttershy had set up a portable sewing machine on the table and had a kit full of thread, needles, thimbles, measuring tape, stick pins, and assorted accents and paraphernalia open on the floor next to her. "Wow," Sunset said. "Umm...you don't really need to do all this, you know. I mean...I'm not leaving the apartment until I either get back to normal or have to go back to Equestria."

"Oh, but you'll look so precious with some nice little dresses!" Fluttershy said.

Sunset made a strangled noise. "Uhh...Fluttershy? I'm not a housepet. You...you know that, right?"

Suddenly, Fluttershy was right in her face. "Let me have this," she said in a quiet, desperate, dangerous tone.

Sunset recoiled, raising a hoof protectively in front of her face. "Oh...kaaaaaaaaaaay..."

Fluttershy sat back and smiled a big, happy, adorable smile. "Great! Now, let's just do a little color matching before we get started..."

Sunset looked up at Rarity. "Help me," she whimpered.

Rarity, for her part, was staring in shock and horror at Fluttershy. "Is...is this what I look like when I get obsessed?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Sunset said.

"Gaaaaaah..."

For the next twenty minutes, Sunset had to stand uncomfortably still while Fluttershy and Rarity did "fashion stuff" around and to her. After that, they settled in to work cutting and measuring cloth, while Sunset brought her school stuff back into the room, spread it out on the floor, and worked on her homework.

At six, they broke for dinner. "So," Rarity said, "Flash Sentry...ahem...mentioned he stopped by yesterday."

Sunset grimaced. "Yeah, he...freaked out a bit."

"Oh! I almost forgot to tell you," Fluttershy said. "The Sirens were sneaking around at school today."

"They WHAT?" Sunset cried.

"We're not sure what they're up to, but...they can't really show their faces without, well..."

"Getting ganged up on like I used to?"

"Yes, that," Rarity said. "So...for now, we're just sort of...waiting to see what they do."

Sunset sighed. "I don't like it," she said, "but you're right. That's about all you can do for now. But be careful. With Equestrian magic showing up more and more here, they might not stay harmless for long."

After dinner, Fluttershy and Rarity worked on Sunset's outfits for another half hour before heading home, leaving most of their work stuff behind. Sunset cleaned up the dishes and the kitchen, then finished her homework before turning in early.

* * * * *

Twilight frowned at the latest readings her equipment had recorded. "Hmm...that's strange..."

The recent massive spikes in activity, all centered around Canterlot High School, had been sharp deviations from a background level of...something. Whatever it was, it didn't conform to any normal energy, seismic, electromagnetic, or radioactive patterns she knew. Her equipment could measure it, but she couldn't identify it.

But according to her latest readings, the background levels had increased drastically in a few short days...and in the last twenty-four hours, there had been another spike.

Only this activity spike happened at her school.

With a frown, she double-checked her readings, changed clothes, and grabbed her portable scanning equipment and phone.

"I really hope Dean Cadance is still at school..."

Dark Horse

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Princess Twilight Sparkle had been a naked human girl for almost thirty minutes, and she was rapidly growing acutely aware of her nakedness and the cold temperature of the Aethenaeum.

"That can't possibly be good for your spine," Moondancer said. "Why do these human creatures have their teats there of all places, anyway? It...it defies all logic..."

Twilight wrapped her arms around herself, shivering; her cheeks flushed faintly. "Celestia? Could you...conjure me up a robe or something? I'm getting chilly here. Also, Moondancer, could you stop that? I don't know why, but it's starting to really make me uncomfortable..."

Moondancer snorted and leaned low, examining Twilight's feet. "How silly it is to have what appear to be vestigial digits here...can you grab anything with those?"

"I can barely grab anything with these," Twilight said, wiggling her fingers. A blue cape materialized above her; she grabbed it and slung it about herself, tucking it in tightly. "Thanks," she said.

Celestia smiled and laughed softly. "Think nothing of it," she said. "Moondancer does raise a few valid points, though. Human anatomy is rather...odd."

"Tell me about it," Twilight said, rolling her eyes.

"And why are your teats so swollen?" Moondancer continued. "Is that normal for humans? Is their mammary capacity more closely related to bovines?"

"They're just...like that," Twilight said, blushing more furiously. "All my friends in the other world have them. Some are bigger than others. Sunset Shimmer's are REALLY big." She shrugged. "I think it's just normal for them."

Moondancer frowned. "Are they...productive?"

"Gah! NO!"

Celestia coughed delicately. "Girls? I do believe we can find more constructive uses for our time while we wait for this spell to wear off..."

* * * * *

Tirek had encountered a slight, annoying hiccup in his search for the source of magic.

He'd narrowed it down to one area of the school. Which, unfortunately, was one of the girls' bathrooms.

Even with his disregard for others and his fortunate diplomatic immunity, Tirek was not fool enough to tempt fate by barging into a girls' bathroom.

Upon the discovery of this particular problem, he had resolved to wait until after the students and faculty had all departed for the day, then begin his investigation.

"Brother, please," Scorpan begged as Tirek skulked around the halls. "Let's go home...I'm not comfortable with this..."

"Leave," Tirek snarled. "We are hardly joined at the hip."

Scorpan stared at him, then sighed and slunk away, slump-shouldered.

Keeping to the shadows and doing his best to remain unobserved, Tirek watched as the students of Crystal Prep trickled out of the building. The faculty began to disperse; that obnoxious woman Cinch locked up her office and left, her walk stiff and brusque.

The school seemed to finally be empty. Tirek strode down the hall, approaching the bathroom...

The door opened, and Dean Cadance strode out, a disturbed, confused look on her face. She blinked as she noticed him, her mouth pursing into a small 'o'.

Then he heard sneakers squeaking on the tiles, and looked up to see a lavender-skinned girl with glasses skidding up the hall, a homemade-looking device of some sort clutched in one hand. She screeched to a halt, bracing herself against a row of lockers and panting. "I'm...here..." she wheezed. She blinked as she looked up. She saw Tirek and let out a startled yelp, backing away and pinwheeling her arms. "Uwah!"

The girl's panic seemed to stir something in Cadance, and she came back to her senses, folding her arms and giving Tirek a stern look. "What are you doing hanging around outside the ladies' room?"

Tirek gave her a defiant stare in return. "I am merely in the hallway, Dean Cadance. That there happens to be a restroom here is of no—"

The thing the lavender girl held in her hand suddenly emitted a shrill, piercing shriek.

At the same time, the crystal pendant hanging around Tirek's neck lit up bright red.

The light and heat of a blazing fire filled the open doorway behind Cadance, and three heads snapped around to stare.

"Get BACK HERE, Philomena!" a female voice hissed from somewhere in the room. In the middle of the bathroom, a bird seemingly made entirely of fire let out a shrill cry, gliding over the toilet stalls.

"Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh—" the lavender girl stammered, eyes wide.

Tirek's eyebrows rose. "A phoenix?" he murmured. "They exist?"

Cadance stared.

The sprinklers went off, followed by the fire alarm.

The phoenix shrieked angrily and dove directly into the mirror, disappearing into it without incident.

The three observers stared at each other.

Tirek's pendant stopped glowing, and the girl's device fell silent.

A dripping wet Cadance rushed down the hall and turned off the fire alarm and the sprinklers, then pulled out her phone. "Yes, this is Dean Cadance of Crystal Prep. Yes, we just had a fire alarm here. It was a student smoking in the restroom that set it off. There's no need to send emergency response. Thank you. Yes, kids will be kids. Yes." She disconnected and put her phone away, then walked back up to the others.

The girl wiped some water off her device and put down the hood on her sweatshirt, shaking out her messy violet hair. She produced a plastic-wrapped packet of tissues from the pocket of her jeans and tried to wipe off her glasses. She glanced at Tirek, tilting her head. "That pendant...it was reacting to that...that..."

"Phoenix, yes," Tirek rumbled, stroking his chin. "An actual phoenix...fascinating."

The girl blinked. "That was a phoenix? But they're...mythical..."

Cadance shook her head. "I dunno, Twilight. It was a bird, it was on fire...sure sounds like a phoenix to me." She glanced at Tirek, raising an eyebrow. "Now, what were you saying about just happening to be standing there?"

Tirek paused, carefully measuring his response. He glanced at the girl—Twilight—and frowned thoughtfully. "Ladies...I'm beginning to get the impression we're all searching for the same thing." He looked at Twilight. "You there. That device. What is it for?"

Twilight jerked sharply. "I-it's...I'm measuring strange energy patterns I've been detecting for the last several months," she stammered. "Th-they started showing up across town at C-Canterlot High, a-and now they're here, and...and we all saw that...that BIRD..."

"Canterlot High," Tirek said thoughtfully. "Interesting. You have data on these energy patterns?"

Twilight nodded.

Tirek smiled. "Twilight, was it?"

"Y-yes," she said. "Twilight Sparkle."

Tirek's smile widened into a frightening grin. "Twilight Sparkle...I believe we can be of use to one another..."

About A Mare

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Cadance, Tirek, and Twilight stood in front of the restroom mirror. Twilight was scanning it with her device; it let off an occasional soft 'ping' along with a steady, sharp staccato crackle not unlike a Geiger counter. Meanwhile, Tirek's crystal was glowing with a faint, steady pink light.

"The phoenix disappeared into this mirror," Tirek rumbled, tapping his chin.

"There's something very strange about that mirror," Cadance said. "Earlier, I was in here touching up my makeup, when..."

Tirek and Twilight both looked at her as she trailed off. "When what?" Twilight asked. "You told me on the phone you saw something really weird, but you wouldn't say what."

Cadance played with her hair. "Well...you're probably going to think I sound really crazy if I tell you what I saw."

Tirek raised an eyebrow. "We just saw a phoenix fly into a mirror in a high school restroom, Dean Cadance. I think we can agree to keep an open mind."

Cadance nodded. "Alright. Well...like I said, I was just touching up my lipstick when this...this...horse came out of the mirror."

Twilight blinked. "A horse?"

"Well, kind of," Cadance said. "I mean, it looked like a horse, except it...it looked like the kind of toy horse little girls play with." She crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "And...and it was pink."

"Pink," Tirek repeated.

"And it had a horn...like...like a unicorn," Cadance said. Then, in a small voice, she added, "And...and its face, and its hair..." She swallowed. "It...it looked like me."

The others blinked at her. "I beg your pardon?" Tirek asked.

"I know how insane that sounds, but...the horse...had my face, and my hair. Just...just more...horsey." Cadance blushed and looked away.

Twilight tilted her head. "Okay...so then what? Where did this pink horse that looked like you go?"

"Back into the mirror," Cadance said. "It...she...apologized, then went back into the mirror."

Twilight raised her eyebrow. "The horse...talked?"

"I know it sounds stupid!" Cadance snapped, cheeks burning. "But I swear it happened!"

Tirek stroked his goatee. "We did just see a phoenix disappear into that mirror," he said thoughtfully. "And did we not hear a voice? A female voice?"

"We did hear a voice," Twilight said. "It didn't sound anything like Cadance's, though."

"But we found no one else in this restroom," Tirek said. "Which suggests to me that whoever spoke was on the other side of that mirror." He leaned against the lavatory, peering thoughtfully at his reflection. "It's reasonable to assume that creatures we consider to be mythical exist on the other side. If a phoenix came through this mirror, it stands to reason there might be a unicorn there as well." He snorted. "Which is fascinating, but ultimately irrelevant. The more immediate concern is that we have found a source of legitimate magic in our world, and if the readings here match the data Twilight has collected thus far, then there is more magic to be found at this...Canterlot High School."

"Magic?" Twilight repeated. "Are you serious? You think this is magic?"

"I know this is magic," Tirek insisted. He held up his crystal. "I was given this by a master of the mystic arts in my homeland. He has studied magic and mysticism for decades, and has taught me much." He nodded at the mirror. "There is magic here. Powerful magic."

Cadance frowned doubtfully. "Okay, so...assuming that's the case...what do we do about it?"

"We study it," Twilight said. "Carefully. When nobody else is around. And...and this weekend, or maybe one night this week, we should go over to Canterlot High and take some readings there."

"Prowl around CHS at night?" Cadance asked. She sighed. "Twilight, you know if they catch Crystal Prep students hanging around CHS at night, it's not going to look good. Not with our school's history of pranking them."

Twilight scoffed. "That juvenile rivalry over the Friendship Games? Dean Cadance, this is more important!"

"I would tend to agree," Tirek said. "If the two of you won't investigate this other school, I most certainly will, and I dare anyone to try to stop me."

Cadance sighed. "I can see you're not going to let this go. Alright, but we need to do this diplomatically." She tapped her cheek. "It just so happens I'm friends with their vice-principal. I think I can probably arrange an excuse for the three of us to visit CHS and do some research into...whatever's going on." She glanced at the mirror. "In the meantime...what do we do about this?"

"We seal off this restroom," Tirek said. "We claim it's out of order. Until we know exactly what we're dealing with here, we can't afford to allow the other students inside."

"And how do you propose we convince Principal Cinch that a perfectly serviceable restroom is out of order?" Cadance asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tirek snorted and walked over to a stall. Throwing open the door, he crouched down, grabbed hold of the toilet seat, and wrenched it free of its plastic bolts, tossing it across the room. Then, with a yell, he delivered a violent axe kick to the tank. The ceramic shell shattered dramatically, pieces of it falling away and exposing the pressure mechanism on the inside.

"GAH!" Twilight cried.

With another kick, Tirek smashed the pressure flush mechanism. Water sprayed into the air.

"That should suffice," he rumbled.

"Uhh..." Cadance blinked at him.

Tirek turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "I will—discreetly—pay for the damages, of course."

"Of...of course," Cadance said. She grimaced as a pool of water began to spread. "We should get out of here."

"Yeah," Twilight agreed. The three conspirators quickly left the flooding bathroom and the school grounds.

* * * * *

Slightly over two hours passed before Twilight's spell wore off. She shook her head dazedly as she settled back onto her hooves, ruffling her wings beneath the blue cape she still wore. "Woo. I always get so dizzy when I change back."

"So, the spell lasts for about two hours," Celestia said, pursing her lips. "That's not much time."

Twilight sighed. "No, it really isn't." She levitated the journal over to herself and wrote a brief note. "But maybe it'll last longer the more often I cast it."

"You shouldn't use a spell like that too often," Celestia advised. "It could have messy consequences down the road."

"Hey, I don't want to be human any more than I have to," Twilight protested. "But I will need to use it again tomorrow when Rarity's here so she can set me up with clothes."

Several minutes went by before Sunset Shimmer replied. Twilight read her reply aloud for the benefit of the others.

Twilight,

Two hours isn't much time, especially if you need to get from Crystal Prep to CHS. Actually, it's not even possible to make that trip in under an hour, according to Rarity. Even just getting to my place and back before your spell wears off doesn't leave you much time to do anything.

Of course, I'm sure you'll be doing most of your research on the portal at Crystal Prep itself, but we'd all like to see you when you come through if we can figure out how. If you do need to get from there to here or CHS when you come through, it might be best to come through as an alicorn, teleport and/or fly as far as you can without being seen, then use your transformation spell as soon as one of the girls can meet you with a car. If you can cut down on your recharge time on the spell, that might help a lot. But you probably knew that already. I mean, you are a princess.

Sorry if I'm rambling. I'm going a little stir crazy here. Keep me posted!

Your friend,
Sunset Shimmer

Celestia's ears drooped. "We need to hurry and help her."

Moondancer tilted her head and frowned. "Your Majesty...have you ever heard of something called a spell amplifier?"

Celestia shot her a sideways look. "Of course I have. I outlawed them three hundred years ago."

Moondancer wilted. "Right...sorry..."

"Wait a second," Twilight said, raising a hoof. "Where are you going with this, Moondancer?"

"N-nevermind, it's—"

"It's alright," Celestia said. "I think I know what you're thinking of. Go ahead."

"Oh. Well..." Moondancer adjusted her glasses. "I was thinking that a spell amplifier could extend the duration of Twilight's transformation spell."

Celestia frowned thoughtfully. "It's possible," she said. "The only problem is spell amplifiers take a long time to forge, and since they're illegal by my law, there aren't exactly any lying around ready to be used." She shuddered. "Well, there's one, but...it's not exactly safe for anypony to use. Especially not Twilight."

"The Alicorn Amulet," Twilight said with a grimace. "Yeah, we're not taking that out of the vault ever. It's way too dangerous." She frowned. "But Moondancer's idea is solid, if impractical. There's gotta be a way to extend the life of a transformation spell that doesn't involve creating illegal artifacts."

"What about a spell matrix lock?" a new voice intruded. "Surely you have not outlawed those, Sister."

The three ponies turned to see Luna descending into the Aethenaeum. "Luna!" Celestia greeted.

"It is time to lower the sun, Celestia," she said.

"What was that about a spell matrix lock?" Twilight asked.

"I overheard part of your conversation," Luna replied. "In the old days, if we needed to prolong the life of a difficult spell, we used a spell matrix lock. In fact, is that not the very basis of the Guard Uniform magic?"

Celestia facehoofed. "Of course! It was right under my nose the whole time..." She shook her head. "I have about a hundred of those sitting around in a junk drawer."

"In that case, it could benefit more than just Twilight," Moondancer said. "She could use her spell to return her friend to her human form, then use a spell matrix lock to hold her in that form."

"It would only be good for about twelve, maybe fourteen hours per charge," Celestia said, "but it's not a bad idea. Let me attend to the sun, then I'll gather what we need." She frowned. "In the meantime, I suggest both of you retire for the evening. You need rest if you're going to do anything productive tomorrow."

"Yeah, probably a good idea," Twilight agreed, cracking a huge yawn. "I'll arrange guest rooms for us here at the castle. If that's alright."

"But of course."

With that, the four mares left the Aethenaeum.

* * * * *

Whispers filled the halls of Canterlot High the following morning.

"Whoa, check it out."

"Is she a new teacher?"

"She's a babe."

"I think I'm in love..."

Five girls on their way to class watched as a beautiful pink-skinned woman with long, lush three-colored hair walked confidently down the hall to the faculty offices.

"Oh my goodness," Rarity said. "She's gorgeous. And that hair! I'm rather jealous."

"Who the heck is she?" Rainbow wondered. "I've never seen her around here before."

"She just went into Vice-Principal Luna's office," Fluttershy said.

"I'll find out who she is and what she's up to!" Pinkie Pie declared confidently, sneaking down the hall.

"Pinkie, wait—!"

* * * * *

"Well, good morning, Dean Cadance!" Luna said, looking up from her paperwork. "This is an unexpected surprise. And here it is, still months before the Friendship Games."

"Good morning, Vice-Principal Luna," Cadance said smoothly, taking a seat across from her friend. "I need a favor."

"Oh?"

"I'd like permission to bring a couple of our students to CHS to explore the campus as part of a project," Cadance said.

Luna raised an eyebrow. "A project?" she asked. "What sort of project? Is this Abacus Cinch's latest attempt to spy on our students? Or perhaps a stealth pranking operation?"

Cadance gave Luna a hurt look. "You know I wouldn't take part in something that petty," she said. "Besides, Principal Cinch has nothing but contempt for CHS and you know it."

"This is true," Luna admitted with a sigh. "Still, what sort of project could two of her students possibly need to come here for?"

"It's...sort of a...social project," Cadance hedged, grimacing. "Canterlot High's social environment is completely different from Crystal Prep's. It would do some of our students good to see it first-hand, you know?"

Luna chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Well, I see no reason why not," she said with a shrug. "I can have my sister contact Principal Cinch and—"

"Nonono!" Cadance protested, waving her hands. "I mean..." She coughed and composed herself. "This is...this is an off-the-record project. Something I'm doing without Principal Cinch's knowledge or consent."

Both of Luna's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "I see," she said. "Well then. When were you planning to conduct this project?"

"I was thinking in the afternoons, after lunch," Cadance said. "Considering the students in question, their teachers won't even ask questions if I sign them out of classes." She fidgeted slightly. "We should only need three or four days, I think. You won't even know we're here."

"Very well," Luna said. She slid her memo pad over from the corner of her desk and picked up a pen. "Just so I know who's visiting, what are the names of these students?"

Cadance smiled. "One of them is a boy named Tirek. The other is a girl named Twilight Sparkle."

Luna's pen froze. She looked up at Cadance. "I'm sorry, did you say Twi-Twilight Sparkle?"

"Yes." Cadance tilted her head. "Is something wrong?"

Luna pursed her lips. "I...no, nothing." She continued writing, then put on a slightly strained smile. "We'll be looking forward to your visit, and I do hope you'll clue me in on the nature of your, ahem, project."

Cadance rose, then reached out to clasp hands with Luna. "See you this afternoon," she said brightly.

As she left, Luna's smile fell, confusion and worry filling her eyes. "Twilight Sparkle is a student at Crystal Prep?!"

The air ducts above Luna's office thumped violently. She heard a muffled gasp, then a loud shriek which bounced cacophonously off the metal walls of the duct:

"WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!"

* * * * *

After lunch, Twilight and Tirek waited for Cadance at the front gates of Crystal Prep. Twilight fidgeted nervously, casting apprehensive glances at Tirek out of the corner of her eye.

At length, Tirek asked, in the quietest tone she'd ever heard from him, "How is it you come to be so close to Dean Cadance? The two of you seem rather familiar."

Twilight jumped. "Ah!" She poked her fingers together. "W-well...I've known Dean Cadance since I was a little girl," she said. "She's been a friend of my family for a long time...she's, well, kind of like a big sister to me." She ducked her head. "My brother kind of had a crush on her for a while, but..."

"Hm. I see."

"Speaking of brothers," Twilight said hesitantly, "yours is, umm...nothing like you."

Tirek grunted. "We have different mothers," he said gruffly. "His mother is from Makuna Hatata, a nation subservient to ours for generations."

Twilight frowned. "You mean ever since Kentaros conquered them."

"Your point?"

Twilight fell silent. After a long moment, she hedged, "You and your brother...you're not very close, are you?"

Tirek snorted. "Scorpan is a coward," he said. "He has no ambition and his life has no focus. He merely does whatever our father says. If he didn't have someone to plan his life out for him, I honestly believe he would stand in one place and do nothing for the rest of his life."

Twilight frowned, adjusting her glasses. "You know, ever since you came to this school, I've been...a little afraid of you. You're kind of..."

"Scary?" Tirek prompted with an amused smirk.

"Well, yeah," Twilight said. "I thought maybe I was wrong when all of a sudden you were interested in the same thing I've been looking into, but—"

"Twilight Sparkle," Tirek interrupted gruffly, turning to pierce her with his intense eyes. "I want you to understand something. There is power to be had in this world. Not false power, like what my fool of a father believes he has, but real power—the power to control your own destiny, the power to reshape history." He looked up at the sky, clenching his fists at his sides. "I seek that power. Not to conquer nations, not to usurp thrones. I seek that power so that I will know, always, that I am the one in control. Of my own life, of my own destiny." He turned his face back to her. "I have learned that you are the most gifted student to ever attend this school. Your academic achievements are practically legend. I ask you: what drives your thirst for knowledge?"

Twilight pursed her lips. "I want to know everything," she said softly. "I want to understand everything."

Tirek grunted. "Then in a way, we are much alike."

Before Twilight could respond to that, or even ponder Tirek's words, Cadance's car pulled up to the curb, and the two teens got in.

Come Out and Neigh

View Online

When the Rainbooms gathered at their usual table at lunch, Pinkie had a rattled, haunted look in her eyes.

"Are you okay, Pinkie Pie?" Fluttershy asked.

Pinkie shivered. "T-Twilight," she whispered.

The others sat up intently. "What about Twilight?" Rainbow asked.

"C-Crystal Prep..."

Confused blinks answered her. "Beg pardon?" Rarity prompted.

"That woman who went into Luna's office," Pinkie said in a stronger, less detached voice. "She...she works at Crystal Prep. She...she said Twilight Sparkle...goes there."

The other girls looked around at one another, frowns of worry and confusion on their faces.

"Are...are you sure, darling?"

"YES! Yes, I'm sure! I heard it! I heard both of them say it TWICE!" Pinkie ranted, her pitch and volume escalating. "Twilight Sparkle is a student at Crystal BUTTHOLE Prep!" She punctuated her exclamation by pounding on the table...

...which cracked down the middle, dumping their trays on the floor. The entire cafeteria fell silent, turning to stare at them.

Rainbow gave Pinkie a half-lidded glare. "Way to go, Pinkie Pie."

Miss Cheerilee, who was on cafeteria duty, scuttled over, a look of alarm on her face. "Girls, what's with all the yelling? And...WHAT DID YOU DO TO THIS TABLE?!"

"I'llpayforit!" Pinkie gasped out, standing up and rubbing the back of her head. "Sorry, I...I don't know my own strength lately..."

Cheerilee tilted her head, frowning. "Does...does this have anything to do with the pony ears and wings thing you girls are doing now?"

"Yes ma'am," Applejack said as she picked up the broken table halves, grimacing at the mess on the floor. "Me an' Pinkie Pie got some kinda freaky super-strength goin' on now. Guess there ain't no point hidin' it after this mess."

"You could've tried to hide it a bit more carefully," Rarity hissed, even as the spilled trays wreathed themselves in her magic aura and piled into a neat stack.

Cheerilee just stared.

"I'll, umm...just go get a mop," Fluttershy said, sneaking away. All around the girls' table, students had their phones out and were recording video and taking pictures.

Rainbow facepalmed. "We're screwed," she muttered.

* * * * *

Rarity tilted her head curiously as she studied Princess Twilight Sparkle's human form. "Sweet Celestia," she said softly. "Is that really what's on the other side of that mirror?"

"Yes," Twilight said. "Everybody looks like this over there. Well, I mean...they look like themselves, just...as one of these."

"How strange," Rarity commented. "And, ahem...a bit immodest." She shook her head. "I'll be honest, darling...this might be a bit of a challenge for me."

"You don't think you can make clothes for this body?" Twilight asked, drooping.

"Oh, don't be absurd!" Rarity said with a light chuckle and a wave of her hoof. "I simply mean it's going to be a challenge." Her eyes sparkled. "One I quite look forward to undertaking!"

"More to the point, do you think you can come up with something quickly?" Princess Celestia asked. "Ideally, the sooner we help Sunset Shimmer, the better."

Rarity caught the anxiety in her voice and nodded. "Oh, I'm certain it won't take terribly long, not with the resources of my boutique here in Canterlot at my disposal." Her tape measure began floating around Twilight, taking various measurements. "Although I do wish I had more time to experiment with different designs..."

"All I really need is this," Twilight said, picking up a scroll and passing it over. An image of her current form wearing a purple skirt, blue blouse, and purple and black boots had been magically burned into the parchment.

Rarity made a face. "Gaaah," she said. "No, no, that won't do at all, darling." She shook her head. "I can do much better than that." She studied the image again, then nodded. "I do appreciate the reference, though. That will make my job far easier..."

Moondancer groaned. "Can't we just throw a robe over the naked monkey instead of wasting time with all this?"

Rarity glared at her. "Absolutely not," she snapped.

Celestia covered her muzzle with a hoof to stifle a giggle. "Best to let this one go, Moondancer," she said. "Never get between Rarity and fashion."

"Speaking of which, you are in desperate need of a makeover," Rarity said to Moondancer as she wrote down Twilight's measurements. "Perhaps once the current crisis is over—"

"No."

"But darling, I—"

"No."

"At the very least an eyebrow plucking?"

"No."

"But darling, they're positively GHASTLY—"

"NO!"

"We'll put a pin in that for now."

Moondancer growled in annoyance. Twilight giggled.

* * * * *

Halfway to Canterlot High, Tirek—who had been silent thus far during the ride—spoke up. "Dean Cadance?"

"Yes?"

Tirek's forehead furrowed in bemusement. "I can't help but wonder...why does the license plate on your car say 'LUV BUTT'?"

Cadance nearly ran off the road. A strained giggle emanated from the driver's seat. She coughed once. "Ah...ahem...that's a really embarrassing story..."

Twilight giggled. "That's the last thing I'd expect you to ask about," she said.

Tirek grunted. "Ordinarily, no, but it just seems so...out of place."

Cadance smiled. "Believe it or not, when I was your age, I used to be a little bit of a ditzy party girl."

"That, I have no trouble believing in the slightest," Tirek said. "Which makes your closeness with Twilight Sparkle all the more curious."

"Like I said, she's been a family friend for a long time—"

"Yes, yes, I remember, and your brother had a crush on her," Tirek interrupted dismissively.

"You didn't tell him your whole life story already, did you?" Cadance asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No!" Twilight said, blushing profusely. "He just asked a question, I answered it...that's all, really!"

Cadance smirked. "Uh-huh." She sighed. "Well, in any case, we need to be careful snooping around CHS. I already made up a cover story for what we're doing there and I think Vice-Principal Luna bought it, but let's do our best not to draw attention to ourselves, okay?"

"As you wish," Tirek said.

Twilight eyed him nervously. "Y-yeah," she said. "We'll...we'll just...blend right in. Yes."

* * * * *

The cafeteria incident had been dismissed as an accident, and the Rainbooms had been let off with a warning and an admonishment from Vice-Principal Luna to be careful with their newfound pony magic.

Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash all had the same free period after lunch. They met up in the grand foyer, then headed out to the school's front steps.

"You sure you heard right?" Rainbow asked Pinkie.

"Uhh, YES!" Pinkie exclaimed, flailing her hands emphatically. "I was right over Luna's office!"

"But that doesn't make any sense," Rarity said, frowning. "Twilight came here from Equestria. The portal is here at CHS. What would she be doing at Crystal Prep?"

"And how could she be a student there?" Rainbow wondered. "I mean, if she's here in our world, even if she came through at Crystal Prep, wouldn't she have the same problem Sunset has?"

"All I know is what I heard," Pinkie said, nervously drumming her fingers on the handrail.

A pearl pink car pulled up to the curb in front of the school. Three of its doors opened, and three people stepped out. One was the woman who had visited Vice-Principal Luna earlier in the day. Another was a tall, muscular red-skinned boy with white hair, a small goatee, and a decidedly thuggish sense of fashion.

The third was Twilight Sparkle.

The three Rainbooms stared, jaws dropping, as Twilight and the boy stepped around the car, conversing quietly. Twilight was wearing glasses with thick black frames and a severe purple-and-white uniform, and her hair was tied up in a messy bun. She held a strange device in one hand, which she was consulting as she talked to her companion, who held a crystal cupped in one hand and was frowning at it.

"It's true," Rainbow Dash said hollowly. "Twilight's gone over to the dark side."

"She's certainly keeping very...strange company these days," Rarity said. "Funny, I never pictured Twilight as going for the bad-boy type."

"No kidding," Pinkie said. "He's like...super bad bad-boy."

Rainbow hurtled over the safety railing and crouched at the side of the stairs, out of Twilight's line of sight. "Get down here!" she hissed to the others.

"Whatever for, darling?" Rarity asked. "There's no reason we need to hide from Twilight—"

"I wanna know what she's up to and why she's suddenly all buddy-buddy with Crystal Prep!"

"Ooh, are we spying on Twilight and her bad-boy boyfriend?" Pinkie asked. "That sounds like fun!" With a leap, she joined Rainbow. Rarity rolled her eyes and followed suit. The three girls peered around the edge of the stairs.

Twilight waved the device she was carrying across the face of the statue that contained the portal to Equestria. She adjusted her glasses, frowned, and turned some dials on her device. She glanced over at the boy, whose crystal was floating in the air in front of the portal, blinking white. He walked forward and laid his hand on the bare marble, then ran it over the smooth surface. After a minute, he shook his head and turned away.

"What're they doing?" Rainbow wondered.

"Studying the portal, it looks like," Rarity said.

The woman walked up and conversed with them for a moment, then made her way toward the steps. As they drew closer, the Rainbooms heard snippets of conversation.

"—definitely something magical about that statue," the boy rumbled. "We'll need to examine it more closely later."

"Your crystal was a different color just now than it was in the bathroom," Twilight said. "My readings were different, too. What do you suppose it means?"

"I don't know," the boy said. "It's also interesting that the crystal was blinking. It's never done that before."

"You don't think it's another, umm...like the mirror?" the pink woman asked.

"Hard to say," Twilight said. "We still don't really know what that was."

"It's some sort of doorway to another world," the boy grunted. "That much is obv—" He broke off. "There's more magic, and it's close. Very close."

"Your crystal's changed colors again," Twilight said. Her scanner started beeping. "Whoa! You're right, something's really close and really active!"

"Oh crap!" Rainbow whispered, eyes wide.

Twilight and the others stepped around the edge of the stairs, stopping three feet in front of them. Rainbow, Pinkie, and Rarity stood up, grimacing. Rarity gave a small, sheepish wave. "Ahem. Hello."

The boy raised an eyebrow. "Well. This is interesting."

The woman gasped. "You...you have a horn."

Twilight pointed at Rainbow. "You have...you have wings."

"Yeah I do!" Rainbow said. "But...but you knew that already, right?"

Twilight blinked. "Umm...well, I can certainly see that...that you have wings!" She furiously adjusted knobs on her scanner and waved it over the group. "Tirek, these girls are dripping with magic!" She pointed her scanner straight at Rarity. "Especially her!"

Tirek nodded thoughtfully, pointing his crystal at Rarity. It lit up a bright blue-white and began strobing and chiming softly. "Yes," he said. "Powerful magic..."

The woman with them facepalmed. "For the record," she said, "this is the exact opposite of not drawing attention to ourselves."

* * * * *

The journal vibrated. Sunset picked it up.

Sunset,

Rarity's making me something to wear. I'm coming to see you tomorrow. I'm going to teach you a spell that might let you turn human for short periods of time. I don't know if you'll have enough power to cast it, but if you can, it'll at least help you get out of your apartment. See you soon!

Twilight.

Smiling, she reached for her own phone and called Rarity.

* * * * *

Rarity's phone rang. She pulled it out of her skirt pocket, glanced at the screen, and answered. "Ahem. H-hello, Sunset," she said. "Oh, you don't say? Well, she's...she's certainly quick about it, then. She's right here in front of..." She paused, blinking. "What...what do you mean? Just...just now?" She looked at her friends, then at the three visitors. She coughed. "I—I see. Ahem. W-well. That certainly...clears up a few matters. Umm...we'll talk later. We have a bit of a problem on our end." She hung up, then numbly put her phone away. She coughed into her fist. "Girls?" she said to her friends. "I think we've made...a bit of a boo-boo."

Stranger In My Horse

View Online

Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity stared at Twilight Sparkle and her two associates.

The trio from Crystal Prep stared back, curiosity and wonder plain on their faces.

"Ahem," Rarity coughed. "Rainbow Dash? Pinkie Pie? We need to leave. Now." With that, her horn lit up brightly. She smiled at the Crystal Prep trio. "I'm terribly sorry about this."

An aura surrounded the Crystal Prep visitors, and they found themselves flat on their backs on the ground. Pinkie Pie scooped up Rarity, and was in turn grabbed under the arms by Rainbow Dash, who took off into the sky. She flew swiftly around to the back of the school, then dropped her friends, panting and gasping. Once she recovered, Rarity unlocked the back entrance with her magic, and the three slipped inside.

"The HELL was that all about, Rarity?" Rainbow Dash demanded.

"Sunset Shimmer just now received a message from Twilight Sparkle. From Equestria."

"Huh?" Rainbow said. "But..."

Pinkie gasped. "Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed. "Then that WASN'T Twilight! I mean it was Twilight! But it wasn't—"

"Exactly," Rarity said. "It never occurred to me that there might be a Twilight Sparkle native to our world until just now, but..." She grimaced. "Evidently, there is. And she attends Crystal Prep. And that was her."

Silence met her proclamation.

Rainbow groaned and facepalmed. "Great," she said. "So...what now? What's she even doing here?"

"Looks to me like she's investigating all our weird pony magic," Pinkie said. "And that boy she was with looked really interested in Rarity. And not for the reasons boys are usually interested in Rarity."

Rarity grimaced. "We need to tell the others about this. But first..." She pulled out her phone and called Sunset.

* * * * *

Ever since she'd spoken to Rarity, Sunset had felt nervous and restless.

Something was happening to her friends. She just knew it. And there was nothing she could do about it.

She paced her living room, frantic worries churning in her mind.

Her phone rang. She stopped pacing, levitated it over using her magic, and answered. "Hello? Rarity?"

She listened for a moment. Her eyes widened. "WHAT?!"

She listened some more. "But...that means..." She paused. "But that doesn't make sense! Why would she—HOW would she—?" She shook her head. "And you say she attends Crystal Prep?" Sunset sighed. "Well, that certainly complicates matters. Just...keep an eye on her, alright? And that other person she's with. Whatever happens, whatever they say or do, I need to know about it so I can tell our Twilight. I've got a bad feeling about this."

Rarity said goodbye and hung up. Sunset put her phone down on her desk and sat down heavily, deflating like one of Pinkie's balloons after an all-night party. She glanced across the room to the journal, frowned, and levitated it over, along with a pen.

Twilight,

We have a new problem. I just talked to Rarity. Your counterpart, the Twilight Sparkle from this world, showed up at CHS this afternoon. She goes to Crystal Prep, and it looks like she's investigating magic. Some guy who gives Rarity the creeps and a woman who's a teacher or something at Crystal Prep were with her.

I don't know what to do about this, but it bothers me. Especially since they saw Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie.

If you have any advice or suggestions, let me know.

Sunset.

With a sigh, she closed the journal and set it aside, then climbed up onto the couch and flopped over onto her back. "This whole mess just keeps getting better," she muttered.

* * * * *

As Princess Twilight read the latest note from Sunset, her ears folded back and her wings drooped. "Oh no," she mumbled.

"What is it?" Celestia asked anxiously. "Is something wrong with Sunset Shimmer?"

"Not as such, but..." Twilight showed Celestia the letter.

Celestia's eyes widened. "Oh dear," she said. "That does complicate matters."

"What's going on now?" Moondancer asked, looking up from her half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and powdered sugar donut.

"The other Twilight Sparkle showed up at CHS," Twilight said. "It never occurred to me there'd be another me since she wasn't there already, but I guess I should've expected this sooner or later." She shook her head. "It's one thing to know there are parallel versions of all my friends. It's another to deal with the fact that there's another me."

"It seems fairly obvious," Moondancer said indifferently. "So what's the problem?"

"The problem is she's researching magic," Twilight said. "If I know me, which...well...I do..." She swallowed heavily. "Let's just say I have a bad habit of poking the bear when I get carried away with my research."

Celestia snickered. "Or the hydra."

"So the other Twilight showing up now of all times is not a good thing," Twilight concluded. "At best, it'll be awkward and confusing to have to deal with her when I go over to investigate their side of the portal. At worst, she's going to find a way to make things ten times worse than they already are."

Moondancer raised an eyebrow. "You don't seem to have a very high opinion of yourself."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "I've made lots of mistakes. Even after all this time, sometimes I still make the same stupid mistakes over and over again. Let's just say I'm very aware that sometimes I get carried away and it ends up causing problems for everypony around me. If she's anything like me..." She shook her head. "I just hope she doesn't try tapping into any of the magic floating around over there. That could be...bad."

* * * * *

Cadance, Tirek, and Twilight sat in Cadance's car a block and a half from Canterlot High.

"Are we going to talk about what happened back there?" Cadance asked shakily. Her eyes were wide and her knuckles were white where she gripped the steering wheel.

Twilight's heart was racing. "W-well," she said. "Let's start with the girl who had a horn. She obviously did...something to us—"

"A spell," Tirek said, eyes narrowed. "She cast a spell that knocked us all to the ground."

"So she's a witch?" Cadance asked. "Are we believing in witches now?"

"Whatever she is, she isn't human. Or at least, not entirely," Tirek grunted. "Putting the horn aside, all three of those girls had equine ears."

"I noticed that too," Twilight said shakily. "One of them had...had wings—"

"And carried the other two away when they flew off," Cadance said. She let out a strained giggle. "What the hell are we getting involved in here?"

"Whatever is happening at Canterlot High, it is precisely what I've been searching for," Tirek rumbled. "We need more data."

"You don't seriously want us to go back?" Cadance asked in disbelief. "Not after...not after what just happened?"

Twilight frowned at her scanner. "I need more data on that girl with the horn," she said. "When she did...whatever she did to us, my scanner went completely crazy. I need to observe her using..." She grimaced. "Using magic again. Preferably without being hit by it next time."

"Stealth is the key here," Tirek said. "Now that they are aware of us, we must be careful."

Cadance's phone rang. She jumped, then calmed down as she answered it. "H-hello? Y-yes, Luna. We're...we're just a block or so away. Yes. Of course! Yes. Looking forward to it as always." She hung up, then sighed. "Well...we have no choice but to go back to CHS," she said. "If we don't show up, Luna's going to wonder why, and I don't relish explaining this mess to one of my oldest friends."

"So...we just go back there, walk in, act like nothing's wrong?" Twilight said dubiously.

"That's all we can do for now," Cadance said as she started the engine and pulled the car around for the return trip.

* * * * *

By the time Rarity, Rainbow, and Pinkie had recovered from their unexpected encounter with the Twilight Sparkle from Crystal Prep, it was time for their next class. Agreeing to meet up with the others after school, they went their separate ways. Pinkie was just walking into her afternoon literature class when the trio from Crystal Prep strode down the hallway. Twilight's scanner pinged, and Tirek's crystal flashed a bright bubblegum pink.

Twilight halted. "That...was one of those girls," she said.

Pinkie stiffened, turning around without moving her feet or body. Her eyes were wide, and her pony ears flopped down around the sides of her head. "Oooooooh no," she moaned.

Cadance put a hand on Twilight's shoulder, then stepped forward, a game smile on her face. "Hi there," she said disarmingly. "I'm afraid we got off on the wrong foot earlier. I'm sorry we startled you and your friends. My name is Cadance. I'm the Dean of Students at Crystal Prep Academy. These are two of my students, Twilight Sparkle and Tirek. And you are?"

"Ummm...Pinkie Pie," Pinkie said. She looked nervously at Tirek, then at Twilight. Tirek gave her an impassive stare; Twilight gave her a hopeful, nervous smile even as she scanned her up and down. "And I've got class now gotta go bye!" With that, Pinkie ducked into the classroom and shut the door.

The three visitors blinked.

"Well, that could've gone better," Cadance muttered. "Come on, let's go see Lu—"

"Twilight?"

The three of them turned around. A boy with blue hair stood in the middle of the hall, staring at them. "Twilight! You're back?"

Twilight blinked. "Umm...do I know you?"

The boy frowned, blinking at her. "Twilight, it's...it's me," he said. He shuffled his feet. "Look, Sunset told me everything, and...and I know you're a—"

Tirek took a menacing step toward him. "Whatever your business is with Twilight, it'll have to wait," he rumbled. "We have more important things to do." With that, he turned on his heel and marched down the hall. Cadance grimaced and followed him. Twilight worried at her lip as she slowly turned and followed suit.

A short way down the hall, Twilight hurried to keep stride with Cadance. "Is...is it me," she said, "or does it seem like the people here know me?"

Cadance frowned. "Now that you mention it, Luna had a strange reaction to your name when we spoke earlier. I thought it was simply academic recognition, but..."

Far behind them, Flash Sentry watched them go, fists clenched at his sides and eyes narrowed.

* * * * *

When Rarity arrived with a group of garment bags draped across her back, Twilight was pacing anxiously. Rarity picked up on the tense mood immediately, her ears pinning back. "Twilight? What's happened?"

Twilight turned to look at her. "The other me showed up at CHS," she said. "From the sound of it, things are getting crazier by the minute."

Rarity frowned. "The other...you?"

"There's another Twilight Sparkle in that world," Twilight said. "It never even occurred to me there'd be another me there. Apparently, she goes to the same school where the new portal leads, and she's poking around CHS trying to figure out what's going on with all the magic there."

"Oh dear," Rarity said, worrying at her lip. "Is...is that going to be a problem?"

"I think it already is," Twilight said. "I need to get over there as soon as I can and find out what's going on."

"Well, I've got some outfits ready for a fitting," Rarity said. "If you could transform so we could get started, I'll...I'll alter them as swiftly as I possibly can."

"I'll go scrounge up a few spell lock matrices," Celestia said. "And...I think I'll write a letter to Sunset Shimmer while I'm at it."

* * * * *

Vice-Principal Luna's eyes widened as Cadance and her two students entered.

Her clothes were different, she wore thick black-framed glasses, and her hair was gathered in a messy bun, but there was no mistake: the girl was Twilight Sparkle.

*But that doesn't make any sense...*

"Luna," Cadance said. "These are the two students I spoke to you about. We'll just be having a look around your campus, soaking in the social atmosphere here at CHS. We won't be interrupting any classes or messing with your students."

Luna blinked, then nodded. "Yes, yes of course," she said distractedly. "By all means." She gathered up a handful of printouts and handed them to Cadance, who distributed them to her students.

"We need to catch up later," Cadance said warmly, favoring Luna with a sunny smile.

"We...certainly do," Luna said, returning the smile with some trepidation.

As the trio left the office, Tirek jerked the two ladies aside. In a low voice, he said, "There is no question now. Something is out of place at this school."

"We...already established that," Cadance said. "Or did you miss the pony-eared girls who dropped us with a magic spell and then flew off?"

"Not that," Tirek snorted dismissively. "That's the fourth time someone here has been surprised to see Twilight." He peered intently at Twilight. "Are you certain this is your first time at this school?"

Twilight nodded rapidly. "I've never even been out to this part of town before," she said. She frowned thoughtfully. "But you're right...something is going on here, and it seems to have something to do...with..." She trailed off, her eyes going wide as she stared at something across the hall.

The others followed their gaze. Cadance gasped.

Hanging prominently in the school's trophy case was a framed photo of Twilight Sparkle, without glasses and her hair down and straight, wearing a sparkly purple dress. The small plaque at the bottom of the photo read "Fall Formal Princess 2013: Twilight Sparkle".

Cadance and Tirek turned to Twilight, their gazes questioning. Twilight took a step back from the photo, shaking her head. "Tha—that isn't me," she stammered. "That can't be me..."

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Tirek frowned, scratching his chin. "Well," he said at length, "how do you explain this? Any way you look at it, the girl in that photo is you."

Cadance frowned. "Twily? How—"

"I'm telling you that isn't me!" Twilight cried, throwing out her hands. "I've never set foot in this school until today, I've never been to a school dance, I've certainly never won any popularity contests, and do you really think I could get my hair to look that shiny?"

"Well maybe with some proper conditioner—"

Tirek coughed. "Ladies? Let's do what we came here to do. You can worry about this...strange fascination this school has with Twilight later." His brow furrowed. "It remains to be seen if it has anything to do with the magic we've witnessed."

Cadance took another look at the photo. "You're right," she said. "We can check out the school's social media later to find out what's going on with this..." She shook her head. "But if that isn't you, Twilight, you have an identical twin at this school..."

* * * * *

"So wait," Applejack said. "Y'all mean there's another Twilight runnin' around?"

"So it seems," Rarity said. "Our encounter with her was...rather awkward."

The school day had ended, and the five friends were gathered in the foyer, leaning up against the main bulletin board so as to not impede the flow of students leaving to go home.

"What bothers me is that the new Twilight goes to Crystal Prep," Rainbow said, arms folded and a scowl on her face. "I just can't believe she'd do that to us!"

Fluttershy frowned. "Umm...Rainbow Dash? This Twilight doesn't know us. It's...it's not like she's somehow betraying us or anything by going to Crystal Prep. It's...it's just where she goes to school. I mean..." She ducked her head. "Just...don't get mad at her for things she didn't even do, please?"

Rainbow sighed. "Yeah, okay."

"Then let's talk about what she did do!" Pinkie exclaimed. "She's really suspicious! Did you see that scanner thingie she had? And that really, really nasty-looking boyfriend of hers?"

"He did seem most unsavory," Rarity said, shuddering.

At that moment, Flash Sentry walked up to the girls, a perturbed expression on his face. "Uhh...hey," he said, jamming his hands in his pockets. "So...I don't know how to tell you this, but—"

"You saw Twilight today and she had on glasses and she wasn't acting like she knew you at all and she was with a pink lady with really pretty hair and a really evil-looking boy," Pinkie Pie said.

Flash blinked. "Y-yeah," he said. "How'd you—"

"We ran into her too," Rainbow said with a frown. "She's not our Twilight. She's this world's Twilight. And she goes to Crystal Prep."

Flash's brow furrowed as he tried to process this. "Wait," he said slowly. "So...there's two Twilights?"

"Eeyup," Applejack said. "Th' pony one you got a crush on, an' this girl from Crystal Prep that's sneakin' around our school for who knows whut reason."

"Whatever it is, it can't be good," Rarity said with a grimace. "She's apparently very interested in our magic."

Flash shook his head. "I...I'm sorry, I need a minute to process this," he said. "Even after...after seeing Sunset the way she is right now, I'm having a hard time—"

"We all are, darling," Rarity said gently. "Listen...we're not using the music room today. Why don't you find your little bandmates and go practice for a bit? It might help clear your head."

Flash nodded. "I...I think I'll do that," he said distractedly, wandering down the hall.

The girls looked at each other. "We should go see Sunset," Rainbow decided.

"Yes," Fluttershy said firmly. The others stared at her. She blushed, ducking her head. "What?"

* * * * *

As the latest in a series of phone-recorded videos ended, Cadance, Twilight, and Tirek sat back, varying expressions of disbelief, thoughtfulness, and confusion on their faces.

"Well," Twilight said listlessly, "that explains those huge energy surges my lab equipment picked up."

"Such unbelievable raw power," Tirek said. "Incredible..."

"That...that couldn't have been real, right?" Cadance asked. "I mean, winged demons? Huge rainbows at night? Giant disco laser horses?" She started to laugh an unsettling, broken laugh. "What kind of crazy school are Luna and Celestia running?"

"And you're absolutely certain that wasn't you?" Tirek asked Twilight.

Twilight stared at him. "Don't you think I'd know what all this stuff going on is if it was?!"

Tirek grunted. "Just making sure."

Twilight adjusted her glasses. "Whatever's going on here, this girl who looks like me seems to be the key. We need to find her. I need to find her." The harsh lights of the library gleamed off her lenses, obscuring her eyes. "I need to know who she is and what her part in all this magic business is."

"We also need to find this...Sunset Shimmer," Tirek said.

"Oh, I think we can help you with that," a sultry voice intruded.

The three visitors turned around to see a trio of girls wearing hooded sweatshirts approaching. The one in the center threw back her hood, freeing an impossible mass of frizzy orange-blond hair and a pair of ears that were decidedly not human.

Twilight's jaw dropped. "You're...those girls from the video," she said.

"That's right," Adagio said. "And you are Twilight Sparkle. But not the same Twilight Sparkle that robbed us of our magic." Her lips curved into a wicked smile. "We have a lot to talk about."

Tirek gave her a hard glare. "And what do you want in exchange?" he asked gruffly.

Adagio's eyes gleamed wickedly. "Why...nothing," she purred. "Nothing at all..." Her eyes betrayed her, flickering hungrily toward the pendant Tirek wore.

Cadance frowned. She pulled out her phone and touched one of her contacts. "Luna? I'm in the library, and I think you'd be interested to know that there are three girls here—the Dazzlings, I believe they're called? Nevermind how I know about them, the point is they're inside your school. I don't believe they belong here, do they?"

Adagio glared at her. "You'll pay for that," she promised, hastily stuffing her hair back into the hood of her shirt. "Aria, Sonata, let's get out of here."

As the Dazzlings left the library and Cadance put her phone back in her purse, Twilight frowned at her. "Why did you do that?" she asked. "They were willing to give us the information we needed!"

"That girl had 'dangerous, backstabbing whore' written all over her," Tirek rumbled. "We don't need allies like that." He stood. "I believe we've learned all we can learn here. We should withdraw for now."

"Good idea," Cadance said. "Besides, I could use a snack. There's a place not far from here that has great cookies and fraps."

* * * * *

Afternoon faded into evening. The Sirens returned to their apartment, frustrated at having missed another window of opportunity to take advantage of the strange happenings at CHS. Cadance, Tirek, and Twilight spent an hour at Sugar Cube Corner, reviewing everything they'd seen and learned and making plans to prioritize their search for Sunset Shimmer and the other Twilight Sparkle before returning to their respective homes for the night. The Rainbooms visited Sunset Shimmer and spent most of the evening with her working on homework together, as well as discussing the appearance of the new Twilight and her strange friends. In Equestria, Twilight Sparkle slept fitfully, her new belongings tucked away in a corner of her room at Canterlot Castle.

And so night passed into morning...

* * * * *

Twilight, Moondancer, Rarity, Celestia, Luna, and Cadance were gathered in the throne room. Instead of her usual saddlebags, Twilight had a backpack Rarity had designed to fit a human form, as well as a garment bag which lay across her back, secured just ahead of her wings.

"Are you certain you don't want to change before you go through?" Celestia asked.

Twilight shook her head. "I'd rather have access to my magic when I first get there, just in case. Besides, the portal opens into a restroom. I'm sure I'll have privacy to change and get dressed." She pressed a hoof to the crystal amulet which hung on a fine gold chain around her neck. "With the spell matrix lock, I should have plenty of time to get to Sunset's apartment, then go to CHS and start examining the portal and the girls."

Celestia nodded. "Be careful," she cautioned. A sealed envelope floated to Twilight. "Please give this to Sunset Shimmer for me."

Twilight nodded and slipped the envelope into her backpack. "I will." She smiled. "She'll be alright, I promise."

Rarity worried at her lip. "If...if you run into any problems with the clothes—"

Twilight rolled her eyes. "I'll get the other Rarity to take care of it," she said.

"Bring back a souvenir from her boutique if you can!" Rarity said. "I'd love to see what they're wearing in that other world. At least...I think I would."

Moondancer groaned. "I don't think she'll have time for shopping," she muttered.

Twilight laughed. "I'm sure I can find a few minutes for that," she said. Taking a deep breath, she approached the mirror, then stepped through.

One dizzying array of kaleidoscopic colors later, Twilight found herself standing on a lavatory counter in a restroom. Directly across from her, she saw a shattered toilet standing like an ugly scar in one of the pristine stalls. She took a sniff of the air and wrinkled her muzzle in distaste; the room stank of bleach. "Well, at least nobody's here," she said to herself. Spreading her burdens out on the floor, she hopped down off the counter and planted her hooves firmly, taking a deep breath as magic gathered in her horn. The crystal amulet around her neck began to resonate with the bright flare of magic emanating from her horn, pulsing a brilliant magenta.

With a bright pink-white flash, Twilight transformed from an alicorn into a naked human girl with a glowing amulet around her neck. She opened the garment bag and pulled out a flowing dress of shimmery, stretchy material that faded from a soft blue-violet at the shoulders to a deep, star-spangled midnight blue-black at the parted knee-length hem. It took her a few minutes to remember how to put on the dress as a human, then a moment more to adjust everything to make sure the fit was right. She frowned at the way her breasts shifted beneath the dress. "That doesn't seem right," she murmured. Shaking her head, she opened her backpack and took out a pair of sparkly silver high-heeled slippers, stepping into them and wriggling her toes to get the feel of them. Satisfied she was properly dressed, she slipped the backpack onto her back, checked her reflection, and smiled. "Rarity, you're amazing," she said before turning to exit the restroom.

Her earlier scouting of the school told her which way the front doors were. She walked down the hall at a quick pace, her heels clicking on the floor.

As she rounded the corner, she almost collided with a blue-skinned girl in a purple uniform whose long frost-white hair was pulled into enormous twin ponytails. The girl adjusted her salmon-colored glasses and frowned at her. "You're not wearing your uniform," she said. "Or a bra."

Twilight paused. "Aheh..."

"You look like you're going to a fancy party," the girl further observed.

"Ah, well..."

"You're not wearing your glasses."

Twilight blinked. "Umm...contacts?"

The blue girl shook her head. "You should really be weird on your own time," she said as she pushed past Twilight and continued on her way. "Oh, and you really shouldn't go around without a bra on," she called back over her shoulder.

Twilight frowned at her retreating back. Turning, she continued on her way...

"Miss Sparkle," a stern voice called. Twilight paused.

Heels clicked sharply as a severe-looking woman materialized from seemingly nowhere, scowling disapprovingly at Twilight. "I have been permissive of many of your more unusual quirks," the woman said. "Don't think I don't know about you bringing that mutt into my school, no matter how hard Dean Cadance tries to cover for you."

*Cadance...?!*

"I allow you special privileges because your intellect has served this school's reputation well," the woman continued. "But I just learned that you and that hooligan are conspicuously skipping afternoon classes together, and now I find you wandering the halls wearing some...some...prom dress instead of the approved school uniform?" The woman narrowed her eyes. "You are not so far above the rest of Crystal Prep's students that you can test my patience with these rebellious acts."

Twilight blinked. "I...umm...sorry?"

The woman wasn't finished with her. "If you ever wish to enter the Everton Independent Study Program, I expect you to be in your proper uniform and appropriate undergarments and where you are supposed to be during school hours," she said. "There is no excuse for you leaving school grounds without my permission, nor should you have the audacity to walk the halls of my school dressed like...like...this!"

*I don't like this woman,* Twilight decided. Firming her jaw, she stared right into the older woman's eyes. "Actually, I'm going to a wedding right now," she said. "I'm running late so I had to change before leaving."

The woman seemed taken aback by that. She frowned severely, but took a step back and to the side. "I expect to be properly notified of such things in the future," she said curtly before marching off down the hall, hands clasped behind her back.

As soon as the unpleasant woman rounded a corner, Twilight let out a sigh. "Well, I just got...me...into trouble for lying and cutting class," she muttered. "Then again, if she's been wandering around CHS during school hours, she's already lying and cutting class in the first place..." Shaking her head, she continued on her way to the school exit at a quickened pace.

Once outside the school, she scanned the street outside the school gates. "Sunset said there'd be a ride waiting for me..."

"Twilight?"

Twilight looked to her right and gasped, her heart beating more quickly and a faint blush creeping into her cheeks. Flash Sentry stood there, leaning against his car.

"It's...it's really you, right? The real you this time?" Flash asked.

Twilight nodded, hurriedly walking up to him. "I take it you ran into the other Twilight," she said.

Flash rubbed the back of his head nervously. "Y-yeah," he said. "That was...awkward and confusing. The girls had to explain it to me, and I'm still not totally sure I get it, but..." He frowned. "Why aren't you a pony like Sunset? I thought you were supposed to—"

"I used a spell to turn myself into a human," Twilight said. "I'm gonna teach Sunset the spell too. It won't last too long, but at least she'll be able to get out of the apartment."

Flash grimaced. "Yeah, she's kinda going a little stir-crazy," he said. He shook his head and looked her up and down. "Wow. You look amazing."

Twilight's cheeks grew redder. "Thanks," she said. "Rarity made this for me. The Rarity back home, I mean. It's the first time she's ever made clothes for a human."

They stood there for a long, awkward moment. Finally, Flash coughed. "Right. Umm...we should go. To Sunset's place."

Twilight got in the car; Flash showed her how to put on her seat belt. She grimaced at how it fell between her breasts; the odd looks Flash was throwing at her made her feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Flash coughed and forced his attention forward as he started the car. "So," he said, "how have you been?"

"Oh, you know...busy," Twilight said. "Now that I have a castle, I have a lot more responsibilities. I'm always organizing some kind of summit or diplomatic meeting or something. Or sending my friends off to solve friendship problems across Equestria. Or—" She trailed off. "A-anyway. Yeah, I've been pretty busy lately."

"Cool," Flash said. "Things are pretty boring around here. Well, they were until all this mess started." He chuckled. "I guess it's a good thing crazy stuff started happening again, or I wouldn't have gotten a chance to see you for a really long time, huh?"

"Y-yeah," Twilight said.

"Not that I want bad stuff to happen or anything!" Flash said hastily. "It's just..." He coughed.

"Yeah."

An awkward silence fell.

"You're not...you're not seeing anybody, are you?" Flash asked. "I mean—"

"No!" Twilight said hastily. "I mean...no," she added awkwardly. "I, umm...no."

Flash let out a sigh of relief. "Good," he said. "I mean, good for me, not good for you. I mean..."

A car horn blared, startling both of them. "Umm...maybe I should just...pay attention to the road," Flash said sheepishly.

* * * * *

Forty awkward minutes later, Flash pulled up to the front of an apartment building and stopped the car. He drummed his fingers on the wheel. "W-well, here we are," he said. "Umm, I'd go in with you, but I need to get back to school."

Twilight nodded. "Thank you," she said as she unbuckled her seat belt. "I'll see you later, okay? I'll be headed over to CHS once I've touched base with Sunset and taught her the spell to turn human again."

Flash smiled. "Alright." He paused. "Oh, and she's in apartment 7B on the upstairs floor."

"Thanks again!" Twilight said as she got out of the car and took her backpack from the back seat. She slung it onto her back and stepped away from the car, waving at Flash. He took one last long look at her before reluctantly leaving. Squaring her shoulders as she watched him drive away, Twilight turned and headed for the apartment building. A few minutes later, she stood before the door to apartment 7B; she rang the bell, then called out, "Sunset, it's me!"

The door opened; Twilight stepped inside, closing it behind her. A copper-and-gold maned unicorn head peered around the corner at her. A broad grin broke out on Sunset's face. "Twilight!" she called out happily. "Come on in, I'll get us something to drink."

"Thanks," Twilight said as she walked in, slinging off her backpack and setting it down by the coffee table as she sat down on Sunset's sofa. "Nice place you have here," she said as she looked around.

"Thank you," Sunset said. She emerged from the kitchenette with two cold bottles of soda, looking Twilight up and down. "Nice dress," she said.

Twilight beamed. "Isn't it? Rarity did an amazing job."

Sunset tilted her head. "You're...not wearing a bra, are you?"

Twilight shrugged. "I don't know enough about them to teach Rarity how to make one."

Sunset paused. "You're at least wearing panties, right? Please tell me you're wearing panties."

Twilight remained silent, wringing her hands.

Sunset's jaw dropped. "You mean you're not wearing any underwear at all?!"

Twilight shrugged, smiling sheepishly.

Sunset facehoofed. "Oh, for Celestia's sake..."

"Is that bad?" Twilight asked.

Sunset rolled her eyes as she set the sodas on the table and hopped into a chair across from Twilight. "It isn't good," she said. With a sigh, she added, "I'll text Rarity and have her bring some over when she comes to take you to the school. I don't think any of mine would fit you." She shook her head. "Anyway, more importantly, I'm glad you're here. Things are getting out of control."

"Yeah," Twilight agreed. "Oh! I have a letter for you from Princess Celestia," she said, reaching into her backpack and digging out the envelope. She laid it on the table. "Also, I have a copy of the body transformation spell I used and an extra spell matrix lock, in case you wanted to, you know, try it out. I could use your help at the school and stuff."

Sunset frowned. "Do you think I can even cast the spell?" she asked. "I mean, you're an alicorn and I'm not..."

"It's not a complicated spell," Twilight said. "Well, not for somepony as powerful as you. I mean, you're as powerful as I was when I was a unicorn. It might not last as long as my version, but with the spell matrix lock, you can probably get at least nine or ten hours out of it."

Sunset nodded as she opened Celestia's letter and began reading. A wistful smile crossed her muzzle, and tears welled up in her eyes.

"What's it say?" Twilight asked as she opened her soda and took a drink.

"Just...that she misses me. And forgives me." Sunset sniffled. "I...I should write her back. But not right now." Setting Celestia's letter on her end table, she picked up the spell scroll in her magic and studied it, her brow wrinkling in concentration. "You call this not a complicated spell?"

"Eh," Twilight said, making a 'so-so' gesture with one hand.

Sunset snorted. "Looks like someone forgot how out of practice I am," she muttered. She glanced at the time. "I'd better text Rarity and Principal Celestia before next period starts," she said. "If Rarity hurries, she can make it to her boutique, here, and back to school without missing more than one class." Her phone floated off the end table; she used the eraser end of a pencil to type a couple of text messages, then set the pencil and phone aside and read over the spell again. "Okay," she said, taking a deep breath. "Let's hope this works—"

"Wait!" Twilight cried. She fished around in her backpack and pulled out a crystal amulet, which she hung around Sunset's neck. "You need to be wearing the matrix lock when you cast the spell or else it won't catch."

Sunset nodded gratefully, then gathered magic into her horn. The amulet began to flash with a weak teal light as Sunset concentrated.

Almost five minutes later, Sunset was human again, naked except for a glowing crystal amulet around her neck. She looked down at herself, wiggled her fingers, and laughed happily. "It worked!" she cried.

Twilight smiled. "I knew you could do it," she said.

Sunset laid the spell scroll on the coffee table and stood, stretching. "Well, I should get dressed before Rarity comes to fetch us," she said. "Come on back with me, I can fill you in on a few things while we wait."

As the two girls headed into the back of the apartment, neither of them noticed the scroll with the transformation spell suddenly disappearing from the coffee table.

* * * * *

A taxi pulled to the curb in front of Sunset Shimmer's apartment building. A woman wearing black jeans, a black blouse, and black flats got in.

"Where to, ma'am?" the driver asked.

"Canterlot High School," the woman said. "And do hurry, please. I have an important job interview."

As the cab pulled back onto the road, the woman ran a hand through her long purple hair. Pulling a compact from her small black purse, she took a moment to check her makeup. Blue-violet eyes narrowed as she noticed the four-pointed starburst pin on her blouse collar was slightly crooked. Adjusting it, she smiled in satisfaction at her reflection, then snapped the compact closed and put it back in her purse.

Tucked safely inside her blouse, a crystal amulet on a chain shed a faint turquoise glow.

Left Hoof Free

View Online

Twilight Sparkle fidgeted in her desk, drumming her stylus nervously on the edge of her tablet. It was the start of fourth period; as soon as the lunch period began, she would be meeting up with Tirek and Dean Cadance to return to Canterlot High for further investigation.

The other students began to trickle into the room. Sugarcoat took the seat beside her, as usual, then paused, peering intently at her. "You changed back into your uniform," she noted. "And your glasses and hair are back to normal. And you have a bra on."

Twilight frowned. "Umm...why wouldn't I...what do you mean my hair is back to normal?"

Sugarcoat snorted. "You're weird," she said dismissively, turning to face front. "Contacts not working out for you?"

Twilight blinked. "I've never worn contacts," she said. Gears turned in her mind. Her eyes widened. "Wait. Sugarcoat. Are you saying you saw me today? Without glasses? Wearing my hair differently?"

"And wearing a fancy dress without a bra," Sugarcoat said in a bored tone.

Twilight shot half out of her seat. "Where? When?!" she shouted.

Sugarcoat glared at her. "Walking the halls," she said frostily.

Twilight's heart started pounding. "She's here!" Just as the teacher entered the room, she grabbed her things and bolted for the door, scrambling down the hall.

The teacher frowned at her retreating form, shook his head, and sighed. "Not my problem," he muttered. "Everyone, settle down..."

Twilight nearly tripped and fell to the floor several times as she raced down one hall, then another, ultimately coming to a stop outside Dean Cadance's office. She threw open the door, bolted inside, and slammed it shut behind her.

Cadance looked up in alarm from the paperwork she was stamping. "Twilight? What—?"

"SHE'S HERE!" Twilight shouted excitedly. "The other Twilight! Sugarcoat saw her here, at Crystal Prep, today!"

Cadance gasped. "What?!"

At that moment, the door opened. "Cadance, I need you to—" Principal Cinch trailed off as she noticed Twilight. She frowned. "Your alleged 'wedding' ended early, I trust?" she asked acidly.

Twilight blinked. "Wedding? What—?"

"At least you're adhering to uniform code once more," Cinch said. "Although you are still out of class without permission."

"Actually, I called her out of class," Cadance lied smoothly. "There's a girl who looks exactly like Twilight who apparently enjoys confusing people, and we're just trying to figure out what to do about it."

Cinch blinked at that, then looked at Twilight, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"It's my...cousin," Twilight said. "Sunset...Sunset Shimmer. She, umm...she's, well, she really looks almost exactly like me, except she doesn't wear glasses and she likes dressing fancy and apparently she's been using my name." She rubbed the back of her head nervously. "She does it to mess with me."

Cinch frowned. "I see," she said. "Then the girl I saw leaving the school this morning was this cousin of yours?"

"Yeah, that was her," Twilight agreed, nodding rapidly. "She's up to her old tricks, trying to get me in trouble! Aheheh."

Cinch folded her arms. "Perhaps the authorities should be notified."

"I'd...rather not," Twilight said. "I don't, you know, wanna cause that kind of drama with family. Besides, it's...it's harmless, I mean, she's just messing around."

"Hmm." Cinch pinched her lips together tightly. "Is this in any way related to your skipping afternoon classes along with that ruffian?"

"Actually, that's my doing," Cadance said before Twilight could try to come up with a reasonable lie. "I'm using them for a little covert espionage on Canterlot High." She smirked. "You are concerned about their newfound reputation, aren't you?"

Cinch shifted awkwardly. "I wouldn't go so far as to say concerned," she said. "Suspicious, perhaps."

"Well, we're just scoping them out," Cadance said. "Pretending we're doing a secret research project on their student culture."

Cinch smirked. "Why, Cadance, I had no idea you could be so...devious." She squared her shoulders. "Very well. Continue your...investigation. Twilight's grades won't suffer from missing a few afternoon classes, and goodness knows the less of that boy I have to see in this school the better." With that, she left the office, having completely forgotten her original purpose.

Once the door closed behind her, Twilight sagged in relief, heaving a massive sigh. "We. Are. Horrible. People."

Cadance sighed. "Well, as much as I hate piling lies on top of lies like this, it's the only way we're ever going to figure out what's going on." She frowned. "So. The other Twilight Sparkle was here today, but left. Do you suppose—"

Twilight nodded. "Either she's already at CHS, or she'll be heading there soon," she said firmly. "We need to get Tirek and go."

Cadance pulled her phone out of her desk and tapped away at it. "My thoughts exactly."

* * * * *

Twilight's reaction to Rarity showing up with pony ears and a horn was a gasp, followed by a confused furrow of her brow. "The horn's new," she said. "Though now that I think about it, you should've sprouted a horn every time you ponied up." She tilted her head. "Magic? Can you use it?"

Rarity nodded. "To some extent," she said. "Mostly for small things, though under stress I seem to be capable of...greater feats." She eyed Twilight up and down appraisingly. "My counterpart designed this?" she asked.

"Yeah!" Twilight said happily. "It's pretty amazing, isn't it?"

Rarity cocked her head. "Well, it's certainly elegant," she said. She pinched the fabric of the skirt between two fingers and rolled it between them. "I say, this is a rather unique fabric..."

"She invented it herself," Twilight said. "She was going to use it in this big design contest in Manehattan, but she loaned a bolt of it to a rival who wanted to make accents out of it, and the jerk copied her entire line and entered it ahead of her."

Rarity frowned. "That's terrible!"

Twilight shrugged. "Rarity won anyway." She giggled. "She came up with an entirely new emergency line made out of random stuff we had in our hotel rooms!"

"Oh my." Rarity tutted, then let go of the skirt. "Well, I'll have to learn more about all that later, of course. Is this a typical example of her work?"

"Actually, this is a rush job," Twilight said. "And, well...it's also the first time she's made a human dress. I mean, there aren't any humans in Equestria, so she usually designs for, well...ponies."

Rarity nodded. "In that case, I am impressed with my counterpart's skill." She smiled. "And the color choices are simply fabulous! Perhaps not what I'd have chosen, but I get what she was going for, and—"

"Rarity?" Sunset interrupted. "We need to move this along."

"Oh. Yes, of course." Rarity coughed. "Well. Let's get you set up with proper undergarments...how did my counterpart manage to miss something so crucial?"

"Umm...ponies don't wear underwear," Twilight said sheepishly. "And, again, no humans, she's never even seen a bra."

"Right," Rarity said, pressing her lips together. "Once the current crisis is resolved, I would love to have a line of correspondence with my Equestrian counterpart," she mused as she rummaged though a plastic bag she'd brought with her and pulled out a bra and matching panties. "I have a feeling we have much to learn from each other."

Twilight smiled as she slipped out of her dress. "If we can stabilize things so that we can keep the portal open, I'll probably ask Princess Celestia about a new set of enchanted journals."

Sunset stretched. "It's good to be me again," she said. "I can't wait to get back to CHS." She chuckled. "Much as I love my apartment, I've seen a little too much of it lately."

Twilight blinked at her. "Umm...you do know you've been you again this whole time," she pointed out. "I mean, you're not...really human..."

Sunset's smile faded. "I know," she said. "But I've been here so long being a unicorn again feels...strange. Besides, I've pretty much decided to stay in this world for the rest of my life if...if I don't have to go back to Equestria, so..." She worried at the hem of her shirt. "I mean...this is home now."

Twilight sighed and gave her a comforting smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "And...don't worry. We'll fix this. And we'll make sure you can stay where your friends are." She finished fastening her bra, then slipped her dress back on. "Alright, let's get going," she said. "The sooner I get a fix on what we're dealing with at CHS, the better."

* * * * *

Principal Celestia examined the neatly-ordered folder of credentials lying on her desk. "Well, I'm impressed," she said. "You certainly are more than qualified." She looked up. "Wouldn't you prefer teaching at a university instead of a high school?"

The woman seated across from her smiled broadly. "I prefer the challenge of molding and shaping young minds, students who still haven't really figured out what they plan to do with their lives." She brushed a stray hair into place. "Besides, the timing honestly works out in my favor. Although I am so terribly sorry to hear about your Civics teacher's untimely accident."

Celestia grimaced. "Yes...Ms. Mare is a dear friend and I can only pray she'll recover one day. I've been in contact with her family. She's...still in critical condition. They're not even sure when she'll be able to leave the ICU." She shook her head. "But back to business. You seem to be exactly what this school needs, exactly when we need it."

"I'm just grateful for the chance to be able to step in and fill Ms. Mare's shoes. And to be able to work with such a diverse and interesting student body." She smiled. "I've heard quite a lot about the students here at CHS. There are several of your pupils I simply can't wait to meet."

Celestia smiled. "Well, I see no reason you can't start work tomorrow," she said. "I'll have my aide show you around campus for the rest of the afternoon. You can meet some of the students, observe the classes you'll be taking over, get a feel for the place."

"I'd like that very much, Principal Celestia." The woman stood and offered her hand to shake.

Celestia stood as well, grasping the offered hand and shaking it firmly. "Welcome to Canterlot High School, Ms. Glimmer."

* * * * *

By the time Rarity's car pulled into the student parking lot at CHS, it was only five minutes until lunch. "I think we should go to the cafeteria and get lunch first," Sunset said. "Touch base with the girls. After lunch, you can start investigating the portal while I...try to have part of a normal school day."

"Sounds like a good plan," Twilight said. "I'll need your help after school. And the other girls as well."

"Of course." Sunset frowned. "What if the other Twilight shows up?"

Twilight grimaced. "We'll deal with that when it happens."

The three girls headed into the building just as the bell rang; Twilight's entrance caused a stir and a round of cheers and applause. She blushed, ducked her head, and waved sheepishly. Sunset rolled her eyes, smirked, and flanked Twilight, with Rarity walking on her other side. "Hi everyone!" Twilight called to the crowds of students. "Good to see you again!"

"Hey, Twilight!"

"You look amazing, Twilight!"

"Are we having a secret cafeteria ball?"

"Love your outfit, Twilight!"

"You looked better with glasses, Twilight!"

"Loved the super-short skirt, really showed off those legs—ow!"

Twilight facepalmed. "Good grief. How many people saw that girl?"

"Where's that new boyfriend of yours, Twilight?" one girl called. "Didn't peg you for liking the bad boy type."

"DIFFERENT TWILIGHT!" Sunset yelled.

"Hey, it's Sunset!"

"Where you been, girl? We missed you!"

"Welcome back, Sunset!"

Sunset smiled and waved. "Hey guys!"

The trio made their way to the cafeteria, collecting a group of students along the way. Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack already had a table; the crowd more or less ushered the three girls over to their friends, then larger-than-healthy lunches materialized out of nowhere in front of the three of them. Twilight blinked. "Wow. This is new."

"Everybody really missed you," Fluttershy said. "And they missed Sunset, too."

Sunset blushed. "That's a refreshing change."

"So you figured out how to fix Sunset already?" Rainbow asked excitedly. "I totally knew you could do it!"

Twilight sighed. "Sorry, not...yet, actually. She's using a transfiguration spell to appear human. So am I. It'll wear off in about ten hours."

"Aww," the girls chorused.

"But I can keep casting it!" Sunset said brightly. "So I can pretty much go back to my old life now. I just need to keep an eye on the clock so I don't time out my spell, because these spell matrix locks do have a recharge time. And so do I, it's...not an easy spell to cast."

"One would assume not," Rarity said.

"I love your dress, Twilight," Fluttershy said. "It's so pretty."

"Thanks!" Twilight said, smiling. "Rarity—I mean, my Rarity—made it."

"So uhh...about that other Twilight," Rainbow prompted.

Twilight grimaced. "I'm going to need to talk to her and convince her to stop...whatever it is she thinks she's doing here," she said. "I seriously doubt she'll listen to me. In fact, my being here might make things worse." She sighed. "One time I visited myself a week in the past with a short-range time travel spell and freaked myself out so badly I spent an entire week trying to prevent a disaster that was never going to happen. I mean, we did end up fixing a few problems nopony had caught before they got any worse, but it turned out the only reason I freaked out was because I tried to warn myself not to freak out."

"Oooh, I think I saw a movie like that once," Pinkie said chipperly.

"Ah did not follow one word of that," Applejack said flatly.

"I'm not sure I did either," Sunset said, blinking.

"The point is, if this other Twilight is anything like me, seeing me is just going to freak her out, and there's no telling what she'll do." Twilight shrugged. "So...I'm not entirely sure how to handle her. I mean, I probably need to face her, talk to her, try to explain things. Maybe even get her to help. But on the other hand..." She waved a hand vaguely. "She could freak out and end up making things worse." She sighed. "It's complicated."

"Yeah, no foolin'," Rainbow said. "And that's not even gettin' into her weird boyfriend or that lady she was with."

Twilight frowned. "The lady she was with. Did she have really pretty hair that was purple, light gold, and rose?"

"Actually, yes," Rarity said. "She was quite lovely. Do you know her?"

Twilight nodded. "That'd be this world's Cadance," she said. "In Equestria, she's my sister-in-law and the ruler of the Crystal Empire. Apparently she works at Crystal Prep in this world. This really nasty woman I ran into there dropped her name, and evidently she's close to the other Twilight."

"I always kinda wondered where Cadance was in this world," Sunset mused. "Well, I did until I just sort of forgot she existed."

"So what about that dude?" Rainbow asked. "You know everything else, you gotta know who the scary dude was."

"I only know she's with Cadance by chance," Twilight said. "If that woman at Crystal Prep hadn't mentioned Cadance by name, I wouldn't have made the connection." She shook her head. "Whoever this boy is, if I even know him, I'll have to see him with my own eyes first."

"So what's Crystal Prep like?" Rainbow asked. "It's terrible, right?"

Twilight tilted her head. "Well, it's...sterile," she said. "Big, cold, kinda..." She shrugged. "Pretentious? I didn't really see much of it besides a few hallways and a bathroom, and the bathroom stank of bleach."

"Eww," Pinkie said, pulling a face.

"Well, it looked like a toilet exploded or something," Twilight said dismissively. "Probably had just disinfected it. Funny, it wasn't like that when I first opened the portal there."

"Maybe your portal blew it up," Sunset joked.

Twilight rolled her eyes. "I doubt it," she said. "Well...I hope not, anyway." She opened the bottle of fruit milk she'd been handed, took a sip, then asked, "So, anything else interesting going on around here lately?"

"Well, the Sirens are snooping around," Sunset said. "They're harmless, though."

"Not totally harmless," Fluttershy said. "They've gotten some of their magic back. They don't seem to be able to, you know, mind-whammy anybody anymore."

"But they can sing again and they've got ears and those fin-wing things," Pinkie added.

Twilight frowned. "Hmm. That's still troubling," she said. "We'll need to keep an eye on that."

* * * * *

Tirek munched on a fry as Cadance's car weaved through lunch hour traffic, headed for Canterlot High. Beside him, Twilight rather messily ate a hamburger, smearing ketchup on her face as she fiddled with her tracker. The dozen or so napkins spread over her uniform top were covered in ketchup, stray lettuce, and crumbs.

"Try to eat a little more neatly, Twilight," Cadance said with a pained grimace. "I really don't want to have to get my car detailed...again..."

Twilight swallowed. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. She folded the waxpaper wrapper around her burger, put it back in the bag, then took a huge gulp of her soda. She grabbed a couple of napkins, cleaned her face and hands, then attacked her fries.

"So you're reasonably certain this girl who looks like you and uses your name is at that school right now?" Tirek asked as he picked up his own burger and took a huge bite.

Twilight nodded. "She was seen by Principal Cinch and Sugarcoat at Crystal Prep this morning. I have no idea what she was doing there, but chances are she probably went to CHS." She munched a couple more fries, then grabbed her burger again.

"Hm," Tirek grunted. "That's a gross supposition." He glanced over at Twilight, then flinched away when she wiped some stray ketchup off her cheek with the bun of her burger and took another bite. "And that...is merely gross."

Cadance laughed. "Now Twiley, you need to mind your manners!"

Twilight swallowed, blushing through the smears of ketchup on her cheeks. "Sorry," she said. "I can be kind of a slob when I'm, y'know...distracted."

"Hrm." Tirek finished his burger, crumbling up the wrapper and stuffing it into the paper sack, then wiped his fingers with a napkin and extracted his remaining fries. "So, out of curiosity," he said, "what exactly do we hope to accomplish if and when we do find this girl?"

Twilight licked her fingers. "I'm honestly not sure," she admitted. "I guess talk to her? Study her?"

"Kidnap her?" Cadance suggested wryly, arching an eyebrow. "Do questionable stuff to her?"

"No!" Twilight said, blanching. "Just...I just need to know who she is and what she knows. And...and I hope she'll just...y'know...tell us something." She shook her head. "But first thing's first. We need to find her."

"Yes. Her and those other girls. That Sunset Shimmer girl in particular," Tirek rumbled thoughtfully.

"You seem strangely fixated on her," Cadance noted with a mildly disapproving frown.

"Well, she does look like she'd be, you know, his type," Twilight quipped, throwing a smirk at Tirek. He turned and raised an eyebrow at her, and her smirk turned into a flinching, sickly grimace. "Erm...that was a joke?"

Tirek snorted. "Amusing. But no." He took a long sip of his drink. "Her physical transformation into a demon interests me."

"Gah! You want to turn into a demon?!"

"Don't be absurd," Tirek grunted. "I want to understand how such a transformation is possible. What provoked it. Why she visibly took leave of her senses when it happened." He plucked one last stray fry from the carton, then crushed the empty carton and stuffed it into the bag. "Magic is not a toy to be played with until it breaks. Magic is a dangerous and temperamental force. If we are to continue studying the mysteries of magic, we must learn how not to succumb to its dangers."

"That...makes sense," Twilight admitted. "Like understanding how volatile chemicals interact before you experiment with them in the lab so you don't blow up the science wing or melt your arm off."

"Precisely."

"Still," Cadance mused, "I doubt it's something she'll be that willing to talk about."

"The way those three girls reacted to us, I doubt we'll get much cooperation from them at all," Tirek agreed, "but we must at least try."

* * * * *

Lunch ended, and the Rainbooms broke apart to head to their respective classes. Fluttershy had a free period, so she decided to stick with Twilight. "So, umm...what are you going to do, exactly?" Fluttershy asked as they headed for the library.

Twilight frowned. "Well, honestly...until I change back into an alicorn, I can't really do much here. But I'm not going to do that in broad daylight." She shrugged. "I guess all I can really do right now is hang out here at the school until everybody goes home, then change so I can use my magic to probe the portal."

"I'll be happy to stick around," Fluttershy offered quickly. "In case you need a ride somewhere. I have a van. It's very roomy."

"Thanks," Twilight said. "I'd rather not fly around in a city I'm not familiar with."

As they approached the library doors, two women approached from the opposite direction. The shorter of the two looked scarcely older than most of the students at CHS; she had flawless ivory skin, curly pink hair, and bright blue eyes, and wore a dark pink skirt adorned with three sparkly blue stars, a purple blouse with a lavender lace ruff, and purple shoes with low heels. "And the school library is just over here," she said to the taller woman.

The taller of the two women had pinkish-purple skin and sharp blue-violet eyes. Her long purple hair was pulled back into an elegantly wavy ponytail; in the front, razor-straight bangs paralleled her eyebrows precisely, forming exact perpendicular angles to the twin stripes of pale aqua that ran the length of her hair, framed by lighter violet streaks. She wore black jeans, black flats, and a black blouse, and had a small black purse slung casually over one shoulder. A pin was affixed to the collar of her blouse: a four-pointed magenta star backed by a four-pointed white star. "I'm sure it's just as wonderful as the rest of this amazing school!" she said in a bright, chipper, sweet voice.

Fluttershy stopped short, blinking. "Oh my...who's that, I wonder?"

"Hm?" Twilight followed Fluttershy's gaze. Her eyes widened.

The shorter woman noticed them and waved. "Hello, Fluttershy! Oh! Twilight! I didn't know you were back! Oh, but you don't remember me, we never actually met. I know all about how much you did for our school, though!"

"Umm...thanks," Twilight said, her eyes never leaving the taller woman in black.

"So this is the Twilight Sparkle I've heard so much about!" the other woman said as she breezed over, offering her hand and a warm smile. "You wouldn't believe the very interesting things I've seen about you online! You and your friends the Rainbooms...oh, and of course Sunset Shimmer." Her eyes twinkled. "I'm very much looking forward to meeting her."

Twilight numbly shook her hand. "Err...I'll let her know you said so, Miss—?"

"Oh! Where are my manners," the woman said, laughing and fanning her other hand at herself. "I'm Starlight Glimmer, and I'll be the new Civics teacher starting tomorrow!"

"Oh! You're taking over Ms. Mare's classes?" Fluttershy asked.

"That's right!" Starlight Glimmer smiled brightly. "Well, I still have quite a bit of the school to see, so I'll be going now. It was very nice meeting you girls!" Her eyes shone in the hall lights. "I'm sure I'll be seeing you again soon." With that, the two women headed down the hall.

Twilight's eyes never left her.

"She seems nice," Fluttershy commented.

Twilight's eyes narrowed. "Keep an eye on her," she said softly. "Don't trust her. Not for one second."

Fluttershy blinked, her mouth turning down into a frown. "Huh? Why not?"

Twilight turned back to Fluttershy, saw her expression, and sighed. "It's a long story. I've met Starlight Glimmer before...or rather, my world's version of her." She grimaced. "Let's just say it wasn't one of my better days."

"Oh," Fluttershy said quietly. "Well...maybe this Starlight Glimmer is different?"

"I hope so," Twilight said softly. Shaking her head, she continued on into the library; Fluttershy followed a moment later with a contemplative look on her face.

* * * * *

Once the trio arrived at CHS, they spent an hour and a half cautiously prowling around the campus, trying to look like they belonged there. Twilight's appearance drew a number of odd stares; this time around, nobody was calling out casual greetings to her. Instead, the few students they passed in the halls seemed puzzled, even perplexed. Whispers followed her as she passed, making her increasingly nervous. It only grew worse when, during a class change period, more and more students saw her and began whispering, pointing, and even taking pictures.

Tirek frowned. "It seems you were right," he said softly. "She is unquestionably here. And now they know there are two different Twilight Sparkles."

Cadance's brow furrowed with worry. "Maybe it's a bad idea for us to be—"

Twilight's magic tracker suddenly began blaring out a ringing alarm, lights flashing wildly as the needle on the meter SLAMMED all the way into the red. She stopped cold, staring at it. "What in the...?"

At the same time, Tirek's crystal floated up into the air and began strobing oddly; half of the crystal lit up with a lavender hue, while the other half shone amber. Motes of red, gold, and magenta danced around the crystal like fireflies as a high, pure chiming sound filled the air.

"I'm...guessing you two just found something," Cadance said.

Twilight turned off her scanner as it started to spark and smoke. "Yeah," she said. "We found exactly what we're looking for. Right, Tirek?"

"Unquestionably." His eyes gleamed as he watched the dancing lights of his crystal. "Unimaginable power..." Without a word to the other two, he ran off, following the light of the crystal. Twilight and Cadance rushed to keep pace with him.

* * * * *

Twilight and Fluttershy had met up with their friends near the vending machines during the class change break. Twilight had wasted no time in taking Sunset aside to warn her about Starlight Glimmer; in hushed whispers, she explained exactly what her version of Starlight had done. Sunset's eyes grew wider and wider as she spoke, her face paling. "Okay, I don't know if this Starlight Glimmer is anything like that Starlight Glimmer, but I'll definitely keep an eye on her," Sunset promised.

"Thanks, I—" Twilight broke off as a growing tumult from the surrounding halls reached her ears. "What the—?"

"Uhh, girls?" Applejack said nervously. "Ah think y'all wanna come see this." Exchanging a curious glance, Twilight and Sunset followed Applejack to the corner of the hall, where the other Rainbooms were gathered and peering around the edge. Up and down the hall, several students had stopped and were watching something with wide eyes and lots of whispering.

Twilight Sparkle, hair gathered in a messy bun and wearing a purple school uniform with a ridiculously short skirt and black-framed glasses, skidded into view, accompanied by what was unquestionably the human version of Princess Cadance.

"Wow," Princess Twilight breathed, jaw dropping. "This...is so weird."

"No kidding," Sunset said as she and the other girls looked between the two Twilights.

Then three CHS students were bumped roughly out of the path of a third person the girls hadn't noticed yet.

"And there's that nasty boyfriend of hers," Rarity said distastefully.

Princess Twilight gasped, taking a step backward. "No...!"

The red skin, muscular build, cold, cunning eyes, and silver hair of her counterpart's companion brought back a flood of horrific memories. Her mind's eye filled in massive, curved horns and four heavy, cloven hooves. She felt the ground shake with every step of his steel-toed boots, heard his rumbling voice carry like a warning of death and destruction.

Saw her friends lying broken and helpless, drained of their magic.

Saw her library explode, charred wood and books raining to the ground as the stump smoldered.

Princess Twilight's legs gave out from under her. She was only peripherally aware of the other girls catching her, asking her if she was alright. She barely heard them. As the trio came dangerously close to their vantage point, every nightmare Twilight had had for the past few months boiled out of her mouth in one disbelieving whisper:

"Tirek..."

Dani Alicornia

View Online

In a hallway in Canterlot High School on an average school day, a lavender-skinned girl with violet hair wearing a stunning dress suddenly let out a primal scream, shot down the hall like a comet, and slammed her fist into the face of a muscular, red-skinned teenage boy while an almost identical lavender-skinned, violet-haired girl wearing a school uniform and black-rimmed glasses stared in wide-eyed shock.

"TIREK!" Princess Twilight Sparkle screeched as she flailed away at her quarry with fists and feet. "YOU! MONSTER! I WON'T...LET YOU...again..." Suddenly, she sank to her knees, all the energy and fury draining out of her body. She panted heavily, then turned a murderous glare up at the boy, who was staring down at her with a bemused expression. "Monster," she hissed.

Six girls materialized around her, lifting her gently to her feet and supporting her. They were torn between checking on her with concern, staring at her doppelganger with wonder, and shooting suspicious glares at the boy she had just assaulted out of nowhere. All around them, other students had stopped in their tracks and were watching, whispering and murmuring.

"Twilight, are you okay?" Sunset Shimmer asked worriedly, checking her friend over. "What just...what just happened?" She glared suspiciously at the red-skinned boy. "What did you do to her?"

He scowled. "I have done nothing to her," he rumbled.

The other Twilight finally found her voice as she stepped forward, adjusting her glasses. "She really does look just like me," she said. "She even sounds like me. Except I've never been that, well...shouty..."

Suddenly, Princess Twilight seized her counterpart by the shoulders and shook her. "Twilight! You have to listen to me! You can't...don't trust him! Stay away from him! He's pure evil!"

Twilight frowned, disengaging herself. "Excuse me," she said coolly, "but right now, the most suspicious person here is you. Tirek looks and sounds scary, and maybe he has a bit of an...intense personality, but he's been nothing but respectful and helpful to me and Dean Cadance."

Dean Cadance, for her part, snapped out of her shock and confusion at the unexpected display and cleared her throat. "Would anyone care to explain why this girl assaulted one of my students and possibly caused a diplomatic incident?"

"I'm rather curious about that myself," a new voice intruded. Principal Celestia cut through the crowds, her face stern and all-business. She regarded the two groups facing off against one another, her face registering surprise at the presence of two Twilight Sparkles. "Explain," she snapped in Sunset Shimmer's general direction.

Sunset sighed. "Twilight—our Twilight—came back to help with our little problem," she said. "This other Twilight is this world's Twilight, and she goes to Crystal Prep. I recognize Cadance here, but I have no idea who this guy is, or why our Twilight just completely freaked out when she saw him."

"Because he's a monster," Princess Twilight said. "He almost destroyed Equestria. I have no idea how he escaped Tartarus or what he's doing here, but—"

"Uhh, Twilight?" Sunset interrupted. "D'you think maaaaybe he's just, y'know, this world's version of whoever you're talking about?"

That took the wind out of Princess Twilight's sails. Her eyes widened. "Oh," she said quietly. She blinked, then looked from the other Twilight to the scowling Cadance, then to the contemplative Tirek, then to a visibly angry Celestia. Her shoulders slumped. "Right. I...I'm sorry." She took a deep breath, sighed, then glared at Tirek. "But I still don't trust you," she said. "Twilight, Cadance, you shouldn't trust him either. What are you even doing with him?"

Principal Celestia clapped her hands loudly. "Alright everyone, get to class!" she yelled. "Right now! Not you, Sunset," she added. "You, Twilight, the other Twilight, and you two, come with me."

"But—" Rainbow Dash started.

"CLASS," Celestia said sternly. Her eyes softened. "I know you're involved in this, but right now the fewer people shouting over each other, the better."

Rainbow sighed. "Fine." She glanced at her friends, nodded, and skulked off to class. The crowd in the hall dispersed slowly.

"We'll see you two later," Fluttershy said as she passed, giving Princess Twilight's shoulder a squeeze. The other Rainbooms expressed similar sentiments of encouragement as they drifted off to their own classes.

Soon, it was just the two adults and four teens. Principal Celestia regarded Dean Cadance coolly, affording her a respectful nod. "Cadance," she said.

"Hello, Celestia," Cadance said a bit sheepishly. "Umm..."

Celestia held up a hand to stall her. "Not here." She marched crisply down the hall, making it clear everyone was to follow her. Glancing around awkwardly at one another, the rest of the group followed.

Princess Twilight cast a glance at the glowing, chiming crystal around Tirek's neck. "You have magic," she said quietly. "Magic that shouldn't exist in this world."

"I could say the same of you," Tirek rumbled. "The two of you clearly possess incredible magical power."

"Oh, you have no idea," Princess Twilight said with a dangerous, menacing chuckle. "And since I'm not stuck in this form this time around, you REALLY don't want to make me angry."

"Twilight," Sunset said in a warning tone.

"What do you mean 'stuck in this form'?" the other Twilight asked, glancing at her doppelganger curiously. "And why are you stealing my face and my name?"

"I'm not stealing anything from you!" Princess Twilight retorted. "I am Twilight Sparkle!"

"That's funny, because I'm pretty sure I'm Twilight Sparkle," Twilight countered tartly. "Says so on my birth certificate, my student ID, my—"

"Okay, both of you, enough," Cadance said wearily, massaging the bridge of her nose.

"Sorry," both Twilights said at once. They glanced at each other, frowned, and looked away.

Sunset facepalmed. "Way to make a first impression," she muttered.

Celestia led them to a conference room. Once they were all inside and seated, she sat down at the head of the table and folded her arms. She gave Cadance a hard stare. "You first," she said.

Cadance sighed. "Twilight, Tirek, and I are investigating the..." She frowned. "Well, it's..."

"There is magic at this school," Tirek said brusquely. "Twilight detected it. We came here to study it after discovering similar magic at Crystal Prep."

Princess Twilight groaned. "The backup portal," she said, covering her head with her arms. "This is all my fault..."

"So, you created that portal in the girls' bathroom," Tirek said. "Interesting."

"How...?" Twilight asked, staring at her counterpart.

Celestia held up a hand. "So you thought it'd be okay to bring two students from your school here to poke around, without consulting me?"

Cadance winced. "I, umm...I did clear us being here with Luna," she said. "I just...didn't tell her the real reason. I said we were studying student culture here."

Celestia raised an eyebrow. "Alright. We'll discuss that later. More importantly..." She glanced at Tirek. "That glowing crystal."

"A relic passed on to me by my mentor in my homeland," Tirek said. "It detects sources of magic." He snorted. "It's detected quite a lot of it recently."

"Something that dangerous shouldn't be in your hands," Princess Twilight said.

Tirek frowned at her. "You continue to judge me when you do not even know me," he said. "It grows tiresome."

"Yeah, quit picking on him!" Twilight said. "We have no reason whatsoever to trust you!"

"What is your problem with this guy?" Sunset asked curiously. "I've never seen you freak out like that."

Princess Twilight scowled. "Tirek came closer to destroying Equestria than anyone ever has," she said. "Nightmare Moon, Discord, even King Sombra...none of them came anywhere close to his level of carnage."

"Equestria?" Twilight asked, tilting her head.

Sunset frowned. "Okay, I know I haven't been home in a really long time and I may be a little rusty, but I think I'd have heard of something like that."

"It happened a few months ago," Twilight said. "Tirek escaped Tartarus after over a thousand years of imprisonment. He stole pony magic. First he went after unicorns. Then pegasi. Then earth ponies." She bowed her head. "Then he came after the alicorns. Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadance all transferred their alicorn magic to me. It was the only way to protect all the alicorn magic in Equestria...to stop Tirek from taking it and dooming Equestria."

Dean Cadance blinked. "Princess Cadance...?"

Tirek rubbed his chin. "I believe I'm beginning to understand," he mused. "Dean Cadance, you mentioned seeing a pink horse come out of that mirror. One who looked like you and spoke to you."

Cadance nodded. "Yeah..."

Tirek looked between the two Twilights, his eyes narrowing. "Yes. I do understand," he said. "The portal connects to a parallel world. A magic world, where there are counterparts of people here."

Twilight gasped. "That...! That explains so much..."

"Yes," Princess Twilight said in a steely tone. "And your counterpart hurt my friends and destroyed my home. Tried to KILL me to get all the alicorn magic in Equestria. So you'll understand when I say I have very good reason to distrust you."

Tirek nodded. "Were I in your place, I would likely have the same reaction," he agreed. "It is sensible to be wary of me when my counterpart has caused you such grief." He stared into her eyes. "But understand this. I am not the Tirek you know. I am not your enemy. I merely seek...an understanding of that which, to this world, is fantastical and unknown."

"I'm after the same thing," Twilight said. "I want to study this magic and understand it. I...I need to know."

"What worries me is what you'd do with that knowledge," Princess Twilight said. She glanced from Tirek to Twilight, then added, "Both of you."

Twilight blinked. "Both of...? You don't trust me?!"

"If you're anything like me? You mean well, but you'll get too caught up in what you're doing, get in over your head, do something stupid, and..." She made a vague 'explosion' gesture with her hands.

Cadance giggled. "That...does sound a bit like Twilight," she said.

Twilight blushed. "Dean Cadance!"

"And honestly, right now isn't the best time to have you poking around," Princess Twilight continued. "We're having...a bit of a problem."

"What kind of problem?" Twilight asked.

Princess Twilight frowned hesitantly. Sunset touched her arm. "She might be able to help," she said. "I mean, you never know."

Princess Twilight sighed. "There's too much Equestrian magic in this world," she said. "It's screwing up the balance of magic here. We're trying to figure out exactly what the source of the imbalance is and how to fix it. There are a couple of probable causes, but the most immediate cause is a problem with our original portal to this world. It's no longer functioning properly, and one of the safeguard spells Starswirl the Bearded built into it has failed. Sunset..." She frowned.

Sunset grimaced. "The portal's supposed to turn you into a human when you cross into this world from Equestria," she said. "A few days ago, I woke up in my original form. Twilight had to figure out a way for both of us to appear human in this world, but it's temporary and takes a lot of magic to maintain."

Princess Twilight nodded. "We created a second stable portal that opens up at your school so I could come across and try to figure out what's going on and how to restore the natural magical balance of this world."

Tirek raised an eyebrow. "So your idea of correcting the flow of magic from your world into this world is cutting open another wound for your world to bleed from?"

"That we can collapse without incident if it makes things worse," Princess Twilight said a bit hotly. "Besides, it was necessary so I can determine if the portal here is what's causing the imbalance in the first place."

"See, the portal at this school is only supposed to open once every thirty moons," Sunset explained. "On its own, it opens for three days every thirty moons, then closes. But when we had some...trouble here not long ago, we needed help from Equestria, so Twilight found a way to open the portal and keep it open."

"And that might be the problem," Princess Twilight finished, grimacing. "I mean, it's not like we're just leaving the portal open all the time, but we have a way to force it open that bypasses the original spells Starswirl used in its creation."

"So you hacked it," Twilight said, adjusting her glasses. "And you introduced a bug into the source code."

"That's a good analogy," Sunset agreed.

"And now we need to figure out if that's what's causing the problem," Princess Twilight said. "If it is, then I'll need to find a way to fix it without collapsing the portal entirely. We...really want to keep it open if we possibly can."

"Because if we can't, then every source of Equestrian magic has to be removed from this world," Sunset said with a heavy sigh. "Including me, and I don't really want to leave. This is my home now."

"And if it isn't the cause?" Cadance asked.

Princess Twilight shrugged. "Then we'll need to examine every person and every thing in this world that's either from Equestria or has been touched by Equestrian magic, and that...could take a while."

"Yeah, especially if we don't know how many problems Starswirl tossed through that portal," Sunset said with a roll of her eyes. "Honestly, after the Sirens, I'm wondering if he didn't make that portal to be Equestria's magical garbage disposal."

"I think that's pretty much exactly what it was meant to be," Princess Twilight said with a pained grimace.

"What, you don't have dungeons or prisons in your magical world?" Twilight asked, arching an eyebrow.

"We do," Princess Twilight said. "And we even have ways to suppress magic. But some threats are too dangerous even for Tartarus. Or at least, that was the case back when the Sirens were around."

A silence fell as the group from Crystal Prep digested everything they'd heard.

"If you can't fix this magical imbalance," Cadance asked slowly, "what does that mean for this world?"

Princess Twilight grimaced. "We don't know," she admitted. "But I don't want to risk having to find out."

Tirek and Twilight exchanged a glance. Twilight took a deep breath. "We want to help you," she said. "But in return, we want to know everything. About magic, about your world...all of it."

Princess Twilight frowned. "I...don't know..."

"Wait," Sunset said, holding up a hand. "Twilight," she began, addressing the human Twilight, "how did you even know about the magic here at CHS in the first place?"

Twilight pushed her glasses up her nose. "I have a lab full of sensitive measuring equipment," she said. "Seismographs, EM frequency and radiation detectors, pretty much everything to measure everything. Everything that's been going on over here over the last several months has been generating bizarre readings on all my equipment. It took me a while to create a custom tracker that would measure the specific frequencies of energy and particle emissions this...magic is creating, but now I can scan specifically for magic and filter everything else out." She frowned. "Or I could until you two shorted out my tracker."

"She's a genius with electronics and gadgets," Cadance said with a hint of pride.

Sunset raised an eyebrow, then turned to Princess Twilight. "Could be helpful," she said.

Princess Twilight sighed. "Alright," she said. "You can help, and...and I'll answer any questions that are safe to answer."

"I'm glad we settled that," Principal Celestia said with a tired sigh.

"The first question I have," Twilight said, holding up a finger. "I want to know exactly who and what you are." She fixed a stern gaze on Princess Twilight. "If we're dealing with parallel worlds here, I'm gonna assume you're another version of me, but I need to know."

"You did mention the two of you are not human," Tirek pointed out. "I admit to being curious about that point."

Princess Twilight and Sunset glanced at each other nervously. Sunset gestured vaguely with her hand. "You're the alicorn," she said. "This one's all up to you."

Princess Twilight sighed and stood up, slipping off her shoes as she did so. Brushing aside her hair, she pulled the glowing crystal amulet out of her dress, then unfastened the chain and dropped the still-glowing amulet onto the table. A bright magenta glow suffused her body, and a blinding white flash filled the conference room, forcing everyone to cover their eyes.

As the light faded, her empty dress and underwear pooled on the floor. The native humans looked on in stunned awe at the small yet majestic equine suspended in midair, slowly gliding to the table surface on massive, feathery wings.

"I am Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship," she said as her hooves touched down. "One of the four alicorn princesses of Equestria."

Tirek's crystal let out a loud, sharp sound and shattered.

"And I am Magic," Princess Twilight added with a smirk.

Horse With No Name

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Stunned silence filled the room.

Tirek looked down at the scattered shards of crystal littering the table and the bare stump of silver which had attached it to the chain around his neck. He looked up at Princess Twilight, a frown on his face.

Princess Twilight's ears folded down. "I'll get you a new one," she said in a rush.

"That crystal was ancient and unique," Tirek rumbled. "It has been passed down for hundreds of years. It cannot simply be replaced—"

"It'll take about five minutes to make a new one," Sunset interrupted. "It's not even that difficult a spell. I could do it."

Tirek's mouth clicked shut. He blinked once. "Really."

"Yeah, I just need a good quality, pure crystal to enchant," Princess Twilight said. "Magic detection spell, magic frequency isolator spell, location direction spell, fracture-resistance charm..." With a sheepish grimace, she added, "Feedback resistance if you're going to be anywhere near me with it, apparently." She offered a game smile. "Bring me a crystal, I can make you a new one in five, ten minutes tops."

Tirek grunted. "In that case...Dean Cadance, I am going to need a ride to a wholesaler later," he said. "I can easily afford any crystal of decent quality."

"Y-yeah, sure," Cadance said, her eyes having never left Princess Twilight.

"The clearer the better," Princess Twilight cautioned. "Equestrian magic frequencies are distinguished by color. Clear crystals won't distort the visual spectrum of magic."

Tirek nodded. "Interesting."

Twilight adjusted her glasses. "Feedback resistance...you mean you didn't shatter that on purpose? To prove some kind of point?"

"What? No!" Princess Twilight said, her face aghast. "I wouldn't do something like that! I mean, if this Tirek were as bad as the one back home, then yeah, I'd have done it, but that was totally an accident!"

"Looks like it wasn't calibrated to handle an alicorn's magic," Sunset said thoughtfully. "That either means it didn't come from Equestria, or—"

"Or it was created by an Equestrian unicorn, but one who never expected it to come in contact with an alicorn," Princess Twilight said thoughtfully. "If I had to guess? Starswirl the Bearded."

"Well, he did open the door on this world to use it as his personal toilet," Sunset said sourly. "Makes sense he'd leave the locals a way to..." She gestured vaguely. "Watch out for turds."

"Okay can we never use that analogy again? Please?" Cadance said plaintively, her face twisted in a nauseated grimace.

"Sorry."

Tirek grunted as he studied Princess Twilight more intently. "Most curious," he said thoughtfully. "You are a tremendously magical creature, and yet you resemble something out of a ridiculous storybook for little girls."

"Hey!" Princess Twilight said indignantly.

Sunset giggled. "Actually, he's right, Twilight," she said. "It took me a while to get a sense of humor about it. It helped that thinking of Celestia as a storybook princess being brushed by little human girls made me giggle." She paused, then grimaced. "Err...please don't ever tell her I said that."

Princess Twilight frowned. "Wait, you mean...really?"

"I'm afraid so," Celestia said with a sheepish smile.

"What exactly are you?" Twilight asked, leaning closer and peering intently at her counterpart. "You are unusually small for an equine, and your anatomy doesn't match any species of equine I've ever read about. Also, why do you have wings like a pegasus and a horn like a unicorn? Those are two entirely different mythological creatures. You usually only see winged unicorns in storybooks or paintings by people who don't bother doing their research."

Princess Twilight took a step back. "I'm an alicorn," she said.

"Alicorns are kind of a super-race of ponies," Sunset explained. "Where we come from, there are three races of ponies. Earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi."

"And an alicorn is...the perfect combination of the three?" Tirek asked.

"Something like that," Princess Twilight said. "Except it's a bit more complicated. We have the strengths of all three pony races, but we also have unique alicorn magic that's different, it's..." She shook her head. "It's hard to explain, and based on what I know about your world, you wouldn't believe me if I tried."

"In terms you'd relate to here, they're living goddesses," Sunset said. "All-powerful, revered by the ponies of Equestria."

"Ack! I'm not a goddess!" Princess Twilight said, making a face and waving her hooves. "Trust me, I'm the furthest thing from a goddess!"

"It's just an analogy," Sunset said with a smirk and a roll of her eyes.

"But you're so tiny!" Cadance said. "And, well...adorable!"

"Eep!" Princess Twilight squeaked, jumping away from her and blushing.

Sunset laughed. "Get used to that," she said. "I went through a whole weekend of that with the girls. Especially Fluttershy."

Twilight turned to her, pointing a finger first at Sunset, then at Princess Twilight. "Then you're a...?"

"Unicorn," Sunset explained. She pulled the amulet out of her shirt and tapped the glowing teal crystal. "Right now, this is locking the spell that's letting me look like a human." She sighed. "I want my real human body back. I mean, it's great having magic again and all, but..." She chuckled. "I'm used to being human. I miss it."

Princess Twilight patted her shoulder sympathetically. "We'll find a way, I promise."

"You're a unicorn from another world, you have magic powers, and yet you would prefer to be a mere human?" Tirek asked.

"It's a long story," Sunset said. "One I'd rather not tell, if it's all the same."

"You may have to tell them some of it," Princess Twilight said. "I mean, if they're gonna help us figure out how to fix the portal, they have to know..." Her ears folded back. "I mean, like it or not, your personal history is kind of tied to all of this."

Sunset grimaced. "Yeah," she said. "Just...let me get to know them a little better first, alright?"

"For now, let's simply say that Sunset Shimmer's presence at this school is the direct—or indirect—cause of every magical episode we've experienced," Celestia said mildly. She turned to Princess Twilight, a curious frown on her face. "There is something I've been curious about, listening to the two of you talk," she said. She frowned, hesitated, then continued, "Whenever you mention...my other self, or Luna, and now even Dean Cadance here—"

"Princess Celestia is the ruler of Equestria," Princess Twilight said with an understanding smile. "She's also my personal teacher and the wisest, kindest, most gentle pony to ever have lived."

Principal Celestia raised an eyebrow. "I hardly think you need to butter me up," she said.

Sunset chuckled. "She means it," she said. "Princess Celestia is almost infuriatingly perfect. If I'd been less...well, the way I was..." She sighed.

"And is she also one of these...'alicorns'?" Cadance asked.

Princess Twilight nodded. "Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadance are all alicorns. Right now, the four of us are the only alicorns in all Equestria."

"Hmm," Tirek rumbled. "So you concentrate the greatest power among the few chosen to rule."

"It isn't like that!" Princess Twilight said. "I mean, okay, it's kinda like that, but the Princesses don't rule because they have powerful alicorn magic! It's...it's more than that," she said. "It's hard to explain..."

"The pony tribes came to the alicorns to ask for their leadership when they founded Equestria," Sunset Shimmer said. "It's a long story and the basis for one of our most celebrated holidays." She smiled. "I haven't had a chance to tell the story of Hearth's Warming in a long time, maybe I can tell you all later."

Twilight shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't picture Dean Cadance as a tiny horse creature."

Sunset laughed. "The other Princesses are bigger than Twilight," she said. "She's still pretty much a regular unicorn, but with wings."

Princess Twilight grimaced. "Yeah, I haven't been an alicorn for very long yet," she said. "I've hit a little growth spurt, but it'll be decades before I really hit the kind of growth that makes the other princesses look..." She waved a wing vaguely. "Princessy."

Twilight blinked. "Haven't been an alicorn? What's that supposed to mean?"

"I, umm..." Princess Twilight laughed sheepishly. "It's way too long a story to get into and it'd be saying way too much, but up until about a year and a half ago, I was a unicorn."

"Do you mean to say there exists a system of magical promotion?" Tirek asked curiously, leaning forward with interest.

"Not exactly," Princess Twilight said. "I mean, anypony becoming an alicorn is...it's a huge deal. It's only happened twice in the entire history of Equestria. It only happens if it's destined to happen."

"And Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are the last two original alicorns," Sunset said. "Nobody knows much about their past."

"So what do the other alicorns look like?" Principal Celestia asked.

Princess Twilight quirked an eyebrow and smiled. "That's where you were going with all this, huh?" With a laugh, she aimed her horn at the center of the table. Slowly, a life-size, three-dimensional image appeared of a tall, graceful white alicorn with old, wise eyes, a long, slender horn, and a billowing rainbow mane and tail. Sunset involuntarily gasped, eyes wide, and put a hand to her heart.

Dean Cadance blinked. "Okay, yeah, that's a horse princess," she said.

"Incredible," Tirek breathed. "It's only an illusion, and yet I can feel her power..."

"Twilight," Sunset said, her voice hoarse, "turn it off. Please..."

Princess Twilight glanced to Sunset to see tears spilling from her eyes. Her ears folded back, and she ended the illusion. "Are you okay?" she asked.

Sunset sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, her cheeks flushing. "I just...I didn't expect seeing her to hit me that hard..."

Princess Twilight folded a wing around her. "If you want to go see her, you can," she said soothingly.

Sunset sniffled and nodded. "Maybe," she said.

"I'm sorry," Principal Celestia said awkwardly. "I didn't mean to—"

"It's alright," Sunset said, forcing a smile. "Just...just some personal issues I haven't settled yet." She sighed. "I guess maybe now would be a good time to get some closure." She coughed and cleared her throat. "So! Portal. Since you're already in alicorn form, wanna...wanna go take a look?"

Principal Celestia frowned. "Is that a good idea? I mean, isn't this exactly why you didn't want to come to school as a unicorn?"

Princess Twilight smiled. "Oh, I can manage to move around without anybody noticing me," she said. "I just can't interact with anybody while I'm doing it." Her horn lit up...

And with that, she vanished. A faintly rippling shimmer, like heat on asphalt, filled the empty space where she stood.

Twilight's eyes widened behind her glasses. "Invisibility?"

"Sunset, if you could take my things to the girls' locker room in the gym?" the invisible alicorn asked. "I'll head there and change back as soon as I've had a look at the portal."

"Of course," Sunset said. There was a sudden, intense magenta flash from the empty space atop the table. Sunset stood up, gathering Princess Twilight's clothes. "Well," she said, "if you'll all come with me, I can answer some of your questions."

* * * * *

She'd never had any complaints about the weather in Vanhoover. It was never too warm, and when it got cold, at least you knew it wouldn't be as bad as other places. The rain could get to be a bit much sometimes, sure, but sometimes she enjoyed just sitting someplace safe and dry and watching the rain. And when it snowed...

Well, the city covered in snow was one of her favorite things, as long as she had enough warm clothes to enjoy it.

No, she'd never had any complaints about the weather. At least, not until recently.

Her breath fogged in front of her as she vigorously rubbed her arms for warmth through the layers of flannel and fleece she wore. "Come on," she grumbled, "it's not supposed to be this cold this time of year..."

"Eh, we get late cold snaps sometimes," the tall, broad man standing beside her said with a shrug. "People are acting like this is bad, but ten years ago we had that one really awful blizzard." He shuddered. "That was the year before we built the Camp. I lost a lot of friends that year."

She sighed. "We still lose some good people in the winter. Just not enough of anything to go around."

"Yeah." He looked at her and grimaced. "Dammit, Beck. You shouldn't have to live in the Camp. As young, healthy, and pretty as you are, as smart as you are, you should be able to figure out how to make a real life for yourself."

'Beck' laughed. "Yeah, and how would I do that? I don't exist, remember? Hell, I don't even know my own name." She shook her head. "Come on, DD. I wanna get as much work done as I can before sunset. I'd rather be warm in bed than walking around in the cold and dark, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah," 'DD' agreed. Their boots crunched on the grass as they walked down a broad hill. As they neared the road with its sparse early morning traffic, a light snow began to fall. "Well, look at that! It's snowing!"

Beck shivered. "Great," she muttered sarcastically. "And me without my tobo—"

A loud, violent screech and crash cut her off. Looking at each other with wide eyes, Beck and DD ran down the street. When they reached the intersection, they slowed to a stop. "Whoa," Beck said, blinking.

Two men were standing in the middle of the street, shouting at each other and waving their fists angrily. One of them had T-boned the other's SUV with his car; the car's front end was crumpled, and a significant section of the rear of the SUV was caved in on one side. Busted glass littered the street.

"—drive like a FUCKING idiot!" the larger of the two men roared as they got close enough to make out the argument.

"Oh yeah? Well I had the right of way, you jerk!"

"My foot has the right of way up your ass, punk!"

"Oh you want some? Come and get it, bitch!"

The men rushed each other. Alarmed, DD and Beck charged forward, each grabbing one of the two men and dragging them back. The men struggled, cursed, and yelled.

"GUYS!" Beck shouted over them. "This! Isn't! How! You! Deal! With! This!"

"Yeah, did either of you even think of calling the police yet?"

"GET OFF ME!"

"Let go, you little—"

As they kept trying to hold the men back, a small crowd gathered. Beck watched some people pull out their phones and start recording. "Hey! Wanna maybe do something useful? Call somebody? Even just put away the phone and come help?!" Just then, the man she was holding grabbed hold of a lock of her long copper-and-gold hair and yanked hard. "OW!" she cried. She then let out a grunt of pain as she took an elbow to the breadbasket and was forced to let go. The man rushed forward, a fist cocked to punch out the other motorist...

DD jerked his guy to the side before he could lash out with a foot to kick. While the loose motorist was overextended, DD slammed the forehead of his guy into the other guy's forehead, then let go. Both men dropped to the ground like sacks of potatoes. He snorted, then rushed over to Beck, leaning in to check on her. "You okay, Beck?" he asked worriedly.

Beck coughed once, but nodded. "Yeah, he just took a cheap shot. I'm good." She looked at the two unconscious men. "Nice," she said. "Come on, let's get outta here."

"Good call." DD and Beck pulled their hoods up over their heads as they walked away from the scene.

Just as they rounded a corner out of sight of the rubberneckers, Beck's gaze fell upon three tall, pale girls with glacier-colored hair and ice-blue eyes who hovered at the back edge of the crowd. The girls were dressed in identical fur-lined white parkas, and each had a glittering snowflake-shaped pendant around her neck.

A sudden deep chill ran down Beck's spine that had nothing to do with the cold wind or the snow.

Horse World Problems

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Princess Twilight frowned as she examined the portal in ways only an alicorn could. Magical information streamed into her brain, resolving itself into visual and auditory impulses, rhythmic patterns of color and touch that circled the edges of her mind in an ethereal dance.

The mirror and its various intricate magics had certain patterns that were familiar to her. Every time she'd experimented with it, calibrated it, traveled through it, she'd felt the pulsing kaleidoscope of transportative and transfigurative magic Starswirl had woven into it, as well as Celestia's magic bound to the journal and her own magic bound to the wedge that opened the door. Then, too, were the lingering threads of magic from the Elements of Harmony, remnants of her adventures with Sunset Shimmer and, later, the Dazzlings.

But there was something new in the flow of magic from the portal, and it was certainly not something she'd felt from her side.

And that set off alarm bells in her head.

Because she recognized one of the new patterns of magic, and it absolutely had no business showing up on the Canterlot High side of the portal.

*Why am I sensing the Cutie Map here? And what's this other magic it's been bound to? For that matter, who could bind another type of magic to the Map, let alone without me knowing?*

Mind whirling, she teleported back into the school and glided through the corridors, thankful they were empty—even with her invisibility spell in place, the wind her wings stirred up in the hallway would have been noticed.

* * * * *

"So three incompetent leaders squabbling because they were biased against the other types of ponies nearly destroyed themselves and their entire kingdoms, and three underlings with calmer heads literally saved your entire race by becoming friends?" Tirek asked.

"Pretty much," Sunset said. "At least, that's how the story goes. There's probably a lot more to it than the old story goes, but the Windigoes absolutely existed, and hatred and conflict make them stronger." She frowned thoughtfully. "Actually, that makes me wonder if Windigoes and Sirens are somehow related. Maybe Princess Twilight can research that back in Equestria when—"

Princess Twilight abruptly faded into view, startling her counterpart. "Sunset, we've got a problem. I think. I'm not sure. It doesn't make any sense." She started pacing. "I don't know what it means, how it happened, or why, but I think I've found the problem with the portal. I just...I don't know what..." She shook her head. "It's not possible. It doesn't make any sense."

"Whoa, Twilight," Sunset said soothingly. "Slow down. What doesn't make sense?"

"The Cutie Map's magic is all over the portal, but it's on this side," Princess Twilight said. "And there's this other spell bound to the Map's magic, and something about it seems familiar but I can't place it, and—"

"Cutie Map?" Sunset and Twilight both asked. Tirek let out a derisive snort.

Princess Twilight halted, blinking. "Oh! I never told you about the Cutie Map, did I?" she asked.

Sunset shook her head. "I don't think so," she said.

"Sorry," Princess Twilight said. "I thought for sure I did, I mean I meant to, it set us off on that whole mess with Starlight Glimmer and it's a major part of my new role in Equestria, I—"

"Twilight? Babbling," Sunset cut off brusquely.

"Sorry," Princess Twilight repeated sheepishly. She took a deep breath, placing a hoof to her chest and extending it straight out. Once she finished exhaling, she sat down. "My castle has this magical map of Equestria," she explained. "None of us really understand how it works, not even Princess Celestia, but it..." She gestured vaguely with a hoof. "It detects friendship problems happening across Equestria, sometimes even outside Equestria, and it summons me and my friends to go in and solve them."

Twilight frowned. "Friendship problems? What does that even mean?"

"That seems like a patently absurd application of powerful magic," Tirek said.

Princess Twilight shot him a dirty look. "The magic of friendship is the most powerful magic in Equestria. In this world as well. Friendship can overcome any adversity."

"And make giant rainbow lasers that blow holes in the front of the school," Sunset added.

Twilight tilted her head. "Friendship...is magic?" She adjusted her glasses. "Sorry, I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around that."

Princess Twilight groaned. "Anyway," she said irritably, "when the Cutie Map finds a friendship problem, it decides which ponies are best equipped to deal with it, and then it makes our Cutie Marks glow to let us know we're needed. The Map itself shows our Cutie Marks hovering over wherever it is we need to go, and..." She shrugged. "Whoever gets summoned goes."

Sunset frowned. "Makes your Cutie Marks glow? How's that even work?"

"Believe me, we've tried figuring it out. I've given up. I just know it happens. And when we've solved the problem, our Cutie Marks glow again to let us know. It's...a weird sensation."

Twilight held up a hand. "Umm...question. What's a Cutie Mark?"

Princess Twilight opened her mouth to explain, but Sunset put a hand on her flank, turned her side to face the two humans, and pointed at the starburst on her hindquarters. "This is a Cutie Mark," she said.

Princess Twilight yelped and jumped straight in the air, blushing. "Sunset!" she cried.

"Sorry," Sunset said with a smirk.

Princess Twilight rolled her eyes. "It's a magical symbol that appears on a pony's flank when they discover their special talent, the thing that makes them unique," she explained. "Some ponies are only six or seven years old when they get their Cutie Mark, some take longer. I know a trio of fillies who just got theirs and they're almost thirteen." She giggled. "They're late bloomers, but they have a really special talent, so it sorta makes sense."

"Say, for example, your special talent is party planning," Sunset jumped in. "Your Cutie Mark might be balloons or a birthday cake. Or if your talent's related to farming, it might be a certain fruit or vegetable."

"And it just...appears, on its own?" Tirek asked. "And it's there forever?"

"That's right," Princess Twilight said, nodding. "Earning your Cutie Mark is pretty much the single biggest event in a young pony's life."

"So this Cutie Map...it pages you by making your butt glow?" Twilight asked. "This is...this is just weird."

"I'm with her on that one," Sunset said, shuddering. "That sounds like it'd be really freaky."

"It takes some getting used to," Princess Twilight admitted. "Actually, just a few weeks ago it sent Applejack and Rarity to Manehattan to help an old friend save a neighborhood theater revival." She grimaced. "The day we first found out it existed, the Map sent all six of us to the edge of Equestria where we found this little village nopony knew existed. It was founded by Starlight Glimmer, and she...well, I told you before what she did."

Sunset grimaced. "Yeah."

"What did she do?" Twilight asked.

"Starlight Glimmer tried to create her own twisted version of harmony by stealing the Cutie Marks of an entire village of ponies," Princess Twilight said. "I still don't know how she managed to do it, but whatever magic she used, it ripped the Cutie Marks right off our flanks. Everypony whose Cutie Mark she stole lost their special talent...lost all their inherent magic." Her ears folded down. "But that's not all. She was also brainwashing them." She shuddered. "That whole experience was one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen."

"Wow, that sounds terrible," Twilight said.

"I can't even wrap my mind around a spell that could steal Cutie Marks," Sunset said with a shiver. "That isn't just evil, that's sick."

"Anyway, we exposed her as a fraud and got all the stolen Cutie Marks back, but she escaped," Princess Twilight said. "The villagers decided to stay in that little town and get to know each other all over again."

"And what became of this Starlight Glimmer?" Tirek asked.

Princess Twilight shrugged. "No idea," she said. "Anyway, I've spent a lot of my spare time researching the Map to try to figure out how it works and why it works, but..." She shook her head. "The Tree of Harmony created it, so it's one of those things we're probably not really meant to understand."

"And now you've found the Map's magic on this side of the portal?" Sunset asked.

"Yeah, and that doesn't make sense," Princess Twilight said. "In any case, I have a feeling that's part of the problem."

* * * * *

The day had only gotten colder.

By the time Beck and DD were done with a day's hard work and had collected their pay, a thick layer of snow had built up. Beck shivered and buried her hands in her sleeves, hugging herself for warmth. "The hell's up with this snow?" she hissed between chattering teeth.

DD frowned. "It wasn't supposed to get this cold today," he said. He glanced at the sky. "I think we've got time before it gets too dark to get back. Let's stop by the kitchen for a pick-me-up."

Beck shrugged. "Sure. Maybe Belle'll be nice and give us a nip."

Ten minutes' trudge through snow found the weary, cold duo at the southside soup kitchen. There were quite a few homeless people sitting around, drinking hot coffee and soup and generally getting out of the cold. Making their way through the crowd, they got in line. It was several minutes before they were served by a pink-skinned woman with long, curly purple hair and bright purple eyes. She smiled in recognition as they approached. "Hey Beck, hey DD," she said. "Got some nice hot soup and coffee for you. I'll be passing out some fresh bread in a few minutes too."

"Sounds good," Beck said. "Wouldn't happen to have—"

"Sorry, I don't," Belle said. "Ran out an hour ago and I was giving it away with an eyedropper even then." She smiled apologetically. "Everybody wants to warm up in this awful weather."

As Belle filled bowls and cups for them, DD asked, "What is going on with this weather, anyway?"

Belle shook her head. "The weather people don't seem to know. It's got everybody stumped." She frowned, then leaned close and whispered, "And it's been getting weird out on the streets today. I've been keeping an eye on the news in between rushes. People are going nuts. There's been a rash of assaults today. On social media, I'm hearing about all kinds of people just getting angry and violent, people who usually aren't all that mean or anything!"

Beck's brow furrowed. "Yeah, we saw some of that on our way to work this morning," she said. "Car wreck, the guys that hit each other damn near tried to kill each other. And us."

"Now that you mention it, some of the guys at the site were a little testy today," DD said thoughtfully.

Belle sighed. "If I didn't know better, I'd say this weather and people getting mean are related. But...that's crazy, right?"

Beck laughed. "Well, being cold does make people cranky." She took her soup and her coffee. "Appreciate the news, Belle. And the soup."

Belle smiled. "You know, if you ever want a good job and a place to live, I can probably help."

Beck sighed. "I appreciate it, but...you know it's not that simple for me."

Belle's shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry," she said. "It must be awful, not even knowing who you are. You don't deserve this life..."

Beck's eyes clouded. "Sometimes, I feel like maybe this is where I'm meant to be..."

Give It A-Neigh

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Princess Twilight Sparkle spent the rest of the day examining the portal and making notes while Sunset Shimmer got caught up on school life. Later in the afternoon, Princess Twilight enchanted a new, more powerful magic detection crystal for Tirek. At the end of the day, an exhausted Princess Twilight went home with Sunset; the other girls made plans to drop by later in the evening.

Fluttershy's reaction to Princess Twilight's true form was a source of amusement for hours.

Princess Twilight also took the time to use Sunset's journal to write a note to Princess Celestia, telling her about the discoveries she'd made. She refrained from mentioning the human Tirek, but did mention her own counterpart, and most importantly, mentioned the discovery of Cutie Map magic paired with an unknown magical element on the human side of the portal. Celestia was very concerned about this, and urged the two Equestrians to partner with the local Twilight Sparkle to learn anything and everything they could.

The next day, while Sunset returned to CHS to get back to her routine and keep an eye on things, Princess Twilight, back in human guise, went to Crystal Prep to assist Twilight in rebuilding and refining her magic tracker...

* * * * *

Princess Twilight whistled as she looked around the lab. "Nice setup," she said. "This blows my old lab away! Of course, the technology in Equestria is nowhere near as advanced as the technology here."

A purple dog in a basket at the back of the room sat up and barked happily, running up to the two girls. He then paused, looking back and forth between them, and let out a confused whine. Twilight giggled, crouched down, and scratched his ears. "Hey Spike," she said. "I bet this looks pretty weird to you, huh? Don't worry, she's okay."

Spike whimpered uncertainly, gave Princess Twilight a cautious sniff, grumbled to himself, and retreated to his basket. He kept a wary gaze on Princess Twilight.

"Sorry about that," Twilight said.

"Nah, it's cool," Princess Twilight said. "I'm sure he's just confused." She giggled. "I mean, there's two of us, and I probably smell strange to him." She lapsed into awkward silence, then wrung her hands. "So, umm...I guess we should get started?"

Twilight nodded. "Yeah." She, too, lapsed into awkward silence.

A long stretch of awkwardness passed between them.

Princess Twilight broke it by rolling her eyes and smirking. "And this is why two of anyone is a bad idea," she said.

Twilight giggled. "Yeah...sorry, I'm still getting used to...this." She coughed into her hand. "So! Let's start with trying to fix my magic tracker, then you can help me, umm...make sense of some stuff. And maybe then I can...help you make sense of some stuff?"

Princess Twilight nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

* * * * *

"Ah don't know about this plan, sugarcube," Applejack said uneasily.

The Rainbooms were hanging out by the vending machines during the break between classes. Sunset Shimmer stood at the end of the group, watching Tirek, who stood further down the hall, observing the students as they came and went. His eyes occasionally strayed to their group.

"Yeah, he's...a little scary," Fluttershy whimpered.

"Twilight wants us to keep an eye on him," Sunset said with a shrug. "Besides, with him here while Twilight's busy with...well, Twilight...we can control the amount of information about Equestria he has access to. There's an open, active portal at Crystal Prep that leads right into the heart of Canterlot Castle. Twilight doesn't want to take the chance of him..." She made a trotting gesture with her fingers.

"Yeah, fair point," Rainbow said. "And he seems like just the kind of guy who'd go for a little walk across worlds."

"Good morning, girls!" Starlight Glimmer approached their group, a broad smile on her face. "I'm looking forward to seeing all of you in Civics class today!"

"Yeah, I don't have that on my schedule," Rainbow Dash said.

"Really?" Starlight Glimmer asked, blinking. "Well, we certainly must do something about that, mustn't we?" She tilted her head and smiled cheerfully. "I'll be sure to speak to Principal Celestia during my free period."

"Yeah, no," Rainbow said.

"It's not as if it's a required subject, Ms. Glimmer," Sunset said.

"Oh, but Civics is ever so important!" Starlight Glimmer insisted. "After all, every person has an equal say in our equal society, and if you don't learn how it all works, how can you possibly expect—"

"Sorry girls, I gotta be...anywhere else," Rainbow interrupted rudely, wandering off.

"Pay no attention to her, Ms. Glimmer," Rarity said. "I'm afraid Rainbow Dash has little interest in anything that doesn't involve some sort of competition or a guitar solo."

"I see," Starlight Glimmer said. "Well, it's certainly her loss! I do wish she'd see the value of a proper education, but if she wants to be an ignorant jock, that's certainly her right! After all, we're all free and equal here, aren't we?" Her smile became something a bit frightening, her eyes clouding. "So! I will be seeing the rest of you in my class, right? Oh, and I do hope your good friend Twilight Sparkle will—"

"Twilight's not a student here," Sunset said. "She...it's a long story."

"Uh-huh," Starlight Glimmer said. "I see. Well then!" She clapped her hands briskly. "That's a matter I'll certainly be discussing with Principal Celestia!"

The bell rang.

"Oops! It looks as though it's time for all students to get to class! And teachers too, I suppose...run along now, girls!"

As Starlight Glimmer trotted briskly down the hall, the remaining girls watched her. "Is it me, or is her girdle on a bit too tight?" Applejack said.

"She seems nice enough," Fluttershy said. "A bit...intense, maybe? But nice."

Sunset frowned. "I don't like her," she said. "Maybe it's just what Twilight told me about the other Starlight Glimmer, but—"

Tirek suddenly stomped up to their group. "That woman you were talking to just now," he rumbled. "Who is she?"

"She's the new Civics teacher, Starlight Glimmer," Rarity said. "Why?"

Tirek scowled, his hand cupped around his detection crystal. "She possesses magic," he said. "And if I understood your princess' explanation of frequency and intensity patterns, her magic is stronger than Sunset Shimmer's, but slightly weaker than Princess Twilight's."

The girls looked at each other, blinking.

Sunset shook her head. "But...but that's impossible," she said. "There isn't any magic like that in this world."

"That you know of," Tirek pointed out. Then, in a lower voice, he added, "Of course, if it were Equestrian magic..."

The girls stared at him, then at each other. Their eyes widened.

"Okay...that's bad, right?" Pinkie asked.

Sunset's brow furrowed. "If...if this world's Starlight Glimmer has Equestrian magic, then...but why...?"

Tirek grunted. "The question you should be asking yourself," he said flatly, "is whether or not that even is this world's Starlight Glimmer."

A heavy silence fell.

Sunset paled. "I have to warn Twilight." Shoving her books into Fluttershy's arms, she turned toward the school exit and ran.

* * * * *

For the better part of an hour, Twilight Sparkle had shown her pony counterpart around her lab, demonstrating her various devices and showing her the data she'd collected from the magical activity at Canterlot High School. Princess Twilight, for her part, was impressed by the sheer scope and variety of data collection devices her human counterpart had at her disposal. "You know, if we can refine some of this equipment and calibrate it so it won't short out around stronger sources of magic, this may actually help me figure out what went wrong with the portal at CHS and how to fix the imbalance."

Twilight smirked, pushing her glasses up. "When it comes to science, nothing is impossible!" She laid her broken tracker on a work bench and opened the cover.

Princess Twilight frowned at the exposed circuits. "Okay, I'm no expert on this world's technology, but...it's not supposed to be all melted like that, right?"

"Well, now I know it's not the sensors themselves that broke. It's the connection to the power supply. Must've been a feedback surge or an overload." Twilight pulled a slender metal cylinder from her pocket. She aimed it at the broken device, and one end lit up a brilliant, strobing blue. A high-pitched oscillating hum filled the air.

Princess Twilight stared curiously at the tool her counterpart was using. "What the heck is that?"

"Sonic probe," Twilight said absently as the pitch of her probe's oscillation changed. "Doesn't always work right..." Several sparks and a thick plume of black smoke erupted from the now very broken device. "Shit," Twilight muttered.

Princess Twilight tilted her head. "So if it doesn't work right, why are you using it?"

"Well how else am I supposed to make it work right?" Twilight retorted. "If I don't use it at all I can never figure out how to fix it!"

Princess Twilight frowned. "So your idea of fixing one thing is using it to break something else?"

"Science!"

Princess Twilight facepalmed. "Yeah, you're definitely me." She shook her head. "Okay, so you just broke your scanner thingie worse than it already was, right?"

"Well...yeah," Twilight admitted. "But!" She tossed the broken scanner into a plastic bucket, then pulled a rolled-up blueprint off a shelf and spread it out. "It shouldn't take long to build a new one, and then we can start calibrating it. Actually, we can probably improve the design during construction of the second prototype based on my observations from the initial test."

"Alright, where do we—"

The door burst open. The two Twilights turned to see Dean Cadance and a very out-of-breath Sunset Shimmer in the doorway. "Twilight!" Sunset panted. "We've...we've got a problem..."

* * * * *

"I'm afraid you girls are mistaken," Principal Celestia said. She spread a series of folders out on her desk. "I've reviewed Ms. Glimmer's credentials myself. She has valid teaching certificates and comes very highly recommended." She fixed the girls with a concerned gaze. "I'm not certain why you believe her to be an impostor, but—"

"Principal Celestia, we have very good reason to believe Starlight Glimmer is a refugee from Equestria," Rarity said. "And from what admittedly very little we know of her, if she is who we suspect her to be, she's dangerous."

"Or she could simply be a Civics teacher who happens to resemble someone else," Celestia pointed out. "You could all be jumping to conclusions. Just like Twilight Sparkle did earlier, if I'm not mistaken." Her eyes were soft but stern. "Until you have something more than a vague suspicion, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you all to go to class. This is still a school."

The Rainbooms looked at each other and sighed. "Yes, Principal Celestia," they chorused.

* * * * *

Princess Twilight paled. "Are...are you sure?"

"Tirek seems to think so," Sunset said. "He got a strong magical reaction from the crystal."

"Couldn't he have just been detecting you and those other girls?" Twilight asked.

"He was far enough away from us that it wouldn't have reacted," Sunset said. She paused, then grimaced. "Anyway, that woman creeps me out. I...I won't lie. I'm kinda biased against her. She's...she's not right." She frowned. "She kept going on and on about how we're all equal and how everybody should take her class and she said some pretty rude things about Rainbow Dash."

"Well that sounds like the Starlight Glimmer I know," Princess Twilight said. "Maybe I should head back—"

"No, you need to work on the portal," Sunset said firmly. "I just...I thought you should know." She frowned. "If this woman is who we think she is, I'll keep an eye on her. If she starts anything or causes any trouble, I'll break my transformation spell and take her down."

Princess Twilight shook her head. "No," she said. "If it is her, she's using the same spell we're using to appear human. Which means she could change back into a unicorn, and you'd be in real trouble if you tried to fight her one-on-one." She frowned. "But how could she be using the same spell? I mean, I came up with that spell, and the spell locks came from Canterlot..."

"Yeah, if she can steal Cutie Marks, I wouldn't put shapeshifting and spell locks past her," Sunset said distastefully. "Or, y'know, theft..." Her eyes widened. "Wait a second. The scroll with the spell on it...where'd you see it last?"

Princess Twilight's brow furrowed. "I don't remember," she said.

"I'm gonna go home and check," Sunset said. "I've got a bad feeling..."

As she left, Dean Cadance walked in. "I, umm...I couldn't really follow that whole conversation, but...is there a new problem?"

"Possibly," Princess Twilight said. She turned to her counterpart. "Twilight? Let's get to work. We need a new magic scanner and we need it better than the old one and we need it ready to go by tomorrow."

"Right!"

* * * * *

"Sunset Shimmer?"

No response.

Starlight Glimmer tutted and marked her roll sheet. "I saw her here earlier today," she said absently. "Cutting class...that's not going to look good on her record. And such a terrible record she has, too..." She looked around the room. "I hope you all understand the importance of discipline, respect, and responsibility? Students who cut class are irresponsible, undisciplined, and ultimately not only hurt themselves, but everybody around them! After all, some of you will have to catch Ms. Shimmer up on what she misses in my class today. And perhaps some of you aren't as capable of grasping the material as others and might have relied on Ms. Shimmer to tutor you. She can't very well tutor you if she's not here to learn the material, now can she?" She turned sharply to face Fluttershy. "Fluttershy! You're good friends with Ms. Shimmer, am I right? You wouldn't happen to know why she's decided to skip my class, would you?"

Fluttershy gulped nervously. "Um! Well! Y-you see, M-Ms. Glimmer, umm...Sunset, she umm..."

"She went home," Applejack said, her eyes darting around the room. "Went home sick. Got th' squirts at lunch."

Starlight Glimmer's lips thinned. "I see," she said. "Well, that's certainly unfortunate. Although it would have made more sense to see the school nurse. And one wonders how wise it is to drive clear across town on a motorcycle if one has...'the squirts', as you put it. Class? Is there anyone here who would drive clear across town on a motorcycle if they had the squirts?"

Silence reigned.

"Then I suppose Ms. Shimmer simply isn't as bright as she's made out to be," Starlight Glimmer said with a smirk. "Well then! Enough about that. Let's get started, shall we?"

Fluttershy turned to Applejack. "Really?" she hissed.

"Well you froze up!" Applejack retorted. "Ah was tryin' t'—"

"NO TALKING, GIRLS!"

"Yes, Ms. Glimmer..."

* * * * *

Sunset Shimmer, back in unicorn form, flopped down in the middle of the living room, her mind whirling as she rested her tired body. Her horn ached from turning her apartment upside down. "It's not here," she groaned. "It's not here..."

By the time she'd finished searching every inch of her apartment, evening had fallen and the sun was low in the sky. She'd found things that she'd lost months ago, a few things she didn't even know she had, and a few things that brought back memories she'd rather have left forgotten...but no transformation spell. It had simply vanished.

She heaved herself to her hooves and began pacing. "But when? And how? And if it is her, how'd she...AAAARGH!" She threw up her hooves, then flopped back down. "This doesn't make any sense..."

She'd have to tell Twilight as soon as possible, but Twilight was busy working with, well...Twilight at Crystal Prep, and she was too tired to turn herself into a human again. Since Princess Twilight didn't have a phone and she hadn't thought to get the other Twilight's number...

With an aggravated sigh, Sunset turned on the TV. "It can wait until tomorrow," she decided. "How much trouble could Starlight Glimmer possibly cause in one day, anyway?"

//—back to our breaking coverage of the freak winter storm in Vanhoover...//

Sunset frowned. "Winter storm? This time of year?"

//—unseasonable cold, wind chills to minus ten, and heavy snowfall expected, along with hazardous icy conditions on roads...//

* * * * *

The bitter wind bit through the thin pinewood slats that reinforced the walls of Beck's shanty. It bit through the threadbare blanket covering her, through the layers of clothing she wore.

Her face scrunched as fitful dreams seized her sleeping mind...

It was cold that night too.

The holidays had come. It was her favorite time of year. There were decorations and happy songs everywhere, there was lots of tasty food and yummy candy, and there were presents to be had!

But more importantly, Mommy and Daddy both took a vacation from work so they could all go on a trip to Caneighda. It rarely snowed where they lived, after all, and she was looking forward to playing in the snow and having snowball fights with Daddy and building a snowman and...

"Be careful, dear," Mommy said nervously. "The ice..."

They'd flown to Vanhoover, but then they'd rented a van to go up north. Daddy wanted to do some sight-seeing and some driving through the country. It had all started off alright; light flurries had dusted everything with powdery snow that looked like sugar on yummy donuts.

But then the storm had come. The sky was dark grey and ugly, and the roads were black and slippery...

Everything lurched. She bounced around in her seat. Mommy screamed. Daddy started saying lots of bad words.

Shattered glass rained down on her head; she cried and screamed. The wind was roaring. She couldn't hear Mommy and Daddy. She could hear the horrible, terrible crunching sounds the van made as it rolled again and again.

Something hit her in the head. It felt like a hot hammer. She cried louder.

Over the wind and the busting glass and the crunching metal and her own wails, she just barely heard her Mommy:

"Sunset? SUNSET! My god...Sunrise, she's bleeding! Her head! It's—"

And then the world fell out from under her and everything was cold and black

The cold night wind howled through the Camp.

Derelict

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A dim, dingy ceiling, the warmth of being cocooned in a layer of blankets, and the fresh scent of warm maple enticed Beck's waking senses. She groaned and tried to sit up, but found she lacked the strength. "Mmnnn..."

"Hey, you're awake," DD said softly. She blinked crusty, sleep-blurred eyes and looked to her right. DD's unshaven face swam slowly into view. "I was getting pretty worried, kiddo."

Beck groaned and lifted a hand to her head. "Ugh..."

"Yeah, I'll get the nurse to bring you something," DD said.

"Nurse?" Beck said, brow wrinkling in confusion.

"You're in the hospital," DD said. "You've been asleep with a high fever for three days."

Beck grimaced. "Three days?"

"Here, drink some water," DD insisted. "Slowly." He pressed a cup to her lips, Beck drank slowly, thirstily.

"Thanks," Beck said when she had drunk her fill. She slowly struggled to sit up, looking around as her vision slowly focused. "Three days...ugh. Seriously?"

"Yeah," DD said. "It hit you the worst of all, I guess." He shook his head. "Everyone else they admitted from the Camp is already awake." He sighed, then added, "Everyone that survived, anyway."

"Survived?" Beck rasped. "What...?"

"Ice storm," DD said. "It hit out of nowhere. Buried the camp. Half the camp suffered frostbite and hypothermia. Those of us who were awake when it hit busted our asses to get everybody else out. Sugar Belle called emergency services and told them where the Camp was, they sent an army in to get us all out." He chuckled. "First time I've seen people care that much about the homeless in years."

"Who...who died?" Beck asked.

DD sighed. "Too many. We lost Night Glider and Party Favor, for one."

Beck closed her eyes and hissed. "Damn."

"Yeah...the camp's a total loss," DD said. "Even when the weather settles, we're all being relocated." In a bright tone, he added, "There's some good news, though! We're all getting steady work and a place to sleep in town. New construction project needs workers. Soon as we're out of the hospital, those of us who can still work are all headed out to the site. It's a six month job..." He stretched and popped his back. "Might be a way up for some of us."

"Sounds nice," Beck said distractedly. As she woke up and took in her surroundings, memories began flooding back to her.

Holidays...vacation...

Mommy...Daddy...

The ice...

The crash...

She winced and held her head.

"Beck? You okay?" DD asked, reaching for the nurse call button.

"I woke up...in a room like this," she said. She looked around. "It was cold..."

DD frowned. "Beck? You okay?"

At that moment, the nurse entered, along with Sugar Belle. "She's awake?" Belle asked.

"Yeah," DD said. "She seems a little out of it."

"That's no surprise," the nurse said. "The only ones who had it worse than her were the ones we had to operate on for frostbite...or the ones who died." She set to work checking Beck's vitals, giving her two pills to swallow. "Here," she said.

Beck took the pills and swallowed them with water, grimacing. She looked out the window and saw white, white, and more white. "It's really coming down, huh?" she asked.

"It's been doing this all week," Belle said. She leaned against the bed, smiling gently. "How are you feeling, Beck? Did DD tell you...tell you about the camp?"

"Yeah," she said. She frowned. Beck...

No.

That's not my name.

The nurse coughed. "Miss?" she said. "I'm sorry to ask this, but we're having trouble finding any records on you in our system. We've managed to identify just about everyone else, but...you understand, we need to—"

"She doesn't know who she is," DD said. "She's had amnesia since she was—"

"Sunset Shimmer," Beck interrupted, her teal eyes sharp and clear. "My name is Sunset Shimmer."

DD and Belle stared at her, jaws slack. She looked at them and smiled.

"I remember," she said. Then, her smile fading, she looked out the window again. "I remember everything."

* * * * *

The next several hours were a wild ride. DD and Belle questioned Beck at length about what exactly she remembered, and how. Two doctors had been in to visit her. One of them had posited that the high fever and prolonged illness might have triggered her lost memories. A police detective and a few officials had been through; she'd told them—with great reluctance—the tale of her parents' death. She recognized the third doctor who came in—he was old and grey, but he remembered treating her when she was small.

"But shouldn't you have been in an orphanage?" Belle asked.

Beck grimaced. "I still have some blank spots in my memory," she said. "Most of them after the crash. I think maybe I was in an orphanage, but then I snuck out and wandered off? I've been fending for myself on the streets as long as I can remember."

"Maybe you were looking for your parents," DD suggested. "Maybe...maybe some part of you thought they were still..." He trailed off.

Beck sighed. "Maybe." She shook her head.

"But this is good, right?" Belle asked. "Now you have an identity! You can live again! There's bound to be assets, things that belong to you—you exist again, legally, so you can get real work, a real home!"

Beck smiled wistfully. "That'd be nice," she said. "It's all I ever wanted..."

It was late in the evening when the police detective returned, along with a severe-looking woman in a dark suit and the kindly grey-haired doctor. All of them looked grave and confused.

"Excuse me, Ms...Shimmer?" the police detective said.

"Yes?"

He looked at the woman, then nodded. She sat down at the foot of the bed. "You allege to be one Sunset Shimmer, age sixteen, presumed dead eleven years ago, parents Desert Sunrise and Sunset Satin of Hoofston?"

"That's right," Beck said.

The woman frowned, shuffling through some papers and tapping away one-handed at a tablet. "Can you confirm that you have had no reconstructive surgery or Internet access?" she asked.

The group looked at each other, confused.

"Lady, I'm homeless," Beck said. "Every dollar I make on the work site goes into buying blankets, clothes, and food for the Camp. The only time I have Internet access is when Belle shows us news or weather on her phone at the soup kitchen."

The woman nodded. "I see..." She pursed her lips. "And you can verify that you have not, at any point in the past eleven years, had access to any accounts, property, real estate, contact with surviving family members...?"

"I didn't know who I even was until I woke up this morning," Beck said. "It took nearly freezing to death and almost dying of a high fever for me to even remember my name and...and how my parents died."

The woman's face twinged in sympathy, but she maintained her calm, professional demeanor. She flipped through her papers and tapped at her tablet some more.

"What's this about, ma'am?" DD asked.

The woman glanced at him briefly, then looked up at the police detective, who frowned sternly.

"There's a...discrepancy," he said. "You see, well..." He looked at the concerned, kind face of the old doctor, then at the two people seated by the bed, then at Beck. "There appears to be one young woman, a legally emancipated sixteen-year-old, by the name of Sunset Shimmer living in Canterlot City."

Beck frowned. "What...?"

The woman turned her tablet to face Beck. Her friends leaned in.

The video showed a group of girls performing on a stage. In the middle, next to a blue-skinned girl with wild rainbow hair, stood a girl with bright teal eyes, long, wavy copper-and-gold hair, and a bright, happy smile. She strummed away at a guitar as she sang into a microphone, sashaying her hips back and forth to the beat.

DD, Belle, and Beck stared at the video.

"Umm...Beck? I mean, Sunset?" DD said uncertainly. "That...that's you, right? Except..."

Belle's gaze turned from Beck to the girl in the video in confusion.

The woman closed the video and opened a MyStable page, which showed the same smiling, confident girl in new clothes, full of excited, upbeat status updates about hanging out with friends and things going on at her school.

A girl identical to Beck.

Beck looked up at the detective. "What...what's going on?" she asked softly.

"We're frankly not sure," he said. "There are a lot of things about this situation that are confusing. And, frankly, there's nothing we can do about it."

"What do you mean, nothing you can do about it?" DD asked.

The detective frowned. "Ms. Shimmer is a legal citizen of Cavallonia. If this young woman in this bed is Sunset Shimmer, she's not a Caneighdian citizen. We can't investigate this any further unless we contact the Cavallonian embassy. If you are Sunset Shimmer." He nodded toward the tablet. "Right now, this young woman seems to have the greater claim toward that identity."

Beck pursed her lips. "Who is she?"

The severe woman adjusted her glasses. "According to every file we have access to, she is Sunset Shimmer, surviving daughter of Desert Sunrise and Sunset Satin. Presumed dead from age five, reappeared three years ago. Reunited with maternal grandfather who passed away eight months later, left everything to her. She has legal emancipation status, financial assets to sustain herself in comfort, a driver's licence..." She shrugged. "She exists. You don't."

"Now just a minute!" Belle said hotly. "Beck is one of the most earnest, hardworking people I know! She's been through hell and deserves to have a real life! If she remembers her life, if she's Sunset Shimmer, then whoever that is is stealing her life!"

"I am so confused," DD said.

"Frankly, so are we," the detective said. "It gets worse. Your fingerprints are identical to hers. We ran them five times." He looked squarely at Beck. "You are Sunset Shimmer. But so is she."

Beck put a hand to her forehead. "But...that doesn't make any sense..."

"No, it doesn't," the severe woman said.

"So what does all this mean?" DD asked.

The detective and the severe woman looked at each other. "Well," the detective said, "for one thing, it means Ms. Shimmer needs to be moved to the embassy as soon as she's able. She's a Cavallonian citizen. From there, it's up to the Cavallonian authorities to sort this out—"

"No," Beck said. She looked around at everyone. "I'm going to sort this out. Myself."

"Miss, you don't understand—"

"No, you don't understand," Beck said. "I just got my memory back. For the first time in over a decade, I know who I am. And now you tell me there's some other girl living my life? That I have some kind of identical twin out there? And you expect me to just sit around and let a bunch of cops and suits try to figure it out?" She shook her head. "No. I've learned the hard way that the only way you get anything done in this world is to do it yourself." She squared her jaw. "I'm going there. I'm going to find her, and I'm going to get to the bottom of this." She glanced out the window and shivered. "Besides, I...I need to get out of here. I need to get out of this frozen hell." She rubbed her arms for warmth. "After what I just remembered...I need to be someplace warm."

Everyone fell silent, looking at each other.

"But...but Beck," Belle said, "You...you don't have any money. And—and even if you do, I mean, even if Sunset Shimmer does, how are you going to—"

"I am Sunset Shimmer," Beck snapped forcefully. "I don't know who the hell that girl is."

"Please, calm down," the kindly doctor said. He leaned forward and put a hand on Beck's shoulder.

"Sorry," Beck said after taking a deep breath. "I'm sorry. This is all just so..."

"We should let her rest for now," Belle suggested. "We can tackle this problem fresh first thing in the morning."

The detective nodded. "Agreed. I'm sure once you've slept on it, you'll understand that going through the embassy and the Cavallonian law enforcement agencies is the best way to handle this."

With that, everyone except DD cleared out. As she left, Belle smiled and patted Beck on the knee. "We'll get you your life back, Sunset. Don't worry."

* * * * *

After a night full of dreams that were a jumble of forgotten memories, flashbacks to a life of hardship, and confusing nightmare images about a girl with her face, Beck woke with a headache in a sour mood. Her mood only grew worse when she turned on the news and learned that a second ice storm was approaching, one that promised to put much of the region in danger.

*I need to get out of here.*

There was a knock at the door. It opened, and Sugar Belle leaned in. "You awake?" she asked.

"Yeah," Beck said.

Belle walked in with a wrapped parcel under one arm, closing the door behind her. She walked over to the bed and disconnected Beck from her IV, expertly bandaging her hand, then cut off her hospital bracelet. "Get dressed," she said, laying her parcel on the bed and hurrying to the door. "Double Diamond is keeping watch outside."

Beck frowned. She hadn't heard anyone call DD by his full name in ages... She opened the parcel and found thermal underwear, thick cargo pants, lined winter boots, a thick sweater, a heavy winter coat, and a fleece-lined hat with ear warmers. All of it was new—or at least, very well-washed second-hand. She shoved off the bed, stripped off her hospital gown, and quickly dressed in the warm clothes. "What's going on?" she asked.

Belle glanced nervously back at her. "We're leaving," she said.

"We?" Beck asked.

"All of us. You, me, DD." As Beck pulled on her boots, Belle hurried over and explained in a rush, "I cashed out my savings, bought enough cold weather and warm weather clothes to last the three of us a week without washing, and three one-way bus tickets to Whinnyapolis. From there, we can make our way south to Canterlot. We'll rent a car or take another bus or whatever. I have enough."

Beck blinked, pausing in pulling on her sweater. "Belle, no—"

"Beck," Belle began. She paused. "Sunset. I want to do this. I..." She sighed. "You and Double Diamond are my closest friends. I don't have anything tying me down except my job and the kitchen, and the kitchen's closed. Things are getting...bad out there. Not just the weather, but in general." She took a deep breath. "I have a feeling if we stay here, if we play it their way, you'll never get a chance to know what's really going on. You want to meet this girl, this other Sunset Shimmer, right? You want some answers?" At Beck's hesitant nod, Belle nodded with grim determination. "Then that's what we're going to do. The three of us. We're going to Canterlot and we're going to find your answers."

The door opened and DD peeked in. "You done yet?" he hissed. "If we're gonna go, we've gotta go now!"

Beck sighed, looking at both of them. "Are you sure about this?"

"Damn sure," Belle said.

"Where else am I gonna go?" DD asked, grinning cheekily. "Besides, heading south seems like a really good idea right now."

Beck smiled at them both and put on her hat, being careful to tuck all of her long, wavy hair up into it. "Right," she said. "Thanks, guys. You're the best." She shrugged on her coat and buttoned it up. "Let's go."

They swiftly, silently made their way through the halls, to the parking lot, out to Sugar Belle's car. Five minutes later, they were coasting down the icy, deserted road towards the bus station.

Glue (Da Ba Dee)

View Online

After a long, restless night, Sunset Shimmer cast the spell to turn herself "human" again and made her way to Crystal Prep. She found both Twilights still hard at work in the lab. "Twilight," she gasped out once she skidded into the room. After a breath, she amended, "Princess Twilight."

"What is it, Sunset?" Princess Twilight asked.

"The spell," Sunset said. "It's gone. I turned my apartment upside down and inside out. The scroll is just gone, Twilight!"

Princess Twilight frowned. "But...that's not possible," she said. "I mean, it's not possible, right?"

Twilight frowned. "What's going on?"

"I didn't get a chance to fill her in," Princess Twilight said. "We're pretty busy."

"Right," Sunset said. "Well...when Twilight came over from Equestria, she brought this scroll with her that had a spell on it. It's the spell that lets both of us take on human form even though the portal's transformation magic is broken." She paused, holding up her amulet. "She also brought some of these spell locks with her. It lets the magic last longer than it would on its own."

"An amplifier, or...a reserve power source for the magic," Twilight said, nodding thoughtfully.

"Right." Sunset ran a hand through her hair. "Thing is, that scroll was on my coffee table the last time I saw it. But now, it's...it's just gone. I searched my entire apartment. The scroll's gone."

"Hmm," Princess Twilight said, frowning. "Alright. I think we're about done here. We'll head back to CHS. First thing I want to do, before we start working on this portal, is investigate Starlight Glimmer. We need to know if she's really the Starlight from this world, or..." She sighed. "Or if she came here from Equestria. Because if she did, she's another problem we have to deal with."

"I'll let Dean Cadance know," Twilight said. "We'll head straight over."

* * * * *

Ten minutes before the first period bell, Rainbow Dash barged into Principal Celestia's office and slammed her palms flat on the desk. "What's the big idea?" she demanded. "Why'd you go and mess with my schedule? I needed that study hall period! You know I'm having trouble keeping my grades up! I don't want or need to take Civics!"

Celestia regarded her calmly. "Ms. Glimmer pointed out to me that you don't have enough social studies credits to graduate," she said calmly. "I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash, but you have to take Civics this year."

Rainbow stared at her, slack-jawed. "But—"

"Good day, Rainbow," Celestia said tersely.

Rainbow narrowed her eyes, turned on her heel, and stalked off to first period. As she turned the corner, she saw Starlight Glimmer standing right outside her classroom door. Starlight smiled at her. "See you in class later," she said smugly.

Rainbow glared at her. "Bitch," she muttered under her breath as she stormed off down the hall.

* * * * *

When Dean Cadance's car pulled up to CHS, with Sunset Shimmer on her motorbike just behind, they found Vice Principal Luna waiting outside the school entrance, arms folded.

"Vice Principal Luna!" Sunset shouted as she ran up to the front steps. "We think—"

"Sunset Shimmer," Luna said coldly, looking down at her. "I'm sorry to inform you that you are no longer a student at this school."

Sunset trailed off, mouth working soundlessly. "What?" she asked dumbly.

"You're an illegal alien," Luna said. "You've caused tremendous amounts of harm to this school and placed the student body in danger. We've covered for you for long enough, but the plain and simple truth is, the longer you remain here, the more danger our students are in. It's time for you to leave."

Sunset felt all the blood drain from her face. "But...!"

"Vice-Principal Luna, what's going on?" Princess Twilight asked. "Why...why are you doing this? After everything Sunset's done to turn her life around—"

Luna looked at her. "I'm afraid you're no longer welcome here either," she said. "You don't even legally exist in this world. You can't simply keep hanging around here while we're trying to provide our students with a proper education."

Cadance stepped forward. "Luna? Where's this coming from? This isn't like you."

"I'm looking out for the best interest of the students under my care. The human students. These ponies need to go back where they came from and take their dangerous magic with them."

Sunset clenched her jaw. "So...so that's how you really feel," she said roughly.

Princess Twilight put a hand on her arm. "No, Sunset," she said. "Something isn't right here."

"I'm sorry, but all of you are going to have to leave now," Vice-Principal Luna said. "Only faculty and students of CHS are allowed on the premises."

"But...the portal..." Princess Twilight said.

"You can shut it down from your side, can you not?" Luna asked, arching an eyebrow. "Then I suggest you do so."

"But there's something else we need to take care of here," Twilight said. "There's other magical anomalies, there's that Starlight Glimmer woman, there's—"

"Don't make me call Principal Cinch!" Luna warned. "Go back to your school!"

Twilight recoiled. Princess Twilight stared at Luna in shock. Cadance frowned. Sunset clenched her fists.

After a long moment, Cadance sighed. "You heard her, everyone," she said resignedly. "I don't know what's going on here, but if the Vice Principal of this school says we're trespassing, we need to clear out." She aimed a frosty, reproachful look at Luna. "We're not done talking about this. We've been friends for years. You owe me an explanation for this."

"I have matters to attend to," Luna said. "This is a school, and classes are in session."

Tirek squared his jaw. "Twilight, give me your scanners," he said. "I will remain and continue the investigation."

"But—"

Luna turned and glared at him. "I'm sorry, do you not understand? You are not welcome here. If you don't leave, I'll have you escorted away by the police."

Tirek glared at her defiantly. "Try it," he shot back. "You do and you'll be inciting an international incident. Or were you not aware that I am the son of the Kentarosi Ambassador?"

Luna stared him down for a long moment, then snorted. "Very well. But don't disturb my students." With that, she turned and walked into the school.

The girls looked helplessly at each other. "What just happened?" Princess Twilight asked, on the verge of tears.

"I don't know," Sunset said, frowning. "But that isn't like Vice Principal Luna." She sighed. "I'd better text the girls and let them know something's wrong. I'm sure they can get to the bottom of it without me..."

Cadance frowned unhappily. "I'd better take you girls back to CPA," she said. "Sunset, you're more than welcome to spend the day at our school if you like."

"Thanks," Sunset said listlessly.

Twilight dug through her bag and began handing pieces of equipment to Tirek. "Let me know if you need help working any of this," she said. "All of it's set up to record the readings, so just...just scan everything and bring it back. I can go over the data later."

Tirek nodded. "And if I learn anything unrelated to the portal, I'll call."

* * * * *

Rainbow Dash was not the only student whose schedule had been altered.

Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash had all been shifted into the same Civics period as Applejack and Fluttershy.

"It's so good to see all of you in my class," Starlight Glimmer said sweetly.

"Why'd you mess with our schedules?" Rainbow demanded.

"Now, Ms. Dash," Starlight said mildly, "I thought you'd appreciate being in the same class with all your friends. After all, it would be a shame to not have such a close group of friends all together in one place, wouldn't it?"

Applejack arched an eyebrow. "That's funny," she said sourly. "Seems t' me you're forgettin' one of our friends is missin'."

"Oh, that's right!" Starlight said, eyes wide in false surprise. "Now that you mention it, Sunset Shimmer was expelled this morning, wasn't she?" She sighed dramatically. "Such a shame..." She shook her head. "Still, it is in everyone's best interests. She's such a disruptive influence, don't you think?"

"No, Ah don't think," Applejack said. The others agreed with her.

Starlight looked at all of them measuringly, then shrugged. "Well. Just because she isn't at CHS anymore, that doesn't mean you can't all still be friends with her." With a smirk, she added, "That is, of course, unless she decides to go back where she came from and you never see her again."

With that, she returned to her desk and called for silence, then began taking roll. The girls looked at each other unhappily, frowning as Starlight's words sank in.

* * * * *

When the very morose group returned to CPA, they were immediately beset upon by Principal Cinch. "Dean Cadance," she said sternly, looking over the group and frowning at the two Twilights. "I demand answers. I have dissected the tissue of lies you and Miss Sparkle have woven, and I will know the truth of what is going on here, or I will see you all removed!"

Cadance blinked. "Umm. Well. It's...it's a little hard to explain, Abacus," she said. "You see—"

Sunset Shimmer stepped forward. "I'll do my best to explain, ma'am, but...it's a little complicated," she said.

"I beg your pardon, young lady, who are you?"

"I'm Sunset Shimmer, a student at CHS, and—"

"I thought her name was Sunset Shimmer," Cinch said, pointing at Princess Twilight.

Sunset blinked. "Huh? No, this is Twilight Sparkle."

Twilight coughed. "Umm...I kinda...borrowed your name to try to explain her away when people started seeing her running around without a bra over here," she said.

Princess Twilight winced. "I am so sorry about that," she said.

Cinch frowned, adjusting her glasses. "Now see here," she said stiffly. "I have little patience for any foolishness that you girls might be up to—"

"You know, Abacus?" Cadance said tiredly. "Sorry, but...honestly? What's going on here is really none of your business."

Cinch blinked. "I beg your pardon!"

Cadance stared her down firmly. "Look. Twilight—both Twilights—are dealing with some stuff. I can't explain it, you wouldn't believe it if I tried, and I don't really see any point in explaining it because frankly? It's got nothing to do with you or Crystal Prep. All you need to know is Twilight's going to be busy for a while and won't be attending classes, but you have my personal assurance her grades won't slip and nothing that's going on with these girls will affect your reputation in any way, shape, or form."

The three girls watched the two women anxiously. Twilight gripped the hem of her vest, looking like she was about to have a panic attack.

Cinch squared her jaw. "I'd still like to know why there are apparently two Twilight Sparkles now," she said. "And why that Kentarosi boy is mixed up in this."

The girls looked at each other. Princess Twilight shrugged. Twilight sighed and took her glasses off to clean them. "Principal Cinch," she said, "I really can't explain why there's another me. Unless you're willing to buy 'mad science' as an explanation, I mean. Are you?"

Cinch's frown deepened. "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped impatiently.

"That's what I thought," Twilight said with a sigh.

"She's a clone," Sunset said abruptly.

Everyone froze. Cinch stared at her. "A...clone."

"Yep. Clone." Sunset nodded, folding her arms. "Twilight cloned herself. The clone's a little, well...flaky."

"HEY!"

"Tirek's been studying my experiment!" Twilight picked up hastily. "I know he doesn't look like it, but he's actually really interested in alternative science!"

Cinch studied Princess Twilight curiously, rubbing her chin. "Human cloning," she said slowly. "I'd believe it if not for the fact that any clone you made of yourself would be an infant, not a teenager..."

"Found a way to speed up the aging process?" Twilight offered. "I mean, Sunset Shimmer did. The maturation tank is at CHS."

Cinch raised an eyebrow. "Is it now," she said slowly.

"Yeah!" Sunset agreed. "But I'm probably going to destroy it. The world's not ready."

"Yes, having two of the same person running around is confusing," Cadance said with an amused smirk. "Especially when the clone's personality is...completely different from the original."

"Yeah, she likes running around in fancy dresses without underwear," Twilight said with a blush. "I...umm...kinda don't need that reputation."

"Which is why we're working on getting her enrolled at CHS," Cadance said. "But for now, it's better if she...stays here at CPA? She won't get in the way."

"And I need to be where she is," Sunset said. "To run tests and keep a record."

Cinch considered all of this. At length, she let out a tired sigh and massaged the bridge of her nose. "Fine," she said sourly. "Whatever the hell is going on here, as long as it doesn't disrupt my school or cause a scandal, I honestly don't care anymore." She jammed a finger in Princess Twilight's face. "But I expect you to behave," she said sternly.

"I'll keep that in mind," Princess Twilight said.

Cinch straightened her blazer and stalked off. Nobody said anything for a long time.

The silence was finally broken, not by Cadance, Sunset, or either of the Twilights, but by a quiet voice somewhere off to the left.

"That was a total load of crap."

The group turned to see Sugarcoat leaning against the wall, arms folded, studying them intently. "You're really bad at lying," she added.

* * * * *

Tirek frowned at Twilight's scanner as he prowled around the base of the statue where the portal to Equestria was housed. He wouldn't pretend to completely understand how the girl's homemade hodgepodge of a device worked or what its various displays meant, but just by observing its behavior, he could tell that the levels of magic radiating from the portal were cresting like waves on the ocean. What worried him more, however, was what appeared to be a directional vector that pointed away from the statue and into the school.

He followed the directional reading, taking note of the way the counters and meters changed. Entering the school, he stalked through the halls, frowning as the scanner started clicking rapidly. The readouts seemed to show what Tirek could only intepret as "fuzz", or a widespread background radiation of sorts. As he walked, the background reading spiked; he paused, frowning thoughtfully, and took note of his surroundings.

He was standing right outside Vice Principal Luna's office.

"Interesting."

As he continued his exploration, he found further surges of the same background radiation, the most prominent one being in the vicinity of Principal Celestia's office. When the scanner indicated he'd reached the source of the reading he'd been following, he glanced down at his crystal.

It was glowing a vibrant turquoise.

His jaw tightened.

He turned away from the door marked "CIVICS" and headed back outside.

* * * * *

"Umm...hi, Sugarcoat," Twilight said. "How long—"

"I heard everything," Sugarcoat said. "I can't believe Cinch swallowed all that. You don't even do that kind of research. All your experiments are with electronics and energy."

Twilight sighed. "Are you going to go to Principal Cinch?"

Sugarcoat snorted. "If she's dumb enough to believe the clone thing, let her believe it," she said. "I just want to know what you're really hiding. This whole thing has been annoying me and I won't be able to stop thinking about it until I know what's really happening."

Cadance glanced at the girls, then back at Sugarcoat. "W-well," she hedged. "It's..."

"Come with me," Princess Twilight said suddenly, marching off down the hall. Sugarcoat followed her. The others shifted awkwardly.

"Is this gonna be a problem?" Sunset wondered.

"I don't really know," Twilight said anxiously. "Sugarcoat's the only other student at Crystal Prep who even bothers to talk to me. I mean...not that often, and usually it's just to criticize me, but..."

"She's the closest thing Twilight has to a friend," Cadance said.

"Ouch," Sunset said sympathetically.

A few minutes passed.

"Should we...should we follow them?" Sunset asked worriedly.

Before the others could answer, Princess Twilight and Sugarcoat returned. "Parallel worlds," Sugarcoat was saying. "That explains a lot. It's very inconsiderate of you to open your dimensional portal in the girls' bathroom, by the way."

"Sorry about that," Princess Twilight said sheepishly. "I honestly didn't know where the portal was going to come out on this side."

"Are we good?" Twilight asked hopefully.

Sugarcoat raised an eyebrow. "There's a Twilight Sparkle from a parallel world running around at Crystal Prep and a portal to another world in the bathroom. You girls are crazy." She looked Cadance up and down, snickered, and wandered off.

"Well, that happened," Sunset said, blinking.

Twilight sighed. "Come on," she said. "Let's go to my lab. Better than standing around out here in the halls."

* * * * *

As soon as the school day ended, the Rainbooms headed for the mall, texting Sunset to meet up with them there. Both Twilights joined them, as well as Tirek.

"Here, your scanners," Tirek said to Twilight. "The data should be interesting. I believe that Starlight Glimmer woman is connected to everything...at least, if I interpreted what your device was doing correctly."

"Wouldn't surprise me in the least," Applejack said listlessly. "She's goin' out of her way t' turn CHS upside down."

"Yeah, she screwed with all our schedules," Rainbow said miserably. "Everybody's in her class now."

"I wish I could investigate her properly," Princess Twilight said with a sigh. "I'll have to figure out a way to get back on the CHS campus without having another run-in with Vice-Principal Luna."

"Man, this BITES!" Pinkie declared. "Why'd Luna have to turn into such a meanie and kick you all out?"

"I don't know," Sunset said. "But I think Starlight Glimmer has something to do with it." She looked around the table. "Keep your eyes on her, girls."

"Are you going to be alright, Sunset?" Fluttershy asked. "We...we miss you at school."

Sunset smiled. "I'll be fine," she said. "Actually..." She glanced at Princess Twilight. "Actually, I'm going back to Equestria for a few days. I mean, I'm kind of useless right now. I might as well...might as well take this time to get some closure with my old life."

A sad silence fell over the table.

"Well, be sure to let us know the instant you return, darling," Rarity said.

"I will," Sunset promised. "I just hope no other huge disasters crop up while I'm gone."

"Speaking of huge disasters," Twilight said, adjusting her glasses, "I know with all this magic and...and other stuff going on, you guys probably haven't been paying attention, but..." She frowned. "Have any of you been following the news about that ice storm in Vanhoover?"

"Oh yes, Mom and Dad were talking about that this morning," Fluttershy said. "They say it's the worst ice storm in decades."

"Hasn't it already killed like, a bunch of people?" Rainbow asked. "I don't really keep up with the news, but it's kinda hard not to hear about it. It's all over the Internet."

"I feel sorry for all those poor people," Rarity said grimly. "But one wonders why such a storm is happening at this time of year. It...it doesn't make any sense."

"The weather does what it wants," Tirek grunted. "Man has no control over it. All we can do is protect ourselves as best we can from the forces of nature."

Pinkie rubbed her shoulders. "I have some Caneighdian friends online," she said unhappily. "They've been telling me some scary things. Ever since this ice storm started, people have been acting really mean. It's like the weather's making everybody crazy or something!"

"Well, bad weather does put people in a bad mood," Sunset reasoned. She stretched. "Anyway...keep an eye on Starlight Glimmer, and if anything else crazy happens, call me or Twilight or Dean Cadance. Even if I'm in Equestria, I won't be far enough away that they can't get hold of me from the other portal."

"We'll be working on finding any answers we can," Princess Twilight said. "I...may have to go back to Ponyville and check on the portal there from my end. I especially need to check on the Cutie Map. I need to find out why its magic is showing up on this side." She smiled reassuringly. "I'll be back as soon as I can, don't worry."

As the group went their separate ways, the Rainbooms all had the same thought going through their minds:

*What if we never see Sunset or Twilight again?*

* * * * *

As the week wore on, the happy, friendly atmosphere of Canterlot High started to curdle. Celestia and Luna had become taciturn and unapproachable, the Rainbooms' bad mood over what had happened to Sunset slowly began to infect the rest of the student body, and Starlight Glimmer's bizarre lectures in Civics class—which was rapidly becoming a mandatory subject as more and more students' schedules were rearranged to accomodate her—had many students tense and on edge. Even the rest of the faculty was starting to feel the strain of the dark, oppressive mood that had taken over the school.

"Is it me, or are things worse now than they were when the Dazzlings were here?" Rainbow Dash asked as she looked around the cafeteria on Friday. The usual dull roar of conversation and laughter that filled the lunch hour was missing; everyone picked at their lunches listlessly, their faces dull and vacant.

"It's not just you," a familiar voice intruded. The Rainbooms looked up at the three girls approaching their table and gasped.

Rainbow shot to her feet. "YOU!" she bellowed. "What are you doing here?!"

Adagio Dazzle placed a hand on her hip. "What do you think?" she asked. "We're trying to figure out how to get our revenge on you, get our full magic back...if we're lucky, maybe even leave this toilet of a world forever." She frowned as she looked around. "But I have to say, something terrible must've happened here."

"Yeah, it's like somebody rounded up everybody's puppies and beat them to death," Sonata Dusk said.

"What happened to all that love and friendship crap?" Aria Blaze wondered. "This place is like a freakin' zombie movie."

"And why do you care?" Rarity challenged.

"Honestly? Because we can't feed off...whatever this is," Adagio said, gesturing vaguely around. "We thrive off negativity, and we know exactly how to turn friendship and love into hate, but this?" She shook her head. "Everyone's just gone...blah. This isn't normal."

"And again, why do you care?" Applejack asked, narrowing her eyes.

"We don't," Aria huffed. "But it's creeping us out, and—"

"We kinda need an audience to whoop your butts in front of," Sonata picked up. "If nobody cares that we beat you, what's the point?"

"Wow," Pinkie Pie said, "that actually kinda made sense. In a bitchy, trashy you girls are total cunts kind of way."

"Pinkie Pie!" Fluttershy chided.

Pinkie blinked. "Huh? Oh, sorry..." she said listlessly. "I think all the blah around here's starting to get to me."

Adagio laughed throatily. "Well, we are total cunts," she said, examining her fingernails. "So what did happen here? And where's your little ringleader Sunset Shimmer?"

"Sunset Shimmer is no longer a student here," Vice Principal Luna's voice intruded as she walked silently up behind the Dazzlings. "And you three have no business being on this campus."

Adagio turned to her, eyes narrowed. "Really," she drawled.

"You're trespassing," Luna informed her, arms folded. "If you don't leave, I'll have you removed."

Aria and Sonata glanced at each other. Slowly, softly, they began to harmonize. A faint shimmer of dark magic filled the air.

Adagio stared into Luna's eyes and began to sing.

You don't see us here
We don't exist to you
Now you'll walk away
You have some things to do...

Luna's eyes flashed green. She shook her head. She looked around the table. "Girls?" she asked shakily. "What was I..." Her eyes widened. "Sunset Shimmer. Girls, I'm sorry, I—"

"Well."

Starlight Glimmer marched up to the group, a frown on her face.

"This is unexpected."

Luna took a step back. "S-stay away from me, you—!"

Starlight snapped her fingers. A turquoise glow surrounded Luna's head. She went slack, her eyes dull and vacant.

"I believe you're needed in the faculty office," Starlight said sweetly.

"Yes, of...of course," Luna said dully. She turned and walked away, her gait stiff and mechanical.

The Rainbooms stared at her. "What the HELL?!" Rainbow cried in alarm. "What did you—"

"So this is what's going on here," Adagio said, looking Starlight up and down. "You're not human, are you?"

Starlight smirked. "I know all about you, Adagio Dazzle," she said. "Word of advice. Get out of my school. Stay out of my business. I have plans for the Rainbooms, and if you interfere, well..." She chuckled darkly. "Put it this way: Don't." She looked at the Rainbooms, a dark smile on her face. "Girls," she said calmly. "See you in class."

And with that, she disappeared in a flash of light.

Absolutely nobody in the cafeteria reacted.

The Rainbooms stared, slack-jawed, at the space she'd occupied, then looked at each other. "How...how did she do that?" Fluttershy asked, eyes wide.

"Twilight couldn't do that! Sunset couldn't do that!" Rainbow cried.

Adagio's eyes narrowed, a contemplative frown crossing her face. "Who was that...creature?"

"Starlight Glimmer," Rarity said. "She showed up earlier this week, and...well..." She frowned unhappily. "She's..." She gestured at the listless students seated all around them. "Things have only been like this since she came here."

"Adagio," Aria said, a sudden, insistent tone in her voice. "That was Equestrian magic. Really powerful Equestrian magic."

"Yeah, I haven't felt anything like that since that old goat Starswirl," Sonata agreed.

Adagio scowled. "Girls?" she said to the group at large. "This Starlight Glimmer is as much a threat to us as she is to this pathetic high school. I hate to say it, but..." She gazed imperiously at the Rainbooms.

"You're going to need our help to get rid of that bitch."

A tense silence fell.

Rainbow nodded. "Yeah. I can go along with that."

"Rainbow Dash? Are you certain about this?" Rarity asked nervously.

Rainbow frowned. "No," she admitted. "But without Sunset and Twilight, we're screwed. If they can help us fix this mess, what choice do we have?"

* * * * *

Beck, Belle, and DD sat in a Hinny's in Whinnyapolis. It was past two in the morning and their bus had arrived at the station only an hour earlier. They were tired, they were sore, and Hinny's was the only thing open within walking distance of the bus station, so they rented coin lockers to stow their luggage and hiked up the road to get some hot food and kill time.

"I'm thinking we'll check into a motel at sunrise," Belle said. "Hole up for a day, get some rest, make some plans. Tomorrow we'll rent a car and head down to Canterlot."

"That's a long drive," DD said, examining a map he'd bought at the bus station. "I think taking the train would be better. It'd be more comfortable than the bus and less expensive than renting a car."

"Yeah, I agree with DD," Beck said. "We have no idea what we'll run into when we get there. We need to save what money we can."

"Hmm," Belle said. "Yeah, you're probably right. Okay, we'll take the train. Do you wanna hole up or head out right away?"

Beck grimaced. "Bad as I'd love a bed and a shower, I think we'd better keep moving." The waitress came around to refill their coffee; taking a sip, Beck stared out the window. "She's out there," she said. "She's living it up, has a perfect life, has friends...she doesn't have any problems."

"Beck..." DD said.

"Sunset," Belle corrected him reproachfully.

"Nah, it's okay," Beck said with a smile. "You guys are my friends. From the day we met, I've just been Beck to you guys..." She sighed. "Everybody's gotta have a nickname, right...Double Diamond?" she added with a smirk. Shaking her head, she motioned to the waitress. "Think I'm gonna order another plate. I haven't eaten like this in I don't know how long."

"Hmm...yeah, think I'll do the same," DD said. "Besides, it's not like we're in any hurry to leave."

The cook turned up the kitchen radio. In the stillness of the virtually empty diner, it carried to their table.

//—thorities are closing all roads and shutting down all transportation into Vanhoover as the killer ice storm worsens. So far, fifty deaths have been reported, mostly among the homeless community. Bitter wind chills and widespread power outages have authorities concerned that we could be facing hundreds more deaths. Emergency services are trying to clear the roads to allow for an evacuation, but with all evacuation routes dangerously iced over, there may be no escape for those trapped in their homes as the ice and snow continue. The effects of the ice storm are spreading, and record lows could be felt as far south as Whinnyapolis within the next twelve to twenty-four hours...//

Equine Of Your Love

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After Sunset Shimmer took care of some last-minute things around her apartment, locked everything up tight, and left the keys and her journal with Rarity, she and Princess Twilight Sparkle returned to Crystal Prep Academy. It was early in the morning; they headed to the out-of-order restroom with the local Twilight Sparkle and Dean Cadance.

"We'll be back in a few days," Princess Twilight said. "If there's an emergency, we'll come back sooner."

"I'd hate to see what you qualify as an emergency," Cadance said. "To me, this whole mess is an emergency."

Princess Twilight made a 'so-so' gesture with one hand. "This whole mess is a crisis," she said. "Teetering on the precipice of catastrophe. For me, an emergency usually involves some giant magical monster actually destroying my home town."

Twilight's jaw dropped. "Does that happen often?"

Princess Twilight pursed her lips raised a finger. "You'd be surprised," she said dryly. Shaking her head, she turned to Sunset. "Are you ready?"

Sunset sighed. "Ready as I'll ever be," she said.

Both girls removed their amulets. In twin flashes of blinding magical light, they turned into small equines; their clothes pooled on the floor. They quickly and neatly folded their clothes using their magic and packed them away in their bags, which they slung onto their backs. With a quick flap of her wings, Princess Twilight launched herself onto the lavatory. "We'll be back soon," she promised. "Hopefully with a solution to this whole mess." She turned and stepped through the mirror, disappearing. Sunset jumped onto the lavatory, took one look back at Twilight and Cadance, and followed her.

When the dazed, disoriented feeling of interdimensional travel faded, Sunset found herself peering up at Princess Cadance, Twilight, and two armored pegasus guards. One was the familiar white, the other was orange with familiar eyes...

"Sunset Shimmer, welcome back!" Princess Cadance said. "I know you probably don't remember me, we didn't actually speak much, but—"

"Princess Cadance," Sunset said with a smile. "I look forward to getting to know you." She turned her gaze to the side. "Like I maybe should have, back when I was..." She glanced around. "Where is Princess Celestia?"

Cadance grimaced. "She's...been called away," she said. "Ever since she learned of your situation, she's been avoiding her public duties. Princess Luna and I have taken up the slack as much as possible, but she was finally forced to attend to some matters herself." She sighed and smiled gently. "She desperately wanted to be here to welcome you back, but her majordomo essentially threatened to lead her out of here on a leash...you know what her daily schedule is like."

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know," she said. "And if she's still got that stubborn mule Kibitz riding her flank, I totally understand."

"Oh, but she promised she'd return as soon as possible to spend some time catching up with you!"

Sunset smiled wistfully. "I look forward to it," she said, though she couldn't hide an apprehensive flicker in her eyes.

"Princess Cadance, should we prepare a room for this...guest?" the orange pegasus asked.

"Yes, please see to it, Flash," Cadance said.

Sunset blinked. "Flash? Flash Sentry?"

Flash Sentry blinked, tilting his head. "Yes...? Do I know you?"

Sunset snorted. "Well, you don't," she said.

"She used to date the other world's version of you," Twilight explained.

"Oh," Flash said in a mildly befuddled tone.

"It was a long time ago," Sunset said, rubbing one fetlock with a hoof. "It...didn't end well."

An awkward silence ensued.

"By the way, Twilight," Cadance said with a smile, "I...well, we, that is, Shining Armor wanted to make a big production out of it, but..." She scraped the floor with a hoof. "With everything that's going on right now, I feel like you could really use some good news, so I talked him into just letting me tell you."

Twilight blinked. "Oh?"

Cadance's smile became warmer. "You're going to be an aunt," she said.

Twilight's jaw dropped. "You mean you're—"

"I am."

"Wow, congratulations," Sunset said with a smile.

Twilight picked her jaw up off the floor and shook her head. A broad grin split her face. "Oh my gosh, CADANCE!" she cried happily. "That's amazing! I...that's amazing!"

"Why don't I leave you two to talk about that while I get settled in?" Sunset suggested. "I haven't been back in ages, I think I could use a walk around the castle..." She sighed. "Lotta memories here..."

"Of course," Cadance said. "Flash, if you would?"

"Huh? Oh...yes, of course," Flash said. "This way, Miss...Shimmer, was it?"

As they left the excited rush of babble that was Twilight Sparkle behind, Flash stole sidelong glances at Sunset. "So, uhh..." He coughed. "I, uhh...I'll be honest. This whole thing with the world on the other side of the mirror is really confusing to me, but..." His brow furrowed. "Is it really another Equestria, with...with the same ponies?"

"Not exactly," Sunset said. "It's...well, it's hard to explain. But yeah, there's...a version of most of the ponies here in Equestria there. Another Twilight Sparkle, another Cadance, another Celestia..."

"And another Flash Sentry?"

"Yeah."

Flash was silent for a moment as they walked through a long, cavernous hall. "And...and you dated him," he said.

"Yeah," Sunset said. "It..." She frowned. "I was..." Her ears drooped and she hung her head. "He was popular, and I needed to use his popularity to build up my own, so I..." She trailed off.

"I see," Flash said softly.

Sunset chuckled ruefully. "Anyway, he finally had all of me he could stand and broke up with me. Then a couple of weeks later, I stole Twilight's crown and tried to use it to take over the school..." She shook her head. "I've done things I'm not proud of."

"Wow," Flash said. "Well, whatever it is you did, Princess Twilight turned Equestria upside down to help you, so she must think of you as a very special friend."

They continued to walk in silence. Then...

"So, this other Flash. Did, umm...did something happen with him and Princess Twilight?"

"Hm? Oh, yeah..." Sunset shrugged. "They've got this mutual crush thing going on. It's cute, in a dorky kind of way."

"I see," Flash said. He looked down, a studious frown on his face.

Sunset raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Don't tell me you're in a love triangle with...with yourself!"

"No I'm not!" Flash insisted in a rush, cheeks burning. "It's just..." He sighed. "Princess Twilight, the first time I met her, she...she sent..." He stopped and scuffed the floor. "Mixed signals. I thought..."

"Oh," Sunset said. She trotted over and patted Flash on the shoulder. "That sucks," she said. She tilted her head. "Have you tried talking to her about it?"

Flash chuckled ruefully. "When do I even get a chance?" he asked. "My post is in the Crystal Empire. Princess Twilight lives in Ponyville. I only ever see her when she comes out to visit the Prince and Princess. And, well..."

Sunset winced. "Ouch." She frowned. "So wait, what are you doing here in Canterlot if—?"

"It was Prince Shining Armor's idea," Flash said. "I used to be under him here in Canterlot. He likes having a guard he trained himself along whenever Princess Cadance leaves the Empire, even if he's with her. Especially now that she's pregnant."

Sunset nodded. "Well, I'd say try to talk to her about it now." She pursed her lips. "Then again, this might not be the best time, even if it's probably the only time."

Flash shook his head. "No, I think...I think it's best if I just give up." His ears pinned back. "Princess Cadance herself said there's no chance of anything happening with Princess Twilight. If she says it, then..." He laughed ruefully. "Yeah." He squared his shoulders. "Besides, if she'd rather have that other Flash Sentry..."

Sunset snorted. "Oh yeah, that'll work," she said. "She's a pony princess in Equestria, he's a slightly above-average guitar player who's gonna peak at twenty." She shook her head. "It's a crush, that's all. They both need to let it go."

"Oh," Flash said. He sighed. "Guess that's for the best, huh?"

Sunset smiled. "Don't give up," she said encouragingly. "You'll find the right mare one day."

* * * * *

After lunch, Twilight decided it was time to get to work. "We'll go to Ponyville tomorrow," she said, "but for today I want to check up on some things here." With that, she led Sunset down into Starswirl's Athenaeum.

"We have some news," Moondancer said as soon as Twilight and Sunset entered.

"Oh?" Twilight asked. "By the way, this is Sunset Shimmer. Sunset, this is my old friend Moondancer."

Sunset smiled. "Hey. Nice to meet you."

Moondancer nodded, then turned back to Twilight. "We've been studying the portal we opened here in Canterlot almost nonstop. It's solid, it's stable, there's no anomalies with the thaumic pressure exchange." She adjusted her glasses. "It's safe to have an open portal to that other world."

Twilight digested this. "Then the problem is the original portal," she said.

"That seems to be the case," Moondancer agreed.

Twilight frowned. "I was beginning to suspect that," she said. "I discovered traces of the Cutie Map's magic on the CHS side of the portal." She began pacing. "That doesn't make any sense, any magic from the Cutie Map should be on this side of the portal, but it does at least start to give me an idea of what went wrong."

"Really?" Moondancer asked, tilting her head. "What's your theory?"

"Well, I don't have a theory yet," Twilight admitted, "but the Cutie Map didn't exist when I first forced the portal open. This could be a whole host of things." She bit her lip. "The best guess I have? Whatever power the Cutie Map uses to find friendship problems, it's trying to look for them in the human world too. I'll know more when I examine the portal on this side."

Sunset frowned. "Didn't you say there was another component you couldn't identify?"

"Yeah," Twilight said. "I still need to figure out what that is before I can start to work on a theory and a solution." She turned to Moondancer. "Let's go over your data on the control portal. I'll need to take a copy of that data with me when we leave for Ponyville tomorrow."

"Leaving so soon? But you've only just returned."

The three mares whirled to see Princess Celestia descending into the Athenaeum. She turned her gaze to Sunset Shimmer and smiled. "I had hoped to have time to catch up with my old student."

"Princess Celestia," Sunset breathed. She rushed up to Celestia and tackled her in a fierce hug. "I'msosorry!"

"I know you are, my little pony," Celestia said. "And so am I." She sighed. "I am as much to blame for the way things turned out between us as you are."

Sunset shook her head. "No, I...I got arrogant, impatient..."

Celestia tilted Sunset's face up to look her in the eye. "Let's not worry about who's to blame for what," she said. "Let us simply let what happened in the past go and start fresh." Her smile widened. "I've missed you. I've been looking forward to a chance to see you again."

Sunset sniffled, wiping tears from her eyes. "Y-yeah..."

Twilight smiled wistfully. "I do need to go to Ponyville tomorrow to continue the research," she said, "but I think I can handle it myself. Why don't you stay here and catch up with Celestia?"

Sunset looked between the two princesses, indecision written across her face. Finally, she sighed and firmed her jaw. "There'll be time enough for that later," she said. "My friends are in danger. I need to help them however I can."

Celestia's wings wrapped tightly around her and lifted her off her hooves. "You have no idea how happy I am to hear you say that, Sunset!" she exclaimed.

"Uwah!" Sunset cried.

"Sorry," Celestia said with a soft laugh as she set Sunset down. "Anyway, it just so happens that I will be accompanying the two of you to Ponyville tomorrow, so we will have time to catch up while you help Princess Twilight."

Twilight cast Celestia a curious look. "I thought Kibitz—"

"Oh, I've made arrangements," Celestia said lightly.

* * * * *

Kibitz's hooves scrabbled uselessly against an endless scroll of parchment which wound in a loose helix through an endless swirling void. He chanced a glance over his shoulder and whinnied in alarm as a forest of phoenix feather quills chased after him.

"CELESTIA!" he screamed into the void. "So help me, I will fire the royal bakers! ALL OF THEM!!"

A deep voice chuckled menacingly in the void. Kibitz lathered as he kept running.

"I'm getting too old for this," he wheezed.

* * * * *

Twilight facehoofed. "Tell me you didn't do something to Kibitz..."

"Who, me?" Celestia asked innocently. "Of course not, my faithful student! I simply...suggested that perhaps my schedule is less important than the task at hoof, and that Cadance can easily take over for me until I'm able to return to my regular duties. Provided, of course, she's allowed to handle it at her own pace."

Twilight groaned. "Whatever, fine, I need your help in Ponyville anyway. The Cutie Map is causing the problem with the portal and I need your experience to help me figure out why."

Celestia blinked. "The Map is? Are you certain?"

"Pretty certain," Twilight said.

"Oh my." Celestia sighed. "Well...the Cutie Map is magic unknown to me as well, but yes, perhaps I will be able to determine exactly what the cause of the interference is. Goodness knows I've seen my share of magical artifacts interfering with each other."

"Great!" Sunset said brightly. "We can catch up, I'll finally get to see Ponyville for myself after hearing so much about it..." She smiled. "And maybe we can finally figure this whole mess out and get everything back to normal!" She frowned. "Then all we have to do is figure out what Starlight Glimmer is up to..."

Celestia blinked. "I'm sorry, Starli-Starlight Glimmer?"

Twilight's ears flopped down. "Starlight Glimmer escaped to the human world," she said. "It's definitely her. The same Starlight Glimmer we defeated a while ago. She stole the spell I took with me and used it, and—"

"And she's somehow taken control of Canterlot High," Sunset said miserably. "It's like the Dazzlings all over again. She's somehow brainwashed Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna and she's up to something and we can't even get onto the campus to find out what."

Twilight frowned. "Yeah, and right now our best hope for getting past her lies with that world's Tirek of all things."

"And the Dazzlings," Sunset added. "The Rainbooms have joined forces with the Dazzlings to try to deal with Starlight Glimmer."

Celestia blinked. "Perhaps...you need to slow down and tell me the whole story," she said. "This is an awful lot to take in..."

* * * * *

After another day of prowling around the campus at Canterlot High, Tirek returned to Crystal Prep to deliver the scanners to Twilight and share his latest findings with his partners in the investigation. "The mood of that school is becoming worse," Tirek rumbled. "I cannot speak to what is happening there, I dare not push my luck by barging into any of the classrooms, but I did take one of those magical girls aside and ask her some pointed questions." He clasped his hands behind his back. "Evidently, this Starlight Glimmer is able to use magic despite appearing completely human. Even Princess Twilight and Sunset Shimmer were incapable of doing so."

Twilight gasped. "So...they're at her mercy?"

"So it seems," Tirek said gravely. "The Rainbooms have forged an uneasy alliance with their former enemies, but my contact says it's only the school faculty Starlight Glimmer is using magic to control." He scowled. "The actual student body, she is using...psychology on."

"Psychology?" Cadance asked. "What sort of psychology?"

Tirek stroked his chin. "Well, to be blunt...despite your title of Dean of Students, you are effectively a glorified guidance counselor, are you not?"

"Tirek!" Twilight hissed.

Cadance grimaced. "I'd be insulted at the way you phrased that, but you're not entirely wrong." She shrugged. "I do have degrees in child psychology and child development."

"So, apparently, does Starlight Glimmer," Tirek said. "And she is using them as a weapon to destroy the spirit of the students at that school."

Twilight paled. "What?" she whispered.

* * * * *

"Today, class, I'd like to take a moment to talk about the futility of democracy. Now, I know you have always been taught that democracy is a great system because every vote counts, meaning every single person has a say in the way the country is run, but here's the truth:

"Nothing any of you think matters. Technically, when you're old enough to vote, your vote counts in electing the men and women who run the government, but the reality is that your role in government begins and ends with casting that vote. Once your elected officials are sworn into office, you are completely at their mercy. The things they promise to do for you, for your families, for your community? They say those things just to get your vote. They don't care about you. They don't care about your family. They don't care about your community! All they care about is protecting the people who gave them the money they needed to run their campaign. Or, in some cases, they care about pet causes that probably don't align with your personal interests.

"I know this doesn't mean much to you right now, but in a few years, you'll understand. No matter how you vote, the people who have control of the nation will always raise your taxes while cutting their own. They'll always fight to take away your freedoms. They'll always pass laws that do more to hurt you and more to help the big corporations. The only way you can protect yourself from the government is to rise to the top of a big corporation yourself, but...let's face it. None of you are ever leaving this town. You're going to have small jobs in the suburbs or slightly larger but still ultimately unimportant jobs in some office building in the city. You'll probably get married, you'll probably have a couple of children, you'll grow old, you'll lose interest in the things you were once passionate about.

"You will grind yourself down to a nub at a thankless job that has no meaning until you're too old to work, then you'll retire. If you're lucky, your kids will still give a damn about you, but most of the time you'll be sitting around with other old people complaining about young people and talking about the way things were when you were younger. And that'll be your life until you die. And you'll only be remembered in passing by your grandchildren. That's the reality of the society we live in."

* * * * *

"That's disgusting," Cadance said, her face twisted into an uncharacteristic fury.

"Disgusting, but effective," Tirek said. "The only people not under her influence are those girls, and Sunset Shimmer has evidently told them not to do anything until she returns, because it's too risky. Even so, I wouldn't count on this going on too long before there's an incident. That rainbow-haired girl has a temper and is clearly being restrained by her friends."

"But why is she doing that?" Twilight wondered. "What does she gain from something like that?"

"I don't know," Tirek said. "I suspect Princess Twilight Sparkle would know. Perhaps we should report to her and ask."

Twilight nodded. "You might be right. I'll—"

The door to the lab opened, and Scorpan poked his head in. "Brother," he said, "Father has been trying to call you since yesterday!"

Tirek snorted. "I know," he said. "I've been busy."

"Tirek, you can't just ignore Father like that!" Scorpan whined. "He's expecting you to be at tonight's function, you know!"

Tirek let out an irritated grunt. "I have no time for such foolish—"

"Perhaps you have time," a new, rough voice intruded, "to convince me why I should not confine you to your rooms at the Embassy."

A tall, broad-figured man in a dark suit with an ornate golden brocade sash slung across his torso stood in the door. His skin and eyes were the same color as Tirek's; his neatly groomed dark grey hair and perfectly trimmed beard gave him a regal bearing.

"Ambassador Vorak," Cadance said smoothly, stepping forward. "I didn't know you were coming—"

"A moment, Dean Cadance," Vorak said, stalling her with a wave of his hand. "Well, Tirek?"

Tirek clenched his fists. "Forgive me, Father. I have been...busy."

"Indeed," Vorak said, raising an eyebrow. "Certainly not with your classwork, as I have learned you have spent most of this past week off campus."

"Tch."

Cadance coughed. "Ambassador, Tirek has been assisting Twilight Sparkle and myself in an important research project," she said. "I assure you, I personally approve all of his absences from class. He's very useful to us. We'd have a hard time continuing without him."

Vorak considered this. "Interesting," he said. "What sort of research? I was not aware my son had any scientific interests. Or any academic interests at all."

"That's not important," Cadance said. "The important thing is he's behaving himself and has my full support, regardless of any complaints Principal Cinch may have."

"Hmm." Vorak shrugged expansively. "Well, what goes on at this school is of no concern to me so long as my sons are behaving themselves. But they do have obligations to fulfill, and Tirek, you will attend this evening's function. I will hear no argument."

Tirek folded his arms and turned away. "Yes, Father," he rumbled.

"Excellent. Come, Scorpan, let us go. Tirek, call for the car when you're ready to return to the Embassy. If you don't make an appearance by six, I'll send the car to find you." His tone promised unpleasant things for Tirek if he had to be sent for.

"I'll be there," Tirek said resignedly. Satisfied, Vorak and Scorpan left. Tirek waited for a long moment, staring at the empty doorframe. Once he could no longer hear his father's clipped stride, he snarled and spun Twilight's empty desk chair, sending it wobbling across the room like a deranged top. "Fuck," he spat.

"Tirek," Cadance said in a warning tone. Twilight watched him with wide eyes, taking a step back.

Tirek took a deep breath, then stood and folded his hands behind his back. "My apologies," he said. "I..." He paused for a moment to measure his words. "My relationship with Father is...strained." He shook his head. "But that is no concern of yours. I suppose I must prepare for this ridiculous farce of an embassy function." He started to leave, then stopped, turning. He gave Twilight a long, scrutinizing look, measuring her from head to toe with his eyes. His gaze unnerved her, making her fidget uncomfortably. "Dean Cadance," he said in a thoughtful tone, "would you be so good as to make Twilight presentable, perhaps find a decent evening dress for her?"

Cadance blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

Twilight blinked repeatedly. "Huh?" she asked, her glasses askew.

"We have seen that Twilight Sparkle cleans up rather nicely," Tirek said. "I would appreciate company I relate to if I must endure this tiresome evening." He turned away, his posture stiff. "I will send a car for her at five thirty." With that, he left, his boots thudding heavily on the floor.

Twilight stared at the empty door, then at Cadance. "What...just happened?" she asked shakily.

Dean Cadance's eyes were wide, her mouth open in surprise. "I...I think you have a date tonight," she said in disbelief.

* * * * *

Gone for a couple of days. I know things are rough right now, but stay strong, everyone. I'm not gonna let you all down. Wondercolts forever!

Beck frowned at the cryptic status update. "Huh. She took off somewhere."

"In the middle of the school week?" Sugar Belle wondered. "I mean, school's happening right now, right?"

"Should be," DD said. "Wonder what things are rough? I mean, she's just a high school kid, right?"

"Maybe somebody died or something?" Sugar Belle suggested. "I mean, it does happen. When I was in high school, this guy who used to date my best friend got in a bad wreck and died."

"I guess," Beck said. "I wonder where exactly she's 'gone' to, though?"

"Does it matter?" DD asked. "We know when we get to Canterlot, all we have to do is wait around this high school and we'll find her sooner or later."

"I guess you're right," Beck said, handing Sugar Belle back her phone. She stared out the window of the train, watching miles of brown and green terrain roll past, dotted with trees and grazing cattle.

*Tomorrow. We'll be there tomorrow...*

* * * * *

The door to the limousine opened, and Twilight Sparkle stepped out, feeling silly, self-conscious, and scared out of her wits.

She wore a flowing dark purple dress with the hem only a few inches above her ankles, with sparkly silver flats. The dress was simple but elegant, sleeveless and spangled with a smattering of silver glitter. Cadance had done her makeup—just some tasteful, barely visible eyeshadow and blush and a little lip gloss—and put her hair up in a long ponytail. With a little spray of what Cadance called her "secret weapon", Twilight's unruly mess of split ends had become sleek and shiny, almost like her counterpart. A small silver clasp purse contained her phone, a handkerchief, a packet of tissues, and a couple of other necessities.

She was escorted through the gates of the Embassy, where Tirek was waiting for her. Gone was his usual intimidating attire, replaced by a charcoal suit, black dress shirt, and silver silk necktie. He looked her up and down and nodded. "Yes, you clean up rather nicely," he said.

Twilight blushed. "Umm...thank you?"

Twilight had a million questions, but ultimately never had the chance to ask any of them. She found herself attached to Tirek's arm as he made the rounds of the important and well-heeled people in attendance. There were hors d'oeuvres, but Twilight was too nervous to trust herself with food, and the few she sampled were bland and tasteless.

After two long, uncomfortable hours, the function—Twilight never actually understood what the function was—ended. As they stood beside Ambassador Vorak and his wife while the guests left, Twilight felt Vorak's measuring look.

At length, the Ambassador and his wife left, and Scorpan scurried off into the embassy, constantly casting odd glances back at Twilight and Tirek. When at last they were alone save for a few staff, Tirek relaxed his posture. "I'll escort you home," he said. "We'll stop for a quick bite on the way. I noticed you were too nervous to eat, and I frankly don't blame you. These ridiculous party snacks aren't fit for a dog."

Twilight let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "Alright," she said.

As they left the gates and got into a waiting car, Twilight turned to Tirek. "What...what was all this?" she squeaked.

"Hmm?" Tirek grunted.

"This!" Twilight exclaimed, gesturing to the Embassy, then to herself. "Why—"

"Given the choice between two hours of having a pleasant, inoffensive girl at my side and the same two hours of my cringing brother constantly trailing in my shadow wringing his hands, I should think the preferable choice would be obvious," Tirek said.

Twilight frowned. Now that he mentioned it, Scorpan did seem to keep his distance for most of the evening, preferring to stick close to his mother. "So...the whole reason for all this is you didn't want your brother following you around all evening?"

"I prefer a measure of control over the company I keep," Tirek said. "Scorpan is terrified of girls. The more attractive they are, the further he scurries away."

Twilight blushed fiercely. "Oh," she said.

The night shift worker at the drive-thru of the fried chicken place the limo pulled into was rather nonplussed at seeing a limo pull through, but in little time, Tirek and Twilight had fried chicken, biscuits, and lots of napkins. They ate quietly on the rest of the slow drive to Twilight's house.

Once they arrived, Tirek helped Twilight out of the car. "This evening was far more bearable thanks to you," he said softly. "I'll see you at school tomorrow."

Twilight stood on the curb for a long time, completely at a loss. Finally, the chill of the night spurred her into motion, and she headed inside. Her mother was waiting for her. "So? How was your date?" she asked brightly.

Twilight shook her head. "I...am just really confused," she said numbly. "And tired. I'm going to change for bed."

Upstairs in her room, as Twilight peeled off the fancy dress, she glanced at herself in the mirror, frowning.

"I'm keeping the ponytail," she decided.

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The next morning, Princess Celestia treated her two students to a breakfast of elaborately topped pancakes with fruit faces, which she delightedly made herself.

"Wow," Sunset said. "This takes me back."

"You used to make these on special occasions," Twilight said with a smile as she dug in.

Celestia giggled. "I make them a lot more often these days," she said. "Mostly for my sister." She sighed. "Not that she ever...ever really sits down to have breakfast with me..." She shook her head. "Anyway, eat up. We'll head to Ponyville as soon as we're finished."

An hour later, the trio trotted briskly through the grand foyer of Canterlot Castle. Celestia approached the Royal Charioteers, who bowed in deference. She raised a hoof. "Gentlecolts," she said, "we will be taking the chariot to Ponyville, but I will not require your services."

The Charioteers looked at each other in confusion, then back to Celestia. "Y-Your Highness? I don't understand..."

Celestia smiled. "I believe Princess Twilight and I are more than capable of pulling the chariot," she said. "If not for Sunset Shimmer's lack of wings, we would simply fly down to Ponyville ourselves."

"B-but Your Majesty—!"

Sunset blinked. "Wait. You want to...pull the chariot? Yourself?!"

"I need the exercise," Celestia said with a pained grimace. "Besides, we don't know for certain how long we'll be in Ponyville, and you ponies have duties and responsibilities here. Not just to me or the castle, but to your own families." She smiled. "We'll be fine."

The Charioteers frowned, but finally shrugged, relented, and moved to help the two alicorns into harnesses. "Please, be careful, Your Majesty," one advised. "Don't overexert yourself."

Celestia raised an eyebrow. "I raise and lower the sun every day and shepherd Canterlot nobles. I can handle pulling a glorified sleigh a short distance. Come, Sunset, into the chariot, we away at once!"

Sunset facehoofed, shook her head, and climbed into the chariot. Twilight shot Celestia a look that said 'is this seriously happening?', but sighed and spread her wings, keeping pace with her mentor as they galloped for the edge of the launching platform and took flight, the magically balanced chariot trailing behind them.

As they swept around the back side of the mountain and emerged on the side where Ponyville lay, Sunset caught sight of the massive, gleaming branches, turrets, and towers of the shining crystal tree-castle below. Her jaw dropped. "What the hay?!"

Celestia chuckled merrily. "It's quite a sight, isn't it? That, my wayward student, is Princess Twilight's castle."

Sunset shook her head, her eyes wide. "Umm...wow. It's...umm..." Her jaw worked soundlessly for a moment. "Gee, I don't even know the words—"

"Big, gaudy, totally out of place?" Twilight suggested.

"Umm...w-well..." Sunset coughed. "If...if you like it..."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "Jury's still out on that one," she said. "Let's just say I'm adjusting to it. My friends are doing what they can to add little homey touches here and there, but we've all more or less agreed that just fixing up a few rooms and leaving most of it like, well...that is best for now."

"Indeed it is," Celestia said. "At least until you decide on how best to make the castle reflect the princess you want to be." In a conspiratorial stage-whisper that Sunset had to strain to hear, she added, "Just between us, there's only a few rooms in Canterlot Castle that I feel completely at ease in. Most of the castle is just for show, to intimidate and impress ponies."

"Huh?" Twilight asked. "Then why—"

"Because it's what they expect," Celestia said with a weary sigh. "When you wear this crown, ponies expect things of you that you have to give them, even if you don't really want any part of it."

"Oh," Twilight said quietly, thoughtfully. "Sorry, I...I guess...I mean, I'm so new to this whole princess thing, I don't really understand it all yet—"

Sunset blinked. "Huh. You know, I never even thought of that. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't get what I wanted all along."

Celestia laughed. "Oh, being a princess is a delight and a wonderful thing. It's just...sometimes it can be very tiring."

"I see," Sunset said. She bit her lip. "So about Castle Treeskull down there..."

Twilight blinked. "Castle Treeskull?"

"Sorry, human world joke."

"Oh." Twilight pursed her lips. "Well...it's a long story."

"I imagine, but why a tree? Why a castle in a giant crystal tree, like some kind of giant treehouse?"

"It just grew that way!" Twilight said, exasperated. "I mean, it's ridiculously huge and crazy-looking and I know it, but nopony can do anything about it!"

Sunset blinked. "It...grew?"

"From a seed of the Tree of Harmony, yes," Celestia said. "It was...quite surprising to see."

"One minute it wasn't there, the next minute it was," Twilight said. "Everypony's more or less used to it now, but—"

A rainbow blur shot in front of them. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Rainbow Dash materialized in front of the chariot, flying backward at the same leisurely pace the alicorns were flying forward, hooves on her hips. "What the heck?" She looked at Twilight and Celestia. "Since when do princesses pull chariots?"

"Since we have a unicorn with us who can't fly," Twilight said dryly. "And since Princess Celestia decided she wanted to pull the chariot herself for some reason."

"Good morning, Rainbow Dash," Celestia said primly. "Up early clearing the clouds?"

Rainbow Dash scratched her head in confusion. "Y-yeah," she said. "I mean, I wanted to get an early start so I can spend the afternoon with Scootaloo. Umm. Your Highness." She looked past the alicorns, blinking. "Wait a sec, I know you." She squinted. "Hey, you're Sunset Shimmer, aren't you?"

Sunset waved sheepishly. "Hi Rainbow Dash," she said. "Umm...nice to meet you?"

Rainbow flew in formation with the princesses. "So what's goin' on here?"

"We're headed to the castle to study the portal," Twilight said. "I think the reason it malfunctioned has something to do with the Cutie Map."

"The Map, huh?" Rainbow frowned. "How do you figure?"

"I'm not sure, but I detected the Map's magical signature on the other side of the portal," Twilight said. She bit her lip. "And...a lot of things are going wrong in that world right now, and we, umm..." She glanced at Sunset, then ducked her eyes. "We got kicked off the campus at CHS, so we decided to come here for a bit."

Rainbow snorted. "You. The ultimate egghead. Got kicked out of a school."

"A school that Starlight Glimmer has taken over and has total control of," Twilight said.

Rainbow's eyes widened. "St-Starlight Glimmer?! Are you serious?!"

"Afraid so," Sunset said. "Twilight told me all about what went down with her in this world. Well, somehow or another she's crossed over into my world, and...and she has all her magic."

Rainbow's irises shrank to pinpricks. "Okay that's bad," she said. "Want me to round up the girls?"

"No need for that, my little pony," Celestia said. "It may take a while for us to unravel the truth of all this. Until we know exactly what went wrong with the portal and how Starlight Glimmer has done what she's done, there's little point in attempting action."

"Besides, the other Rainbow Dash is already raising enough hell for both of you, I'm sure," Sunset said with a wry smirk.

Rainbow blinked. "Oh yeah. I'm already there, huh? Heheh." She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "Well, umm...welcome to Ponyville, and...I'll stop by the castle later to see if you need any help?"

"Thank you," Celestia said primly.

Rainbow took off higher into the sky. Sunset smirked. "Wow."

"I know, right?" Twilight said with a giggle.

They soon flew low over the outskirts of Ponyville; as they approached the town proper, ponies below looked up, turned to each other and chatted excitedly, and waved at the chariot. Twilight and Celestia waved back. Sunset craned her neck this way and that, taking in the sights with interest. "So this is Ponyville," she mused. "It's so...rural."

"Well, it did start as an earth pony farming village," Celestia said. "But don't let the rural aesthetic fool you. Ponyville may have a certain sleepy, rustic charm to it, but it's far from a collection of muddy roads and low-class rubes." She said the last with a sly wink at Twilight, who grimaced.

"I really wanna know what made those three print that," she groused. At Sunset's confused look, she made a 'later' gesture.

As they flew over the heart of Ponyville, Twilight pointed out some of the places of interest and promised to give Sunset a proper tour of the town. They glided low over the ground as they cleared the busiest part of Ponyville and neared the road leading to the castle. Once they reached the foot of the castle, they landed; Twilight and Celestia unhitched themselves from the chariot, while Sunset teleported out and landed lightly on her hooves beside them. "Alright," Twilight said, squaring her shoulders. "Let's get to work."

* * * * *

"Oh I...I don't like the idea of us, umm...cutting class," Fluttershy said.

The Rainbooms and the Dazzlings met up at the mall shortly after eight in the morning. With some of the girls sporting wings and other unusual features, their appearance was causing quite a stir. They had decided, the evening prior, to make a show of protest over Starlight Glimmer by cutting classes as a group, and to use their hooky time to meet up with the Dazzlings for some strategy planning.

"Yeah, it don't set right with me neither," Applejack said, "but things bein' whut they are an' all..."

"Yeah, we...we kinda need to figure out how to fix the school," Pinkie said.

"I feel like we could do more to, y'know, boost th' morale or somethin'," Rainbow said. "Kinda...counteract that crap she's spewin' in class that's makin' everybody, uhh..."

"Blah?"

"Yeah."

Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Seriously? You're the same girls who defeated us—us—in a music competition. When our music is purely magical. It didn't occur to you to maybe try the same tactic here?"

Rainbow blinked. "W-well...I mean, yeah, kids at CHS are easy to sway with a catchy tune an' all, but—"

"But nothing," Adagio said, examining her nails. "We broke her magical control over Luna easily with a little harmonizing. She's not even using her magic on the student body."

"No, just creepy brainwashing," Pinkie Pie pointed out.

Rarity frowned. "We...did have effective results with a similar tactic back when Sunset Shimmer was, well..."

"Queen Meanie?"

"Yes."

"You could just shoot her," Sonata pointed out. The Rainbooms all stared at her. She blinked innocently. "What?"

"Umm..." Fluttershy ducked her head. "I...don't think Twilight or Sunset would approve of that," she said. "Besides, umm...I really don't want a juvenile arrest record..."

Rainbow tilted her head. "Uhh, Shy? You were picked up two months ago outside that lab—"

"THAT'S DIFFERENT!"

Aria raised an eyebrow. "Oho? This sounds interesting."

Fluttershy ducked her head. "I, umm...broke into a research lab and freed a bunch of lab animals," she said meekly.

Aria snorted. "Aaaand bored again."

"They dropped the charges when she gave the lab director head," Rainbow added with a sly grin. Fluttershy let out a mortified squeak.

The Dazzlings all stared at Fluttershy.

"Well well," Adagio purred.

"That is not what happened!" Fluttershy hissed, her face red. "I agreed to help round up the animals when I found out they were testing cancer cures on poor sick animals that were already dying!"

"Ugh, seriously?" Aria groaned.

"My version's cooler," Rainbow pouted.

"Will y'all git serious?!" Applejack thundered. "This ain't th' time t' be makin' stupid jokes an' stuff, now dang it all!"

"Aww, but the stupid jokes and stuff are fun!" Sonata whined.

"The cowgirl's got a point, though," Aria said. "This is serious. That unicorn bitch in a monkey suit needs to go."

"But we need to do it on our terms," Rarity said. "We need to do it the way Sunset Shimmer and Princess Twilight would do it."

"I'm pretty sure Sunset would be fine with beating her ass into the ground and dragging her back through the portal to Equestria," Rainbow pointed out. "Actually, from what we saw the other day, I think Twilight'd go along with that too."

Applejack scratched her head. "Probably," she agreed. "Only problem with that is, well..." She shrugged helplessly. "She's kinda got us outmatched."

"Unless we shoot her!" Sonata piped up.

"We're not shooting anybody!" the Rainbooms yelled.

A man coughed behind them. "That's good to know."

They all turned slowly, as one, to see a uniformed mall security officer standing behind them.

"Now, mind explaining why you girls aren't in school?" he asked.

The girls fidgeted awkwardly.

"Umm..." Fluttershy began, ducking her head. "We're hoes? And we're, um, older than we look?"

A round of facepalms greeted that statement. "For real?!" Pinkie cried, dragging both hands down her face.

The mall cop raised an eyebrow. "I'll buy that for the girl with the stupidly huge hair and the trashy tramp getup," he said. "The rest of you, well...I happen to know five of you go to CHS, so I think you'd better get a move on. Unless you want me to call your parents? Or the cops?"

The Rainbooms sagged, gave a group round of assent, and trudged for the nearest mall exit. The Dazzlings looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.

* * * * *

"Wow," Sunset said as she examined the elaborate magical contraption framing the portal mirror. "So this is how you got the portal working again, huh?" She whistled. "You are one crazy pony."

Twilight giggled. "Oh, well, you know...I dabble in...kindasorta mad science..." She waved a hoof airily. "Actually, it's thanks to Pinkie Pie I was able to figure it out. She's the one who gave me the idea to use the magic in the journal to trigger the portal matrix."

"Like jumpstarting a car battery," Sunset said, nodding thoughtfully. At the others' confused looks, she shook her head. "Human thing. Nevermind."

Spike tottered in, carrying a massive stack of scrolls and notebooks. "Okay, here's everything from the research," he said. "Hey Sunset."

"Hey Spike. Wow. I think I like you better as a dog. Er, no offense."

Spike shrugged. "It's cool. The dog thing's kinda fun once in a while." He grinned lazily. "Getting scratches behind the ears from Rarity is a nice perk."

Twilight rolled her eyes and spread her notes out. "Alright, these are all the readings I took on this side," she said. "This set over here is from before the portal went crazy, this set over here is more recent." She grabbed a blank scroll and started writing on it. "Give me a minute, I need to get down the data I took on the other side while it's fresh in my mind."

"While you do that, I'll examine the portal myself," Celestia said. Her horn lit up. After a moment, she frowned. "Hmm. I might get a better read on the problem if we activate the portal temporarily."

"Of course," Twilight said. She levitated an old book with Celestia's Cutie Mark on it into a recess at the top of the frame. Gadgets and gizmos connected to the portal began to whirl, spin, turn, glow, and otherwise make a lot of impressive racket as sheets of semisolid magic spun between a set of rollers. After a long moment, the mirror glowed, its surface rippling and bathing the room in a soft light.

"Wow," Sunset said. "It was worth the trip just to see all that."

Celestia chuckled, then approached the mirror, her horn glowing. She pressed the very tip of her horn against the surface, causing it to ripple and shimmer. "Hmm," she said. "Yes, I definitely feel the touch of the Cutie Map here, and it's strong," she said. She frowned. "There's something el—" She broke off abruptly, stepping back, eyes wide. "That's impossible," she said.

"What is it?" Twilight asked.

Celestia sat down, her brow creasing. "Twilight," she said slowly, "do you recall your misadventure with the time spells in the Starswirl the Bearded wing of the Canterlot Archives?"

Twilight nodded. "Oh yeah," she said wearily. "Not one of my better weeks."

Celestia frowned. "Scan the portal again," she said.

Twilight's brow furrowed in confusion, but she did as asked, dipping her horn into the rippling surface of the portal and concentrating. A moment later, she jumped back, eyes wide. "What the horseapples?!"

"What is it?" Sunset asked.

Twilight shook her head. "Why didn't I recognize..." She began pacing. "The spell I sensed that was connected to the Cutie Map magic...it was Starswirl's time spell. But why would...?" She frowned. "Who'd be casting that spell here, and why? What's it got to do with the Map or the portal? It doesn't make any sense!"

"Time spell?" Sunset asked.

"A spell Starswirl created," Twilight said. "I cast it once, several months before I became an alicorn. It only sent me back in time about a week, and for less than a minute. I didn't even manage to do what I used it for, because I wasted the entire time arguing with myself."

Celestia frowned. "I don't know," she said. "A truly determined and malevolent pony can cause a great deal of harm in a matter of seconds."

"Let me see," Sunset said, dipping her own horn into the portal. After a long moment, she staggered back, her eyes spinning. She plopped onto her haunches and shook herself like a dog. "Whoa."

"Umm...yeah," Twilight said sheepishly. "Not...not something you wanna do if you're not an alicorn."

"No, really, you think?" Sunset said tersely. She rubbed her temples with her hooves. "But I did notice something you both missed."

"What's that, my little pony?" Celestia asked.

"The amplification modification enchantment woven into that spell."

Twilight and Celestia looked at each other, eyes wide. Twilight jammed her horn into the portal again, its magenta glow streaming off in waves. After a long moment, she stepped back, blinking in shock. "She's right," she said listlessly. "There's a spell amplifier enchantment woven into the time spell that wasn't there before. It's...it's a binding enchantment, linking the spell to an artifact..."

"The Map," Celestia said quietly.

The three ponies looked at each other, stunned, then back at the portal.

"Starlight Glimmer...what did you do?" Twilight breathed.

* * * * *

Beck, Sugar Belle, and Double Diamond sat at a table at Los Tacos Hermanos, eating breakfast tacos. They'd finally arrived in Canterlot, and had quickly sought out cheap rooms at a second-rate hotel.

"So what's the plan now?" DD asked.

Beck took a sip of coffee and shrugged. "I'm not really sure," she admitted. "I've been thinking about that. I thought about maybe going to that high school, snooping around, but..."

"Not the best idea," Belle said with a frown. "I mean, she's a student there. You don't know enough about her to fake your way through impersonating her."

"Yeah," Beck said, nodding. "I have a feeling that's gonna be a problem anywhere I go in this city."

DD snorted. "Yeah, unless you cut and dye your hair," he said. "I mean, it wouldn't be the best disguise, but—" He trailed off as he realized the others were staring at him and blinking. "What?"

"That's...not a bad idea, actually," Beck said. "Hmm."

"Well, it'd...it'd be a start," Belle mused. She frowned. "But you have such beautiful hair, it'd be a shame to—"

"Screw my hair," Beck said, rolling her eyes. "Hair grows back. This is a little more important." She took a huge bite of a taco. "Besides, remember how I ended up with the name 'Beck' in the first place?"

DD snorted into his orange juice. Belle blinked. "Umm...no?"

Beck pursed her lips. "Oh, that's right, that happened before..." She coughed, ducked her head, and blushed. "W-well...when I didn't know who I was, didn't have anything to call myself..." She busied herself with the wrapper on her taco. "The guys at the Camp used to call me 'Bacon-head'. It...umm..."

"Over time, got shortened to 'Beck'," DD said with a huge grin.

Belle blinked. "Oh," she said, her lips quivering as she fought not to laugh.

Beck cleared her throat noisily. "So anyway, yeah, I guess first thing I'll do is hit up a pharmacy for some scissors and hair dye, and...yeah."

"I'll help you redo your hair," Belle offered. "If we're gonna give you a makeover, it might as well be a good one."

"Thanks," Beck said.

DD coughed. "Umm...I guess I'll just...hit the streets, kinda see what I can find out."

"Sounds good," Beck said.

Ten minutes later, they left Los Tacos Hermanos to begin their first day in Canterlot.

Ground Hog's Neigh

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"Okay Spike, you've got everything under control, right?" Princess Twilight Sparkle asked as she stacked two more books into the large cardboard box on the floor in front of her.

"Of course," Spike said.

"It's just that you know what my schedule's like, and—"

"Will you relax already?" Spike said. "You already rearranged the important stuff on your schedule, the rest of it isn't a problem! You need a break, you've been working too hard on that friendship summit! Besides, you're only going for an overnight visit!"

Twilight took a deep breath. "You're right," she said, smiling. "You'll be fine on your own for one day."

"That's the spirit!" Spike dusted the table, waving a claw at Twilight. "Tell Sunset and the girls hi for me!"

Twilight giggled. "Alright. See you tomorrow!" With that, she levitated the box closer to the glowing, rippling mirror in the corner, then used her head to shove it the rest of the way through, following close behind on her own hooves.

Once she was gone, Spike, humming idly to himself, put down his duster, picked up a comic book, and tottered to the library door. "Time for an ice cream and comic book break," he said to himself, chuckling. "Work can wait until later, this dragon needs his fun time..."

In the stillness of the library, a pony-shaped patch of air shimmered and rippled. With a faint blue glow, the shimmering air resolved into a light purple pony with a violet mane. Eyes narrowed, Starlight Glimmer approached the strange mirror, tilting her head. "Well now," she said softly to herself, "what kind of magic is this? I wonder..." She placed a hoof against the glass, tilting her head as it rippled under her touch. With a cautious frown, she stepped fully into the mirror. Her world exploded in a kaleidoscope of color and a rush of white noise, and she felt something pulling and stretching her body. She let out a soundless scream...

Bright sunlight assaulted her senses as her body hit the ground with a heavy thud. She sat up, groaning. Everything felt...wrong.

She blinked open bleary eyes; as her forelimbs came into focus, she saw that they ended not in hooves, but strange, soft, slender claws or paws of some sort. She looked further down at herself, and found that her hind legs had stretched out and elongated, the joints not quite where they should be. Furthermore, she was wearing some sort of black pants she definitely hadn't been wearing before.

She ran her soft, fleshy whatevers over her body and face, finding all sorts of changes that sent her mind racing in a panic. The worst part was the lack of a horn.

*Is this a trap? Did she know I was spying on her? What's going—*

She became aware of sounds around her: loud rumbling noises, voices talking and laughing, faint music, leaves blowing across grass. She looked around and saw creatures—creatures that looked like nothing she'd seen before, all of which had the same slender paw-things she now had and the same long, oddly-jointed legs, upon which they stood and walked. They all wore different types of clothing.

She turned her head as she caught a familiar voice. She watched a familiar mane of dark violet hair sway and swing in the breeze as a lavender-skinned whatever in a blue blouse and purple skirt wrapped a forelimb each around an amber-skinned whatever with a wavy copper and gold mane and a yellow-skinned whatever with a long, pale pink mane. Several other whatevers with very familiar manes and skin resembling a certain group of mares' coats were with them, and as she watched, all of them climbed into some sort of large, box-like metal carriage, like a train car that wasn't connected to anything. It let out a ghastly rumble as it lurched off down the road a moment later.

Starlight sat there, taking it all in, her mind racing. *What in the...what is this? What's going on here?*

Frowning, she watched the creatures ambling back and forth around her, chatting with each other, for all the world appearing to enjoy a lazy, ordinary day. After observing the way they walked for a time, she gingerly stood up, wobbling as she found her new center of gravity, and slowly walked toward the large building nearby. As she approached, she saw a light-skinned creature with long green dreadlocks coming down the steps. She waved to catch his attention. "Excuse me," she said. "Could you direct me to the library, please?"

He blinked. "Uhh, sure," he said. "Go right through there, down the center hall, it's the third door on the left. Oh, but it's gonna be closed in like twenty minutes, so..." He tilted his head. "You a new teacher or something?"

"Ah...something like that," she hedged. "Thank you for your help." And making as though she absolutely belonged there and wasn't an alien wearing false skin, she headed directly for the library. Once she was there, she made certain to avoid being noticed by the librarian, slipping into the vacant recesses of the reference section. She waited patiently, silently, until the librarian left and locked up for the day.

Then, with a determined frown on her face, she went to work.

* * * * *

Starlight Glimmer restlessly prowled the halls of the Canterlot Archives, waiting for the guards to change rotation. Her invisibility spell masked her presence, and a Skin of Silence spell muffled the sound of her hooves as she crept along the walls, going still and holding her breath whenever a unicorn guard's horn-light came into view.

Finally, the shift change was sounded. Starlight easily unlocked the gate to the Starswirl the Bearded Wing and slipped inside. She had five minutes to find what she needed and get out; fortunately, now that she was inside, she could teleport out without raising suspicion.

It took three minutes to find the spell she was looking for. With a smirk, she tucked it into her saddlebag, then teleported into the public courtyard. Once there, she drew the hood up on her cloak and silently ghosted away into the quiet Canterlot night.

* * * * *

"How DARE you keep this kind of magic from me?! You KNOW that I'm ready for this, that I can be GREAT!"

"You could be great. I thought I saw compassion and sincerity in you, but it was nothing but ambition. You're being selfish, you need to step back and reflect—"

"I'M selfish? That book right there says I could become as powerful as an alicorn princess. I could rule here. It's selfish of you to keep me from my rightful place."

*Good grief, what a spoiled little brat...*

Princess Celestia and a young unicorn named Sunset Shimmer were having a very public, very angry screaming match, in full view of the guards and the palace staff. Unbeknownst to any of them, a silent, invisible observer watched from a quiet, unobtrusive corner.

"I deserve to stand beside you and be your equal...if not your better! MAKE ME A PRINCESS!!"

"No. Being a princess must be earned. I have been trying to teach you everything you need to know, but you've turned from it. Every time you say you 'deserve' to get something without the effort just proves to me that you are not ready."

Starlight Glimmer watched as a furious Celestia banished Sunset Shimmer from the castle. Sunset Shimmer escaped from the guards escorting her, knocking them unconscious, and jumped through the crystal mirror, disappearing into another world. As the guards came to, Celestia instructed them to move the mirror to the throne room. Starlight waited as Celestia sat before the mirror, watching it with a sad expression, and excused the guards from the room.

*Is she going to sit in front of that mirror all night? I don't know how much longer it'll be open, or how long I can hold this spell—*

Celestia's head suddenly snapped sharply in her direction. "Who is there? Show yourself! Tonight is not a good night to test my patience!"

"DAMN!" Starlight dropped her invisibility spell and summoned the magic of the time spell into her horn just as the guards burst into the room. Before either the guards or Celestia could do anything, Starlight was sucked up into a glowing vortex in the ceiling, which snapped closed behind her.

A tense silence descended upon the room.

"Your Majesty?" a guard asked. "Who or what was that, and...and what are your orders?"

Celestia stared up at the ceiling, pursing her lips. She glanced back at the crystal mirror. She sighed. "You know...I just don't care. That pony will either return or she won't. Whoever she was, whatever that spell was...right now, I just don't care." She stood up and stretched. "If Sunset Shimmer returns, fetch me immediately. I believe I need to be alone now..."

* * * * *

Starlight crouched against a cold crystal wall, watching the mirror. As the castle fell silent, its surface rippled, and a unicorn mare in a dark cloak stepped out, black saddlebags slung across her back. Teal eyes scanned the room warily.

As soon as Sunset Shimmer left the room, Starlight dropped her invisibility spell, took a deep breath, and wove a complex series of spells around herself. The magic shields now enveloping her would allow her to retain her form and, more importantly, her magic once she crossed the threshold of the portal—she'd be damned if she was caught in that world wearing a weird body with no magic again. Besides, she didn't intend to be there long...

After another steadying breath and a quick check of all her spells, Starlight jumped through the portal. She immediately dove behind the statue, dropping her magic shell and casting her invisibility spell again, then crept around, squinting in the bright daylight. *Wasn't it night in Equestria? Weird...*

Several minutes passed.

A girl sat down next to the statue—Fluttershy. She carried armfuls of leaflets, and tried to pass them out to the people passing her, but nobody was taking any. Starlight rolled her eyes.

The surface of the statue flashed, and a crown—Twilight Sparkle's crown—flew out, bouncing off Fluttershy's head and skidding to a stop on the pavement. "Oh?" she said, frowning. As she rubbed her head, she stood up, picking up the crown with a curious purse of her lips. "How'd this get out here?" Shrugging, she headed for the front doors.

Seconds after she went inside, the statue rippled again. Sunset Shimmer, human, tall, buxom, and smirking arrogantly, emerged, tugging at the hem of her black leather jacket. Her smirk turned into a frown as she scanned the ground. "The crown...where is it?" She looked all around, her frown turning into a scowl. "YOU THERE! Did you see the Fall Formal crown lying around on the ground here?"

A pale-skinned boy shrugged. "Yeah, I think I saw Fluttershy take it up into the school just now."

Sunset growled, her hands curling into claws. "Fluttershy, huh? Well. We'll just see about that..." She stormed off into the school, snarling at everyone around her as she threw open the doors.

"Yeesh," Starlight muttered.

Several more minutes passed.

The portal rippled again, and Twilight Sparkle, in her human form, fell out, sprawling in an ungainly heap on the ground. A small purple dog with green ears popped out shortly behind her. Starlight watched, amused, as Twilight freaked out at her transformation, then fought not to burst out laughing at the incredibly hilarious way Twilight tried to walk on all fours with Spike on her back.

Once the coast was clear, Starlight switched from her invisibility spell to her magic shell and approached the portal again, smirking. "Say goodbye to Equestria, Princess," she said to herself in a soft, malevolent tone. "As soon as I destroy the mirror, you'll be trapped here fore—"

Her gloating was cut off as, with a bright flash and a loud ringing sound, she was repelled by the portal, bouncing and rolling across the courtyard.

A few heads turned in her direction. She quickly switched spells again. "Dude, did you see something just now?"

"I don't think so. What did it look like?"

"Like a really big dog or something..."

"I dunno, dude. C'mon, we're gonna be late..."

Starlight waited until the courtyard was clear of students, then approached the portal again, dropping all her spells. She gently pressed a hoof against it.

It felt like rubber beneath her hoof. She couldn't push through, and it resisted her—actively repelled her hoof.

Frowning, she backed up and charged the statue at a full gallop. As soon as she collided with the portal, she was violently rejected with the force of a cannon bolt, sent flying over the trees to crash in the sprinters' track. She lay there, stunned, for a time. "What in the—?" Her eyes shot open. "No. Oh no."

Sprinting back to the statue, she looked around, finding a medium-sized pebble. With a frown, she carefully lined the pebble up with the portal and gave it a kick. It struck; the portal rippled, and the pebble disappeared into it, bound for Equestria. Her frown tightening, Starlight trotted up to the portal and attempted to step through.

It once again violently repelled her.

Her jaw dropped. "I'm stuck," she whispered, dropping to her rump. "I'm stuck. I came here to trap Princess Twilight in this world, but now...now I can't..." She took a deep breath. "It's okay," she said. "It's fine. I'll just...I'll just use the spell! I'll just go back to before I came here, forget this stupid plan, and find some other way to get my revenge on Twilight Sparkle..." Shaking her head, she pulled the scroll from her bag and held it aloft, her horn lighting up. The vortex formed above her; she was pulled up into it, and everything went white...

Then everything was dark.

"Well, isn't this interesting."

Starlight ducked out of sight as she heard Sunset Shimmer's voice. She watched as Sunset, human, emerged from the marble horse statue, examining herself with malignant glee.

Starlight's ears wilted.

*I'm...I'm still in this world? But...no! I was trying to go back to Canterlot! Before I—*

Her eyes widened.

"Oh horseapples."

* * * * *

Starlight Glimmer adjusted the stolen amulet which hung between her breasts and smiled winningly at the man behind the desk. "My name is Starlight Glimmer, and I'd like to open an account..."

* * * * *

"Well, isn't this interesting."

Starlight ducked out of sight as she heard Sunset Shimmer's voice. She watched as Sunset, human, emerged from the marble horse statue, examining herself with malignant glee.

Shaking her head, Starlight turned and found a place to hide as she cast the spell to turn herself human. Once she was human, she quickly dressed and collected her luggage, wincing at the heavy weight of the gold bars in her satchel. She hiked down the street until she found a taxi. Ten minutes later, she was checking into a motel for the night.

* * * * *

Starlight Glimmer adjusted the stolen amulet which hung between her breasts and smiled winningly at the man behind the desk. "My name is Starlight Glimmer, and I'd like to open an account..."

* * * * *

"Well, isn't this interesting."

Starlight ducked out of sight as she heard Sunset Shimmer's voice. She watched as Sunset, human, emerged from the marble horse statue, examining herself with malignant glee.

Shaking her head, Starlight turned and found a place to hide as she cast the spell to turn herself human. Once she was human, she quickly dressed and collected her luggage, wincing at the heavy weight of the gold bars in her satchel. She hiked down the street until she found a taxi. Fifteen minutes later, she was checking into a nice, lavish hotel for the night.

* * * * *

Starlight Glimmer adjusted the stolen amulet which hung between her breasts and smiled winningly at the man behind the desk. "My name is Starlight Glimmer, and I'd like to open an account..."

* * * * *

"Congratulations, Starlight," the dean said, shaking her hand. "What are your plans now?"

Starlight smiled. "I think I'd like to teach civics," she said. "I've heard that Canterlot High School might have an opening soon."

The dean frowned. "Is Polly retiring? I admit I haven't spoken with her in some time, but she's barely my age."

"Oh, you didn't know? I heard she was in a terrible accident..."

* * * * *

Principal Celestia examined the neatly-ordered folder of credentials lying on her desk. "Well, I'm impressed," she said. "You certainly are more than qualified." She looked up. "Wouldn't you prefer teaching at a university instead of a high school?"

The woman seated across from her smiled broadly. "I prefer the challenge of molding and shaping young minds, students who still haven't really figured out what they plan to do with their lives." She brushed a stray hair into place. "Besides, the timing honestly works out in my favor. Although I am so terribly sorry to hear about your Civics teacher's untimely accident."

Celestia grimaced. "Yes...Ms. Mare is a dear friend and I can only pray she'll recover one day. I've been in contact with her family. She's...still in critical condition. They're not even sure when she'll be able to leave the ICU." She shook her head. "But back to business. You seem to be exactly what this school needs, exactly when we need it."

"I'm just grateful for the chance to be able to step in and fill Ms. Mare's shoes. And to be able to work with such a diverse and interesting student body." She smiled. "I've heard quite a lot about the students here at CHS. There are several of your pupils I simply can't wait to meet."

Celestia smiled. "Well, I see no reason you can't start work tomorrow," she said. "I'll have my aide show you around campus for the rest of the afternoon. You can meet some of the students, observe the classes you'll be taking over, get a feel for the place."

"I'd like that very much, Principal Celestia." The woman stood and offered her hand to shake.

Celestia stood as well, grasping the offered hand and shaking it firmly. "Welcome to Canterlot High School, Ms. Glimmer."

Devil's Haircut

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Beck examined herself in the dingy mirror, pursing her lips and turning her head this way and that. Behind her, Belle was forlornly cleaning up a pile of copper and gold hair from the bathroom floor. In the other room, the cheap television was tuned to the cable weather, which was droning on about the expanding winter storm to the north.

"You think we overdid it?" Beck asked.

Belle frowned. "Yeah, maybe a little," she said. "I mean, you look good! You look...good..."

Beck rolled her eyes. "Belle, I'm homeless. Most of the time I don't even have clean clothes and get to shower maybe twice a week. Hair is just hair." She shook her head. "It's just...a little weird, I guess." She sighed, fingering her cut, dyed, and dried locks. "Well, guess we'd better head out. After I get dressed, I mean."

"What exactly are we planning to do?" Belle asked. "I mean, up until now, this has all been pretty vague, but now we need to get into specifics."

"Well, the way I figure it," Beck grunted as she struggled into a gray sports bra that matched the plain cotton panties she wore, "we've got two missions right now. Seeing as you basically cashed out and made a break for it, we need to get you a job down here. I mean..." She bit her lip. "This is forever, right? You...you're sure you—"

"I'll have to fill out some paperwork," Belle hedged, "but yeah. The ice storm...kinda helps? Worst case scenario, we all get rounded up and confined to the embassy." She shook her head. "In any case, like I said, you and Double Diamond are the two people I care about most in this world. You're all I have, really. Wherever you go, I go, and I'll deal with whatever comes up."

Beck smiled. "Thanks, Belle. You're an amazing friend." She tugged down on the black tank top she'd pulled on while Belle was talking, then picked up a pair of camo pants and stepped into them, pulling them up and buttoning them. She sat down on the bed and put on a thick pair of socks, then leaned back on her hands and let out a sigh. "Alright, I think you should take care of stuff like that today," she said. "Think I'm gonna head for that high school, ask around about this other Sunset Shimmer."

"Is that wise?" Belle asked, biting her lip.

Beck shrugged. "What? I'll say I'm a distant cousin or something, just trying to track down family I didn't know I had. I'm pretty sure I can sell it."

"Well...I guess..." Belle said, frowning. "But she's not there now, right?"

"Yeah, and that's why it's a good time to gather information," Beck said as she laced up a pair of army surplus combat boots. She picked up a green canvas vest and shrugged it on over her tank top, then slipped a pair of sunglasses with black plastic frames into the pocket of the vest. She stood up, running a hand through her short, slightly curly dark purple hair, and struck a pose, grinning. "How do I look?"

"Like a fighting game character," Belle said with a snicker, covering her mouth. "Seriously, think you're overdoing it with the army punk look?"

"Hahaha. You bought these clothes, smartass." Beck stretched her arms over her head, popping her back.

"Got the phone I gave you?" Belle asked.

"Shit, right," Beck said, grabbing a prepaid flip phone off the bedside table and stuffing it into her pants pocket, then folding a small stack of money in with it. "Well, guess I'm headed out. Call me if anything comes up, alright?"

"Right back at you," Belle said. "Good luck! I hope...I hope you can start to make sense of all this."

Beck smiled, then left the hotel room.

* * * * *

Double Diamond popped the collar of the denim shirt he wore and squared his shoulders as he walked down a sidewalk on some nameless city street in a town he'd never laid eyes on in his life yet was so familiar he could practically name every smell.

He knew how the girls thought. He knew Belle would want to do things through the most legitimate, clean, hi-tech channels she could. He knew Beck would probably rush straight over to that high school and sweat answers about 'Sunset Shimmer' out of the students.

DD had his own methods, and knew that there was one place to get reliable, solid information only a seasoned, hardened street bum would think to look.

His eyes tracked a number of faded chalk markings on the bricks of walls and the slabs of sidewalks. He followed them to a dingy alley, down that alley, and all the way through a nest of alleys and side streets until he found it: a vacant building with boarded-up windows whose service entrance had been busted open. The owners clearly never bothered to check up on their property; filth and the stench of urine and old, stale booze hung around the open doorway.

DD's nose wrinkled. *Funny, places like this don't usually stink so bad. Is this what a few days of living like a regular guy does to you?* Shaking his head, he walked through the cloud of gnats hanging around the door and into the dim, dingy hall beyond.

He quickly found what he was looking for: a man sat slumped against a wall, wrapped in three layers of dingy, filthy clothes, none of which were the right size. The man's eyes were slightly glazed; a smoldering joint in his hand gave DD pause.

Drunk was good, drunk tended to be more honest and reliable, if incoherent. Stoned...that was another matter entirely.

DD walked past the stoned hobo, searching the building. He found a few sleeping bums, most of them old and grizzled. He found one man around his age who, upon turning bleary, bloodshot eyes on him, let out a feral snarl and clutched protectively to a mostly-empty bottle of gin. He backed off slowly and let him be, then continued his search.

Ultimately, it seemed like the stoner was the only one he could actually talk to without staying here a lot longer than he cared to. He returned to the room where he'd sat, finding him still swaying slightly in place and staring at nothing. He opened his mouth to speak...

"Hey-o, hobos!" a perky, peppy voice called from outside. A very energetic, peppy young woman leaned into the open door. DD could only stare at her in disbelief. She had pale tan skin and wore darker tan pants, a dark pink shirt with long white sleeves, and white sneakers. Bright blue eyes twinkled with mischief. Her two-tone hair was short in front, a deep pink color; at the back, it was white and done up in a swirly bun, held back by a sky blue bow. Colorful barrettes decorated the pink part of her hair, placed at haphazard, random angles. "Oh hey, you're new here! Nice threads. First time out on the street?"

DD shook himself. "Uhh...no," he said. "I'm..." He cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm looking for information."

The young woman blinked. "Information? That's 411 on your phone, Mr. Clean and Preppy! Or, you know, find a cop or something. Or the Internet!" She shook her head. "All you're gonna find here are some people you really don't wanna—"

DD held up a hand to stall her. "I know what I'm looking for," he said. "Unfortunately, everyone in this flop's too drunk, stoned, or gone to help."

The stoner behind him suddenly stirred. "Knew you was a street," he slurred in a raspy baritone.

The girl blink-blinked her bright blue eyes. She reassessed DD, tilting her head. "You're homeless?"

"Let's say transient for now," DD hedged. "I've been homeless for a long time but my fortunes just changed...maybe." He inclined his head. "Name's Double Diamond."

"Nice to meet you, Double D!" the girl said. "I'm Sugar Sprinkles! I bring day-olds from the pastry shop I work at by here every couple of days so these guys don't totally starve."

DD nodded. "One of my best friends is like that," he said. "Saved my butt more than a couple of times." He jammed his hands in his pockets. "Like I said, I need information. The street kind."

Sugar Sprinkles pursed her lips, then looked past DD to the stoner on the wall. "Whaddya say, Ray?"

Ray swayed a little faster, his head weaving. "Don't know what a guy gettin' out th' gutter wants back here," he said warily.

"I need to know about a girl who lives in this city, goes by the name Sunset Shimmer."

Sugar Sprinkles hummed thoughtfully. "Huh. That name sounds familiar, can't think of where..."

"Red? Yeah, few of us know about Red," Ray said. He sat up straighter, stubbing out his joint. "Whatchoo gotta do with Red?"

"I have a friend who's...sort of a relative," DD said. "We found out about her the other day and came here looking for her."

"Sheeeit," Ray drawled. "You runnin' with somebody else that came out th' Hole?"

"The Hole?" DD and Sugar Sprinkles both said.

Ray gave DD an unnerving stare for a long, uncomfortable moment. He frowned. "'Swat I thought," he said. "You a cop?"

"No, I'm not a cop. Like I said, I'm just looking for Sunset Shimmer."

Ray snorted and shook his head. "Thoughtchoo was a street, man. You walk like a street. You ain't come out no Hole, you don't know nobody came out no Hole." He rocked back and forth, pulling a baggie out of a pocket and examining it critically.

"But Sunset Shimmer came out of this...Hole?" DD pressed.

Ray looked up at him, then went back to examining his bag of marijuana. "I ain't said nothin' bout no Hole," he said. "Ain't tellin' no cop 'bout no Hole."

DD sighed. "Right," he said. He nodded to Sugar Sprinkles. "It was nice meeting you. I don't think I'll be back this way again." He shuffled past her and out into the dingy alley. He was nearly to the closest main street when Sugar Sprinkles called out from behind him. He turned to see her run up, hands on her knees.

"I just...remembered," Sugar Sprinkles huffed. "Sunset Shimmer, she's a good friend of one of my regular customers." She pulled out her phone and swiped through some photos, then presented a selfie she'd taken with a girl with bubblegum pink skin and big, poofy hair that looked like cotton candy. "Her name's Pinkie Pie, she goes to Canterlot High School. I think Sunset does too."

"Yeah, we know that much about her," DD said. He bit his lip. "What do you think Ray was on about, all that about the Hole?"

"I dunno," Sugar Sprinkles said with a shrug. "I'll tell you one thing, though. There's a lot of urban legends about really weird things going on over at CHS. Like, paranormal stuff. You know, magic and aliens and ESP and UFOs and all that kind of thing. I've heard some crazy stories about CHS, especially in the last year or so."

"Really," DD said. "Thanks."

"Good luck," Sugar Sprinkles said. She frowned. "Are you really homeless?"

"Hopefully not for much longer, but yeah," DD said. "I, uhh...my friends and I just came out of Vanhoover. Our Camp got hit hard by the storm."

Sugar Sprinkles winced. "Ouch. You're lucky to be alive."

"I know..."

* * * * *

The bus pulled up to Canterlot High School. Beck disembarked, frowning thoughtfully as she took in the school with its clean, bright spring green grass, shining pavement, cheerful and welcoming brick facade, and marble statue of a rearing horse that stood in the center of the courtyard.

*I should have gone to a school like this,* she mused. *This is the life I was meant to have. This or something like it.* Her frown deepened; she bit her lip, putting on her sunglasses, and strolled purposefully up the walk.

It was almost eleven in the morning. Beck didn't know much about how schools worked, but the best she could figure, the students should be in their last class before lunch. She felt a bit apprehensive, like she was trespassing, but she fought down her sudden case of nerves and walked through the doors.

The inside was a bit more worn than the outside, with shoe-scuffed floors and signs of peeling and fading paint. As soon as she crossed the threshold, the hairs on the back of Beck's neck stood on end.

Something was wrong here.

She couldn't put her finger on it, but the school was too quiet, and a heaviness hung in the air. It was the same sort of quiet despair she'd felt in some of the more grim shelters she'd passed through over the years, only stronger, more pronounced.

A girl with grey skin and long, messy blond hair walked past. Her clothes were a mix of drab greens and blues, and her shoulders were hunched as she shuffled along, carrying a stack of papers. Her misaligned gold eyes were clouded, and her lips were pursed. She shot Beck a brief, slightly nervous glance, then shuffled along, head down.

Beck watched her head down another hallway for a long moment, then walked over to the school directory and examined it. As she did so, she wondered at the utter lack of sound in the halls.

Weren't schools supposed to be noisy? Even if class was in session, there should still be...something going on. Brow furrowed in thought, Beck took off down a random hall, walking slowly, casually observing everything around her. As she rounded a corner, she bumped into an older man with dark hair, a dour face, and a slumped posture. He frowned at her. "Shouldn't you be in class?"

"I'm not a student here," Beck said. "I'm just visiting a cousin who goes here. Thought I'd have a look around the school, she really seems to love it here."

The teacher let out a tired, apathetic groan. "Whatever," he said in a bored, disaffected tone. "You're supposed to have a visitor's pass from Principal Celestia, but I wouldn't bother her right now. Just...don't hang around too long, alright? And if you get caught, I never saw you." With that, he slouched away, grumbling under his breath.

"Huh. Weird guy." Shrugging, Beck set off on an aimless course, roaming the halls, occasionally pausing outside a doorway and leaning near the cracks to listen in. What she heard only made her more confused and anxious.

Teachers were delivering lectures in flat, lackluster tones with no emotion. Students were silent; on the rare occasion she heard a student's voice, it was dull, lifeless, and listless. She passed a music room and heard students playing a lifeless, dreary dirge on badly-tuned instruments. She cringed. The only voice she heard with any emotion or passion in it anywhere in the school was the Civics teacher, and what little she could make out of the woman's lecture just from listening at the door cracks was...disconcerting. Ultimately, she found herself in the school library, where a number of students who apparently had a free period sat around at tables, their eyes dull and lifeless.

As she inconspicuously walked around the library, a detail caught her eye. Every single student seated in the library was reading the exact same book.

As Beck lost herself in the stacks and watched the creepy, vacant students, the library doors burst open. "Oh, FUCK THIS," a girl with a raspy voice snarled. "Hey! HEY! You guys! Put that stupid fucking book DOWN, don't you know it's poison?" Beck jumped as, suddenly, a book was projected violently across the room, slamming into a wooden shelf with a solid thud.

"RAINBOW DASH!" an older voice said in a scolding tone. "What do you think you're—"

"Get lost, Ms. Cheerilee," the girl replied. "Go grab an early lunch or somethin', we're takin' the library for a little bit."

"Now just hold it right there, young lady—"

"Alright now, settle down y'all," a voice with a deep country drawl said calmly. "Sorry 'bout Rainbow Dash, Ms. Cheerilee. Ms. Glimmer's been crawlin' all up in her saddle like. You don't really wanna be around Rainbow when she's in this bad a mood, right?"

"Girls, I'm warning you," Ms. Cheerilee continued. Then there was a loud thud and a louder thump, and the country girl sighed.

"Sorry 'bout that, Ms. Cheerilee," she said with a grunt. Beck peered around the edge of a bookcase and gasped. A peach-skinned girl with a Stetson was dragging an unconscious mulberry-skinned woman in a frumpy dress into the librarian's office while a girl with blue skin and wild rainbow-colored hair propped herself up on the check-out desk and folded her arms. "Reckon you'll have a right pear of a headache when you wake up," the country girl continued. Once she'd deposited Ms. Cheerilee in her office and closed the door, she turned and sighed. "You didn't need t' come bargin' in here raisin' no fuss, Rainbow!" she snapped. "We're s'posed'ta be keepin' a low profile 'til we have a plan!"

"Yeah? That was before Starlight Glimmer dropped that poison book on us!"

As the girls argued, Beck noticed something off about both of them. Something far more unusual than the fact they'd just assaulted a teacher and taken the library like a couple of gang members.

Neither of the two girls had ears.

Or rather, they didn't have ears on the sides of their heads.

As she watched them argue, Beck realized that both girls did have small, equine ears poking out of their hair on top of their head, ears which perfectly matched their skin tone and twitched and flopped as if they were alive.

She also realized that the blue girl, Rainbow Dash, had a pair of feathery wings growing out of her back. It didn't take long for her to realize the wings were real.

Beck retreated back into the stacks, her heart hammering, her eyes wide, and her mind racing.

*What the fuck?!*

Had she suffered some sort of brain damage from the fever? Was she seeing things? Had she developed some sort of homelessness-induced dementia? She'd certainly seen enough mentally ill people in her time on the streets and in the camps and shelters. They saw things that weren't there, talked to people that weren't there...

Had Beck, having just learned the truth about her own past, snapped and gone crazy?

She was drawn out of her own ponderings when she overheard something that demanded her attention:

"Ah'm startin' t' think Rarity's right," the country girl was saying. "'Til Sunset Shimmer gits back, it ain't a good idea t' go it alone. Even with th' Dazzlings helpin' us out, we ain't—"

Beck's eyes narrowed, her thoughts quieting in a snap, replaced by determination and anger. She took a deep breath to steady herself, then started to walk back out—

"Ah, Rainbow Dash! There you are."

Beck stilled herself as the Civics teacher walked into the library. A chill ran up her spine.

Rainbow Dash scowled at the woman. "Starlight Glimmer," she said dangerously.

"That's Ms. Glimmer to you, young lady."

"Yeah, no," Rainbow said defiantly. "You're not a real teacher, I ain't gonna treat you like one, and I ain't gonna be in your bullshit class."

Starlight Glimmer narrowed her eyes. "Oh, I think you will," she said darkly. She raised her hand, which glowed with a turquoise aura. A similar aura wrapped itself around Rainbow Dash's head for a brief moment. The other girl tensed, eyes wide, clearly ready to leap to her friend's defense.

A blue glow emanated from Rainbow's skin, and the aura around her head popped like a soap bubble. She folded her arms and smirked. "Sorry, 'teach', that doesn't work on me," she said.

Starlight's lips thinned. "Maybe not, but I'm pretty sure handcuffs, tasers, and rubber bullets do," she said, pulling out her phone. "I'm also pretty sure Bow and Windy won't like picking their daughter up at the police station because she was arrested and expelled."

Rainbow bristled. "You stay away from my Mom and Dad, you psycho horse bitch!"

"And what about that little freshman, what's her name, Scootaloo? What would she think if her idol was dragged out of here in shackles?" Starlight Glimmer smirked. "It'd be so hard, wouldn't it? Leading your pitiful little student rebellion from behind bars?"

"Tch...!"

The bell rang. The listless students who had been sitting around reading stood up, put their books away, and filed out of the library.

"Oops! Guess it's time for lunch!" Starlight Glimmer said in a syrupy tone, putting her phone back in her pocket. "You girls run along now. A healthy school lunch is the cornerstone of a good education!" She narrowed her eyes. "I expect to see you in my classroom the second the bell for next period rings, Rainbow Dash." With that, she turned on her heel and stalked out.

Rainbow growled at her back, her wings bristling.

The other girl sighed and put an arm over her shoulders. "C'mon now," she said in a soothing tone. "Let's go grab some grub."

"Can you believe that...ARGH!"

"Ah know, Ah know," the country girl said patiently. "Jes' wait, sugarcube. We'll fix her wagon. You know we will."

"Yeah, yeah..."

As the two girls left the library, Beck stepped out into the still, silent room, empty save for the unconscious librarian. Her mind was racing with everything she'd just seen and heard, but even as she struggled to process it all, one thought bubbled to the surface, a passive observation that, at the time, hadn't seemed important, but now demanded her urgent attention:

During the entire altercation between the two strange girls and that horrid woman, none of the reading students had so much as blinked.

Beck sat down in one of the vacated chairs, scrubbing her hands through her dyed locks. "What kind of crazy school is this?!"