Sirens of CHS

by Eyeswirl the Weirded

First published

In a deal with Sunset Shimmer, the Dazzlings regain their lost voices. The catch? They have to be CHS's cheerleaders for the Friendship Games.

A songless siren is a miserable thing. Not only was singing their weapon and their means of control, it was the sirens' preferred means of expression, recreation, and a part of their identities. As such, to say they've all been a little depressed since the Battle of the Bands would be a considerable understatement. Imagine their surprise when that which was taken from them is offered back on one very simple condition!

One very simple, somewhat embarrassing condition that involves cheering for their former enemies and waving pom-poms around. At least the outfits are cute, right?

-----
AU of Friendship Games, centered around the events of the movie.

Chapter 1: Boredom and Deals

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Depression was a miserable thing. Not surprising, perhaps, but very frustrating in the dullest of ways, like something poking you in the back of the head with nothing you can do to stop it.

This was something the Dazzlings could all easily agree on following the loss of their magic, their voices, and the obscurity that had allowed them to use both to get by all this time. All three were lost in the Battle of the Bands, and they were quite down in the dumps about it. Part of it was the complete loss of their ability to sing in a way that wouldn't offend a rodent being stuffed through a pipe, along with their magic and everything else that made them sirens, more or less that which defined them back in their homeland, which they grew to accept they would never see again, and part of it was just a general funk. Whether or not this funk was related to that first reason, none cared enough to riddle out.

The only thing they could think to do now was lay around the house, the one paid for with ill-gotten wealth, nary a care in the world. That is to say, all three of them were strewn about the living room as though dropped like ragdolls, waiting for this mortality thing to kick in. They'd had a discussion on it the other day, how, if the gems were the source of all their magic, and agelessness was a form of magic, then shouldn't they have turned into dust that night on stage? They'd been alive... what, at least a century, prior to their banishment? The prospect of death didn't frighten them now, which might have been a silver lining to the situation if it didn't seem to be taking so long to get here. None of them even had wrinkles yet.

The only sound in the house would have been a ticking grandfather clock, but the trio had smashed that with a hammer, wrench, and crowbar when the noise had gotten too irritating. That had been fun.

Fun, fun, fun.

Garbed in their hoodie-and-jeans ensemble, they laid around nearly motionless. Aria Blaze was balanced on the back of the couch, Adagio Dazzle upside down in a recliner, her head on the footrest and feet in the air, and Sonata Dusk stretched out on the fluffy carpet in the middle of the room, as though sun-tanning with the ceiling light. She thought about getting sunglasses, but why bother?

At some point in the day, Sonata weakly called out to the ceiling. "Hey. Anyone feelin' all... dead?"

"Mmph," mmph'd Aria three minutes after the question was posed, not so much as turning her head.

Twenty minutes later, Sonata decided the matter was worth pursuing. "Didn't really answer the question, y'know."

Six minutes later, Adagio did an upside-down shrug. "How would she even know? None of us have been dead before."

Eight minutes.

"I mean, if one of you two have, share the story?"

Aria spoke up two minutes later. "That might be cool. Breakin' outta Hell or something. Find whoever didja in. Spook 'em good."

The three of them giggled immediately, which was a new record for-

KNOCK-KNOCK!

Startled, all three of them jumped where they lay, Aria falling face-down into the actual seating part of the sofa. "Hrr," she muffled, not moving from where she'd landed, "smmbdy gt tht?"

Opting to do her duty as the leader, whether she felt even remotely suited to the title these days or not, Adagio got up. "'m onnit." Sluggishly, she shifted out of the recliner, landing with a light thud and staggering to her feet, immediately feeling a rush of vertigo as the excess blood in her head returned to its regular schedule.

"Ohh, holy, crap, can't...!"

If either of her fellow sirens cared enough to turn their heads, they'd have likely giggled as Adagio dizzily stumbled her way toward the front door, nearly smacking into it as she rested a hand on the wall by the doorknob and used it to support her own weight. She opened the door and was greeted by a familiar hate-figure.

"Sunshet shimmur. Whaddyou want?"

Sunset, wearing a new, blue outfit with a slightly smaller bad-girl jacket, smiled. "Hi! I wanted to talk to you three about-"

The door was slammed in her face.

Taking a quick breath, Sunset controlled her temper. She had expected this, and possibly worse, but as she wasn't being chased away by attack dogs or covered in bees yet, she figured she still had a chance, and knocked again.

Adagio opened the door again, looking just a little more composed this time. "Sunset Shimmer. What do you want?"

Sunset smiled. "I understand if you don't want to talk to me, but..." She waited, blinking once. Adagio was just staring back at her. The smile turned sheepish. "Uhm... S-sorry, I thought you were gonna slam the door on me right then."

Slamming it the first time had been more effort than it was worth if Sunset was still here. The staring continued. Maybe she could stare her off. Stare like a gorgon. Staaaaaare...

Ignoring the hair standing up on the back of her neck, Sunset noted that Adagio must have at least been healthy enough to still have one of the scariest faces she'd ever seen. So that was nice. She got to the point. "I wanted to talk about a sort of partnership, between your group and CHS in the upcoming Friendship Games. It's a simple arrangement; we can most likely restore your voices if you'll agr-URK!!"

Sunset was seized by the throat, Adagio holding her half a foot off the ground in both hands and glaring at her with the burning hate of a thousand exploding suns. "You. Have. Some. Goddamn. Nerve."

"Wait," rasped Sunset, her hands tugging at the ones on her neck, "ih-hit's t-true!"

The grip loosened slightly, but Adagio didn't let go. Her eyes misted as they glanced toward the living room, unsure if the others heard that sentiment. False hope was a cruel mercy, but if there was even the faintest chance that it wasn't a trick...? She dropped Sunset, muttering the apology under her breath. "S... s-sorry."

Managing a shaky smile as she massaged her own neck, Sunset stayed the course. "D-don't worry about it." Offering their friendship couldn't have been easy for Sunset's friends when it was her turn, and she wasn't about to back out just because it wasn't going perfectly. Think I did something similar to Pinkie once or twice... "Can I come in? I'd like to hear all three of your thoughts on this."

Hesitantly, Adagio stepped aside, pointing Sunset to the living room. Walking in, they found Aria still face-down on the sofa and Sonata sitting on the floor and facing them, waiting for news.

"Hey. What's goin' on, Dagi?"

"Deal prospect."

Aria got up, visibly alarmed when she saw Sunset. "Deal?"

Sunset wasn't sure whether or not stepping out of arms' reach of Adagio would signal a lack of trust before she said this, so she said a silent prayer and stayed still. "I think I might be able to restore you guys' singing voices." She braced herself, but only got two wide-eyed stares and one very annoyed one back. "I've been doing some research on how the magic in this world works, came up with a few theories, and if I can run a few tests, you guys might have your voices back within a day."

For a long, tense moment, the trio was silent.

"A-and," Sonata quietly ventured, "what's the catch? Do we have to give you our souls? Offer a sacrifice? Rip the fingernails out of one hand?"

Sunset blanched. "Ah, eh, wha, ew, no, what?"

Aria facepalmed. "Told you not to watch that show, Sonata." She was answered with half-hearted raspberries.

Adagio cleared her throat, urging Sunset to keep going.

"Um... Well, all we, CHS, that is, all we really want in exchange, if this works, is a little help in the games."

Raising an eyebrow, Aria hazarded a guess. "Sabotage?"

"No."

So did Sonata. "'Roids? Because you've already got that big guy and he's gotta know somebody that can hook you up wi-"

"No."

All present looked at Adagio for a guess, but she didn't offer more than a blank stare while waiting for the actual answer. The big, grumpy spoil-sport.

Actually feeling hopeful, Sunset smiled. "We might need all the help we can get to stand a chance against Crystal Prep, but I think just having someone around to consistently help with morale would be good for us. That in mind, how would you three like to be cheerleaders?"

Dead silence. The sirens traded glances, none of their faces indicating any possible feelings on the proposal, which only made Sunset more nervous.

"And," Adagio inquired at length, "if this doesn't work, or if it does and wears off later, what then?"

Turning to her, Sunset frowned. "Then you have my deepest, sincerest apologies, because I understand what it's like having something precious, something you were good at, torn from you with little or no hope of recovery."

At this, Adagio finally smiled a little. It was like her usual, sinister smile, but with a hint more amusement than malice. "Oh, that's right, you came from Equestria too, didn't you?"

Her voice echoed in Sunset's memory. "We know ALL about you, Sunset Shimmer..." She guessed they really meant it, somehow. "Does that mean you'll accept?"

Still smiling, Adagio looked at her partners in crime, both of whom looked as though they were eagerly waiting for permission for something. "Any objections?"

Aria and Sonata shared a quick look of shock at the question, then both smiled and answered in unison. "No, ma'am!"

Nodding once, Adagio gave Sunset a somewhat reluctant look. "Deal. Lead the way."

Sunset beamed.

Chapter 2: Memory and Theories

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The Dazzlings were led to the CHS, faintly pleased that Sunset had chosen not to bring them there during school hours. Considering that three of them had gotten enough scornful looks in their lifetimes juxtaposed with the welcomed vacancy of the area, they paid Sunset the courtesy of not asking how or why she had a key. Through the door and down the halls, the trio found themselves in the music room, but with distinct modifications made since the last time they were here. Large machines of uncertain purpose were positioned at different corners, large, ridiculous, mad-science-lab cables running from the machines to... somewhere that one could presumably fit such large plugs. Did the school even have anywhere to-

It was best not to think about it.

"Okay," said Sunset as she replaced her new jacket with a labcoat, "the current theory is that music is what triggers the transformations because of the soulful expression it provides, and as magic is typically channeled from within, the-"

Adagio snapped the fingers of her right hand.

Aria finished Sunset's sentence. "The link between the feelings of freedom and levity borne of that expression touch the frame of the spirit to draw energy in a way not typically conductive to formation of proper spells."

Sunset stared back at the Dazzlings in a short, silent stupor. "Eh... R-right... And, my guess is that while you typically need something like an anatomical matrix built in to cast spells in Equestria, thi-"

Adagio snapped the fingers of her left hand, Sonata speaking up this time.

"In this world, the rules and systems by which that energy is concentrated, focused, and projected are different, on account of the energies never having been meant to enter this plane of existence to begin with, so the methods of use are at best ambiguous, even arbitrary, and perhaps dangerous." Adagio cleared her throat, making Sonata tense up. "Eh, m-more dangerous than is standard for magic!" An approving nod made her smile with a hint of relief.

Sunset's jaw dropped. "H-how? Why, wh-what-"

Rolling her eyes and crossing her arms, Aria let out a mildly irritable sigh. "Coltlantis was pretty advanced y'know, and we weren't even what you'd call 'A students.'"

Adagio giggled, hugging Aria and Sonata under an arm each. "'B-Plus,' myself, but my girls have always made me proud in the end." They quickly squirmed out of her hug, to her slight amusement.

Sunset raised a slightly agitated eyebrow. "Hold the phone, if you guys are this smart, why do you need my help restoring your voices?" She wanted to ask why they'd have used their brains for evil as well, but couldn't really throw stones in that department.

Aria looked annoyed herself. "Do you know everything about everything, miss Smartest Girl In School?"

Blink. "Oh, well, no, but-"

Sonata frowned. "We might remember the basics from Interdimensional Survival Class (helped a lot when we were banished, actually), but that doesn't mean we know all about magic here."

"So anyway," Adagio picked up, "I understand you'll be wanting us to sing now?"

Having anticipated this, Sunset made as reassuring a smile as she could manage. "Nobody else is around, there are no forms of recording device in the room, and you have my solemn oath that I will not make fun of you no matter what it sounds like at first."

Grateful though she was for all of that, Adagio shook her head. "No, I mean, your plan is to draw magic from within us, right? Everything we had was in the gems, they-" she stopped, examining a hand while experimentally flexing her fingers. "...Though, it is odd that we didn't turn to dust on stage that night..."

Sunset smiled. "And that's why I think there's still hope! Twilight wrote me about what happened when ponies, even alicorn princesses and the Spirit of Chaos, were drained of their magic. Long story, but the result was that everypony drained was weak and exhausted until they got their magic back. That you guys aren't just still alive, but apparently healthy even now, tells me you can't have lost everything with the gems. Have you always had them?"

Aria scratched her head. "Wait a tic, this sounds a little like... Uhh... Drawin' a blank, but-"

"Life-force," muttered Adagio, visibly searching her memory, "trigger has to be... Or, no, it was that no magical device works without a living entity, an intelligence of some kind, to trigger it? I think that was the gist of that lecture..." She looked directly at Sunset. "No, we weren't born with them, but they were grafted into our flesh. Long story, but the result was that all of our power was focused and expelled through them, so we thought we'd die if they were ever damaged. You mean to suggest that, since they were destroyed and we're still here...?"

Wincing a little at the image of a stone being fused with living tissue, Sunset tried to focus on the matter at hand. "Ehm, y-yea, you might have been living life-support systems to the gems, not the other way around. If that's the case, you should still have whatever you had before them," she smiled, "and if that's the case, we might still be able to reach it!"

Not completely sold, but lacking better theories, the trio nodded as one and set to work. Sunset had them start with some of the songs the others had ponied up with, getting only screechy, unpleasant results. The Dazzlings were not happy to degrade themselves in front of anyone, let alone Sunset Shimmer, but they didn't give up, trying each and every song Sunset had any measure of success with.

"Okay," Sunset said when all the Rainbooms' songs had failed to draw magical reaction, "I have an idea. Maybe if I start a song and pony up, you guys can start singing with me and-"

Aria smiled a little. "and harmonizing our voices might make your magic jumpstart ours?" Sunset nodded. Adagio looked proud again.

Sunset tried to ignore the self-consciousness that came with being a lone singer in front of other people as she began the next song. Closing her eyes as the trio stared at her, she focused on her real purpose here; helping the Dazzlings understand friendship the way she did, making them see the benefits of helping people out of the goodness of their hearts. If she could figure out how the magic of this world really worked while she was at it, so much the better, but what she really wanted was to offer them what Twilight offered her. After the first chorus, she started to glow, feeling the energy well up and envelop her as her hair grew longer and her old ears appeared atop her head. Not slowing in the song, she opened her eyes and nodded to the sirens, who sang along.

To no desirable effect.

All four of them kept at it until the song was over, but Sunset could see in their faces that the Dazzlings were losing hope, same as Sunset herself as the magic faded. The looks she got said all that needed to be said about how the situation looked; that not only were they never getting their voices back, but that Sunset was rubbing her own magic in their faces. The thought of it made Sunset's chest ache. "There has to be something we can do, w-was there something you did back in Equestria? Back in Coltlantis? Something that, I mean, for ponies, the acquisition of a cutie mark is a magical manifestation, d-do your people have anything like that? A spell, a ritual, an occurrence that leads to being able to sing the way you did before?"

"In the same sense that a unicorn being able to cast spells at all is a 'spell, ritual, or occurrence,'" answered Adagio in dull, quiet tones.

Sunset scratched her head, aware that the physical gesture did nothing to help wrack one's brain, but willing to try anyway. "Maybe, maybe it's that-no, come to think of it, the songs the others ponied up with were ones they or a close friend wrote, maybe that has something to do with it? What if you tried some old Coltlantian songs? Something the three of you sang back home?"

At first, Adagio had suspected that Sunset, and by extension the Rainbooms, just wanted her and her followers as prizes, living trophies to celebrate their victory, not unlike Sunset herself may have been, but she was less and less certain of this as they went.

Nobody needs cheerleaders this badly, and if they just wanted to show off, keeping us crippled would only display their power all the more prominently. That look in her eyes, that's not a thief counting their coins, that's desperation. She really wants this.

She glanced to Aria and Sonata, her voice gentle. "Do you two remember Soft Stones?"

"'Course," Aria replied with a little grin, "couldn't go a week without hearing it in the Shell district."

Sonata giggled. "It was really a classic!"

Thinking back to easier days, the trio closed their eyes. They began the song as horribly as all the rest, but focused on their memories, of the gentle hospitality depicted in the song and the sense of peaceful safety it so often encouraged. They couldn't have been butchering it worse, but they focused on what they remembered it sounding like, how they used to be able to sing it. By the second chorus, they didn't even hear themselves anymore, reliving the memories of when they'd sung Soft Stones, Coral Catch, Surface Shine, and others in almost perfect clarity.

The three of them felt warm, light, and happy, things they hadn't felt in conjunction for decades, at least, since long before they were banished. The music flowed through them like a current, sweeping things up and blowing them around, knocking things loose and scattering them to drift down again. Eventually, the song came to an end, all three of them smiling at memories they hadn't touched in many years. When they opened their eyes, they saw Sunset smiling widely at them, hands clasped and tears welling in her eyes.

Aria was the first to ask. "What?"

"Did you hear yourselves?"

"In a manner of speaking," answered Adagio, "why, did we sound...?"

Beaming, Sunset nodded a little. "You guys didn't quite pony up, but there was definitely magic! Sing, sing anything!"

They started the intro of Soft Stones again, immediately startled to find that they no longer gave trapped cats a run for their money. They stopped, shakily and hesitantly began to smile, and tried one of the Rainbooms' songs, finding they could hit the notes just about as well as they could have before. They tried the first few lines of another, and another, and another in unison, earning consistent results. How they determined which songs to try without saying a word to each other, Sunset couldn't guess, but she was exceedingly happy anyway.

"It worked! I kne-" The Dazzlings rushed her, eliciting a terrified shriek before she was tackled to the floor and crushed in three of the most bruising hugs she'd ever received.

After about four straight minutes of pained wheezes amid a loud, tearful stream of thank-you's, the sirens regained control of themselves and let her go. Which is to say, they stood up and stared at her prone, battered body, feeling that they may have been overenthusiastic in showing gratitude.

Lying on the floor in a disheveled heap, Sunset twitched a few times, but she was still smiling. Ohh, friendship moments. She caught sight of Adagio awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck, smiling down at her.

"Haha, sorry. Do you, er, should we do something, or-?"

Sunset kept her own grin. "Infirmary, please. You remember where it is?"

"It came up in the tour, yes." With another snap of her fingers, Aria and Sonata took their cues, moving to lift their fallen benefactor by the legs and under the arms. They transported her in tandem through the door and down the hall as Adagio walked alongside them.

"So," Sunset said aloud during her surprisingly smooth transportation, "about our deal...?" The sirens all stopped where they stood. For a worrying second, Sunset feared that they were about to drop her and run, but instead, they all shared a slightly regretful look and spoke in unison.

"Aw, crap."

Chapter 3: Suspicions and Motives

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The next morning, a few days yet remaining before the Friendship Games, another assembly was called in the gym. This time, it was to reach a consensus regarding a very recent change in plans. Backstage, Sunset waited with her friends, the Dazzlings, and Vice Principal Luna, who eyed the prospective cheerleaders with unmasked suspicion.

"You are certain about this, Sunset Shimmer? With the task already put to you, I would have imagined a move such as this would only add to your workload."

Sunset only smiled. "Don't worry about a thing, Vice Principal Luna. If you can trust me, you can trust them." Several heads whipped her way, but the statement was not amended, let alone rescinded. Sunset felt good.

The sirens, waiting until Luna had gone to see if the student body had gathered yet, kept their voices down.

"Man," whispered Sonata, "Sunset's like, SUPER trusting! If we'd just pulled the we're-good-guys-now card sooner, we could'a suckered her good!"

Adagio chuckled. "Indeed, it's almost a shame we'll be doing nothing of the sort here." She got two slightly uncertain looks, which she met with a stern glare. "Yes, it would be gratifying if we pulled it off, no, it would not be worth the risk. We may have our voices back, but there's nothing to say they can't take them again if we don't cooperate, so we play by their rules until this thing is over."

Aria smirked a little. "And then?"

"Depends how all of this turns out, just stay alert until our end of the deal is done."

There was a hint of disappointment in Aria's face, but she nodded, not in a hurry to get rainbow-blasted again either.

Not far from them, five rainbow-blasting girls huddled together while Sunset peeked through the curtains at the gathering crowd.

"Okay," began Rainbow Dash, "so Sunset actually pulled it off and got the sirens on board, but does anyone else think it's just a little weird that she trusts them that much right after they learned to sing again?"

"Just a smidge," concurred Applejack.

Rarity wore a worried frown. "You don't think they've hypnotized her somehow? They couldn't do it to any of us before, right?"

If anyone could smile while exchanging suspicious thoughts, it was Pinkie Pie. "Maybe whatever she did with their magic changed the rules? I wonder if they feed on something sweeter now. Gasp! Do you think their new songs are powered by frosting?!"

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "It won't matter if they're still bad guys!"

Fluttershy frowned. "Does that mean you don't trust Sunset?" That won her everyone's slightly shocked attention. "She said that if we could trust her, we could trust them. If you don't trust them, that means you don't trust her, your friend, who you know would never do anything to hurt us. Right?"

A slight sense of shame descended on the others, Applejack in particular looking guilty. "Awright, awright, we give 'em a chance, no matter how often they whisper to each other-"

"Like we're doing now," interrupted Pinkie.

"...Right. Or what crazy, evil faces they make at us. And none of that "we totally beat'cha" talk like we kept givin' Sunset before, okay?" There were four simultaneous 'okay's before the group broke to see Sunset addressing the Dazzlings.

"I think we'll be starting pretty soon, are you guys ready?"

Nodding once, Adagio rested a hand on a hip. "As we'll ever be." She heard Aria whisper behind her.

"But if anyone starts throwing crap, we're outta here."

Luna approached the groups a moment later and ushered the sirens out to the stage, where Celestia was apparently wrapping up a short speech.

"...so at the urging of certain parties, we have decided to ask for your input on this matter. Here to cheer on the Wondercolts in the upcoming Friendship Games are-" she sounded less than spirited, and all present noticed, "...the Dazzlings."

Looking out over the largely familiar crowd that had gathered in the gym, the trio thoroughly noticed the less-than-warm reception they were getting, but it was nothing unexpected. Nobody was throwing anything yet, either!

Adagio stepped up to the mic. "Good day. My companions and I were asked to partake in the competition between your school and Crystal Prep, specifically as moral support. Whatever your qualms about the three of us, know that we lose nothing should you decide that you don't want us here. I'll ask that you allow us this part in the event not for our own sakes, but for the one who invited us to offer our assistance." She glanced over her shoulder at Sunset, who stood by the curtain behind her with a hopeful smile. Looking back out over the students that had once booed her group off the stage, she saw at least a few contemptuous faces replaced with obvious surprise or confusion. The first blow had been struck.

"I suspect that the primary concern," said Luna with a raised eyebrow, "is use of your 'talents'-" the almost mocking tone on that word wasn't missed, "-in the previous event the three of you attended. We specifically seek to reduce the involvement of all things magical as much as possible this time around, and if you are to act as cheerleaders...?"

Arms crossed, Aria rolled her eyes. "Couldn't do that stuff anymore if we wanted to. Need a demonstration?"

All eyes were on Sunset, but her grin stayed strong as she gave an encouraging little nod.

The Dazzlings collectively let out a short, simple note, to an immediately startling effect on several members of the crowd. However, when they stopped, nothing was happening. Aria snapped her fingers and pointed at a random audience member.

"Hey you, bring me a sandwich."

Bulk Biceps blinked twice, but felt compelled to do no such thing.

"'Kay," Aria said while pointing to someone else, "you bring me a sandwich."

Photo Finish glanced around, but made no move to procure food loosely trapped in bread.

Starting to have fun with this now, Aria made a vaguely seductive pose as she stretched an arm to indicate someone else, even sing-songing her command for emphasis. "Go get me a sandwiiiich~!"

Trixie scowled, crossing her arms. "Go get it yourself!"

Several people in the crowd giggled, more-so as Aria pantomimed an almost hurt sort of expression, her palms raised defensively. "Ouch," she said with a little smile. Pointedly looking over the audience, it looked like the message was sinking in as many began to whisper amongst themselves. Their armor was cracking.

"So," Flash Sentry called out, "how do we know they just aren't trying now?" Murmurs of agreement resounded through the gym.

Sonata shrugged. "We can't do the brain-magic thing at all without the gems," she said while tracing a fingertip over her collarbone, "and those got smashed to bits." The last part was added quietly. "I'm pretty sure they were heirlooms, by the way..."

Rainbow Dash approached them with an expression that wasn't hostile, but clearly concerned. "Why'd you guys ever use that stuff anyway? Doesn't that kinda magic seriously mess with your head to start?" She wasn't sure how it all worked, but Sunset + Bad Guy Magic = Big, Crazy She-Demon, that she knew.

Smiling almost sadly over her shoulder, Sonata giggled. "Well, it's not like we had a lotta choice, y'know?" Snatching the mic in one hand, her smile widened as she started to sing, in lively and energetic fashion.

Emergency Author's Note: I've been told before that colored text can be hard on the eyes, which makes for unpleasant reading. To mitigate this, the best I could think of was to change the color of the page to something darker for the duration of the song. To do so, click on the button labeled 'Formatting' in the upper-right corner of your screen, select the drop-down menu next to the little color wheel (should read 'light' by default), and adjust the page's colors as per your preference. This can be done at any time by mousing over the top of the screen without needing to scroll all the way to the top of the page.

I hope that helps, please enjoy this parody!
[youtube=j7TT4jnnWys]

Dear folks of Canterlot High,
you've gotta understand!
For all our very long lives,
we've been dealt losing hands!
Our choices they were des'prate
our luck it was so bad!
If you ask me, all of us were had!

The Dazzlings began to sing together, though no one in the room felt any different than a minute ago.

Oh, Canterlot High School, don't throw us out yet,
We thought you guys were all about 'forgive and forget!'
We aren't just monsters,
we're misunderstood!
Give us a chance and we'll be good!

We'll be good!

We'll be good, we'll be good,
reasonably good!
(As much as the rest, we'll be good!)

Looking at Sunset, Rainbow frowned in sympathy. "Well, I guess I can kinda see that..."

Sonata beamed. "Does that mean we're in?"

"Uh..." Rainbow turned to Luna and Celestia. "What do you guys think?"

Celestia tried to answer. "Well, I-" She was cut off by Sonata sliding up to her on her knees, hands clasped in a begging fashion.

Dear Principal Celestia,
our time here has been rough!
Feeding on just dark magic,
it was never enough!
No matter how much we ate,
the hunger drove us mad!
Leapin' lizards, that's why we're so bad!

Celestia smiled a little, addressing the student body.

Canterlot High School, I see the problem;
keeping fed has been an issue for all three of them.
Hunger can make people do terrible things,
and these three girls have been starving.

Been starving!

Been starving, been starving,
techni'cly starving!
(If you don't count real food, we're starving!)

Sunset noticed that Sonata was starting to glow faintly. None of them were ponying up or getting longer hair, or even those thin, membranous wings, but she made a note of the occurrence anyway.

No one noticed, but Luna gave Celestia a suspicious look in regard to where the cake in the fridge disappeared to the other night. Regardless, she addressed the Dazzlings. "You didn't answer the original question; If using such magic cost you so dearly, why would you employ it in the first place?

Sonata briefly searched her memory. "Well, y'see-"

Singing was our devotion,
our magic once was good,
but the floor of the ocean,
is a rough neighborhood!
We needed extra power,
and that stuff was the best!
Now we know that black magic's a mess!

Picturing an upbringing of the cold, dark, depths of the sea, Luna frowned, but she hadn't forgotten that these three bewitched her and her sister.

Canterlot High School, I am not so sure,
We cannot know for certain their intentions are pure.
Who is to say this is not one of their tricks?
Even now, they may be sick.

May be sick!

May be sick, may be sick,
may be sick, sick, sick!
Yes, for all you know we are still sick!

Luna, Celestia, the student body, and most of all Sunset Shimmer looked particularly surprised at this. Luna crossed her arms. "So you confess that you aren't trustworthy?"

The Dazzlings didn't look worried, Sonata letting out a girlish giggle. "Well, no more than anybody else, I guess, but can you blame us? Like I said, we just wanted to sing, but not a lot of people outside our home town appreciated it back then. You know what that's like, VeePee Luna?"

Luna's mouth opened, but no words came as she felt a little tug in her chest.

Glowing a little brighter than before, Sonata pretended not to notice. "Okay, I'll sum up:"

Our songs, they were beautiful,
they were our heart and soul,
but if I'm being truthful,
nobody liked our role.

Sonata's face and tone hardened a little.

Some told us we were useless,
they didn't like our work!
Drove us crazy, that's why we're such jerks!

This, Luna understood. By the way she was lightly hugged from behind, she guessed Celestia remembered too.

I'm sorry, Dazzlings, forgive my mistrust,
it is my duty to make sure your motives are just.
If you three promise to behave as you should,
we'll give you a chance to be good.

We'll be good!

We'll be good, we'll be good!
we'll be pretty good,
if they're giving a chance we'll be good!

Taking a step forward, Sunset smiled.

If they can prove they mean well!

So did Rainbow.

And if they help us win!

Then it does no good to dwell!

Then they'll be forgiven!

Aria and Adagio whispered to each other.

They're giving us a shot now!

I knew they'd come around!

The trio sang aloud.

Trust us and we will not let you down!

Oh, Canterlot High School,
just you wait and see!
You won't regret taking a chance on the likes of we!
Oh, Canterlot High School,
let us make your day...

Hey, Canterlot High School!

The three winked and struck cute, flirty poses.

Let's play!

And the student body cheered.

With the song concluded, the ethereal light around Sonata quickly faded, the Dazzlings only just then appearing to take notice. They exchanged glances and shrugged.

"Well," announced Celestia to the gathering, "if there are no objections, I believe we've found our cheerleaders for the friendship games. Thank you all for coming, dismissed." They hadn't exactly been looking for cheerleaders, but three pretty girls might at least help boost morale, and CHS needed all the help it could get.

Everyone began to clear out, most of them lacking a reason to hang around. Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow, and Pinkie quietly exchanged thoughts relating to how at least nobody looked all mind-controlled, but Rarity turned to Sunset on her way to the door. "It appears that those outfits won't go to waste after all. I'll be in my workshop, send them to me in a bit, would you?"

Sunset nodded, focusing her attention on CHS's new cheerleaders.

The sirens, for their part, looked fairly pleased, but they could neither feed on arguments nor approval anymore, as voiced by Aria while the trio walked out of the gym.

"I'm gonna go grab a bite. Figure this makes us students again, so maybe we can snag a free meal or two."

Sonata lit up. "Ooh, joining that!" She and Aria looked to Adagio, who only offered an apathetic shrug. "Suit yourself, later!"

Watching the two walk off as she stood alone in the hallway, Adagio ignored the niggling fear that her idiots were off to make a big mess and ruin their efforts up to this point. Speaking of, the realization that she didn't actually have any kind of plan to be enacting crept in, making her feel like a bit of a dolt for standing here like this. Not really sure what else to do with herself, she took an almost sheepish step to follow their lead, but Sunset's voice sounded from behind her.

"Was any of that true?"

Adagio stopped, but didn't turn around. "Of course not. We just said what we had to to get them to trust us, now we can fulfill our end of the deal." She raised a hand to sassily snap her fingers where Sunset could see. "Still got it." She took a few more steps before being seized from behind. "Ah! Wha-?! What? You never said we couldn't-"

"It's okay."

It was about now that Adagio realized Sunset was hugging her. "What's 'okay'? And, let me g-"

"Everything, I guess." Sunset had to turn her head to not be muffled by the massive tufts of fluff. "Hunger, wanting more, feeling unappreciated, everyone feels those things sooner or later, so I want you to know that you aren't bad people for what you ended up doing in response to them."

Adagio managed to deadpan. "I tried to strangle you not too long ago."

Sunset, against all logic, giggled. "And I forgive you, because I understand."

The poofiest siren tried to wriggle free. "Then understand that I'd rather have my personal space!"

Her head hovering over Adagio's shoulder, Sunset smirked. "Sorry, obligatory friendship thing. No choice!"

"Rrgh."

Uncomfortable though she was, Adagio suspected that the magic that destroyed the gems was, somehow, powered by acts like this. If she was lucky, maybe she'd be able to make a rainbow beam of her own by enduring it. It was an extremely loose back-up plan, but it was something.

Sunset let her go a minute later, allowing Adagio to turn to face her. "I was a little surprised at the song back there, it was completely different from your usual number."

Resting a hand on a hip, Adagio raised an eyebrow. "You're assuming we never change things up in the slightest?"

Blinking once, Sunset smiled sheepishly. "I dunno, I just, kinda thought you'd always do the same thing. The slow, hip-swinging routine was pretty effective the first time, and it couldn't have all been the gems making it work."

Unable to resist a little smirk at the sentiment, Adagio gave a quick, haughty toss of her hair. "Good of you to notice, but everyone has their style, Sunset Shimmer. You know mine already, what we just did was Sonata's."

"Upbeat and just a little silly?"

"More or less. Helps that people will happily buy that face of hers as the picture of innocence." The less the world knew of the wicked grin that 'innocent' face made while setting anthills on fire and discreetly cheating at certain arcade games to get more tickets, the better for all three of them.

Sunset mentally braced herself for the inevitable duet between Sonata and Pinkie. "And, Aria?"

"Her taste is more suited to what we'd have sung had we been victorious at the Battle." She shrugged. "I suppose that if your team triumphs in this... sporting event, you may yet get to hear us playing on Aria's terms." There came a rare, earnest little smile. "If you lose, never hearing it will be the real tragedy."

Eyes widening a little as her interest was piqued, Sunset smiled. "Oh?"

Adagio winked coyly, turning away. "Sorry, no spoilers."

"Wha-? Oh, come on!"

"Well," the slightly smug siren said while walking in the direction Aria and Sonata had gone, "if you really want to hear us at our best, I guess you'll just have to win. Not to worry, we'll be rooting for you!"

Grinning wryly as Adagio departed with a borderline maniacal laugh, Sunset lightly shook her head. She is such a... Oh, well. With any luck, maybe their cheering will help shed some light on our new magic situation.

And with that in mind, Sunset set off to Rarity's workshop. At the rate she worked, the sirens' new outfits were probably finished already.

Chapter 4: Practice and Belly-Shirts

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Following a filling lunch, the Dazzlings found themselves standing idly in Rarity's workshop, Sunset and the seamstress in question going over the details.

"So," asked Sunset, "you said you had something special in mind?"

Nodding as they looked over some of her older works, Rarity herself wore a bright smile. "Yes indeed! I have nothing against the standard Wondercolt tails and headbands, but for our purposes, they're a little, how to say, 'kiddie,' no?"

That was part of the reason Sunset hadn't taken Twilight and the others seriously when they started singing and dancing while wearing the goofy things. To her quiet appreciation, she'd never been forced to wear either accessory herself. "Yea, but don't let Rainbow hear you saying that."

Rarity tittered. "Yes, yes, go team and all that, but if we're going to take on Crystal Prep, I felt we could do with something a little more striking, something that said "I'll thank you to take a step backward, ladies!" So, taking some standard cheerleader outfits and just the right shade of dark-blue dye, I modified existing designs with long-sleeved, but fingerless gloves and some thigh-high socks for symmetry." She turned to the trio. "They're waiting for you in the changing areas, let me know what you think!"

Nodding to each other, the sirens stepped into the booths to change. Aria was the first to slide the curtain open, her pink cheeks and irritable scowl doing plenty to communicate how she felt about the outfit even without her saying anything.

"Belly-shirts? Seriously?"

Rarity frowned a little. "I do apologize if they're not as you'd prefer, but, well..." Waving a hand about her wrist in a short circle while looking away, Rarity wasn't sure how to say it without blushing. "Y-you know how these things are to go, young ladies will, er, parade about a bit to-"

"Yea, yea," interrupted Aria while her fellow cheerleaders stepped out of their booths, "we're supposed to let people eye us up, trust me when I say that's nothing new, but belly-shirts?" She didn't get a reply, the fashionista and possible stomach-fetishist unable to stop sputtering about inappropriateness or something before Adagio, who had swapped out her usual spiked hairband for a matching dark-blue scrunchie, offered her thoughts.

"It doesn't matter what we wear, a deal is a deal. On that note," she focused on Sunset, "would you like to sample our performance now, or let come what may when the games begin?"

"Uh, sure, go for it."

Picking up pom-poms from a nearby prop bin, the trio got into formation, collectively took a breath, and launched into a short, peppy dance routine complete with arm-waving, hip-shaking, and the occasional kick.

One, two, three, four,
leave your worries at the door!
Four, three, two, one,
our cheers are second to none!
Weeeeee're SIRENS!

They dropped the poses and big, surprisingly convincing grins as quickly as they'd been made. Aria crossed her arms, Adagio gave an unreadably passive look, and Sonata wore an expectant face that all but said 'So? How was that?'

Sharing a quick look with Rarity, it seemed she and Sunset were in agreement regarding a lack of complaints. "That was good! Think we could hear another one?"

Aria raised an eyebrow. "Got a topic in mind?"

The two Rainbooms again shared a quick look before Sunset came up with something. "How about, uh... how was lunch?"

Once again, the sirens either had a routine ready, or came up with one on the spot as they regained their peppy 'Cheerleader Faces.'

Corn, milk, fruit, peas,
mashed potatoes and some cheese!
Bis-cuits and wheat,
they could use a bit more meat!
Yaaaaay, PROTEIN!

The trio again dropped their stances and enthusiastic expressions, as though they'd been standing there waiting for a bus, but they did smile a little at the sight of their two-person audience clapping for them. Sunset seemed particularly pleased.

"Do you think we could hear one more?"

"Just a moment," answered Adagio as tapped the others' shoulders, initiating a group huddle. "Sonata, you take the lead for the cheering." Two loud, simultaneous 'WHAT?!'s rather undermined the point of a huddle, she felt. "I had a feeling during the first cheer we did, I'll explain later, but just give it a try for now."

The new head cheerleader beamed. "I won't let you down!

Aria wore a particularly sour expression at the thought of following Sonata's lead, but then she smirked. "Fine, but they didn't give us a topic, so let's do this for a cheer..."

The sight of three giggling, huddled sirens was a slightly worrying one for Sunset and Rarity, but the trio quickly started up another routine with Sonata standing front and center.

Sto-machs, ex-posed,
belly-shirts will curl her toes!
So pull, up, your, top,
it makes Rarity so hot!
Guuuuuut, FETISH!

The three of them closed with snickers this time at the sight of Rarity flushing a bright, bright red, her jaw hanging slack as Sunset stood uncomfortably at her side. Aria in particular looked proud.

"Okay, um," Sunset managed, noting that the sirens could still use their power for evil, "that was... good, but, do you think you could keep it a little more PG?"

"No promises," Adagio answered with a cheeky grin and a flirty wink before Aria bopped her on the head with a pom-pom.

"Sorry," the purple siren said with an unapologetic smile, "we'll behave."

Sonata momentarily flailed her pom-poms. "Heeeey, that's my line now!" She cleared her throat to speak in her best, most authoritative leader-voice. "Sorry, we'll behave."

A long, awkward pause later, Sunset clapped her hands together. "So! I think that'll pretty much do it, you guys have any questions?"

It took an impatient elbow for Sonata to realize her fellow cheerleaders were waiting for her to answer. "Oh, uhh, n-no, we're good, thanks!"

"Right," Sunset replied with a nod, "the games are in a couple days, you should be able to do whatever you like until then, and let me know if you need anything, okay?"

There were a few affirmative nods before she and the Dazzlings the Dusklings? the sirens exited the room, with the former setting off to resume her research of the magic that might affect the games. This left the trio to talk amongst themselves.

"Okay," Aria addressed Adagio in slightly irritable tones, "what the Hell have you been smoking to put Sonata in charge of anything?"

The new cheer-captain's face scrunched up in an angry pout. "I'm standing right here!"

"And?"

"My reasoning," Adagio said loudly enough to cut the quarrel short, "was that between the three of us, what they're asking us to do most resembles Sonata's style, so we'll do a better job if we're following her lead." She sometimes wondered; if Aria were born human, would she have come out of the womb with her arms crossed? Such a thing wouldn't surprise her with how often that pose was taken.

"And what do we care about that? We've got our voices back, but I doubt they'll even care if we half-ass it."

"Perhaps, but considering our less-than-graceful exit the first time the school saw us, we have some rebuilding to do. Or would you rather continue a trend of mediocrity?"

Aria looked as though she'd tasted one of Sonata's culinary experiments again. "Er, point taken."

"Good." She turned to Sonata, who tensed just slightly. "You were the face of our group in the gym, so they're most likely inclined to trust you already. If we ride that wave, we may retain our voices and earnestly win the school's trust through this affair."

"O-okay," replied Sonata, now starting to feel a bit of pressure, "and what do we do once they trust us?"

Adagio shrugged. "No idea, but if we have the opportunity to benefit from this, I say we take it. At the very least, no longer being despised can only help us in the long run." There were two nods. "Alright. Sonata, remember to keep walking in front of us while we're dressed like this to reinforce the message."

Sonata saluted, though she wondered if a leader was supposed to do that. Either way, she took her place where Adagio usually walked as the trio headed home to await the big... thing.

Behind her, Aria whispered to Adagio. "So, what's the real reason?"

"Your mistrust for me is noted..." There was a hint of a smirk. "...but not entirely ill-placed."

"Heh, yea, kinda like to think I know you by now. So?"

"The reasons I gave were all valid, but in short, think about exactly what we're going to be doing. Do you want to be remembered as the head cheerleader?"

Picturing her life if she were known primarily as a peppy pom-pom swinger in a belly-shirt, Aria blushed. That was a legacy she was happy to let Sonata keep to herself. "Uhh... P-point taken."

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Alone in her workshop, Rarity eventually pulled herself together. Her eyes narrowed.

"I do not have a stomach fetish."

Chapter 5: Misunderstandings and Hypocrisy

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Today was the day.

Today, Twilight Sparkle wandered the halls of Canterlot High... for the... first time?

It was so strange, being greeted by name by people she'd never met, but nearly every CHS student she saw identified her right away! The boy with the blue hair said they (Canterlot High, presumably) would 'totally win with you(me) here,' was he expecting her to do badly? To sabotage Crystal Prep just by being there? Did they have access to her physical fitness records somehow? (Even the other school knows I shouldn't be competing!) It was a worrying thought, because even if that was supposed to be a compliment, she was sure to let him down when it turned out that she wasn't even going to try to help CHS win the Friendshi-

"Oof!"

There was a collision. It was soft, like walking into a pillow, but she quickly stepped backward anyway when she snapped to attention. The huge, orange mass of fluffy fibers she'd walked into turned to reveal an irate, yellow girl in a dark-blue cheerleading outfit, her two similarly-garbed, similarly annoyed friends stepping around her to scowl at Twilight.

Quickly studying her surroundings, Twilight found herself in a relatively dark hallway, but while the practical part of her brain (the frontal lobe) deduced that this was insufficient illumination for healthy reading, the more emotional part of her brain (also the frontal lobe, which is fascinating!) was about to initiate Freakout protocol! She'd studied these kinds of girls; cheerleaders had a tendency to be mean and scary, and these three looked like they were both!

"Well now," intoned the fluffy one she'd bumped into, casually resting a hand on one hip, "if it isn't Princess Twilight. Sunset didn't say you would be here."

"Tch," tch'd the purple one as she crossed her arms, "figures she wouldn't give us any warning about that."

More confused than scared now, Twilight blinked twice. "'Princess'? 'Sunset'?"

They stared blankly at her. (More weirdness!) While she was worried that 'Princess' was being used in the diminutive sense and they were already making fun of her, Twilight was sure her spectrometer had led her here. It was even still indicating the direction in front of her; these three girls! That made it worth asking.

"Um... I mean, hello. Have you three seen any strange energies around here?"

The trio shared a quick look before the blue one tilted her head. "What?"

She tried again. "Y-y'know," she said while forcing a smile, 11% more emphatic than the one she made during her 'speech' on the bus, "like, abnormal occurrences, things you couldn't explain, just, anything really unusual? Otherworldly, even?" Her heart stopped when all three of them shot her fierce glares, but the yellow one tapped her companions on the shoulder and turned for a group huddle.

"This bitch is just screwing with us," whispered Aria, "she knows what happened and she's rubbing it in!"

"Perhaps," Adagio replied through gritted teeth, "but this is probably a test, Sunset's idea of making sure we're behaving ourselves; send our greatest hate-figure to mock us for a while and see if we do anything to compromise the good will we gained the other day."

Sonata frowned. "Does that mean we can't kick her ass?"

"I'm afraid so. That disguise is insulting, but just play along for now."

They again faced the 'stranger,' business smiles plastered on their faces as Adagio temporarily re-took her role as the leader. "So, what brings you here?"

"The, uh... F-Friendship games...?"

"Oh," said Sonata with a smile, "you must be one of those Crystal Meth kids!"

Twilight's jaw nearly dropped hard enough to make dislocation a factor.

"That's Crystal Prep," said Aria while slapping the back of Sonata's head, "they've only said it like eighty times, you dunce."

Rubbing the back of her head, Sonata angrily pouted. "She might be all about meth too! Just look at the crazy clothes she's wearing!"

"That's probably their school uniform," Adagio added, "I gather that they're a little more strict over there."

Uncertain, Sonata looked Twilight over again. "Ooh, then," she swiped the purple thing hanging around her neck, holding it where the others could see, "what's this glowy doo-dad?"

Aria and Adagio leaned in a little for a better look, but before they could glean any details from the thing, Twilight snapped out of her stupor and lunged for it.

"Givethatback!!"

She missed, stumbling as Sonata stepped out of her way. When Twilight quickly turned and took a step toward her, Sonata grinned impishly and tossed the spectrometer to Aria. "Keep-away!"

Catching it, Aria chuckled when Twilight turned to her. When she got close, Aria switched the spectrometer from one hand to the other behind her back, tossed it up in the air and over her shoulder, caught it with the other hand, faked Twilight out with the same motion, but instead threw it to Adagio, who wore her usual smirk and raised an eyebrow as she examined it.

"Hm. What is this, exactly? Another kind of phone?" She held it up out of Twilight's reach when she got close, desperation clear in her purple face.

"I-It's important to me, please, give it back!"

Being slightly taller than Twilight, Adagio grinned wider and dangled it just a little too high for Twilight to grab even when she started hopping up and down. The others snickering at this only goaded her on. "I'm just asking what it's for, something otherworldly, mayb-"

Before she could coax any information out of her, Twilight stumbled again while trying to reach the spectrometer, fell against Adagio, and caught herself by pressing a steadying hand against the cheerleader's chest. Her eyes widening, Adagio sucked in a breath and lost her grip on Twilight's mystery object, which was immediately caught and clutched to Twilight's own chest in relief.

"Phew. Thank you, I-..."

And then she noticed the sudden drop in temperature of her immediate vicinity. Looking up at her face, Twilight paled as the (older?) girl stared daggers (or whole javelins!) back at her.

"You litt-"

She was cut off when Twilight was yanked backward by two pairs of hands, which quickly reached into the back of her skirt, seized the waistband of her undergarments, and did their best to extend to the ceiling, drawing a long, agonized scream from the wearer. Watching as Aria and Sonata stretched the fabric up over Twilight's head, Adagio slowly exhaled through her nose. She stepped past Twilight without another word, the others dropping their target and following her a second later.

Sonata waited until they'd rounded the corner to break the silence. "So, uh... we didn't kick her ass, but... won't Sunset be kinda ticked at us for doing that to Twilight?"

"If she takes issue with our response to that situation," grumbled Adagio, "she can tell Twilight to get a more convincing disguise."

Another moment passed before Aria spoke up.

"You're, uh, supposed to be letting Sonata lead, Adagio."

Stopping, Adagio gave the others a quick glance as her cheeks tinted pink. "Er, right, right, sorry." She switched places with Sonata, which was when she noticed the worried looks she was getting. "...What?"

Frowning, Sonata tilted her head a little. "You okay, Dagi?"

Adagio chuckled. "I'm fine," she said with a little smirk, "just, for a princess, you'd think she could buy a girl dinner first."

Aria and Sonata giggled.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Back in the dim hallway, Twilight lay groaning on the floor in pain for a while longer before she managed to lift her underpants from her forehead, wincing as they snapped back into place. On the floor beside her was the spectrometer, which, as those cheerleaders had gone the way she came, she now noticed had been pointing past them. She groaned much louder.

She got up, replaced the spectrometer around her neck, dusted herself off, took a minute to reassure Spike that she was okay when she heard him whining from within her backpack, and, replaying the events of a moment ago in her mind, looked down at her hand.

I vaguely recall touching a very soft surface when I lost my balance, but the only thing my hand would come in contact with at that elevation is...

Well, one of two things. The thought of her accidental survey elevated dermal temperatures surrounding her nose to uncomfortable heights. Neither that nor the first-hand experience with bullying were information she'd come in search of, but she was still learning things, right? Mentally filing that data into a compartment for private studies to be conducted at a much later date, she checked the spectrometer again and got back to her hunt for bizarre energy readings.

Note to self: To avoid future disgruntlement (and wedgies!), it may be best to refrain from outright asking anyone about the strange energy at this school.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

The Rainbooms walked down the hall following their encounter with a second Twilight Sparkle in the music room, with Rarity the first to voice a mutual thought.

"So. Our world's Twilight goes to Crystal Prep."

Applejack scratched her head. "Who'da thunk?"

Rainbow raised an incredulous eyebrow. "You're saying that Twilight's gonna play against us? She'd never do that!"

"Our Twilight wouldn't," murmured Fluttershy.

Sunset groaned with irritation. "Our Twilight is a princess in Equestria and an expert in friendship magic! And if she was here, we'd have already figured out why magic is randomly popping up during pep rallies and costume changes!" Everyone had stopped walking. Taking a quick survey of the looks she was getting, she took a breath. "Sorry. I'm just frustrated that I haven't heard back from her. Magic came into this world when I stole Twilight's crown and it's taken a lot for me to earn everyone's trust. If we have to forfeit the games because I can't think of a way to keep it under control..."

Smiling in her everything-will-be-fine kind of way, Fluttershy spoke up. "Oh, Sunset, I'm sure you'll be able to figure things out."

Applejack joined her. "You're the one who helped us understand what was goin' on with the sirens, remember?"

Shrugging, Sunset eyed the floor. "I guess. But Twilight was the one who really figured out what we needed to defeat them."

Putting a comforting hand on her shoulder, Rarity smiled too. "But don't you remember, darling? What we needed to defeat them was you."

This won a grin out of Sunset too, but another voice replied before she could.

"Yea, her and a magic car from nowhere."

Turning their heads, the Rainbooms saw Aria and Sonata casually pacing toward them, Aria doing so with an upraised eyebrow. "I mean, by all means, celebrate that victory if you want, but let's not forget the details."

Rainbow took up a slightly confrontational arms-crossed pose. "Uh, don't know if you forgot, but the details are that we fought, you lost."

As Applejack facepalmed and muttered about no "we totally beat'cha" talk, Sunset felt her insides start to turn cold at what she was seeing. She struggled to remember what she'd rehearsed to herself the night before in case of something like this, but Sonata replied before she could.

"Yea," she said with a flippant scoff, "three against eight, sounds like a fair fight."

There was a pause as Fluttershy silently counted off on her fingers. "Uhm... Th-there were only seven of us, I think...?"

"Eight," said Aria, "if you count the selectively-deaf girl with the all-purpose music car, not that seven against three is much better. Anyone wanna explain how it was that she could hear and obey your dog, by the way? Or was he just lucky enough to find her at the right time just as her headphones slipped off for some reason?"

"Wait a sec," Pinkie said with a thoughtful look, "do we count Spike too? Twilight said anything would've worked if we did it together as friends, and Spike is totally a friend, sooo...?"

Aria looked baffled, but Sonata shrugged. "I'unno, was he singing? Barking in tune? Licking himself in rhythm?"

"Anyway," said Aria as she mentally backed away from that line of thought, "what I was getting at was that with the exception of the massive power boost you got from Sunset, interesting that the so-called princess didn't give you that kinda juice, by the way, you guys hardly did anything, and if not for dumb luck, you'd have been completely steamrolled. Let's not even account for you all being immune to our songs for no reason in the first place, right?"

She met the glares she got with one of her own, vaguely backed up by Sonata's angry frown. Sunset was sure a unity-destroying argument would break out any second, but while she didn't remember her lines, she found new ones as she looked to her friends.

"Do you guys remember the Fall Formal?" That always won silence. And worried stares, but she'd fix those. "When Twilight first came to this world, I was sure I had her beaten at every turn, and she proved me wrong every time. I was arrogant, certain I would succeed in getting Twilight driven out through ridicule, then expulsion, then winning the Fall Formal anyway, then threatening the portal, and only got my way through a scuffle for the crown. If I had kept a more realistic assessment of things before any of those points, I might have gotten it much sooner."

She sighed, rubbing an arm as the painful part forced its way back into her memory, but the sting had dulled a lot since then. "Granted, the Element of Magic probably still would have betrayed me in the end, but I bring this up because until meeting Twilight, I had been better than everyp...p-pony-" she still blushed at the way her friends smiled at her when she used the 'P' word, "-I met, thought that I couldn't be beaten because I never had been before. All I saw was that I always won, nevermind the rest, and it bit me." Her face hardened a little. "I learned a lot from my downfall, did any of you?"

There was another quiet moment as Fluttershy shrank a little into her hair, looking at the floor. "We did almost lose that time, huh?"

Pinkie, as ever, smiled. "Yep!"

"We were quite fortunate," muttered Rarity as she rubbed the back of her neck, "but my point was that we needed Sunset to calm everyone down and get us all on the same side again, even with Vinyl and her... admittedly unusual vehicle." How a highschool girl could afford such a thing, she wasn't sure she wanted to know. Did Flash Sentry's car transform too? If so, into what?

"But," Rainbow asked with a hopeful little smile, "we still won, right?"

Aria briefly examined her nails. "With a massive lucky break after getting played like fiddles? Yea, great job. And for the record? Sunset has a point; knowing that you guys could do the rainbow thing was what kept us so careful until we didn't have a choice."

Rainbow scowled, but Applejack stuffed an apple into her mouth the second it opened. "Just let it be, Rainbow. That weren't a competition, that was life 'er death!"

The sirens' eyes widened in shock, and not because of the farmer and her power to spontaneously Apple things. Pinkie was the first to ask. "What? Weren't guys gonna, y'know, take us out?"

"Uhh," Sonata mumbled uncomfortably, "even if we were the 'kill 'em all!' types, we kinda needed you guys for your magic. It wasn't until you were arguing under the stage that we really started getting our strength back."

Aria crossed her arms again. "Even when you got free, we couldn't just off you guys, because after that, the plan was pretty much to suck up as much power as we could, force you to show us how to get back to Equestria, then pick up where we left off." Looking at Sunset, she frowned. "Thanks for the uh... heads-up, by the way."

The rest looked to Sunset for elaboration. She was frowning too. "We've been talking. Their old home, um... isn't around anymore."

"With a rap sheet like ours," Aria said with a shrug, "it's not like they'd have let us back anyway, but Coltlantis going down means we don't even have a reason to go back. I mean, not like we ever got homesick or anything, but-EEK!!"

She and Sonata were immediately snared in a group hug. The quiet, sympathetic sentiments they were getting, even from Rainbow, weren't unbearable, but Aria still squirmed in their collective grip, flushing red as she glared at Sunset for the mushy sneak-attack. Sunset only offered a triumphant grin, now having avenged herself on all three sirens!

Sonata, however, looked much more comfortable. "Was this what Dagi warned us about? It's so warm and snug!"

To Aria's silent appreciation, that made everyone take a step back to perform a quick head-count.

"Uh, hey," Applejack pondered aloud, "where is Adagio?"

Aria and Sonata glanced around, shared a look, shouted "CRAP!!" and ran off, continuing to shout at each other as they went.

"How could you lose her, Aria?!"
"I didn't, you're supposed to be the leader, Sonata!!"
"Then I lead that you were supposed to watch her!!"
"You can't give orders retroactively!!"
"I lead that I don't know what that means!!"

When they were gone, there was a silence. Pinkie giggled. "Maybe she's waiting for the big Welcome-to-CHS party we're throwing for Crystal Prep in the gym? I'm gonna go get to work on that, see you guys later!"

And off she went, leaving the rest to kill some time until the party started. Sunset, for her part, continued to worry about Princess Twilight, what she'd do in this situation, and why she wasn't answering the phonebook.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

A little later, Adagio found herself wandering the halls alone.

Stupid. Stupid, inattentive, and scatter-brained. That's what they're going to call you.

She blamed habit; the fact that she'd gotten used to the others stopping when she stopped, that she'd been the leader so long and grew accustomed to them following her every step. With Sonata 'in charge,' she realized, she could not simply stop at a window to get a better look at the Crystal Prep kids outside without risk of the others not realizing she'd stopped, walking right along, and leaving her there for the minute or two that she did so. It was only when she noticed the lack of questions, comments, or lovers' quarrels from them that Adagio had the presence of mind to look around.

Now, she marched briskly through CHS in search of them to make sure their group would be ready when called on to fulfill their end of the deal. The fact that Crystal Prep had entered CHS and started crowding the halls would make that more difficult. Even with some of the lingering stares she was getting, she tried to ignore the other students as she went, but when she walked past the double-doors to the gym, a purple Crystal Prep student with whispy, white hair tied in some kind of split ponytail and top-knot thing spoke to her.

"Your hair is ridiculous."

Adagio didn't even slow down. "Look who's talking."

Sugarcoat flinched as if she'd been slapped, her jaw dropping for two full seconds. She turned to make a retort, but the other girl had just kept walking, so she was a little grateful when Indigo Zap stepped in front of her, hands on her hips and an unamused expression on her face.

"And just who the heck are you supposed to be? Canterlot Hair Police or something?"

Adagio didn't need to look around to know that the other nearby CP students were starting to gather around her. Still, she was calm, answering with a relaxed little grin. "Nothing of the sort, but one observation begets another, don't you think?" She clenched her jaw to keep from laughing at the unmistakable 'I have no idea what I just heard' face she was getting. Smirking, she haughtily brushed a hand through her 'ridiculous,' poofy hair. "Your friend there couldn't take her eyes off me, it only felt right to repay the compliment."

"It was not a compliment," shot Sugarcoat, angrily crossing her arms.

"Tch, yea," nodded Sunny Flare with a wrinkled nose, "that much hair is just insane!"

Adagio allowed herself a chuckle as she glanced over her shoulder. "And yet, I saw those looks." A few of them blushed. She grinned. "I know this-" she bobbed her curls for emphasis, "-is unconventional, but in my line of work? The bigger, wilder, and more eye-catching, the better. You call it insane, I call it stylish!" Touching a thoughtful fingertip to her lips as her smile shifted toward coy, she turned to face her original heckler. "What about you?"

All eyes on her, Sugarcoat felt just a tinge of discomfort. "What about me?"

Her bait taken, Adagio raised an eyebrow as she pretended to appraise the girl further. "That style isn't particularly pretty or practical, yet you wear it while representing a prestigious, perfectionist school like Crystal Prep. Why?" She again had to stop herself from laughing when the girl started to sweat, her eyes darting around as her teammates(?) gave her curious looks.

"I, it doesn't matter, it's just hair!"

"Then why did you comment on mine?"

Dead silence reigned as Sugarcoat squirmed under the continued stares, not helped by Indigo Zap, who had stepped around Adagio to stand next to her.

"She's got a point, Sugar."

Sugarcoat's eyes narrowed. "Don't call me that, Indigo." She was startled by Sour Sweet tenderly draping an arm across her shoulders, speaking in a peppy tone.

"Don't worry about your hair, Sugarcoat, it's just lovely!"

And then she switched to her low, growly voice.

"If you like looking like a four-eyed banshee."

Annoyed and embarrassed though she was as her fellow Shadowbolts snickered at her, Sugarcoat's rage spiked only when she noticed the fluffy cheerleader raising a hand to her mouth to cover her laughter. Before she could find an aspect of the yellow girl with which to tear her down, a slightly rough voice not unlike Sour Sweet's called out over the gathering.

"Hey, what's going on here?!"

In a blink, Lemon Zest (who'd been in her own little world again with her headphones on) was all but shoved aside by a purple hand, Aria and Sonata stepping forward to stand by Adagio as they glared at the other girls. Lifting one headphone, Lemon glanced around.

"Woah, what'd I miss?"

The increasingly hostile glances going around, most of all from Aria and Indigo, told Adagio where this was going. Memory of her deal with Sunset was the only reason she inverted their standard protocol for situations like this. "Just talking fashion," she said with a calm grin, though Aria didn't look convinced.

"That why they're all ganging up on you? Because it kinda looks like they had more than fashion in mind."

"Pfft, please," scoffed Indigo with a growing smirk, "we won't be beating you senseless until the games start."

Adagio replied the second Sonata opened her mouth. "We aren't competing." All five Shadowbolts blinked twice. She shrugged. "Sorry to disappoint you, but we're only humble cheerleaders, and to be honest? We couldn't care less who wins or loses."

Indigo's mouth opened and closed a few times. "...Oh."

"B-buh, but," sputtered Sunny Flare, "you're, y'know, cheerleaders? Aren't you supposed to root for the Wondercolts?"

Sonata shrugged. "Yea, sure, but we're only here 'cuz we made a deal. Even if they lose, it's no skin off our bones."

There was a silence as the competitive drive of the moment leaked out of the air. Lemon Zest smiled. "Cool, catch you guys later!" And then she headed into the gym to await welcome-party funtimes, followed by her team mates as they whispered to each other, with Indigo huffing and crossing her arms.

"CHS has cheerleaders? Why don't we get cheerleaders?"

Sour Sweet grinned. "Because peppy girls shouting and waving pom-poms definitely wouldn't get annoying!" And then she didn't. "Oh wait, yes it would."

"It doesn't matter," snapped Sugarcoat, "no amount of support will make any difference in the competition."

Sunny Flare grinned haughtily. "Definitely."

"Well," muttered Indigo, "Sparkle could probably use the help. Anyone seen her lately?"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"So," summarized Aria, "you just zoned out?"

"B-basically," Adagio replied with a little blush, "sorry about that."

Sonata smiled sheepishly. "And we're sorry we ditched you. But hey, only took us like ten minutes to notice, right?"

There was a pause as the three slightly pink sirens traded looks, then giggled at their mutual spacey-ness. They blamed the cheerleader outfits.

"At any rate," Adagio picked up, "we should probably head in too. There might not be anything t-"

"Waitwaitwait," interrupted Sonata with frantic arm-movements, "I thought I was supposed to be the boss for now!"

Adagio blinked once, then smiled, made a lip-zipping motion, and gestured to Sonata.

"Thanks! ...Uhm..." Aria's expectant look made her a little nervous. Leadership had so much pressure! "We, we should, uh, go into the gym, because... like, we, don't wanna look all shady if someone sees us just wandering around? Or something?"

Crossing her arms, Aria nodded thoughtfully. "That actually kinda makes sense. Was that what you were gonna say, Adagio?"

"More or less. Good job, Sonata."

The sweet smell of approval as they went in made Sonata feel all tingly!

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

In the interest of not risking involvement with any further incident with Crystal Prep, the sirens opted to stay out of everyone's way by sitting up on the bleachers as they watched things unfold. Watching the shadowbolt with a pink, green-striped ponytail crush a paper cup and stomp on it in Flash Sentry's general direction won chortles out of all of them, but they did their best to keep quiet.

"Man," Aria quietly remarked, "maybe we should'a waited a little longer, huh? Wouldn't have even had to do anything."

"Maybe," responded Adagio, "but then we'd have still been dependent on the gems." Her usual relaxed grin weakened. "I mean, it's great to have our own power again, I suppose, but...?"

The three were silent for a long moment. Aria shrugged.

"Ahh, who needs those damn things anyway? All we ever did was go around trying to keep 'em filled with negative energy, hardly even got to enjoy the high praise we were supposed to be after, let alone sing just for fun."

"Maybe, but..." Her head lowering, Adagio muttered to herself. "I liked being a villain." She got a gentle hand patting her back. Turning to her left, she was met with an apologetic smile from Sonata.

"I hate to break it to you, Dagi, but we hardly got to do that either."

"She's kinda right," offered Aria, "'cuz like, other than the arguments we caused nearly every damn night, we only did, what, maybe a few more than a dozen of your big schemes- and don't get me wrong, those were usually pretty fun, in over a hundred years together. Most of the time, it was just harvest, harvest, harvest, no real need for smarter thinkin' than slapping together a few stanzas on the spot."

Adagio Hmph'd, half-heartedly turning her nose up and crossing her arms. "I'll have you two know that I was always scheming something." She could practically feel the raised eyebrows as she sighed, her shoulders slumping. "Though, yes, it was usually unnecessary by the end of the day... Was all of that time a complete waste?"

Hoping to take their slightly sulky leader's mind off her favorite, seldom-indulged hobby, Aria glanced around the gym for something more interesting. She immediately locked on to Twilight, still wearing that uniform and bumbling around like a klutz. "Check it out, she's still at it."

They watched as she aggravated Indigo, one of the girls they'd talked to before coming in, backing away sheepishly after making her spill her drink.

Sonata squinted a little. "Is she still holding that thingie?"

Adagio tilted her head. "We never did find out what that was. She keeps staring at i-"

"Ooh, incoming Sunset! She looks mad!"

The trio watched as the Rainbooms closed in, but whatever they wanted to talk about didn't get far before Indigo stepped in, followed by Rainbow doing the same, then Applejack, and so on, until two little groups had gathered to make stern faces at each other. Before anything the sirens might have been blamed for happened, Principal Celestia got everyone's attention by welcoming Crystal Prep. Her next statement particularly stood out.

"And lastly, I would like to recognize the twelve students that CHS has elected to compete. I don't think we could have chosen a better group to represent the excellence, sportsmanship, and friendship the games stand for."

"Wait," Aria asked somewhat incredulously, "elected? Not like, figured out who was good at what and-"

The lights dimmed, immediately compensated for by a discoball, music, and confetti from somewhere. As though under a spell all over again, students of CHS and Crystal Prep alike immediately livened up a little, smiling and dancing together as though they'd never held the slightest animosity toward one another. The sirens all but gaped.

"W-what," mumbled Sonata, "did we even need to sing to...? Could, do you think we could still get everyone fighting and- I mean, we couldn't use the energy if we wanted to now, but if they're THIS easy, what if-"

"Just let it go, Sonata," Adagio grumbled into the palm of one hand, "for the sake of our sanity, just let it go."

As quickly as it had come, the party scene was killed on its feet when Principal Cinch violated the microphone and the ordinary lighting returned. Her voice was almost intolerably smug and dismissive even as she thanked Celestia for the welcome, but again, a particular sentiment stuck out.

"Canterlot High continues to pick its competitors in a popularity contest and Crystal Prep continues to field its top twelve students. It is a comfort to know that even after so many years of losses, your school remains committed to its ideals, however misguided they may be. I wish you all the best of luck, regardless of the inevitable outcome."

"Popularity contest," uttered Aria, "they 'elect' their competitors in a popularity contest. They wonder why they always lose when they decide who's gonna be playing by popularity. The thing the Rainbooms said they didn't care about in the song they used on us."

"Liars."
"Hypocrites."
"Dumbasses."

There were further aspersions they'd have cast on the Wondercolts and perhaps the residents of this world as a whole, but their attention was seized by the worried-looking Rainbooms gathering around a slightly disheveled Pinkie Pie. Adagio kept her guesses to herself as they got up to investigate. Sunset was on the tail-end of a question when they got close.

"-ained right out of you?"

"Hey," asked Applejack, "where is that other Twilight?"

Pinkie glanced around, but was interrupted by Sonata.

"Wait, what did'ja say? 'Other Twilight'?"

Turning to them, Sunset nodded. "Yea, the Twilight Sparkle from this world. Turns out she goes to Crystal Prep and she'll be playing against us, but more importantly, she-" It struck Sunset just then that the sirens, who were considerably distraught over losing their magic not so long ago, maaaaybe didn't need the mental burden of knowing something weird was going on relating to magic draining out of things. "she, uh, she-"

Luckily, Sunset didn't have to come up with a lie, because Adagio was more focused on the first thing she'd said, confusion clear in her face. "'From this world'? What are you talking about?"

As ever, Pinkie summed up. "This world is some kinda kooky reflection of the one you guys are from, or yours is a kooky reflection of ours, and there's even twosies of everybody! We haven't run into the other Sunset, but we totally ran into the other Twilight and she wears glasses and has a doo-dad that measures things and isn't a princess at all! Gasp! Hey, have you guys ever run into three girls that looked just like you? 'Cuz then we could totally start doppleganger bingo sheets!"

Rarity raised an eyebrow. "We'd need nineteen more people from Equestria before we could start a regulation five-by-five bingo sheet, Pinkie Pie, and that's with a free space."

"What," snorted Rainbow, an amused smirk widening on her face, "you're some kind of bingo aficionado now?"

Blue eyes narrowed. "So what if I am?"

"That game is for old people!"

"I beg your pardon?!"

As funny as Sunset usually found this kind of inane banter, they kind of had something important to focus on. "Uh, guys, we-"

"Cool it, you two," said Applejack, "Ah think yer fergettin' the important thing here anyway; how would an Equestrian double bingo game even work? If there's two of everybody, do you need to hear the same name twice before you can put down a marker, or what?"

"If so," Fluttershy pondered aloud, "you might actually be able to make due with only twelve Equestrians, plus the free space. Just have each name on the card twice, but designate whether it's this world's version or Sunset's."

"The important thing," Sunset said slightly louder than necessary, "is that this world's Twilight has something to do with magic randomly disappearing!!"

She immediately slapped both hands over her mouth, shooting a panicked look at the sirens... only to not see hide nor big, crazy hair of any of them. Not that she was ungrateful, but it begged the question: "Hey, where'd the Dazzlings go?"

Glancing around, Pinkie beamed. "Ooh, maybe we could start a vanishing person bingo card!"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Standing outside the gym, Aria, Sonata, and Adagio wore expressions of restrained anxiety, nervous contrition, and a thousand-yard stare, respectively. Crossing her arms, Aria broke the silence.

"So... Yea. Wrong girl. Easy mistake, huh?"

Adagio's tone was soft, but severe. "She was innocent."

Aria did her best to shrug dismissively. "So? Not like we've never done... bad... I mean, yea, back then it was to drain energy, which we can't anymore, so I guess that makes what we did kind of harsh and maybe a little pointless, but...!" Making a sour face, she sighed. "Can we just call this one an accident and move on? I really don't wanna say sorry to someone that looks like Twilight Sparkle."

"We're supposed to be on our best behavior and she did nothing to us."

"Well," offered Sonata, "she did kinda squeeze your boob." Not that that made her feel less weirdly dirty about this, but still!

Adagio tinted pink. "Yes, but that wouldn't have happened had we not decided to mess with her, and we owe her an apology. Besides, the Rainbooms clearly know of the girl that looks like their friend. What will we say if Sunset confronts us about antagonizing people for no reason?"

There were no further objections. If nothing else, they could agree on wanting to please the one who helped restore their voices, if only for the duration of this event.

"So," Aria said while shuffling her arms as if to cross them again, "how do we find her, anyway?"

"Ooh," Sonata said with a grin, "I got this one! She's here to compete in the games, so she'll have to be around while this thing is going, and we're sure to get a chance to talk to her at least once!"

Smiling a little, Adagio nodded. "Very good, Sonata. The games don't actually begin until tomorrow, but we'll have to keep an eye out for her to be able to fix this as soon as possible."

With the school day more or less concluded anyway, the three of them moved to head home. As they walked, Trixie called out to them while striking a haughty pose.

"You may have won everyone else over, but Trixie is still-" They walked right past her, not so much as turning their heads. She called out again. "Uh, hello? Hey!!"

The sirens stopped and turned, Adagio speaking first out of habit. "Yes?"

Trixie raised a perplexed eyebrow. "Were you just going to walk by without even saying anything?"

Adagio turned away again. "Yes."

And they walked away, leaving Trixie to deflate, then immediately re-inflate with Great and Powerful annoyance! What was she going to do with the rest of the day now?!

"Garnet."

Being startled halfway out of her skin wasn't Trixie's first choice, but she only leapt a few feet into the air at the sound of the monotone voice from behind her. Whirling around while trying to suppress a heart-attack, she found herself face to face with one of Pinkie's weird sisters, the one with the perma-poker face. "Uhm... What?"

"Garnet," Maud repeated, holding up a jagged, but shiny little red rock, "those stones of theirs. They look like rubies at first glance, but are more of a deep garnet." There was the faintest tilt of her head as she eyed the fragment. "The structure is extremely bizarre for a gemstone, in ways I lack words to describe, but without these stones, those girls are not a threat. You do not need to worry about them."

There was a long pause as the two stared at each other, but Trixie eventually clued in that Maud was done speaking. "...You have the bits of their necklaces?"

"...They did not want them anymore."

"...Okay, then."

Maud nodded almost imperceptibly. "Would you like to analyze them with me? I have not yet determined how these stones were formed."

Staring at rocks all afternoon? Even if it were pretty, shiny (if kinda broken) rocks, Trixie's first instinct was to refuse, but, well... Beggars can't be choosers, right? She smiled.

"Trixie will deign to lend you her aid in this taxing time for geology!"

One would have to look very closely to see the corners of Maud's mouth rise by a few millimeters.

Chapter 6: Sleep and Stray Thoughts

View Online

"Dean Cadence? Why are we staying here tonight as opposed to just having ridden over the next day?"

"I actually looked that up on the way over, Twilight. This event is called the 'Friendship Games' because it's supposed to bring our schools together a little, and part of that is a show of hospitality."

"And what does sleeping at a hotel completely unrelated to CHS have to do with anyone showing anyone hospitality?"

Cadence giggled. "Well, when the tradition started, there were massive sleepovers held in the schools, but regulations have changed things around since then." Looking around the lobby of the highest-rated hotel in this part of Canterlot, where most of the Shadowbolts were still hanging around, she gestured over the room as a whole. "We might not be living up to the intended spirit of the thing, but there's no reason you can't talk to the kids from our school. Go on, see if you can't make some friends."

Twilight nodded hesitantly as she looked around the lobby, back at Cadence, around the lobby again, and set off. Truthfully, she had no idea how to even approach her teammates, but it was a lot harder to scurry off to her hotel room to hide for the rest of the night with Cadence looking right at her.

I have to at least talk to someone. Luckily, there is a practical reason to do so! Everyone here was at CHS today too, so anyone may have seen something that could help me learn more about- she glanced down at her spectrometer, -...whatever happened today.

Ambling around the lobby with no particular destination, the first thing Twilight noticed was that she barely recognized anyone.

Being in my little room at Crystal Prep all the time yields certain disadvantages. Was I about to flee to the area out of habit?

She had been vaguely acquainted with those who were actually due to compete, and to bypass the awkward name-exchanging phase (along with the chance of forgetting those names mid-conversation!), it would be best to talk to someone she already knew. If only in name.

Upper Crust and Suri Polomare were busily chatting about some line of hair-care products, by the sound of things. Both were known to be a little snippy, so maybe it was best not to interrupt them.

She'd seen Trenderhoof and Royal Pin head back to their room a while ago, so she wasn't sure if she'd be seeing them again soon.

Even if I knew where their room was, a girl dropping by a room with two guys by herself is-

Twilight needed to go somewhere private to cool off for a minute.

When she returned, she caught sight of Sour Sweet speaking (very cheerfully!) with Jet Set and Neon Lights.

Almost makes me look silly, how easily she engages two young men in conversation, but girls are just so much easier to talk to. Maybe if I cut in with a relevant comment, I can find out whether or not anyone else came in contact with bizarre energies?

She approached casually (that is: at a slow pace), soon hearing Sour Sweet's (deceptively?) peppy voice.

"-so don't worry about how it looks, because nobody in their right mind would judge food by appearance alone, right?" Her voice shifted to the 'Sour' side. "You could bake the works of Leonardo Da Vinci into a cake, but it doesn't matter if the thing's not edible."

Jet Set and Neon Lights shared an uncertain look, which stalled conversation and presented an opening. Twilight actually had quite a lot to say on the subject of Da Vinci, but it was in that moment that she remembered her fear of Sour Sweet and her ever-changing moods. Starting smaller was fine, right? She kept walking, soon coming across Lemon Zest (who seemed to be listening to her ear-destroying music again), Sunny Flare, and Indigo Zap, the latter-most girl complaining quite audibly, with exasperated arm-gestures and all!

"I'm just saying, not like we don't have room in the budget for some cheerleader outfits. They wouldn't even need dance lessons, Cinch could just stick somebody like Fleur De Lis in one of those outfits and tell 'em to-"

"Oh, not a chance," objected Sunny, "never would a classy school like Crystal Prep devolve into kicklines and hip-shaking!"

"It'd just be leveling the playing field if we had everything CHS has! I mean, did you see those chicks?!"

Sunny's face darkened as she crossed her arms in very, very grumpy fashion. "Don't. Refer to them. As 'chicks.'"

Rolling her eyes, Indigo turned toward Lemon Zest. "You agree with me, right, Lemon?" Lemon's head continued to bob along with the tunes no one else could hear, drawing a satisfied smirk from Indigo. "See? She totally gets it."

There was a very slow, calculated facepalm from Sunny, capped off with a sigh. "She'll nod along to anything when she has her headphones on, watch." She stepped forward, looking Lemon in the eye with a deadpan stare. "Hey Lemon, your hair is a tangled rat's nest and your eyeliner is a hideous, ill-applied mess."

Lemon giggled, pumping a fist in the air. "Haha, yea!"

Stepping back, Sunny crossed her arms before looking at Indigo again. "See? I know she's not listening because her make-up jobs are always fabulous."

"Pfft, whatever." Looking away, Indigo immediately laid eyes on Twilight, then smiled. "Oh, hey. You've kinda just been standing there like a dolt for the last minute, right? What do you think about CP getting its own belly-shirt squad?"

"Uh-" Attention already on her faux-pas, gears turned in her head to answer the question as quickly as possible. "-s-soft is nice!" This won three confused blinks from the girls in front of her. Even Lemon must have known she said something weird. "Er, I mean... You're talking about CHS's cheerleaders, right? Because, I met those girls, and they seemed kind of... scary."

"Hah, wrong 'S-y' word, Sparkle!" Smirking, she shot Twilight a wink. "C'mon, think about it, you don't think you'd do better with three bombshells shakin' their tails for you?"

Sunny huffed, stamping one foot. "Oh, that is pure exploitation!"

Incredulous, Indigo looked back at her with a tilted head. "'Exploitation'?"

"If CHS girls want to dance half-naked in front of strangers, let them, but don't ask a refined, respectable girl from Crystal Prep to shed her dignity for male gratification."

"MALE?!" Indigo immediately flipped the front of her skirt upwards. In the middle of the lobby. "Do I look male to you?!"

"EEK!!" Sunny covered her eyes with both hands. "DOWN, PUT THAT BACK DOWN!!"

Artist's depiction

"Pfft, prude." Indigo acquiesced anyway, if only because she'd catch Hell from Cinch if she kept it up. "So yea," she said while turning back toward Twilight, "what's your take on-... Where'd she go?"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Careful not to slam the door to her room, Twilight immediately flattened herself up against it, burning brighter than she had all day.

Wow. Indigo Zap is quite the free spirit, isn't she?

As much as Twilight might have wished she could be so unfettered, she definitely wasn't in a hurry to go presenting her crotch (or any other part of my anatomy!!) in public like that. Still, that interaction counted as socializing, right? Nobody laughed at or made fun of her, so Cadence would probably be satisfied.

Catching her breath, Twilight ambled across the room and caught sight of her roommate for the duration of this event, Sugarcoat, standing in front of the bathroom mirror with her hair down, wearing only a bathrobe. Twilight watched as she tried out styles by holding her hair in place, giving herself pigtails in various positions, twisting it as though forming a braid, making asymmetrical bangs, obscuring one eye while the rest hung loose, even holding up as much as she could to form a droopy mohawk. After about a minute of this, she seemed to sense she was being stared at (a really neat phenomenon!), because her head snapped to the side and her face flushed red.

Before Twilight could open her mouth, Sugarcoat stomped over, narrowed her eyes, and pointed one finger under Twilight's chin as she loosed a harsh whisper. "You. Saw. Nothing." As anticipated from Twilight Kind Of A Doormat Sparkle, the immediate reply was emphatic nodding and a sheepish smile, which made Sugarcoat feel just a little guilty. Stepping back, she sighed. "...Someone made commentary on my hair and I am experiencing self-doubt. It is not enjoyable and now I am on edge." Mild gratification accompanied Twilight's sympathetic smile.

"I think I get that." She indicated her own hair-bun. "I usually just go with something simple, myself, I can be finished with my hair in just a few seconds."

Analyzing this, Sugarcoat massaged her chin in thought. "If you prefer that your hair is easily manageable, why do you keep it long enough that you still need to style it?" This won a surprised look out of Twilight, whose cheeks faintly colored as she frowned and looked away.

"I... I-I don't really know..."

Whether that was true or not, Sugarcoat had a guess of her own. She stepped forward to wrap Twilight in a very private hug, even going so far as to gently pat her back. "You'll be okay, kid."

Twilight, for her part, was frozen in place, her eyes wide and confused. "O...kay...?"

"That is what I said." Sugarcoat broke the hug without ceremony, moving over to her bed. "Now sleep, the games are in the morning."

Baffled, Twilight stood for another moment before the order actually registered. She adhered with the hope that maybe tomorrow would be little less hectic, and a little less confusing.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Across town, only half of the Wondercolts chosen to compete had gathered at Pinkie's place for a more traditional slumber party.

"Ah'm tellin' ya, Pinkie, Vanishing Person bingo just wouldn't work. How wouldja know which spaces were which? They'd all be vanished!"

"It could be feasible," offered Rarity, "provided that it was played in the opposite way to a normal bingo game; with all spaces marked, but the peoples' names or faces on the markers, which get removed when their name is called. I don't know whether this means the free space has to stay occupied or if it's never there at all, however."

Fluttershy scratched her chin. "You could just pick a twenty-fifth vanishing person, I guess, then you wouldn't have to worry about the free space at all."

"Maaaybe," Pinkie pondered, concentrating at the ceiling, "but right now, we've still got more Equestrians who may or may not have twosies than we have people who go poof, and not like me or Adagio." She held up her own fluffy locks for emphasis, eliciting giggles from the others.

Rainbow, sitting next to Sunset, leaned over to deliver a pained whisper. "They're still talking about bingo."

Snickering, Sunset whispered back. "Yes, yes they are."

She was more than fine with it this time, because it helped take her mind off the growing list of concerns she had for tomorrow. Until she made that realization, anyway.

On top of actually taking part in what was due to be a fierce competition, she alone had to worry about making sure magical weirdness didn't interfere, figuring out what was going on with the other Twilight, who coincidentally seemed to be getting involved with magical weirdness, and keeping the sirens sweet if she didn't want them to complete the 'deal,' skip town, and never be heard from again. Not that it was guaranteed they'd fall back into bad habits if left to their own devices, but she really didn't want to risk it.

It hurt her that she was having trouble deciding which was the most important; the risk to her reputation and good standing in CHS, the risk to the human Twilight (and possibly others) if she triggered something dangerous, or the risk to the sirens finding happiness like she did if they left before they formed any sort of attachment to anyone, either out of boredom or if they got into trouble somehow and thought it better to just walk away.

No, wait, the second one. Definitely the second one.

Someone screwing with magic had to take priority over her reputation and ensuring happier lives for three former (for now) magical megalomaniacs (provided that they didn't start screwing with magic again), but she wanted the best for all three! Maybe if she could find a chance to talk to the human Twilight, she could defuse or delay that problem until later, formally dealing with it when things were less hectic, which would just leave her unofficial duty as magic patrol and keeping things amicable between the sirens and the rest of CHS, along with helping win the Friendship Games if there was time in the-

Pomf!

She had taken a pillow to the head. A quick scan of her friends revealed that a pillow-fight had broken out, and all of them were now looking at her in nervous silence. Taking hold of the offending cushion, Sunset felt a wicked grin spread across her face.

"There will be no survivors!"

And she flew into battle, emerging victorious in a matter of mad, frantic, giggly minutes.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Over at the sirens' house, Adagio splayed out on the bed, brushing both arms through her curls to let them fall in as wide a range as possible. Aria and Sonata took their places next to her, curling up in the fluff that had ensured warm nights since they first came to this world. They had long since discovered the merit of blankets, but a hundred years of huddling together for security, even before being trapped in a scary, new world, had left them set in their ways. Distantly, Adagio guessed that warmth was another reason she could have given 'Sugar' today.

"So," Aria muttered sleepily, "what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"Milkshakes," Sonata answered, "I'm feelin' milkshakes."

"Not you." She bit back the 'stupid!' at the last second, having long ago learned how much harder it was to sleep when arguments started. "Adagio?"

"We go to the games, apologize to Twilight, cheer for the Wondercolts, and then our part in the deal will be done."

"What do we do after that?"

A long silence followed as she pondered their options, but lacking any concrete objective to pursue, she sighed. "I have absolutely no idea. Sonata may really end up the leader by the end of this."

Ignoring Sonata's gasp of delight, Aria immediately flipped over to look Adagio in the eye. "Don't even joke about that!! If you're out of ideas, I'll take over!"

"Now, now, Aria," Sonata said smugly, "you had your chance, but it's my time now!"

"WHEN DID I HAVE-"

"Get some sleep," chuckled Adagio, "we'll figure something out when the games are over."

Even if she had no plan and no real power anymore, Adagio was gratified to learn that the others still followed her orders as they rolled over without another word. How long that would last, she couldn't say. Uncertain of her standing and the future in general, she let her mind wander as she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 7: Accidents and Name-Calling

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Sonata being in charge was pretty much a joke, Aria knew that. She knew that no matter what, they'd still be following Adagio's plan to stick to the deal and pay back Sunset for helping them find their voices again. It was something all three of them agreed they owed her BIG for, but it was balanced a little by Sunset having been the chief cause of them losing that piece of themselves in the first place. That in mind, a simple request to root for them in some dumb school-to-school grudge match would make them pretty much even.

Anyway, Sonata wasn't really the leader, but somehow it still pissed Aria off to hear her and Adagio act like she was. It was great that at least two of them were probably preserving a bit more dignity this way, but, 'Sonata is the boss.'

So wrong!

Luckily, she could work off a bit of this frustration by taking up exactly the same role she had under Adagio; doing her damndest to poke holes in her plans, her ideas, and her confidence.

It wasn't just petty nit-picking. Not like Aria was the least bit jealous or anything.

Shut up!

Walking through CHS with the others, Aria smirked. "So, how're we gonna find Twilight, Sonata?"

Their 'boss' glanced around. "Uhh..."

With a faint smirk of amusement, Adagio joined in. "Indeed, what did you have in mind for this search?"

"We'll, um, we'll just, we'll just go to the Crystal Prep people and tell 'em to hand over Twilight for a sec. Simple."

"Ohh, I don't know," Aria said casually while turning her head to hide her grin, "that might sound kinda hostile, don't you think? We wouldn't wanna go starting trouble, now, would we?" Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Sonata starting to sweat.

"I meant we'll ask them, ask them to let us talk to her!"

They'd worked together a long time, but Aria had never suspected she'd have Adagio as a partner in crime like this. "Are you sure?" Adagio gestured to the halls around them, where Crystal Prep students could be seen wandering, loitering, and talking about how everything at CHS was of poorer quality than what they had back in the city. "Because it seems like they've already spread out a bit."

"Okay, uh, we'll just look around, she's gotta be around here somewh-"

Vice Principal Luna's voice sounded over the intercom.

"Good morning, students! I'm sure you're all thrilled to start the first day of the Friendship Games!"

And now Sonata looked really nervous. "Shhhhhoot! Uh, l-let's split up, they're gonna start the thing soon, so we should-... Guys?"

Peeking around a nearby corner, Aria snickered as she watched Sonata look around in confusion. "Any bets on how long it'll take her to work out that her own idea is already in motion?" The muffled reply from Adagio reminded her that she'd grabbed her, covered her mouth, and pulled her around the corner for this. She released Adagio, meeting her questioning look with an abashed grin. "Hey, if anything, I'm surprised you let me do that."

Resting her hands on her hips, Adagio turned her head to watch Sonata wander off, hopefully in search of Twilight. "Hmph. Suppose I haven't been as alert as I used to be."

Aria shrugged. "So, what's the real plan?"

"You heard her, we split up to cover more ground." Aria's incredulous face tickled her, but now wasn't the time to tease her for it. "We could ask any of the CP students where she is, but then word would get around that we were looking for her specifically, which wouldn't send any good messages." Well, maybe there was time for a little teasing... "Sonata's idea may actually be our best bet right now," she smirked while stepping around Aria, "and she might not have come up with it at all if not for you kindly assisting her. She'll make such a good leader with us there to be her underlings."

Turning on a heel so quickly that she nearly lost balance, Aria glared. "That's not even funn-... Where did...?"

Peeking around a nearby corner, Adagio snickered as she watched Aria look around in confusion.

Ohh, I never thought I'd miss this little rivalry, but they're so cute when they fight for dominance!

Well, she thought that now, but as she set off to look for Twilight in earnest, she couldn't say what the situation would be after today. Maybe Sonata really would end up calling the shots and constantly have them going into stupid, pointless flights of fancy, maybe Aria would seize 'power' and try to get them to where they were before, but Adagio knew she just didn't have it in her anymore. No goal, no ambition, no drive... was this why the others followed her in the first place? One more little uncertainty.

She could ask Sunset what she did when her whole world was ripped out from under her, but she already had a pretty good idea where they'd end up if she did; doing this, forever.

Perhaps not literally. Are we still immortal? I can't tell if our 'teen' bodies are growing yet.

Either way, she knew she didn't want to be one of CHS's dancing trophies for the rest of her life, even if she hadn't actually heard anyone refer to them along those lines yet. Then again, Sunset wasn't being paraded around like the spoils of war, and if anything, seemed to be taking something like a leadership role in the school, so maybe Adagio was just being pessimistic?

Her objective right now was to find and apologize to this world's Twilight Sparkle, but maybe she could find time to have a word with Sunset as well.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"Good morning, students! I'm sure you're all thrilled to start the first day of the Friendship Games!"

Twilight felt a frightened shiver run through her spine at those words, because she knew she'd be part of those games and failure was not an option. Still, she had a little more time to search for the source of the energy readings before her public performance (and possible public humiliation) would be necessary. Her spectrometer didn't appear to be leading her anywhere in particular (again!!), but at least she hadn't bumped into anyone so far.

I have to find something before the games are over, or the entire project will have been pointless, I'll have nothing outstanding to show for Everton, and the mystery surrounding this school might stay buried forever! I guess I could keep coming back on my own, but I almost got caught last time, and Canterlot High students probably know my face by now, so- well, technically, they somehow knew my face before, and WHAT was up with tha-

She jumped when a hand clapped on her shoulder, whirling around to see the blue cheerleader from yesterday. She beamed brightly as her eyes bore into Twilight's.

"I found you!"

Shrieking, Twilight immediately broke into a sprint in the opposite direction, glancing over her shoulder to find the cheerleader in hot pursuit with a terrifyingly wide grin, even starting to giggle with delight.

Just wait 'til Aria and Dagi see that I caught Twilight all by myself!

Twilight narrowly dodged the other students in the hall, sometimes avoiding impact by scant centimeters as she fled, internally ashamed to be breaking such an old and sacred rule as 'no running in the hallways!' One of those she ran past was the other cheerleader that had helped test the elasticity of her undergarments yesterday, and while Twilight was pleased to find that her work with custom-polymer lycra had proven effective, she was in no hurry to test it again!

"Slow down," called the purple one as she joined the chase, "we just wanna talk!"

Twilight had heard that one before! She was quickly running out of stamina and her pursuers were gaining on her. Everyone else in the halls just kind of looked on, not moving or even saying anything about her little chase scene. A few held up their phones, but she had the feeling no one was calling for help.

Why aren't they helping me?! Even Crystal Prep students are just watching us go by! Aren't we supposed to be on the same side?! Shouldn't they take issue with-

Whether she tripped or just hadn't been paying enough attention to where she was fleeing for her life, Twilight ran headlong into someone, sending both of them to the ground.

Stopping not far away, Aria and Sonata stared in horror at the scene in front of them... and several witnesses. As she'd been facing the other direction, the two of them had thought that Adagio's fluffy cushioning would harmlessly stop Twilight so they could calmly explain the situation, but Adagio must have heard them coming, because she turned around with just the right timing for Twilight to slam into her, knock her flat on her back, fall on top of her, and wind up with her face pressed into Adagio's chest. Aria's jaw dropped when Twilight lifted herself up by pressing both hands against Adagio's arms, as if to keep her pinned.

"Uhgh," muttered Twilight as she got her bearings, "sorry, I was-" Her overall body temperature plummeting, Twilight's pupils shrunk to pinpicks when she saw the girl she'd unintentionally tackled... and continued to hold to the ground. She didn't know this girl's name, but the murderous look on her flushed face succinctly communicated her thoughts.

"Stand up," she hissed, a command she was vaguely gratified to see Twilight adhere to almost automatically. She didn't break eye-contact as she got to her feet herself. "Walk with us."

Instinct was to run, but knowing that the other two were right behind her, Twilight cooperated in the hope of a lighter sentence. Her heart rose when Trenderhoof stepped towards them and opened his mouth, then immediately sunk again when the excessively fuzzy one shot him a look that made him stop, turn pale, and slowly back away, giving Twilight an apologetic look.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

They brought Twilight to the backstage area of the gym, which wasn't in use at the time. Twilight started talking the second Adagio turned to face her.

"I'm sorry I fell on you! I know you're supposed to watch where you're going even when barreling through the hallways -which is totally against the regulations of any decent educational facility to begin with!- and I bumped into you once already because I wasn't paying attention but-" she glanced behind her, "-these two started chasing me and, n-not that I mean to imply that it's their fault, but I panicked even though in hindsight, all they really said was that they found me and wanted to talk, but in the context of what happened yesterday, I expected something excruciatingly painful, embarrassing, or both, so I assumed the worst and ran away so maybe it really is my fault buteitherwayI'mreallysorry!!"

She closed the statement with a large inhale, leaving the trio around her to stare at her wide-eyed for a moment.

Adagio nodded. "Right, well, that's good to know and all, but not what we wanted to talk to you about." Twilight's head tilted a little as she made a comical 'Huh?' face, so Adagio cleared her throat. "When we first saw you, the three of us mistook you for someone else, so a misunderstanding led us to treat you harshly." Swallowing her already-bruised pride (and rage, which was fortunately beginning to subside on its own), Adagio folded one hand over the other and bent forward a little. "That was wrong of us, and we're sorry."

For a second, Twilight's jaw dropped, then she shook her head while raising both palms. "N-no, no, not at all, I'm sorry for the, uh-" she blushed, unconsciously pantomiming groping motions with both hands, "unwanted t-touching t-to your, um-"

"That, was kinda our fault too," said Aria while rubbing the back of her head, "what with our little keep-away thing and sprinting after you like we did. Hell, I'd have probably run for it too."

"Yea," added Sonata with a contrite frown, "we're sorry, Not-Princess Twilight."

And there was that name again! Twilight was about to ask, but she hadn't even asked these girls their names yet, and wasn't sure if politeness should take precedent over wanting to know why everyone from CHS kept calling her 'Princess.' Unfortunately, the intercom again crackled to life.

"Will all competitors please report to the foyer immediately."

The cheerleaders glanced upward at the sound, then turned to leave.

"Wait," called Twilight, who had made up her mind, "what are your names?"

The blue one turned around to walk backwards, but none of them slowed down. "Name's Sonata Dusk!"

"Aria Blaze," said the purple one with an arm-wave, not so much as turning her head.

The fluffy one (that I've accidentally fondled twice) glanced over her shoulder. "I'm Adagio Dazzle. Good luck in the games," she said with a little grin and a wink, "we'll be rooting against you."

The statement was closed with a laugh that made Twilight's knees shake as the trio walked out, but she couldn't quite tell if the sentiment had been a catty taunt, or a friendly warning, maybe even a genuine wish for her to do well. Would she try to psyche her out right after apologizing? Even when Twilight... did that thing, completely by accident? Adagio was red-in-the-face furious and all they wanted was to talk.

Huh... maybe cheerleaders aren't so mean. At least, not all the time. And, seeing them in better light, all three of them were beautif-

The intercom crackled to life again.

"Will all contestants please-ah, hey! give that back!"

"Twilight," sounded Indigo Zap through a possibly-stolen microphone, "it's time to start the games! Get your ass out here!!"

To have her name called over any kind of public loudspeaker made Twilight extremely uncomfortable to start with, but knowing that she was tardy struck terror into her heart. Equally scared and mortified, it was all Twilight could do to hurriedly stumble her way to the foyer in the hope that Cinch was half as merciful as CHS's cheerleaders.

...Today! As merciful as they were TODAY!!

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

The Wondercolts, Shadowbolts, sirens (who had just arrived), primary authority figures for both schools, and many students who would be spectating stood in the foyer as they waited on the last member of Crystal Prep's team. As was often the case in rooms full of people that were waiting for something, there was much idle chatter.

"So," Rarity summed up, "no one should be mistaking Twilight for our Twilight anymore?"

"Yep," Pinkie answered proudly, "I got the word out all over MyStable last night, so everybody should know she's her own person, not just a stand-in for someone else or to be treated as such!"

Sunset smiled. Even if Twilight wasn't going to be around for long, that kind of misunderstanding wasn't going to make anything better.

And here she comes now!

Twilight was keeping her head down even before her team (and Cinch) started giving her withering looks, but she at least refrained from bumping into anyone again as she took her place by the others.

"Welcome to the first event," began Dean Cadence, "the Academic Decathalon! You'll be scored on Chemistry, Home-Ec, and everything in between. But remember, only the six students from each team with the most points will move on to event number two. Good luck!"

The first event was chemistry, so everyone headed to the lab. As they walked, Indigo nudged Twilight with her elbow, keeping her voice down as she smirked.

"Guess you know what I mean about those cheerleaders now, huh?"

Feeling the dread of oncoming shame, Twilight struggled to stay quiet. "W-what?!"

"Heard about it from the others, how you pushed one of 'em down and-"

"I-it was an accident!"

"Suuure it wa-"

"No, r-really," it didn't help that she had already felt as guilty as she sounded, "I was running from the others when I ran into her!"

Indigo looked at her in surprise. "Woah, really? What'd you do to them?"

"N-nothing!!"

"Uh-huh," she said in doubting tones, "they started chasing you for nothing at all right before you motorboated the third one?"

"I d-did NOT-"

Walking alongside them, Sunny Flare leaned in to whisper to Indigo, giving Twilight a fearful look. "I never knew she could be such a beast."

"Totally. Always the quiet ones, huh?"

Groaning, Twilight spent the next several minutes with her burning face buried in both hands.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Academic competitions typically didn't have cheerleaders, but then, academic matters typically weren't competitions at all. The trio in dark-blue belly-shirts and ruffly skirts were allowed to perform so long as they weren't disruptive.

"Well, here we go," grumbled Aria, a prickly blush already working its way across her face, "public humiliation time."

"Think peppy thoughts," said Sonata, "'cuz it's time to cheer!"

As everyone got ready for chemistry, the sirens again donned their bright, happy 'cheerleader' faces and started the routine.

Gog-gles, and, coats,
don't drink it, you'll melt your throats!
And don't, for-get, gloves,
if undamaged skin you love!
Goooo, SAFETY!

To the sirens' relief, no one actually pointed and laughed or snickered behind their hands at them, which made them feel a bit silly about having worried.

One, drop, to, change!
Colors quickly re-arrange!
But don't, heat, too, long,
or you won't know what went wrong!
Beeee CAREFUL!

Ditzy Doo was not careful, which didn't do CHS any favors. Next up was Home-Ec, which boiled down to baking a cake for some reason. This was even with the half-hour waiting period that baking cakes would actually require, as opposed to something that could be prepared faster. Maybe sandwiches just weren't as good for showing off? As a result, this stage of the event was essentially cut into two parts, starting with preparing the cake layers.

Break the eggs, roll the dough,
batter-making, ready go!
From the bowl into the tin,
pour it out and pop it in!
In the oven, now we wait,
then it's time to decorate!
Dooooon't BURN IT!

There wasn't much to cheer about when everyone was standing around making small-talk, so those not waiting near ovens wandered around a bit when Dean Cadence announced the baking period as a thirty-minute bathroom break.

Sunset was startled by a hand on her shoulder, whirling around to see Adagio. "Oh, hey. You need something?"

"Affirmation, perhaps. I know we aren't really doing anything of substance, but tell me;" she gestured to the other Wondercolts, "is our cheering having any effect? Because even if it was you that took our voices in the first place, I'd rather not repay their return by being useless."

Internally, Sunset squeed. If Adagio wanted to be sure her efforts (which were to help CHS in this instance) weren't for nothing and it was taken as a given that Aria and Sonata felt the same way, then it meant that the sirens genuinely wanted to do something good! Maybe just in a quid-pro-quo kind of way, but they must have known that they could just as easily carry on as they were whether they were helping at all or not, or even just drop their pom-poms and walk away, and they didn't!

Maybe by the end of the day, they'll even have some friends here!

Outwardly, Sunset restrained herself to a bright smile. "Don't worry, you guys being here is helping me a lot."

"Oh?" Adagio raised an eyebrow, the faintest smirk tugging at her lips. "In what way?"

Blink. "Huh? Oh, just, y'know, it's, uh... nice to have someone cheering for us, is all."

"Yea," Pinkie cut in with a big, big smile, "it's ALWAYS great to have more rhyming goin' on!"

Kneeling down to keep an eye on the nearest cake, Rainbow lifted her head enough to be heard. "To be honest, it ain't doing much for me, but that's probably because I'm not doing much either. I mean, seriously, cooking and spelling bees? Not my bag. But hey," she said with a cocky grin, "wait 'til things get physical and I'll show ya just how much having my own cheering section gets my blood pum-ow!"

Flexing the fingers of the hand she'd just thwapped Rainbow with, Applejack gave her an unamused look. "Our, Rainbow, our cheering section."

"Eh, r-right, right, haha... My bad."

There were a few giggles from the CHS side of the room. Rarity smiled as she looked over at Aria and Sonata, who seemed to be engaging a few Shadowbolts in idle conversation. "I don't rightly know what to make of the dance routines, myself, but I'm tickled pink to see my work flaunted, if I'm honest." She turned to Fluttershy. "The three of them just look exquisite, don't you think?"

Having been looking in the same direction, Fluttershy jumped with a start, glanced around, and hid most of her increasingly pink face in her hair before nodding once.

Glancing at a not-entirely-thrilled Adagio, Sunset looked to the rest of the Wondercolts, whom she was pretty sure heard all of this. "What about you guys?"

Lyra, Bon-Bon, Micro Chips, Sandalwood, Ditzy Doo, and Flash Sentry all offered smiles, nods, and looks that didn't convey displeasure of any kind. Sunset contained another squee as this drew a tiny grin out of Adagio.

"Hm. Well," she said softly, "I suppose that answers that."

'Oh, and, how did you decide what to do with your life when it lost all meaning and direction?' Would that be awkward with these other people around? Maybe it can wait...

Turning back toward the others, she regained her smirk, letting it carry into her voice. "Good luck in the games, Sunset Shimmer, and hopefully we'll keep doing a lot for you." Nearly being able to hear the inquisitive looks Sunset was getting for that last part filled Adagio with a special sense of delight.

It faded a little faster than she'd have liked, but that probably had something to do with returning to Aria and Sonata to find them apparently in the middle of an argument with the Crystal Prep kids; something she very specifically wanted to avoid. As Aria was currently telling off the one she'd heard 'Sugar' refer to as 'Indigo' and the yellow girl with the red, green-striped ponytail, Adagio whispered to Sonata.

"What's going on?"

"Aria's having a spat with some of the girls from yesterday."

"How did it start?"

"It's been kinda hard to follow with the ponytail girl (I mean, the one that isn't me) flip-flopping between Friendly Smiler and Growly McBitchvoice, but I think the blue-haired girl (I mean, the one that isn't me) said something about us shakin' our booties for the wrong team and how it wouldn't matter in the end, Aria took offense to the thought of her booty-shaking not even making a difference (we were just talking about whether or not we were having any impact, what'd Sunset say by the way?), and now they're making Hate eyes and calling each other names."

"...Does this mean I can't expect blue and purple grandchildren?"

Eyes widening as she flushed crimson, Sonata lightly shoved Adagio. "Not funny!!"

Adagio's snickering communicated her opinion on the matter, but she composed herself to break up the argument... which was still immensely weird for her. "Alright, alright," she said while gently pushing Aria and Indigo apart, "I just got done talking to the Wondercolts about whether or not we're wasting our energy here."

Aria hadn't stopped scowling at Indigo, who glared right back. "And, verdict?"

Raising her chin somewhat haughtily, Adagio rested her hands on her hips. "I can confirm that our shaking," she said while giving her behind a quick wiggle, "is at least having some effect, even if not necessarily as intended, and that we may prove even more effective when the physical portion starts."

"Hah," said Aria with a smug smile, "see? Told you."

"Pfft," retorted Indigo, "we'll see how much it matters by the end'a this thing, Pom-Poms."

Aria's eyes narrowed as she took a challenging step forward. "Don't call me Pom-Poms, Bug-Eyes!"

Indigo made similar movements. "The goggles are for racing, you Miku-Wannabe!"

"Miku? You weeaboo!"

"Bitch!"

"Butch bitch!!"

"Okay," Sour Sweet said with a smile as she took hold of one of Indigo's wrists and led her away, "while it's just great interacting with other schools," her tone quickly darkened, "listening to you two is giving me cancer."

Indigo and Aria continued to make faces at each other as the former was dragged back to her group, to the mild shame of both schools. Over by Cinch, Celestia, Cadence, and Luna, it was silently agreed to let the moment pass.

"Yo," greeted Lemon Zest when Indigo and Sour had returned, "what'd we miss?"

Sunny Flare crossed her arms.

"Do not tell me you were trying to get those girls to transfer to Crystal Prep."

Not looking directly at her, Indigo smirked. "Okay, I won't tell you."

"Oh, you are unbelievable!"

"I try."

"They definitely got some good-lookin' girls here," said a grinning Neon Lights, who had grown to appreciate belly-shirts since the start of the Games, "and not just the ones that shake it."

Painfully familiar with Sunny Flare's feelings on that kind of talk, Jet Set spoke up to defend his partner the second Sunny turned her head their way.

"A-and what he means by that is to say, er, that even though they're all human beings whose thoughts and feelings are to be respected, their physical beauty is easily observed, so even while attention is drawn to readily apparent features, it is to be understood at all times that those in possession of such, uh, traits, are not simply images to be used in fueling unclean thoughts," he gave Neon Lights a worried, though pointed look, "is that not correct?"

Taking the hint, Neon nodded quickly. "Yes! That! word for word, even!"

Sunny held her simmering stare, but it gradually melted to a warm little smile. "Better, thank you."

Jet Set and Neon Lights breathed sighs of relief. Not far from them, Sugarcoat stood idly by as Twilight wrapped the explanation she'd been giving for the last ten minutes.

"-which is where the endothermic expansion comes in. Neat, huh?"

"Fascinating."

Twilight frowned. "You know, I can never tell if you're being sarcastic."

"Me? Never."

Her eyebrows knitted. "I can never tell if you're mocking me, either."

"Trust me, Twilight; when I'm mocking you, you'll know it."

"...Thanks?" The sound of nearby footsteps made her turn her head. "Oh, hello, Indigo."

"Heya," she said with a little grin, "how's the lecture goin' over here?"

Realizing that she must have gone on a tangent again (half the reason people don't talk to me!!), Twilight blushed. "Uh... I think it's done now. Sorry"

Indigo chuckled. "No sweat." Looking around the room, her eyes stopped on the cheerleaders again, who were chatting amongst themselves. "I talked to those girls you felt up, by the way."

Fittingly for the topic she'd just been discussing, Twilight demonstrated an endothermic process in her face. "Wh-what?!"

"You got dibs on the yellow one, right? Is it her hips or-" she briefly cupped her own breasts "do you just like 'em small?"

"GAH!!"

Amusing as Twilight's flustered stammering was, Sugarcoat focused on the cheerleaders as well, particularly the aforementioned yellow one. Making note of Indigo's observations regarding the girl's physique, she allowed herself a tiny smirk. Soon, Sugarcoat would have her revenge!

...Once she got her alone for a minute. She'd been confident about making fun of her excessive hair, too, so better safe than sorry.

Chapter 8: Unfairness and Troubles

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Just before the decorating phase began, Pinkie was seen whispering to the sirens. They chuckled, but nodded affirmatively.

Off the pan and on the plate,
now's the time to decorate!
Colored icing adds some flair,
make sure that it's even-layered!

The last part of the cheer was delivered just as Pinkie and Fluttershy showed off their cake.

CHS's is so high,
but inside is the real surprise,
Iiiiiiit's, LISA!

Most of the room, most of all the judges, could only stare in shock at the Mona Lisa made into the layers of a cake. Some of the Shadowbolts quietly raised questions about the purpose of putting that much effort into something that was meant to be eaten, but Sour Sweet remained very, very quiet.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

On the way to the workshop, where the next part of the competition was to take place, Aria scratched her head.

"So, I thought Crystal Prep was 'fielding its best students'. Wuddup with those guys' cake, then? Did you see that thing?"

"Yea," nodded Sonata, "and CHS had a bummer, too! Were they both just hoping their side's good cake would make everyone forget the sucky ones, or what?"

She and Aria waited for a comment from Adagio, but turned to see her staring off into space as she walked along with them, earning a shoulder-poke.

"Ah-wha-what? What?"

Sonata frowned. "You okay there, Dagi? You were doing that thinking-too-hard thing again."

This won a mild scowl. "I do not 'think too hard,' you just don't think hard enough."

Aria frowned. "So what are you thinking about?"

Adagio flinched, lowering her head as she tried to hide behind her long, fluffy bangs. "W-well... It's not important, but, um..." She gulped. "I have mixed feelings on cheering, and it scares me."

Aria and Sonata shared a look of a single raised eyebrow each, but the latter giggled.

"Maybe it's in your DNA. I mean, you practically look like a pom-pom already!"

Hearing a tiny, pained groan as Adagio's shoulders slumped, Aria shrugged dismissively. "Ahh, it's probably just shakin' your ass in a revealing outfit that you're liking, not rooting for people we hate in a contest we don't care about."

That won a tiny smile out of Adagio, but Sonata made an inquisitive face.

"Wait, do we still hate them, leaving out Sunset? I mean, I know the rest didn't lift a finger to help us when we were all depressed, but it's not like they could have been expected to do anything about magical problems they know next to nothing about, and they haven't made fun or acted like they owned us or anything, so apart from the whole mad quest for power thing (that we didn't really get to do all that much anyway), should we even still be mad?"

Eyes full of fire said Aria wasn't convinced. "They took our purpose in life and left us to rot."

Pouting, Sonata replied in a low whine. "But dwelling on bad feelings suuuuucks! You should know, you were sulkier than any of us for those long, sucky months!"

Aria's eyes (flames thankfully extinguished) widened for a second before she crossed her arms and looked away. "So?" she asked weakly, "Doesn't mean they didn't still screw us."

"Doesn't mean moping about it doesn't still suck."

"Gdrk-! You-! That-!" Aria groaned. "Adagio, shut her up!"

Smiling a little, Adagio draped one arm around Sonata's shoulders to pull her in for a light hug. "See? Thinking hard. Good girl."

Sonata let out pleased little giggles as Aria replied with another tortured groan. She'd quit hating things when she was good and ready, dammit!

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Cut, drill, saw, bash,
wood parts fashioned in a flash!
Ham-mer, and, nail,
or the house is sure to fail!
Paint, on, thick, layers,
even if the birds won't care!
Theyyyy're HOMELESS!

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"Man," Rainbow remarked aloud on the way to the next event, "why'd they paint flames on a birdhouse? I don't think when birds see a forest fire, their first thought is "Oh, I'mma build my nest in that!""

"It's really not," muttered Fluttershy.

Applejack would have commented in jest on the merits of painting flames on a scarecrow to keep the buzzards away, but not while Fluttershy was in earshot.

Rarity sighed, keeping her voice down. "It might have looked ridiculous, but at least theirs didn't fall apart at the slightest touch. Perhaps we should have made sure everyone knew what they were doing before we chose teams?"

"Speaking of touching," Pinkie piped up, "I heard some of the Shadowbolts talking about their Twilight, how she's been feeling up the sirens today!"

"What?!" Sunset's head whipped around so fast that she heard the ends of her hair snap against something, along with a familiar, frightened squeak at the same time. Shock melting to heart-felt contrition, she turned, much more slowly, to see Fluttershy with her hands over her nose. "S-sorry!!"

Still rubbing her nose, Fluttershy managed a little smile. "It's okay, that just startled me a little." She had to actually let Sunset see her nose before her Sunset was convinced she hadn't been hurt, but the reminder of how much her former bully had changed still warmed her heart!

"Okay," Sunset said while looking back at Pinkie, "what was that about Twilight?"

"Just that she apparently groped Aria and Sonata before pushing Adagio down to have her way with her, right there in the hallway! Then they dragged her off somewhere just before the games started"

Sunset had no words.

Breaking the portal (which may have been involved with Rarity and Pinkie's sudden fatigue), then fondling three girls? What the Hell is she playing at here?! If she's doing something with magic, is it because she knows about the sirens? Was she trying to access their magic somehow too, or was that just a random impulse? I mean, they are attractive girls, and maybe she swings that way too, but why would she stop whatever she's doing with the magic to-

"Hey," snickered Applejack, "y'think them belly-shirts are doin' a lot fer more than just Sunset?"

Her friends' giggling snapped her out of her thoughts as she flushed red. "Guys, I-I told you, sh-she was just, it was a joke! She was just joking!" She looked to Rarity for support, but Rarity sharply averted her eyes and said nothing. Of course, she hadn't defended Rarity either when the sirens poked fun at her, so maybe it was too much to expect midriff-related-embarrassment solidarity now.

Pinkie beamed. "Every joke carries an ounce of truth, Sunset!"

"Wha-?!"

Extremely rare was the day that Fluttershy would join in on any kind of teasing, but with a small, mischievous smile did she do exactly that. "If they're okay with cheerleading, they m-might be okay with belly-dancing for you, too."

"Buh-I-tha-"

"Don't worry about it, Sunset," Rainbow said with a wide grin, "no one is judging your love of belly-shirts."

"I don't love belly-shirts, and the miniskirts are much hotter anyway!"

For a second, the Rainbooms stopped dead, even as everyone else continued to walk around them. Luminous, Sunset quickly picked up the pace in both movement and conversation. "But, the real point of having them dress like that is still converting them to the light side and all, like we talked about before."

The rest vaguely nodded and murmured in agreement as they followed along, hoping for Sunset's sake that no one else really heard that in the din of the hallway.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

The sirens knew without being told that they weren't allowed to cheer (let alone spell things out with their cheers, whether they were related to the current word or not) during the Spelling Bee, but they were permitted to perform short victory dances when the Wondercolts got one right. Fluttershy and Sunset were the leading cause of pom-pom swinging for that event, the latter being no surprise. It looked like Sunset had been the driving force for the Wondercolts in the Chemistry event too, which the sirens took to mean that her labcoat wasn't an impulse buy when she started screwing with magic.

Sugarcoat found that her team didn't do a fantastic job either, bar Twilight Academic Robot Sparkle, but she blamed her own mistake on the Wondercolts' cheerleaders. Their silent dances were meant to throw her off, flailing their limbs in ways that subliminally implanted the wrong letters into her mind, she was sure of it!

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

And then came time for the Elimination Equation, which saw Sunset and Twilight as the sole competitors. Each stood in front of a chalkboard and were asked to solve the same equation... with everyone staring at them. Again, the sirens were silent, as concentration was key, and since Sunset was facing away from them, they didn't even dance this time, instead sitting idly by while vaguely wishing her luck.

While working on the equation, Sunset kept glancing at Twilight out of the corner of her eye.

"Twilight? Pssst! Twilight! I need to talk to you!"

No response. Her attention divided between the chalkboard and the girl to her right, Sunset tried again.

"Hey! Twilight! Twilight Sparkle whom I understand not to be the one everyone at this school is already familiar with! Talking to you!"

Nothing.

"It's about the magic here. You must have some idea of what's going on, right? Bump into something if you can hear me!"

She gave no signal.

"So help me, I will drag my nails down this chalkboard!"

Sunset focused on the equation for a moment while waiting for a response. Either Twilight didn't hear her or she was calling her bluff. Scowling, Sunset opted to just get through the event for now and find a minute to talk things out with her later. Twilight, for her part, remained steadfastly focused on the board in front of her, lest she remember something about someone being in front of a LOT of people waiting to judge them for their every slightest movement. She sure wouldn't want to be someone like that right now!

Have to get this right, HAVE to get this right! Yes, yes, the third quadratic is...

When she was finished, she turned and waited for the verdict. The sound of Cinch saying "Incorrect" made her wince, but she quickly realized that she was pointing to the other girl's board when she said that.

Sunset blushed a little, both for having failed in front of everyone (quite possibly due to a lack of concentration...) and for Photo Finish snapping a picture of it for posterity.

Also in the crowd, Aria muttered her question to the others. "So, was Cinch the sole judge of that event, or...?"

They had no answer as Luna tallied up the points on her clipboard. "That means the winner of the Friendship Games first event is... Twilight Sparkle and Crystal Prep!"

Twilight smiled a little, though it ebbed away at the lukewarm praise she got for it as some of the other Shadowbolts joined her on stage. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched girls from the other team huddle together to congratulate her opponent. For failing. She heard something about being happy to get that close to winning, but couldn't help a bitter twinge in her chest at the sheer difference in reactions, despite the inversion of success.

Dean Cadence stood in the center of the stage to deliver the next announcement. "After a careful tally of the points, we'd like to present the students moving on the the Friendship Games' second event."

There was a bit more clapping, but the sound that most got Twilight's attention was the snapping of a palm against her rear, making her jump with a start. Both hands moving to address her stinging posterior, she quickly turned to see a smiling Indigo Zap.

"Great work, ya little egghead!" She turned to smirk at that purple cheerleader, but it quickly faded to a more irritated expression when she saw her talking to the other two, not even paying attention to the proof that CHS was losing anyway! She was tapped on the shoulder by a thoroughly unamused Sunny Flare.

Artist's depiction

"Was that a sportsmanlike pat to the behind, or sexual harassment?"

"First one, I don't really go for the dweeby types." She smiled at Twilight with only a hint of contrition. "No offense."

"N-none taken...?"

Glancing back and forth between the cheerful Wondercolts and her own largely apathetic team, Twilight sighed quietly. She might have liked a little of that jubilation for herself, she'd certainly earned it, but maybe sportsmanlike swatting was where it started? Regardless, the second event wouldn't be starting for a little while, so she got back to work with the spectrometer, stepping past the blue-haired boy again to continue her search.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

In order to find a private spot to feed Spike and take him for a walk, Twilight slipped out of CHS through a side-door. She had a bit of time before the next event, so it was probably better to take care of him now if she didn't want a mess in her bag (And I very much don't!). Besides, he was whimpering at her from inside the backpack, and the sound always made her feel like she was doing something awful.

When they made their way around to the front of the school, however, she had to pick him up and duck behind a pillar to hide from those other girls. It was mostly just the scary one with the red and yellow hair, but with the dirty looks she'd been giving Twilight since she showed up, she'd have been avoiding her even if she hadn't just beaten her in that event. What happens when you confront someone you've recently outperformed was the first thing Twilight learned at Crystal Prep. Luckily for her, Scary Girl and the rest moved on before long, though one walked in the other direction and knelt by some bushes. Twilight would have kept moving, but the spectrometer flickered to life...

Opening her bookbag, Fluttershy was immediately nuzzled by Angel Bunny, who'd slipped into her bag again that morning. Patting his soft, little head, she heard a rustling sound from the bushes behind her, turning to see the other Twilight. Glancing at Angel, she smiled. "Do you want to give him a treat?"

Somewhat hesitantly, Twilight smiled back as she stepped out of the bush and knelt beside her, holding Spike's leash as he scampered up to say hello via sniffing and tail-wags. "Guess I'm not the only one who smuggles pets into school."

Fluttershy giggled. "Well, just the one. Angel likes to come with me sometimes, but I couldn't possibly bring more at once. I mean, could you imagine three or four living creatures all smushed together in one little bag for hours on end? Even if I were to line the bag with blankets and have no room at all for books, it'd still be horribly uncomfortable before long."

"...You've thought about it."

"Long and hard, yes."

Twilight nodded, gesturing to the puppy at her side as she let him off the leash. "Well, all I have is Spike."

Picking him up, Fluttershy smiled. "It really is uncanny. Does he talk?"

"...Uhh," she uttered with an awkward grin, "not that I know of...?" 'Does your dog talk?' There really IS something crazy about this school!

"Congratulations on winning, by the way," Fluttershy said while rubbing Spike's belly, frowning as she turned to look at Twilight, "though, it didn't seem like anyone on your team was very excited about it."

Twilight frowned a little herself. "No one at my school gets excited about anything they didn't do themselves."

Her frown deepened. "That sounds awful."

Reminded of the (quite unfair!) contrast in responses from both teams not too long ago, Twilight must have let her feelings show on her face, because Fluttershy offered her the rabbit.

"Here, hold this."

On account of having her own cuddly puppy, Twilight was quite familiar with the emotional healing properties of small, cute animals, so she took hold of the bunny without question. A thought occurred as she accepted the tender nuzzles. "I'm on the other team and you just lost. Why are you being so nice to me?"

Fluttershy smiled. "You looked like you needed it."

And then she started to glow...

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"So," Sunset summed up, "you ponied up, Twilight's necklace started moving, and then the magic went haywire, with Twilight sprinting away in fright?"

"Uh-huh," confirmed Fluttershy, "and by the end of it, Spike was talking and I felt really, really tired."

The Rainbooms walked through the hall together to see the area that had been set up for the next event, with Fluttershy sharing the story of her encounter along the way. Sunset counted off on her fingers.

"Rarity ponied up when she made us outfits, Pinkie when she threw her party, and Fluttershy when she..." There had to be a dignified way to say this, but Sunset's brain was a little frazzled as it was. "Um... Advocated, bunny snuggles." She tinted pink as her friends giggled, but kept things moving herself. "And in all of those events, it sounds like Twilight was the one stealing the magic. I know she was close when the portal crapped out, so maybe she was responsible for that too!"

Fluttershy tilted her head. "How?"

The question came like a sledgehammer to the back of Sunset's head, making her pull at her own hair in frustration. "I don't knoooow! And the pony and/or princess who could tell us is completely unreachable right now!" She tensed, then immediately relaxed when she felt Rarity's hand on her shoulder.

"It'll be alright, Darling. There are still two events and the victory festivities before the other Twilight is due to leave, and we're sure to find a chance to talk with her before then."

Sighing, Sunset didn't share her confidence. "I sure hope so."

"Yea, well," said Rainbow as she pushed open half of a double-door, "let's just focus on beating the Shadowbolts for now. As long as this event puts me in a playing field," she said with a confident grin, "we've got nothing to worry about!"

Applejack pointed to the stage for the next event. "Oh, it puts you in a playing field alright."

The Rainbooms took in the sight of an obstacle course that ended with a shooting range encircled by a race-track, which itself was encircled by a bigger, wilder race-track made of dirt and ramps.

Visual aid!

Sunset in particular looked shocked, then very annoyed. "Does everyone remember my bitch-rant about half the books and quite a few computers in the library being out of date a few years ago? Well now I know where the funding went, and this does NOT make me feel better!!"

Despite her short, tiny relapse into her old self, Sunset's friends giggled. Academics was one subject she'd learned she was allowed to get irritable about, thanks to a few logical arguments back when she was first getting to know them. The others wandered out to explore the field while she fumed about spending priorities, leaving her by herself. Movement on the far side of the outer-most track caught her eye, where she saw Aria and Sonata climbing around on one of the upraised ramp-structures like monkey bars.

And if they're here, then...?

Pacing around the outer perimeter of the field, she caught sight of Adagio, as expected. She walked up beside her to find Adagio with a passive look on her face as she watched Aria and Sonata hang upside down (revealing tight short-shorts the same shade of dark blue as their uniforms) and swing back and forth making monkey noises, respectively.

"Are you going to join them?"

Not turning her head, Adagio lightly tugged one side of her skirt up about an inch. "If you want a peek, you can get in line behind this world's Twilight."

"Very funny. I heard about what happened from the others, and I'm a little surprised you guys didn't knock her block off for that."

At this, Adagio turned, wide-eyed. "Were we allowed to?! I mean, n-not that we were going to, but, er-" She chose to stop talking when Sunset giggled.

"I know, I know, you wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the games for either side, just like I asked," she gave Adagio a warm, earnest little grin, the light breeze of the open field gently running through her hair and a bright gleam of understanding shining in her eyes, "right?"

"Uh-" Fumbling for a response, Adagio felt her cheeks get warmer. "Y-yes, that... So, what's with the outfit?"

Sunset blinked. "Huh?"

A smirk growing on her face, Adagio nodded. "I've noticed a few changes to your wardrobe since the first time we saw you. More specifically; I don't think you wore tights and high heels before. Now where could you have gotten an idea like that...?"

Seeing where she was going with this, Sunset smiled guiltily. "Heh, heh... Well, I, guess I just liked the look?"

"Mhm," Adagio hummed while slowly scanning Sunset's fashion choices, "and as it appears you only took inspiration from the waist down, I think I know where you were looking."

Flushed, Sunset quickly broke eye-contact. "Haha, r-right, well, I should really get ready for the next event, gottagoseeyabye!!"

And off she ran, leaving Adagio to chuckle fiendishly... which slowly faded as realization sunk in.

"Oh, by the way, how did you cope with your life falling apart?" You were supposed to ask her. She was alone and everything. And, what was with the outfit questions? She shows you calm compassion and you respond like that?! You can't say it's just in your nature, because Aria and Sonata were (mostly) supportive for you even when you toyed with both of their heads this morning! What's the matter with-

"AAIIIIIEEE," came Sonata's high-pitched bird-call from the ramp she and Aria climbed on, "DAGI, HEEEEELP!"

When she turned to look, Adagio's jaw went slightly slack at the sight of Sonata with her hair snagged in the metalwork while Aria stood atop the ramp, pounding her chest with both fists like a gorilla. She sighed.

Help now, scold later.

Chapter 9: Persistence and Chaos

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Twilight had a very bad feeling.

It wasn't just the lack of intelligible results in her search thus far, but the other thing she'd been dreading all day. She stood next to Sour Sweet at the start of the obstacle course in the center of the... (should I still be ashamed if my vocabulary is lacking in athletic jargon?) sporty, thing, area... with CHS's competitors doing the same just a few meters away. Standing in the grass between CHS's side of the obstacle course and the roller-rink were CHS's cheerleaders, who at least weren't giving her any unsettling looks. The same could not be said of her own team, the countless faces on the distant bleachers, and most of all Principal Cinch, who took her seat by the other judges.

Nervous even without the pressure (OH SO MUCH PRESSURE) to do well, Twilight did her best not to react to everyone staring at her like they were expecting her to fail. The first step to doing this was to remember that such stares were (most likely ENTIRELY) in her imagination, derived from various fears and anxieties. She felt better already! In that she was just extremely nervous now, but still!

Dean Cadence summed up the rules of the event, how one competitor had to hit the target (archery, which is a requirement at Crystal Prep, WHY?!) at the end of the obstacle course before their partner could move to do the same. When both obstacle-course-running archers had completed their task, the competitors on their team could begin with the roller-skating race, whether the other school's team was moving or not. When enough laps were completed, the bike teams could start their way around the track, which would be the deciding factor.

When the event started, Sour Sweet and Fluttershy took off and the cheerleaders launched into their routine. Distantly, Twilight tried to pretend that those cheers applied to her as well.

Run, slide, jump, swing,
grab a bow and shoot something!
Ar-row, and, bow,
one hit and you're good to go!

Sour Sweet hit a bulls-eye by launching three arrows at once, which, while Twilight questioned the legality, meant she was now 'good to go.' With a quick glance at the other CHS competitor, Twilight stood up, ran, tried to leap over the hay bale, tripped, and face-planted on the ground just past it. Luckily, there were no mocking cheers relating to klutziness or polishing the floor with one's face. Sour Sweet was glaring at her in irritation when she got up, but Twilight quickly moved to swing over the mud, barely keeping herself from falling in. Struggling, she made her way onto the platform by the time Fluttershy hit a target and the other CHS archer was in position. Both took a shot that neither landed, but where Fluttershy quietly applauded her teammate, all Twilight got was another glare.

Unfair! Just like with the Elimination Equation! CHS gives praise no matter what and all I get is judgement! I don't want patronizing participation awards, but this just SUCKS!!

The blonde girl across from her hit with her very next shot, which sent CHS's roller-skaters off in the next ring and the cheerleaders into another lively chant.

Work the left, work the right,
legs move at the speed of light!
On the track, round you go,
faster than your richer foe!

Twilight kept firing, knowing that statistically, one of her arrows had to hit if she kept shooting the general area where the bulls-eye traveled. Right? Failure rate so far remained at 100% (and I just love getting 100% on things...), but Sour Sweet's tone suggested she wasn't thinking positive as she watched CHS's skaters go by.

"Well, that's just fantastic!"

Knowing that it was directed squarely at her, the commentary offered by Dean Cadence hurt much worse.

"If CPA can't hit another bulls-eye soon, they'll be out of this race."

Frantically, she tried to ready another arrow, dropped it, and felt the tears welling up in her eyes as she quickly moved to retrieve it. She tried to wipe her eyes clean (my accuracy is horrific as it is) with her bare arm before shooting, but it hardly made a difference, which got worse when Sugarcoat shouted from the outer-most ring.

"You're really bad at this!"

Turning to look at her, Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "Is that really how you encourage a teammate?"

Shrugging, Sugarcoat haughtily raised her chin. "I'm just pointing out the truth."

"Yea? Well here's some more: If you want to win, tearing down your own members is a fuckin' stupid way to do it." She looked at the scoreboard for the roller-rink, waiting for her cue. "Good luck to you guys anyway."

As Sugarcoat and Indigo stared in slack-jawed shock, Sunset beamed with some kind of friendly pride, which reached face-hurting levels when she saw Applejack assisting Twilight down by the archery range.

Given that the platforms were elevated for better audience visibility, the sirens, standing on the grass on the opposite side, couldn't quite see what was going on with Applejack from where they were, which made Aria scratch her head.

"What's she doing over there?"

Adagio leaned over to try to get a better look. "I saw her hand her bow off to Fluttershy before going over to their side... Did you two just hear the other Shadowbolt just say something about advice from the person they're competing against?"

Sonata hopped up and down a few times to see for herself. "Why the heck're they helping CeePee? I thought the whole reason they brought us here was that they badly wanted to win? Shouldn't they be, y'know, jumping on this?"

"Hm..."

Adagio had suspected other motives out of Sunset from the start, and as she alone was the one that helped them regain their voices, proposed that they be present, and regularly checked up on them, perhaps there was more to her benevolence than met the eye. She would need to have an increasingly long talk with Sunset later.

"Trust me," said Applejack as she helped Twilight steady her aim, "take a deep breath..." She did. "let the arrow go... riiiight... now!"

Twilight fired, her heart stopping for the instant in which the arrow flew directly for the target, hitting it dead-center.

The crowd cheered, Sunny Flare and Lemon Zest took off, and Spike hopped up to congratulate her. She knelt down to hug him before turning to the girl that had, despite her chance at an easy win, helped her through what may have been the most tense moment of her life. She saw the visual cue of the blonde raising her arm for a high-five, but ignored it, gently seizing her opponent in a hug. The other girl patted her back.

"See? Ah was tellin' ya the truth."

And then that strange phenomenon started again!

During another cheer for the roller-skaters, the sirens had skillfully cartwheeled into a position from which they could see Twilight and Applejack better.

"Hey," Sonata observed, "she's ponying up! Sunset's gonna get in trouble for this!"

Aria looked to Adagio. "I don't really give a damn about these games, but we kinda owe Sunset. Anything we can do about this?"

"If I knew how to prevent or dispel those transformations, don't you think I'd have done it at the Battle?!"

"Yeesh. No need to get snippy."

Her eyes widening in horror, Sonata pointed at Twilight and Applejack. "I think she's figured it out for us!"

Applejack struggled as she felt her energy fading like she was a toaster with the plug pulled, that thing around Twilight's neck ripping it out of her somehow. "What, are, you, doing?!"

"I don't know!!" Horrified at what she was doing to the girl that had just helped her, Twilight again felt like crying as she tried to restrain the spectrometer, but only when the ethereal substance stopped coming was she able to pull it back and snap it shut. Unfortunately, she lost her footing and fell backward, off the platform, and dropped the spectrometer, which snapped off its cord and rolled onto the roller-rink. Open. She could only watch as it unleashed some kind of pulse...

Twilight again out of their field of view, the sirens tried to lean over for a look when they felt the burst of magical activity, but had to keep their focus on the event when the roller-skaters finished.

Dirt roads, dirt bikes,
take those slopes fast as you like!
And don't miss, those ramps,
if you want to be the champs!
Goooo, BIKERS!

And that's when people noticed the huge, plant-like tendrils and Venus fly-trap mouths popping out of rips in time and space. Strangely, no one screamed or ran away or anything, not even Crystal Prep's students, so either this was a more common occurrence than the sirens would have ever guessed, or the people in this world had the self-preservation instincts of a cow.

They watched as Sugarcoat and Sunset were attacked, the former danging from her bike in one of the creature's many mouths and the latter skidding along the ground on her back. Good thing Rarity's motocross outfits doubled as standard safety gear.

...One hoped.

As Sugarcoat fell and tumbled down the plant monster's body, the (mostly powerless) sirens did they only thing they could think of in this situation: Play through!

Watch the vines,
watch the head,
otherwise, you'll end up dead!
Geeeeet out of there!!

Sugarcoat was the only one to take this advice, fleeing the area almost as soon as she was on her feet. Rainbow, however, had gone back for Sunset, snatching her out of the way of a mouth that slammed straight into the dirt. This act quickly led to Rainbow ponying up, but with no immediate response from Twilight's magic-sucking medallion. Much more perplexing was Rainbow's next thought as she pointed to the track.

"We can still win this!"

Sunset knew that her priorities should have been on the creature. She knew that the smart thing to do was stop, find Twilight (who she knew had done something to the portal), and do whatever it took to reverse what she'd done to open all these little rifts the plant-thing was now spilling from. However, if she did that, she would be confirming that magic had gotten in the way of the games, that she had failed completely to stop it from making a mess of things, and the school would probably never forgive her for ruining the Friendship Games. So instead of doing the sensible thing, she did the crazy thing; revving up her bike to continue the race.

If the event kept going, if she just drove past the stupid thing, no matter who won, that would mean that the magic hadn't gotten in the way, right? If they still finished the event? Maybe she was a little heavy on adrenaline right then, but that was what she decided to do. She wanted to give Rainbow credit for thinking the same thing, but if it was a matter of winning something...?

Regardless, she took off, racing past the pit Indigo Zap had fallen into. With the roar of her bike, it was a little hard to detect whether or not the sirens' next cheer was at all sarcastic.

You're still racing?
Well, why not?
Just make sure that you're not caught!
To stay pretty as a peach,
stay out of the monster's reach!
Driiiiive FASTER!

Aria shrugged a little. "I mean, we're not running either, but-"

Sonata finished for her. "But the beastie is all around the outer-most track for some reason, so around the center of this thing, where we're standing, is probably a lot safer right now?"

"Yea, that."

Twilight wasn't paying attention when the racers crossed the finish line, having to dive-roll over a tendril (athleticism is so much easier when no one's watching) to seize and shut the spectrometer, which, she assumed, caused the portals to close and the monster to go away. She looked at the Canterlot High girls that had gathered to discuss this, the scary, fiery-headed one was visibly upset about... magic? That was certainly interesting, but more urgently, Twilight knew she had to apologize.

"Um, excuse me," she started with a contrite frown, "I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I just wanted to learn about the strange energy coming from your school, I didn't know it was magic, or, how it works."

"That's okay," said the smiling, blue, winged girl as she stepped closer, "neither do we."

And again, the spectrometer acted on its own. Twilight tried to close it while frantically apologizing as it drained another girl. "I'm sorry, it just started absorbing energy on its own, but I'm not sure how!"

Scary Girl immediately got in her face for this. "What do you mean you don't know how?!" She tried to close it too, which may have been what triggered the bolt that opened a rift over their heads. Still trying to close her treacherous creation, Twilight again tried to explain herself.

"It also caused these corresponding rifts to appear, I don't know how that works either!"

Exasperated, Scary threw her hands up. "Is there anything you do know?! Like how to get our magic back, or how to fix the portal to Equestria?!"

Wearing a worried frown, Fluttershy stepped forward. "Sunset, please, calm down."

Making note of the name, Twilight was vaguely sure she'd heard it before, but Sunset's last word had her completely lost. "Equestria?"

"You're supposed to be so smart," Sunset seethed as she reached out to clamp the spectrometer shut, "but did you ever think that you shouldn't be messing around with things you don't understand?!"

"But I want to understand," pleaded Twilight, which Sunset heard as 'but I want to play with fire!'

"But you don't," she snapped, pointing an accusatory finger in the hapless hazard's direction, "and worst of all, you put the lives of my friends in danger!" She drew some kind of satisfaction from the tears in Twilight's eyes, knowing that the other girl knew she was wrong.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

And she ran off crying. Sunset continued to glare after her, but only when Rainbow touched her shoulder did she realize what she'd just done. Again.

Temper. It's always my temper. Something bad happens, I don't get my way, I get angry, and then I do something stupid. Happened with Celestia, happened during the Fall Formal, it happened during the Battle, and now I've done it again.

She'd have been angrier at herself, but where would that lead her? Probably doing something stupid again and making an already terrible day even worse. Speaking of things getting worse, she caught sight of the sirens, who, by the looks on their faces, heard more than a little of her exchange with Twilight

"Uh... Hi, guys?"

"Yea, hi," Aria said with a moderate scowl while crossing her arms. "So, when were you gonna tell us about what was going on?"

"I, I only just learned what she was doing recently and-"

Sonata tilted her head a little. "How recently?"

"A little before the second event?"

Aria's eyes narrowed. "But you still didn't say anything?"

"I was, I was going to-..."

Sunset remembered the how she felt about the look she got the first time Princess Twilight returned to this world, and the months between the Fall Formal and the Battle of the Bands, how it felt to be distrusted. There were multiple times in which she thought she'd earned someone's trust back only to learn otherwise, there were misunderstandings with her friends, causing them to doubt her too. Those situations were always resolved eventually, but the look Aria and Sonata were giving her now, that subtle blend of confusion and betrayal? When Sunset wore it herself, it always meant "You don't trust me, do you?" To have that very expression reflected back at her, hurt.

She didn't know what else to say, but Adagio, her face unreadably passive, filled the silence with an ice-cold monotone.

"We should talk later. In private. I'll call you." Leaving no room for discussion, she turned and walked away, Aria and Sonata following her.

When they were out of the Rainbooms' earshot, Adagio glanced over her shoulder at them. "When I said later, I meant very soon, and when I said 'in private'...?"

"Oh," said Sonata as she and Aria stopped following, "gotcha! What should we do?"

Heading off to find a secluded spot, Adagio shrugged. "Whatever you like, the next event doesn't start for a while." The complete lack of mirth in her voice made it hard to tell if she was joking. "Don't do anything I'll see on the news, please."

Aria snorted with amusement anyway, turning to see Sonata giving her a ponderous look.

"So, now what?"

In a split-second, Aria registered that Sonata had forgotten that she was supposed to be 'in charge,' which left that position open to her! But she had to act fast. Glancing around, she caught sight of the Rainbooms approaching Luna, Celestia, Crystal Prep's Ultra-Girly-Hair 9000, and a really cross-looking, blue librarian lady angrily making hand-gestures at Celestia. Aria pointed to the stairway just behind them. "Recon."

Sonata nodded and the two quickly snuck over to hide behind the steps, catching the tail end of something Celestia was saying.

"-some extenuating circumstances... Perhaps we should end the games now and declare a tie."

Blue Pompous did not gel with this. "A tie?! Was this your strategy all along, to force us into accepting you as equals?! I think not. The games will continue and Crystal Prep will prevail despite your antics and whatever performance-enhancing regimen your students are on!" She gave Celestia one more dirty look before walking off.

Sunset immediately stepped forward to apologize. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop all this from happening."

Celestia frowned, her tone completely sympathetic. "It's not your fault, Sunset." This appeared to make Sunset feel worse.

"Isn't it? I should know how to control the magic I brought here. But I don't." Same as Twilight. "I let everyone down. And now Principal Cinch thinks we're cheating!"

She gently put a hand on Sunset's shoulder. "It doesn't matter what Principal Cinch thinks." Damn, it feels good to say that out loud!

"But it does," said Sunset as she stepped away. "The students here at CHS don't just wanna win, they wanna beat Crystal Prep. It isn't gonna count if the other side doesn't really think they lost. Crystal Prep is never gonna believe we won fair and square if there's magic around, and that magic is only around... because of me."

Still behind the stairs, Sonata kept her voice down. "Kinda too late now, isn't it? If the plant thing slamming down on the racers doesn't count as CHS not winning fair and square, I don't know what does!"

"Forget the stupid games, did you hear Sunset?" Peeking around the stairs, Aria's eyes narrowed at the departing Rainbooms. "Maybe when Adagio calls her away, we should have a private talk of our own..."

"Private with their whole group? Minus Sunset?"

Aria facepalmed. "Don't ruin the moment, Sonata."

Chapter 10: Conflicts and Contemplation

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Sunset had done a bit of research on the Friendship Games since they were first brought up, which helped her to understand a few things for which there was little or no prior explanation. On her mind right now was the break period between the second and third events, a span of a few hours in which the schools were meant to interact, talk about how they did in the past two events, trash talk a little about the upcoming one to psyche each other up, and just generally socialize. The only part of that to actually happen in the last few decades was purely mean-spirited trash-talking, which was probably why the students of both schools now largely sat on separate bleachers out in front of CHS, where the next event (traditionally kept a surprise until the last minute) was due to be announced.

This seemed like a good time to search for and talk to Twilight, but as Sunset and her friends wandered a nearly abandoned CHS, it seemed that Sunset's shouty criticism may have been taken to heart. If she still wanted to survey the school for traces of magic, now was the time. Granted, the only sources of magic that Sunset knew about were her, her friends, and the portal, all of which Twilight had gotten to already. Well, there were also the sirens, but Twilight probably didn't know that, so if she was going to keep up her investigation, it would almost definitely be away from everyone else. Wherever she was, they needed to find Twilight soon, if only so they could get the magic back (as they'd seen first-hand how dangerous it could be in if not kept under control) and fix the portal somehow.

When she got Adagio's text, Sunset swore under her breath, urged the others to keep looking for Twilight, and headed for Principal Celestia's office.

"My door is always open," she likes to say. Guess she meant that literally?

That was the theory Sunset chose to settle on as she pushed that very unlocked door open. In Celestia's chair sat Adagio, who leaned back with her elbows on the armrests and her fingers folded in a little tent over her stomach.

"Thank you for coming. There's something I need from you."

In a hurry to fix things with Twilight, Sunset tapped a foot. "Please make it quick?"

Adagio nodded. "I need a guarantee from you that whatever's going on with Twilight, it won't leave Aria, Sonata, and I... as we were."

Sighing with exasperation, Sunset gently facepalmed. "You're worried about your magic because that was the basis of our deal, I get that, but I've kinda got more important things to do right now, so-" She was cut off when Adagio sat up straight and cleared her throat.

"Ah," she gasped, voice low and breathy as one hand cupped a breast and the other sensually glided just over her stomach, fingers pointed downward, "S-Sunset, d-don't- Ahh-hahn! N-no, please, not there! I-I can't-AAaaaAAAHHH!!"

Still standing in the doorway, Sunset burned scarlet, her jaw slack, one knee shaking, and her palms sweating. In the back of her mind, she wasn't even sure if she was still breathing, but she definitely inhaled sharply when Adagio, beaming like Pinkie at her Pinkiest, slowly stretched out an arm to hover a finger over the intercom. Then Sunset paled, her very soul filling with ice as she registered what would follow if Adagio serenaded the school (and Crystal Prep) with her little act.

Knowing that she couldn't run across the room and unplug the thing or even tackle Adagio out of the chair before she got out something damning (nevermind the mental images it would send if she were abruptly cut off...), Sunset clapped her hands together in a praying motion and loud-whispered. "No, please, no, you win, I surrender, please don't-"

Her hand still hovering over the button, Adagio took in a deeeep breath, then smiled warmly. "Thank you."

Sunset nearly dropped to the floor in relief. "Geez... You know, you-" Temper, Sunset, temper! Keep in mind that she could always come back and do this later, without warning. Knowing her, she'd wait until I didn't have a solid alibi, too. "...you, uh..." Adagio's raised eyebrow drew a sheepish grin. "You have my undivided attention."

Adagio nodded. "I'll be blunt: I cannot allow a repeat of our time between the Battle and just the other day, and it seems that this other Twilight may cause exactly that. The three of us were..." Her eyes fell to the desk as she trailed off. When she picked up, Sunset could almost hear the lump in her throat. "...in a bad place, when you found us, and there was nothing I could do about it." She looked up again with renewed conviction. "So I need to know; what exactly does Twilight's medallion do to its victims?"

Sunset frowned. "I'm not actually sure. It drained the others of their magic when they ponied up, but I felt myself getting weaker when I tried to use the portal, which got drained along with me."

"As weak as the others?"

"Uh..." Sunset scratched her head. "Actually, no, I felt fine almost immediately afterward. Do you think the portal took the brunt of it?"

"Or you just have much more power than the others and didn't lose as much, proportionally. Remember that it was you that brought your group to gargantuan, crystal alicorn levels in the Battle."

After all she'd been through in getting over her blinding arrogance, Sunset really didn't want to say "Yea, I am pretty powerful, aren't I?" out loud, but she still flushed with modesty at the thought. Then she realized something. "But, if I have any power left, doesn't that mean that she's not taking all of our magic?"

"I couldn't say. How do you think it compares to what the princess told you about that magic-draining episode over in Equestria?"

And then it clicked, Sunset's smile growing by the second. "It's completely different. In fact, it sounds more like what you guys were dealing with a few days ago; the magic not being completely gone, just buried or diminished!" She beamed. "Sing with me!!"

Hesitantly, Adagio stood up to join in as Sunset started the song she'd used to pony up during the trial-and-error phase. Within the first few stanzas, each of them started to glow, at which point Sunset's enthusiasm carried into her song. Not wanting to offset her, Adagio kept up, even if the cheesiness of some of the lyrics made her blush. By the half-way point, both of them were ponied up, hovering just off the ground with pony ears and magical hair extensions. The theory was all but confirmed, but they finished the song together anyway, with the magical effects wearing off shortly after.

"When you said 'how to get our magic back' while talking to Twilight," Adagio mused with idly crossed arms, "I thought it meant that your group had been depleted entirely."

"So did I, but I think I get how it works now! The portal completely disappeared because its magic was finite, but Harmony magic is different. I thought of it like a glass of water being sucked out with a straw, but now I think it's more like fire; roaring flames reduced to tiny embers (by stealing fire somehow? Not a perfect metaphor), then fed to become roaring flames again! If the magic is based on love and friendship and those feelings still exist, then everyone still has their magic, even to the tiny degree that Twilight described!"

"Much like the three of us," Adagio nodded, increasingly contrite. "I'm sorry." Sunset's confused frown said that elaboration was called for. "If the three of us would have still had our magic anyway, then I threatened you for essentially no reason, and-" she reached down to pick up the tape recorder that had been sitting in an open drawer of Celestia's desk, which she immediately shut off with intent to erase later, "-provided you said something I could use, even planned to blackmail you later if necessary."

Her mouth hanging open for just a second, Sunset was actually a little hurt. Of course, given recent discoveries and understanding of just how easy it was to fall back into bad habits, smiling was easy. "Hey, don't worry about it. I might not have even thought about this stuff if you haaaaaaa-..." She trailed off, blushing as Adagio, timidly looking at the floor, started taking off her clothes. "Wuh... wh-what are you doing?"

"I've been nothing but cruel to you since the day we met," she said as she draped her belly-shirt over the back of the chair, "even in spite of what you've done for us, but I think I know how to make up for it." When her skirt hit the floor, Sunset turned her head away, spastically waving her hands.

"No, no, nonononono, th-that really isn't necessary!" A quick glance revealed Adagio still standing there in the dark-blue shoes, long gloves, thigh-high socks, and matching bra and briefs.

Wow.

"It's alright," Adagio demurred, hooking her thumbs into her briefs to start pulling them down, "I know what I'm do-"

"You don't have to do that, please put your clothes back on!!"

There was a silence, but Sunset didn't dare open her eyes again until the sounds of shuffling fabric stopped. To her great relief, Adagio was wearing the full cheerleader outfit again, though she realized now that that wasn't saying a lot in the first place.

Earnestly confused, Adagio tilted her head. "If you don't want that, then... what?"

Sunset tried not to think too hard about how someone could go from threatening to use sexy noises to have her publicly humiliated or even expelled, to earnestly offering themselves as part of an apology in under ten minutes. "You really don't need to apologize for anything, I wasn't-" Once more, the look on one of the sirens' faces reminded her of herself.

Back when her friends first insisted that they forgave her for everything, Sunset hadn't been ready to forgive herself yet, which left her bouncing back and forth between listless and frustrated, never feeling forgiven because she hadn't been allowed to really make up for things on her own. She smiled in sympathy.

"Okay, you feel bad about how you've been treating me, right?" Adagio nodded, which confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt the existence of a conscience! "If you really want to make it up to me, then... how much of what you guys sang in the gym was true? Can you tell me the whole story?"

At this, Adagio's eyes widened in shock. "What?! I, but, b-but, we-"

Painful story, I guess, but she didn't look thrilled to throw herself at me either.

"Maybe if I understood where you were coming from," Sunset said in gentle tones, "I could understand you, and if I can understand you, forgiveness comes much easier. I won't tell anyone else if you don't want me to, but I'd really like to know what made you three who you are."

And then Adagio looked a bit like a trapped animal, visibly chewing her thoughts while making occasional, furtive glances at the door and windows. Eventually, she stopped and loosed a quiet sigh. "...V-very well." Bringing her eyes to Sunset's, she gave a small, hopeful smile. "But first, shouldn't we find Twilight to settle matters with her?"

Sunset's mouth formed a little 'o' shape, which quickly shifted to a playful smirk as she turned toward the door. "Sneaky." Heading out, she snapped her fingers, ending the gesture just as she pointed the index finger of that hand at Adagio. "Raincheck!"

Following, Adagio tried to hide her guilty smile. "As you wish."

The two split up to go looking for Twilight, with Sunset having dope-slapped herself for not instructing her friends to do exactly that.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

A little earlier...

Peeking around a corner, Aria and Sonata watched as Sunset answered her phone, said something to her friends, and walked off at a brisk pace. It was time.

Turning to Aria, Sonata motioned to the Rainbooms, then themselves, then the Rainbooms again, then raised her middle and index fingers, quickly touching them together twice, held them together, raised that wrist so her fingers pointed downward, made a walking motion with them, pointed over her shoulder with a thumb, retracted all but her pinky finger into a fist, rotated that wrist back and forth, then raised the backs of her hands to her cheeks to make fluttering motions with her fingers.

Aria stared at Sonata in silence, smacked her upside the head, and walked around the corner to follow the Rainbooms.

"Hey, mind if we talk to you guys?"

Pinkie was the first to turn around, smiling. "Sure!"

The rest came to a stop as Aria and Sonata approached. Aria was glad, because she didn't have a follow-up plan if the Rainbooms told them to piss off.

Straightening her hat, Applejack chuckled. "You two lose track'a Adagio again?"

"Very funny. So, Sunset is trying to stop the magic from messing up the games, right? Because it apparently means a lot to her that nothing goes wrong."

Rarity nodded. "She really has changed a lot since we first knew her, to be so invested in this for our sakes."

Quirking an eyebrow, Aria smirked. "Ohh, so you guys are the reason she cares so much. Now it makes some sense." She chuckled at their confused expressions. "She told us that she was on magic duty to keep anything like the last event from happening, but I heard the real reason she cares is because CHS just reeeally wants to win, and they won't get that if Crystal Prep doesn't 'feel like they lost.'" The looks of surprise were delicious, but before she could prod further, Sonata happened.

"I thought you had us sneak behind the stairs specifically so we could eavesdrop when they were talking to Celestia?"

The Rainbooms' faces (even Fluttershy!) shifted to harsh, unamused glares, under which Aria withered as her cheeks flushed a hot, painful crimson. She briefly pondered whether or not she'd have a chance to force-feed Sonata her own medicine some day before doing her best to shake the moment off. "Okay, okay, so we were listening in, but doesn't change what you guys did to Sunset!"

Applejack was a mix of confused and indignant. "What we did?!"

"Well, lemme see if I've got the story straight: Sunset is trying to keep the magic down so it doesn't ruin the games, which she, her closest friends, and some borderline useless dorks are all competing in while the rest of the school sits back doing nothing. However, from what she told Celestia, just playing in these games, just winning these games, isn't good enough; everyone wants your team to 'beat Crystal Prep,' which, according to her, doesn't matter if they don't think they've lost fair and square."

She held up both hands in a vague gesture of exasperation. "And let's just ignore that even a completely clean, unambiguous win might be contested if it's a school that's never lost suddenly being bested by their long-time inferiors; there'd most likely be a bunch of them that swore CHS cheated somehow to their dying day, thus not feeling like they really lost, and rendering the whole damn thing moot. It's like, I still think you guys cheated us in the Battle, but it doesn't matter what I think about it; you still stopped us because we needed to be stopped, and we're all better off for it!"

Dead silence. It took a few seconds for Aria to process what she'd just said, but the words kept coming on their own. "I mean, yea, we were pissed about losing our magic, voices, and purpose in life, but now, just in the last few days? We've been living a lot easier than we did before, and being a bad guy kind of sucks, so..." She shrugged, wearing a tiny frown as she quietly addressed the wide-eyed Rainbooms. "Thanks, I guess."

There was one of those I-Seriously-Regret-This-Line-Of-Thought pauses, but before any hugging happened, Rarity smiled.

"It would be disingenuous to say we did anything of the sort on purpose, but I think we're all glad that worked out for you."

The others smiled, nodded, and muttered affirmatively, but Sonata whispered into Aria's ear.

"Weren't you ranting at them a minute ago?"

"Yea, but I kinda lost my train of thought with the better-off-now talk."

"Hah, you big sap."

"Screw you!!"

"Heehee! No big, I think I can get it." Sonata cleared her throat in very leader-like fashion. "Sunset cares about this thing so much that she brought us, her old enemies, into the fold to help out, but she wouldn't have bothered if you guys hadn't dragged her into it."

Scoffing, Rainbow crossed her arms. "We didn't drag her into anything. She joined in because she wanted to help us win, because she's part of CHS too, losing stinks, and we're sick of Crystal Prep getting all smug and rubbing it in our faces."

Aria raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh. How did you feel about beating the three of us? Or blasting Sunset into a crater before that?" No one said anything, but the uncomfortable looks on their faces were answer enough. "It's fine when you feel high and mighty, right? Or were you just doing your-" she didn't hold up her fingers, but the mocking air-quotes were almost percussive, "-heroic duty?"

"That was totally different," attested Pinkie, "you even said we had to stop you!"

"Yea," nodded Sonata, no aggression or challenge in her face, "it was different. So what do you have to lose now? What's so important that this means so much to you? Are Crystal Prep plotting magical domination too? Do you think they've got some big ol' doomsday weapon that only works if they win some dumb contest?"

Rainbow's eyes narrowed. "It's not a dumb conte-"

Now Sonata looked annoyed. "Answer the question!"

There was a pause, but Rarity flipped her curls derisively. "Was it not your group that made a point of being 'the best' above all else?"

"First," retorted Aria, "that was part of what made us the bad guys, remember? Second, we did what we did to screw with your school enough to harvest the resulting flow of negative energy. If we wanted a real competition, we wouldn't have influenced the judges' choices in every single match for the ideal outcome. Speaking of which," she said with a growing smirk, "did I ever mention? You guys never 'won' a single round of the Battle, nobody did, not even us, because we hand-picked the winners every time based on who would best serve our purpose, even going so far as to set up the tiers while your principal and VP were still eating out of our hands. I mean, unless you thought the fact that there was no chance of Dazzlings vs. Rainbooms coming up before the very end was a total coincidence?" Losing the grin, she crossed her arms. "Seriously, I kinda hope they voided the whole thing after, because if we'd left Luna and Celestia alone, they might have picked the tween rappers for all we know."

Applejack scratched under her hat. "If y'all were in control the whole time, why didn'tcha just make us lose in the first round?"

"Adagio wanted to keep you around until the end to give you hope, so it would hurt all the more (and make you that much shorter with each other so we could get your magic, natch) when that hope was ripped away." She briefly examined her nails. "Judging by that power surge we felt, it worked until the headphone girl showed up."

"So, again," Sonata picked up, "what's so important about the Friendship Games that you just have to win? Why does your petty rivalry with a school all the way across town get priority over Sunset?"

"I-it doesn't," protested Fluttershy, a mix of hurt and worry on her face.

"Then why did you pressure her into joining these games? Why did you keep chasing the next win no matter what happened? Because from where I'm standing, it wasn't for the sake of winning some stupid, empty bragging-rights contest (against people that, if it's only every 4 years, you'll never even see again), but so everyone at CHS could feel like they won some stupid, empty bragging-rights contest despite only a few CHS students actually participating at all. The whole school apparently wants this as much as they wanted the Battle of the Bands, but without the excuse of magical manipulation, which put tons of unneeded stress on Sunset for little more than your school's self-esteem. Is that about right? Because if so, that's a pretty lousy thing for the 'magic of friendship' crowd to do to a friend, don'tcha think?"

"...Wow," muttered a frowning Pinkie, "that's a lot to take in when you say it all at once."

Applejack looked similarly distraught. "Yer sayin' we ain't really done right by Sunset with all this?"

"But she willingly joined," said Rainbow, though who she meant to convince was in question, "she chose to go out of her way to help!"

Rarity shook her head, speaking just above a whisper. "She didn't know or care about the Friendship Games until we urged her to. Is it at all possible that, in addition to jumping at another chance to show the school how much she's changed by doing something she knew they'd like, she only went along with it at all because of peer pressure?"

"Well what else were we supposed to do? Ask to have the games cancelled or postponed until all the magic stuff was sorted out? The six of us not compete at all since we're the only ones who had magic in the first place? Let Sunset deal with the magic by itself while not worrying about our rivalry with a school she'd never heard of before then? How would we beat Crystal Prep if we did that?!"

Aria looked genuinely concerned. "Why is that so important to you? Does the winner get something that we weren't told about? Adoring servants, huge payload of magic, tons of cash, anything?"

Rainbow seemed confused by the question. "We, uh, the winners... get to win...?" There was another short silence, but she answered this one herself while rubbing the back of her head. "Okay, okay, I think I get it. We've been going about this thing all wrong from the start, huh? It's not supposed to be about winning or being the best, it's supposed to be about everyone having fun together. That's what the original spirit of this thing was supposed to be; to play for the sake of playing, like what we said we were doing at the end of the Battle." She chuckled guiltily. "I even sang about how we were different now, but maybe we can prove it this time."

Fluttershy, Pinkie, Rarity, and Applejack each put a hand on her shoulders, smiling warmly. Rainbow returned their grins before winking at the sirens and regaining her competitive smirk. "But that doesn't mean we'll go easy on Crystal prep in the last event! Even if we're just playing games, no reason we can't give it our all... Just as long we're all having a good time in the process."

Aria and Sonata actually smiled appreciatively at this, quite content.

"Guys? Why are you all standing around?"

Everyone turned to see Sunset, who looked quite confused. More-so when her friends simultaneously hug-tackled her while expressing apologies, though whether or not it was for her new bruises was not clear. She looked up to see Aria smirking at her, which drew a scowl.

Revenge-hugs by proxy! Damn her!

Shortly after, when Sunset had been informed as to main points of the conversation (and the reason behind her five-person hug-tackle), and asked for her thoughts on the games, she smiled somewhat sheepishly.

"Well... yes, I still think getting so worked up over the Friendship Games is a little silly, but it seemed like you guys really wanted this, so-EEK!!" She tensed up when her friends closed in again, but the hugs were much gentler this time. Sighing with relief, she looked at the two cheerleaders and smiled again. "So, correct me if I'm wrong here, but you guys talked to them about this for my sake?"

For a second, Aria and Sonata stared back at her in wide-eyed surprise, but the former scoffed, crossed her arms, and turned her head away. "Tch, no. I just like telling people when they're wrong." To her great relief, Sonata didn't Sonata this time, just stood there with wide, unblinking eyes and her mouth drawn in a thin line. The Rainbooms giggled at them anyway, but it was never too late to change the subject! "So, how'd your talk with Adagio go, Sunset?"

Sunset smiled widely. "Pret-ty well! And on that note, we should split up if we wanna find Twilight faster."

And so they did.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Meanwhile, Adagio wandered the halls on her own, not sure how to even talk to herself about what she'd just pulled with Sunset. It turned out fine for both of them, sure, and she was even due to share very personal information later as punishment, but twisting people to her own ends felt distinctly different when she actually cared about (or at least owed a debt to, it was still a little foggy to her) those she was twisting. In fact, it felt kind of terrible. Not even in a good way, like the pain that came with drawing in negative energy and the power that would follow, or the lingering sting of... certain activities discovered after coming to this world.

I'll give these people credit for one thing; they're certainly... creative.

She still hadn't asked about what to do with her life, and whether she rightly deserved an answer or not, time was rapidly running out. She didn't know what to tell Aria and Sonata at the end of today, but she could at least affirm that they wouldn't be losing their magic or their voices again. Who knew? Maybe they'd been thinking about the future all day and had plans of their own?

And maybe our new ability to pony up comes with a side of Princess Twilight's magical fix-everything powers. And chocolate.

Keeping an eye out for the other Twilight, Adagio didn't see another soul in the halls save for a completely different Shadowbolt.

Sugarcoat spoke when she was sure her nemesis was close enough to hear her clearly. "Your hips abnormally wide."

Adagio smirked, not slowing down or even making eye-contact. "Thanks for noticing." To her slight surprise, there was more.

"And your chest is flat!"

Now Adagio stopped, turned, and looked at Sugarcoat, who was giving her a triumphant little smirk.

Ooh, she thinks she's won. How adorable!

Pacing back toward her heckler with a hand on one hip and an unfazed grin, Adagio chuckled. "You point this out because you believe women should be unconditionally buxom, I suppose?"

"No," the not-terribly-endowed Shadowbolt quickly replied, "just stating that your mammary glands are of lesser stature than most." She was sure this would have aggravated the vain cheerleader, there was no way someone that prioritized sex appeal could withstand such a statement! However, absurdity again won out today as Adagio gave her an apathetic shrug.

"Perhaps, but I'm not worried. You seem like the academic sort, so here's something to study closely: Big breasts aren't always a point in a lady's favor. I understand that it's easier to make people -note that I didn't say 'men,'- drool over you when you can spike their heart-rates just by holding your hands together, if you need that kind of crutch, but the drawback to such an easily-noticed feature is that it's more difficult to ignore. You're not exactly top-heavy yourself, but I'm sure you're aware of the tendency some people have to glance downward when talking to girls?"

"It is a well-known fact that such occurrences are common. Your point?"

Smirking, Adagio brushed the fingertips of one hand across her modest chest. "As you can see, I usually don't have that problem. When people look at me, they don't see two mounds of jiggling fat like they might on some other girls, they look me in the eye." Standing with one leg just slightly splayed out and her hands behind her head, elbows raised high, she fixed Sugarcoat with a half-lidded stare, though she hid her amusement at the little blush this drew. "If I want to be seen that way, it's like flipping a switch, but for those who were 'blessed' with stiff shoulders and back pain? It never shuts off, and onlookers often see them as nothing but their assets. Not uncommonly, they think less of them for it than they would otherwise."

Returning to a normal stance, Adagio shrugged, her grin unchanged. "This isn't even accounting for, well... gravity, later on. So no, being humble in that department doesn't bother me, because being buxom is typically considered a bimbo trait, and I know my intellect will seldom be overlooked on account of my chest. Furthermore?" She winked. "Trust me when I say that some actually like them small."

The appearance of sweat on Sugarcoat's brow said the girl was grasping at straws. "You say that large breasts would be inconvenient, but the same applies to your bloated posterior!"

Adagio let out a short laugh. "Oh, you mean the part of my body people only see when I'm no longer addressing them, leaving an impression they'll never forget as I walk away? Well, it goes something like this..." Flipping her hair, Adagio turned and walked off, swaying her hips in slow, sultry fashion to drive the point home.

Sugarcoat only looked for reasons relating to study of the described phenomenon. Unfortunately, Adagio must have noticed her doing this and drawn completely unfounded conclusions, because she stood with a hand on her hip, smirking over her shoulder and raising one eyebrow. Sugarcoat's face burned. Gnashing her teeth in defeat, she snarled one last statement of honesty. "I dislike you with great intensity."

Adagio chuckled. "Love you too, Sugarplum." Winking again and blowing a kiss were unnecessary, which might have been why Sugarcoat looked even madder as the triumphant siren continued on her way.

Hah, still got it!

A little further down the hall, her smile slipped away as the realization crept in.

Yes... still got it...
















Alone, Sugarcoat finished counting in her head, which had always proven an oddly effective mind-clearing technique. She'd lost again, but at least this time she'd done it without witnesses to rub it in. Better safe than sorry.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Out in front of Canterlot High, nearly everyone stood on their respective sides to await the next event.

When Principal Cinch heard that the girls who had clearly cheated in the last event wanted a word with her star student (academically, that is), she thoroughly denied them the chance. It wasn't just to prevent whatever nonsense they were up to now, but to keep them away from poor Twilight as she nursed her emotional wounds from the last event. When Indigo Zap (admitted to Crystal Prep for her outstanding athletic prowess) had informed her that Twilight was sitting alone under the bleachers and wouldn't come out, Cinch had instructed her to let Twilight remain where she was, and bar anyone from disturbing her. The other Shadowbolts adhered to this nicely, preventing the 'magic' squadron from tampering with Twilight and whatever she had collected.

It had been a very long day, after all, and it wasn't quite over yet. Twilight (and the magic she had gathered) deserved her rest until the third and final event.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Under the bleachers, Twilight was surprised to be left alone (give or take Spike, curled up beside her) through most of the waiting period, because she usually didn't get away with sulking in public this long. Of course, bar Indigo Zap's attempt to draw her out of there, everyone's minds were apparently occupied with the previous event and the one that would follow, so maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise.

Every voice she could hear was complaining very audibly about the 'win' going to CHS, even when that plant thing attacked, but no one seemed to even suspect that it was her fault. No, no, their thoughts were only on their precious 'win,' how it was unbelievable that the students at Canterlot High could possibly be counted as having beaten Crystal Prep in anything, ever (even though if not for me, who didn't even want to be there, they'd have probably won the first event, too!).

The thought left a lump in her throat, but she hadn't been treated fairly, and it hurt. It wasn't just the way CHS competitors were rewarded in some way no matter what they did (I bet Sunset even got pats on the back for yelling at me), or how Principal Cinch was unabashedly blackmailing her with the Everton study (quite possibly the biggest academic opportunity of my life, and she's holding it hostage for a stupid game!!), but how her teammates expected so much of her when she didn't want to be there in the first place, and even when she did what they wanted, Crystal Prep as a whole (give or take stinging swats) was apathetic to her at best. Was this all she had to look forward to? Is this what being 'The Best!' meant; super high demands all the time with no reward or encouragement? It wasn't supposed to be like that.

Back in first grade, she'd never wanted stickers or candy for doing well, especially not with something easy or meaningless, she wanted to learn, wanted to know all about everything, because to her, knowledge was the reward. Learning was fun, the world was full of fascinating things, and she wanted to understand them for its own sake. But then she got older, life got more complicated, her studies had to mean something, had to show something, and that was fine, but more and more, she found herself surrounded by people that didn't care about scientific progress or anything like that, just being "The Best!" at things, whether there was any meaning in doing so or not, just as long as they were "The Best!". She didn't like it, didn't want to be part of that, so she never joined any sort of competitive school activity, which was fine with Cinch, because she was still earning grants or whatever, getting more of that precious prestige just through high grades in the most advanced programs CP (and thus, anyone) had to offer.

From first grade onward, the candy and stickers were the perfect scores on her papers, showing that she had mastered the new things and was ready for more, but now, today? There was nothing of value in this whole, miserable affair, because she hadn't learned a darn thing abou- (no, damn thing, studies show that swearing can help relieve various kinds of pain, so say DAMN thing!!) hadn't learned a damn thing about the magic (beyond the fact that MAGIC is a thing and who knows how much of what I've always believed is invalidated now?!) coming from this school. It made people glow and float off the ground, and sometimes ripped holes in time in space. How?! What did that mean?!

As childish as it sounded, there were supposed to be rewards for things, dar dammit! Nobody did anything if they didn't think they'd get something out of it, but while the rest of her school was getting their 'win' and everything that came with it, Twilight wasn't getting anything out of this at all, and it wasn't fair!

Looking down at the spectrometer, she could attest that she'd gotten uncertain quantities of magic, but with how much went wrong every time it opened, she wasn't sure there was more to do than use the release function just to see what would happen. She probably wouldn't be able to replicate the experiment, of course, at least not without being allowed to go around draining magic again, but by the looks on those girls' faces, being drained was actually kind of painful, to say nothing of the dangers she'd seen from the magic in general. So, if she couldn't continue without risk of hurting someone, what had she really gained from all of this? Nothing! She didn't care about winning or prestige or 'legacies' or some stupid rivalry that didn't even involve her, or probably anyone but the adults, she only wanted to learn what was going on with this school!

She still had the spectrometer, but what the Hell was she going to do with it?! There was no such thing as safe testing conditions if holes in the fabric of reality were a factor, but maybe she could siphon off small amounts somehow and... do... something? There was no procedure to follow, magic was a complete unknown, give or take its apparent propensity toward chaos! She was completely in the dark here, and one wrong move could cost her everything she'd scraped together up to this point.

Twilight ruminated further on these thoughts until Dean Cadence (one of the only people in Crystal Prep that never pushed me around, never made me feel unwanted, never gave me dirty looks for doing better then them, or administered wedgies for any reason) gently coaxed her out from under the bleachers, because the last event was starting soon.

Twilight rejoined the Shadowbolts as Spike scampered off to hide in the nearest bush, but to her disappointment, Cadence didn't stay close to her to project feel-better particles (another phenomenon I've not found answers to), but walked off to announce things with Vice Principal Luna. Maybe they were old friends. That left her with her with her teammates, and Cinch, none of whom she could look in the eye without harsh, ugly little feelings prickling through her being.

Looking across the field, where Sunset, her (surprisingly nice) friends, and the pretty cheerleaders waited, Twilight felt a twinge of something even uglier.

Chapter 11: Power and Madness

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Today was certainly stressful, Adagio surmised, and it showed on the faces of nearly everyone around her. Sunset looked down for a number of reasons, her friends had all lost that morning's enthusiasm, their fellow Wondercolts shuffled about uncertainly, and even more than a few of those just spectating had a particular look on their faces, like they all knew, with how the day had gone, that something was coming to threaten their school again. Perhaps it was. She looked across the way at the Shadowbolts, their master, and Twilight, who quickly looked away when their eyes met.

Is she planning to do anything with all that magic, or take it home for analysis? Either way spells disaster if she doesn't know what she's doing.

When Luna and her Crystal Prep equivalent wrapped up something about the next event, Fluttershy frowned.

"I don't feel like playing these games anymore."

"But we have to play," protested Rainbow, "this is the last event!"

Rarity proved unsympathetic, making arm-motions to accompany her distaste for the situation. "It's a little hard to focus with all the magic-stealing and portal-opening."

Sunset in particular looked downbeat. "And I feel awful about what I said to Twilight."

"Especially since she obviously didn't mean to do all the stuff she did," Fluttershy helpfully added, "she's actually really nice." Sunset covering her face in shame and self-loathing made her shrink down and step off to the side as the others gave her unamused looks.

Watching this, Adagio was struck with indecision. She wanted to say or do something to remind Sunset that she wasn't the only one to occasionally struggle with this Guilt thing, reassure her with some measure of Compulsive Bitch Unity (working title), but knowing that Aria, Sonata, and the other Rainbooms would see and hear that moment of shared weakness made her hesitate. How did one commit comforting actions involving personal matters, anyway? If this was another thing Sunset had to wrangle since her conversion to Team Friendship, then Adagio felt a whole new kind of sympathy for her, but grew no closer to showing it before Applejack spoke up.

"Let's just get through this last event and prove we're not a bunch'a cheaters," she said while stepping over to rest a hand on Sunset's shoulder, "then you can go over and apologize." She offered a smile and won another right back, which Adagio silently made note of.

Shoulder-touching! That's the key! I can definitely do that.

She was tempted to invent a reason to be comforting just to see if she could demonstrate the skill herself, but looking around, noticed a distinct lack of the only other people that she could readily relate to. "Er... This may not be the best time, but has anyone seen Aria and Sonata?"

Rainbow pointed a thumb over her shoulder while turning her head. "They're right over-..." Quickly glancing about in search of them, she blinked twice, then frowned at Adagio. "Man, you might wanna put bells on those two."

"I've tried, but they always get their collars off eventually." It was fortunate that she hadn't been serious, because the Rainbooms collectively giggled at this. She kept looking around anyway.

Pleeeease don't be making a mess? Just until after this last event?

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Around the back of the Crystal Prep side of the event area, Aria and Sonata kept low as they crawled through the bushes. To Aria's annoyance, Sonata had questions less than five minutes into the operation.

"So, why're we doing this again?"

"Because we're gonna snatch the necklace thingy, skip whatever magical meltdown is inevitably gonna come out of it, and be hailed as heroes for stopping that noise before it starts." And heroes, of course, don't get asked any questions about what they're gonna do with their shiny new magic-eater thing...

"But, if the magicy stuff doesn't actually happen, how would anyone know we did anything?" She bumped into Aria as the latter stopped dead. The silence and lack of turning around told her that Aria was doing one of those gimme-a-second thinking things.

"B... because, we'll have the necklace full of magic, and any idiot knows it would just blow up or something in this Twilight's hands. Now c'mon!"

They crept closer to Twilight while staying out of view in the bushes, but Aria was startled when her hand came down on something soft and fuzzy, which immediately yelped at her.

"Gah, what the-"

"Hey," Spike said while trying to keep quiet, "do ya mind? I'm tryin' to-"

Sonata finished the sentence for him. "Hide here and to stop Twilight from going bonkers with her glowy doo-dad?"

The purple puppy blinked twice. "Uhh... Yea, that. The way she's been holding it all 'My Precious' has me kinda worried."

Sonata smiled. "Cool beans, us too!"

"Oh. Then, um..." He didn't have anything further to offer as the three of them turned to watch Cinch approach Twilight.

"I've seen what your device can do, Twilight. Containing magical energy is fine, but have you considered releasing it?"

She had, but Principal Cinch probably wasn't aware of the biggest problem with that plan. "But, I don't even understand how it works!"

"But you'd like to," she countered as the other Shadowbolts closed in, "and since our opponents have already used it to stay competitive, I see no reason why we shouldn't do the same. Unless, of course, you have no interest in Everton? Though, honestly," she said with a surprisingly sympathetic tone, "I think there's more knowledge packed in that little device than any independent study program could offer."

And then she started to sing.

No parody this time, just a video for reference.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyhZr_MNMJw

No one was more surprised than Spike. "Huh... Cold, stoic, stuffy Cinch is actually singing a song. This might be a sign that the world is ending."

"Nah," said Sonata not taking her eyes off the musical spectacle, "I think the tone of the tune fits her character."

"Huh?"

"She's actually not doing half-bad," remarked Aria, "and I know a thing or two about manipulative singing. Cinch (that's the old lady, right? Okay, just checkin') is pushing Twilight's buttons by talking about what Twilight wants, other than that threat a second ago, how this benefits her." She made a sour face. "But man, her goons are messin' it all up! They're syncing just fine, but sending a really different message with all the pressuring talk!"

Sonata tilted her head. "Maybe they're trying to use what she wants and what she's afraid of at the same time?"

"Maybe, but mixed messages ain't exactly persuasive. If I were her, I'd have leaned all one way or all the other."

"Hmm... Do ya think the others sang to Sunset when they were puttin' the squeeze on her?" Aria turned to look at her in confusion. "I mean, we don't know exactly how the Rainbooms convinced her to go along with the Friendship Games, but do you think it was this bad?"

"What difference does that make? Peer pressure is still peer pressure, no matter how subtle!"

"Maybe, but is out-and-out singing at someone to do what you want the same as just kinda pushing them? Because something tells me the Rainbooms would never go this far. I won't say we should apologize, but don'tcha think we at least owe them a You're-Not-As-Bad-As-These-Guys? Part of our beef was that they were acting the same as the Shadowbolts, and now it kinda looks like that isn't true anymore."

For a long minute, Aria's mouth hung open. "I... M-maybe we could at least-"

Both were startled by a loud, magical noise, whipping their heads in that direction to see Twilight already opening the doo-hicky. As was not the rarest thing in the world for them, they spoke in unison.

"OH, CRAP!!"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

A moment earlier...

We only want what we deserve, Twilight thought to herself as she stepped away from her chanting teammates, and I deserve this. I deserve some kind of result, some kind of benefit gained after all my struggles, and even if I can't write a proper lab report for it, even if I can't string together two coherent sentences about whatever comes from doing this, I'll at least have Crystal Prep's support.

Who knew? Maybe something good would happen. That blue girl gained the power of flight (and super strength, judging by her ability to tackle that botanical creature into the dirt), and since Twilight absorbed magic from her and those other girls, maybe she'd get superpowers too? Maybe she'd get super speed and/or some kind of x-ray vision or powerful scanning sense to find those flags, single-handedly win the last event, be hailed as Crystal Prep's champion, go on to learn everything there is to know about magic, and become the world's first archmage.

Shamefully induglent fairytale thinking, but if magic was on the table...?

Stepping forward, she carefully removed the spectrometer hanging from her neck, reaffirming in her head that this was what she wanted, that this was what she came to CHS for in the first place, that she'd be missing the opportunity of her life if she didn't do this, just like Cinch said. She could have waited until she got home, but if it made no difference in terms of safety or repeatability, why not use the Friendship Games as part of the experiment? They were already ruined by the plants and portals, right?

Yes, what she was doing was justified, and made perfect sense. All of the other Shadowbolts wouldn't be encouraging her to do this otherwise, would they?

She had her doubts as Sunset Shimmer, approaching from the Wondercolt side, gave her yet another stern look, but she focused on the spectrometer, pressed the release, glanced upward to give Sunset a glare of her own, and began to pull the spectrometer open. Her efforts were resisted, be it due to some kind of molecular bonding inherent to the magical energies, or her own fear and hesitation, but whatever the case, she felt the pressure lessen as she pulled harder, and in an instant, the spectrometer snapped open.

Immediately, light and alien sounds burst from the well of energy that had been stored in her device, radiating out in an explosion (for lack of better terms) that knocked everyone around her to their knees. Twilight found herself paralyzed (again, not sure if magic or fear) as she dropped the spectrometer, the orb of energy that had come from it pulling her up into the air.

Adagio didn't take her eyes off of this spectacle as Aria and Sonata ran over to her. "What. Did. You. Do?"

"It wasn't us this time," protested Aria, "we didn't do anything!"

"We were gonna, but-oof!" Sonata winced as she was elbowed in the ribs.

All present found themselves unable to do anything but watch as Twilight was slowly absorbed into the growing sphere of magic, even as she tried to tear herself away

"Heeellp... meeee...!"

Her agonized scream as the orb swallowed her made even Aria wince. "Ripped apart by magical energy cluster. Freakin' gruesome way to go."

In a flash, however, they saw that Twilight hadn't met her untimely demise from her own creation, but had taken on a very different appearance. Her wild, fiery-styled hair, dark, purple dress, irregular, elbow-length gloves, knee-high socks of similar make leading down to crystalline slippers that matched her floating spectacles and the twisted horn jutting from her skull all spoke of a very different Twilight Sparkle, but most keenly noticed were her massive, dark wings, which kept her afloat as she laughed maniacally.

"Welp," muttered Sonata, "we're boned."

"Maybe a bit," concurred Aria, not looking away. "think now's a good time to bail, Adagio?" She recieved no answer. "Adagio?" Turning her head, she found Adagio's eyes locked firmly on Twilight's new form as well, as well as a tiny blush and a wide, wide smile on her face. "Um... You got a plan for this, or-"

"Shh," she whispered back, "Mama sees something she likes..."

"You were right," Twilight declared to Sunset in manic tones, "I didn't understand magic before, but I do now!!" She stretched out a hand to fire a blue beam of light, detonating the horse statue that stood above the portal's pedestal.

Adagio grinned ear-to-ear. "Something she really likes!"

Aria facepalmed for reasons that weren't Sonata.

Twilight grinned with satisfaction as the aftermath of her blast stabilized a portal not unlike those she'd been seeing, and the rifts in reality only spread as the energy (MY energy!!) crackled through the ground. Well, she was more than happy to help that along (with MORE BLASTING!!).

The Rainbooms (and Aria and Sonata, who had to physically grab and pull Adagio along with them) leapt out of the way as Twilight opened another rift where they'd been standing. To the new Twilight's great delight, more and more cracks and openings formed in mid-air!

Helpy, helpy, HELPY!!

As she continued her assault and more portals opened, some actually took the cue to vacate the area.

"Hey," Sunny Flare barked at Cinch as she, the one that practically ordered this, started to slip away, "where are you going?!"

"Anywhere to avoid that, monster," she spat back, "and I suggest you do the same!"

Sunny didn't run, not while she knew that, technically, Twilight's new look was her fault too. Turning to look at her fellow Shadowbolts, the nervous, guilty looks on their faces told her they felt the same.

"Twilight," called Sunset with a dramatic arm-gesture, "you can't do this!"

"Why not," she asked, as much to be defiant as to actually hear an answer. One learned by questioning, didn't they? "There's a whole other world right there," she said before firing off another blast, "and it's filled with magic!"

Sunset dared try simple, straight-forward reasoning on the power-mad witch-girl. "But you're destroying this world to get it!"

Twilight's smirk said she wasn't bothered. "So what? There's more magic there," she said while charging up a bigger (AND BLASTIER!) blast, "and I want to understand it ALL!!" She fired at Sunset's feet as her former fear-figure again leapt out of the way, and BOOM, another big portal in the ground! Things were going optimally! Looking around, she caught sight of the frightened students, from her school and theirs, the girls that had looked down on her before now looking up with awe, and... the pretty cheerleaders. Two were frantically looking around as one stared back at her. The one she'd been in direct contact with twice now. Gazing at her. At her!! Twilight's mind wandered to strange places as she wondered what her new-found power meant in this situation.

"Look," Aria said while shaking Adagio, "I'm digging the cosmic tears and all, way metal, but-"

Sonata finished for her. "We're all gonna get eaten by Cthulhu!"

"Uhh, that, sorta! I know power gets you going, but if she rips up existence like this, I don't think whatever comes poking through the cracks to say 'hi' is gonna share your tastes!"

Loathe as she was to break her gaze from the floating figure, Adagio had to concede the point. "Right... So, in this situation, I guess we should...?" She looked at the students still standing around, then at Sonata, who immediately smiled.

"Places!!"

Standing together, but away from the rifts, they launched into a cheer.

Hey, Ev-ry-one,
now is a good time to run!
So pick, up, your, feet,
or you'll sink into the street!

A few actually listened, but Applejack was the first to do the opposite of this, if only to get in there and pull up those who had already slipped and now hung for dear life.

"Oh, wait," Sonata mumbled, "I, guess we should, uh, being doing that instead? Like, actually helping?"

"Yes," muttered Aria through an embarrassed, hindsight-induced facepalm, "yes we should." As was habit, she turned an inquisitive look toward Adagio. "Why didn't we do that right away?"

Following a brief, awkward silence, Adagio blushed. "Why are you looking at me? Like any of us actually have a decent grasp on helping people?"

Putting aside the issue of their general, collective rottenness for later, they charged in to mimic the Rainbooms, who, judging by how Rarity fell while trying to extricate someone herself, could use the assistance. They were followed closely by five of the Shadowbolts, who proved to be naturals at pulling people away from potholes in time and space.

Holding Twilight's discarded gadget, Sunset initially wasn't sure what to make of the way it glowed after seeing it depleted, but her talk with Adagio gave her an idea. She looked at her friends, all five of whom lit up with magical energy despite also having been drained. And then she knew what to do.

"This isn't the way," she called to Twilight, "I know you feel powerful right now, like you can have everything you want. I've been where you are," she said with a sympathetic frown, "I've made the same mistake you're making. I put on the crown, and just like you, I was overwhelmed by the magic it contained, I thought it could get me everything I wanted."

"Oh, you're wrong," Twilight countered, "unlike you, I CAN have everything I want!!" (Even breakfast in the afternoon!!)

"No you can't! Even with all that magic and power, you'll still be alone! True magic comes from Honesty,"

Applejack emitted energy much like when Twilight's gizmo drained her, only this time without pain.

"Loyalty,"

Then Rainbow.

"Laughter,"

Pinkie next. As Sunset went down the list, Aria shuffled uncomfortably.

"Uh... Does anyone else feel kinda... weird?"

Frowning, Sonata held her stomach. "My guts are getting all shifty. I don't like it!"

"Quiet," Adagio hissed, trying to push her awareness of the unfamiliar stir from her mind, watching as the Rainbooms' energies homed in on Twilight's medallion.

"I understand you, Twilight," Sunset said while raising the object above her head as it began to levitate her off the ground, "and I want to show you the most important magic of all!" She threw it straight down, being rewarded with another flash of light and a transformation similar to Twilight's but with a very different result.

Her dress was much less imposing, colored in white and soft shades of pink, her white gloves and gold, fiery boots almost regal in their purity. She had a horn too, now, though without notches or spirals, her hair had risen like Twilight's and she'd gained a red stripe across her eyes, but once more, the most outstanding feature was her wings, which flowed out from her like a twinkling sheet of stardust.

"The Magic, of Friendship!"

"Um," Aria muttered as those around them took in these developments, "isn't that exactly what Twilight is using too? I mean, if she drained magic from the Rainbooms, the same thing Sunset did just now, then isn't she already kinda using the Magic of Friendship?"

Sonata shrugged. "Maybe the doo-dad converts it to negative energy or something? Somehow?"

"Maybe, but if so, shouldn't it have twisted Sunset too? Or does swift percussion just have a purifying effect? Seriously, is giving people super powers and weird outfits all Equestrian magic does to people it touches now? Because I remember when throwing a big ball of it straight at the floor was insanely dangerous."

"Yea," huffed Sonata, "so much for Arcane Safety class, huh Dagi?" No response. "Dagi?" She looked, again finding Adagio to be looking up with a warm blush and a big, bright grin.

Scowling, Aria bonked her with a pom-pom. "Will you stay focused, please?!"

Briefly refamiliarizing herself with the feeling of readily usable magic in her body, Sunset drew her energy into her fingertips as opposed to her horn, then fired a revised rift spell (One they told her she was CRAZY to study at all!) at the portals, sealing them as quickly as they'd come.

Twilight took offense, charging in with glowing hands and a murderous look, but Sunset pushed her back, then fired a beam that Twilight immediately countered, cackling like a loon as her power quickly pushed Sunset's backward. She was stronger, she'd taken in more energy, and she understood the principles of force relating to weaponizing this energy she now wielded! Victory would be hers, she could feel Sunset getting weaker, just like the spectrometer when it had been in her hands! She'd pull Sunset apart too, pull this whole world apart, and then-

"Twilight!"

The voice got her attention, because while she hadn't known it long, she knew it was the voice of her faithful puppy, the only friend she'd ever really had in her time at Crystal Prep.

"Spike..."

Um... He'd, if I destroyed this world, he would be, um... Yea. He'd go with it, wouldn't he? Along with... everyone else. Mom, Dad, Cadence, Shiny, everyone I've ever known, everyone THEY'VE ever known, it would all be-

Feeling something give, Sunset put everything she had into overtaking Twilight's magic. In the magical limbo that followed, she floated closer to the other girl, stretched out her hand, and offered to do for Twilight what someone else (saying it was the other Twilight would only confuse things right now) had done for her. This world's Twilight accepted, and the magic died away.

When they stood on solid ground again, their hair mutually messy, Twilight's eyes misted.

"I am so sorry," she said while taking a step back, "I didn't mean for any of this to happen."

"I know," Sunset said gently, "and going by my own experiences, they'll forgive you." When Twilight didn't respond, she very delicately reached out to seize her hands in her own, winning a little smile out of Twilight.

Adagio made another mental note of tear-banishing physical contact.

The sounds of barking quickly drew their attention, with Spike leaping up to tackle Twilight to the floor and lick her face. Twilight's adorable giggles made Sunset smile too. Then she heard Principal Cinch talking to Celestia in very loud, aggressive tones, something about CHS forfeiting the games.

"Clearly, CHS has had unfair advantage for quite some time and it's certainly obvious that your students have been using magic for their own benefit!"

Her arms crossed and a disinterested look on her face, Celestia held her tongue for a moment. Perhaps she could reason that preventing whatever calamity had just threatened the school, and apparently the world, again, benefited everyone, but Abacus probably didn't care about that right about now. And, at this point? Neither did Celestia. She thought back to what Sunset had said earlier, about how winning wouldn't mean anything if Crystal Prep 'didn't feel like they really lost.' Then she smiled.

"Very well, Crystal Prep wins, take your trophy and go." Everyone around her stood silent, which gave her a tiny tingle of delight, but most gratifying of all was the dumbfounded look on Cinch's face.

"I... You, s-so then you acknowledge that Crysta-"

Celestia inspected her nails, pleased to find that none had been chipped during the chaos. "You're still here?" She didn't look up, as she was having trouble suppressing her giggles at just the sounds of Cinch sputtering and making uncertain hand gestures.

After about a minute, Cinch turned to address her students. "Well. There you have it. Crystal Prep remains the best. Nicely done, everyone."

"Oh, goodie," exclaimed Sour Sweet as Cinch walked away, "all our efforts still amounted to something even after everything went bonkers!" She immediately lost her cheer. "Sure doesn't feel that way, though."

"Yay us," Sunny Flare muttered icily. She jumped at the sensation of headphones slipping over her ears, immediately hearing sad violin music. Turning to glare at Lemon Zest won her a sheepish smile. "Not. Helping."

Standing near the cheerleaders she'd been trying to convince of her school's superiority, Indigo Zap felt a stunning lack of it as she turned to face them. The purple one looked back at her, arms crossed and an eyebrow raised, but she couldn't do more than move her jaw around while making awkward arm-movements. Eventually, she sighed. "Uh... N-nevermind."

Sugarcoat crossed her arms. "This was not a day well-spent."

Sunset and her friends looked at Rainbow, but rather than bemoaning the 'loss', Rainbow shrugged. "What? With the way the Games turned out, I don't really think it matters who 'wins.' It's not much of a game if we don't even get to play, right? At least the second event was kinda fun. Still..." She walked closer to their insanely tall principal, standing on her tip-toes to whisper in the direction of her ear. "Doesn't this mean Crystal Prep'll just keep messing up our school?"

Chuckling, Celestia shook her head. "With the note the games ended on, I wouldn't be so sure. Besides, even if someone decides that vandalism is in order, it's high time I invested in some cameras anyway. That said, there's still time to actually make something of the games' namesake." She gently nudged Luna, who cleared her throat.

"THE FRIENDSHIP GAMES AFTERPARTY SHALL BE HELD LATER TONIGHT," she boomed, making sure even those that hadn't come out of hiding yet could hear her, "ALL IN ATTENDANCE MAY BRING GUESTS IF THEY WISH."

When everyone's ears stopped ringing, Sunny Flare tilted her head. "Afterparty?"

"Yea," replied Pinkie as she appeared next to the startled Shadowbolt, "just like the before-party! You guys are coming, right?"

Crystal Prep's students glanced about uncertainly, but looking at the smiling faces of CHS, the ones who 'lost' (whatever that meant now) and somehow still managed to keep a good mood, many of them smiled back.

"Sure," Indigo answered, "not like we have much else to do but bum around the hotel until tomorrow morning anyway."

Pinkie beamed. "Sweet! I'll go set up!"

And then she vanished in a frosting-scented puff of smoke. There was work to be done.

Chapter 12: Given and Accepted

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With a little help from those willing to volunteer, Pinkie had done a fantastic job of setting up a party to help everyone forget about all that death-by-universe-ripping-itself-apart-like-that-time-with-Rarity's-experimental-swimsuit thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was all set for friend-making! Many dim, but colorful lights were arranged with a few ordinary ones to illuminate the gym; dark enough to give the feel of a dance party, but bright enough that nobody was at risk of bumping into each other or tripping over things.

THUMP!

But there was no accounting for Ditzy Doo.

Anyway, the music was playing, the tables were stacked with stuff with which to stuff faces, even the four cakes that were made for the first event! Some of them had pieces eaten, but Pinkie knew that carefully wrapping them up for later would pay off! Granted, two of those cakes were sorta fugly, but they still tasted fine to her! Never judge a cake by its frosting, nothing demonstrated that better than the Mona cake. Even sweeter to her was the sight of the kids from CHS pouring in with the ones from Crystal Prep, not so much as a hostile stare or condescending glance being cast by anyone! She felt herself make a particularly smiley smile when the sirens walked in, sticking around even though they'd done their part in the games and were pretty much free to do whatever now!

Or maybe they just popped in for some cake. Even that much was okay too! Initiating Party Patrol mode, Pinkie set off to make sure everyone was having a good time.

To secure a bit of elbow room, the trio made their way to a corner between the bleachers and a wall on one side of the room, where no one else was standing just yet. Adagio, who had just heard the full story of what Aria and Sonata had been doing over by the Shadowbolts just before Twilight went supernova, raised an eyebrow.

"And, if you'd pulled it off, what was your plan from there?"

"I'unno," shrugged Aria, "but, like, can't go wrong with tons of power, right?" Adagio's deadpan stare and very recent memories spurred her to say more. "In the right hands, I mean!"

"Yea," Sonata chimed in with a big grin, "imagine if we were the ones with laser beams and portal powers!"

There was a silence. Adagio's eye twitched before she let out a long, shuddering breath and began massaging her temples. "The day the smoke clears and documentary crews come for me to demand an explanation, I will tell them, in no uncertain terms, that my decision to let either of you be in charge was made while we were essentially powerless."

Aria rolled her eyes at the big drama queen, but her expression quickly shifted to earnest curiosity. "So, what's the verdict on that? What are we doing after today?"

Adagio chuckled. "I was about to ask you two the same thing." When they looked back at her in surprise, she shrugged. "If I haven't adequately spelled it out before now; I have no idea what I'm doing anymore, and with the conclusion of our deal with Sunset, I barely have a plan to get from one side of the room to another. I could adapt on the fly before, but only when working toward some kind of goal, so if either of you have any concrete ideas, please don't keep me in suspense." Neither answered, staring at her as though she'd just told them she was dying. "Luckily, there's no need to hurry with this," she said while turning away, "so let me know what you two work out."

Watching her go (to wander aimlessly, if what she'd just said was true), Aria turned to Sonata. "So... I think it sorta goes without saying that I'm in cha-mmrp!"

Pinching Aria's lips together between a thumb and forefinger, Sonata was not amused. "You know, the first thing I learned from Dagi was to do what she did when I didn't know what else to do, so why don't we do that? Let's walk around, talk to people, eat some free grub, and see what comes to us."

When allowed to speak again, Aria blinked twice. "...That's gotta be the most sensible thing you've ever said."

Sonata beamed. "When in doubt; imitate Dagi!"

"Well, that was fun while it lasted."

"Shut up," Sonata said with a giggle as she grabbed Aria by the wrist to drag her along, "we got stuff to think about!"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"I guess that's one way to finish your time at Crystal Prep," chuckled Dean Cadence, "pretty sure Principal Cinch will be fast-tracking your application after all of that."

Sitting next to her on a low seat of the bleachers, Twilight idly brushed a hand along Spike's back. "I've been thinking about it and, I'm not so sure now's the time for me to apply to Everton. I-"

"Would rather study a new phenomenon relating to events witnessed at this school, which you won't make much progress with on your own on account of it being based on spending time around other people?"

Twilight's mouth hung open for a second. Cadence never seemed to notice her troubles when it came to Cinch, her classmates, or her difficulties with other people in general, but sometimes it was like she was in her head! "Y-yes, actually. This Friendship thing didn't really come up at Crystal Prep," she said with a hesitant grin, "but the students at CHS seem to know more about it. I don't suppose...?"

Cadence smiled in sympathy. "You could transfer to this school instead. You'd certainly be missed at Crystal Prep, but I think it's a great idea." She gave Twilight a little hug before standing up. "I'll be sure to speak to Principal Celestia about it right away."

Twilight stayed put, scratching Spike's belly as she waited for a verdict.

Not far from this, five girls refrained from turning their heads to look directly at her.

"Did you hear that," asked a frowning Sour Sweet, "Twilight's leaving Crystal Prep! ...Does anyone care?"

"Kinda," answered Sunny Flare, guiltily scratching the back of her head, "I mean, we aren't exactly close to her, but, still...?"

They were quiet for a moment. Frowning, Lemon Zest took her headphones off. "We've kinda been bitches. Cuz' like, since she was probably gonna end up doing whatever Cinch told her to anyway, us pourin' on the pressure just to maybe win the last event was kind of a dick move."

Another pause. Indigo Zap shrugged. "So, what do we do now?"

Sugarcoat adjusted her glasses. "Talk to her while we still have the chance, verbally make amends, and leave off on a high note that doesn't leave us feeling like we stopped just short of kicking her dog every time we're reminded of her for the rest of our lives?"

And one more. Indigo smiled and clapped her hands together. "Break!" They approached Twilight together, contrition clear on their faces as she looked up at them with apprehension. "So... We got you to turn into an anime villain so we could win a game. Sorry 'bout that."

Twilight blinked twice, then smiled a little. "Oh, that, um... d-don't worry about that too much. To tell the truth, I was on the fence about releasing the magic anyway, you and Principal Cinch just gave me an excuse."

Jaws were dropped, but Sunny managed to get hers working again with a hint of indignance. "W-wait, you were going to do that anyway?!"

Twilight's smile vanished as she raised her palms defensively. "N-no! I didn't know what releasing the magic was going to do, and I wasn't sure about going through with it, j-just... The whole reason I wanted to come to CHS before the games started was to study what I now know is magic, and with the way things had been going, I was already frustrated about a considerable lack of substantial progress, among other things." Frowning, she compulsively reached a hand toward her neck, remembering that she'd deactivated and dismantled the spectrometer shortly before the party started. "But, even with the added pressure, it was my choice to do it, even while fully aware that the consequences could have been disastrous. If anything, I'm sorry I ruined the Friendship Games, because while I may not have wanted to participate myself, I know they meant a lot to just about everyone else."

Following a short, contemplative silence, Indigo shrugged. "Okay, so, the magic potholes weren't totally on us, but can we still say sorry for pushing you even further in that direction? Whether Cinch started it or not?"

"And," added Sugarcoat, "belittling your athletic ability while barely even recognizing that you'd single-handedly won the first event for us (one wonders why we even bothered with any of those other activities if it all came down to a math problem) just hours before." She offered a tiny, hopeful smile. "Apologies mutually given and accepted?"

Twilight smiled. "Yes, that sounds fair." Her heart almost stopped when they closed in on her, but being pulled to her feet (Spike hopped off her lap), she was immediately embraced in her very first group-of-friends hug! There were no scientific terms for the surplus of emotional stimulation that struck her in that moment, but she did her best to refrain from unnecessary saltwater emissions as she cherished the moment for all it was worth.

Efforts were only 54% successful.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"Yes," nodded Celestia, "I think the necessary papers can be filled out soon."

Dean Cadence grinned brightly. "Great, I'll pass on the news!"

As she walked off, Celestia smiled too. It warmed her heart to see an eager young mind open to learning, but the feeling was bolstered to giant, cuddly teddy-bear levels when the subject of interest was friendship. Looking over the party, the many smiling students from both schools, she imagined there would be no shortage of supply, and that the Friendship Games would finally live up to their name. Her smile ebbed, however, when she laid eyes on Principal Cinch, who sat alone at a table in a corner of the room.

Friendship. Magic of it, even. That was what I found my students singing and dancing about in the cafeteria one day, but I've never bothered to investigate, let alone make an effort to live up to it myself... Maybe that can change.

Glancing at the snack tables, her smile returned.

Having overheard the conversation while watching from the highest seats of the nearby bleachers, Adagio stroked her chin. "Transfer, hmm...?"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Principal Abacus Cinch hated being unproductive. She wouldn't have even been sitting here, but there was the chance someone would wish to speak with her regarding the late statue out front, and more pointedly who would be expected to pay for the damages. That was an argument she wasn't sure she could win, given the specific circumstances. It wasn't like any of the paperwork she could have been doing was waiting for her back at the hotel anyway; she'd finished it all in the first night.

There are, however brief, however fleeting, moments in which I curse my own diligence.

This left her to spend the next few hours in the din of excitable teenagers, without even the sense of smug satisfaction she would ordinarily allow herself for the hour or so following the conclusion of the games. It wasn't that she didn't feel her students had performed well under these strange conditions, but the triumph of the thing just wasn't there. Fortunately, those feelings didn't matter, what mattered was that she had secured the standing of Crystal Prep Academy for another day. Or until... how long was it before the next competition in which Crystal Prep was due to win first prize? She'd just began fishing her phone out of a pocket in her blazer to check the schedule when Principal Celestia's voice seized her attention.

"Could I interest you in cake? There's plenty left from the first event."

She looked up, seeing Celestia with a plate in each hand, a fork tucked under each thumb, and two slices of that, quite frankly, stunning cake that depicted the Mona blasted Lisa.

How did I miss that chef in my surveys?

She didn't have time to think about it before Celestia placed the plates on the table and sat down, giving her a big, bright grin. "That got your attention! I was worried you wouldn't even look at me, or wait until I said something else to pull an ironic 'You're still here?', but you didn't! Was it the cake? Because for the last fifteen years, I've been sure that you'd still share my appreciation for quality baking, and Luna totally owes me twent-"

"My surprise," Cinch answered with an arched eyebrow, cutting short Celestia's surprisingly spirited tirade, "stems from you being the one to offer it to someone else, Principal Celestia." It was a good thing Cinch was so disciplined, because otherwise she might have laughed out loud at the way Celestia's face froze before her smile faded.

"Oh. Does that mean you don't like cake anymore?"

"I 'like' quality in general, Principal Celestia, it was one of few things I thought to be understood between us."

She sighed. "Yes. Do you remember that little shop we used to visit once a week?"

"Canterlot Confectionery, owned by one Poppin Frost, eighth avenue, Breezie street. What of it?"

Celestia blinked twice. "...I, didn't even remember the name of the place. Have you been there recently?"

"Of course not," and not just because it closed down years ago, "but one of us had to know where we were going in more specific terms than, as you so often put it, 'that place with the bitchin' cupcakes.'"

Blushing a little at the memories of her teen vernacular, Celestia giggled. "Right. We practically made a game out of critiquing that week's special together, comparing it to the week before, and trying to work out an algorithm for how much Luna would eat during the visit."

Cinch shook her head a little. She could never account for whether or not Celestia's whimsical sister had smuggled snacks into school on any given day. "You brought this up in relation to the subject of cake, which was your basis for seizing my attention. What was it you wanted, Principal Celestia?" Judging by her frown, it hadn't been that question.

"...We used to be friends, Abacus. I thought, you know," she gestured to the party scene, "...that was the spirit of this thing, wasn't it?"

Briefly surveying the area herself, Cinch didn't look back at Celestia. "Things changed, as they do. When the two of us applied for the same job, it wasn't possible that both of us would get it, and as I recall, it was the lack of a second opening that convinced you to set your sights on Canterlot High instead." Her eyes on the table, Cinch spoke softly. "Kind of you to look out for your sister even to the detriment of your career."

Smiling, Celestia shrugged. "I would say it turned out fine, wouldn't you?" And even if it didn't, she would never abandon Luna. Not again. Speaking of family, she kept her voice gentle. "How's my nephew doing?" To her equal surprise and relief, she didn't get a disdainful dismissal about not being biological sisters like she had at the last Friendship Games, but a straight answer.

"...He is well. I trust you are asking because he did not participate in the games?"

"Well, I was curious. He always seems so energetic when I see him, I thought he'd jump at the chance." Something rose in Celestia's heart as Cinch snorted, her mouth curving into the tiniest grin.

"Truth be told, he asked permission to remain behind. I granted it, adding another student in his place at the last minute." Considering that Crystal Prep was declared the winner anyway, she wasn't sure it made a difference. She couldn't say for certain that he'd have outshined that fiery-haired girl in the Elimination Equation, but just about anyone would have been better than Twilight in the second event. Anyone but her only son, of course, which may have sent unprofessional messages about Cinch herself had he entered and done well.

"Did he say why?"

"I didn't ask."

"...Oh." A lull in conversation followed, leaving her to idly look over the party.

Yep, that's young people having fun alright. Like we used to...

She glanced down at the two slices of cake still sitting on the table and smiled. "I don't suppose," she said while sliding one plate closer to Cinch, "if you have nothing better to do, you'd indulge me a little in our old pastime?"

Celestia practically held her breath as Cinch looked down at the cake, scrutinized it as though hoping to perform her critique with a stare alone, slowly shifted her eyes toward Celestia to give her an unreadable look, then settled on the cake again. There was a tiny burst of glee when she picked up a fork, quickly and efficiently stabbing and tearing off a piece to take a bite.

"As suspected," she said only after swallowing, "I can taste the food-coloring used to make that image embedded in the inner layers."

Picking up her own fork, Celestia grinned. "Yes, but it isn't any less sweet, right?"

Cinch rolled her eyes. "Sampled it yourself already, I see." She eyed the piece currently on her fork. "I'll say I don't blame you, at the least, but you'll note that pouring sugar directly onto one's tongue is also 'sweet,' and doing so hardly makes it a craft."

"I'll admit that presentation was prioritized a little over flavor, but trust me when I say that that's extremely rare for this particular chef. I think she really wanted to impress us, and she was afraid that if we'd just been tasting other well-made cakes, we-"

"Wouldn't notice the full quality without a palette cleanser (I'll arrange for one next time) even if hers had been the most delectable in the world, so she opted for a different strategy to stand out?" The long-forgotten look of Celestia's surprised, I Was Just About To Say That face won a chuckle. "If nothing else," she said while raising another forkful to her mouth, "rest assured that in that much, she most definitely succeeded."

The bulk of the cake suffered from sickly-sweet flavor distortion, but the frosting had no such blemish.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

The party had been going for a little while, and Sunset spent that time going around to apologize for what became of the Friendship Games. To her sustained surprise, however, most people waved her off, pretty much apathetic about the whole thing. There was a single "Hah, Trixie knew it was all your fault somehow," but other than that, all fervor for the games had dried up as quickly as it came, and some expressed that while it'd have been great to win in a straight competition (she spoke with students of both schools), watching her Magical Girl Shimmer-Chan showdown with Demon Queen Twilight (that half of them used that same wording was suspicious) was pretty fun too. She blushed a little every time someone said this, but at least no one was mad.

Speaking of apologies, she still hadn't talked to Twilight about what she'd said just after the second event. Maybe her behavior following Twilight's transformation got the point across, but she wanted to reinforce it verbally just to be sure there were no hard feelings.

Ah, there she is!

She spotted Twilight standing by the Shadowbolts that had competed in the second event and Dean Cadence, who thumbed over her shoulder, said something about calling if she needed anything else, and walked away. From the smiles going around, the atmosphere was light and friendly, making it the perfect time to approach with a smile of her own!

"Hey, Twilight, can I talk to you for a sec?" The nearby Shadowbolts gave her curious looks, but to her relief, Twilight showed no sign that she even remembered being yelled at, her grin no weaker as she turned to Sunset.

"Uh, sure, what is it?"

"I wanted to say I was sorry for losing my temper with you earlier."

At this, Twilight frowned. "Well, I did almost get you, your friends, and everyone in the vicinity killed."

Indigo Zap shot a hand up as though answering a question in class. "I vote we don't count what big, freaky plant-things from nowhere do as being directly Twilight's fault!"

"Wha-?!"

"Seconded," nodded Sour Sweet.

"Thirded," cheered Lemon Zest.

"Fffourthed, I think," Sunny Flare said somewhat uncertainly.

All eyes were on Sugarcoat as she mulled it over. "...Twilight couldn't control the plant, but it wouldn't have been there at all if not for her, so technically-"

Snapping her fingers while pointing at Sugarcoat, Indigo wore a determined face. "Objection! The wibbly-wobbly rift thingies could just as well have made chocolate bunnies pop out, Twilight just got a bad roll!"

Things were quiet as Sugarcoat considered this, then smiled. "Fair enough."

"I win, the motion carries!" She stepped over to put an arm across Twilight's shoulders, grinning with triumph. "See? You're off the hook."

Twilight and those around her giggled, but she reluctantly stepped out of Indigo's companionship cling. "I appreciate the thought, but if I hadn't tampered with things I don't understand, none of that would have happened."

Indigo deflated. "Aww."

It wasn't nearly as cathartic to her this time, but Sunset was glad that the message from earlier hadn't slipped her mind.

Sunny Flare pointed to Sunset. "So, is that mutual apology thing still good here?"

Sunset looked confused, but Twilight wore a hesitant grin. "I, hope so... Apologies mutually given and accepted, Sunset?"

Blinking once, Sunset smiled too. "Uh, sure!"

And then Indigo was jubilant again, cheering for some kind of victory while roping Lemon Zest by the arm to pull her into some kind of quick, energetic, square-dance of happiness. Sunset found herself giggling as the other three Shadowbolts humored them by clapping in rhythm with bemused smiles on their faces. She looked at Twilight, who watched the spectacle with mild confusion. "I don't know what things were like for you before, but I'm sure Crystal Prep will be a nicer place with your new friends."

Twilight blinked twice. "Um... I'm actually transferring here."

"Huh?!"

"It's true," Indigo said while grappling Twilight to pull her in for light noogies, earning squirmy protests, "I dunno how soon, but-" she raised her voice so the whole room could hear, "-THIS LITTLE EGGHEAD IS GOING TO CHS, SO YOU GUYS BETTER TAKE CARE OF HER, OKAY?!"

Many turned to look at them, making Twilight very, very, very self-conscious as temperatures were elevated in the skin across her face.

And with that, Indigo chuckled, let go, pat Twilight on the back, said "Seeya around, Twilight," and walked away.

Moving to follow her, Lemon smiled at Twilight. "Don't hurt yourself, Twi!"

"It's not like we were friends," grumbled Sour Sweet, who smiled over her shoulder, "...but I think we're gonna miss you."

Going with them, Sunny Flare wore a slightly haughty smile. "Try to keep your urges under control over here, would you? Wouldn't want Crystal Prep to get a bad name from your behavior."

Smiling a little as Twilight's jaw dropped and her face burned, Sugarcoat stepped closer. "We tease because we know you'll be fine here, and because we probably won't get another opportunity to pick on you in a light-hearted atmosphere. Besides that, causing you annoyance will make it easier for you to move on, as you hopefully weren't very attached to any of us in the first place." Not caring who saw this time, she gave Twilight a hug. "Take care of yourself, Twilight." She didn't wait for more than the tearful whimper and nod of acknowledgement before letting go, turning away, and following the others.

Despite Sugarcoat's explanation, Twilight didn't look happy to say goodbye to her new friends so soon, but Sunset putting a hand on her shoulder and smiling helped her remember that she still wasn't going to be alone.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Dabbing a pinkie-finger into her cup, Sonata touched it to the edge of her tongue. "Hmm... Tangy, maybe strawberries, but not tangy enough to be oranges. Or, orange enough."

Drinking her punch like a normal person, Aria rolled her eyes. "You thought of anything yet? Other than becoming boxcar hobos?"

Sonata angrily pouted at her. "Oh, like your pirate plan is any better? It'd be the same thing, just with boats and scurvy!"

"Pfft." She idly looked around the room for inspiration. Luna and Pink-Hair-Barbie Lady were chatting about something. Could they be high-society socialites, getting by with charm and charisma to win over some rich stiff, living the rest of their lives in luxury? Sounded sorta boring to be limited to 'classy' behavior 24-7. That silver-haired girl Adagio used during the Battle of the Bands was dancing with Pinkie's geology-fetish sister, telling her how lucky she was to have a 'great and powerful' instructor like her. Could they make a career on dancing? Or, since they could sing again, musical stuff in general? It wasn't like they'd just be showing up and doing whatever, putting together performances could be a lot of work, and if she was the one in charge, she probably couldn't get Adagio to do it all for her. Something to consider, though.

Rarely did Sonata frown when holding a glass of punch. "What are we gonna do?"

Aria shrugged. "I don't think I wanna hang around here forever like Sunset. I mean, she's cool and all, but-"

"Living in Team Friendship's shadow for the rest of our lives sounds sorta lame?"

"Well, yea, sorta. "

"There's at least one opening at Crystal Prep," came the voice of Adagio, startling both of them, "and if we're lucky, perhaps they'd accept more. That Indigo girl did make you one such offer, did she not?"

Turning to face her, Aria tilted her head. "Who?"

"In terms you may remember: Blue-hair Goggles Weeaboo."

"Oh, her." Aria scowled. "Why would we wanna go to her stupid school?"

"Because in addition to it being considerably wealthier and home to much nicer facilities, from the way I've been hearing its students talk, the two of you would be free not just from the influence of Sunset's group, but from me as well." The shocked stares were anticipated, so she was ready with the follow-up. "You just said it yourselves, didn't you? Not wanting to be under someone's shadow? I didn't mean to, but even today, I still assumed command a few times. Stop me if you disagree, but after a hundred years of following my orders, it may be a lot easier for you two to come into your own if I'm not hanging around. I'm thinking that if you two were to transfer to Crystal Prep while I remained here, you could have that whole school as your own stomping grounds, no Rainbooms, me, or other magic users of any kind -this world's Twilight is transferring here, and I suspect Sunset will keep her on a tight leash anyway- to worry about, just the two of you free to do as you see fit."

Idly crossing her arms, she couldn't help noticing that neither of them were so much as opening their mouths to stop her. "Futhermore, I..." She shrugged somewhat uncertainly. "I want to try to unlearn what they taught me in The Hadal Zone, or at least adapt out the worst of it. That way, when you two know exactly what you're doing, I'll at least be better at taking orders rather than subtly undermining your schemes with my own to seize control for myself. Again. So, what do you think?"

At this, Aria and Sonata shared a glance, looked at her, then each other again, then back at her, Aria raising an eyebrow. "Y'know, I think I kinda see what you mean, which is why I've gotta ask if this is a plan of yours too."

Adagio facepalmed, feeling as though she'd just outsmarted herself. "I- yes, I suppose it is, but it's a plan that should work to our collective benefit. Do you see any holes in the reasoning? Anything that you don't want to try? I'm certainly not forcing this on you, so if there are any objections, just say so."

Sonata touched a fingertip to her lower lip in thought. "Umm... Well, like, how do we know you're not doing your persuasion-mind-trick thingy on us so we don't notice if there are parts we don't want or don't like?"

Equally proud of Sonata's moment of brilliance and ashamed that what she'd just described fit her to a T, Adagio wasn't sure how to feel about immediately having an answer for that one. "Because if I wanted you to accept it without question, I'd have made you think it was your idea. Probably by bringing up Indigo's suggestion, what I'd heard about Twilight's transfer, and some descriptive thinking out loud about Crystal Prep being comparatively wealthy."

The two of them blinked twice, Aria scratching her head. "Well... Damn. Yea, that sounds about right. So, we'd go to the richer, fancier school, which would be all ours, while you stick around here to cool your megalomania a bit?"

"In essence. While I can't promise that you'll enjoy the daily bus-rides (though I'm sure you'll keep occupied), we'd only be apart during the school day, so I'll still be around if you need me when you get home."

"That... sounds like a plan, I guess." Aria glanced at Sonata before crossing her arms. "But, you're not gonna go all 'Magic of Friendship' or anything if we leave you with those girls, right?"

Folding one arm over the other as she clasped her hands together, Adagio gave them a big, bright, friendly smile. "Oh, whyever would you think a think like that, Aria dear?" The shivers this drew out of them made her break character with her usual fiendish chuckles, at least until Sonata tilted her head.

"But, like, how will we get into CeePee? It's super snazzy, right? Are they really gonna let us in?"

Feeling a little like her old self, pre-Battle-of-the-Bands, Adagio grinned. "Leave that to me..." Their worried, possibly frightened stares made her stop, clear her throat, and fold her arms behind her back, smiling sheepishly. "Er, I mean... I'll give it my best?"

The three of them giggled together. Truth be told, Adagio didn't know what good the two of them going to Crystal Prep would really do, but at the very least, it might buy her some time.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"-and that's when she said 'Apologies mutually given and accepted?'"

"Ah," Sunset nodded, "guess that clears that up. Back when I ripped up the school, all the apologizing was on my end, which, while deserved, doesn't come with the sense of mutual friendliness." The speed at which Twilight's mirth slipped away told her that either that kind of talk was way too soon, even for a fellow former She-Demon, or she just made a startling realization as her eyes widened.

"Ripped up the...? Oh, no, the statue!" She raised her hands to her cheeks in her building panic. "I blew it to bits! They'll never let me transfer here, or the very least they'll bill my parents into homelessness to pay for it! WhatamIgonnadoIdon't-" She was startled silent by Sunset clapping both hands on her shoulders.

"Deep breaths. I promise it'll be okay." As Twilight took her breathing advice, she offered what she was pretty sure was the same reassuring smile her friends gave her. "Like I said, I busted up the front of the school, but they let me work it off rather than throwing me in jail for the destruction of property, not to mention theft and attempted murder, just listing my crimes for this dimension."

Twilight blinked twice.

"...I've got some history," Sunset said with a sheepish smile, "but trust me, totally past that now! Anyway, yea, all we have to do is-"

"'We'?" Twilight took a step back, shaking her head. "No, nononono, I can't let you be punished for my mistake." She forced a smile. "I'll just, replace the statue myself! I did some research on the masonry process once, I-I'm sure I can-" She was again startled by a hand on her shoulder, this time from behind.

"-can let us lend a hand," Rainbow said with a confident smile, "don't mention it!"

"Wha-?! B-"

"We're helping you and we won't hear a word to the contrary, Darling." Rarity briefly brushed a hand along the back of her own head. "Though I think I'll bring more helmets this time..."

Sunset's friends stepped around where Twilight could see them, all wearing welcoming smiles that she didn't return. "You guys didn't destroy the statue, why should you have to-" She was silenced with a pink fingertip to her lips this time as Pinkie giggled.

"Aww, c'mon, do ya really think we let Sunset do the whole entrance by herself? 'Cuz we didn't, no matter how much she pouted at us for taking bits of what was 'her burden' and not letting her 'prove she can do it alone' and stuff!"

Rubbing the back of her neck, Sunset blushed. "Haha, yea."

Applejack straightened her hat. "Makin' a new statue's gonna be dif'rent, but it'll be nice to use some'a that stuff we learned from last time again."

"But," Fluttershy interjected with an upraised finger, "we can't spell out our initials in the concrete, Principal Celestia was very clear about that."

Huffing, Rainbow rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "I know, I know."

Looking around at the giggling girls that, while complete strangers, already valued her just as much as her new friends in the Shadowbolts, Twilight again tried to restrain her tears as she cherished the sense of being wanted, made all the more intense by the fact that it was from the very girls that made her realize such a thing existed!

Magic of Friendship, huh? I don't know if I could write a paper on it, but I'm sure there's plenty to learn.

Her smile stayed until she caught sight of the cheerleaders, standing not far away, but well out of earshot. She wanted to think it was just the rush of magic altering her mind, the power trip impairing her thoughts, but what she pictured for those three if she'd gotten her way... Where had she even witnessed that kind of-

"Twilight? You okay?"

Her focus snapped to Sunset, whose concerned frown she met with a slightly nervous grin. "F-fine, just... Could you excuse me for a moment? There's, uh, s-someone else I feel like I should say 'sorry' to."

Sunset glanced around the party to glean clues, but didn't see any immediate hints. "Uh, sure, I guess. Talk to you later?" Once she nodded and set off, Sunset followed her movements to see that she was headed for... "The sirens? What could-" Her eyes widened. "Ohh, no way."

"What," asked Applejack as she leaned in to get an idea of what Sunset was looking at, "no way what?"

Rarity leaned in to do the same thing, narrowing her eyes as she tried to follow Twilight's movements. "It looks like... Oh, dear. You don't think... it was true?"

Arms folded, Rainbow tilted her head a little. "Her goin' all grab-ass at 'em? Nah, it was probably just some crazy misunderstanding."

"That's how it goes in those cartoons," muttered Fluttershy as she touched the tips of her index fingers together. She looked up to find everyone staring at her. "Wh-what?"

Pinkie grinned. "Didn't have you pegged for an anime fan, Flutter-Butter!"

She offered a tiny 'caught me' smile. "W-well, it depends, but-"

Their attention was seized by a loud impact and cries of alarm from Twilight's direction. When they looked, there was no sign of her, but the way people were crowding around made it hard to see anything. Sunset was the first to push past the crowd, her jaw dropping when she saw the source of the commotion.

As Twilight lay atop the dazed Dazzlings, all four could be heard making pained, confused, disoriented sounds as they tried to get their bearings. Aria was trying to wriggle her backside free of Twilight's hand and her upper body out from under of Adagio's hair, which had mostly absorbed its bearer from the waist up as well, Sonata writhing on her back and breathing funny in response to Twilight's other hand on one breast, and Adagio's legs shifted uncomfortably in response to the head between her thighs, Twilight's face pressed under her skirt.

Sunset winced at the familiar flash of Photo Finish's camera, but at least it wasn't directed at her this time. Moving quickly, she pulled Twilight up by an arm. "Twilight? What are you doing?"

Twilight, her glasses crooked and her hair-bun slightly disheveled, teetered on her feet. "...Huh?"

When they managed to untangle themselves, the sirens stood up too, with Aria looking especially annoyed as she dusted herself off. "Okay, I know we gave you a hard time yesterday, but I kinda thought we'd buried the hatchet earlier. Is this just a hobby of yours, or what?"

Twilight flushed crimson. "N-n-"

"Yea," added a bashful Sonata as she folded her arms protectively over her chest, "what are you, the boob police?"

"Wh-what?! I-"

"No, no," said Adagio in worryingly calm tones as she tugged the edge of her skirt firmly downward, her glare freezing Twilight (and Sunset, and those behind her) in place, "I think I know what this is about, and perhaps it's my fault. Sunset? Could I talk with Twilight alone for just a minute?"

Glancing nervously between Adagio and the newest, terrified Wondercolt, Sunset briefly wished the other Twilight were here to mediate the most peaceful outcome. "Um-"

"Just for a minute," she insisted as took hold of Twilight's other arm, "worst case scenario; I won't even leave permanent marks."

"Ireallythinkyoushouldprobably-"

"No, wait," Twilight said while looking at Sunset with guilty eyes, "I'll... I'll go with her. Just for a minute?" Sunset's expression said that she did not favor this decision, but as Twilight meant to apologize for... and, that she... again... The head cheerleader (You don't even remember any of their names!) probably wouldn't hurt her, even after another overly invasive contact, but if she did... Well, Twilight had spare underwear in her bookbag anyway. She let the fluffy one-(Adagio, this one's name was Adagio! Which one was Aria and which one was Sonata?!) lead her away from the party area and out into the hall without a word.

Sunset, while trying to respect wishes and all that, followed only to make sure no one did anything they'd regret. This grew marginally easier as the crowd started to clear out, leaving Aria, Sonata, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Rarity, and Rainbow to talk amongst themselves.

"Huh," remarked Aria as she folded her arms, "surprised she didn't ask about yesterday."

Pinkie raised her hand in standard classroom fashion. "What happened yesterday?"

Aria froze.

Crap! Just Sonata'd myself!

"Umm... A completely innocent game of keep-away gone wrong?" Judging by the skeptical stares, she needed to work on her lying. "We thought she was the other Twilight and just trying to screw with us, so we picked on her a bit."

"But then," grinned Sonata, "we heard who she wasn't, tried to say sorry, she fell on Dagi (kinda our fault), and then we made up! Total bygones!"

"Yea, that. If she's still doing it, though, we'll let Adagio sort her out."

Rainbow kept herself from saying anything about having a hard time believing anyone would apologize of their own free will. She learned that lesson pretty hard from the first few weeks with Sunset. Instead, she glanced in the direction Twilight, Adagio, and Sunset had gone. "Cool. She'll be okay though, right?"

Aria inspected her nails. "Eh, probably. She's the one that obsessed over not ticking off Sunset by doing something crazy, so I doubt she'll take it far."

"Doubly so with Sunset nearby, I would think." Rarity touched a thoughtful fingertip to her chin. "So, what will the three of you do now? You're more than welcome to stay here, but we certainly can't hold you."

Aria and Sonata shared a glance, and lacking acceptance letters (or whatever the convention was) from Crystal Prep at that particular second, silently agreed not to go burning any bridges just yet. Aria shrugged. "We're working on it." Subject change needed. "So, remember our little talk earlier?"

Rainbow loosed a long-suffering sigh. "Yea, yea, we're terrible friends because we pushed Sunset into-"

"No, no, I- well, yea, it's about that, but..." She glanced at Sonata, who gave an encouraging little smile. "Just before the little poindexter went apeshit, we snuck around to listen in." And snatch the gizmo before it went off, but that didn't need to be said. "We got to watch Cinch and the Shadowbolts gang up on her, really strong-arm her into doing what they wanted. They even had a song for it." Not meeting anyone's eyes, she folded her arms. "We weren't there when you guys got Sunset to play along, but I can't honestly tell myself that you'd be that bad, so... I guess we were sorta harsh on you guys." Following a short silence, she looked up to see the Rainbooms collectively giving her one of those Everything's Okay smiles.

"Aww, shoot," Applejack twanged, "don't worry about it. If it's about winnin', Ah think 'nicer than Crystal Prep' ain't a high branch to reach anyway."

"At least it wasn't before," noted Fluttershy as she watched some Crystal Prep students clapping for one of Trixie's tricks not far away.

"Forgive me if this sounds the least bit accusatory," said Rarity, "but I'm a little surprised you would come out with such a sentiment even when you specifically said that you just enjoy 'telling people when they're wrong,' as I recall."

Aria blinked twice. "Uh..." The little smiles they were giving her made her Unwanted Closeness senses itch. "I, do, but you weren't as wrong as we made it sound, which kinda feels self-defeating if-" She took a step back, immediately startled to feel hands seizing her by the shoulders. Whipping her head around revealed a beaming Sonata, who looked at the Rainbooms as they closed in for the kill. "T-traitor!!" Aria and Sonata were grabbed in another group hug, despite the former's squirmy, pouty protests.

Well, at least Sunset can't see this.

Photo Finish's camera flashed.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

"Alright," said Adagio as she let Twilight go, just the two of them in that hallway, "I only asked for a minute, so I'll make this quick; was it the way I looked at you after your transformation? Because while I'm pleased that the message got across, it was only valid while you were still wielding that power."

Already luminous, Twilight couldn't make eye-contact. "I-it, actually, the, um... touching... was an accident, but I did want to talk about that." Adagio didn't say anything, so she had to look up to see a mildly perplexed (at least she's not totally furious) expression. "I wanted to tou-t-talk, I wanted to talk to you girls about that moment, but I tripped, and, well... Sorry."

Amused though she was, the edge didn't entirely leave Adagio's voice as she raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. "You tripped, fell, and just so happened to land like that?"

Twilight's knees shook as she practically folded in on herself in shame. "I-I don't know how either, but... I'm really, really sorry." The rest of the promised minute passed in silence as Adagio scrutinized her, making her feel even smaller under that steely gaze. Sweet relief quickly followed when Adagio took a deep breath through her nose, then gave her a tiny smile. (She's even prettier when she smiles!)

"If it really wasn't on purpose, I suppose I can't begrudge you. Just, please, be more careful? Not everyone you could have collided with would be so forgiving."

Grinning sheepishly, Twilight nodded quickly. "Y-yes ma'am." She'd have loved to end this conversation on that high note, but her smile slipped away as she remembered the thing she wanted to apologize for in the first place. "...So, um, about... when I was looking at you three..." Adagio rested a hand on her hip while giving her a face that conveyed "There's more?" Twilight took a deep breath. "I was thinking of... very bad things then, and, since you probably get too much of that kind of look as it is, I-"

"My, my," Adagio chuckled, "you are innocent. Give or take the occasional accident, I mean." She grinned fiendishly as Twilight squeaked and took up a nervous, knock-kneed stance. So cute! "Do you really think you're the first to have lewd thoughts about me? About any of us? We're big girls, Twilight Sparkle, and even if we'd rather not be fondled and felt up at the drop of a hat, appreciative stares are..." She shrugged, giggling. "Well, generally appreciated."

"But," Twilight protested, "Sunny Flare always says that those kinds of thoughts promote disdainful, exploitative attitudes, whether they're from men or women." She'd have thoroughly researched the subject herself, but if Dean Cadence ever learned she'd looked up such a subject, she'd be writing a dissertation on the lethality of humiliation.

Red-violet eyes were rolled. "I won't give you the full Talk, dear, but more important than those naturally-occurring thoughts is how you respond to them." She idly stroked her chin while looking Twilight dead in the eye. "You looked at the three of us with fantasies of... hm, chaining us up, making us your slaves, and spending each and every evening just-" The way Twilight burned red, seized up, and fell over said she'd made a good guess, drawing almost maniacal laughter until the poor girl could pull herself together. "You thought of all that, and even if you couldn't fully control yourself-" she smirked as Twilight made a spastic little noise, "what did you actually do when you realized it?"

"I..." Getting to her feet, she needed a minute to piece the flow of events together. "I, wanted to say I was sorry. And I did. Just a minute ago...?" Adagio was smiling at her.

"Right. I don't know this Sunny Flare, but in your recent experience, would you say that having wayward thoughts, while high out of your mind on a power trip, at that, twisted you into a depraved, hedonistic monster?"

"Well... no, but... I mean, can't that happen?"

"Only if you decide to let it, Twilight Sparkle, and it seems to me that you didn't." The way Twilight smiled at this tickled something in her chest, giving her another dose of that Change The Subject feeling she got from Sunset earlier. "So, while we're sharing thoughts, I'm wondering where exactly you got that medallion of yours."

Twilight blinked. "M-medallion...? Oh, the spectrometer? I built it from scratch. It took a few months, but the energy coming from this school was very distinctive, so when I narrowed down how to distinguish it from other readings, it was just a matter of being able to gauge it as well." She frowned a little. "Absorbing it, though, I had no idea that would happen."

"Spectrometer," nodded Adagio. "Thank you for not calling it 'The Eye of Whatever,' like a lot of people might have." To her slight surprise, Twilight grimaced.

"Ohh, don't get me started on that little cliche! Being vaguely spherical does not grant sufficient reason to refer to something as an 'eye,' doubly so when there's nothing ocular about it!"

"Right?" She's at least vaguely familiar with magical convention, Adagio thought idly as she grinned wider, but is it from prior studies, or something she picked up from this world's fiction? And, either way, did that help her craft her device? "You wouldn't believe how often supposedly self-respecting mages will just slap the 'Eye' moniker onto anything, even if it functions more like an anchor, or a battery, or even a weapon."

Twilight shook her head. "I hate misnomers! What if someone actually tried looking through one of these things? It'd be raising the barrel of a gun to your eye!"

"Indeed. Strangely, actual scrying tools were typically given more literal names, like Contact Pearls (think of something like a picture-phone) or Scouting Rods (basically telescopes that made it much easier to see through oceanic murk, even in pitch darkness) in my experience."

Eyes widening, Twilight made a realization she'd almost technically made the day before. "...You three are from -whatwasit- Equestria, aren't you? You've actually lived in a magical world yourselves." She was wearing an ear-to-ear smile and holding a notepad and pen before she even realized her arms had moved. "C-can I ask you a few questions?!"

Adagio chuckled. "Ever the scholar. I'm sure I could entertain you for a while, but I think it can wait until after the party. Besides, Sunset Shimmer would probably be more interested in sharing with you on the matter." She called out slightly louder. "Isn't that right?"

Sheepishly, Sunset stepped out from behind the closed segment of the double-door and into the hall, guilt written all over her face. "How long?"

"From the second we started, when I saw your shadow under the door. Helps that you didn't come looking for us after the minute was up."

"Right. So, just to be sure, everything's cool between you guys?" They shared a brief glance, then nodded, drawing a smile from Sunset. "Great! Come back inside, there's still plenty of party left." And friends to make, but I can't force that part.

Adagio moved to follow about a second after Sunset turned and went back into the gym, but jumped when she felt a sharp, stinging slap on her behind as she walked past Twilight. Stopping, she glared over her shoulder to find the little bookworm wearing an increasingly extreme look of regret.

"I, uh," she squeaked, "I-I learned from one of m-my Shadowb-my teammates, um, she said, well, she d-didn't really say, but, it sounded like st-striking posteriors with your open p-palm was a, uh, friendly, sp-sportsmanship... thing... And, y-you said if I don't let it be something perverted, then it isn't, s-so, but, I guess, uh... sorry?"

Turning to face her, Adagio again rested a hand on her hip. "You mean to say that it's a gesture of camaraderie, and, wishing to embrace the spirit of that sort of thing, you wanted to congratulate me for a job well done in the games?" Twilight nodded almost imperceptibly, to which Adagio smiled brightly. "I see. In that case, well-done to you too!"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Giggling at Luna's account of the time she, her sister, and Cinch first rode bumper cars together, Cadence caught sight of Twilight coming into the gym after that cheerleader who probably had her own line of especially fluffy body pillows. And if not, totally should! However, a particular detail made her call out to Twilight.

"Uh... Twilight, why do you have a hand-print on your face?"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

There were few better places for ice-breaking than at a snack table, but to Sunset's slight disappointment, only Adagio had followed her.

"Hey. Where's Twilight?"

Lifting a glass of punch to her lips, Adagio shrugged. "Am I her keeper now? Because if you want to make that deal, you're going to have to restore my full power in exchange." She took a long sip as Sunset pouted at her.

"Please tell me you're not still evil."

"Ohh, not at all," she chuckled, batting her eyes for effect. "I would need more magic to be an effective villain again, and I'm not the one who went all Sexy Sun Goddess for-..." What had been a growing, predatory smirk fell away as she sighed. Recollection of what she just did to Twilight deepened it into a frown. "Sorry, but I really am this much of a bitch. I don't mean to act like this, but that's where it always goes, I just-" She was cut off with a hug. When Sunset stepped back, she was smiling.

"It's okay, Adagio, I don't expect you to completely rework yourself in a matter of days. Or, at all, actually, whether you plan to live a peaceful life or not."

While not quite satisfied, Adagio wasn't sure she wanted to say more. Being bound to Sunset's first deal had been surprisingly stressful, and she didn't want to wind up tied to something else on account of her conscience. She'd been sincere in what she told the others about adapting out her worst traits, and perhaps her strict sense of quid-pro-quo could be the first thing to go. At least then she could do this on her own terms at all times. "As it happens, I actually do have some interest in 'reworking' myself. While you've been my primary target, I can hardly talk to someone for five minutes without riling them up." She directed a slightly remorseful nod toward the double-door. "You heard me with Twilight, and the most likely reason she didn't follow was because I slapped her. She slapped me first, granted, but it was clear that she already understood her mistake." She'd anticipated the kind of wrath she'd been doing her best to avoid all day, but Sunset Shimmer surprised her again by giving her a wry grin.

"Yea, because that face totally doesn't scream 'pick on me,' right? Seriously, maybe it's the glasses, but if Princess Twilight showed up looking that cute back when I was still a total bitch, I don't know what I'd have done to her."

Adagio blinked twice, but Sunset moved right along by performing the friendly shoulder-touch on her.

"I don't know about slapping, but friends poke good-natured fun at each other all the time, and I don't think a little teasing is gonna kill anybody. Trust me, you haven't done anything out of line so far, and as long as you can keep from going too far with it, I don't think you've got anything to worry about. Okay?"

Even if she had witnessed the effects first-hand, Adagio was still caught off-guard by the sheer intensity of the shoulder-touch gesture. She couldn't think of another reason her insides would shuffle around at the contact, Sunset's smiling face a silent assurance that everything was going to be alright as the colored lights of the party danced in her eyes. And then, just like earlier today, she spoke before she could stop herself, a hint of a smirk crossing her face.

"Does that include you?"

To her sustained surprise, Sunset just giggled. "Actually, yes! I'm not gonna curl into a ball and die of embarrassment from a few comments, so if there's something you wanted to say about my transformation earlier, have at it."

She felt like a hungry shark being baited with a slab of incredibly fresh, rare meat. "I've b-been a little too cruel with you already, Sunset Shimmer."

"I told you, friends tease each other all the time. In fact," the smile grew wide and genuine, "I was kinda thinking you had a pretty good handle on that."

Adagio stared back at her in silence for a moment, her mouth twitching into a hesitant smile. "I won't hold back, you know."

"That's okay," she said with a confident smirk, "don't want this fiery alicorn thing going to my head."

"You're absolutely certain? Last chance to back out."

"I'm sure. Hit me."

"Very well..." Adagio cleared her throat, her eyes lit up with fiendish glee, and Sunset saw the return of her most vicious slasher smile. "I might have just said that the surge of power clearly lit your fire, but those wings gave new meaning to getting hot."

Sunset rolled her eyes, chuckling. "Is that all?"

The smile didn't fade. "Ohh, I wish! Being naked might have helped convince poor Twilight a little faster, I know it would have won me over like-" she snapped her fingers, "that!"

"Wha-?!" Oh, like, 'all' of the transformation, I see what she did th-

"Really," Adaigo said while giving her a coy look, "it would have given "Take my hand" a whole new meaning..."

Now Sunset started to blush. "I really don't think she'd have responded very well to-"

"Not that I didn't enjoy the show anyway; watching you two struggle and sweat against each other was just delightful!"

"It wasn't l-like we-"

"And that's before accounting for the... angle." She happily clasped her hands together. "Lucky me, I was standing in juuust the right spot!" Her eyes darted downward for a fraction of a second. "Good choice, by the way."

Sunset instinctively pulled the rim of her shirt-ruffles downward. "I-in what?!"

Her eyes still gleaming with amusement, the familiar smirk gave way to a less threatening smile. "Don't worry, though, no matter my thoughts on watching you, I'll be keeping my hands to myself. Should be much easier as you are."

"Th-thanks...?" 'As I am'? I would ask, but it feels like a trap.

"No, no," she uttered as an odd sense of relief flooded through her chest, "thank you."

It was while Sunset was trying to decide whether or not retaliating with how cute Adagio and the others looked while doing those cheers in their little skirts and belly-shirts would leave her open to an easy counterattack about 'doing a lot for her' that Sonata popped up, latching onto Adagio with a big, Pinkie-worthy smile.

"DagiDagiDagiDagiDagiDagi!!"

Giggling, Adagio looked over her shoulder at her. "Yes?"

"Aria feels like singing!!"

All humor vanished from Adagio's face. "What?"

Still holding onto Adagio, Sonata was practically hopping in place. "We were hugging things out with the others, got to talking about stuff, Aria started feeling things, and now she wants to sing! Hurry!!"

Quickly joining Sonata in heading for the stage, Adagio briefly jogged backwards to smile at Sunset. "Good news; you didn't need to win after all!"

Sunset didn't have time to ask before the two excitedly sped off. She scratched her head. "Where'd Twilight get to, anyway...?"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Sitting beside Twilight on the lowest seat of the bleachers, Dean Cadence smiled. "So, even if she happened to like that kind of thing and took it as a sign of confidence, you really should wait longer than a day of knowing someone before trying something like that. Okay?"

Mortified, Twilight hadn't moved her hands from her overheating face in the last several minutes. "Okay..." Maybe it was valuable information, but she still wished it didn't have to be delivered on account of multiple misunderstandings.

Cadence gently pat Twilight's back. She knew it'd be embarrassing for her, but sexual harassment was no laughing matter, and she couldn't have Twilight getting in trouble at CHS so soon. "You've got plenty of time, so there's no need to rush things. And if it works out, invite her over for dinner some time!" She was going to miss Twilight's spastic noises at Crystal Prep. Looking up, she noticed most of the room gathering in front of the stage. "Huh, I don't remember anything being scheduled... Wanna come watch the show, Twilight?"

Anything that would take the focus off of her was all too welcome. "S-sure!"

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Moments before...

"So what brought this on? I don't remember a time that you've felt like singing since we got here."

Smiling brightly as she and the others readied the stage, Aria shrugged. "I'unno, s'like... We were talking to the Rainbooms about nobody being put out over the games that they cared so much about before, how nobody's even grumbling about not getting to beat Crystal Prep. They told me that that would'a been great and all, but they've talked a little to the other Wondercolts and random CHS students about what Sonata and I said to 'em a little earlier."

Plugging the sound equipment in, Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Which was?"

"Heh, heh, tell ya later. In short, now that the chance is gone, pretty much everyone agrees that it doesn't matter if they 'won' or not, they just wanna go back to hanging with people they don't hate, do stuff just for the heck of it. That reminded me of the song I won a musical showcase with back home, and since we sorta trashed the one they were supposed to have here as bad as Twilight trashed the games, I was thinking...?"

"Showcase?" When the long-buried memory resurfaced, she found herself wearing a nostalgic grin. "Would that be the one that...?"

"Uh-huh," confirmed Sonata, who had managed to stop bouncing with excitement, "from the day we met! Totally that one!"

Adagio's smile weakened a little, but she'd have plenty of time to dwell on how she'd dragged the two of them along with her when she was telling her story to Sunset. Instead, she nodded and gestured to the mic. While Sonata skipped over and happily announced that the three of them would like to play a song for everyone, Aria noted that Adagio was unconsciously giving orders even now.

Most of the room gathered in front of the stage, faces she'd been seeing all day; the Rainbooms, the Shadowbolt, the old people, Twilight, and a bunch of dorks whose names she would figure out after she and Sonata got to Crystal Prep. Plenty hung back for more elbow room, but she was sure the whole room would hear it just the same. Looking out over the room, Aria grabbed the mic.

Emergency Author's Note: Ordinarily, there'd be a parody (or whatever the general term for Weird Al-ing is) here, but one of those for a fast song in another language, whether I can sync up the syllables or not, would probably be really difficult to follow along. Still, the triumphant joy of the song set to drums and guitars (which I'm pretty sure constitutes a rock band) was the best fit for what I had in mind for the general feel of Aria's style. Helps that Aria has the cutest singing voice of the three, but I forget where I left that comparison video.
That in mind, it seemed wiser to just do this, so I hope you enjoy!
That it saves me an hour or two certainly helps. Not really sure I'd do the thing justice anyway.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr6nkizA7io

The brightness and energy of the song's opening washed over the room like an electric tidal wave, sweeping up its listeners and carrying them out to a sea of mirth and excitement. The lyrics, centered on enjoying what one does regardless of the outcome, resonated with the students of Canterlot High, most of all the Rainbooms, and while almost completely foreign to them, most of those from Crystal Prep bobbed along and tapped their feet anyway. The strangest part about singing this song for Aria was that for the first time, she actually meant it. Helped that she wouldn't be seeing most of these people again any time soon if all went as planned, but such thoughts were put on the back-burner while she threw herself into the chorus, feeling the momentum of the wave pick up as Sonata and Adagio injected the back-up vocals.

She hadn't sung this song in decades at least, but not a single beat was missed, not a single word forgotten as it flowed past her lips, as though she'd done it for the hundredth time just that morning. The rest of the room took to it just as naturally, many smiling faces and energetic dancers feeding back into Aria like all the dark energy she'd ever harvested at once, the rush driving her to move faster, sing louder, and repay every second of their attention with her heart and soul. By the time the bridge came up, she started getting dizzy, but didn't dare stop the tune, delivering the lyrics alone before diving back into the full swing of the song with the others. She hadn't heard the sounds and felt the sensations of transformation since that night at the Battle, but the effects were unmistakable as she lifted off the ground, light as a feather and bursting with energy for the final stanza.

With the last note of the song, Aria felt herself slowing down, the magic ebbing away as she fell backward, caught by Sonata and Adagio before she could hit the floor. Struggling for breath over the sounds of applause, she looked at them with a dazed smile. "I, th-think I need a cigarette."

They giggled, Sonata ruffling her hair. "We don't smoke, dummy."

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Following the song, the party carried on, with Sonata and Adagio keeping a winded Aria company until she could stand up again. They were more than happy to soak up praise for the song in the meantime. People spread around, silly conversations were had, Trixie's attempt to wow the gathered crowd with some stage magic was met with frustratingly lukewarm reception (most of the clapping was from when she accidentally made her hat rocket into the air, brush against the ceiling, and coincidentally land straight back on her head), cakes were eaten, and after a while, the party started winding down.

A few minutes before it would be time to head back to the hotel for the night, Sugarcoat tapped Adagio's shoulder. "May I speak to you for a moment? Preferably in private?"

Though she had an inkling as to where this was going, Adagio nodded and followed her to a reasonably secluded corner of the room. "So what's this about, Sugar?" The annoyed nose-wrinkle made her giggle. "Well, neither of us ever gave our names, so all I have to go on is what your friend called you. Is it any worse than whatever you've been calling me?" Sugar's expression changed to one of shame as she shrank down, but Adagio just grinned. "I'm Adagio Dazzle. You are...?"

"Sugarcoat." She needed a moment to be able to look Adagio square in the eye. "The reason for my hair is that I know I'm not particularly attractive, not really athletic (hence volunteering to ride a motorcycle, letting a machine do most of the work for me), and even if I boast a higher GPA than most of Crystal Prep, there are those who are better than me in every subject, and I've always paled in comparison to Twilight. Even so, I wanted to be noticed, and unique hair was the best I could do." Adagio just nodded, spurring her to deliver the rest. "And... an easy way to stand taller, is to... tear others down. That is why I drew attention to your hair. Sorry." Her contrition briefly shifted back to annoyance. "Which, while I understand that it suits you, is still ridiculous."

Adagio giggled merrily. "I see. For what it's worth, I could have just kept walking when you made your comments rather than escalating matters like I did, but I happen to know a thing or two about getting under peoples' skin myself." She wasn't sure what it said that this won a look of surprise. "I didn't have to ruffle your feathers like I did, nor take such delight in the faces you made, so, I'm sorry too."

Starting to feel as though she'd really struck gold with these words, Sugarcoat smiled. "Apologies mutually given and accepted?" That Adagio chuckled and gave her another wicked smirk made her anticipate the worst, but what she actually heard was cause for relief.

"Apologies mutually given and accepted, Sugarcoat."

"Thank you. I guess even antagonizing cheerleaders with scary smiles aren't all bad." The look Sugarcoat got for this chilled her blood, Adagio's mirth vanishing as she leaned in, an eyebrow raised, and her voice a deadly whisper.

"What's wrong with my smile...?"

Knees shaking, tongue wriggling uselessly in her mouth as her brain tried and failed to produce a gentle, yet honest way of elaborating, Sugarcoat had at least one observation on the situation.

I have now fucked up.

With that, she initiated Panic Mode.

"I-I don't know," she said while pointing behind Adagio, "but maybe those naked girls can tell you?" Adagio didn't look over her shoulder, but she did look more annoyed. Just as Adagio reached for her, Principal Cinch was heard giving the announcement that it was time to head back to the buses. "Welpgottagoyouhavealovelyschoolbye!!"

Not moving as Sugarcoat sprinted away, stumbling and nearly falling on her face, Adagio felt herself smirk. Given that she could confirm the absence of anyone in a state of undress in the vicinity, Adagio knew it meant that Little Miss Blunt Honesty just lied. She wasn't sure if, in the context that she was supposed to be toning down the worst of her behavior, it was a bad sign that this amused her so greatly, but for now, she set off to ask anyone she could find about her smile.

The gym cleared out remarkably fast afterwards.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

That night, Twilight got her final sendoff from Crystal Prep. It wasn't too emotional or drawn-out, but she did get picked up and tossed up into the air a few times, which thankfully included catching her every time. Give or take some jokes about her wild groping impulses, the whole thing left her feeling so warm and happy that she barely minded her last, stinging, delivered-when-she-least-expected-it slap from Indigo. At least watching Sunny Flare chase her around the hotel lobby until they were asked to stop made her laugh.

Given what had happened today, she would have liked to say something to Principal Cinch as well, but she only saw a fleeting glimpse of her in the hotel, and had no idea where to begin anyway. She didn't like leaving things as they were between her and her former principal while having mended fences with everyone else, but severely lacking in experience regarding this Friendship stuff, she didn't know what else to do. Maybe some day?

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Lying still as Aria and Sonata cuddled into her curls, Adagio raised an eyebrow. "So you're sure it was just her? That there's nothing wrong with-"

"It's fine," lied Aria, "she wasn't exactly emotive herself, so it's not like she'd be an authority on smiling."

"But, that first Halloween makes so much more sense when-"

"Don't worry about it, Dagi," giggled Sonata, "I always thought your smile was kinda sexy!"

It was too dark to really notice, but as the three of them were presently lying in bed together, Aria and Adagio blushed. The latter loosed a quiet sigh.

"Good night, girls..."

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Scattered across town, the Rainbooms lay in their own beds, lacking the energy for a sleepover after the hectic events of the day. All were sound asleep, bar Sunset Shimmer; wide awake, staring at her ceiling, and blushing vibrantly. Part of it was the memory of miniskirts shaking in the breeze, but mainly?

"S-Sunset, d-don't- Ahh-hahn!"

She groaned and hid her face under a pillow as she muttered to herself.

"Stupid sexy sirens..."

Bonus Chapter 1: Correspondence and Insecurity

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In the week following the conclusion to the Friendship Games, the statue in front of CHS was repaired with the combined masonry know-how and research of Sunset and Twilight, with help from friends to actually build and sculpt the thing. There were hurdles and difficulties for which they needed a bit of extra help, but the job was done. Though not directly involved in the effort, the sirens proved surprisingly good at moving heavy objects when needed.

Twilight integrated into CHS quite easily (give or take no longer having her own little private room to flee to during scary moments), surprised and quietly ecstatic to find herself immediately welcomed by just about everyone!

Whether it was because she'd helped fix that statue, or because she looked like the other Twilight, however, was an insecurity she didn't verbalize.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

Over at Crystal Prep, Twilight's loss was... not really felt all that much, actually, because nobody really spoke with her anyway. Five Shadowbolts felt the absence of her presence, but even for them, life moved on. Ironically, the one who most felt the loss was the one who had stopped caring what happened to her. Of course, she'd known from the start that Twilight was leaving them no matter what she did.

Principal Cinch sat at her desk, reflecting on Crystal Prep's 'win' in the insanity that was the most recent Friendship Games, and... nothing really came of it. Their reputation was intact, the school remained in outstanding shape, but, was it because of their reputation that they always won, or did they always win because Cinch had long prepared to in order to uphold that very reputation?

Certainly, the school's high standing made it easier to pick out the most talented kids in the state (Fluer De Lis being the daughter of a famed model and sure to carry the same standard for beauty, Indigo Zap having gotten in on her athletic prowess, polished by that determined attitude, Lemon Zest and her outstanding knowledge of sound systems, et cetera), provided their families could afford the higher tuition or had some means of earning their place (it was truly amazing what kinds of scholarships she'd seen cross her desk). Was this just to be expected, or was Cinch alone the reason that Crystal Prep remained at the top of most every field since she took the office? What did a reputation mean if one had to go out of their way to keep it?

Probably about as much as a 'star student' that moves on to 'better things' when already at the best school she'd ever set foot in. The arrogance of the thing had infuriated Cinch at the time, Twilight not even willing to wait until she'd graduated from Crystal Prep before going for the Everton Study, but clearly her time here meant nothing to her. In that spirit, it was so much easier to be cruel with Twilight; callous disregard for callous disregard, each of them a tool to the other to be used and thrown away when its purpose had been served.

However, as she understood now that it was not a matter of hubris, but of obsession, with wanting to learn all she possibly could, no matter the cost, perhaps some kind of explanation to Twilight was in order. The letter was already as composed as it was going to be, the only thing left to do being to send it. While she mulled that over, she pondered the other papers on her desk concerning what were now CHS students. Tuition was accounted for and everything.

She didn't recognize the names, so they almost certainly weren't among the competitors in the Wondercolts. Perhaps that was for the best, because with her thoughts on the exact magnitude of importance of Crystal Prep Academy's reputation, the question arose of whether or not all the skills, all the prowess, all the talent in Crystal Prep actually mattered. Surely, she would think, it did, for it was the abilities of her students that made Crystal Prep what it was, but if that was true, then what was Crystal Prep without students who could already prove themselves in one way or another? The purpose of an educational facility was not to boast minds that already knew, but had grown to learn. With her current approach, could Cinch say a single one of her students had done that?

She wasn't sure. No one would know, and no one would likely care, the school would keep its reputation, its abundant finances, everything they had here, but was it performing its function as a school to the utmost? She didn't think so.

That in mind, how would ordinary students perform here? If she accepted these two, these...

Blaze... Dusk... There's something of an ominous ring to those names.

If she accepted them to her school, would they excel with the resources the school had to offer, or be crushed under the high expectations? Two was a very small sample size, but small was a safe place to start. Two ordinary girls, two ordinary students from an ordinary school. If they could come to the most prestigious school around and do well, then she could be certain that the entirety of her work these last fifteen years had amounted to something more than so many glass cases full of metallic cups and columns.

If not...?

For now, she would fill out these papers.

And at least with these two, she thought as she diligently went about her work, I won't have any more magic to worry about.

Magic.

Fucking. Magic. That was a factor over at CHS, but not here!

Just two ordinary students at her school in exchange for the one incredibly bright one at theirs. Perhaps Twilight would even write her back to cooperate. She of all people could appreciate a will to experiment, after all.

*\0/* *\0/* *\0/*

In the Sparkle household, Shining Armor answered the door.

"Cadence? What are you doing here?"

Smirking, she reached out to tickle his chin. "You know what I'm here for..." Grinning with delight at the way he blushed, she brushed past him. "To see Twilight of course!"

"Oh, yea," he said with abashed giggle, "right." He was startled when Cadence stopped, looking askance at him over her shoulder. "What? Everyone knows she's a smart, talented, adorable girl, who wouldn't want to spend time with her?"

Turning to face him, Cadence lifted the front of her shirt, smiling brightly at the shade of red her boyfriend of three years took on.

"C-Cadence," he sputtered as he covered his eyes, "What are you doing?!"

"Just making sure!" That I'm not losing to your little sister.

They found Twilight, as ever, at her desk in her room.

"Hi, Cadence!"

"Hiya," she greeted with a peppy smile. "Mail call, Cinch asked me to give this to you."

Twilight held the envelope, glancing at Cadence as though asking permission to open the postage addressed specifically to her. Getting an encouraging nod, she opened it, looked it over, and smiled. "It, it says she pushed me because I was leaving Crystal Prep anyway, and that she regrets the animosity sewn in doing so. And, that if I'm not completely finished with that school, she'd like to keep in touch to know how I'm doing in CHS, how-" Twilight giggled. "She has 'how the highest-calibur product of Crystal Prep' crossed out here."

"Heh," Cadence said with a wry grin, "she must be out of Wite-Out again. I'll have to pick some up tomorrow morning."

"-how I fare in an ordinary school, academically and in general."

Shining crossed his arms, a note of disapproval in his voice as he looked at the letter with a raised brow. "I think you've done more than enough for Principal Cinch."

Twilight just smiled. "Maybe, but I've already picked up a lot about letting bygones be bygones at CHS, so why not? She says she's letting some CHS kids into Crystal Prep too, so if we compare findings, we might even learn something interesting!"

Shining wasn't sold, but one of those 'Let her do this? Please?' smiles from Cadence overrode his protective, brotherly instincts. "Well, I guess just sending letters would be okay."

One more reason Cadence didn't worry too much about Shining being more interested in his sister than her? Twilight might have blushed a little, but she smiled and giggled when Cadence kissed him on the cheek.

Bonus Chapter 2: Confessions and Understanding

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Warning: I've come up with a lot of possible backstories for the sirens, and this is the second or third darkest one. Enjoy, I guess?

Adagio paced into Canterlot High's music room with more trepidation than she'd have liked to admit, closely followed by Sunset, who gently shut the door.

"Okay, the room is sound-proofed, I checked for anything that could feasibly be used as a listening device three times before coming to get you, during which I locked the door and am the only one with a key, I've locked the door again, the curtains are drawn shut so no one could be reading our lips even if they could see into second-floor windows, and-" she took one quick look around the room just to be sure, "-we're totally alone. No one but me will hear anything you say." That was everything Sunset could think of to ensure privacy, but Adagio's guarded stance, the way she lightly hunched over with crossed arms and a shaky smile on her face, said it wasn't enough to put her at ease.

"Heh. To think you already have such a thing ready. Do you use this room often?"

Knowing that Adagio was just nervous, Sunset didn't let the implications of the question get to her. Instead, she sat down on the rectangular... cushion, thing, and patted the spot next to her.

"You even have a soft surface prepared," she muttered as she took her seat, "how suspicious." When Sunset didn't protest or even make any flustered noises, she had to look at her. That she wasn't blushing at all said the joke probably had no basis in truth. She sighed. "Sorry, I've, never had to... Not even Aria and Sonata know some of this, and if they ever heard..." Her mouth worked in vain for a few seconds as she tried to find the right wording, but Sunset pulled it off a little faster.

"Would it help if I formally promised not to tell anyone else? Pinkie Promised, even?" Adagio's bewildered look drew a giggle, so she pantomimed the motions with the words. "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."

"...What?"

"The idea is that no one breaks a Pinkie Promise, because doing so is the surest way to make friends stop trusting each other. In essence, it's the same as any other promise, but I guess the special name and rhyme give it a little more gravitas. Or, it does for anyone who's friends with Pinkie anyway."

"Cross my heart and... hope to fly?"

"Uh-huh!"

"Stick a cupcake... I could swear it was needl-"

"In Pinkinese, it's cupcakes."

Artist's depiction:

"Very well. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. Those are the words for an important promise?" She chuckled as Sunset nodded. "Well, that doesn't really sound much less painful than a needle."

"Depends on whether or not there are sprinkles."

"...I would ask, but I think I have a story of my own to share first."

"Try it yourself; Pinkie Promise to share the story, then tell me, and I'll do the same with not telling anyone else."

Sunset led as they said the words and performed the motions together. To Sunset's great delight, Adagio was smiling too, even if only in a slightly self-conscious kind of way. They sat in silence for a few minutes as Adagio got her thoughts together, her will to make good on what she agreed to in Celestia's office bolstered by the Friendship-Packed Power of the Pinkie Promise. Just the same, she began very, very quietly, eyes glued to the floor.

"I could worm my way out of this if I really wanted to, you know. Evasion was one of the first things I learned."

Sunset kept her voice gentle too. "Learned from whom?"

"My keepers. I don't know if I was bred in a lab, spawned in a pit, or taken off the streets as an infant, but my earliest memories are of the facilities. They called it The Hadal Zone, after the deepest, darkest oceanic tren-" She accidentally startled Sunset by quickly turning to look at her. "You already knew that, I would bet."

"Eh... The, trenches part? It's not a field of expertise for me, but I'm familiar, yea."

Adagio nodded, looking at a distant wall now. "Right, right, that might save time somewhere. So I don't need to explain that the dark, crushing depth of the thing paralleled the operations performed inside, and how much the rest of the city above knew about it? I spent my first few years in a cluster of stone cells, learned everything; language, math, history, magic, and so on from a few different types of projectors. I was given food if I did well, but I was always 'fed' streams of negative energy regardless, the power accelerating my growth, both mental and physical." She chuckled at the memory of those spires hanging down from the ceiling of the main room, crackling with red light at virtually all times. "I used to scream during those forced feedings, at least until I was what amounted to a little girl, but no matter how much it hurt, I always wanted more."

"The... th-the, w-wait, I thought...?" Adagio looked directly at her again, one eyebrow raised. "I thought you guys fed on negative energy when we first saw you, with the gems. Did you just need them so it wouldn't hurt?" Adagio's face shifted as though Sunset were a painter asking what a brush was.

"It's negative energy, Sunset Shimmer. It always hurts. Do you not recall?"

She did. Very well. "Yea, but, I thought that was just because I was using the Element of Magic wrong." Then two realizations kicked in, each making her heart sink a little lower. "So, Twilight felt the same thing? And, you guys got another dose of that every time you absorbed energy?"

"So ponies don't teach anything about dark magic, interesting..."

"You were practically tortured since infancy?!" Sunset wasn't sure what it meant that as hesitant as Adagio was in sharing this story, this apparently wasn't the reason.

"It really wasn't as bad as it sounds, and at that age, feeling that power was, well... imagine a sugar rush that bestows actual strength."

"And horrible, searing pain?"

Adagio shrugged. "All living things capable of feeling discomfort experience some amount of pain in their daily lives, Sunset Shimmer, but not all are so fortunate as to feel the power surge like we did."

At a loss for words, Sunset stared at her for a long moment, then let her head fall to her hands. "...Before we go any further, who did this to you? And, why? Did they do it to the others, too?"

"We're getting to that, but no, as far as I'm aware, Aria and Sonata lived fairly normal lives until they met me." She'd been sure she would cry when she finally said those words out loud, thinking of everything she'd inadvertently taken from them just from approaching after Aria's performance to say hello, but she was feeling surprisingly stable right now. The hard part was still coming, so she rode the momentum while it lasted. "As said, I was taught more than school subjects. Marechiavelli was long before your time, but...?"

Sunset looked up, the tiny scholar in the back of her head doing a giddy dance as it remembered she was speaking to a (technically) ancient being. "Underhanded, manipulative means to keep one's nation running? I'm familiar."

"Imagine that, taken to far more ruthless extremes, not for the preservation of a state, but for oneself, encouraging the spread of hatred and chaos at every turn, and generally being the kind of utterly remorseless, self-serving megalomaniac that might try to, say, brainwash a population to lavish her forever."

Smiling hopefully, Sunset tilted her head a little. "Yet, willing to apologize for threats and teasing, and to make promises with silly rhymes to make up for them?" She smiled wider as Adagio blushed, a bashful little grin working its way across her face as she looked away.

"...I didn't say they were completely successful." Though she felt herself get even warmer, she only locked up for a second when she was hugged this time. When Sunset released her, she went on. "That said, they did a good enough job that I was able to bear the master gem they'd been crafting in another part of the facility, for which they needed-"

"A conduit," answered Sunset, "someone already aligned with the negative energy at the kind of intensity they made sure you, their subject, could handle, then use when the time came?" This won a bright, maybe even admiring smile out of Adagio, but Sunset wasn't nearly as happy herself. "They used you like a..." She shook her head in equal parts disgust and disbelief. "A tool, a machine, a piece of equipment?"

"It went a little further than that."

"What?"

Adagio turned her head away again. "W-when I was a young teen (you know, give or take), I riddled out a way to escape The Hadal Zone, laying eyes on the open sea for the first time. It was blue, like in the pictures I'd seen. Somehow, I'd expected it to be green like the walls in my cells, but it wasn't."

Noting the abrupt change, Sunset opted to just let her go on.

"I had spent the last few years beforehand believing that everything in the cells was mine, because that was my whole world up until that moment and there was no one to challenge me for its dominion. With one look around, I immediately decided 'And now all of this is mine.' I saw the researchers, the kelpies who raised me from behind screens and through speakers, floating nearby. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on another living thing in person, and since I knew they had already given me everything I had, I determined that they would give me more or I would take it, by any means necessary. I swam straight up to them, the four kelpies whose grasp I'd just slipped out of, and told them I was ready for more. I don't know if they meant for me to try to get out that day, but they considered the whole thing a sign of overwhelming success."

Sunset didn't say anything out loud this time. They wanted their little monster, and I guess they got it. God, I hope she went Mewtwo on them.

"Part of my instruction was watching recordings of normal interactions, simulating normal conversations, roleplaying exercises as a regular kelpie, and getting a feel for how to interact with others so I wouldn't be a complete fish out of water -no pun intended- when it was time to interact with society at large. I learned the rules, studied normal behaviors (which, as you might have guessed, didn't do me as much good in this civilization), and integrated with little difficulty, passing for a normal kelpie and attending a regular educational system more to pose as an average citizen than to actually learn anything."

"You said you were a B student before."

"The lack of negative energy spires in normal classrooms wasn't exactly motivating."

"R-right..."

"It was during this undercover period (which, I would later learn, was essentially just to keep me occupied) that I met Aria and Sonata for the first time. They were average kelpies, the sort I'd considered entirely beneath my notice until I happened across Aria performing at a musical showcase. What did you think of her song, by the way?"

Sunset smiled. "Uplifting, but with a bit of a punch, like a musical uppercut." She smiled wider as Adagio snorted with amusement.

"Yes, I suppose that fits. It was that 'uppercut' that first got my attention, and... suppose I've been looking forward to the next hit ever since. I approached her after the show, where her proud posturing over first place drowned out the sounds of Sonata's sentiments that she'd beat her next time. Long story short, I wormed my way into Aria's head through a carefully-measured mix of subtle promises of power and greatness, bending Sonata (her only friend at the time, believe it or not) to serve me through demonstrations of the power I was offering Aria, hints that Sonata would be the only one getting any of it (I wish you could have seen the adorable way Aria's snout wrinkled and her fins twitched when I said this), and fleeting, passive strokes to her ego to ensure she kept listening."

Sunset tilted her head. "You just, roped them both into working for you because you liked Aria's singing?"

"Not exactly. I had been urged by the researchers from The Hadal Zone to find minions, you see, living extensions of my will to hold and channel even more power than I could all alone. Sonata joining in earnest was something of an accident, but she took orders well, her voice balanced very nicely with Aria's, and..."

Leaning over a little as Adagio trailed off, Sunset found a faraway look on her face. "And...?"

"...I don't know," she uttered, "I just... I can't remember a good reason in line with what I'd been taught, but I liked being around her. She was funny, made me laugh, and the rest was something I justified later. ...It was the same with Aria; I heard her song, enjoyed listening to it, talked to her for a while, decided I wanted her with me, and any tactical advantage the duo had to offer was worked out after the fact." She chuckled, wearing a distant smile as she thought back. "I was supposed to find ideal holders of negative energy; those whose spirits were already aligned to hatred, malice, resentment, or even misery and sorrow, then dominate their minds, break their wills, and bring them back to The Hadal Zone with me. Instead, I picked those two, and subtly challenged my keepers to so much as question my choices. They didn't, but maybe it wouldn't have really mattered anyway."

Seeing the way her lip twitched, Sunset guessed that they were getting to the painful part. She didn't say anything, but she smiled hopefully when her hand being gently placed on Adagio's shoulder was returned with the fingers of Adagio's opposite arm lightly coming to rest over hers.

"...When I, when I brought the two of them back, I learned a little about the other project my keepers had been working on... Three gems. There were going to be more, but they ran out of funding. Not that it mattered. They had been working on those gems since before I was even bor-... whatever I was. The gems granted us the power you remember at much greater magnitude before we were abandoned here, but what had been k-kept hidden from me was that they were meant for control of their bearers just as much as the bearers' victims." She heard Sunset let out a quiet gasp, so maybe she could see where this was going. "When those stones were grafted into our flesh, they carried more than just the expanded magical capacity, but a-... You are familiar with computer technology?"

"Uh... sorta?"

"Think of a program made to take control of a system, and, I suppose, a central unit to ensure that control program kept working. With use of a machine I had never known about, what we would do to those we sang to from then on, the gems were already doing to us." She was startled by what could only be called a glomp from a teary-eyed Sunset. "I'm not at the bad part yet!"

"That only makes me want to hug harder!"

Squirming in place for a moment, Adagio found that either she suddenly didn't have the strength to shake Sunset off... or couldn't will herself to. The thought that she'd been wanting this on some level sapped what little of her resistance had remained as she leaned into her comforter.

"...So... The gems did to us what we did to others. The d-difference? With my conditioning to negative energy, I retained my mind. Through everything." Sunset squeezed a little harder, but Adagio wasn't sure if what she heard was a gasp or a sob as she felt a lump form in her own throat. "You already know how the gems were used, how we could twist a crowd of listeners with our voices. Imagine that power amplified not just by the presence of a world already laden with magic, but backed up by an effectively limitless supply of negative energy for the time in which it was used. The coup was bloody, those that found any means of resistance in time were hunted down and killed by thousands of enslaved thralls, but they had us, and consequently all of Coltlantis, under their complete control within a week. They couldn't maintain that control over the entire population forever, but establishing their own little police state was easy enough. They had the necessary... let's say, paperwork, sorted out weeks in advance. The kelpies that were once researchers were now kings. Kings that grew bored once everything was theirs, quickly descending into debauched warlords for whom nothing, no one, was off the table."

The lump grew, but she wasn't sure if it was due to the memories or the little sounds that told her Sunset was unmistakably crying now. She tried to open her mouth to quickly finish the tale, but all that escaped was a sob. Before she knew it, she was the one crying in Sunset's arms, even as she felt teardrops on her shoulder. It was like she was bleeding, like she had a gushing wound that just kept flowing, wringing every drop it could from deep in her chest. Trapped in a very warm, tender embrace, she found herself simultaneously helpless, yet secure, perfectly safe even at her most vulnerable. That was how she remained until she had nothing left.

"They u-used all three of us," she stammered out under her breath, "f-for y-y-"

"Stop," Sunset all but begged, "I get it, you can stop now."

The silence lingered as Adagio considered the opening she'd been given, but she shook her head. "No." She swallowed. "Not done."

Not letting Adagio out of her grip, Sunset steeled herself. It was a little worse than she'd anticipated, but in this context, she was definitely glad she hadn't taken Adagio's first apology offer now.

"...They used us for years. It wasn't daily, and somet-times we were left alone for whole weeks at a time, but... I don't know how m-many times I saw Aria and Sonata staring back at me, oblivious smiles on their faces and no trace of comprehension in their eyes, even during the act when we were called together. A-and then," she hissed through a bitter laugh, "one of our keepers slipped up."

Thinking back to that long-awaited day, Adagio managed to smile. "As with our own victims, we weren't utterly dependent on continuous orders, had enough will to live our lives when not heeding commands. I had managed to keep secret that I wasn't fully dominated, and one day, one of them decides he wants to take me in the room with the central control mechanisms, one they'd kept everyone out of just in case something should go wrong with the equipment. I suppose he'd grown bored with the throne room and the city plaza, maybe just wanted to lay me over something new. He was so trusting, so sure his head wouldn't be anywhere near those gears..." Sunset, the spoilsport, said it for her in a whisper.

"You killed him."

"In the throes of passion, he got careless, didn't see where he was, and even told me to go faster. All it took was one good shove. I didn't have to wait long until another came to check on the machine. And, control on me being dampened with the damage to the central system, I didn't have to come when he called. He became part of the problem. Even as my senses returned to me in full, I couldn't see or hear anything that didn't involve revenge, unaware of what was happening through the rest of the city as I hunted down the last two in their homes. Control over governing forces broken, the city descended into chaos, and as just about everyone remembered our part in their subjugation..."

Sunset nodded a little. "Aria said something about you guys not being welcomed there anyway."

"I gathered the others and, with the source of that nigh-limitless power essentially destroyed during my vengeful rampage (which I hope clears up why I didn't come after your group after the Battle, by the way), we fled the city together, gems still stuck in our chests."

There was a long silence, broken when Adagio pulled back enough to look Sunset in the eye. "Well?"

At a loss for words after hearing that, Sunset took advice Rainbow had given her once and just went for it. "I, I-I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like, trapped under someone's control, th-the things they did to-"

"Not that," Adagio said with a slow head-shake, her eyes cold and hollow. "the other part. I killed those kelpies. Even when, with the last three, I could have just brainwashed them once I was free again, I chose to kill. I'm a murderer."

They held one another's gazes for a long time, Adagio wearing a look Sunset knew she'd made a hundred times herself; one waiting for scorn, judgement, resentment, hatred, a confirmation that the one she was looking at was disgusted just talking to them. Eventually, Sunset sighed.

"I can't pretend I'm okay with killing, but for one thing? I'm having a really hard time feeling any sympathy for deranged, megalomaniacal serial-rapists." Seeing Adagio's eyes moisten again, she wasn't sure if this was the right thing to say.

"But killing them didn't accomplish anything! If I had controlled myself and enthralled them, I could have taken the reigns and had them fix the machine, used its control to slowly, carefully return Coltlantis to the way it was before! I couldn't have undone the suffering wrought by the kings, but I could have helped make things better rather than going feral, destroying the only means of keeping order, letting riots break out, and taking advantage of the chaos in the name of my personal revenge! When I had calmed down enough to assess the situation and go get Aria and Sonata, we left the city in turmoil. A-and, you told us...?"

Swallowing, Sunset nodded. "The survivors are said to have done their best to recover, reform the government and infrastructure, but the combination of damage to the bureaucracy under the kings, ensuing mistrust for magic, long-standing enemies of the state that had only been held at bay while Coltlantis was still a formidable force, and oceanic predators eventually overwhelmed them. It's not much more than a memory now." Seeing Adagio clench her teeth as she choked down a sob, Sunset had an idea. "But, if you're feeling like all of that is your fault, look at it like this: In the frame of mind you were in right after finally breaking their control, along with your... conditioning in The Hadal Zone, do you really think you'd have turned out much different from the kings?"

"Yes," Adagio snapped, making Sunset flinch, "I'd have never forced anyone to pleasure me, and it's something I never did, never let Aria or Sonata do, even when we had free reign!"

"Okay," Sunset said placatingly, "and what about the rest?" To her relief, Adagio looked much less offended at this, staring back at her in mild confusion. "I mean, it's easy to look back and say what you could have done in hindsight, but if you were anything like you were when we first met, doesn't it seem more likely that you'd have just taken over and ruled Coltlantis yourself, had the machinery not been destroyed?"

She gave Adagio the minutes she needed to process this, visibly exploring her memories of the time. Eventually, Adagio loosed a short, bitter laugh.

"You're saying that I'd have made things worse no matter what."

Sunset frowned. "That's not what I mean. I'm saying that with things how they were, with how you were brought up, there was nothing you-... With what you'd been through, what you'd been raised to do, expecting that kind of benevolence out of nowhere is asking a lot, don't you think?"

Adagio's mouth moved in vain for a few seconds. "...I still shouldn't have killed them."

Leaning over a little, Sunset gently rubbed a hand along Adagio's back. "Do you ever regret it?"

Tears slid down her face. "Yes." She immediately covered her face with both hands, but as Sunset gently embraced her again, she didn't feel vulnerable in doing so. Distantly, she noted that there was much more than just the shoulder-touch gesture to be mastered if she ever needed to do this for someone herself. "I-I still despise them," she eventually sniffled, "but, the feeling when I was going after them, that savage, unbridled hate, it-"

"Felt like you were being smothered from the inside," Sunset continued for her, "like thick, black sludge was clogging up your internal organs, practically numbing your body, your thoughts fading out, and all you could see were the ones you hated, how you wanted nothing in the world more than making sure they never saw another day?" When Adagio looked at her in surprise, she smiled regretfully, feeling a lump form in her throat as she thought back to the day she nearly killed the girls that were now her closest friends. "Even if I didn't get as far, I know what it's like."

She was startled when Adagio's arms reached up to seize her, but it was only to hug her back. They stayed that way for a while, gently holding one another in silence. It took much longer for Adagio to feel the same little sense of self-conscious revulsion she'd felt the first time Sunset hugged her, but she took the return of that feeling to mean that she was feeling... better? That was how this worked, right? Either way, she gently pulled back.

"As I said before, Aria and Sonata don't remember all of the details, a-and I know it's not exactly 'Honest' to keep something like that secret from them, but-"

Sunset smiled. "Even if I hadn't Pinkie-Promised to keep it to myself, they could probably do without being told exactly what happened to them, and if they ever do remember because of me, you'll turn me inside out?"

Blinking once, Adagio surprised herself with a chuckle. "No. I feel... a little better about this, actually, and I meant what I said about murder, but if those those two ever learn what happened and I can't comfort them? At worst, the guilty might never walk or chew food again."

"Haha, n-noted..." She now had one extra reason to be glad those two were accepted to Crystal Prep.

"Luckily, if a hundred years of experiences haven't dug anything up, I'm fairly certain they just don't have any memory of the period."

"I guess. So, is that the whole story?"

"Basically. Was there anything else you wanted to know?"

"Umm... In the song you guys played when you came back, Sonata said you guys took on dark magic for a boost, so does she know it was forced on you, or...?"

"The way those two think it happened, we were taken into the Hadal Zone, implanted with the gems, made their perfectly willing enforcers for the better part of a decade, and took a temporary hit to our cognition when the machine 'mysteriously malfunctioned,' costing us a chunk of memories relating to the time in which we were hooked up. Helps that when I found them, they were both badly disoriented, same as the kelpies under constant control that made up the police force."

"They didn't question how you would know that when you were hooked up too?"

Haughtily brushing her hair aside, Adagio smirked. "Sonata, thinking quite highly of me even back then, posited that I must have held together because I was 'so much smarter' than them. Regardless of how true you might consider that, Aria was more worried about our next move and they haven't questioned it since."

"Good thing, I guess... And, the 'starving' talk?"

"Feeding on negative energy was an option, but it worked more like drinking coffee. Black, burning coffee. It wasn't a replacement for actual food and rest, and it could certainly keep us going for a while, but the idea that we fed solely on that was a lie."

"People not liking your songs?"

"Well... We did vaguely try going straight once we left the sea (I was still feeling spiteful and the kings had soured me on my lessons just a little), but the first non-oceanic civilization we visited was a workaholic earth-pony town, one that hadn't really absorbed the message of a unified Equestria yet."

"Was this before the Windigos and the first Hearths Warming?"

"No idea."

"Hm."

"Singing was deemed 'not real work' by local important ponies (chief farmers and business ponies), no matter how much our listeners enjoyed it or how even non-magical tunes could make their work go by faster, and we were eventually driven away by a crowd of ponies throwing things. Granted, it wasn't directly at us, they were at least kind enough to miss on purpose. Even so, with that experience in mind, all bets were off and we were all about ourselves from then on." She chuckled. "I suppose there was a smidgeon of truth to Sonata's 'losing hands/bad luck' line, but it certainly hasn't been all bad."

Sunset felt her heart skip a beat as Adagio gently grasped her hand.

"Because if it were," Adagio continued, a warm little smile lighting her face, "we'd have never met you."

Her entire face burned. "I-y-yea, I, the, we, g-good, for, um..." She took a quick breath to get her thoughts together as Adagio giggled at her. "So, uh... th-thank you for telling me all this, I feel like I've got a pretty good sense of where you guys come from now."

Standing up, Adagio nodded proudly. "I Pinkie-Promised, did I not?" She gave Sunset a scrutinizing look. "...I mean, didn't I...?" Even with the amused look on Sunset's face, the affirmative nod made her smile again. "Right! So... I'll see you around?"

Getting to her feet, Sunset smiled too as the two of them moved for the door. "Yup! You're sure you're okay with being captain of CHS's cheer squad? We don't know how many people might join."

"If Aria and Sonata are going to be at Crystal Prep during the school day, I could use something to keep me occupied. Besides," she said with a growing smirk, "as I'm to be the one instructing CHS's prospective cheerleaders, Principal Celestia let me set the standards for entry."

A note of worry in her voice, Sunset raised an eyebrow. "'Standards'...?"

Adagio beamed. "First requirement: Completed Sex Ed class!"