A Shimmering New Year

by EchoWing

First published

Sunset Shimmer and her friends struggle to deal with recovering from Anon-A-Miss as they move forward. New friends and a doctor, thankfully, can help them along.

It's a new year for the students at Canterlot High, and with it comes new teachers and new students. But some things from the old year still linger, and for Sunset Shimmer and her friends, the specter of Anon-A-Miss still looms large. Though apologies have been made, they aren't enough to erase the pain, and sometimes things have to hurt a lot more before the pain can really go away. What's needed most for them right now is a doctor, and thankfully, Principal Celestia knows a good one.

My thanks to FinalLegendZero and diablo4000 for their assistance in hammering out the kinks on this story and suggestions. My thanks also to RQK for editing assistance to help this story flow with their own story, "Reflections".

Featured on 1/15/2017 and 1/22/2017!

Part of the Quiververse

Chapter One - Out With The Old...

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It was dark. Not a frightening, terrifying sort of dark, thankfully, but still dark enough to make Fluttershy uneasy. It was a cold winter’s night, a few clouds drifting through the sky and a sea of stars overhead, the moon casting the area around Canterlot High in soft light.

She shivered as she approached the front entrance, the cold bitter despite her winter coat and her attempts at warming herself up by rubbing her arms. She wasn’t even sure why she was here, until she caught sight of a familiar figure at the side of the statue facing the front entrance.

“Sunset?” Sure enough, Sunset Shimmer was kneeling against the base of the statue, her forehead pressed upon it and her face obscured by her long crimson and yellow hair. Fluttershy approached, her discomfort lessened in the presence of her friend. “What are you doing here?” At the lack of an answer, she closed in and reached out to the girl. “Come on, let’s get out of this cold and…”

“And what?” Sunset’s hand whipped out and grabbed hold of her wrist. As Fluttershy cried out in shock, her captor rose to her full height and asked, “Share a laugh? What do I have to laugh about, Fluttershy?”

“Sunset, please, you’re hurting me!”

“And how do you think I felt when you tossed me away?” Sunset had turned to face her, but her eyes were shut tight. “But then again, why should I be surprised?” She shoved Fluttershy away. “After all, you look at me, and you see a monster!” Her eyes shot open, and they were as they’d been when she’d been transformed into a demon the night of the Fall Formal, black where they should’ve been white and otherwise the familiar cyan she’d come to know. Only now they were far less pleasant and warm.

Fluttershy stumbled back and fell to the ground. “No! That’s not true!”

“But it is!” Unholy fire flared forth from Sunset’s body, surrounding her in a column of black and opal flame. Once it subsided, she emerged fully transformed back into the monster she’d become that fateful night, the only difference being the lack of Twilight’s crown. “And what do you do with a monster? You make it die!”

Fluttershy scooted back as far as much as she could, too terrified to get back to her feet and run. “No Sunset! I didn’t want to lose you! I care about you!”

“Oh don’t give me that! I almost died because of you!” A clawed finger pointed behind her as Sunset snarled, “And they actually did.”

And that was when the sounds of sad mewls and whimpers hit Fluttershy’s ears. She turned away from Sunset to look upon scores of dogs and cats, all of varying ages from the young kittens and puppies to the full grown. And all of them were looking upon her with saddened expressions on their faces, particularly one large dog in the center. A mutt by the look of her, possibly with Alaskan malamute traits, with coloring that brought to mind a coyote. “Why did we have to die, Fluttershy?” A chorus of whimpers and mewls, and the dog asked again, “Why did we have to die?”

“What do you do with a monster?” Fluttershy turned back to find Sunset standing over her, eldritch fire swirling about her clawed hands, anger and rage clear in her eyes. “You make it die!”

“No! Please, don’t! No!”

-

“No!” Fluttershy sat up with a scream in her bed. Her breaths were quick and shallow, but soon slowed and turned deep as she calmed down. It had all been a bad dream. A bad dream that she’d been having for close to a week now.

She looked up and took in her surroundings. She was safe in her bed, in her newly-established bedroom in the attic of her family’s home, some of the animal friends that kept her company in their pens or, in the case of Cordelia, nestled in a basket. Many were looking at her, clearly startled by her outburst, and Angel had managed to free himself from his enclosure and make his way up onto her bed to nuzzle her. She softly sighed, picked the bunny up and held him close. “Oh Angel… what have I done?”

-

It was little better for Rarity as she laid awake in bed, her gaze fixed upon the ceiling of her four-poster bed. Sleep had eluded her, in part thanks to nightmares but mostly due to old-fashioned guilt. But she didn’t see any sense in climbing out of bed until…

*beep-beep*…*beep-beep*

…Until her alarm sounded. She reached over and turned off her alarm, then pulled down her sheets and rose from her bed. With habitual ease, she retrieved her violet robe and draped it over herself, concealing her nightgown as she slipped her feet into her slippers and made her way out of her bedroom and down to the kitchen. Some breakfast might help to ease her mind, especially if aided by peace and quiet and some solitude…

“Sweetie Belle?”

Seated at the kitchen table, slowly munching away at a bowl of cereal, was her younger sister. She looked up with saddened eyes and softly greeted her. “Hi Rarity.”

The fashionista knew that tone all too well – she’d been hearing it for the last couple weeks, both from herself and her little sister. Not feeling like a particularly extravagant breakfast herself, she opted to follow her sister’s example and pour a bowl of cereal. She poured some milk in to join it and then sat beside her sibling. “I take it you’ve had a restless night too.”

A nod. “Think maybe I can convince Mom and Dad to let me stay home?”

“I’m afraid not, dear.” She gently wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Your actions have consequences dear, and you’ll have to face them eventually. And it wouldn’t be fair for you to stay behind while Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are punished, would it? Each of you was equally responsible.”

“I guess.” The younger girl idly prodded at her food with her spoon before looking up at her sister. “Rarity, do you hate me?”

Rarity smiled. “No. What you did was disappointing, but it hasn’t caused me to hate you.” The smile faded as she amended, “If I hate anyone in this, it’s myself, for what I’ve done to Sunset.”

“But it wasn’t –!” A finger was raised for her to lower her voice, and Sweetie Belle did so. “But it wasn’t your fault! We put all of that stuff up there, we framed her!”

“Yes, but you weren’t the ones who disowned her, are you? You may have intended for that all along, but I and my friends were the ones who fell for your ruse.” A sad sigh escaped her lips. “And it’s going to be a long time before we can forgive ourselves for that. A part of me wonders how Sunset could forgive us.”

“You forgave her, though.”

“Did we? I thought that I had, but if that were true, then would we really have done what we’d done?” Her hand gently moved to Sweetie Belle’s head as she pulled her close into a one-armed hug. “Neither of us is without fault, or without consequence.”

A long pause held between the two sisters until the younger one broke it. “Do you think she’s forgiven us?”

Rarity smiled. “I suspect so. If nothing else, what you did was easier to forgive than the betrayal we inflicted upon her.” She then gestured to their meal and prompted, “Now then, what say we finish our breakfast before our cereal gets horribly soggy, hmm? Neither of us likes soggy cereal.”

Sweetie Belle giggled. “No. Does go down easier, though.”

“Yes, but it loses so much nutritional value. And we both need our nutrients.” She regarded her own and admitted, “Though I could afford to cut back on carbohydrates. If I’m not careful, I’ll start looking like a marshmallow.”

More giggling. “Me first.”

“Oh please. You’re still growing.” She smirked. “You can afford it.”

-

A feeling of dread and sorrow stayed with Fluttershy as she stepped into Sugar Cube Corner, and the warmth inside of the small shop gave her comfort. “Hi Fluttershy!” She turned to find Pinkie Pie gleefully waving to her from their normal booth, the rest of the girls sans Sunset seated with her. “Happy New Year!”

The shy girl smiled and took an offered seat beside Rainbow Dash, her usual drink waiting for her. “Hello everyone. It’s good to see you.”

“And you, dear.” Rarity’s expression turned concerned as she examined her. “Are you alright, darling? You seem a little out of sorts.”

“Oh, it’s…it’s nothing.” She sank in her seat and explained, “I’m just still getting used to the new room, is all.”

“You sure that’s all there is, sugar cube?” At her friend’s small nod, Applejack let the matter drop. “Alright then. So, we all ready fer the new semester?”

“After how the last one ended? I figure we’ve got nowhere to go but up.” Rainbow turned her attention to the empty space opposite her. “So, aside from me and Flutters, anyone see Sunset since Sweet Apple Acres? In person, I mean?”

The rest of the girls shook their heads. “I was rather hoping that she’d be with us this morning, but then she sent that text out about meeting Twilight.” Rarity sadly regarded her tea as she amended, “I do hope that whatever is going on isn’t serious.”

“Probably got somethin’ to do with that business about the Tree.” The farmgirl shrugged. “Whatever it is, Sunset’ll keep us in the loop.”

“Assuming of course that nothing distracts her from that.” Heads turned to find Principal Celestia standing over them with a cup of tea in hand. “Hello girls. May I join you?”

“Of course, by all means.” As Celestia took her seat, Rarity noted, “To what do we owe this honor?”

“Is Sunset really mad at us and asking you to deliver a message on her behalf?”

The older woman gave a comforting smile. “No, Pinkie. If Sunset had something that she needed to say to the five of you, she’d do so directly. At least, I’d hope so.”

“Given recent events, I’m considering it a miracle that she’s even willing to talk with us.” Rarity noticed a shameful expression on her face as well as those of all her friends as she noted, “We all acted rather terribly towards her, and I fear there might still be some scars there.”

“That’s my concern as well.” Celestia straightened up and explained, “In light of what happened before break, I’ve asked a therapist to come in to speak with Sunset.”

“Is that a good idea?”

“Even if it wasn’t, it’s school policy. You know as well as I what Sunset nearly did because of the actions of your sister and her friends, Applejack. I’ve done what I could to keep the details under wraps, but Sunset still needs to see a professional. We were lucky this time, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll be as lucky next time.”

The girls seated with her nodded softly, and Fluttershy asked, “So, why are you telling us this?”

“Because I’d like the five of you to speak with the therapist as well.” The girls looked at her with surprise, and Celestia quickly gave them a look that told them to keep silent. “Now, before any of you protest, may I at least explain myself?” Satisfied at their response, she explained, “Rumors were spread and false accusations were made, and as a result, feelings were hurt and friendships torn apart, all because of an anonymous individual who managed to pin the blame upon someone else. What am I speaking of; the Anon-A-Miss incident, or the events leading up to the Spring Fling last year?”

Pinkie sipped at her chocolate milk as she considered her answer. “Well, putting it that way…”

“I won’t deny that the two cases are similar. Not wholly identical, of course, but still.” Rarity looked to the principal and asked, “And you think that speaking with the therapist will help to prevent an issue like this from reoccurring?”

“It’s a better option than doing nothing.”

“Can’t argue too much with that logic.” Applejack looked to her friends and asked, “Ah’m up for it. What about the rest a’ y’all?”

There were general murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group, save one. “No way, no thank you.” Rainbow Dash shook her head and explained, “I don’t need to see a shrink to figure out what’s going on in my head, thanks.”

“Honestly Rainbow, do you have some sort of issue with talking about your feelings?” Rarity rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing ‘un-cool’ about letting things out into the open, and this could do us all some good.”

“Hey, I let things out into the open enough, Rarity. Besides, there is a point where sharing goes a little far.” The athlete turned to the principal and finished, “Anyway, great idea Principal Celestia, but you can count me out. I don’t need to see a shrink, and there’s no way you can make me do it.”

The principal smirked. “You’ll be excused from your afternoon classes.”

That prompted a very predictable one-eighty. “Okay, I’m in. Where and when?”

“I’ve set aside the second floor conference room. The five of you will convene there with Sunset after lunch, and the six of you will speak with the therapist one at a time.” She arched an eyebrow and added, “And try not to give her too much trouble? She and I are old friends, and I don’t want her to think too badly of my administration here.”

“Of course not. We’ll be at our very best with her, won’t we girls?” Sounds of general agreement answered Rarity’s question.

“Um, I just have one question?” Fluttershy nervously smiled and asked, “Is she nice?”

Celestia smiled. “I’m proud to say that none of my old friends are particularly mean. I’m sure all of you will like her. Or at least not dislike her.”

-

Once again, Sunset found herself glad that Principal Celestia and Vice Principal Luna hadn’t insisted upon her returning the keys to the school to them. Aside from that simple act demonstrating that they still trusted her not to trash the school, it also made her stopping into the bridge realm and visiting with Twilight that much easier. And given current circumstances, those visits were probably going to be a little more frequent for the foreseeable future.

The doors near the main entrance were already open for her, however, along with the door to the teacher’s lounge. She didn’t check to see if the principal or vice principal were present, however; she expected that she’d get an answer soon enough anyway. Right now, she just hoped that she and Twilight didn’t have too many unexpected guests, as the fewer who knew their secrets, the better.

She took a second to rub the sleep from her eyes, then stepped through the mirror into the bridge realm. Once more, the cavernous space was sparsely decorated, a few cushions and a small table laid out with the privacy screen off to one side. Already waiting for her was the mare she’d hoped to see. “Hey Twilight.”

“Hey Sunset.” The alicorn looked similarly exhausted, slight bags under her eyes and a cup of what looked like coffee set on the table before her. “Did you get everything that I asked for?”

“Yeah, it’s all here.” Sunset set her backpack down and pulled out a folder. “I’m not sure what you need all of this for, though. I doubt you’re going to track down any information regarding the Chest on this end.”

“It’s not about the Chest actually, it’s for another project.” Twilight took the folder in her magical grasp and opened it. Inside were several loose sheets of paper, filled with hand-written notes and including a map of the town of Canterlot and its surrounding environs. “I’ve got a strong feeling that this one will be finished up a lot sooner, however. Once it is, I’m going to need to speak with you and everyone in the know in the human world about it.” The papers were removed from the folder and deposited into another one that Twilight had brought with her, before she turned her full attention to her friend. “Speaking of, how are things with them? Have you seen them since finishing up with Christmas at Sweet Apple Acres?”

“Not all at once. I’ve been with Fluttershy, to help out with the move from her old bedroom to her new one, and Dash and the Crusaders for the same thing, but no one else.” The flame-haired girl turned anxious. “It’s been a little hard to do it, with the nightmares and everything.”

Twilight looked at her uneasily. “Nightmares?”

“It’s nothing…”

“Oh no, we are not ignoring this.” Twilight sat up and pressed, “Tell me what’s going on.”

Sunset sighed. “You remember that nightmare I had before Christmas, during that whole Anon-A-Miss mess?” The alicorn before her nodded, and she continued, “It stayed away for a while, but a couple nights after I got back home, it started coming back. Repeatedly. I’ve had it practically every night since.” She shrugged. “I’ve done what I could to hold it off – exercise before bed, less caffeine and sugar, everything short of sleeping pills to try and get a full night’s sleep, but it’s still kept coming.”

“Have you talked with the girls about it?”

She shook her head. “I want to, really, but…” A sad sigh escaped her lips. “I’ve had a lot of time to think since everything settled down. I’m glad to still have them, and I know they regret what happened, but…” Sunset knelt down beside Twilight and explained, “But it doesn’t change the fact that it did happen. Just like how my regrets don’t change everything I did. Did they really trust me? And if they did…?”

Twilight gently rested a hoof in Sunset’s hands and asked, “Do you remember when I told you about Cadance and Shining Armor’s wedding?” At Sunset’s nod, she continued, “I felt pretty much the same way. I’d had an incident weeks prior where I freaked out over a late friendship report, so much that I ended up causing enough chaos that Discord probably would’ve pinned a medal on me if he wasn’t petrified at the time. The girls all promised to take my concerns seriously from there on. And they did, for a while.”

“That whole time travel mess.”

A nod. “And then the wedding happened, and it was like they’d just forgotten.” Twilight groaned. “I’m still a little irritated about all of that. Granted, I was wrong about what I thought was going on, but if somepony had listened to me, maybe we could’ve prevented the changeling invasion before it even got started.” She then sighed and admitted, “But that’s hardly comforting for you, is it?”

A shrug. “I don’t know, the population of Canterlot almost ending up changeling chow is a little worse than me ending my own life. At least there was a good chance that my end would’ve been quick and painless.”

“But it doesn’t change the facts that mistakes were made and disaster almost struck. At least in your case, the actual culprits were remorseful.” A smirk crossed her face. “Did you really call them ‘the Crusaders’ earlier?”

“They’ve already been calling themselves that since the start of the school year. Remember that video of theirs?”

“Yeah. Some things never change, I guess.” Twilight smiled gently. “In any case, I can understand some lingering resentment. I still had a little towards Celestia after all of that, at least until she brought it up with you. This is something you’ll have to sort out for yourself, but whatever happens, you know that you have me, right?”

Sunset smiled. “I do. Thanks Twilight.”

“And hopefully your talk with our guest later today will help you to do exactly that.” The two turned to find Vice Principal Luna standing at the entrance back to Canterlot High. “Forgive me, I didn’t want to interrupt you.”

“No ma’am, it’s alright.” Sunset gave Twilight a quick hug, then collected her things and stood up. “I guess I need to worry about getting to class?”

“No, you still have some time. I’m actually here on another matter.” The vice principal turned to the alicorn and explained, “Sunset Shimmer has kept I and my sister informed regarding what’s recently occurred with the Elements of Harmony. Equestria may not be our world, but we’re nonetheless concerned. Have you made any progress?”

“Some, but not as much as I’d like.” Twilight stood up and elaborated, “I’ve examined the Chest the Tree of Harmony left behind, made diagrams, all of that. There’s six locks, which suggests six keys, and logically, they’re all supposed to correspond to an Element of Harmony. But where those keys are supposed to be is the big question.”

“The Tree and the Chest are located near the Everfree Forest, though.” Sunset looked to Luna and added, “There are other areas like it in Equestria; the woods surrounding Hollow Shades, the forest of Dusky Dale out west, the bayous near Neigh Orleans…”

“And the frozen wilderness surrounding the Crystal Empire, just for starters.” Twilight gave a hopeful smile. “I’ve sent out requests to the regional authorities asking for surveys to be taken, and Cadance is already doing what she can with the search. That part at least I’m optimistic about, given they found what was left of Sombra.”

“And hopefully locked it away somewhere safe for good measure.”

The alicorn’s smile turned more confident. “Celestia’s got a lot of carefully-marked vaults full of magical artifacts, and she’s made sure to not group too many dark magic items together. It’s not impossible that something bad could happen with them, but it’s really unlikely.” At Luna’s arched eyebrow, Twilight explained, “I’m being careful in my phrasing. Don’t want to tempt fate.”

“Well, I for one hope that none of them found their way into this world. As glad as I am that Sunset has turned over a new leaf, we have enough drama without more trouble coming to us from Equestria. Just do us the courtesy of keeping us in the loop?”

“Of course.” Twilight turned to Sunset and added, “And I hope that the talk with the psychologist goes well today. There’s a lot you probably can’t tell them, but hopefully, you can still get some issues worked out.”

“Fingers crossed for both of us.” At Twilight’s smirk, she added, “You know what I mean.”

Twilight waved as Luna ushered Sunset out. She smiled and hoped that things went well, in both their cases, and that something wouldn’t come up to distract her should Sunset need her help in the future. “Thank Celestia for the message journal and these portals.”

-

“So, are you nervous about later today?”

Sunset shrugged. “A little. I mean, I’m okay with talking about my feelings, but this is someone new. Plus, with a couple exceptions, the last few people I opened up to…”

“Yes, I know. With any luck, today will see the chances of that decrease exponentially.” Luna paused as they exited the teacher’s lounge and amended, “Oh, there’s one more thing. We’ve two new students starting classes here at Canterlot High today. I was hoping you would be willing to show them around campus and help them feel welcome.”

The flame-haired girl turned to her in surprise. “Me? Really?”

“You know the school better than most of the other students here, in more ways than one, and besides, this will give you an excellent chance to make a good first impression upon them.” Luna smiled encouragingly and added, “It certainly doesn’t hurt to make new friends, Sunset.”

“No, I guess not.” A hopeful smile crossed her face. “And it wouldn’t hurt for them to meet the new me before they find out about the old me.”

“Excellent. We’ll call you down over the PA system when they’re ready for the tour.” She turned apologetic and noted, “Of course, this does mean that you’ll be a little longer in starting as a tutor.”

Sunset sighed. “Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a big deal. Who’s going to want to get advice on their studies from me? Without being desperate?”

Luna chuckled softly. “You’d be surprised. The tutors we have are overworked as it is. I expect that they’ll welcome it, one way or another.”

-

The library was exactly the way Cheerilee wanted it at the start of the day, peaceful and quiet. Granted, it was supposed to be peaceful and quiet all the time, but past experience had taught her that it could only remain that way for so long, and she knew that today would be taxing, if only because of a certain trio who’d be serving detention with her today.

“Miss Cheerilee? May I have a moment?”

And that of course ignored the inevitable protests to come about CHS’ newest tutor. The young teacher turned from her desk and looked up at her guest. “Yes Octavia?”

Octavia Melody stood before her, her mulberry eyes locked upon her with unease as she produced a piece of paper from her backpack. “I wanted to speak with you about this e-mail I received from the school server.” She passed the paper along and asked, “This is meant to be some sort of joke, yes?”

Cheerilee looked the e-mail over and passed it back. “It’s no joke, Octavia. Sunset Shimmer wants to help out as a tutor here on campus, and I’ve allowed it.”

“Well forgive my protests, but is that truly wise?” The young musician was clearly doing her best to maintain her composure. “We both know of her history and the trouble she’s caused about campus. And as outlandish as some of the stories I’ve heard about the Fall Formal are, the fact remains that she nearly wrecked the event and could have caused serious harm to the students in attendance.”

“Yes, I know. I was there.” Cheerilee stood up before she continued. “But you weren’t there to see the look on her face after everything was said and done. I know remorse when I see it, Octavia, and since then, she’s been a model student. And before you bring up the Anon-A-Miss incident, she’s been cleared for that.”

Octavia sighed. “I suppose. Regardless, what’s stopping her from sabotaging another student and leading them astray?”

“Nothing more than what’s stopping any other student here.” An encouraging smile crossed her face, and she prompted, “No one’s asking you to embrace her as a sister or throw her a party, Octavia. Just try to go into this with an open mind, hmm? Sunset isn’t who she was before the Fall Formal. She’s a better person now.” A soft knock caught her attention, and she turned to find the girl in question standing nearby. “Oh, Sunset! How long have you been there?”

A nervous smile crossed Sunset’s face. “Long enough, I guess.” She approached and looked to the grey-skinned girl, who was giving her an expression bordering on a scowl. “Good morning, Octavia. I guess you’ve gotten the news?”

“Indeed, I have.” She looked over the flame-haired girl with a critical eye, as if attempting to come up with a reason why she shouldn’t be tutoring. At least, a currently relevant one. “And you are one of the highest-scoring students in our year, if not the school itself. Though I understand you’ll be starting tomorrow?”

“Vice Principal Luna’s asked me to show some new students around today during my free period.”

The scowl shifted to something less distinct but clearly uneasy. “Very well. But if you’re truly serious about tutoring, then remember to report to the library promptly. Miss Cheerilee will know if you do not, as will I.” With that, she gave the teacher a brief nod before she strode past Sunset and out of the library.

Sunset shook her head and sighed sadly. “Octavia wasn’t even at the Fall Formal, and she wasn’t among the victims of Anon-A-Miss, but she’s still treating me like everyone else. I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Give it time. Wounds heal, scars fade, and forgiveness comes with patience.” An encouraging smile crossed her face. “They’ll see you’re not that terrible eventually.”

A shrug. “Maybe.” She slung off her backpack and looked through it. “Anyway, I’ve got something for you, sort of a thank-you for what you did before Christmas.” A smile crossed her lips as Sunset found what she was looking for. “Better late than never, I guess.”

“Sunset, thank you! You didn’t need to get me something…”

“I didn’t get you something, I made it for you.” She handed over a framed sketch and amended, “Plus I had a couple frames left over.”

Cheerilee accepted and looked over the sketch, which depicted her and what looked like a pony beside her. She looked to Sunset and asked, “Is this supposed to be…?”

“The version of you from my world, yes. She’s a schoolteacher too, just not in a high school.”

That prompted a smile. “So, why did you shade it differently between the two of us?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a weird thing. Just about everyone I’ve met here at CHS that I know has a counterpart back in Equestria that is a match or near-match, but for some reason, you’re one of the exceptions.” Sunset pointed for clarification as she explained, “Your hair color matches your counterpart’s coat color, while your skin color matches her mane color. Don’t ask me to explain it.”

“Well, at least you could tell us apart.” The two laughed, and Cheerilee set the gift down at her desk. “Thank you, Sunset. I appreciate it. Now go on, you don’t have long before homeroom.” The younger woman turned to leave, only to be stopped before the teacher asked, “Oh, you said just about everyone here matched their counterpart?”

Sunset turned back and explained, “I haven’t been able to get word about everyone’s counterparts. There’s one person I’ve met in this world whose case is like yours, though; same hair color as his pony self’s mane, but the skin and coat colors don’t match up.” She grinned. “I think you know who I might be talking about.”

Sunset left before the teacher could chastise her, and Cheerilee laughed. Her relationship with Big McIntosh wasn’t something they were trying to keep secret, but it wasn’t common knowledge either. Nor was it a problem, given both were the same age. The worst she’d heard was that Applejack and Apple Bloom considered it awkward, but liked the idea of having her for a sister-in-law, with the latter even encouraging it.

Another laugh. Apple Bloom and her friends had made a bad mistake, and could be a little enthusiastic at times, but they weren’t bad kids. That they’d come forward about what they’d done and admitted it to the school had shown that. No reason for her to be hard on them today.

Well, she wouldn’t be too hard on them.

Chapter Two - ...And In With The New

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The morning proceeded with little issue for Sunset, her homeroom passing with no incidents beyond the norm. Some students still gave her the odd dirty look, but she was long used to such things, and doubted that they’d go away anytime soon. Still, they appeared to have lessened, and a few faces in particular actually looked guilty.

Maybe the Crusaders coming forward had actually done her some good.

“Hey Sunset!” She turned as she made her way through the hall to her next class to find Rainbow Dash approaching her. “You’re looking alright. Had a good time during break?”

“Hey Dash. And yeah, mostly.” As much as she wanted to talk about what she had with Twilight, now wasn’t really the time and place. “Sorry I missed out on seeing you all this morning at Sugar Cube Corner.”

The athlete waved a dismissive hand. “No big. Twilight needed you for something, we get it.” She then toned her voice down and asked, “So what did she need you for?”

“Some research project of hers, nothing to do with the Chest. I get the feeling she might be stonewalled on it.” A sigh. “Not the first time that’s come up.”

A comforting hand rested on her shoulder. “Hey, they haven’t forgotten about your cousin. They found those letters, right? They’ll find her too.”

Sunset looked to her friend, and saw that familiar encouraging grin on her face. It was a welcome sight, especially after their recent troubles, and despite some lingering resentment, she smiled back. “Thanks Dash.” She then noticed a familiar mass of well-groomed dark gray hair approaching them from another hall and called out in greeting. “Hi Octavia!”

“Sunset Shimmer, Rainbow Dash.” Octavia’s expression was neutral as she strode past them and into the classroom.

Rainbow Dash shook her head and offered a sympathetic grin. “Don’t take that too personally, Sunset. You and I both know what Octavia’s like.”

“All too well.” The two stepped into class and made their way to their seats, but Sunset stopped just as Rainbow reached hers and noticed something amiss. “Hey, where’s Mister Neigh?”

A shrug. “Maybe he’s in the bathroom or something. Teachers gotta pee sometime, right?”

That seemed as good an explanation as any, and Sunset continued onto her seat. Her physics class was mercifully small, twenty students arranged in four rows of five, with her being the last one in the row closest to the door thanks to seating arrangements. The teacher had arranged them in alphabetical order, and there wasn’t anyone in the class with a name further down the alphabet than her. She’d never complained; if anything, it had proven advantageous to her at the start of the year, thanks to the fact that her two flunkies were taking this same class.

Said former flunkies gave her a small wave as she walked past them, and she offered a smile in return. As uneasy as she’d been with her newfound friends since the previous month, she had no such issues with Snips and Snails. She slid into her seat and readied her book, notebook and pencil for class, and hoped that Mister Neigh wouldn’t take this chance to rearrange everything. Or that she wouldn’t overhear something unpleasant, as usual.

“So did you hear?”

So much for that, she mused, as the two girls to her right were chatting about something.

“Yeah, Velvet told me! I can’t wait to see him!”

…wait, him?

The bell rang, and the students settled into their seats as a new face came in and greeted them, “Morning, class!” He was tall and lean, dressed in a brown pinstripe suit, complete with dress shirt and tie and wearing scruffy tennis shoes on his feet. His face gave him a certain youthful charm, and his brown hair was styled so that it stuck up slightly, giving it a spiky look. The thing that caught Sunset’s attention about him most was his accent; it instantly reminded her of that of ponies from the Griffish Isles back in Equestria, or the odd English actor she’d seen or heard when watching a movie. He set a briefcase down near the teacher’s desk, and then turned to address everyone. “Are we seated comfortably?”

The class generally murmured in agreement.

The new teacher grinned and enthusiastically declared, “Brilliant!” He then retrieved some chalk and began quickly writing up his name on the chalkboard. “Now then, I’m Doctor Turner, and I’ll be your physics teacher for the remainder of the school year.” He then turned about and asked, “Any questions?” A hand shot up in front of Sunset, and the teacher moved to the desk and the seating chart as he answered, “Yes, Mister…Snipsy-Snap?” He briefly looked disgusted at the name, and then recovered. “Sorry, that was rude of me. Your question?”

Snips didn’t take any offense and asked, “What happened to Mister Neigh?”

“Ah! Excellent question, may as well get it out of the way.” Dr. Turner smiled and explained, “He won the lottery. He’s off on a trip around the world. Don’t worry though, you’ll all see him again start of next semester. Anymore questions?” No one raised their hands, and he set aside the chalk and continued. “Alright then, let’s get started! Physics!” He rubbed his hands together and surveyed the students before him before declaring, “Good news and bad news. Bad news; I’m giving a pop quiz.” The class groaned in unison, but he interrupted them. “Ah, but hang on, good news still! I’m just giving it so that I can get an idea of where you all are. More good news is that this pop quiz is purely verbal. I’ll ask a question, one of you answers, and if everyone here can answer one question, then you all pass.” This met with mixed approval, and he moved on from there. “Alright then, first question! Name me one of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion!” A hand shot up from each student, and he called out, “Mister Snipsy-Snap again!”

“An object in motion will stay in motion unless it’s acted upon by an outside force!”

“Correctamundo! One down, nineteen to go! And another, Mister…Snailsquirm!” He made an expression that made obvious his disbelief at Snails’ name, then gestured for him to answer.

“An object at rest will keep on resting until something comes and moves it.”

“Eh, close enough. And let’s have us a hat trick from Miss…Rainbow Dash!” He smiled and noted, “Ooh, I like that name. Rolls right off the tongue.”

The athlete beamed, then stated, “Every action’s got an equal and opposite reaction.”

“Perfect. Now, the value given for an object’s acceleration imparted by the Earth due to gravity Miss…Octavia Melody!”

This continued for several minutes, students being ticked off one by one until the final question came down to Sunset Shimmer. “Tell me the difference between reflection and refraction, Miss Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset smiled and calmly answered, “With reflection, a wavefront bounces off a surface and returns from where it originated, like light going from a light source and bouncing off a mirror. With refraction, a wavefront is shifted as it goes from one medium to another; partially submerge a pencil in a bowl of water at a slant, and it’ll look bent because the light rays are bent by the water.”

“Perfect! Well done!” Dr. Turner clapped in appreciation and offered, “Now then, who’s up for some extra credit?” He grinned deviously and posed his question, “Take two identical strips of nylon. Charge them with static electricity and then hang them from a string so that they swing freely. What happens if they’re brought near one another?” No one raised a hand, prompting him to ask, “No guesses?” One finally went up after a shrug, and he asked, “Miss Shimmer?”

“They’d both have the same charge, so they’d repel one another.”

“On the nose, well done. Next question; I coil up a thin piece of microwire, put it in a glass of water, and then turn on the electricity to see if the temperature’s been affected. How do I measure the electrical power going into the coil?” Sunset again raised her hand, and he asked, “Anyone else? Alright then Miss Shimmer, off you go.”

“Use an ammeter to measure the current and a voltmeter for the potential difference.”

The teacher nodded. “Well done. Another for you, true or false; the greater the dampening of the system, the faster it loses energy to its surroundings.”

“False.”

“What is non-coding DNA?”

“DNA that doesn’t code for a protein and off-topic for a physics class.”

That prompted a laugh from the other students, but Turner took it in stride and asked another question. “Sixty-five thousand five hundred and eighty-three times five?” Sunset quickly grabbed some paper and wrote out the question. “Miss Shimmer?”

“Just making sure I show my work.” She quickly worked out the answer and declared, “Three hundred and twenty-nine thousand, nine hundred and fifteen.”

“How do you travel faster than light?”

Heads turned to Sunset, a few students thinking that she’d either BS an answer and get in trouble or, through some fluke, actually give one that made sense. She opted to look upon the teacher with a raised eyebrow and note, “That’s a trick question. Superluminal travel’s currently beyond human science.”

Heads turned back to Doctor Turner, who reached into his jacket pocket and produced what looked like a pair of 3-D glasses. He then donned them and examined the teenager before him before noting, “So it is. Very good, catching that, well done.” He then took off the glasses and amended, “Everyone, do as well as you did today, and you’ll all ace this semester. And if you need any help, I understand both Miss Melody and Miss Shimmer are excellent tutors.” He then put on a different pair of glasses, this one a normal pair, and prompted, “Now then, let’s pick up from where you left off last semester, eh?”

-

“3-D glasses, really?” Pinkie giggled and declared, “I like this new teacher, he sounds silly!”

Sunset rolled her eyes, not at all surprised by that reaction. A couple class periods had gone by since Physics and her introduction to Dr. Turner, and this had been the first chance she’d had to talk about the odd experience with any of the girls beyond Rainbow Dash.

“Honestly darling, this could be a problem given Sunset’s situation.” Rarity looked to the former unicorn and asked, “Did it feel as though he was taking any sort of excessive interest in you?”

“No. Aside from that bit with the glasses and what he said about Snips and Snails’ full names, he was perfectly professional. And he apologized about his remarks immediately.”

The fashionista nodded and idly tapped her desk with her pen. “Another question then; was he handsome?”

An arched eyebrow from Sunset. “Seriously?”

A blush. “Well, one does wonder about these things.”

Another eye roll. “Tall, slender, slightly spikey brown hair, blue eyes, English accent, wears a suit. I’ll let you decide.”

“Ooh. One does like a man with a good English accent.”

“Ah-hem.” The three looked up to find the stern face of their social studies teacher. “Should I assume that the three of you are already finished with this week’s group assignment, given your gossiping?”

Pinkie smiled apologetically. “Sorry Miss Harshwhinny. Sunset was just telling us about the new physics teacher.”

The teacher arched an eyebrow at the red-and-yellow-haired girl. “I gathered that. And while I appreciate an educator who acts with professionalism, I’d rather determine that for myself than go on the word of a student.” Her gaze turned towards Rarity as she amended, “Especially one who is easily swayed by her fondness for a handsome face.” She looked them all over and concluded, “In any case, you are here to learn. Please refrain from gossip until lunch or your free period.”

“Yes ma’am.” Harshwhinny went back to the front of the class, and the girls went back to their assignment. Rarity looked the two over and asked, “Now then girls, I don’t suppose either of you have found some interesting bit of trivia regarding the presidents of the United States?”

“All of them can claim William the Conqueror as an ancestor, and all but one of them can claim King John of England as an ancestor.”

The fashionista looked at Pinkie in shock, then to Sunset as she checked over her books. “Pinkie’s right. Martin Van Buren was of Dutch ancestry on both sides of his family.”

“Well that’s something one could potentially use in an episode of ‘Jeopardy’.” Notes were quickly taken before the bell rang, signaling the end of class. “Now then Sunset, can we all expect to see you at our usual free period hang-out in the library?”

“Sorry Rarity, but Vice Principal Luna’s asked me to show a couple new students around.” A hopeful smile crossed her face. “Hopefully, they’ll get to know the new me before they find out about the old me.”

The three finished collecting their things and rose from their seats. “One could hope, dear. And if nothing else, it will be nice to have some new faces around here.”

“Maybe they can even join us for lunch!” Pinkie suggested. “First though, you gotta tell me everything you can about them! That way, we can have a ‘Welcome to Canterlot High’ party, and I can get all the snacks that they like!”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Sunset waved and turned away as Vice Principal Luna’s voice sounded over the PA system.

The three exited the classroom, and while Sunset attended to her summons, Rarity and Pinkie went on to their next destination. “Pinkie, did Sunset seem distant to you?”

“Kinda.” Her tone became less excited as she asked, “Do you think she’s still feeling kinda sore about what happened before break?”

“Perhaps.” Rarity sighed. “I only hope that after today, we can put it behind us once and for all. For now, let’s check in with the others…” She stopped as she felt a tap on her shoulder, then turned to find a familiar girl with blue and opal hair standing nearby. “Yes Vinyl?” The girl wordlessly smiled and presented her with a flier. “Oh. Thank you, dear.” Vinyl then saluted and went on her way, leaving Rarity to examine it. “Hmm. I’m surprised she’s allowed to do this.”

Pinkie examined the flier. “Huh. Big sale at the music store she works at in the mall.” She smiled and added, “Nice of her to tell us.”

-

:“Sunset Shimmer, please report to the main foyer.”:

Vice Principal Luna’s beckoning call over the PA system momentarily shook Sweetie Belle out of her thoughts as she went on her way, but she quickly found them again as she caught sight of her friends. She smiled anxiously. “Hi girls.”

“Howdy Sweetie Belle.” Apple Bloom looked as glum as she felt, but gave an encouraging smile. “Ah guess we all managed to come in today, didn’t we?”

“Like you two would be able to get away with it, with your sisters and all.” Scootaloo sighed. “Of course, Rainbow Dash would’ve had my hide if I hadn’t.” Her shoulders slumped. “Not like I didn’t deserve it.” A disgusted snort caught her attention, and she looked to find Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon as they strode past and glared at them from the corner of their eyes. Once the two were out of earshot, she added, “As if they didn’t give us trouble already.”

“Well this time, we kinda got it comin’.” The young farmgirl sighed. “Ah still think it’s a miracle Sunset forgave us, let alone was willin’ to talk with us. Ah mean, she almost…”

“Yeah. And it would’ve been my fault.”

Our fault, Sweetie Belle. Not yours.”

“Still, I…” The pale girl hugged herself tight and did her best to hold back tears. “I hated her! I hated what she did to Rarity, what she put her through! I mean, I know that she hurt Applejack and Rainbow Dash too, but…!”

“But what she did to Rarity went too far.” Sweetie Belle found herself in her friend’s embrace, and Apple Bloom assured her, “Ah know. Don’t justify what we did, even after the Fall Formal, but still.”

“Yeah, about that.” The two looked to Scootaloo as she asked, “Did either of you think about what would’ve happened if what we did hadn’t worked? Or if it hadn’t worked as well as it did?”

A shrug. “Not much difference, ah guess. We still put up stuff after Sunset got shunned.” One could almost swear that her bow was drooping at that realization. “Dang. Still hurts thinkin’ we went that far. Why didn’t one ‘a us stop an’ think about what we were doin’?”

“Probably for the same reason Sunset never stopped and thought about what she was doing.” A sniffle from Sweetie Belle as she admitted, “We didn’t care.”

Scootaloo bowed her head and admitted, “I kinda did.” Her friends looked at her as she explained, “It didn’t feel right putting up Rainbow Dash’s paper like that. I still did it, but I thought it was one of those necessary evil things, y’know?” She then looked to Sweetie Belle and admitted, “Plus, the way you were acting, I was kinda scared that, well…”

“…That we’d put something up about you?”

“Well, kinda, but more that you’d yell and scream at me.” She nodded towards Apple Bloom and clarified, “More you than Apple Bloom though. No offense, AB, but Sweetie Belle is scary when she’s mad.”

“None taken.” She smiled nervously as she looked to Sweetie Belle and admitted, “You are kinda scary sometimes.”

Those words hung in the air, and silence held until a light snort came out of the pale girl’s mouth. The snort was followed by a laugh, and she wiped away the few tears that had formed. “Me. Scary.” She recovered and admitted, “I was scary, wasn’t I?” She sighed and wondered aloud, “Do you think Sunset feels like this?”

“Probably.” The three finally reached the library as Apple Bloom turned her volume down and admitted, “We probably should’ve considered that before we went and did it, though.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Scootaloo looked about and wondered aloud, “So, where’s Miss Cheerilee?”

“Girls?” The three turned to find the young teacher approaching them from the library’s office. “Ah, there you are. I was worried the three of you might not be in today.”

Sweetie Belle stood up and admitted, “Well, we did the crime. We’d have to do the time sooner or later.”

They saw what they hoped was a proud smile on Cheerilee’s face before she gestured for them to follow her. “Better sooner than later.” She led them up to the second floor of the library and to a secluded corner, where they found the work awaiting them. “Now then girls, do you know what this is?”

“It’s the bed made out of books that Twilight slept in her first night here!” Sweetie Belle sheepishly calmed down and added, “Rarity offered her our guest room her second night.”

“Well that was very good of her.” Cheerilee gestured to the book-bed and explained, “Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to get this cleaned up and get the books back where they’re supposed to be. Which is where the three of you come in.”

Apple Bloom shrugged. “Well that won’t be too hard. We just havta look up the numbers in the library computers and…”

“Except that you won’t be using the computers.” She gestured to the stairs and added, “The old card catalog is down on the first floor. You’ll be using it to figure out where all of these books go.”

“But don’t they all probably come from somewhere around here?”

“Yes, but I want them put away properly. And the only way that will happen is if you use the card catalog, Scootaloo. Otherwise you might end up spending more than just your detention in here.” She grinned as she turned away and left them to their work. “Might.”

As the young librarian went out of earshot, Scootaloo asked, “Can she really do that?”

“Ah don’t know, but Ah don’t wanna find out.” Apple Bloom then went to the book-bed and picked up four of the books from its ‘head’. “So you had Twilight and Sunset at yer house, one after the other.”

“Yeah, but I was a better host to Twilight than I was to Sunset.” Sweetie Belle picked up her own pile of books and added, “A lot of things about that night make a lot more sense now, though. Twilight having trouble with her bra, for one thing.”

Apple Bloom laughed despite herself. “Considerin’ ponies don’t normally wear clothin’, that makes a lotta sense.”

“And they wouldn’t need ‘em anyway. It’s not like ponies have breasts.”

“Actually, ponies bein’ mammals, they do have ‘em. They just ain’t noticeable unless the mare’s done had themselves a foal recent enough fer the youngin’ to still be nursin’. Us humans are th’ exception, and there’s plenty ‘a argument ‘bout why.” Her friends looked at her in surprise, and Apple Bloom shrugged. “Ah live on a farm. We raise horses ‘n other critters. Ah’ve asked.”

Sweetie Belle hmmed thoughtfully as they made their way down a staircase. “So, do you think Flash Sentry knows about all of this? Twilight and Sunset really being ponies and stuff?”

Scootaloo shrugged. “Be kinda awkward either way.”

-

Elsewhere in the school, two girls stood in the foyer to CHS. Both idly looked about the area around them, neither betraying much through their body language. One, however, was clearly more anxious than the other, as her companion quickly noticed. “Nervous?”

“A little.” The pale yellow teen took a deep breath, but it did little to steady her nerves. She looked at her reflection, as well as that of her friend, in the glass of the school trophy case. As weak as it was, she could see her concern in the image of her pale green eyes. “What if we mess this up?”

“You should’ve thought of that before you came along.” Her friend chuckled and gently clasped one pale magenta hand around hers. “There’s all sorts of ways that things could go wrong, I know. But we’ll get through this. Brave heart, huh?”

She turned to her friend and managed a nervous smile. “Brave heart.”

Approaching footsteps were their first warning that they weren’t alone, followed very shortly by a voice calling out “Hello!” They turned to find themselves addressed by a girl about their age, the same as was in two of the portraits near the trophy case but looking much friendlier. She gave them a genial smile and asked, “I guess the two of you are the new girls I’m supposed to show around.”

“You see anyone else standing around?” A grin. “Sorry, that came out a little snarky. First day jitters, I guess. You’re Sunset Shimmer, right?” The flame-haired girl nodded, and she gestured to her friend. “This is Roseluck. Don’t mind her too much if she seems skittish, that’s normal for her.” She then offered a hand. “And I’m Amethyst Star. Call me Sparkler.”

Sunset accepted the offered hand. “Nice to meet you.” She then turned to Roseluck and asked, “Any nicknames you prefer?”

A shrug. “I’m okay if you want to call me ‘Rose’.”

“Okay, Rose. Anyway, welcome to Canterlot High.” She gestured about and added, “Don’t let the size of this place get to you, this is a great school.” She nodded her head towards the third portrait on a nearby wall and added, “A little better after recent events, but still, a great school. Now how about we get started?”

“Sure.” Sparkler gestured to the same wall and asked, “So, are these the recent prom queens?”

Sunset suddenly looked as if she wanted to facepalm, but was desperately resisting the urge. “No, but pretty close.” She took a breath and explained, “The middle picture is of last year’s Spring Fling Princess. The one on the left is from the preceding Fall Formal, and the one on the right is from the following Fall Formal.” She tried her best to assume a friendly grin and asked, “Not very flattering pictures, are they?”

“Not really. You look kinda like a cartoon supervillain.”

“No kidding.” A shrug, and she added, “Still, it lets me do this.” She stood up straight and said, “Hello, my name is Sunset Shimmer, and I’m a recovering Alpha Bitch.” That prompted laughter from the other two girls, and Sunset relaxed. “Wow, that actually worked.”

“Well, it was funny.” Sparkler recovered but maintained her smile. “I guess getting dethroned snapped you out of that?”

“In so many ways.” Sunset shook her head. “Anyway, you aren’t here to listen to me gab about me. Come on, let’s get this tour started.” She led them out of the foyer and into the school proper. “So, are the two of you sisters?”

Rose gave a nervous smile. “Kinda. I’m a foster kid. Sparkler’s family’s taken me in.”

“Oh? Good for them.” Sunset gave her an encouraging look. “If it helps, I can relate.” At the green-eyed girl’s curious look, she explained, “Long story, I’ll tell you later. Come on, lots to see.”

Sunset led the two on, and suddenly found herself optimistic. Things were starting off on a good note, and maybe, if things went well, she’d have some new friends out of this. It took everything she had not to smile even wider than she was already over how good she felt; they knew about her, she’d admitted to it, and they were okay with it. Granted, they didn’t know the whole truth, and Sunset doubted this would be the case with others, but still, this bode well.

And she quietly hoped that she wouldn’t do anything to screw it up.

Chapter Three - Lunch Before The Storm

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“I still think that Celestia’s being too soft on these kids.” Cranky Doodle studied his glass of milk and hoped that it would keep the inevitable ulcer under control. “First that mess at the Fall Formal with Sunset Shimmer, and then that Anon-A-Miss business just before Christmas. If she’d just expelled Sunset Shimmer after that first mess happened, we could have avoided all of that.”

“Cranky, you and I both know that wasn’t an option.” Cheerilee busied herself with making some tea, thankful for the selection in the teacher’s lounge. “Besides, Sunset didn’t force anyone into doing anything. She was the victim the second time, not the perpetrator.”

The older of the two teachers grunted as he sipped his drink. “Fine, but she still got off light, same as the ‘Crusaders’ and everyone else who took part. Some mass expulsions would’ve sent a message. Might’ve even bumped up our GPA a bit.”

A smirk and an arched eyebrow as the door leading into the teacher’s lounge opened. “You do remember that Sunset stands a good chance of being the valedictorian for her class?”

“Which comes as no surprise, given what I saw of her this morning.” The two looked to find the newest among their number standing at the door. “Sorry, didn’t mean to break into the conversation mid-way like that.”

“It’s alright, Doctor Turner.” Cheerilee caught some light grumblings from Cranky, but turned her attention back to the kettle. “Care for some tea?”

“Please!” He prepared a cup and a teabag and asked, “So what were you talking about in regards to Miss Shimmer?”

“Punishment, and not just for her.” Cranky regarded the younger man suspiciously and asked, “But I suppose you’re the sort that doesn’t go for discipline?”

“Oh, discipline’s well and good. I’m just not very big on overly harsh punishments.” Doctor Turner looked to him and noted, “I knew what I was getting into when I took this job, even heard a thing or two about similar situations elsewhere. Newspapers, the Internet, my wife.” At their surprise, he indicated a small golden ring on one finger. “She had something similar at her school growing up to this Anon-A-Miss mess you went through. She never did anything to hurt the victim, mind, but she always regretted not helping them. Sometimes the guilt is enough to do the job.” A shrug, and he admitted, “Of course in both occasions, the guilty party regretted their actions and no physical injury occurred. If there hadn’t been regret, if someone had been hurt or died, or both, well yes, fine, expulsion definitely, probably even jail time, but still, plenty of cases where folks jumped the gun and went too far, especially in this line of work.” Hot water was poured into both teacups, and he concluded, “Personally, I think Principal Celestia went just far enough.”

Cheerilee opted to change the subject at that moment and asked, “So, you’re married?”

Doctor Turner looked happy to change the subject. “Second time, actually.” Tea prepared, he and Cheerilee sat down with Cranky at the table. “My first wife passed away a little after my daughter was born. I waited a few years, eventually met my current wife and married her. She was the one who went through what I was just talking about.” He smiled and noted, “Sweetest thing, great baker. Brings a smile to my face whenever I think of her.”

“That sounds familiar,” the youngest of the three noted to the eldest with a teasing grin.

“Wha-?!” Cranky sputtered in shock, then protested, “You keep Matilda out of this!”

“Oh, married too, eh?” Doctor Turner joined in with relish and declared, “Good for her! A brilliant woman gets even better with a sensible fellow in her life.”

Despite his earlier frustration, the cranky old teacher smiled. “Well, I’d be lost without her, in any case.” The smile faded as he asked, “So, daughter huh?”

“Three, actually. One from the first marriage, one I adopted from the second, the third we took in together. Foster kid. The youngest is still too young for high school, even one with a six year program, but the other two?” The younger man grinned. “You’ll run into them soon enough.”

-

“So it turned out that old-fashioned card catalog wasn’t all that hard ta figure out. Th’ three a’ us got all those books right back where they were supposed ta go.” Apple Bloom groaned as she recounted her story. “Th’ real trouble was goin’ up and down those stairs with a buncha books in mah arms.”

“And kneeling down all the time.” Sweetie Belle added in her own groans. “My knees are killing me.”

Rarity gave her little sister a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as elder siblings, biological and honorary, escorted the Crusaders to the cafeteria. While they doubted that anyone would take things far enough to attack the three young girls, it was better to be safe than sorry. “Better your knees than your back, dear. I’m still feeling the ache from when I bent at the back to get Twilight’s disguise that one morning.”

“Yeah, besides, those aches and pains are nothing compared to what’s coming after school.” Rainbow Dash waved an arm and amended, “Just saying.”

“Right, that.” Now it was Scootaloo’s time to groan. “I kinda wish the soccer field was still covered in snow right now. More cushioning for the falls.”

“Come on. It’s not like she could get past all three of us, right?”

Another groan from Apple Bloom as they entered the cafeteria made their way to get in line for their food. “Sweetie Belle, ya gotta learn not ta’ say things like that.”

The older girls did what they could to restrain themselves as they obtained their lunches and then parted company with their sisters to take their customary table. Pinkie Pie gleefully waved them over and Fluttershy smiled as they sat down. “So? How’d things go for them?”

“Well, Ah’d say they’ve gotten some community service in. No clue what’s comin’ next for ‘em, though.” Applejack looked about and asked, “Speakin’ of the community, Sunset doin’ okay?”

Dash rolled her eyes. “She’s still talking to us, AJ. I’d say that’s a good thing.”

Rarity turned her attention to the food line as a familiar head of crimson and yellow hair approached, two unfamiliar faces following. “And hopefully, that talk will include introductions to new friends.” As Sunset closed in, she smiled. “Hello darling!”

Her greeting was answered with a smile. “Hi girls. Okay if we have a couple new friends join us?” She gestured to the two new students and introduced them. “Meet Amethyst Star and Roseluck. Sparkler, Rose, meet Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Applejack.”

“Nice ta meet ya, gals, have a seat.” The two new students joined them, and Applejack prodded, “So, you likin’ what you’ve seen so far?”

Sparkler smiled. “Yeah, I think we’ll like it here.”

-

“Huh. Haven’t seen them before.” Lyra turned her attention away from Sunset and the new students to her friend and wondered aloud, “New students?”

“Probably.” Sweetie Drops looked upon the newcomers with suspicion. “Little odd that they’re eating with Sunset Shimmer and her friends, though.”

“Most likely she invited them after giving them a tour of the school.” The two looked up to find Octavia standing close by, a lunch tray in her hands. “Forgive me for listening in, but she told me she was giving two new students a tour earlier. May I join you two for a moment?”

“Sure, but why not stay with us?”

Octavia sighed as she sat down. “I would, but Vinyl needs someone to keep her on track lest she ends up late for her next class. Besides, my business is brief.” She turned her gaze upon her fellow students and asked, “Lyra, Sweetie, the two of you have been working at the same shop as Sunset since last fall, correct?”

The minty green girl nodded. “She started working with us about two weeks after the Fall Formal, just in time for the Halloween rush. Why?”

“Has she caused any sort of trouble there? I don’t mean to accuse her of anything, it’s just that she’s going to be tutoring here at CHS soon, and I can’t help but be concerned.”

Sweetie Drops gave the musician a sympathetic half-smile. “Octavia, I don’t blame you for being a little anxious. None of the three of us were at the Fall Formal, but we all heard the stories. For better or worse, Sunset hasn’t caused any trouble at the shop. If anything, she’s been a model employee.” A shrug, and she admitted, “Of course, it’s just the four of us including Miss Zecora, but still.”

“Well, she has hidden behind a veneer of respectability and goodness before.” Octavia shook her head. “Perhaps I’m simply being paranoid.”

“Is it paranoid to be cautious in the presence of something you know can hurt you?”

“Hey!” Lyra gently elbowed her friend in protest, then turned to Octavia and added, “Listen, I’m not going to tell you to trust her or anything, but try to give her a chance, huh? I mean, she’s not all bad. And doesn’t she at least deserve a small chance after everything that happened at the end of last semester?”

Octavia gave a small nod. “I suppose. Thank you.” She then stood up and went on her way, leaving the two to their own devices.

Sweetie Drops rubbed where Lyra’s elbow had hit her. “Seriously?”

“Sorry Bonnie, I know we need to be wary about her, but still, she hasn’t caused any trouble since the Fall Formal.” She emphasized her point with her spork as she added, “And she gave us those nice drawings as gifts. She didn’t have to do that.”

“No, but those gifts are part of the issue here.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she explained, “Lyra, we still don’t know how she knew about the portal, or Equestria, or the Elements of Harmony. We only know about them because Zecora told us. How do you think she knew?”

“Well, I’ve got a theory, but I’d love to hear yours first.”

A smile crossed her face as Sweetie Drops shared her theory. “Okay, we know that Zecora’s been collecting what she can about Equestrian magic for years, right? What if Sunset Shimmer is working with someone who obtained information about it, and used it for her little stunt at the Fall Formal?”

A shrug. “I guess, but it’s not as fun as my theory.” A thin eyebrow arched her way, and Lyra explained, “I think she knew about Equestria because she came from Equestria. That explains everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, but that leaves a big question, doesn’t it?” Sweetie Drops looked to the girl in question and asked, “Why would she come here? There’s little magic here compared to there, and what does she get out of being the queen bee of a high school?”

Lyra sighed and started picking at her food with her utensil. “Not much, I guess. Thanks for not outright calling my theory stupid, Bon-Bon.”

A smile crossed her face as she gently nudged her friend. “Your theories aren’t stupid, Lyra. And neither are you.”

-

“So dears, where are the two of you originally from?”

“Oh, that’s a tough question.” Sparkler waved a hand at Rarity’s query and explained, “All over, I guess.”

“Military family?”

“No, Dad’s just got something of a wanderlust.” A sigh. “That said, the most we ever stayed in one place for very long was five years when he had a job as a consultant with some top secret government thing. But he was still chomping at the bit to get out whenever we could for all that time.” She smiled in reassurance. “Don’t worry, though. Rose and me will be around for a little while yet. What about all of you?”

“Well with the exception of Sunset, all of us have lived in or near Canterlot our entire lives.” She gestured to the farmgirl at the table and added, “In fact, dear Applejack is something of a legacy here at Canterlot High.”

“My granny was one of the first students here after the school got put up. Liked it so much, she ended up comin’ back after graduatin’.” She gestured to her food and explained, “Y’all saw her when you were gettin’ yer grub.”

“That sweet old lunch lady is your grandmother?” At Applejack’s nod, Rose whistled in appreciation. “So, did your parents go here?”

“Parents, uncles, aunts, siblin’s, cousins. Not all of ‘em stayed, mind, but all of ‘em have passed through the main entrance to CHS at least once in their lives.” She grinned and gestured to Pinkie Pie. “Even discovered a couple distant relatives went here by accident.” A sad smile crossed her lips as Applejack added, “Heck, my mom and dad were high school sweethearts once upon a time.”

“Any chance we could meet them?”

“‘Fraid not. My parents passed away when Ah was eight.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Sparkler’s tone turned sympathetic as she explained, “My mom passed away when I was very little. It’s probably what started my dad’s wanderlust. It’s settled down since, but still, sore point for us.” She then turned to Sunset and asked, “What about you?”

A shrug. “I moved here about three years ago. Lost my parents when I was very young, moved in with an aunt and her family, ended up leaving them.” She noticed their concerned looks and explained, “Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t them. They’re great people, I was just in a bad place for a long time. I’m hoping to reunite with them before too long.” She gave a half-smile and added, “Right now though, things are okay. Principal Celestia’s sort-of my legal guardian while I’m here in town.”

“Wow. That’s one good reason to keep up with your schoolwork, I guess.” Sparkler looked about and asked, “By the way, are there any teachers we should watch out for? I’m not saying anyone here’s mean or anything, I just want to know if any are inclined to give out tough assignments.”

“Well, perhaps we could see your schedules?” The two handed Rarity off their class schedules, and she studied them before frowning. “Hmm. The only one here that I’d worry about is Miss Sweet Agate. She’s a wonderful woman, but she tends to keep her students on her toes in her Literature courses.”

“She’s got a habit of adding to the syllabus,” Sunset elaborated. “And that ignores her obsession with Joseph Conrad. I’m just glad we got ‘Heart of Darkness’ out of the way already.”

Both new girls sighed in relief at that. “Oh thank God. We had to deal with it at our last school, and I don’t want to have to go and read it again.”

“The horror…” Rose moaned in terror, “…the horror…”

Sunset stifled a laugh at that all-too-perfect remark. “Anyway, getting back to what you said about your dad; it’s a little unusual for a single parent to take in a foster kid.”

Sparkler gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Should’ve mentioned, my dad remarried.” She smiled and added, “And I’m proud to say my stepmother is the sweetest woman you could ever meet, and Rose and I have an awesome little stepsister thanks to her.”

“Aw! That’s great!” Pinkie grinned and asked, “So, do we get to meet her?”

A shrug. “Maybe someday.”

-

“Trixie? Earth to Trixie!” The blue girl was pulled from the object of her attention as her grey-skinned friend noted, “I think maybe you might be obsessing a little.”

With a proud and indignant pout, Trixie sat up and declared, “The Great and Powerful Trrrixie does not obsess! She merely… focuses intently!” Her attention now fully upon her friend, she asked, “Anyway, enough about that. Did you bring them?”

A gleeful smile crossed her face, and Derpy opened her lunchbox and produced her promised goods. “As promised, peanut butter muffins.” A joyful squeal was her reward as she handed over one of the baked goods to Trixie. “I hope you like it. This is my first time trying this recipe out.”

Trixie took a bite of the muffin and moaned blissfully. “I love it! Thank you, Derpy!” Her joy was short-lived as she turned her attention back towards Sunset Shimmer. “Now if only everything else would work out in my favor for a change.” She noticed the uneasy look on her friend’s face and asked, “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh no, I know that look. Spill, Derpy.”

The blond sighed and looked to her friend with concern. “Trixie, I think you might be acting just a little too harsh towards Sunset Shimmer. I mean, I understand why, I was at the Fall Formal too, but maybe it’s time for you to let things go.”

Trixie’s free hand balled into a fist, but quickly loosened. “Derpy, you remember what happened that night, don’t you?”

“It’s hard to forget being brainwashed into someone’s teenage zombie minion.”

“And you really think I can let that go? Or that any of us should?” Trixie took another bite of her muffin, chewed and swallowed before continuing. “Principal Celestia should have expelled her for what she did. Instead she gets a suspension, and it’s like nothing happened. She might’ve said that she was sorry, but how do we know she wasn’t lying?”

A shrug. “Well, she did get blasted into the bottom of a crater by magic.”

“Yes, and that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.” She turned to her friend and asked, “But why are you so eager to get me to be nice to her?”

“Well, ignoring that whole episode at the Fall Formal, I don’t think she’s ever been truly bad.” At her friend’s incredulous look, Derpy turned as much as she could to face her and asked, “What’s the first thing you noticed when you first saw me?”

Trixie bowed her head and admitted with a little shame, “Your eyes.”

“Just like everyone else.” The wall-eyed girl gestured to her face and noted, “Most look at me and feel bad for me because of my strabismus. A lot of them get over it eventually. But there’s a few, kids from my old school especially, who took one look at me and, well, assume that I’m ‘special’, and treat me accordingly.” The air-quotes she made only emphasized her point. “And not the ‘put her up on a pedestal because she’s inspirationally disadvantaged’ kind of treat me accordingly, but that’s bad too.”

“We both know that you’re not retarded, Derpy. And no one here calls you by that name because they think you are.”

“No, but I am kind of a klutz with everything that doesn’t involve muffins.” The two girls laughed at that before Derpy continued, “Anyway, Sunset Shimmer’s never called me that once. I’ve always just been ‘Ditzy Doo’ to her.” A shrug, and she admitted, “I know that really isn’t impressive, but let’s face it, I was an easy target, and she never took a shot at me. Even at her worst, when she had the best chance to get away with it.”

Trixie rolled her eyes and sarcastically remarked, “What do you know? Sunset Shimmer cares about being politically correct.” She sighed and added, “More likely she knew that we all care about you here, and that she’d be chased out of town by an angry mob if she ever hurt you.”

“Well, I’m glad it never came to that.” A small smile crossed her lips as she noted, “But I guess that explains why I didn’t get caught in that Anon-A-Miss stuff.”

“Please; you’re an open book.” Trixie looked to Sunset and noted, “I honestly thought it was her behind all of that.”

“But it wasn’t.” Both turned to the Crusaders, huddled together and all but isolated from the rest of the student body. “They must feel terrible about what happened. I mean, what they did was mean, but still, I don’t think they thought it would go so far as it did. And I’m glad it didn’t go as far as it could have, whoever that student was.”

“Agreed. Bare minimum, Trixie is glad that she didn’t add any fuel to that fire. Guilt is not something I prefer to be intimate with.”

“Or me.” A small grin spread across her face as she asked, “So, an angry mob?”

“I’d light the torches myself.”

-

A soft, cold breeze drifted past her as she strode down from the parking lot to the front entrance of Canterlot High. She didn’t mind it too much. A part of her actually enjoyed the cold, as it reminded her of all the fun she’d have out in the snow with her best friend in the world. She’d had many a happy memory since, but those were the earliest ones, and the ones that stuck closest to the forefront of her mind despite feeling like an eternity in the past.

She sighed as some sad memories swirled to the surface of her mind, the bad intermingled with the good. They were a part of who she was, of course, and what ultimately led to her chosen profession, but still, it was not something she liked to dwell upon. The world was filled with more good than bad, and it was her place to help others see that.

This time, however, it seemed like she had her work cut out for her.

Finally, she reached the door, and just as one of her greyish heliotrope hands reached out to open it, it opened for her, a familiar face smiling at her. She smiled back and remarked, “You’ve messed up pretty badly for me to be here, Celestia.”

The principal’s smile turned into a smirk. “But I do have the courage to admit to my wrongs.” The newcomer entered, the door closed behind her, and the two women hugged. “And that includes not getting you here sooner, if only to see an old friend again. I’ve got more than one reason to be glad to see you here again, Hope.”

“Well, I won’t promise a miracle, but I’ll do my best to help.” A twinkle was in her arctic blue eyes as the two made their way through the school. “So, teacher’s lounge?”

“Conference room. I’m hoping that they can figure things out on their own. Far more rewarding that way.”

A soft giggle. “Celie, someday you’re going to be too tricky for your own good.”

“Oh, I hope not. I know how that can go wrong.”

-

“Anyway, we aren’t really going to be doing much today beyond sitting in and getting a feel for our classes. Nothing heavy until tomorrow.” Sparkler shrugged. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Guess that makes eight of us.” Dash grinned as she leaned in and conspiratorially informed the newcomers, “The six of us are exempt from our classes this afternoon. Long story.”

“Though why we’re exempt isn’t exactly a good thing,” Fluttershy quietly noted. “I hope that you’ll understand if we don’t talk about it right now.”

The two looked to one another briefly, then nodded as Rose answered, “We can wait to find out, I guess.” She then turned discussion elsewhere. “So, what do you guys get up to after school?”

“Plenty a’ stuff; Ah got work to take care of back on the farm, Dash has practice, Pinkie, Rarity and Sunset have their jobs, and Fluttershy’s either volunteerin’ at the shelter or the vet’s office.”

Sparkler’s eyes lit up with interest. “Shelter? As in an animal shelter?” At the shy girl’s nod, she smiled eagerly and said, “I love animals! Do you need any more volunteers there?”

“Oh my goodness, yes!” Fluttershy’s own expression lit up as she dove into her backpack and pulled out a flier for the local animal shelter. “We’re always looking for a little extra help! So many puppies and kittens and bunnies and all sorts of other animals need attention, after all, and every little bit helps!” She suddenly caught herself and amended, “Well, of course, we’d welcome whatever you can provide.”

Sparkler laughed and accepted the flier. “I’ll do what I can to find time. Thankfully, I’m pretty organized, and Dad won’t say no. Maybe if I’m lucky, I can convince him to let me bring one home. He’s had a weakness for cats for years.”

Before anyone could comment upon that, the intercom blared from overhead. :“Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Sunset Shimmer, please report to the second floor conference room after lunch.”:

“And that’s us.” Sunset turned to the two new girls and said, “Anyway, if anything comes up or you need any help, just ask.” Her lunch finished, Sunset went to take care of her trash, the rest following shortly thereafter. The easy part of the day was over. Now the real trouble would begin.

Chapter Four - Rainbooms on the Couch

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Like many schools of its size, Canterlot High had one or two conference rooms, meant either for formal meetings between teachers or for the odd special occasion like a government-mandated hearing and vision check. They allowed for greater space than an office, and helped to create a sense of neutrality whenever a student and/or their family entered. They were also not as formal as the offices of the principal and vice principal, and thus without the looming peril of disciplinary action.

Some students, however, joked that when called to the conference room, a student stood a chance of getting it from the entirety of their teachers, but such a thing had never happened. To their knowledge, at least.

It was right outside of the larger of CHS’ conference rooms that Celestia and Luna stood waiting for their charges, who arrived in a group with Rarity taking the lead. “Good afternoon, students. I assume you had a pleasant lunch?”

“Hard not to with Granny Smith’s cooking.” Despite her best efforts, a nervous chuckle escaped Rainbow Dash’s lips. As Luna looked upon her with an arched eyebrow, she amended, “Yes, lunch was good.”

Celestia offered a comforting smile. “It’s perfectly alright if you’re nervous, Rainbow Dash. None of us will think less of you for it.”

“I’m not nervous, I just…” A shrug. “I’m not crazy about talking to shrinks is all. Eggheady know-it-alls and everything.”

“Ah ain’t exactly crazy about this either Dash, but we all know why we’re doin’ this.” Applejack looked to Sunset with a rueful expression. “Tryin’ not too repeat past mistakes and all that.”

“Indeed.” Luna looked among them and explained, “Now then, you’ll all understand if we don’t want the lot of you in there together. The doctor would rather speak with each of you individually, at least for the time being.” Her gaze fell upon Sunset as she finished, “And she’d prefer that Sunset Shimmer be the last of you that she speaks with. Beyond that, however, it’s up to you who goes first.”

None of the five seemed eager to volunteer until Rarity stepped forward. “Well, if it’s going to be any of us, we may as well start with myself.” Celestia opened the door into the conference room, and the fashionista entered.

As the door was closed behind their friend, Luna gestured towards a room adjacent to the conference room. “We’d like the rest of you to wait in here for now. No sense having you loitering in the hallway.”

“Sure thing, Vice Principal Luna.” Applejack led her friends into the indicated room, and the door was closed behind them as the two administrators traded anxious expressions. With any luck, this would work, and they could finally put Anon-A-Miss behind them.

If not, then they were out of useful ideas.

-

“Rarity, I presume?” The psychologist stood up from her chair and offered a hand. “I’m Doctor Hope. It’s good to finally meet you, I’ve heard a great deal about you from your principal.”

“Oh, thank you, ma’am.” Rarity accepted the offered hand and warmly shook it. “And if you don’t mind my saying, you look rather splendid. Not at all what I expected.”

The doctor smirked, taking the comment on her looks as a compliment. She was dressed semi-casually, light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirt with a crystalline broach over the left side of her chest. “We aren’t all eccentric old men with little glasses and beards.” She gestured for Rarity to take a seat, then took up a notebook and began. “Now then, if all of this is right, you’re currently sixteen?”

“Due to turn seventeen in June.”

“Happy Early Birthday. Have you given any thought to college?”

“Yes, though I haven’t thought of any particular schools. Whatever one I want to go to, however, I intend to major in both business and fashion design.” A smile crossed her face as she admitted, “And I wouldn’t object to taking whatever courses I need to become a certified gemologist. As wonderful as it would be to open my own boutique and sell my own designs, being able to work with jewelry sounds like a wonderful fallback.”

“Well, from everything I’ve heard, you’re off to an excellent start here at Canterlot High. From what I’ve been told, you turned quite a few heads from day one.”

The young fashionista did her best to hide an embarrassed blush. “Well, a lady does seek to impress.”

“And I’m also told that you applied to take part in last summer’s Junior Fashion Week in the city.”

That caused Rarity to turn nervous. “Yes, I did. Unfortunately, I had to pull out at the last minute.” She turned downcast as she admitted, “It’s a rather long story, and one in a rather long string of disappointments starting last spring.”

“Well let’s start there then, shall we?” A few notes were quickly jotted down, and Hope queried, “You put your hat in the running for Princess of last year’s Spring Fling, going up against the reigning princess of Canterlot High.”

“Sunset Shimmer. She and I get on much better now, but back then…” Rarity considered her next words, then quietly continued, “Back then, Sunset was rather terrible. It hadn’t started that way, of course, but over time, she showed herself as more and more of a shrewd manipulator, and rather possessive of her title. And there had been rumors of her engaging in more than a few unsavory actions in order to maintain her crown at the Fall Formal that year. Nothing that could be substantiated, of course, but still…”

“I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone, Rarity. I’m just here to listen.” She smiled and prodded, “Now, you were saying?”

“Yes, forgive me.” She took a quick breath and continued, “Anyway, I put my hat into the ring for the Spring Fling crown, mostly because I thought that of anyone in the school, I stood the best chance of defeating her. My friends were certainly onboard and willing to provide support, but then, things started happening, and the five of us began to split up.”

“Such as?”

“Well, my application to compete in Junior Fashion Week had come in, so I had to cut time for the odd commitment here and there; helping Fluttershy out at the animal shelter, for one. I still tried to find time to help the others out, but then communications started breaking down with the rest, and then I found myself getting messages from Pinkie Pie telling me my help wasn’t needed with events around the school, only to find out she was doing it all on her own.”

“She actually told you that?”

“No, we texted. And with the benefit of hindsight, I should have confirmed it with her directly, but alas, I didn’t.” She sighed and admitted, “I later found out that Sunset had falsified the messages as part of an effort to sabotage my bid. A rather successful one at that. I ended up not even going to the dance, rather than see the inevitable smug expression upon her face.” She took on a rueful expression and noted, “And that wasn’t even the worst part. I planned on announcing my acceptance for the Junior Fashion Show at the dance, as part of my acceptance speech. I even planned on asking the girls to come with me; it would have been a marvelous time for all of us!”

“You must have been distraught.”

“I was, but not as much as I was after I was forced to pull out of the fashion show.” She drew her arms in close and admitted, “It was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. And that wasn’t the worst of it.”

“Oh?”

Rarity looked at the psychologist and asked, “Doctor, from what you’ve been told of me, what do you think is one of my defining characteristics?”

Hope glanced through her notes and offered, “Your tendencies towards altruism, I’d think.”

Rarity shook her head. “Forgive me, but I must correct you. I don’t practice altruism, I practice generosity. There’s a critical difference between the two. With the former, one is expected to give up everything, and I see no sense in doing something like that. With generosity, one gives of what one is able to give; time, energy, money, whatever. One can’t expect a tree to continue bearing fruit if it has been chopped down for use as firewood, now does one?”

“No, it would be a little pointless by then. So, your generosity proved to be your undoing?”

“Yes, in a sense. After it had been cast aside despite clearly needed, well, I was all too happy to lend someone a hand. And then it was taken advantage of, and I was forced to withdraw as a result.” She slumped and admitted, “As I said, embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry.”

Rarity waved it off. “It’s water under the bridge now, don’t worry. Still, once the new school year came along, I found myself more adrift than I cared for. I still had the odd activity with one or two of my old friends, mind, but I didn’t see them as often as I’d liked. Much like the rest of the school by that point, I’d gravitated towards my own kind.” She shook her head. “Which was less than pleasant. As much of an artist as she can be, Photo Finish does grate the nerves at times with her insensitivity.”

“But that’s changed now.”

“Yes.” Rarity smiled. “I assume, of course, that you’ve heard of what happened at the last Fall Formal, and about Twilight Sparkle?” At the doctor’s nod, she continued, “Oh, her coming was a breath of fresh air! Granted, how we came to meet could have been under better circumstances; I’m rather ashamed that I didn’t give her a proper greeting, simply swept her up, but time was of the essence. Sunset was doing to her what she’d done to me, after all, and naturally, Twilight needed my aid. I didn’t expect her to continue with her bid, but I was happy to help, especially once she helped us to realize that we’d all been tricked by Sunset.” She groaned. “Again, hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

“Sounds like you’ve got quite a lot of reasons to resent Sunset Shimmer.” Hope regarded her curiously. “Which makes it rather surprising that the two of you are friends now.”

“Yes, well, circumstances changed after the Fall Formal. Perspectives shifted and all, on her part and mine.” A sad smile crossed her lips as she noted, “Were you aware that Sunset is an able artist? I’ve seen her sketches, they’re quite good. And many are straight from memory. I found myself rather envious when I found out, I’m ashamed to say.” The smile faded as she continued, “And once I found out that she’d been evicted from her home after what happened at the Fall Formal, and worse, that she was an orphan, I had to do something to help her. Especially after her apologies, and her giving me the crown she’d won against me.”

“Very generous of you.”

“As I said, giving what I was able to give. My family had a spare room, food enough, and despite everything, I was open to giving her comfort.” She proudly sat up and declared, “And I don’t regret that for one second, and nor have I been given a reason to do so.”

“Until just before Christmas.”

That took the wind out of Rarity’s sails, and she amended, “Yes, I thought that you would get to that.” She pulled her hands into her lap and noted, “The Anon-A-Miss incident is not one that I’m proud of. Again, I was tricked and fooled, and my trust betrayed. That I lashed out against the innocent party only makes it worse, even if I did think that I was justified.”

“Once burned, twice shy?”

“I suppose. I trusted her, and I thought that she’d betrayed that trust, and acted accordingly.” A sad sigh. “And making it even worse was the fact that it was my own sibling framing her for it, all out of petty spite. Sweetie Belle regrets it now of course, but still, it’s going to be a sore point for her for some time. And for me as well.”

“And you’re not angry with her?”

“Whatever makes you think I wasn’t angry with her? I’m simply angrier with myself, even after all this time, for how I treated Sunset. As I said, I trusted her.” She noticeably slumped and noted, “Or at least, I thought that I trusted her.”

“Hmm. Well, that leaves you with an important question.” The doctor set aside her notes, leaned forward and asked, “Do you trust her?”

-

“It’s really nice meeting you too, Doctor Hope!” Pinkie Pie enthusiastically shook the doctor’s hand, then sat herself down and noted, “You’re the first therapist I’ve ever met! Well, professionally, anyway!” She paused, and then noted, “By the way, there’s something I’ve always wondered. What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and while I’m asking, which one are you?”

The doctor laughed and explained, “I’m a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. As for the differences, well, that isn’t too difficult. Both require doctorates and years of study, but psychologists focus mostly on talking issues and problems out with their patients. I can’t fill out a prescription for medication or whatever, but a psychiatrist can.” She made a small shrug and noted, “That said, I have taken some medical courses. I’m at least qualified to give you first aid if you need it, but something tells me that won’t come up.”

“Probably not, but it’s nice to know you can still try and help the ouchies to go away.”

A sad smile crossed her face. “Well, one tries. And from what I’m told, you try to do the same around here. You’re practically a one-student Glee Club.”

“Yep! Everyone deserves to smile!” The enthusiasm faded as Pinkie admitted, “Of course, sometimes I don’t do too good a job at it. If I’d been a little better about it a couple weeks back, then you wouldn’t be here.”

“Probably not.” Hope regarded her notes and asked, “But since you brought it up, is there anything you want to say about the Anon-A-Miss incident?”

Her hair visibly deflated as Pinkie admitted, “That I still feel really bad about it. Sunset knows, but still…” She pulled herself into a hug. “It’s no fun, y’know? Knowing that you hurt someone and they didn’t deserve it. Knowing you did something bad. What really hurts is how Maud reacted to it.”

“Maud Pie. Your older sister.”

“My older older sister. I’ve got a younger older sister, but she’s homeschooled with my twin back on the farm. It’s bad enough that Maud knew about what happened, but Limestone and Marble finding out? Or worse, Mom and Dad? None of them would be happy.” As if anticipating the concerned reaction from the therapist, she quickly amended, “Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. My family isn’t abusive, we all love each other. My folks are just the sort to go with tough love, y’know? They don’t smile a lot, but when they do…” Pinkie’s eyes lit up. “It’s magical.”

“Which is why you enjoy making people happy. You want to spread that magic as much as you can.”

A nod. “But I wasn’t spreading it with Sunset back before Christmas when I turned on her. I hurt her, because I thought that she’d hurt the rest of us. I got caught up in the moment, but that’s no excuse. And Maud told me that too, the morning after we said what we did, the day we almost…” She sniffled, and the doctor handed her a box of tissues, one of which was plucked and promptly used to loudly blow her nose. “Thanks.”

“You needed it.”

“And the thing is, I should’ve known Sunset wouldn’t do that kind of thing, not after the Fall Formal. She was scared that, after all the bad she’d done, she’d, y’know, be killed. She even thought Maud might do it one morning, just because she saw Maud with a big knife about to cut up some sausage for breakfast. A part of her probably thought that she deserved it too.” Pinkie set the box aside and whimpered. “I was such a dummy-head. How can she trust me again?”

Hope looked upon her with an uncertain expression on her face. “There’s no way of knowing. But did Maud forgive you for your mistake?”

“I didn’t hurt Maud though.”

“She still wasn’t happy about it, from what you’ve said.”

“No.” Her tone lightened by just a tiny bit, and she remarked, “But she did forgive me. And she’s not gonna stop loving me.”

“Well that leaves you with these questions regarding Sunset; will you trust her to trust you again? And will you trust her the next time?”

-

A tense silence had held since Rainbow Dash had taken her seat, neither her nor Dr. Hope saying anything to one another. The doctor finally broke the silence and asked, “You know, nothing’s going to get done if you don’t say anything.” She then smirked and asked, “Or are you hoping you can stretch this out and get out of all your classes tomorrow too?”

The athlete looked at her with eager surprise. “Can that really happen?”

“No. Sorry to disappoint you.”

Dash chuckled nervously. “Kinda obvious I didn’t want to be here, huh?” Her resolve rattled, she admitted, “I’m not really one for all this touchy-feely crap. I mean, I get it, you kinda need people to whine about this stuff, or you don’t have a job, but talking about this sorta thing really isn’t for me.”

“Keeping it bottled up inside really doesn’t do a lot of good either, even if you have a positive outlet with your athletics. Which are very impressive, by the way.”

Normal surprise flashed across her eyes. “You’ve heard about me?”

“It’s my understanding that this school has you to thank for the closest thing it’s had to a victory over Crystal Prep in anything in almost a quarter of a century.”

A triumphant laugh. “Darn right! And it would’ve been a real victory if that bit-!” Dash caught herself in time and corrected, “If that big sore loser headmistress of theirs didn’t have a stick up her butt and insist on drug tests. We didn’t take drugs, obviously, but Fleetfoot ate some bagels with poppy seeds and…”

Hope stopped her. “You don’t have to justify anything to me, I’m not here to talk about all of that. I’m more concerned with more recent events. Still, it’s obvious you have a lot of loyalty to your school.”

A proud grin crossed Dash’s face. “No kidding. You can’t get it if folks don’t give it to you. That’s what my parents taught me, and they know what they’re talking about.” She turned nervous as she admitted, “Of course, sometimes I’m better at following their example than others. Did Rarity tell you that Sunset spent a night with her the week after the Fall Formal?” She was answered with a nod, and continued, “Same with me. Dad wasn’t too crazy about seeing her there, but he let her stay, though just for that one night. Said he was proud of me for having her over too, even if I’d gone behind his back.” She turned downcast as she admitted, “Mom would’ve too, if she’d been there.”

“Your mother isn’t in the household?”

Dash shook her head. “She’s not dead or anything, I just haven’t seen her in a while. A long while. Her job, and all.” She gestured with one hand as if it were a jet and explained, “Air Force. Serving overseas. Came home from one deployment last spring just to get shipped back out less than a week later. Caught me right at the same time that Sunset was pulling us apart at the seams.”

“Sounds like she made things worse for you.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t her fault. Sunset didn’t know about my mom or what was going on with her.” She bowed her head and added, “Still doesn’t.”

“But you’re still carrying a grudge over it.”

“No! Well, kinda, but…” Rainbow Dash groaned. “This is why I don’t like shrinks. Just a bunch of eggheads messing around in your head poking and prodding at how you think and talking about your feelings and junk, and getting things all confused. Folks should be able to figure things out for themselves!” She quickly amended. “No offense.”

“None taken, and you’re right. Ideally, people would be able to figure things out for themselves. Sometimes, however, they can’t, for whatever reason, and someone like me has to come along to help them sort themselves out. Sometimes you need an outside perspective to point you in the right direction.” She smiled and offered, “Sort of like a coach helping players to perfect their maneuvers on the field and work with their teammates. They can see the big picture, while the players just get a small bit of it.”

A shrug. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.” She sat up. “Alright, Coach. What’s your outside perspective telling you?”

“Well, I’m still listening to what you’re telling me. Right now, however, it sound like you’ve got some conflicted feelings left with Sunset.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Dash leaned back into her seat and explained, “Before the Fall Formal, getting the school excited about something was hard. She didn’t help that, being the way she was. Kinda hard to take pride in yourself or someone else if you’re getting pushed around or pushed down all the time, and besides, I never liked bullies. Had to put up with too many myself, and that’s ignoring all the times someone was a jerk to Fluttershy or any of my other besties. After, well, I was still kinda sore, but I gave her a shot.” A sad expression crossed her face. “Turns out she wasn’t so bad. Had a bigger heart than I thought she did, even if it was buried under a bunch of junk. And I believed her about it. Still do.”

“And yet…?”

“Yeah, I know. Dash stupid, Dash hypocrite, Sunset sad, us nearly lose Sunset, us all go talk to shrink.” She groaned. “You know, I actually let myself think that all of what she said and did was an act? For all of one day, yeah, but still, an act. She could’ve done it, she’d been playing folks for years, but…” She turned morose and continued. “But it wasn’t an act. And we almost lost her, and I’ve been stewing over that for the last couple weeks.”

“We choose whom we’re loyal to, and it’s our decision to maintain that loyalty.”

“Yeah, but loyalty doesn’t mean turning your back on those who trust you, or on whoever you trust.” She grumbled softly, “I wish I’d learned that the first time.”

“Some lessons take a while to stick, Rainbow Dash. Still, all of this raises the important question. Do you trust her?”

-

An uncomfortable silence had taken over the room after Fluttershy had greeted Dr. Hope and taken her seat. This wasn’t so much one fueled by distrust and hostility like the talk with Rainbow Dash, however, as it was by anxiety and discomfort.

“Fluttershy, if it makes you feel any better, you aren’t in any trouble. No one is in trouble here, and no one is going to get in trouble for what we talk about. Anything specific you bring up with me will remain squarely between us, regardless of the fact that you aren’t officially my patient.” A small smirk appeared upon the therapist’s face as she added, “And that includes your little stowaway.”

The shy girl looked up in surprise. “How did…?”

“Educated guess.”

With some relief, Fluttershy opened her backpack and freed her passenger. The little white rabbit shook his head and flicked his ears as she explained, “I’m sorry. I sometimes bring one of my little animal friends to school with me. They’re very good about keeping quiet, especially Angel. I used to bring more, but that was mostly to keep myself company.”

“Really? I’d think you’d have little trouble finding yourself company. People would probably like to be with you most of the time.”

“Well, I guess, but…” She gently petted Angel as she reflected, “Talking with other people isn’t really easy for me. It’s a big world, and there’s so many of them, and just one little me, and it gets really scary sometimes. I don’t have that problem with animals, though.”

“No wonder you’re so anxious to talk. But you being here in the first place is a very brave thing.”

A small smile spread across Fluttershy’s lips as she admitted, “Well, it’s easy to be brave when you have a friend with you. And I do better with people once I get to know them.” She looked up and admitted, “Them being nice to me doesn’t hurt, either. That’s how Rainbow Dash and I first met, her standing up for me.”

“Yes, the two of you went to Cloudsdale Junior High together for sixth grade. Right before the school district changed everything around, Cloudsdale closed and Canterlot High became a six year school.” A nod from Fluttershy, and the therapist continued, “That must have been very scary for you, barely getting used to one new school after one year before going on to another one. Having a friend come along with you must have helped a lot.”

“It did, even once I got to know the rest of the girls. It was wonderful.” She turned downcast as her thoughts led to the inevitable. “Until we were broken up, anyway.” Angel nuzzled her from his perch in her lap, all too familiar with his mistress’ tendency to feel sad about bad times, as she continued. “I was so mad at Pinkie Pie over what happened at the silent auction, and I barely talked to Applejack after she started saying so many mean things about Rainbow Dash. I only saw Rarity a few times here and there, like our spa visits, but we barely talked about anything, and Rainbow was always so busy with one sports team or another.”

“And you were alone.”

A sad nod. “And that’s never fun. And I’ve always been so nervous around the other students, so talking to them was never easy. It didn’t get any easier once Sunset started showing her true colors. Especially once…” Her voice dropped low as she admitted, “Once she started to single me out. By the time she beat Rarity for the Spring Fling, the entire school was scared of her. Some of them might still be scared of her. I’d probably be with them, if it hadn’t been for what happened after the Fall Formal, and for that night she spent with me.” She smiled and noted, “Sunset has a beautiful singing voice. And it turns out her mother and mine both sang us the same lullaby when we were younger.”

“She stopped being scary then, huh?”

“Yes. And seeing her at the animal shelter afterwards, volunteering her time and playing with the dogs, it was so wonderful.” She giggled as she remembered the first time. “She took a shine to one dog in particular, Ellie. And she was so sad to see her go when she was adopted, but it was a happy sort of sad.” The laughter faded as she thought of another dog. “I wish I was feeling that right now.”

Another round of nuzzles, and the therapist noted, “I take it what happened with the Anon-A-Miss incident is still a big part of your thinking right now.”

A whimpering nod. “We shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have…” Fluttershy immediately reached for the box of tissues and started to weep. It was a good minute before she regained control of herself, and doubtless would have been more if Angel hadn’t been attempting to hug her. Several tissues were blown before she managed to speak again. “We didn’t even try to give her a chance to explain. We didn’t even think… We just… And we almost lost her…”

Fluttershy then squeaked in surprise as she felt a warm embrace about her. She looked to find that Doctor Hope had given her the hug. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” She stepped back and noted, “Forgive me, that was amazingly unprofessional. You needed it, the way you were acting, and I can tell you meant all of that, but my job still requires me to keep some distance.”

“It’s alright. It was my fault.” A tense silence followed, neither sure where to go from there. This time, it was Fluttershy who broke it. “Can she ever trust me again?”

“Can you trust her? Did you trust her?”

-

“Apologies if Ah come across a might nervous, ma’am. Never really talked with a therapist before over much.” Applejack grinned nervously as she admitted, “Tell ya the truth, Ah’m usually the one my friends come to when they need advice or somethin’.”

Dr. Hope smiled reassuringly. “No need to apologize, Applejack. Though I’d assume you’ve gone to someone about some issue troubling you in the past?”

“A few folks here and there. Usually mah Granny or mah big brother, sometimes this one gal I got close with years back at summer camp. Course with her, has to be by e-mail; she lives out east. Still, Rara’s family, or close enough to it. All mah close friends are.” She slumped. “Makes all this all the worse.”

“How so?”

The farmgirl looked to the therapist and asked, “You ever had a client who lost a parent? Or are you not allowed ta say?”

A tilt of the head, and she admitted, “Doctor patient confidentiality doesn’t really apply to general things like that, so long as I don’t go into specifics. Yes, I’ve known many people who lost a parent at some point in their lives. One, not a patient, I know quite well.” She gestured to the files and noted, “Obviously, you’re among them.”

A solemn nod. “Ah was eight when mah folks passed. Mom was the first one ta go.” A sad smile formed on her face as she recounted, “Pear Butter was her name, but you’ve probably got that in your notes there. Daddy always called her ‘Buttercup’ though. Sweetest woman you’d ever meet, biggest smile all around. She stood out from the rest a’ us Apples easy, thanks to her not havin’ our little twang to her voice, but Daddy always said it gave her character. Might not’ve sounded like it save when she sang, but she had the heart of a country girl. Made the best pies ever, without a doubt.” The smile faded as she finished, “Her heart is what did her in, though. Aortic tear, the doctors called it. Happened all of a sudden; she was laughin’ with me an’ mah siblins’ one second, and the next, she was on the ground and Big Mac was callin’ for an ambulance. They lost her ‘fore she even got to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t yer fault. Was her time, I suppose. Didn’t help that we lost Daddy right afterwards, though.” Another sad smile, this one warm with pride, crossed Applejack’s face as she took off her hat and examined it. “Bright McIntosh, mah daddy, was a big mountain of a man, with a heart bigger’n any mountain you could name. Taught us the value’a hard work, to respect the soil and the animals that help us work it. Taught us to value life, especially when he gave me and Big Mac shootin’ lessons. Always wore a Stetson, just like this one.” The hat was set in her lap as she finished, “Died in a car accident, same day we lost Mom. Some drunk driver missed a light and crashed into him. The other guy walked away from it, still don’t know if’n he was ever charged for vehicular homicide or whatever. Not a lot of comfort in it, but at least the two of ‘em went on to Heaven together. And both taught us the value a’ family.” She sighed. “Ah wish Ah’d learned it a little better, though.”

“You think that you’ve failed them on that regard?”

“Some ways, yes.” Applejack put her hat back on and explained, “After mah parents passed, the farm felt kinda…empty. And that emptiness hurt somethin’ fierce. Granny wasn’t happy ‘bout it, but she let me go off and stay with one a’ mah daddy’s sisters, mah Aunt Citrus Orange and her family up in the city. Kinda became clear pretty quick that Ah didn’t fit in too close with ‘em, though, and as painful as it was not havin’ mah mom and daddy ‘round, it was even more painful not bein’ at the farm, not seein’ Granny and Big Mac and Apple Bloom every day.”

“You think you abandoned them.”

“And that’s the biggest thing about family; you don’t abandon it and you don’t turn on it.” Applejack looked to the therapist and asked, “You know Sunset’s an orphan too, right? Lost both her mom and dad when she was a tiny little thing, not even out of kindergarten. Back in the bad old days, she’d give me nuthin’ but grief about bein’ a country bumpkin, but she never once gave me grief about mah parents bein’ dead. Ah didn’t find out until the mornin’ after the Fall Formal, right when Ah started thinkin’ a her as a friend. As family.”

“Which no doubt made things hurt all the more when you thought that she’d gone back to her old habits.”

“Not as bad as it did when the real culprit was revealed.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Ah yelled at Sunset. Took everythin’ Ah had not to do worse’n that. Time passed, though, and Ah started to feel bad about it. Then when Ah found out Apple Bloom and her friends had been behind it, that they’d done it all to hurt her, that stung the worst. Ah was mad. Mighty disappointed, too. Actually…” She sank as she noted, “Actually did strike her. Slapped her in the back a’ the head. No lastin’ harm, but Ah still feel plenty bad about it, both because Ah did it and because Ah was lettin’ her off easy.”

“She’s your little sister, though.”

“Didn’t make me feel any less like a hypocrite, treatin’ her one way on account’a her bein’ blood and treatin’ Sunset another cuz she wasn’t. Especially considerin’ I thought of her like she was.” Applejack shamefully rubbed one arm and noted, “And considerin’ Sunset thinks a’ me and the gals the same way. Or she did, at least.” She bowed her head. “We trusted her. But we didn’t trust her enough.”

“Did you trust her? Really?” As Applejack looked at her with a pained expression, Dr. Hope asked, “Can you trust her now?”

-

“Hello Sunset Shimmer. I’m Doctor Hope.” Greeting and handshake out of the way, the therapist gestured for her to take a seat and began. “Now then, I…” She noticed a distant expression on Sunset’s face and asked, “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, no, it’s just…” Sunset shook her head and sighed. “For some reason, I feel like I’ve seen you before somewhere.”

The older woman flashed an enigmatic smile. “It might be that I just have one of those faces.” She picked up her notebook and noted, “Now, it probably won’t surprise you that I’ve done my homework with you and your friends. Out of the six of you, however, you’re probably the one that’s the most…well, putting it politely, complicated. You’re easily one of the best students of your year academically, if not one of the best that Canterlot High has ever seen. Outside of that, however, well, there isn’t too pretty a picture over time.” She flipped through some pages and noted, “You had a fair rise in popularity for your first year at CHS, culminating in becoming the Spring Fling princess in the eighth grade and maintaining that title through the following Fall Formal and Spring Fling, but aside from a brief stint on the school newspaper, you mostly kept to social functions. And that ignores the odd reports of snide remarks and aggressive behavior towards your fellow students, as well as the rumors surrounding last year’s Spring Fling.”

Sunset bowed her head regretfully. “If those rumors are about me sabotaging Rarity’s bid against me, then those are true. But you’ve probably figured that out by now.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that.” The therapist quickly got back on track and noted, “And all of that leads us to this year’s Fall Formal, and the incident there.” She locked eyes with Sunset. “The gas explosion.”

“Yeah, that.” Sunset nervously considered her next words. Telling the complete truth obviously wasn’t an option; one word about magic and there was a chance she’d be in serious trouble, either because she’d attract unneeded attention to the school or because she’d give Dr. Hope an excuse to call someone in to have her locked away in an asylum. Did they even still have asylums, or did they call them ‘mental hospitals’ now? Best not to go into too many specifics about it. “That definitely wasn’t a good night for me.”

“It’s a small miracle that you and your two accomplices weren’t expelled, or arrested. One would almost think that Principal Celestia was looking out for you.” She looked up from her notes and added, “Now, I’m not here to judge you, and I don’t have the authority to take you away from here, but I would like to know what prompted something that extreme. Were you really that incensed about losing the title to this mysterious ‘Twilight Sparkle’?”

“Yes, and no.” Sunset sighed and carefully picked her next few words. “Getting that title, becoming the effective queen of Canterlot High and staying at the top, it meant a lot to me. Way more than it should have. Obviously I went a little crazy about keeping it. Crazy enough that people nearly got killed.” She frowned and noted, “Suffice it to say, it was a wake-up call.”

“I’d think so. There hasn’t been a complaint about you from a teacher or administrator since then, and the five girls who were instrumental in Twilight’s victory over you have been at your side ever since. Especially telling, considering one of them was your rival barely six months prior.”

“Yeah, I’m still grateful for all of that.” Sunset quietly tucked her hands together on her lap and explained, “I’d been in a bad place for a long time. I didn’t realize how bad until after the Fall Formal, after I was forced to see what I’d become. I didn’t like it.” She forced herself to look at the doctor as she continued. “I lost my parents when I was young. Ever since, I ended up pushing people away, either because I didn’t want anything to do with them or because they refused to give me what I wanted. Without realizing it, I became a monster.”

“And you think that was because your parents died?”

Sunset laughed mirthlessly. “No, their deaths were a factor, but everything I did after losing them was my choice. One bad decision after another up until the Fall Formal.”

“And since then?”

A shrug. “I haven’t deliberately caused other people trouble. Got a new place to live, a job, started to live an honest life. I have tried to fix what I could, though it hasn’t been much. Bare minimum, my ex and I are at least amicable.”

“Your ex. Flash Sentry.”

A nod. “He broke it off with me. And I don’t blame him.” A sad smile crossed her lips as she added, “Things were actually looking up for me. And then Anon-A-Miss happened and, well, no doubt you’ve heard all about that.”

“I’d be very confused about why I’m here if I hadn’t. Given what I’ve been told, you obviously didn’t take the experience too well.”

Sunset opted against pointing out how much of an understatement that was. “I’d spent months trying to rebuild my life into something new, something better, and it just came crashing down around me all over again.” She gently examined where her jacket had been patched up months prior. “I spent a week, between the Fall Formal and getting my own place, going from one of their places to another to stay. I talked with each of them, about one thing or another. Rarity insisted on fixing this up, and Fluttershy…” A sad sigh. “She had so little room. She felt so terrible about only being able to have me for one night. But they all took me in. And then they just tossed me away because of Anon-A-Miss, like all of those months had never happened.” Her hand gripped her arm as she mournfully said, “And I was alone again.”

“And you think that it was your fault.”

Sunset looked at the therapist in surprise. “What? No! I mean, I get why they did what they did, I would have…”

“Only you didn’t. You said so yourself that you’d spent months doing what you could to avoid being who you were before the Fall Formal. Are you saying that it’s your fault that they left you?”

“Well, no.”

“That it’s your fault that their sisters chose to post all of that information and make it look like you’d done it?”

“No, they did that on their own…”

“Then why are you acting like it was your fault? It clearly wasn’t, and you know that.”

“No, and they…”

“And they accused you of it, after several months of getting to know you. Did they know about how you felt after the Fall Formal?”

“Yes!” Sunset sat up alert and exclaimed, “They saw me at my lowest point! They know how I feel about what I did!”

“And yet, they still accused you of being Anon-A-Miss.”

“Not until…”

“Whether they did it first thing or a day later, it doesn’t matter. They still did it, and you almost took your own life because of it. Do you really think that you deserve to die for something that you didn’t do?”

“No, but…”

“Then why do it?”

“Because I’d lost them!” Sunset surprised even herself at how she was suddenly shouting. “They were all I had, the closest thing to family, and they threw me away like trash! Despite everything, they still look at me and see the thing that almost killed them and Twilight that night! And so do I!” After several deep breaths, she calmed down, sank back in her seat, and mournfully said, “And I don’t want to. But how can I not see that thing if that’s all anyone else sees?”

“So you don’t think they trust you?”

“…I thought they did.”

“Well, you’re left with an important question then.”

-

Waiting for Sunset’s session with Doctor Hope to end felt like an eternity as her friends waited outside of the conference room. “Anyone else feelin’ anxious about this, or is it just me?”

“Nope, not just you.” Pinkie’s answer was delivered in an uncharacteristically saddened tone. “I don’t think any of us is looking forward to what’ll happen when Sunset comes out of that door.”

“She knows we all feel bad about what happened though, right?” Dash looked among her friends and asked, “I mean, she wouldn’t have come to Sweet Apple Acres if she didn’t, or accept the gifts, or…?”

“She does, Rainbow Dash.” Rarity’s tone turned uneasy as she amended, “At least, I assume that she does. But that hardly changes what happened, or what we did.”

“Or the consequences.” Applejack took off her Stetson and studied it for a moment. “Girls, there’s somethin’ ah…”

Applejack turned silence as Sunset emerged from the conference room and closed the door behind her. The flame-haired girl looked to her friends and softly, weakly said, “Hey.”

Rarity smiled hopefully. “Hello Sunset. I hope…” She turned silent as she took sight of the distant, almost blank expression on her friend’s face. The other girls also picked up on this hint, and remained silent.

“Girls, there’s something I need to say.” Sunset stood up as straight as she could, and made as strong an effort as possible to look all of them in the eye. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I haven’t been able to keep what happened a couple weeks ago out of my head. The talk I just had with Doctor Hope has helped, a lot, but there’s still one thing left in all of this. Just at the end, she asked me a question.”

Pinkie came within a hair’s breadth of interrupting before Applejack clamped a hand over her mouth.

“Thanks. She asked me if I could trust you. And the truth is…” Her lips pursed as she visibly struggled to continue, her hands trembling slightly as they started to curl into fists. Finally, she let it out. “…The truth is that the five of you know what you did. I’ve spent so much time trying to justify it in my head, but I can’t. Not after everything that’s happened. Not after spending so much time with all of you and everything we’ve shared. Even after all of that, you didn’t trust me.” Her eyes finally closed as tears, fueled by sadness and anger, welled up and she finished, “And I can’t trust you either.”

Fluttershy gasped, but it went unheard among her other friend’s protests as Sunset turned and ran away. As they turned silent, one by one, she finally spoke up. “We did this. This is our fault.”

Pinkie’s hair went totally limp and lifeless as the bell rang, and students started filing into the halls, blissfully unaware of what had transpired. Unable to hear the other shoe dropping at last.

Chapter Five - Divided and Fallen

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Granny Smith enjoyed the peace and quiet of the cafeteria when it was empty. Granted, she didn’t object too much to it being packed full of students and filled with conversation either, but at her age, any moment of peace and quiet was welcome. Especially when it didn’t involve turning her hearing aid down low.

Right now, however, she was finishing up what remained of the post-lunch cleanup and packing everything away so that she could be ready for tomorrow. It got a little more taxing, year by year, but she wasn’t quite at the point where she wanted to call it quits yet. Maybe once Apple Bloom had graduated…

The cafeteria doors swung open, and a familiar sound of footsteps reached her ears. “Applejack?” She turned to find her granddaughter walking in at a slow pace, her head hung down and her hat in her hands as opposed to upon her head. “What’re you doin’ here?”

“Needed to be alone for a bit, Granny.” Applejack sat down midway from the door to the serving area, and laid her hat upon the table. “Well, alone-ish, anyway.”

The elder Apple took on a sad, knowing smile as she approached her grandchild and then sat down across from her. “Alright darlin’, let me guess. This got somethin’ ta do with that shrink done came in today about Sunset?”

“Yep.”

“And after talkin’ with the shrink, Sunset done told all’a y’all off fer what happened before Christmas?” Her granddaughter gave her a surprised expression, and she laughed. “Applejack, Ah’m old, but Ah ain’t senile. Startin’ ta get there, though.”

A small smile crossed Applejack’s face. “You ain’t forgotten anythin'.”

“Ah done forgot you could play the bass up until you pulled it out Christmas mornin’ and sprouted pony ears with it.” She lightly prodded one ear with a gloved finger and noted, “Ain’t gonna forget again soon, though, all the times you’ve been playin’ it since.”

“Heh. Yeah, sorry ‘bout that.”

“Eh, you’re doing it outta the house an’ outta the way. Besides, that ain’t why you’re here, is it?” She turned regretful and noted, “Gotta tell ya, Ah’m surprised this didn’t come sooner.”

“Granny, Ah know Ah done messed up. But Ah was hopin’ after Christmas, that’d be the end of it. Ah thought she’d forgiven us.”

“Took you a little bit a’ time ta forgive Apple Bloom, dinn’it?”

Applejack attempted to retort, but relented. “Point taken, but Ah still forgave her.”

“An’ Ah think Sunset wants ta’ forgive all’a y’all too, but the hurt’s too much fer her right now. She’s just now comin’ ta realize that, poor soul. Ah mean, you remember the hurt you felt when we lost your momma and daddy?” She was answered with a nod, and continued, “Well, Sunset’s felt that too. First time she did, she pushed away what little she had left, tried to build herself up so that the pain wouldn’t bother her no more. Then she came tumblin’ down again, lost and alone, and you and yer friends reached out to her.”

“Only to toss her away for no good reason.” More shame clear upon her face, Applejack realized aloud, “She’d lost one family, and found herself with a new one, only ta’ get rejected by them.” She then corrected herself, “By us, soon as we thought she was causin’ trouble. Makes me feel like a liar over what we told her Christmas Eve, ‘bout givin’ her a chance.” She sighed and asked, “Did you feel like this, when Ah left for that one summer to live with Aunt ‘n Uncle Orange?”

“Somethin’ like that, but Ah knew you were in good hands with yer momma’s sister. Might’ve been a fancy pants bunch, but they’re kin, and Apple enough at the core ‘fer me.” A smile crossed her face as she added, “Seein’ you come home to stay was one a’ the best sights a’ my life, though. Had way too much empty space and not nearly enough laughter ‘round the house without ya.”

Applejack let out a small chuckle at that, but the mirth quickly faded as she asked, “But what can Ah do now, Granny?”

“Well, if’n Ah know Sunset, she knows that you regret what you and the gals done did. Just give her time an’ space, and let ‘er be fer a while, and she’ll find her way back to ya. Celestia ‘n Luna’ll keep her from gettin’ inta’ trouble in the meantime, an’ maybe those two new gals you met today’ll help her some too.”

“Ah can hope.” A short laugh escaped Applejack’s lips as she noted, “Ah am happy for her, though. Sunset made herself some friends, all on her own. She’s come a long…”

Suddenly, a low moan escaped her lips, and Applejack’s eyes slid shut as she slumped forward onto the table, her face planting itself into her hat. Her grandmother looked at her in concern, and her thoughts instantly made her wonder about the causes, with one in particular springing to mind.

Suffice it to say, she needed to get some help.

-

“Well, I can’t say that this is a surprise, considering what’s happened.” Rarity sighed as she and Fluttershy made their way to their lockers, uncertain of what to do beyond gather their things for the evening, collect whatever assignments had been made for their afternoon courses, and then wait for the last bell to ring. They were still exempt from their classes, after all, and she doubted that Sunset was in the mood to see them now. “It’s a small miracle that we didn’t get it two weeks ago.”

A pained whimper was barely audible beside her as the two reached their lockers.

“Though I suppose if we had, Sunset would have shown far stronger anger than she did earlier. Not that we wouldn’t have deserved it.” Her locker door swung open, and Rarity began sorting through her things, putting away what she wouldn’t need for the evening and retrieving what she would need. “I can only hope that she finds it in herself to forgive us.”

“…She won’t…” Rarity turned as Fluttershy stood, silently weeping with one hand on the combination lock to her locker and the other hanging limp at her side. “How can she? How will she? She hates us… She hates me… Just like in my nightmare…”

All thoughts of her things put aside, Rarity closed her locker, stood up and asked, “You’ve been having them too?” At her friend’s silent, sobbing nod, she took Fluttershy into a tight, comforting embrace, which was quickly returned. “Oh darling! This would hurt you the most! You’ve always been the sweetest of us!”

“How could I, Rarity?” the shy girl sobbed. “I trusted her enough to share a bed with her. How could I not trust her enough to hear her side of the story? How?”

“I’ve asked myself that same question, dear. I wish that I had an answer for…” A high-pitched scream rang out, distracting both girls from their sorrow and prompting them to round a corner. They found the source of the cry, and Rarity screamed herself in turn. “Sweetie Belle! Get away! Get away, now!”

The younger girl did as she was told, and frantically attempted to bat away the pileup of rats and cockroaches that had spilled out of her locker. She looked up at her sister and protested, “I didn’t do it! I just opened my locker door and…!”

“Hush darling, just get them off!” Rarity frantically attempted to get the vermin off of her sister’s dress as she protested, “Of all the things! I can stand a light fixture not working in a remote hallway near the gym, but an infestation of vermin?!”

“Um, Rarity…”

“I mean really, where is the school’s budget going to, the sports teams?!”

“Rarity…”

“This is a disgrace! A travesty! Parents will be up in arms over…!”

“Rarity!” Fluttershy shouted, one of the motionless rats in hand. “They aren’t real. This rat’s made of rubber.”

The fashionista looked upon the fake rat in shock, and then picked one up to examine it for herself. “Oh. So they are.” She then made a disgusted noise as she noted, “The eyes aren’t even painted.” She then carefully picked up one of the non-moving cockroaches and noted, “And these are plastic.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “It seems we don’t have a vermin infestation, merely someone with a grudge and the capacity to commit petty vandalism.” She looked to her sister and asked, “Are you alright, dear?”

“Just a little scared, I guess.” Sweetie Belle knocked off the last of the fake insects from her dress. “How did they do this?”

“Someone must have figured out your locker combination.” As Fluttershy took out her smartphone and started documenting the evidence, Rarity noted, “We’d best take this to Vice Principal Luna. Maybe if we’re lucky, she can find the culprit responsible. For now, what are you doing out of class? The day’s not over yet.”

The younger girl looked down at the floor and explained, “We heard something about a therapist coming in to talk to all of you, and we were hoping to talk with her too. This is our fault, too.” She gestured at the trap that had been placed for her. “All of it.”

Rarity took her sister in for a hug and noted, “Sweetie Belle, don’t start taking on blame for things that aren’t your fault. Now come, let’s… oooh…”

“Rarity?” Sweetie Belle looked up in time to see her sister sway on her feet and pass out, collapsing towards the ground. “Rarity!” She reached out to catch her, but could barely stop her from falling thanks to her much larger size. “Fluttershy, help!” She turned to find that Fluttershy had suffered a similar fate, slumped on the ground and passed out with Angel having freed himself of her backpack and attempting to nudge her into consciousness. “Oh great! What am I gonna do now?!”

“Stop! Hold zat pose!”

Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes and protested, “Like I have a choice?”

“Not you, ze bunny rabbit!” A groan escaped Sweetie Belle’s lips as Photo Finish, complete with her two assistants Violet Blurr and Pixel Pizazz, rushed up with photography equipment at hand to capture the moment. The photographer’s camera was rapidly clicking away from multiple angles as she called, “Yes, yes! You are an adorable little ball of fur, in fear for your mistress! Show me your little bunny terror! Your dread! Your trepidation! Yes!”

At Angel’s growing expression of annoyance, Sweetie Belle remarked, “Yeah, he’s really freaking out, now how about…?”

“ENOUGH!” Seemingly satisfied, Photo Finish stood up ramrod straight and declared, “I go!”

“No!” Before the three could vanish from sight, Sweetie Belle cried out, “You are not going! You’re staying, and helping!”

The trio paused, and Photo Finish turned her gaze back towards the younger girl and asked, “Und ve are doing zis, vhy?”

“Because they need help, and I can’t carry one of them, let alone both of them!”

“Oh, und vhat good have you brought us of late, Anon-A-Miss?” The photographer pointed an accusing finger at the Crusader and noted, “You are responsible for Pixel’s embarrassing secret being posted online!”

The girl in question glared at Sweetie Belle with narrowed bright green eyes. “Yeah, thanks for that.”

“Hush!” Photo Finish rounded upon her friend and declared, “I, Photo Finish, shall do ze talking!” She then turned back to Sweetie Belle and noted, “Und I vill not be doing ze carrying for some little secret-spilling brat who vishes to be ze center of…!”

Sweetie Belle, by this point, had abandoned all pretense of good grace, and while Photo Finish had berated her associate, had set aside her sister with a cold glare upon her face. Once she had the first chance to do so, she reached up and grabbed hold of the photographer by the collar and pulled her in close, her expression unchanged. “You think I’m proud of what I did?! You think I’m happy about it?! I’m not, you paparazza wannabe! I embarrassed my big sister and her friends! I tore the school apart! Thanks to me and my friends, Sunset Shimmer almost killed herself!” She caught the faintest of expressions of shock upon the taller girl’s face and continued, “Yeah, newsflash, I nearly made Sunset commit suicide! She practically hates herself for what she’s done, and I hate myself for what I did to her! But you and the rest of this school would probably cheer if she ended up dead! Hell, if there was a public funeral, you’d be there taking photos for the yearbook! I can see it right now, her in a casket, a big spread, and a caption big enough to cover both pages reading ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’! Well guess what! Just because you don’t feel guilt doesn’t mean I don’t! I’m guilty, but the same goes for everyone who liked and faved an Anon-A-Miss post and everyone who provided material for it! You want to take your anger out on someone, take it out on whoever decided to splurge that Pixel got herself a tattoo!”

Both Pixel and Violet looked upon her with shock, speechless at her enraged rant. Photo Finish herself could barely mumble, “…it vas her?”

Sweetie Belle let out a scream in response, and then shoved the photographer away and attempted, with little success, to lift Rarity over one shoulder, and then tried to do the same with Fluttershy. “Come on, gotta get you two…”

“Here.” She looked up as Violet gently picked Fluttershy up in her arms and Pixel helped her to support Rarity. “Let’s get them to Nurse Redheart.”

“No, we need to get them to the Teacher’s Lounge.” The weight now on Pixel Pizazz, the younger girl prompted them forward. “Then we find Vice Principal Luna. Trust me.” She then looked to the rabbit and beckoned, “Come on, Angel, let’s get you hidden.”

Much to even her surprise, the rabbit scampered towards her and allowed her to scoop him up into her arms. She gently deposited him into Fluttershy’s backpack, then turned around to find Photo Finish had retrieved Rarity’s bag. With genuine relief, she turned and led them on.

-

It was times like this that Apple Bloom wished more than anything that her locker was closer to those of her fellow Crusaders. Aside from ease of socializing, it would give her a better feeling of safety in numbers. As much as she’d been assured that giving the e-mail addresses of everyone who’d submitted content for Anon-A-Miss would give her a measure of protection, she and the girls still worried that someone would attack them for what they’d done. After all, saying that she was sorry didn’t stop Sunset from getting attacked by Sweetie Belle with a Super Soaker.

The day was almost over at least, and there was a small chance that she would avoid harassment or reprisals by the student body. Being by herself in the hall could help that, or potentially hinder it. No way to know for now. For the time being, however, she was stuck with pretty much the same fate as Sunset, for exactly the same reasons.

Sobs caught her attention as she approached her locker, and Apple Bloom’s attention turned from it towards a nearby staircase, where a familiar mass of pink hair sat. Gone was its usual poof, however; it was limp and lifeless, and a fresh pang of guilt went through the young girl as she realized why.

“Pinkie?” Her distant relative didn’t react as she approached and sat down beside her. “Somethin’ bad’s happened, hasn’t it?” Further sobbing answered her. “It’s about Sunset, ain’t it? Because a’ everythin’ we did?” More sobs. “Thought so.” She slumped forward. “You shouldn’t be cryin’, Pinkie. This ain’t yer fault. None ‘a it is. It’s mine, and Sweetie Belle’s and Scootaloo’s. We got the ball rollin’ on all’a this hurt, tricked you an’ Applejack an’ everyone inta pushin’ her away, and she almost killed herself because ‘a it. It ain’t yer fault, it’s ours.” Tears of her own started to well up. “If’n anyone deserves to hurt over this, it’s me.”

She felt a pair of arms wrap around her and hold her close, and a tear-sodden cheek pressed against her forehead. “No you don’t.”

Apple Bloom wrapped an arm around Pinkie. “Yes Ah do.”

“No you…oooh…”

“Pinkie?” The larger girl slumped forward and forced the smaller one to take hold of her and try to hold her steady. “Pinkie!” Her sadness forgotten, she tried her best to look her over. Alas, Pinkie Pie was out cold, and getting her awake seemed horribly unlikely. “Oh no, what do Ah do now?” Another arm snaked its way around Pinkie, alleviating the weight upon Apple Bloom. She looked up into a very familiar pair of sunglasses, framed by blue and opal hair. “Vinyl? Wha-?”

“You gonna flap your gums or are you gonna help?” the music enthusiast asked with a grin.

-

Were anyone else to find themselves in the same hallway as Rainbow Dash, they would quickly wish that they were somewhere else based on her expression alone. A foul grimace was on her face, and her eyes were furious as she marched up to her locker. She paused once she reached it, pressed her forehead against its cool metal surface, and hissed under her breath, “Stupid.” She then balled her right hand into a fist and started pounding it against the locker doors, each blow punctuated with an increasingly louder string of “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!”

“Rainbow Dash?”

Her head whipped to the left as she roared, “WHAT?!” She immediately backed off as she saw whom she’d yelled at, took a breath and relaxed. “Sorry Scoots. You didn’t deserve that.”

Scootaloo, thankfully, was more resilient than she appeared, and calmly asked, “What’s wrong? Things go bad with the shrink?”

A nod. “Yeah. Bad enough for Sunset to tell us all off.” A saddened sigh escaped her lips as she amended, “And we had it coming, too.”

“Damn right you did.”

Both girls turned in shock to find Flash Sentry standing nearby, his gaze fixed upon Rainbow Dash and his expression less than pleased. Dash’s shock finally got the best of her as she exclaimed, “Seriously? Since when were you a ninja?”

“Never. You’re just not paying attention.” He crossed his arms and continued, “And like I was saying, I think her telling you off was long overdue.”

“But it wasn’t their fault –!”

Scootaloo’s protest was cut short as Flash turned to her and curtly ordered, “I’ll get to you in a second, Scootaloo. Wait your turn.” He then turned back to Rainbow and noted, “Seriously Dash, you guys screwed up. All of you. You’re lucky she didn’t call you out for what happened a couple weeks ago.”

That bristled the athlete as she countered, “Well what would you have done? You weren’t there!”

“No, I wasn’t. But if I had been there, I wouldn’t have turned my back on her over circumstantial evidence.”

“Are you for real?! You dumped her over less!”

“That she admitted to when I confronted her about it. She was in the wrong that time, and I had every right to dump her when I did.” He nodded his head towards Scootaloo and asked, “Didn’t it even bother you guys how ham-fisted and obvious the Anon-A-Miss account looked? How much it looked like a frame job? Say what you want about the old Sunset, she knew how to be subtle.”

The younger girl bowed her head in shame at the reminder of her wrongdoing, and Rainbow did likewise. “Not after that second morning, no.” She groaned and turned back to Flash and asked, “But why are you making such a big deal out of this now? Last I checked, you and she were over.”

“As a couple, yeah, but she’s still my friend.” He uncrossed his arms and added, “And she’s your friend too. You and the girls all gave her enough of a chance to have her in your homes for a night or two. You trusted her, treated her like family. Treated her like a loved one.” A pained expression crossed his face as he bitterly noted, “And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to live by, it’s that you don’t hurt the ones you love.”

Dash wasn’t the best at catching subtleties, but even she could tell there was something going on in Flash’s head. “Whoa. There a story…” She quickly put that aside with the sour expression on his face. “Never mind. Your business, not mine.” She sighed. “You’re not wrong though. We screwed up bad. Now we’re paying the price for it.”

Scootaloo put a supportive hand on her shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, though. It was ours.”

“You set things up, but it was still their choice to turn their backs on her, Scootaloo.” Flash looked at her and remarked, “I can live with my little secret having filtered through the school, so you’re not going to see flak from me about that. But setting up that page was still stupid, no matter what your reasons. I can get being afraid of her after the Fall Formal, but all this? And after all that time?”

The younger girl bowed her head in shame. “We really were monsters, weren’t we?”

Flash offered her a reassuring smile as he remarked, “The only monster is the one that doesn’t regret their decisions. It’ll take time, maybe longer than it will for Sunset, but the school will get over what you’ve done.” He turned to Rainbow Dash and said, “But you guys, I’m not too sure about.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” She looked to him and asked, “Can you do me a favor?”

Flash’s expression hardened as he countered, “I’m not going to ask her to give you guys another chance. That’s totally up to her.”

“No, not that.” She managed a nervous grin as she noted, “Would’ve been nice if you did, though.” The grin faded as she continued, “Just take care of her, okay? You’re the only one in the school that isn’t in the faculty who knows about the Fall Formal and has given her a real chance. She needs someone to back her up. Who better than you?”

Flash rolled his eyes. “If you bring up that song again…”

Dash laughed. “Nah, that’s been done to… death…”

Suddenly, her eyes grew heavy, and she collapsed forward, Flash barely catching her in time before she slumped onto the ground. “Dash? Dash?!”

“Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo shook her head in an attempt to rouse her, but it did little good. “What’s happened to her?!”

“I don’t know.” Flash quickly looked her over, one hand briefly going to her wrist while his other arm supported her. “She’s got a pulse, and she’s breathing, but she’s out cold.”

Pale purple eyes looked up at him with worry. “You think this is some kind of magic? I’m not saying Sunset did it or anything, but…”

“But magic is as good an explanation as any.” Flash scooped the unconscious athlete up in his arms the rest of the way with her head rested against his shoulder and began carrying her down the hall, Scootaloo in pursuit. “Come on, we need to get to the teacher’s lounge. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Twilight can help.”

“Hope so.” Scootaloo also quietly swore herself to secrecy about all of this. If word ever got out that Rainbow Dash fainted… er, passed out, and was carried off somewhere by Flash Sentry, that would kill her street cred.

And then she realized that they probably had bigger priorities right now.

-

Canterlot High was a large building, with a number of hallways, stairways, and assorted nooks and crannies that, given enough time, a student could easily find. Sunset Shimmer, having effectively lived in the school for years, knew them so well that she could find them in the dark. And literally had, in rare cases where she’d been without a flashlight to guide her way of an evening. They’d served her well during her darker days, and with one place to retreat to closed to her, she hid herself away in one of the others.

This time, however, scheming was the last thing on her mind. She sat beside one stairwell and sobbed, openly and without remorse, out of frustration and sadness and anger and a number of other emotions she didn’t care to identify at the moment, until she tired of crying and wiped away their last vestiges with one hand.

‘Get it together, Sunset.’ A deep breath, and she continued to think to herself, ‘You know you’re only setting yourself up. Give it a second, and Trixie or Photo Finish will…’

“Sunset?” She looked up to see Sparkler and Rose looking upon her with worried concern. “You okay?”

A saddened sigh. “I wish.”

Sparkler approached her and reached out a hand. “Well, you want to sit somewhere a little more comfortable and talk about it? Maybe where you won’t hit your head by accident?”

Sunset managed to snort a small laugh at that remark, and held out her hand for the new girl to help her to her feet. As the two helped her to sit down on the staircase nearby, each to one side of her, she remarked, “I’m warning you now, it’s a long story. From a list of long stories.”

Rose gave a sheepish grin. “Maybe not as long as you think. We got to talking with some other students during the classes we sat in after lunch and, well, you came up pretty quick.”

Sunset rubbed the bridge of her nose with one hand. “Was one of them a girl with blue skin and a habit of referring to herself in the third person?”

“Yeah, Trixie wasn’t exactly shying away from the subject. We got this crazy story about what happened at the Fall Formal that she had to be exaggerating.” Sparkler grinned and noted, “No way did you turn into a demon and hypnotize everyone just to get blown into a crater by rainbows and lasers.”

A nervous laugh. “Yeah, because that’s impossible.”

“That Anon-A-Miss story sounded a little more believable, though.” As Sunset visibly drooped, Rose frowned. “I guess that’s what brought this on?”

A nod. “Despite what Trixie may or may not have told you, I was framed. Not that it mattered at the time. No one in the student body thought I was innocent, even those friends I introduced you all too. And I can’t blame them.” She raised her hand with a rueful smile. “Like I said, recovering alpha bitch.” The hand dropped as the smile faded. “I don’t know if the two of you have ever been in a situation like that. I really hope that you haven’t. But I’ll tell you right now, being hated by everyone around you is no walk in the park. And it’s even worse when you know exactly why.”

“Yeah, but like you said, you were framed. Three other girls came out and said that they’d done it, and framed you for it.” Sparkler smiled reassuringly. “It wasn’t just Trixie that we talked to. There was this other girl, Octavia. She said that they came forward after… well, after a student nearly committed suicide.” The smile faded, and the next words out of her lips weren’t a question, but a statement. “That was you, wasn’t it.”

Sunset nodded sadly, and Rose wrapped her arms around her in a gentle hug. “Who told you?”

“No one. We figured it out on our own. I doubt the rest of the school even wants to think about it, let alone think that you were the one that nearly died.” She gently laid a pale magenta hand upon Sunset’s shoulder and assured her, “But none of what happened was your fault. You know that, right?”

“I do. What the girls did, what the Crusaders did, that was all on their own. But I can’t do anything about what anyone else thinks based on how I used to be.” A mirthless chuckle escaped her lips. “And why should they think about what happened? Heaven forbid that they have a hand in another student taking their own life, even one they despise to the core.” Her head slumped. “Like I told you, the Fall Formal was a wake-up call for me. It was bad enough when the girls abandoned me without even giving me a chance to defend myself. Three months with them, and it felt like it amounted to nothing. Even worse when Trixie confronted me with how I was still seen by the school. You know what she called me? ‘Sunset Satan’. The final straw was the day after the girls left me, when I fell in the hall. I don’t know if I stumbled and fell on my own, or if someone tripped me. Doesn’t really matter now, but that’s when it all came out. The other students saw me at my lowest, and they kicked me while I was down.” She clenched her eyes shut as she felt tears begin to well up again. “Ask them how they’d feel if they knew the truth. They’d say something else, like ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I’m sorry’, but they’d think, ‘Good riddance’. And I don’t blame them.”

“That’s being rather uncharitable, don’t you think?” Footsteps sounded behind her as their owner continued, “After all, everyone has something that they regret.”

Sparkler groaned. “Seriously Dad, eavesdropping again?”

Sunset looked first to her friend, then up at the face of her new physics teacher. “You’re Sparkler and Rose’s dad?”

“And I’m quite proud of both of them.” Time Turner carefully stepped around Rose and turned to address them. “After all, they saw someone who needed support, and gave them exactly that. Shows that their mother and I are doing something right, at least.”

Rose smiled apologetically and loosened her hug. “Sorry we didn’t say anything about it sooner, Sunset, but we didn’t want you jumping to conclusions about us.”

Sparkler smirked. “Plus I was kinda hoping to spring it on Rarity when she least expected it. Something tells me she’d take one look at Dad and take interest in him immediately.”

Sunset chuckled. “You’re right about that.”

The teacher rolled his eyes. “I’d make some remark about teenage girls swooning over married men, but having been a teenage boy, well…” He knelt down on one knee before the girls and turned conversation elsewhere. “Sunset, despite what others might think, despite what you might think, I don’t look at you and see someone to be hated or despised. I see someone who regrets their mistakes. Trouble is that they weigh you down like heavy chains, and when you feel alone, the chains only feel heavier.”

“No kidding.” Sunset sighed and closed her eyes. “It’s bad enough that I see myself as a monster. Even worse that others, people I trusted and loved, see me just a step away from being one again.”

“You still talked with them.”

A shrug. “What else can I do?”

“For starters, you can remember this.” He leaned forward, far enough to be close but not so far that they touched, and spoke softly. “That you are unique, and wonderful. In all the world, no one person is like you, with your looks and brains and experiences and feelings and everything else. In all of the infinite possibilities the universe has offered, you came along. A brilliant, beautiful young woman, full of life and promise, who has done terrible things and vowed to herself, ‘never again’. And that makes you worth something. Most don’t see it, for whatever reason, but those who can? Those who do? They’ll treasure you all the more, and regret it the most when they lose sight of it. And they’ll do everything they can to make up for it in your eyes, because believe it or not, they do love you.” A brief pause, and he groused, “Oh, I’d better not hear you snoring in a second, because that was a damn good speech.”

Sunset slumped forward with a moan as Sparkler and Rose moved to steady her. Sparkler looked to her father and noted, “If it helps you feel better, Dad, I don’t think you put her to sleep.”

“Right, come on then, let’s get her some help!” He helped his daughters and their friend to their feet and helped them to carry Sunset between them. “Allons-y!”

-

The teacher’s lounge, as always, was pleasantly quiet, but that did little to help Doctor Hope’s mood as she sat at the small table and rubbed the bridge of her nose with one hand. “Here.” A light thud sounded at her side, and she looked to find a mug of tea waiting in front of her. She looked up to find Celestia casting a gentle smile her way as she asked, “Or have you taken up Luna’s love of coffee?”

The therapist gagged. “I still don’t get how she can drink that stuff.” She accepted the tea as her friend sat beside her. “Thanks, Celestia. I need this.”

“You looked like you did. I haven’t seen you with a look like that on your face since we were kids. You practically had it on you the entire time we were at Camp Everfree.”

“You had it too, if I remember right.” She sighed and amended, “Still, this doesn’t feel all that different.” She took a sip from her drink, and then gestured over her notes. “You’ve got a set of six very bright, very sweet girls here, Celestia. They’ve all had their share of bumps and bruises, sure, but they survived them one way or another. Sunset especially has had it pretty rough, from what I’ve seen. You’d think they’d have been able to avoid all of this, but…”

“But they’re teenagers, and teenagers don’t always think clearly or rationally, even if they should know better.” The principal groaned. “We both know what that’s like.”

“It’s why I went into this field, to try and figure out why things like that happen, prevent what happened when I was young for other kids. Neither of us want a repeat of that here.”

“You think that could happen?”

“No, thankfully. Sunset’s in pain, but from what you’ve told me, she won’t go that far. She knows there are people out there who care for her, even if some of them are a little bit out of the way.” She sat up and noted, “In some ways, I think her breaking things off with them is a good thing, if only for a little while. We don’t want her becoming dependent upon them, or holding her worth based on what others think of her.” She smirked as she looked to her friend. “Of course, you know that.”

Celestia smirked back. “I’m no chessmaster, Hope. I just put things in motion and hope for the best. Giving her a wider circle certainly wouldn’t hurt.” The smirk faded as she noted, “I don’t know how much good it’s done, however. From what Zecora’s told me, Lyra’s warming to her, but she’s still following Sweetie Drops’ lead and keeping a polite distance. I’ve no way to know right now how things are with the students she showed around today, and I’m surprised she’s even willing to be in the same room as any of the Crusaders, let alone talk to them. I don’t know if her better relationship with Flash Sentry is due to him having residual feelings for her or him genuinely wanting to give her a second chance, and I don’t want to interfere with what’s going on with her anonymous supporter.”

“Because you don’t know who it is?”

“I have strong suspicions, but I don’t want to force anything along. I’m not like her, I don’t want to play trickster to her extent. And I certainly don’t want to be a control freak like some other school administrators we could name.”

“That’s the last thing you are, Celestia. If you were her, then I wouldn’t be here, and Sunset would’ve disappeared long ago.” She smiled reassuringly and noted, “In fact, I’d say that you’re doing all that you can, given the circumstances. If nothing else, it was brave of you to show her as much trust as you have. She needed that.”

Celestia sighed. “If only everyone else in the faculty understood that.” The door into the lounge opened, and she turned to find her sister nearby. “I was beginning to wonder…Luna?”

Her sister’s expression was immediate cause for alarm. “Celie, we have a problem.” The door opened wider to reveal Applejack slumped over one shoulder and Granny Smith standing behind her. Both Celestia and the doctor jumped to their feet as Luna carried the unconscious girl inside. “Granny Smith?”

“Applejack was with me in the cafeteria, talkin’ bout what happened with Sunset today an’ then she just passed out!”

“Get her on the couch.” No one questioned Dr. Hope’s orders, and Applejack was laid out. She did a quick examination, “Pulse seems erratic, breathing’s shifting… Celestia, look here.” She gestured to the prone girl’s eyes, which quickly and visibly shifted underneath her eyelids. “What does all this suggest?”

“Rapid eye movement.” Celestia looked to her old friend and asked, “She’s dreaming?”

“So it seems, but how…?”

“Principal Celestia!” Attention turned to the door as Photo Finish poked her head in. “Ve haff… oh dear.”

The principal shook her head. “I should have seen this coming. Who do you have?”

Flash Sentry’s voice called back. “Rarity, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are all unconscious, and we’re shy one Apple!”

“Flash, you and the Crusaders inside! Photo Finish, you and your assistants find Pinkie Pie and Sunset Shimmer, but under no circumstances are any of the rest of you to enter without my permission or that of Vice Principal Luna!”

The young photographer looked as though she wanted to protest, but caught sight of the principal’s face and decided otherwise. “Ja wohl!”

“Luna, help get the rest of the girls in.” Celestia carefully lifted Applejack up into her arms, surprised at how easy it was to carry the teen. “We need to call in some help.”

Chapter Six - Welcome To Our Nightmares

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A world away from the growing trouble at Canterlot High, the town of Ponyville was in the midst of a bright summer’s day, residents going about their business without a care in the world.

“Okay Twilight, you’ve got this.” One was the usual exception, as Twilight Sparkle practiced her breathing exercise for the third time within the span of fifteen minutes before going over her checklist once more. “Research notes? Check. Compiled data from the human world gathered by Sunset? Check. Notations regarding the Chest of Harmony? Check. Notations regarding the Crystal Mirror and its prototypes as copied from Star Swirl’s notes and research? Check.”

“Cupcakes? Check!”

“Nachos and cheese dip? Check!”

“Whoo? Whooo!”

Twilight turned from her gathered materials and list to find that Pinkie Pie, Spike and Owlowiscious had gathered close by with a fully-stocked snack table, drinks at the ready. Her annoyance was quickly replaced by a relieved smile as she noted, “Thanks for your help, Pinkie. With everyone else being busy with one thing or another, I’m just glad somepony was able to help with the Princesses’ visit.” She turned to Spike and Owlowiscious and added, “Not that I don’t appreciate my two faithful assistants’ usual diligence.”

“Aw, you don’t have to thank me, Twilight!” Pinkie waved a hoof and noted, “I just hope Rarity’s having fun with her new apprentice and Rainbow Dash is having as much fun coaching the foals on their routines for the Equestria Games Flag-Waving ceremony!” She then paused and noted, “Wow that sounded expository. I feel like I need to mention how we’re going to be visiting the castle soon for initial clean-up and book retrieval…and something else too.”

“My new comic books are due in the mail on Friday?” Spike offered.

“That’s it! Done for now!” A gentle knock sounded at the door, and she cheered as she bounded to the library entrance, “I’ll get it!” The door opened as she happily called, “Greetings and salutations, your Highnesses!”

Luna chuckled as she and her elder sister entered the library, Celestia ducking her head as she did so. “Good day, dear Pinkie Pie. It’s most pleasing to see you.” She offered a hoof, which Pinkie accepted, only for the pink mare to receive a mild shock. Her hair frizzier than normal, the party pony giggled with Luna as the princess revealed her newly-acquired joy buzzer and grinned. “I believe the current parlance is ‘got ya’.”

“Yep! You got me good!” Pinkie shook her head and her mane returned to its normal frizz. “You’re getting better, Luna!”

“More like she’s getting back to where she was long ago,” Celestia noted with a proud smile. She then turned her attention to her former student. “Hello Twilight.”

“Hello Prin…” She caught herself and amended, “Hello Celestia. Hello Luna. Thank you both for coming.”

“Some quiet time with you when Equestria is not endangered is not something we seek to put aside, Twilight.” Luna poured herself some coffee from among the drinks and asked, “Now then, forgive me if this seems brusque, but perhaps we can get down to business?”

“Of course.” Twilight gestured to her research and began, “As both of you know, I’ve been researching the Crystal Mirror and how Star Swirl created both it and its prototypes. Sunset’s helped, if only as a sounding board, but it’s only recently that I’ve gotten into anything serious.” She then turned to Celestia and asked, “But before I go any further, I have a question that I need to ask.” She turned regretful and added, “But there’s no good way for me to ask it, so…”

“Is there anything that I haven’t told you concerning the mirror portals?” At Twilight’s silent nod, Celestia sighed. “I suppose that’s a fair question to ask, given that I haven’t always told you the whole truth.”

“You do have the habit of keeping your cards close to your chest, Celie.”

Celestia didn’t have to see her sibling to know that she was smirking, but the sour expression she wore at that remark faded as she leaned in close to her former student and spoke reassuringly. “I knew that Star Swirl was continuing to research the mirrors, yes, but I wasn’t aware of the full extent until very recently, when I discovered the bridge mirror and met mine and Luna’s human counterparts for the first time. I’ve formed my own theories regarding his work, yes, but those theories could very easily have been wrong, and I thought it wisest to keep them to myself.” She smiled and asked, “Perhaps what you’ve done will be able to confirm one or two of them?”

Twilight smiled eagerly. “I can hope so, at any rate.” She turned back to her research and noted, “One thing that surprised me was the fact that he made the bridge mirror in the first place. According to his notes, each mirror he made after the first one was intended to test a safety measure of some kind, to be implemented into a final, improved mirror without the flaws of the original.”

“You mean that whole universe-warping-and-merging stuff?” Pinkie offered.

Twilight rolled her eyes with a smile. “Yes, that. And as an added measure, each one was locked onto a particular world rather than being able to link to any number of them, with all but two being linked to worlds that he and Celestia visited using the original prototype.”

“The human world is obviously one of those exceptions, but what of the other?”

“That was a world he planned on visiting using his Mark II mirror, but plans changed.” Twilight waved a hoof over an open journal and explained, “He abandoned work on that one after a version of himself visited from that world. The two briefly exchanged notes, but there hasn’t been any interaction since and work on the Mark II was abandoned.”

“No doubt due to concerns about thaumic backlash.” Celestia glanced over the notations and reasoned, “Having two portals linked between two worlds would have no doubt hastened any anomalies rather than prevent them.” Her eyes widened in surprise as she asked, “The other Star Swirl emerged from the statue of himself? The one in his Athenaeum?”

Twilight nodded as Pinkie brought over a plate of cupcakes. “And here I thought he was just a little bit narcissistic. Want some, Princesses?”

Celestia and Luna accepted the offerings, and the former continued. “What became of the materials?”

“From what I’ve read, he used them to make the bridge mirrors.” Twilight accepted a cupcake herself and held it aloft with her magic as she continued, “By the time he got to his Mark VII, he was ready to test all of his safety measures. The time dilation that Sunset described and the thirty moon cycle were all a part of it.”

“Why construct the bridge mirrors in the first place, however?” Luna sipped from her cup and continued further, “The only reason I can conceive of for such a thing is that he wished to maintain contact with someone.”

The youngest princess among them nodded. “An older man by the name of Eifion. He and Star Swirl got on like a house on fire thanks to shared interests. According to Star Swirl’s journals, Eifion was a glassmaker and an amateur alchemist, but Sunset hasn’t been able to confirm anything about him either way.”

“Given the long period of time, this is no surprise.”

Twilight nodded at Celestia’s remark. “And it was after meeting him that Star Swirl started to tweak the mirror. He infused it with a number of spells, all working in combination to transform whoever passed through the portal so that they would fit in on either side.” She turned sour again as she continued, “And this is where things get a little troublesome to read. At least, for me.”

Spike scowled. “This is the part with the dragon, right?”

A nod. “According to his notes, after he modified the portal so that it would transform its user into a human and give them appropriate clothing, he modified it again specifically to turn dragons into dogs.” She bitterly added, “He was even happy about it. I had to look up some of the words he used and…” She shuddered, then looked to the elder ponies and asked, “Was he really that much of a specist?”

Celestia bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but yes. In those days, ponies lived in fear of dragons, and not without reason. Fear, rational or no, can lead to hate very rapidly, and there’s little trouble in it becoming casual hatred.”

“I’m not saying dragons can’t be scary, but…” Twilight looked to Spike and added, “They aren’t monsters. And they certainly aren’t deserving of the slurs he used against them. And regardless, he had no excuse to trick a dragon into crossing the portal and then trap him there forever.”

“No, it does not, but…” Luna sighed. “It was a different time. As you well know, even now, ponies are more afraid of dragons than they are accepting of them. Star Swirl’s feelings were clear to us on them, and while we didn’t agree, we were among the minority.”

“Well regardless of his prejudices, it was still horribly irresponsible.”

“Agreed,” the Princess of the Moon continued. “Nopony is without their flaws, as you well know given my situation. They should not be excused, but nor should they be focused upon. And grousing about it now will do little good.”

Twilight accepted that with a nod. “I suppose. Still, he was one of my heroes for a long time. He’s still amazing, but it’s like finding an ancient Greco-Roamin vase with a crack in it. It’s still old and amazing, but the flaw is so obvious.”

“If it helps you feel better, Twilight, I doubt that Eifion felt any different about Star Swirl’s actions.”

“I suppose, but I’ve got no way of knowing.” Twilight flipped through the pages of her copy of Star Swirl’s journal to reveal nothing but blank space after a point. “It looks like Star Swirl used a concealment spell on all his notes. Most of it has worn off by now, but there are still a number of entries that are blank. They won’t be visible for months yet.”

“Huh?” Pinkie glanced over the journals curiously. “Why’d’ja copy the spell along with everything else? That’s kinda silly.”

The young alicorn sheepishly answered, “I was in a rush.” She sighed and admitted, “Still, this gives me a very good base to work from. There’s even a small chance that, well…” A hopeful smile crossed her face as she offered, “…That Sunset might be able to come home before the full thirty moons go by.”

A soft smile formed on Celestia’s muzzle as she gently wrapped a wing around her former pupil. “I wondered why you were so eager for this, especially given our current situation with the Tree of Harmony.”

“Well, I’m stalled on that until I get answers for my letters around Equestria.” Twilight turned somber as she added, “And I feel like I owe it to her after…”

“After her recent troubles.” Celestia hugged her closer and assured her, “Twilight, nothing about the Anon-A-Miss incident was your fault. If not for you, we would have potentially lost Sunset as well as the bridge mirrors and realm.”

“And that neglects to mention the true culprits behind the incident.” Luna approached and chipped in, “I doubt they will ever contemplate doing something of this nature again.”

“Still, I left her in their care. I thought that being with them could do for her what it did for me. I’m not saying it didn’t do her any good, it obviously has, but if I’d known this was coming…”

“Whoa, Twilight, snap out of it!” Spike rushed over and gave her a hug. “You made the right call! Sunset wasn’t ready to come back and face Celestia, and besides, she still had to fix her mistakes back at Canterlot High. And you had no way of knowing what would happen afterwards.”

“And I know human me is probably still feeling really bad about what happened deep down.” Pinkie nodded her head towards Luna and noted, “I mean, I still feel pretty bad about how I treated Princess Luna her first Nightmare Night.” She turned to the princess and noted, “Seriously, I thought you were in on the joke. Took me forever to realize you weren’t, and I’m really sorry about it.”

“All has been forgiven since, dear Pinkie Pie.” The alicorn’s attention turned back to Twilight as she noted, “Still, do not burden yourself with needless guilt. Take me at my word that it does you little good.”

“Right, the Tantabus.” Twilight gave Luna a thankful smile. “I’ll try to remember that, thank you.” She put the thought aside and noted, “Anyway, there’s something else that I think merits our attention regarding the human world. Interestingly enough, the Anon-A-Miss incident helped to bring it to light.” Twilight collected the papers that Sunset had given her earlier in the day and opened the folder. “You see…”

“Princess Twilight.” Heads turned immediately towards a familiar grey stallion lacking a mane and tail and dressed in jacket and fedora. “There is an issue which requires your attention.”

Twilight recognized their unexpected visitor immediately. “Seventh Moon!” The Observer made a small nod as she fully turned to face him. “What’s going on?”

Pinkie let out a theatrical gasp and rushed in close to the grey stallion. “If you’re here, then it’s gotta be serious! Is the multiverse collapsing? Did something nasty come here from an alternate reality? Are –?!” He simply placed a hoof to her mouth to silence her, which prompted her to muffle, “Rhht. Srry. Gw wn.”

The stallion uncorked her mouth and then turned his attention back to Twilight. “Highness, you have established a means to signal you if anyone has entered the bridge realm, correct?”

“Yes, of course.” Twilight indicated a set of bells dangling from the ceiling. “Sunset helped me to set them up not long after we moved the bridge mirrors here. They worked perfectly.”

“Until today. Your system has been disabled, and the bridge realm was entered from this world, by somepony not of this world, within the last twenty minutes.”

Alarmed expressions crossed the faces of everyone else present, before Celestia’s turned absolute. “Then we’d better have a look for ourselves. Seventh Moon, what can you tell us…?” The Observer had vanished, and she groaned. “You’re right, Luna. Things like this are frustrating.”

-

“Places, everyone, places!” There was rampant activity all throughout backstage as models, dressers and designers alike all rushed about for last minute touches. In the midst of it all, impassive as a rock, was Prim Hemline, her attire as severe as her expression. She frowned as she looked about and asked, “Now where is that one…?”

“Here I am!” She turned as Rarity approached. “Do forgive me, I had a bit of a rush getting these together.”

The older woman tittered in disgust. “Honestly, Miss Rarity, such actions are unbecoming of you.”

Rarity sighed apologetically. “I know, I’ve no excuse for my tardiness…”

“And even less excuse for those!” Prim Hemline dramatically pointed towards Rarity’s designs. “I don’t know what you call those scraps, but I’d hardly call them worthy of high fashion!”

“What? But…!” Rarity turned back and screamed as her outfits, resplendent and impressive and the product of many hours of work, wore away and fell to pieces before her very eyes. “No, no, this isn’t how things are supposed to be!”

“Really, Rarity?” She turned to find another girl standing nearby, her hair done up in the back with a headband and a scarf tied around her neck secured by a badge depicting three buttons of differing color. A sneer was on her face as she taunted, “Did you really think that a small-town girl like you could make it in the big city? It takes more than those rags to do it, m’kay?”

Before Rarity could protest, a malevolent laugh sounded from overhead as the spotlights shown upon her and her designs. “Another dream gone down the drain. Or is it the garbage chute?” A crown materialized in front of her as the voice continued, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just another one you’ll never have.” A familiar amber hand took hold of the crown as Rarity stumbled back, and its owner came into view with a wicked expression on her face and set the crown upon her head. “Just like this one!”

“Sunset!” Rarity fell to the ground as Sunset transformed into the demonic form she’d taken the night of the Fall Formal. “Darling, please! This isn’t you!”

“Says the girl who threw me away like scrap fabric!” Sunset went aloft as Prim Hemline and the scarf-clad girl looked on. “You were so generous to your rival, and it backfired! So why take the chance again?! Well, this time…!”

“Why did we have to die?” At the demon’s surprise, Rarity turned about to see a number of cats and dogs of varying ages arrayed behind her, their backs to her as their large representative softly whimpered, “Why did we have to die?”

Rarity herself was surprised at this until she looked up at a familiar, pained face, another demonic Sunset hovering behind her. “Fluttershy?”

“Rarity!” The young animal lover rushed towards her as the fashionista got to her feet, the rest of the tableau around them fading away as they embraced. “Oh my goodness! I’m so glad to see you!”

“And I you, dear!” The embrace ended, and Rarity quickly looked her over. “Are you real, dear? Please tell me that you’re real!”

“Um, I think so.” Fluttershy looked herself over and noted, “I mean, I don’t think that I’m not real. And I’m pretty sure that you’re real, but you never showed up in my nightmare. Just Sunset and, well…”

“Well, you’re real enough for me.” She then softly held her friend’s shoulder to comfort her. “Oh darling, you would have nightmares like that. As confusing as that was, it was still rather heart-wrenching.”

“Speaking of confusing, who were those two women behind you?” The yellow teen turned uneasy as she noted, “I don’t think either of them were very nice.”

“Well, one of them certainly wasn’t.” Rarity dismissed her own nightmare and noted, “Regardless, that isn’t our concern right now. The bigger issue is, where are we?”

Surrounding them at all sides was a vast expanse, seemingly devoid of light and warmth aside from the immediate area around them and a stark contrast to both the backstage area of Rarity’s fashion show and the front entrance to Canterlot High. The ground beneath their feet appeared solid enough as Fluttershy lightly prodded at it with one dainty foot. “I don’t know. The last thing I remember was being in the hall with Sweetie Belle…”

“And then passing out.” Rarity looked about thoughtfully and considered aloud, “Fluttershy, this may seem like a bit of a leap, but I think the two of us are in some sort of shared dream state.”

“Is that possible?”

“Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains no matter how improbable must be the truth. Or so I’ve been told.” She took hold of Fluttershy’s hand and explained, “The two of us passed out at the same time, and we both saw into the other’s nightmares. That’s the only thing which makes sense. And given what we’ve seen since the school year began, well…”

“I guess it’s possible, with all that in mind.” Alarm spread across her features as Fluttershy wondered aloud, “What about Sweetie Belle, or the rest of the school?”

“I don’t know, darling, but something tells me that we might be among the select few facing this, if not the only ones. Which makes it all the more imperative that we not lose sight of one another.” She smiled encouragingly and added, “If nothing else, there’s strength in numbers.”

Emboldened by her friend, the shy girl nodded and smiled. “Yes. But what do we do now?”

A scream rang out, and Rarity called, “Despite my better judgment, I say we run towards that! Come along, Fluttershy, the game’s afoot!”

As her friend dragged her along, it took everything Fluttershy had to keep up as she whimpered, “Oh dear! Whatever this is, I hope someone’s taking care of us in the real world!”

-

“There you are, gentle now.” Sunset Shimmer’s prone form was gently moved into Flash Sentry’s waiting arms with Amethyst Star’s assistance. “You’ll take care of her, right?”

“Of course.” Flash smiled at the girl in gratitude before he turned around and entered the teacher’s lounge.

As the door swung shut, Sparkler turned to the other students gathered and tried her best to get comfortable. She gravitated towards Roseluck and her father as she wondered aloud, “They’ll all be okay, right?”

“Too soon to tell, and I’ve no idea what could cause the six of them to faint like that.” The teacher looked to the other students and amended, “And I dread to hear the possibilities they could bring up.”

While Vinyl Scratch sat against the wall opposite them with her head bobbing softly to the music from her headphones, the other students to be sequestered outside of the teacher’s lounge stood on the opposite side of the door and soon had their attention on them. “You three do know about what went down at the Fall Formal, don’t you? That’s got to have something to do with it.”

Dr. Turner gave the gold-skinned girl a critical look. “That’s a rather quick assumption, Miss Pizazz. I assume that all of you were there for it?”

“I wasn’t,” Violet volunteered. “And from what I’ve heard, I’m both glad and sorry for not being there.”

“The rest of us were though, and if we ever see anything that crazy again…” Pixel paused as the three before her took on baffled expressions, and then turned about as Vinyl jumped to her feet, headphones and sunglasses off. Photo Finish’s reaction was similar as her glasses went off in shock.

Trotting before them with purpose in their steps was a pair of ponies. One was taller than the other, with opal eyes and a curly mane colored cerise and violet with arctic blue highlights, clad in a beige cloak with swirling patterns. Just visible at a distance was a jagged scar across her right eye, and the horn emerging from her forehead was clear as day. The second pony was smaller, with wings as well as a horn, and strongly familiar to all of them, from her violet eyes to her multicolored mane to the star-shaped mark upon her flank. The two stopped only for the door to swing open, and the larger of the two mares to give them a smirk. “Sup?”

Jaws practically dropped to the floor, and Pixel eventually managed to raise a hand and wave vacantly. Vinyl’s shock was short-lived, however, and her shocked expression turned to an excited one as she grinned and gave the pair a quick salute, as if to wish them luck.

That prompted a smile from the smaller of the two ponies as they entered the teacher’s lounge. Once the door closed shut behind them, further footsteps sounded as Granny Smith returned from wherever she’d gone to notice the stunned looks on everyone else’s faces, before noticing the expression on Vinyl’s. “Did Ah miss somethin’?”

The music lover chuckled. “I love this school.”

-

“…And we got them in here as quickly as we could.” Principal Celestia looked to her counterpart and noted, “That said, it’s a good thing you and Luna were meeting with Twilight. If nothing else, this saves us some time.”

“Indeed.” The princess’s gaze went to the five unconscious girls, all laid out on the floor of the bridge realm beside one another. As her sister continued to go over them with her magic, the alicorn continued, “Now, do you have any certainty about when they all passed out?”

“Unfortunately, no, but…”

“Principal Celestia!” Heads turned as Flash entered the pocket dimension, Sunset prone in his arms. “Doctor Turner…Twilight?”

“Flash!” The young alicorn approached and carefully took Sunset up in her magic. “Here, let me take her.”

Noticing that the teen was staring at her and her sister’s counterparts, Vice Principal Luna loudly cleared her throat. “Flash? You were saying?”

He shook his head. “Oh, right, sorry.” He approached his two superiors as the Crusaders entered, Pinkie Pie carried between the three of them. “Doctor Turner found her with the two new girls at the foot of a staircase near the gym. They’re waiting outside with everyone else, but something tells me they didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Your instincts are as sharp as those of your counterpart, Flash Sentry.” Princess Luna swept over the human Pinkie with her magic as Dr. Hope checked over the girl’s vitals and her pony counterpart and Spike watched with concern. “Each of them has been pulled into a state of REM sleep.”

“That’s the state of sleep in which mammals, humans and ponies included, engage in vivid dreaming.” Dr. Hope turned her attention away from Pinkie to Sunset as she explained, “It’s a perfectly normal part of the sleep cycle. Hell, it’s unhealthy to be deprived of it. But going into it this quickly after passing out isn’t normal.”

“So this is some kinda magic, right?” Scootaloo looked from Rainbow Dash’s prone form towards Twilight and asked, “So why just them? Why not anyone else?”

“Because they were targeted.” Her examinations finished, Princess Luna looked up from the prone girls and grimly declared, “I’ve checked each of them with my magic, and I recognize the taint that has fallen upon them. How this has happened I do not know, but it matters not. What does matter is that we need to address this issue, and swiftly.” She looked about and ordered, “Arrange them in a loose circle about me, and leave a space for Twilight. Her help will be needed.”

“Luna, this isn’t what I think it is, right?” Twilight nervously did as she was told, Rainbow Dash being laid out at her right and Applejack at her left with their heads pointed towards the center of the circle. “I thought steps had been taken to prevent this happening again!”

“Evidently, the steps we took were not thorough enough.”

As Luna stepped into the center of the circle and those not involved in the procedure moved to one side, Apple Bloom looked to Spike and asked, “Mind fillin’ us in? What’re they talkin’ about?”

“I guess Sunset hasn’t had the chance to fill you guys in on all the details yet.” He looked to Flash and asked, “What about you?”

“I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on, based on what Sunset’s told me about Equestria and Princess Luna.” He turned to Dr. Hope and asked, “What I don’t get is why you’re here. I’m glad you’re helping, but…” Something caught Flash’s eye behind the psychologist, and he called out, “Guys! Company!”

Heads turned instantly towards the entrance back to Canterlot High, where two more alicorns now stood after having entered the bridge realm. A few looked upon the taller one and thought her slightly familiar, even if they couldn’t place exactly how. They had no such trouble with her compatriot, who prompted those who had crouched down to jump to their respective hooves and feet and most to gasp or cry out in shock, one in particular the loudest.

“What the hay?!” Twilight exclaimed.

Before them with the unknown alicorn was a second Twilight Sparkle, seemingly identical to the one among them in every way. Her compatriot laughed and gently nudged the second Twilight, who blushed and meekly waved before she approached. “You all probably have a lot of questions. I’ll give you all an umbrella answer that time sliding is involved and leave it at that. I think you’ll all agree that there are more pertinent matters…” She took on an authoritative tone as she gestured to the unconscious girls among them and finished, “…so let’s just return to the business at hoof, hmmm?”

Uncertain glances were exchanged among the gathered natives, but the unknown alicorn got no other response.

She took that as an affirmative. “Excellent. Princess Luna.” Her attention turned to the Princess of the Night as she continued, “You are about to mount and expedition with Twilight Sparkle here into the shared dream state, correct?”

Luna glanced about, and nodded. “That I am. You see, these six have been targeted by something most unsavory.”

“So I am aware. I can confirm that it’s a fragment of the Nightmare.”

Flash visibly winced as Spike and Pinkie Pie gasped, while the remaining humans shared frightened expressions that only grew worse with those who knew what they were facing. Luna, Celestia and the Twilight they knew all looked equally dismayed, but none moreso than the Princess of the Night. “Nightmare… so, it is as I suspected.”

The alicorn leaned forward. “You are going to need some extra defense against it. That is why I am here.”

The local Twilight shakily raised her hoof towards her counterpart. “And…this other me? Wh…”

“She is only here to observe. You need not worry about her presence.” The alicorn then turned her attention back to Luna. “I bid that you take me with you, Princess Luna.” She pointed at the six on the ground and said with an intense glare, “Their lives and your success are going to depend on it.”

Luna remained silent, sweat forming upon her brow as she weighed her options, before she stood at her full height and made her decision. “I don’t know who you are or how you came to be. How you…” She motioned to the ornate mirror leading back to Canterlot High. “…broke the rules, or how…” And to Twilight. “…she can even exist.” She paused, and then nodded. “But if you are here to help, then we’ll take it.”

The alicorn gave a polite bow. “Thank you.”

The princess gestured towards the Twilight she knew. “Take a spot next to her.”

Principal Celestia adjusted her jacket and turned to the others. “Alright, alright everyone, let’s back up and give them some space.”

While the unfamiliar Twilight moved to one side with Spike, Pinkie and the humans, the alicorn did as she was told and joined the local Twilight in the circle. Once both had laid down, Princess Luna lit her horn. Many white tendrils of magical energy threaded out of it and made contact, first with the six unconscious girls and then with the two alicorns, who slipped into unconsciousness themselves.

The bridge realm fell into silence save for the soft whirrs of magic as those present waited with baited breath. Sweetie Belle’s attention was soon locked on Spike and the pony version of Pinkie as she asked, “Okay, so what’s going on? What’s this Nightmare thing, and why’s it got Princess Luna and Twilight so worried?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about,” Pinkie assured her as Celestia and Dr. Hope started to whisper among themselves. “Just something that almost caused disaster for Equestria a few times is all.” She patted the ground with one hoof. “Get comfy, and me and Spikey will fill you all in on the details.”

-

Rainbow Dash was not the sort of girl to admit to being scared, or to having nightmares. Ask her about the night of the Fall Formal and facing down Sunset Shimmer, and she’d adamantly tell you that she wasn’t scared for one second. Worried, maybe, but scared? Of course not – she was too awesome to be scared.

Of course, what one says and what one truly thinks are two very different things. In truth, the young athlete had been plagued by one nightmare off and on for a while, which had only become more prominent since the Anon-A-Miss incident. She hadn’t spoken of it, mostly out of shame, but it had nonetheless stuck with her. And as she looked up at the bleak face of a massive, imposing church, she found herself saying two words.

“Not again…”

The doors creaked open before her, and she found herself slowly going inside, formless masses of mourners at either side as she approached the main altar. Upon it rested an ornate coffin, draped in the familiar red white and blue of the flag, with framed photos on either side.

“No. No, please don’t let this be what I think it is.”

“Don’t let it be what, Rainbow Dash?” She looked up to see Sunset hovering over her, her demonic form standing out all the more within the hallowed setting. “Someone else you abandoned? Someone else you failed to be loyal to? Someone else you claim to care for?”

As her accuser landed on the coffin, Dash found it in her to back away. “I was angry! Besides, none of this is real! She’s not gone!”

“Oh, but she is! Just like I almost was!” Sunset’s magic enveloped her as the coffin opened up. “But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to make up with the dearly departed. After all – you’re going to join her!”

“No!” The coffin glowed from the inside with unholy, hellish light as she was pulled in closer. “I’m sorry, Sunset! I know I screwed up! Please, don’t…!”

The doors flew open behind her as a pair of familiar voices cried, “Rainbow Dash!” She turned back to find Fluttershy and Rarity charging to her aid, the former declaring, “Hang on, we’re coming!”

“Guys!” The church and everything within it aside from the three girls faded away as her friends took her in a warm embrace. “What the hell is going on here?! What is all this?”

“We think we’ve somehow been pulled into a shared dream,” Rarity explained. “Each of us is in some sort of nightmare. But the instant one of us interferes in another’s, it vanishes. Speaking of, do I want to know who died?”

“No one did,” Rainbow corrected her. She then softly amended, “Not yet, anyway.” She shook her head and turned attention elsewhere. “So what’s caused this? Magic or something?”

“What else could be causing it?” Fluttershy shivered and hugged herself tight. “Whatever it is, I just hope we can get out of it.”

Rainbow smiled and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Hey, whatever’s doing this is up against us, right? Of course we’ll get out of it.” She started looking around and added, “But we gotta find the others first. No way are we getting out of this without…”

“NO!”

They turned as one towards the familiar yell and realized together, “Applejack!” before rushing off in its direction. The mindscape around them quickly shifted into the roads leading to Sweet Apple Acres, the familiar farmhouse and drive before them and the familiar form of their friend at the door, seemingly begging to be let back inside.

“You done left us, Applejack,” Granny Smith’s voice drawled from within. “Ain’t a home for you here no more.”

“Nope. Best be gettin’ on.”

A malevolent cackle filled the air, and Sunset appeared between the three girls and Applejack. “How does it feel, Applejack? How does it feel to be tossed away by the ones you love, for doing nothing!”

“Applejack!” The dream-Sunset turned to them in shock before she faded away, Applejack looking past it towards them. The rest of the dreamscape faded away as she got back to her feet and Fluttershy took her into a tight embrace. “Oh thank goodness!”

“Wha-? Gals, what’s…” Applejack took sight of the shifting landscape around her. “Alright, what the heck’s goin’ on here? You three ain’t shown up in this bad dream before.”

Before anyone could answer, a gleeful cry rang out. “GIRLS! IT’S YOU!” All four heads turned as Pinkie Pie came charging towards them and took them all in a massive bearhug. “Omigoshomigoshomigosh, I’m so glad to see all of you! Usually you aren’t in my bad dream!”

“Pinkie! Ah don’t care if this is a dream or not, you’re squeezin’ awful hard!” Her cousin nervously laughed as she released them from her iron hug, and Applejack took a second to catch her breath before continuing. “Okay, so all’a us are stuck in some kinda shared dream. But why ain’t you seein’ some kinda horrible nightmare?”

“Duh! I’m a lucid dreamer!” She pointed back the way she came and explained, “Plus, I kinda resolved what my nightmare involved in real life.” The girls looked to find Maud standing in the distance, waving Pinkie on as she stood over a battered and beaten version of Sunset in her demonic form. “Like I said, Maud wasn’t happy with me over how I reacted to Anon-A-Miss, but the next morning, we sat down and we talked about it. Disappointing her is, like, the scariest thing I can think of, but I know she loves me and that she’ll always have my back. Even in a nightmare. Sunset showing up was the only real difference this time.”

“Yes, she does appear to be a recurring theme in all of these.” Rarity sighed. “Lingering guilt over our role in the Anon-A-Miss affair, I’d say.”

“Yeah, but what caused this?” Rainbow looked among her friends and asked, “I mean, even if she wanted to use her magic, Sunset wouldn’t be able to pull something like this off, right?”

A familiar scream reached their ears, and Fluttershy realized, “If she did, I don’t think she’d be part of it!”

“Dang right! Come on, y’all!” Applejack took on a determined gaze and charged forward, the rest of the girls following close behind. “We ain’t leavin’ her behind again!”

-

It was just the way Sunset remembered it, perfect in every detail. The stars, the wind, the light chill in the air of an early autumn evening, the outside of the front entrance to Canterlot High behind her and the portal leading back to Equestria in front. In short, all the pieces of the puzzle that made up a night that would be burned into her memory forever.

After all, one doesn’t easily forget one of the worst nights of one’s life.

“This isn’t happening.” Sunset looked about, anxiety growing upon her face. “No way is this happening.”

“There she is!” She whipped back to see what looked like the entire student body of Canterlot High, joined by several of the faculty, pouring out of the school and surrounding her with evil intent. And right at the head of the pack were her friends, rage in their eyes and Rarity at their head. “Kill the demon!”

“Wait, stop! I’m not…!” And then the sound of the portal behind her going active reached her ears, and Sunset turned back as its surface shimmered in magical light. “Oh no.”

With split second timing, she brought her arms in front of her to defend herself just in time as a familiar crown shot out of it straight towards her, only to rebound off her arms. The crown flew back several feet, only to fly back towards her seconds later like an angered insect determined to sting.

“No!” She batted the crown off with one arm, and kept batting it away as best she could. “I’m not going through this again! I can’t! I won’t!” But one mistimed punch away led to a tiny bit of the crown ending up in the tiny crack between her fingers and palm, and the crown inched its way in as if it had a mind of its own. Sunset tried to shake it off, only for her other hand to go towards it against her will. “No!” Both hands were clasped upon the crown, already shifting into the demonic claws from that night, and it slowly lowered onto her head even as she struggled against it.

But the struggle was all for naught as it made contact and she was enveloped in powerful magical energies, black and opal light surrounding her as her body was warped and twisted all over again, the memory of the painful transformation revisited once more. As it subsided, and she opened her eyes and realized what had happened, she screamed.

And things went from bad to worse.

“There!” Trixie dramatically declared. “Her true form is revealed once more!”

“Let’s get rid of her before she turns us into demons again!” Snails called.

“Before she brainwashes us all again!” Derpy cried out.

“Before she tries ta kill us again!” Applejack bellowed at the head of the crowd, many now carrying torches and pitchforks for good measure.

“No! Please, I wouldn’t!” Sunset’s protests fell on deaf ears as the crowd advanced, and she ran back to the Wondercolt statue and scraped at the now closed portal, as if begging to be let back into Equestria. “Twilight! Princess Celestia! Please, help!”

“They aren’t coming for you,” her own voice echoed back. She crumpled into a fetal position at the foot of the statue, arms and legs and wings curled as tight against her as she could get as her eyes screwed shut tight. “They abandoned you. They’ve left you to…”

“Get away from our friend!” The sounds of the angry mob faded away, replaced by worried footfalls as Rainbow Dash’s voice called out to her. “Sunset!”

“Stay away!” Sunset held out one trembling hand and pleaded, “Don’t come any closer! Please!”

“Darling, it’s us!” Rarity’s tone was reassuring as she continued, “We’re here. And we’re real.”

“I know.” She pulled the hand back in as she sobbed, “Why do you think I’m telling you to stay away?”

Her hand was caught before it could be fully pulled in, and she looked up to find Fluttershy’s eyes looking right into hers, tears beginning to well up. Pinkie’s hand joined Fluttershy’s as the party girl added, “We’re not gonna do that.”

Sunset looked among the five of them, genuinely surprised at what she was seeing, before she turned away, still not quite believing it. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I’ve no clue how all six of us ended up in the midst of a shared dream, but as for being with you…” Rarity smiled and explained, “We heard you cry out, dear. We knew you needed us, and we came for you. And before you say ‘better late than never’, yes, that’s exactly what this is.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Sunset bitterly spat. Within microseconds of them escaping her lips, she grimaced and curled up tighter, her hand pulled away from Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“And you don’t deserve to be curled up on the ground like this, now come on.” Rainbow Dash approached and offered her hand. “Get up. You’re better than this.”

“Am I? All of this is my fault.”

“Sunset, that ain’t true and you know it! You’ve got no blame fer what happened because’a Anon-A-Miss…”

“Not that!” She sprang to her feet, spread her arms and wings wide and declared, “This! Don’t any of you get it?! This is my fault!” Her arms dropped to her side and her wings collapsed inwards as she continued. “And it was years in the making. Ever since I lost my parents.”

“And that ain’t yer fault neither. No more than it’s my fault Ah lost mine.”

“No, but how I reacted was my fault.” The Crystal Mirror shimmered into view beside her as her memories played upon its surface. “What little family I had left took me in, and I shunned them. They got me into a great school, and I didn’t even thank them, just latched onto Celestia and didn’t look back. And then when she denied me what I thought was mine, I turned on her in spite and ran here like the spoiled brat that I was, and tried to get what I wanted here. And then the Fall Formal came…”

“Yes Sunset, we remember all of that. We were there for…”

“Then why haven’t you figured it out?!” Sunset snapped at Rarity’s soothing tones, before calming down for a second and continuing on. “That morning after, that week after, I thought things had finally turned around for me. That I had a chance at real happiness, at making a better life for myself with all of you and Twilight and everybody and everypony else at my side.” She raised her hands up to examine them as she noted, “But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t far from my mind.” She lowered them again and continued, “None of you know what it was like for me after that. All of you had something magical afterwards, something wonderful. Me, I was stuck wondering if I was a ticking time bomb, or if the floor would go out from under me at any moment. Turning into a monster again, going back to what I was, that terrified me to the core. Still does.”

“Because if you did, then you’d lose everything all over again.”

A nod at Pinkie Pie’s summation. “Yeah.” A scowl formed upon her face as she added, “And then Anon-A-Miss happened, and all my nightmares came true.”

“Yeah.” Dash’s tone was somber as she admitted, “We screwed up. We know that. We should’ve stuck by you, but instead, we threw you to the wolves. And there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it either.”

Rarity’s voice was equally somber as she chipped in. “I still think it’s a miracle that you’d even consider forgiving us, let alone actually doing it.”

A sad smile formed on Sunset’s face as she turned to look at them. “You want to know the truth? I wanted to forgive you, all of you. Despite all that, I wanted you in my life. These last few months with you have been the best ones in my entire life, even with practically the entire school glaring daggers in my back every day. I don't want that to end. I don't want to be alone again.”

“But?” Fluttershy whimpered.

The smile faded as Sunset turned away again. “But what about next time?” She raised one hand and asked rhetorically, “What happens if something gets stolen from the school, or from the shop I work at?” Another raised as she continued, “What happens if some important school event gets sabotaged and trashed in the span of an afternoon?” She spread them wide to indicate the dreamscape around them and asked, “What if something crazy happens involving magic?! Who do we know who’s a thief? Who’d commit petty acts of vandalism? Who knows anything about magic?!”

“Sunset, we know you ain’t doin’ this!” Applejack pleaded. “That ain’t who you are no more.”

“And we’ve known since we found you that morning after the Fall Formal, since we heard your story.” Rarity approached and added, “We wouldn’t have brought you into our homes or our lives if we thought otherwise.”

A tense silence held among them, until Sunset’s voice became the pin drop that ended it, and she lowered her arms, turned to them and asked the question that had held in her mind for longer than she cared to admit.

“Then why did you abandon me?”

No one answered, not immediately, until Applejack took her hat off and held it limp in one hand and bluntly said, “Because we’re terrible friends, that’s why.”

A shocked gasp drowned out muffled sobs. “Applejack! How can you say…?”

“Because it’s the truth, Rarity!” The farmgirl threw her hat to the ground as she asked, “How else do you explain all the crap we’ve done, all the time we spent apart? Yeah, fine, Sunset pushed our buttons and pushed ‘em good, but it’s our dang fault for how we reacted! Same as it was when our sisters did what they did!”

“She’s right.” Rainbow Dash’s tone was abnormally quiet as she picked up where Applejack left off. “We could’ve avoided all that if we’d just been a little smarter. But instead, we turned on each other, and turned on Sunset. And we almost lost each other.”

“Just like we almost lost Sunset.” Pinkie’s hair deflated instantly as Rarity bowed her own head in shame.

All throughout this, sobs had grown until Fluttershy finally spoke up again. “You’re not the monster here, Sunset.” Tears were flowing down her face as she finished, “We are.”

And at that soft, pained cry, Sunset looked among her friends, their pain and anguish clear as day and a reflection of her own. The only one who dared to meet her eyes was Fluttershy, the kindhearted girl openly weeping as she did so. Months ago, she would have looked upon this, laughed, and not given it a second thought.

But that was then. This was now. She gently raised a hand and softly beckoned, “Don’t…”

But that was all she could get out before something reached out behind her and grabbed hold, tendrils of eldritch energies taking a tight grasp around her right arm, legs, wings, waist and neck.

“Sunset!” Before she could call for help, her friends rushed to her aid as Fluttershy took hold of her free hand. The rest got as tight a grip as they could, fingers tight around her wrist and arm as if their very lives depended upon it, or one life in particular. “Don’t let go! Please, don’t let go!”

Before Sunset could in any way react, another tendril lashed out from behind her and sent the girls flying backwards as she was pulled into a swirling mass of energy. Fluttershy was the first to recover as she got to her feet and cried out as she rushed to the mass. “Sunset!” But as she made contact…

“I can’t believe I shared my bed with a monster like you, you… you monster!”

She staggered back, stunned at what she’d felt and seen as each of her friends rushed up and attempted to do what she’d done.

“Release her at once, you…!”

“Give her back!”

“Let Sunset go, you icky purple cloud thingie!”

“Ah want my friend back, you oversized…!” But Rarity’s demanding finger, Rainbow Dash’s punch, Pinkie’s frantic clawing and Applejack’s kick produced the same results as Fluttershy’s desperate charge, and the four soon found themselves crumpled on the ground, trying to process what they’d just seen. “Did… did all y’all see…?”

“Yes.” Rarity looked up at the mass and realized, “Yes, we did.”

Fluttershy looked up in terror and whispered, “What can we do now?”

Chapter Seven - Reach for the Light

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Sunset struggled within her bonds, her vision obscured around her by a miasma of purple and black thicker than any fog she’d ever seen in the human world. “Let me go! Whatever you are…!”

“Hush, young one. I’ve no desire to harm you.” The voice was deep, but to call it soothing would be far more generous than it deserved. “Why, I’m here to help you.”

The tendrils faded away, and Sunset gently rubbed her neck. “And pulling me into whatever this is, and knocking away my friends, is supposed to be ‘helping’ me?”

“I was merely getting you away from those who hurt you. They admitted themselves to being horrible friends after all, to one another and especially to you. They gave you nothing but false hope and pain, reasons to fear your true self. I, however, can give you something far better.”

“What are you…?” Sunset paused as the fog cleared before her eyes, showing her a vision of familiar streets of a mountainside city, ponies making their way all around as they went about their business. “Equestria. Canterlot.”

“Your world. Your home. You have so much waiting for you there.” The vision shifted to show her back in the castle, surrounded by ponies she’d come to know since her brief return to her native Earth. They were cheering for her, Twilight in particular giving her a warm hug before Celestia did herself. “And so much awaiting you…”

The vision shifted again, and this time, it presented a massive crowd of ponies and other Equestrian natives, all watching in reverence as a familiar mare was led down to where the four princesses and their entourage stood. She was attired in an elegant white gown, her familiar crimson and yellow mane immaculately styled and doing nothing to conceal her horn, tears forming in her cyan eyes…and a pair of magnificent wings tucked at her sides.

“It can all be yours, young one. I can give it to you, the power you need to return to the world from whence you came, the power to claim all that awaits you. You only need but say the word, and it shall be yours. Just like that.”

“Just like Wiley…”

Sunset’s attention was turned from the vision of all her dreams fulfilled to that all-too-familiar voice, soft and sweet and full of kindness, but aching with so much pain.

-

“What can we do now?”

Rarity wished that she had an answer for her friend, especially one that would help their current situation. She idly reached out to the swirling mass, the terrible words and vision she’d gotten from it echoing in her mind. “I wasn’t the only one who saw that, was I?”

“You mean us all ganging up on Sunset and her turning into a demon before being pulled into something that looked a whole lot like a tear in the very Earth leading right down into the depths of Hell itself?” Pinkie frowned. “Yeah, I think we all saw that.”

Rainbow Dash ran a hand through her long prismatic hair nervously. “Jeez. And here I was stupid enough to suggest she could’ve done this. I knew she was feeling lousy, but I didn’t think…”

“Ah should’ve.” Applejack idly kicked her Stetson away.

Rarity sighed and retrieved the hat, then lightly dusted it off before returning it to the farmgirl’s head. “Perhaps we all should have, dear, but things aren’t over yet. We can figure out a way to help her, I’m certain.”

“How, Rarity?” Green eyes pleaded with her as Applejack asked, “You know somethin’ ‘bout all this magic stuff that the rest ‘a us don’t? We touch that thing, we’ll get a flash ‘a whatever that was all over again. Get reminded ‘a how badly we done hurt her again. Ah don’t wanna say it – none ‘a us do – but we’re in over our heads.” Applejack lowered her head and sorrowfully noted, “Now there’s a chance that we’ve done lost her for good.”

“Just like Wiley…” Fluttershy sobbed.

Heads turned towards the pink-haired animal lover, but only Rarity realized the significance of what she’d just heard. The fashionista approached her friend and knelt down beside her, then laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder. “That was the name of the older dog in your nightmare, wasn’t it?” At Fluttershy’s nod, she prodded, “Tell us about her. Please.”

Fluttershy turned to her, and as the rest of their friends closed in, she wiped her tears away with one hand and took a deep breath. “Wiley was a dog who came to the vet’s office attached to the shelter that I volunteer at. The one my family operates. She was a sweet dog, a big Alaskan malamute mix. According to her family, they called her Wiley because…”

“Because she looked kinda like a coyote?” Pinkie helpfully offered.

A nod. “But she was getting old, and her family had taken in another dog, younger and more aggressively playful than Wiley could handle. Her back legs were hurt pretty bad because of it. And then, just after Christmas…” A pained expression formed on her face, and she forced herself to say her next few words. “Wiley had a stroke. It was a small one, but it was enough to make it so she couldn’t move her back legs as well anymore. She could barely get up, let alone walk, so her family brought her to us to see what the options were. But they didn’t have a lot of money, and she was in a lot of pain, so…”

“So they chose ‘ta put ‘er to sleep.” Applejack inched closer and asked, “Darlin’, you didn’t…”

“No, I didn’t do it myself. All I did was try to give her some comfort until her time came, and help make her last few hours comfortable. Just like I do for all the puppies and kitties who end up having to be put to sleep, for whatever reason.” Fresh tears were welling up as she whimpered, “And there are so many…”

“Fluttershy, you did all that you could. At least you were there for them.”

But Rarity’s words were little comfort as Fluttershy sobbed, “But I should’ve been there for Sunset too…”

The animal lover’s sobs were softened as her friend wrapped her arms around her in a comforting hug. “At least you did some genuine good with the subject of your nightmare. All I have to show for mine is shame and betrayal.” Her friends looked at her in surprise, and she turned back to them and clarified, “Oh, just the shame on my part, darlings. The betrayal was all hers.”

“Her? Who her?”

Rarity’s voice was a low, very unladylike growl as she answered, “Suri Polomare.” She sighed, recovered herself, and recounted, “She and I were acquainted in grade school, long before I met all of you. We weren’t friends, or at least not close friends, but we did have a shared love of fashion and design. We even attended the same middle school briefly, but then her family came into unexpected wealth, and the redistricting happened, and we lost contact. I didn’t run into her again until last summer at Junior Fashion Week in the city, and we got caught up.” As if dreading the reaction to her next words, she sighed before continuing. “Much to my surprise, she’d gone on to attend Crystal Prep.”

Rainbow’s face contorted in disgust at those last two words. “That’s not winning her any points with me.”

The fashionista rolled her eyes at that predictable reaction. “Well this won’t either. She was very impressed with my designs, particularly a unique fabric that I’d used, and asked to borrow some for her own dresses. Naturally, I gave her a healthy sample, only for her to…” She whimpered, then wailed, “She copied all of my dresses perfectly! Every design, replicated within the span of twelve hours! How she managed it, I have no clue, but I was mortified!”

“Wait a sec, is this the same fashion show Sweetie Belle mentioned?” At Rarity’s nod, Applejack asked, “Land sakes, Rarity, why didn’t ya say anythin’ before now?”

“Can you blame me for being embarrassed? As far as I’d known, my generosity had already been rejected, and now, it had been abused! I was mortified!” Her volume eased as she admitted, “It was only after Twilight came along that I started to feel better about it.”

“Still, Ah wish you’d told us about it. And not just afterwards, neither.”

A sad smile crossed Rarity’s face as she admitted, “Well, I was going to tell all of you about it last spring, but by the time I’d hoped to, well, we all weren’t speaking to one another. At least, not as much. Besides, I doubt any of you would’ve been eager to come along to some silly fashion show.”

This time it was Fluttershy who gave her a gentle hug. “I would have.”

“And if it helps you feel better, your screw up isn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been.” Rainbow Dash’s voice got low as she admitted, “Mine was, like, two hundred times worse.”

Applejack looked upon her friend with disbelief. “The heck could make you think somethin’ like that?”

Rainbow didn’t answer, until Fluttershy rose from beside Rarity, approached, and gently took her hand. “That funeral was for your mother, wasn’t it?”

The athlete bowed her head somberly. “Yeah.”

Applejack approached and gently asked, “Dash, your mom ain’t dead.”

“No, but…” A pained look crossed her face before she continued. “My mom’s awesome, y’know? More awesome than me, and when I say that, it means something. She’s why I wanted to fly for so long, why I was so excited about actually flying. But when she left to go back on deployment, just a week after getting back, I was so pissed off about it that…” Her eyes shut tight as she rasped, “…that I didn’t say goodbye when she left.”

“But hasn’t she at least called home?” Rarity stood up and continued, “After all, there is such a thing as Skype.”

“Yeah, she’s called home, but I never talked to her.” The shame in her voice gave them all the explanation they needed as to why. “And… and I’m scared. Scared that she’ll be pissed with me if I talk to her, and scared that she’ll die before I get the chance. And I don’t know which is scarier.”

Pinkie Pie immediately rushed over and hugged her tight. If Rainbow Dash had any resistance to this, she showed none. “I’m sorry, Dashie.”

“Me too.” Dash wrapped an arm around her and offered, “I guess you kinda know where I’m coming from, huh?”

“Yeah.” Pinkie looked among her friends and explained, “Maud’s exact words, after I told her about what happened with Anon-A-Miss?”

“You’ve disappointed me, Pinkie.”

Pinkie gestured towards the illusory version of her sister before she faded out of view. “I love my family. The idea of any of them being mad at me, or being disappointed in me? That’s my worst nightmare. And it’s even worse because I hurt someone else I care about in the process.”

“Someone you saw as family.” Applejack approached. “Ah can relate to that. Ah felt like…like Ah’d let ‘em down, like Ah’d abandoned them after Ah left. After…”

“After your parents passed.”

“Still think it’s a miracle that Granny an’ Big Mac welcomed me back. Same as it is that they ain’t given me grief over what Ah did to Sunset, even after the truth came to light. Ah feel like Ah deserve worse, though, considerin’…” She sighed and admitted, “Gals, that confession Ah was about to make? Before Sunset called us all out? It was about my magic. Ah ain’t been able to pony up again since that Christmas mornin’.”

“Seriously? But you cracked it!”

“And Ah ain’t been able to repeat it!” Applejack took a calming breath and explained, “And Ah know why, too. Guilt. Sunset’s a big part of why we’ve got magic, and Ah betrayed her, even after seein’ the best parts a’ her.” A sad smile crossed her face as she added, “You know she comes by the farm every once in a while, just to groom our horses? She talks to ‘em too, treat’s ‘em like people.” A small chuckle escaped her lips. “And where she came from, they are people.”

Fluttershy smiled. “I remember her coming by the shelter and helping out sometimes, playing with the puppies and kittens. How sweet she can be.”

“I remember that surprise party she organized for me with all of you.” Pinkie giggled as she added, “And the party we threw for her when she moved into her new place. It was fun.”

“Not to mention the look on her face when I presented her with her restored jacket.” Rarity’s smile was both proud and sad. “I hardly thought of it at the time, but after seeing that nightmare…it meant so much to her.”

“Just like being able to stay with all of us did.” Rainbow bowed her head. “Just one screw up after another with all of us, huh?”

“No kiddin’.” Applejack turned her gaze upon the mass of energy. “You think she can hear us in there?”

“Well, if she can, then perhaps she knows how terrible we feel.” As the rest of her friends did likewise, Rarity turned towards the swirling mass and declared, “I only hope that she recognizes it. As terrible as she was to us before the Fall Formal, I can’t see our lives being any better without her.”

Fluttershy smiled. “Neither can I.”

-

“What about them?” Her arm outstretched in the direction that she’d heard Fluttershy’s voice, Sunset’s eyes narrowed as she asked, “What will happen to them, if I accept your offer?”

A beat went before the voice answered. “Why should you worry about them? They betrayed you! They tossed you aside, cast you out, rejected you! They do not deserve your concern, nor a thought from you! And you are so much more than they, so much greater! You have no need for them anymore!”

Sunset’s eyes closed, and her open hands clenched into fists. “You’re right.”

-

Fluttershy let out a small gasp as the miasma pulled back, and she and her friends watched it as a familiar form dropped from the cloud and landed on the ground a fair distance away, wings stretched out as if to slow her fall. Her head was bowed, and her eyes shut tight, but enough of her face was visible that it was clear Sunset’s teeth were clenched hard, as if in rage.

Fluttershy could see the worried expressions upon her friends’ faces, could feel one forming upon her own. But the anxiety soon left her face as she stood straight, head held high and gaze firm upon her friend. She’d made the mistake of losing faith in Sunset before, and she wasn’t going to repeat it.

At her left, she felt a hand wrap around her own, slight calluses suggesting Rainbow Dash as the owner. At her right, she felt another hand, the manicure suggesting Rarity. A quick glance towards either side confirmed her thoughts, Applejack and Pinkie Pie having taken similar positions beside them as Sunset started to slowly make her way towards them, and Fluttershy silently hoped that she was making the right decision as with every step, familiar words escaped Sunset’s mouth. They were low and quiet, but as she got closer, they became clearer.

“Hush now, quiet now,

It’s time to lay your sleepy head.

Hush now, quiet now…”

At this point, Sunset was within inches of the five girls, and her slow march ceased as she stretched out her arms and wings to her sides and finished.

“…It’s time to go to bed.”

And then Sunset raised her head, and opened her eyes. And the five girls gasped as two words escaped her mouth.

“Hold tight.”

“NOOO!” the miasmic cloud wailed in anger.

As one, the girls released one another’s hands and rushed towards Sunset, Fluttershy wrapping her arms about her while the other girls took her into as tight an embrace as they could. Sunset, in turn, embraced them back, locking her chin against Fluttershy’s neck and holding the rest close with her arms and wings. A shimmering opal dome formed around them as the cloud lashed out with tendrils of eldritch energies, and each attack uselessly banged against the barrier.

The embrace loosened on her, and Rarity let out a relieved sigh. “Oh Sunset, you had us worried!”

“More scared than a cat at a dog show, that’s fer sure,” Applejack chimed in.

“Sorry girls, but I didn’t want to tip my hand too early.” She turned her attention to the pink-haired girl softly crying into her shoulder and gently pleaded, “Hey, Fluttershy, come on. Don’t cry. I hate seeing you cry.”

“I know, but…” Fluttershy stepped back and wiped away her tears. “I’m just so sorry about what happened.”

Sunset gently cupped the girl’s face in her hands and looked at her with reassuring eyes, those of the girl they’d come to know since the Fall Formal and not the demon from that horrible night, and assured her, “I know.” She then gave her friend a soft kiss upon the forehead and continued, “I heard what you said, what all of you said. Now it’s your turn to listen to me – you are not a monster.” A smile formed upon her face as she added, “We are not monsters.” Another anguished scream caught her attention, and she turned to face the monster responsible for her current predicament. “But that thing is another matter.”

“You chose them over me?!” The cloud’s voice had changed slightly, having taken on more of a ghostly echo as it wailed at Sunset. “They hurt you! They left you! They betrayed you!”

“Yeah, and they hate themselves for it.” The image of the Crystal Mirror formed once again beneath the swirling mass, but Sunset kept her gaze upon the latter as her shield came down. “I could feel it then, and I feel it just as much now, and I didn’t have any trouble recognizing it. Their guilt. And even if I couldn’t feel it, I wouldn’t want them hurt, or dead, because of what they did to me. But if I’d accepted your offer, that’s what would’ve happened, wouldn’t it?”

“You have no way of knowing…!”

“Horseshit!” Her reflection shimmered into view in the mirror, that of the grinning demon she’d turned herself into, as Sunset continued. “I know a deal with a devil when I hear one! Only difference then was that I was the one making the offers!” Her attention turned from the cloud to the mirror, her eyes locked with the demonic image in it and its monstrous eyes, eyes that she knew weren’t her own. “And I’ve spent the last few months regretting everything I did when I was that devil, all the pain and hurt that I’ve caused, blaming myself, hating myself.” She raised a hand, and her reflection did likewise, the grin fading as it took on a confused look before turning fearful at her next words.

“And I’m sick of it.”

With one swift motion, Sunset grabbed hold of her demonic face and ripped it away like a cheap rubber mask. Her reflection did the same and left nothing but a gaping empty void beneath, but Sunset was another matter as she continued on, the demon’s face falling from her hand and burning away before it hit the ground.

“Because that isn’t who I am anymore.”

Both hands reached up to the dress she wore and tore it away like a cheap Halloween costume, soft flames going at the ends as she stepped forward, head held high and eyes filled with purpose and determination. “I’m not who I was that night, and I have them to thank for it. Yeah, they messed up bad, and hurt me in the process. That hurt hasn’t gone away, but it’d be even worse if I lost even one of them.” The flames reached down one arm, and Sunset tore off the demonic hand as though she were wearing a glove, something very different coming up underneath. “I still care about them, monster, and all that anger they had? All that guilt they’re feeling now? That shows they care about me.” She finally stepped out of the boots and dropped to all fours as she finished, “And I’m better because of them.” At last, she took hold of the remaining demonic hand with her teeth and pulled it off, then spit the thing out as it burned away at last. “They’re my friends, and I’m theirs.”

Cheers of triumph shouted out from behind her even as the miasma threatened, “You think that you can stand against me, foal?! Have you no idea what you face?!”

“Yeah, a Nightmare.” A grin formed upon her muzzle as Sunset countered, “But you don’t know a thing about me.” All four hooves planted firmly upon the ground, her mane and tail swaying softly, the mare looked up at the monster before her and declared, “I am Sunset Shimmer, and I am done being afraid of nightmares.” Her horn glowed as she barked, “Now get the buck out of my head.”

The swirling energy cloud roared and surged towards her, only to be pushed back with a howl of pain by a beam of opal magic. More beams followed in rapid succession, even as tendrils lanced back towards her in reply. Whichever ones Sunset didn’t shield herself from, she nimbly dodged and avoided, until a dozen struck in rapid succession and knocked her to the ground.

-

A pained grunt escaped Sunset’s mouth as her head moved to one side, her eyes shut tight as the dream continued. At either side of her, the two Celestias closed in as much as space could allow them and gently placed a hand and hoof upon her shoulders, providing what little comfort they could.

-

“Sunset!” her friends cried out in unison.

Sunset groaned and raised her head to face her opponent as the Nightmare closed in. “You are a fool, pony. I could have granted you everything you wanted, the power you deserved! Now, you shall have nothing!”

“Hey you big jerk, didn’t you hear her?!” Before the mass could react, it found itself being pulled away from Sunset, sucked instead towards one of her friends as Pinkie pulled it into a massive vacuum cleaner strapped to her back. As the last of it was trapped inside, she laughed and grinned proudly as her hair extended and pony ears popped up out of the top of her head. “No means no!”

The rest of her friends rushed to her side and Fluttershy helped her up as Sunset looked upon the party girl with surprise. “Pinkie? How did…?”

“Well duh! Beat a smoke monster by sucking it up with a vacuum!” Pinkie grinned as she waved the vacuum nozzle about and explained, “Seriously, I don’t get why people don’t think of this stuff. I mean, if I’d been a character on that show ‘Lost’, it wouldn’t have lasted one season, let alone six.” The bag shook, but it went unnoticed by her as she continued, “Speaking of, what was up with that ending? I mean seriously, they were all in purgatory?”

Rarity, however, had noticed the shaking bag and cried out, “Pinkie!”

“Right, sorry, spoiler alert, but still…”

“No, Pinkie, the vacuum thing!” Sunset pleaded. “Toss it!”

Finally noticing that her captive was about to escape, Pinkie did as she was told and threw her weapon aside. The vacuum exploded, and the Nightmare was released from its prison with an enraged roar, to which Pinkie responded with a shrug. “Eh. Worth a shot.”

“Pathetic apes! You think you can stand against my power?! I have seen countless centuries, taken so very many hosts, faced beings with magic greater than yours, and survived every time to come again! You are but pale imitations of those who have defeated me before, eager to squabble amongst yourselves like children!” A cruel laugh sounded as the cloud took on an equine shape and declared, “But you lack what they had to defeat me! You stand before me alone, and you shall all die al–!”

The Nightmare screamed in pain as bolts of magic lanced upon it. The source of the attack flew around and landed between it and the six, then flapped her wings as she fired off another beam of magic and drove back her foe. A determined fire was in her eyes as Princess Luna declared, “They are not alone, monster, but you are.”

Before it could react, another beam struck the Nightmare and trapped it within a spherical forcefield of yellow magic. A second alicorn took up position beside Luna, the bright glow of her horn making clear her determined gaze. As the Nightmare struggled to escape her hold, it screamed, “You?! What are you?!”

“Somepony who’s faced her fair share of Nightmares.” She smirked as Luna added her magic to the efforts to contain the Nightmare. “And trust me, a few of them won’t feel too bad about me helping to put your sorry flank down.”

“Girls!” Before Sunset or her friends could question what was going on, Twilight landed before them with a relieved smile. “Am I glad to see all of you!”

Sunset’s eyes lit up as she smiled and got back to her hooves. “Twilight!” She was the first of her friends to reach the small alicorn and take her into a warm embrace. “The feeling’s mutual!”

“No kidding!” Rainbow Dash was the first to break from the hug as she turned her attention to the unfamiliar alicorn. “But who’s she?”

Applejack took a different approach to the newcomer. “She’s helpin’, Dash! That’s enough fer me!”

The athlete shrugged. “Okay, fine, I’ll give you that, but what did she mean by Nightmare? I thought that thing was dead!”

“And believe me, I wish that I was wrong!” The new alicorn’s brow furrowed as she explained, “The fragments left when it was ripped away from Luna were collected and locked away, but not outright destroyed!”

“And it would seem that my sister and Spell Nexus missed one!” Luna glared upon the Nightmare and declared, “Regardless, I will not allow the Nightmare to harm another of my subjects!”

“Ain’t questionin’ that, Highness, but how’d it get in our world, and why go after all’a us if it was after Sunset as a new host? That don’t make sense!”

A malevolent chuckle issued forth from the Nightmare. “Do you wish to illuminate them, your Highness?” A wispier form, colored and shaded differently from the rest, came into focus upon its spectral chest as it taunted, “Or shall I?”

The Princess of the Night’s eyes widened in shock, and the Nightmare took advantage of it to counterattack with more tendrils of energy. The shield around it buckled, and that was enough for it to break free. Tendrils of energy shot out only to be quickly blocked by Luna and her newfound ally as the former realized, “That’s why it was weaker the last time! A piece of it was taken!”

Twilight quickly reached the same conclusion as Luna and gasped, “The Tantabus.”

“That thing Princess Luna made to give herself nightmares? What’s that got to do with this?”

“The Nightmare fragment must’ve been terribly weak, even after a year of being defeated and restoring itself within the castle.” The younger princess looked to Rainbow Dash and explained, “It must’ve sensed the Tantabus in Luna, and took a fragment of it for itself to try and increase its power and speed its recovery.”

“But that thing’s fueled by guilt, ain’t…” Applejack scowled as the realization dawned upon her. “That explains why it was after us, strong guilt! Especially outta Sunset! But that still don’t explain how it got inta our world!”

Sunset’s scowl quickly matched that of her farmgirl friend. “My message journal. It must’ve piggy-backed on a message Twilight sent from her copy.”

“There’s no way you could have known, Twilight. This isn’t your fault.” The unnamed alicorn smiled. “Still, I love it when ponies can figure things out for themselves. If it happened more often, my job would be so much easier.”

Luna gave her an annoyed look even as she strengthened her shields. “Did you know about this for certain, or did you merely suspect?” Another lash against them, and she gritted her teeth and strengthened her shields. “Never mind, it matters not how we’ve reached this point! Only that it be ended once and for all!”

The Nightmare laughed and launched a powerful burst of magic upon the alicorns’ shields. While Luna’s barrier cracked, it was swiftly reinforced by her new ally, but this did little to deter their foe. “End me? All you have done is given me the tools I need to become even stronger than before! Guilt is so plentiful, so strong, it can sustain me forever! And I wouldn’t have the means to use it if not for you and your ever-constant weakness, Princess Luna!”

Luna glared at the monster as she readied another attack, only for a familiar voice to speak up instead.

“How dare you.” Heads turned towards Fluttershy as she stepped in front of the alicorn with her gaze fixed upon the Nightmare. “How dare you! We’ve all made mistakes – me, Sunset, Princess Luna, all of us! We all know that we’ve caused one another pain, or said or done something terrible that we regret, that we’d all love to undo but can’t! But if Sunset and Princess Luna can get past their bad mistakes, then so can the rest of us, including me!” A flash of light, and the shy girl ponied up and fluttered into the air as the monster flinched back. “And I won’t stand for you pressing anymore of our buttons, you horrible cloud monster! Like Sunset said, get the buck out of her head!”

“I second that motion!” Pinkie tore away the clothing she wore, revealing in its place a deep pink jumpsuit and a proton pack upon her back. She pulled the attached wand-like gun free and turned it on, thus sending sizzling beams of energy right at the Nightmare and causing it to cry out in pain. “I ain’t afraid of no Nightmares either!”

“None of us are!” As Rarity stepped forward to enter the fray, her clothing shifted and changed into attire that wouldn’t look out of place in a film adaptation of “The Three Musketeers”, albeit a masculine design tailored for the feminine form. As a rapier formed in her right hand, she charged and declared, “Have at thee, demon!”

As the fashionista made several swift strokes with her sword, the Nightmare seemed more annoyed at her attacks than anything. “Foolish mortal, you truly think –?!” A shotgun blast interrupted it, with several more following in quick succession. “Who dares?!”

“Who else?!” Applejack’s attire had shifted so that her winter attire had been augmented by a deep brown longcoat and a bandolier about her chest, the garment packed with extra shells as she sent off further rounds. “Anyone gonna give me some support?! Ah’m gonna need ta’ reload eventually!”

The three alicorns and Sunset fired off beams of magic with their horns as Applejack paused to reload her weapon, which lead the unicorn to remark, “You imagined a shotgun with the limitations of a real one?!”

“Honesty’s a double-edged sword, sugarcube, and Ah know a thing or two ‘bout firearms!” The farmgirl looked about and asked, “Hey, where’d Rainbow Dash get to? She ain’t the sort to run from a fight!”

The sounds of heavy metal reached each of their ears as Sunset asked, “And why am I hearing AC/DC?”

Both questions were answered as Dash’s voice called through slight electronic distortion, “Sorry guys – had to get my power suit!” A multicolored, human-sized mecha shot overhead, slowed to a halt with the jets mounted into the soles of its boots and the pack upon its back, and started unleashing beams of energy upon their opponent with the jets in its palms as the athlete cackled, “Oh yeah! Always wanted to do this in real life!”

“But I thought War Machine was the Air Force guy?” Pinkie asked.

“Meh.” An impressively-sized mini-gun appeared on Dash’s shoulder and increased her firepower against the Nightmare. “Details.”

“Girls, not that I don’t appreciate this, but…!”

“Sunset, it ain’t like we’ve got anywhere else to go!” Applejack paused in her attacks to better speak with her friend and continued, “Besides, we left ya in the lurch once. We ain’t doin’ that again.”

“And don’t you dare try to bring up the fact that we could die, darling!” Rarity didn’t even look back from her sword strikes as she continued, “That’s an urban myth!”

“Yeah, about that…”

Before the new alicorn could finish her statement, the Nightmare launched a wave of energy against all of them. The ponies among them threw up shields in time to weather the blow, but Twilight was still pushed back alongside the five human teenagers, with Pinkie and Fluttershy suffering the least. “This is no normal dream! And as brave as you are, your attacks are worthless against me! And when even one of you falls, oh, the delicious guilt from those left!”

The alicorn scowled. “What it said.”

Rainbow chucked the helmet to her armor away as she got to her feet and declared, “You ain’t touching anyone else, you jerk!”

A malevolent chuckle answered her. “Oh, I shall do far more than ‘touch’ them, ape. While the unicorn would be my ideal host in your world, anyone would do.”

Horrified looks crossed the five girls’ faces at that implication, leading each of them to pause and for the magic to flicker on Pinkie and Fluttershy, until Sunset fired off another beam of magic and pushed the Nightmare back. “But that won’t happen! So can the guilt trips and…” Her eyes went wide with realization as a light seemed to shine from within. “That’s it. Princesses, cover us!” As the princesses wordlessly complied, Sunset looked to her friends and explained, “That’s it! That’s why this thing isn’t going down! Guilt!”

Rarity brushed herself off as she got to her feet. “I’m not sure I’m following, darling.”

“Spot the differences, Rarity.” Sunset tipped her head towards Pinkie and Fluttershy. “What do they have that you and the others don’t?”

Pinkie reached up to her ears and answered in Rarity’s place. “We Ponied Up! Or whatever we’re going to call it!”

Applejack shrugged. “Works well enough for me, but how’d they manage it?”

“Absolution.” Sunset turned to them and asked, “You let go of the guilt, didn’t you?”

The party girl smiled and explained, “Well, yeah! Seeing you smile again was enough to let me know that everything was gonna be okay between us.”

“And I just couldn’t sit back and let that thing hurt us with our past mistakes, especially after knowing you still thought of me as a friend.” Fluttershy blushed and added, “At least, that’s what I assume the kiss was for. Not that there’s anything wrong with it being meant for anything else, of course, but…”

Sunset gently laid a hoof upon her friend’s side and assured her, “Easy, Fluttershy. I know we’re both into guys.” She then turned to the rest of her friends and explained, “But the point stands. Pinkie, Fluttershy, Luna, me, we’ve all let go of our guilt over everything that’s happened. Now you need to do the same, so we can starve the Nightmare and take it down once and for all.”

Rarity lowered her gaze and remarked, “I’m afraid that’s easier said than done, dear. Even ignoring what we did to you, our failings run rather deep.”

“All the more reason to dry out that well.” The unnamed alicorn among them briefly sent a piercing blow against the Nightmare, then turned to Sunset and assured her with a smile. “You’re on the right track, Sunset. You’ve got this. We’ll give you the time you need.”

Sunset nodded and then turned her attention to the fashionista. “Rarity, your generous spirit is one of the best things about you. I mean, yeah, it didn’t turn out too well, but you offered me a room without giving it a second thought. And that’s ignoring you repairing my jacket.” She stepped forward and smiled in reassurance. “Yes, you were taken advantage of. Once. But you didn’t stop being generous.” She nodded her head towards the young alicorn with them and asked, “And you didn’t hesitate for one second to help Twilight, did you?”

Rarity’s eyes briefly darted towards hers, though the small smile that came with them stayed. “Well, no, but…”

“But nothing.” Sunset gently raised a hoof to one of the girl’s hands and said, “You messed up. It happens. And compared to what I did, your case was small potatoes. But that didn’t stop you from being who you are, and that’s something to be proud of. If anyone was going to rise above something like that, it’s you.” She then grinned and said, “And the next time you go up against that bitch Suri, and there will be a next time, you’ll win. Because I’ll have your back, and a bitch like me knows how to beat a bitch like her.”

The smile grew as Rarity knelt down and hugged the mare. “Thank you darling.” She pulled back and added, “But you are not a bitch. You’re a mare, and a rather adorable one at that. And a dear friend.” A flash, and familiar pony ears and a long ponytail appeared, leaving the fashionista to laugh, “Ooh! That feels much better!”

Sunset laughed. “Looks better too.” She then turned to Rainbow Dash. “Next?”

The athlete turned nervous. “Really can’t do Applejack first, can you?” Faced with raised eyebrows from the farmgirl and the unicorn, she let out a small moan. “Sunset, I don’t see anything you say here really helping.”

Sunset smiled at the apparent challenge and softly approached her friend. “Dash, your mom loves you, right?”

A shocked look crossed Rainbow Dash’s face. “Wha… of course she loves me! And I love her! She’s the most awesome mom in the history of parenting! How could I not love her?!”

“Then what are you so scared of?” Cerise eyes met her cyan ones as Sunset explained, “Dash, she’s your mom. I bet she gets why you were angry about her leaving, and why you’re having so much trouble talking to her now. But all of that won’t stop her from being happy to see you again.” Her smile grew with confidence as she added, “And you will see her again. She’s got two damn good reasons for wanting to come home, and I’m looking at one of them right now.”

Dash smiled and did her best to hide a tear as she admitted, “You deserved a lot better than me, y’know?”

“Maybe. But I’m happy with the awesome that I got. And you are awesome, Dash.”

“So are you, Sunset.” A laugh, and her ears, wings and ponytail grew in as the suit’s jetpack was jettisoned. “Okay, maybe there’s something to all this mushy stuff after all.”

Sunset laughed in reply as Applejack strode up beside her. “Ah guess that just leaves me, don’t it?” She sighed and knelt down beside the mare and admitted, “Trouble is, Ah don’t know what you can say that’ll help. Ah let you down, and Ah let my family down. All over again.”

“You figured it out a lot sooner than I did, though.” Sunset hugged her and sadly admitted, “And you got the chance to come home a lot sooner, too. The family I left behind is an entire world away.”

“And the family you found here went and threw you away,” the farmgirl mournfully admitted.

Sunset held her tight and countered, “And then you came back for me.” As Applejack pulled back in surprise, she explained, “It takes a lot to admit to making a mistake, AJ. I know that better than most. Takes even more to avoid repeating that mistake.”

A small chuckle escaped the farmgirl’s lips. “You’re doin’ better at that than I am, sugarcube.”

“Really?” Sunset smiled gently. “It wasn’t hypocrisy that had you avoid repeating with Apple Bloom the mistake you made with me. I’m not saying that you didn’t screw up, or that you didn’t have the right to be angry with her or her friends, but you did what you could to avoid making it worse.”

“Don’t change what happened, though.”

“No, but it doesn’t change this, either. Your family loves you, AJ. Your parents and me included. We’ll never toss you away, and that’s the honest truth.”

Applejack’s eyes closed as she smiled softly. “And Ah ain’t tossin’ you away neither.” A flash of light, and she ponied up at last and stood at her feet, shotgun at the ready. “Now let’s try this again.”

Sunset grinned and turned to face the Nightmare as it struggled to get past the alicorns’ defenses. “All together now.”

Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy both took flight, the latter Staring the Nightmare down as the former resumed her attacks, supported by fire from Pinkie, Applejack and Sunset’s respective forms of attack. Rarity, meanwhile, had swapped her rapier for a musket and let out a round of her own.

The Nightmare seemed to recoil, only to resurge a second later and force everyone back. “A valiant effort, but it isn’t enough!” it laughed in apparent triumph. “Your efforts are pitiful, foals! You expect to defeat the darkest of magic with none of your own?!”

“Ah don’t get it!” Applejack looked to Sunset and asked, “We’re ponied up, magic’s kicked in, what’s missin’?!

The Nightmare shot out multiple tendrils, each one either blocked or destroyed by Luna in retaliation as she offered, “It still has guilt to feed upon! That is the only explanation for it to continue like this!” She looked to the newcomer among them. “You…?”

“No, Princess Luna.” Her own counterattacks tore through the Nightmare’s tendrils like buzzsaws and prompted screams as the alicorn countered, “As many problems as I have, addressing my guilt isn’t among them.”

“Then where’s it coming…from…?” Sunset’s voice trailed off as she looked to the only option left. “Twilight?”

Twilight’s magic gave out, and the Nightmare pressed its attack only to be swiftly repelled by the other two alicorns as one called to the other, “And this is why you needed my help! Now hold it back!”

Luna struggled alongside the newcomer and retorted, “As if I was attempting to do otherwise?!”

The young princess’s head hung low, her eyes closed and shame clear as day upon her face. “I’m sorry, Sunset. All of this, it’s my fault.”

“No, it isn’t.” Sunset rushed to her and spoke with gentle reassurance. “You had no way of knowing about the Nightmare…”

“No, not this,” Twilight bitterly countered. “What led to this, you being in a position where…” She opened her eyes and forced herself to look upon the unicorn as tears began to well in her eyes. “I failed you, Sunset. You’re my student, and my friend, and I left you in a place where you could get hurt. And you did.”

“But that wasn’t your fault, Twilight!” Dash approached with the rest of her friends and countered, “You left her with us! We screwed up, not you!”

“But I could have brought Sunset back to Equestria with me after the Fall Formal! We could have avoided all of this! She could be with her family again!” She screwed her eyes shut and wept. “What kind of princess am I if I can’t find three of my subjects?! What kind of friend am I if I can’t keep someone I care about from being attacked!”

“A better kind of friend than the five of us.” Applejack knelt beside her and gently ran a hand down her neck. “When all that crap went down with Anon-A-Miss, you did what none a’ us did and stuck with her. You saved her, Twilight. Just like you saved our friendships.”

“And my soul.” Sunset raised a hoof to wipe away Twilight’s tears. “We both know that if you tried to force me to go back, I wouldn’t have done so. I was too afraid, especially after the Fall Formal. So you did the next best thing.”

“Did I?” Twilight opened her eyes to the girls. “I thought that you all could help her learn how to be a better friend, just like your counterparts all helped me.”

“Well, don’t they make mistakes sometimes?” Rarity offered. “Perhaps not as terrible as the one we made, but still. Besides, I think they learned a thing or two from you as well.”

“And you could have just forgotten all about Sunset, and about us, after the Fall Formal. But you didn’t.” Fluttershy gently stroked her neck and assured her, “You’ve been there for her, and for us. Being here proves it.”

“It’s why we love you, silly!”

Sunset giggled at Pinkie’s remark before turning to Twilight and saying, “Twilight, having them with me gave me the strength to keep going in their world. Having you? That’s reminded me that there’s still a place for me back in Equestria, and ponies who love me waiting for me to come home.” She then hugged the princess and added, “Including ones you haven’t met yet.” The hug ended as she added, “And you will find Sunrunner. I know you will, one way or another, no matter how long it takes.”

“But the Chest, and…”

“Twilight, you saved Princess Luna. You stopped Discord. You exposed and defeated Queen Chrysalis, twice. You helped save the Crystal Empire. You did what Celestia couldn’t and saved Rarity from being a puppet to the Nightmare. You finished Star Swirl’s ascension spell, and that was all before you met me. The Chest will be easy street compared to that, and finding my cousin even easier.” Sunset held out a hoof and offered, “Because of a lesson you taught me without me even realizing it. You weren’t alone, and you won’t be alone. And I’m not alone, thanks to you.”

Twilight’s eyes were fixed upon Sunset’s as those words sunk in, until a smile formed upon her face. “You’re right, Sunset. I’m not alone.”

The Nightmare suddenly ceased its attacks with a pained cry, and its opposition pressed their advantage even as the next words they heard did them proud.

“And I will find her. Because I made a promise to my friend. And I keep my promises.”

“NOOOO!” The Nightmare screamed and convulsed as the Tantabus fragment within it tore free and streamed its way back and forth. “You cannot…!”

“They can.” The Tantabus fragment reunited with Luna as she explained, “There are powers stronger than you, Nightmare. Magic far beyond your comprehension. It’s why I was freed, and why Sunset didn’t fall.”

“Because we know we’re not alone.” Sunset rose into the air as a magical aura formed around her. Similar ones, each a unique color, did the same around her friends, and she and the five human girls formed a circle around Twilight, one hoof held by Applejack and the other by Fluttershy as familiar energies swirled and circled around them. “And I’m not sorry about what’s coming next, but it’s time you got a reminder of why you lost.”

“Because of something you’ll never understand.” A confident smile was upon her muzzle as Twilight uttered the all too familiar words. “Friendship is magic.”

And for the first time, and hopefully not the last, Sunset saw what it was like to be on the other end of an attack from the Elements of Harmony as the Nightmare was engulfed in light of every color of the rainbow, screaming in defiance all the way until it could scream no more…

Chapter Eight - Loved More Than You Know

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Those gathered within the bridge realm quickly looked to Sunset’s prone form as it convulsed slightly before her mouth opened by a tiny crack. A wispy, shadowy form shot straight out and into the air, crackling and sparkling like a firework before it dissipated and faded from existence, and six moans chorused all at once as the alicorns roused themselves.

“Applejack!” Within seconds of her sister sitting up and gaining full consciousness, Apple Bloom rushed to her side and took her into a tight hug. As her fellow Crusaders did the same for their respective sister and surrogate sister, and the pony Pinkie Pie did likewise for her human counterpart, she happily exclaimed, “Yer okay! Yer all okay!” She turned to Sunset, who was taking the most time to rouse herself, and asked, “You are all okay, right?”

The flame-haired girl opened her eyes and smiled. “Yeah. We’re okay.” Cries of relief went out all around as Sunset found herself comforted first by a light hug from Principal Celestia, then nuzzles from Princess Celestia and another hug from Twilight. “But I’m in no rush to do that again.”

“Me too.” Fluttershy found herself getting comfort from a relieved Angel Bunny as she moved into a sitting position. “It all worked out okay, but that was way too scary.”

“I’ll second that.” Sunset noticed the new alicorn making her way towards the portal. “Miss? Thanks, I…” She then noticed the second Twilight Sparkle beside her, and swiftly turned her head back and forth between the two Twilights. “How…?”

“It’s a long story, Sunset.” The new alicorn turned to Princess Celestia and promised, “And you’ll have your answers, but not here. Don’t worry, we won’t be far.”

The Princess of the Sun nodded. “I’ll hold you to that promise.”

The two then stepped through the portal back to Equestria, and Apple Bloom spoke up. “Okay, what all just happened here?”

“Yeah, I mean, aside from that second Twilight and that new alicorn, we got everything else explained, but what was that right there at the end?”

“A most impressive thing indeed, Sweetie Belle.” Princess Luna looked to Sunset and explained, “Despite the Nightmare taking root in her subconscious and having to relive one of the worst experiences of her life, Sunset Shimmer found the strength within to reject it before we reached her and the others, as well as the heart to rally her friends against it. As a result, they have emerged victorious.” She smiled and added, “You succeeded where I failed, young mare. You’ve much reason to be proud.”

“Thank you, Princess Luna.” Flash offered her a hand, and Sunset gratefully took it and got to her feet before turning back to the alicorn. “So, is that the end of it?”

“In this case, I believe so.” As the group stood up from the semicircle that had been formed around her, the Princess of the Night elaborated, “That was a fragment of the Nightmare rather than the complete form, weakened and forced to use a fragment of my Tantabus to bolster its energies. Combined with it being bombarded with far greater power than what was used to rip it from me in the first place, and I can safely say that it has been destroyed.”

“So Sunset and Twilight and Rainbow Dash and everyone killed a Nightmare?” Scootaloo looked to be practically beside herself with excitement at that thought. “Way too awesome!”

“As much as one can kill a formless entity composed of dark magic, yes.”

“Even then, it looks like it was all near thing. Especially if whoever she was had to show up to help.” Doctor Hope approached the group with an apologetic look of her own. “I’m still not sure if my part in all of this helped you or it more.”

“Well, I don’t think that really matters at this…” Rarity paused as surprise flooded her face. “Wait a moment, what are you doing in here?! How in heaven’s name did you even know about this place?!”

“Come to think of it, we didn’t even get a name for you when we came in.” Spike approached her anxiously and asked, “Who are you?”

With a sigh, the therapist shook her head. “Well, I can forgive you for being caught up in the excitement.” She gave a polite bow to each in turn as she continued, “Princess Twilight Sparkle, Spike, Pinkie Pie, it’s good to finally meet all of you. I’m Doctor Radiant Hope.”

“And she knows about the bridge realm because Hope snuck in on us one day when we were visiting with the princess.” The human Celestia smirked and added, “You didn’t think I wouldn’t call in just any psychologist, did you?”

Sunset groaned. “I should’ve known.” She looked to the doctor and reasoned, “You went to school with them here at CHS.”

“Yes and no. It’s a long story.”

“Wait a second!” the human Pinkie reached into her hair and pulled out the large book of Equestrian lore that she’d been given months prior. “I know I’ve heard that name before!” She cracked the book open and flipped through the pages until she found what she sought, and then dramatically cleared her throat. “‘While most of the Crystal Empire’s unicorn population was slain by King Sombra and the Somber Elite, a few managed to escape prior to the purge. Among them was the one who informed the Princesses of Sombra’s seizure of the crown and the apparent demise of Princess Amore, one Radiant Hope’!”

“My counterpart.” Hope looked to Princess Celestia and asked, “Has there been any word concerning her?”

“Nothing concrete, no, but given the number of miraculous events that have happened in the last year, I haven’t given up on seeing her again.” The alicorn gave her former students a small wink before turning back to the doctor. “If anything turns up, you’ll find out about it.”

“Thank you.” She then sighed and looked among the girls and said, “In any case, I’m sorry for not being upfront with all of you about what I knew. Aside from it not being directly relevant to what was going on, I thought it best to focus on the issues at hand and not on what tied us all together. I hope that you can understand.”

The girls looked among themselves, and Applejack shrugged. “Well, not much we can do about it now. Still, you got a point there, and you did help us out. So thanks for that.”

The others agreed, leaving Dr. Hope to give a relieved smile. “Good.” She assumed a more professional expression and continued, “That said, I think it would be a good idea to have a follow-up talk with all of you sometime soon, Sunset especially. Something tells me you won’t object.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Don’t need to be a shrink to figure that out.”

Principal Celestia shook her head as she suppressed a laugh. “Well, if that’s everything taken care of…”

“Not quite!” Attention was turned to the pink party pony among them as her gaze turned steely and she raised an accusing forehoof towards her targets. “Human Crusaders! You did a bad thing!”

The trio looked among themselves before they turned back to Pinkie. “Ah guess ya’ll heard about what we did.”

“Yep, and I’m disappointed in all of you! You could’ve just talked to your sisters about this, and that could’ve saved you a lot of trouble!” She then turned her attention elsewhere and continued, accusing hoof still raised. “Human me and friends! You did a bad thing too, abandoning Sunset like that! You should’ve at least tried to hear her side of things instead of jumping to conclusions!” She sighed and lowered her hoof slightly. “But you know all that by now.” At her counterpart’s sad nod, she continued, “Well, we both do stupid things without thinking about it. I guess that’s something we both need to work on.” The two exchanged hopeful smiles before Pinkie’s hoof was raised accusingly once more. “Human Flash Sentry!”

The blue-haired teen looked at her in surprise. “Wha-?! What did I do wrong?!”

Pinkie beamed gleefully. “Absolutely nothing, silly! You get a hug!” She then rushed towards him and took him into a tight embrace with such force that he was nearly knocked off his feet. In the midst of her hug, however, she stopped with wide-eyed wonder before making a small ‘oooh’ of approval and rubbing her head against his torso. She then ended the hug and turned to Twilight with a grin. “I can see why you fell for him, Twilight. He’s got nice abs.” Before Twilight could stutter a response to that, Pinkie turned and merrily pronked her way back to Equestria. “See ya in a minute, Twilight! I gotta go talk to Twilight!”

Everyone else simply stood and stared, the human Pinkie nodding in agreement while Flash and Twilight were both visibly blushing, before Applejack noted, “Ah think that’s enough for one day, how ‘bout the rest a’ y’all?” No one disagreed, and most started making for their respective portals save for two. “Flash? You comin’?”

“I’ll catch up.” He waved Applejack on as Twilight did the same to Spike and her world’s Celestia and Luna. Once they were alone, he made a small laugh and offered, “I guess something like this is a Tuesday for you, huh?”

She laughed in response. “No, I can safely say this isn’t a normal day for me. I mean, it’s been a while since I talked to another version of myself.” At his confused expression, she waved a hoof and explained, “Time travel, long story. So, you doing okay?”

“Yeah, okay enough. And so have you, from what Sunset’s told me. Everything considered.” He turned serious as he asked, “You think things will be okay now that you and your friends don’t have your Elements anymore?”

“After today? I think things are looking a little better.”

“Good.” The nervousness returned as he asked, “And, what about… him?”

Twilight didn’t need to ask whom he was referring. “He and I are getting on okay, in spite of everything. In fact, I’m going to be seeing him in a few days.” She turned nervous herself and said, “And I’m going to tell him. Everything.”

Flash bowed his head. “I hope he takes it okay, for your sake.”

The alicorn approached and reached out a hoof. “You took this okay, didn’t you?”

A small, sad smile formed. “I guess.” He took the hoof and gently offered, “Still, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t envy him.”

Twilight offered an encouraging smile of her own. “Don’t be too down on yourself, Flash. You’re a good man.” The smile turned into a teasing grin as she added, “With some nice abs.”

Despite himself, he laughed. “I’m never living that down, am I?”

“No, but there’s worse things to be known for.”

She turned to go, and waved goodbye as she stepped back through the portal to Equestria. Flash watched her depart, sighed, and idly said to no one in particular, “I just hope he learned the same lessons I did, Twilight. For his sake and mine.”

-

“Alright Crystal Faire, I think I get everything that’s happened. Surviving Nightmare fragment, escaped to Canterlot High, attempted to control Sunset and all of that.” The two alicorns emerged from the basement of the Golden Oak Library and entered its main floor as the dimension-hopping Twilight continued, “But there’s one thing about this that bothers me. You said they hadn’t figured out the trick to force the portal open, but the Anon-A-Miss incident happened after the battle with the Sirens.”

“In your timeline, yes.” Crystal turned to directly address her companion and sat down as she explained, “You’ve already noticed that certain timelines are different, with small details varying here and there. Sometimes those differences include events happening in a different order from how you remember them.”

“Or not at all.”

A nod. “And sometimes other details are different. For instance.” She gestured back towards the basement door and explained, “Thanks to the way Star Swirl made the portals in this world, the actual dates between this world and the world of Canterlot High are offset by about six months.” She then gestured with a hoof towards the windows. “Winter there…”

Twilight Sparkle went to the window and looked outside. “…And summer here.” She then looked back to a table upon which a number of diagrams and notes had been laid out, along with some cups and plates of food. “It’s not long after the Summer Sun Celebration here.”

“Only a scant few weeks.”

“Which means that me – the local me – is working on trying to open the Chest, and…” The young alicorn’s eyes widened in horror as she remembered all of the trouble yet to come, and she turned to her niece and pleaded, “We have to warn them!”

Crystal shook her head. “No, Twilight. We can’t.” Before her aunt could protest, she raised a hoof and explained, “This timeline is already different from yours in many ways. And yes, all the dangers to come are all still possible here. But there’s no guarantee things will go exactly the same way, and you giving a warning could end up making things worse in unexpected ways. I interfere when I have to, and only when I have to.” She offered an encouraging smile and added, “And for all you know, you and your friends might well be better equipped to deal with them here than you were yourself.”

The argument certainly seemed logical, but one thing stuck out. “But what about that pony you mentioned, Sunrunner? Who is she?”

“Sunset Shimmer’s cousin, on her mother’s side.” The two turned back towards where they’d come from to find Celestia, Luna, Spike and Pinkie had caught up with them, with the eldest of the group giving them an enigmatic smile. “Though if it wasn’t for her wings instead of a horn, you’d think they were twin sisters.” She stepped forward and noted, “Now then, I believe you promised us answers.”

Twilight gave her companion an uneasy glance, only for Crystal to nod. “I did, and it won’t hurt for you to know the details.” She turned her full attention to the natives and asked with an enigmatic smile of her own, “I assume you’ve already figured out a few things?”

“Enough to guess anyway.” Spike stepped forward towards Twilight, only to stop and give her a good looking over. “You’re Twilight, aren’t you? Just from another alternate world instead of ours, right?”

The smile and nod she gave were both proud. “Got it in one, Spike.”

“OMIGOSHOMIGOSHOMIGOSH!” With her usual uncanny speed, Pinkie Pie zipped into place between them, her muzzle mere fractions of an inch distant from Twilight’s, and continued, “I was wondering if we’d meet another version of Twilight someday! Of course, I was expecting it to be one from the human world, maybe wearing glasses or something, but –!”

Pinkie popped out of existence, only to pop back into it milliseconds later at Princess Luna’s side. The Princess of the Night then cupped one hoof over the party mare’s muzzle and offered, “Perhaps we should give them some room to breathe?”

Twilight Sparkle sighed and shook her head with a smile. “Some things just don’t change, I guess.”

“For good and for ill.” Luna’s amusement faded as her attention turned to Crystal Faire. “You, however, remain an enigma. Logic suggests that the two of you came to this reality together, and you clearly mean us no ill given your actions thus far, but that does not tell us your identity.”

“She is one who has yet to exist in this world.” Heads turned as Seventh Moon made his presence known once more. “One of perhaps many foals to come for Mi Amore Cadenza and Shining Armor.” His grey eyes were soon fixed upon Crystal Faire as he noted, “And this is not the first time she has crossed the barriers that divide one dimension from another.”

Twilight Sparkle looked upon the stallion, and found herself thinking that she should remember him from somewhere, only to fail to place him. Her compatriot, however, affixed a steely gaze upon the unusual stallion and declared, “I’ve no quarrel with you or your kin, Observer.”

“Nor I you. I merely came to offer my thanks for your efforts on this world’s behalf, and ask that you not mince words with your hosts.” He then turned back to the others and removed his hat as he bowed his head. “Princesses. Miss Pie. Sir Spike.”

“Hi again Seventh Moon!” Pinkie greeted the pony with a wave.

“Observer?” Twilight Sparkle asked with a whisper.

“Something else for me to explain later,” Crystal whispered in answer. “Needless to say, this is a busy timeline.” As the local Twilight finally joined them, she added, “And it will only get busier.”

Twilight kept an awestruck gaze upon them as Spike rushed to her and explained, “Twilight, this is amazing! That one mare is you from another universe, and the other one…!”

“I heard, Spike.” A smile slowly formed upon her face as she approached Crystal and said, “You’re my niece. Will be my niece.”

A warm smile greeted her. “Whichever. Hello Twi-oof!”

She was interrupted as Twilight gave her a warm hug before quickly breaking off. “I’m sorry, I know that was sudden, but this is amazing! I’m going to be an auntie! I mean, I knew it was a possibility, but still, this is amazing!” The local looked to the visitor and then back to Crystal as she asked, “Did you two come from the same universe, or distinct ones?”

“Distinct ones. May I?” The resident Twilight sheepishly backed off, and Crystal Faire explained, “Unfortunately, our story is not a happy one. As the Observer said, I am a traveler across the multiverse, able to not only move from one timeline to another but also see the flow of events into the future. So far as I know, that talent has only occurred with one version of myself, and this isn’t my native timeline, so you needn’t worry about any future princesses just vanishing into other worlds whenever they please.”

“Were Star Swirl here, he might have something to say about that,” Luna retorted. “Still, this is a world where a version of you shall exist at one point, correct?”

“So far, I’ve only been able to visit timelines where King Sombra was defeated and the Crystal Empire restored, but given those are prerequisites for me having been conceived at the right time, yes. I shall exist here one day, and not too far into the future.”

Pinkie grinned. “Good thing I’m already planning Cadance’s baby shower then.”

The gathered ponies all reacted to the party pony’s admittance with no surprise, Spike and both Twilights rolling their eyes and smiling as Celestia, Luna and Crystal Faire chuckled. Even Seventh Moon cracked a tiny grin, though it faded quickly.

“In any case, for some time, I’ve been going from one timeline to another, helping to prevent catastrophes and aiding residents where possible. Most of the time, like here, I’ve been successful, but sometimes…” She lowered her head and admitted, “Sometimes things still go wrong, somehow.” She gestured to Twilight Sparkle and explained, “This Twilight Sparkle, the one who came with me, is the last survivor of one of the times that things have gone wrong.”

“My timeline was…” The lavender alicorn struggled with her words before finally summoning her resolve, “…it was destroyed.” She looked to Crystal Faire and explained, “The only reason I wasn’t lost along with everypony else in my timeline was because…well…”

“Because I was able to get her out of danger.”

Spike held close to his Twilight as the native ponies looked among one another. Luna pursed her lips and turned to the Observer among them. “Seventh Moon, do you have any knowledge of similar phenomena?”

Seventh Moon waited until after Pinkie made a low, musical sound and shook his head. “No, Highness. The awareness of the wider multiverse by my kin and I ends at the boundaries of the world we know, this one. We can sense when this world is breached, but only under very special circumstances are we able to see into other worlds on our own. As for whether such a thing could happen here, I cannot say.”

“Well don’t worry.” Crystal smiled. “I don’t think this timeline is collapsing anytime soon.”

“And were that to happen, we would do something to alert you.” Seventh Moon looked to Celestia and added, “Whether we would be able to solve the problem is another matter.”

“Well I’m relieved to know we aren’t in immediate danger, but could this collapse that the visiting Twilight has described occur in the future?”

“It isn’t my place to tell.” A scowl formed upon his face as he explained, “It is for others to see the future.”

“For now, I’m at a loss for what’s causing it, but I’m doing my best to learn even as I continue my mission.” Crystal looked to the Twilight Sparkle at her side and added, “Sometimes with a little help.”

“And we’re all grateful for that help, but this leaves several important details.” Celestia eyed her uneasily. “Your name being one of them.”

She gave a small nod. “My name varies from timeline to timeline, depending upon the circumstances surrounding my birth. There are many things that I’d prefer not to influence, but given you’ll be talking about me for a while, I may as well tell you. My name is Crystal Faire.” She grinned. “Just don’t confuse me with the foal to come.”

The elder alicorn smiled. “It’s a lovely name. I’m pleased to have met you. And I’m grateful that…” Celestia quickly found that there was now an empty space where Seventh Moon had been standing. “I wish he wouldn’t do that.”

Crystal chuckled. “I’d get used to that if I were you. They tend to have a flair for the dramatic.”

“Well, please don’t repeat the trick yourself, I still have questions.” The native Twilight’s attention was fixed upon Crystal Faire and her eyes wide with eager curiosity. “How did you get to Canterlot High through the bridge realm? I mean, I assume you used the bridge realm – the entire reason Star Swirl created the mirror portals was to conserve his magic given how much it takes to create a stable portal between dimensions – but I didn’t think it was possible to use them to enter that world by that method!”

“Normally, no, but I’ve studied how Star Swirl constructed the portals. I temporarily overrode the safeties he put in place when he made them. Given time and study of his research, you may well be able to do it yourself, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it again. I only did it because I had no other way to both get to Canterlot High and to attract your attention to face the Nightmare.”

“Yeah, forcing the main portal open is easier, not to mention safer.” Twilight Sparkle’s hoof immediately shot to her mouth. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t…!”

“It’s alright, I’ve been working in that direction anyway.” The local Twilight flashed her counterpart a reassuring smile. “And if you figured it out, then I should be able to do it too.”

“But for now, you can focus upon easier things.” Crystal turned to her Twilight Sparkle and winked. “It’s not breaking my rules if they’ll get there anyway.”

“Well, I’m actually worried about my warning system.” The young alicorn indicated the set of bells hanging above their heads and continued, “I modified the bridge mirror so that I’d be alerted to anyone entering the bridge realm, just in case Sunset ever needed to urgently talk to me and didn’t have time to send a message through her journal, but for some reason, my system didn’t work. I wasn’t alerted when you entered, and they sound off at regular intervals. I looked at it before I joined you, and it looked like it was damaged at the end near the portal.”

Crystal Faire shook her head. “Not by us and not on purpose.”

“And Twilight made extra-special-sure that we knew what those were about, especially after the Anon-A-Miss mess a couple weeks back.” Pinkie turned to Twilight and offered. “Maybe you’ve got rats. Or gremlins. Or gremlin-rats.”

“Yeah, I’d rule out rats.” Spike gestured to Owlowicious and noted, “Assistant Number Two’s pretty good about dealing with stuff like that. Gremlins maybe, but gremlin-rats? Are those even a thing?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but for all we know, you just have a few details to work out.” Crystal smiled in encouragement and offered, “Speaking of, you’ve been looking for Sunrunner. Try the Royal Guard forces stationed in Canterlot. You’ll find her there.”

The lavender alicorn’s eyes lit up. “Sunrunner is in Canterlot?” The light faded back to normal as her attention went back to her mentor and her expression became one of hurt shock. “Sunrunner is in Canterlot?! She’s in the Royal Guard?! Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“Bec ause I wasn’t sure that I had the right to do so.” Celestia sighed and apologetically explained, “Yes, Sunrunner is assigned to the Canterlot division of the Royal Guard. I’ve met her several times myself, the most recent at an award ceremony for her actions during the Changeling invasion. I’ve opted against speaking to her, however, out of respect for her parents’ wishes. Solar Flare did little to hide how she felt in regards to how her niece and I parted ways, and hasn’t wanted a thing to do with me since. For all I knew, that would have extended to you as well.” She looked to Crystal and noted, “And I’m ashamed to say that had you not mentioned her, I wouldn’t have told Twilight about this.”

Crystal frowned sadly. “Unfortunately, that happens more often than you’d like, you keeping secrets.”

The Princess of the Sun nodded and declared, “Well, no more keeping this a secret.” She turned back to Twilight and said, “So far as finding her or contacting her directly goes, you may want to talk to Silver Bullet, Pixie Dust, or this world’s Flash Sentry about it. They were her friends in the Academy, and the former two have the better chance of meeting her personally.”

The resident Twilight sighed and accepted that. “I will, thank you.” She then turned back to her counterpart and noted, “I guess you never had to deal with this.”

“Celestia keeping details from me?” The visiting Twilight bowed her head as she admitted, “More than I’d like, even if things did work out for the best. But finding Sunrunner?” She rose and shook her head. “No. For all I know, she never existed in my timeline. But I hope that you do meet her, and soon. If she’s important enough for my niece to mention, then she has to be worth it.”

A hopeful smile formed upon Twilight’s muzzle. “Last I checked, every pony was worth it to somepony. And I’m closer to meeting her now than I was before, so thank you.” She then stepped forward and added, “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about your home timeline. I couldn’t begin to imagine how it feels for you now, losing everything like that.”

“I hope that you never have to.” Twilight Sparkle gave her own encouraging smile and offered a hoof. “For now, you look after this world, and all of your friends. There’s a lot waiting for you on the road ahead, but you’ll get through it, as long as you have them.”

The hoof was accepted. “I always have.” A thought occurred to her, and Twilight asked, “I didn’t just cause something terrible to happen by touching my counterpart, did I?”

Crystal let out a soft chuckle. “No.”

A sigh of relief. “Good. I’ve got plans for this weekend.”

“Plans involving a certain pegasus guardstallion,” Pinkie helpfully supplied.

Before her counterpart could even start to roll her eyes at her friend’s comment, the visiting Twilight gave her a curious look. “Is it somepony named ‘Quiver Quill’? I saw the name in your mail and I thought…”

“No, no, it’s…” A small smile that spoke volumes formed on the local Twilight’s face as she explained, “It’s this world’s Flash Sentry. We’ve been kinda dating since about a week after I went to Canterlot High. Quiver’s just a friend.”

Crystal flashed an enigmatic grin. “And also worth it, to many someponies.”

“Oh.” Twilight Sparkle grinned at her counterpart’s good fortune. “Good for you.” She then looked to Crystal and teased, “Maybe you’ll even have a cousin here someday.”

A shrug. “It’s been known to happen.” She looked over the locals and said, “Your timeline is secure, now that Sunset Shimmer is alright. Believe me, she’s got an important role to play in the future. I don’t know if I’ll come this way again, but I’ve been around enough to know that anything can happen. For now, I’ve got work to do.” Twilight Sparkle came up beside her as Crystal Faire finished, “Until then, look after each other.”

And with those words, the two disappeared before their eyes, leaving only one Twilight behind in the company of her two fellow princesses, her two assistants, and Pinkie Pie. The latter mare grinned and looked to the others as she offered, “Well, I feel like I probably dodged a bullet, how about the rest of you?”

“Indeed.” Celestia cleared her throat uneasily. “Twilight, you were saying something before we were called away?”

“Right.” The young alicorn regained her composure and gestured to the materials Sunset had given her that morning. “Well, this might just be a coincidence, but I’ve noticed something.” She pulled out one sheet of paper depicting a map. “This is a map of the schools in the same district as Canterlot High, plus a few that overlap with the neighboring districts. Notice the names and placements.”

“Yes, it’s all too familiar.” Luna fetched an atlas and opened it to a modern map of Equestria and its surrounding nations. “Some minor variations such as this Crystal Heights Preparatory Academy, but otherwise…”

“Canterlot High, Manehattan Tech, Indianapoloosa Tech, Vanhoover High…” Twilight pursed her lips. “And those are just the schools. This is too much to be a coincidence.”

“I agree, especially considering all of the stark differences between the two worlds.” Celestia lowered her head in regret. “I should have told you about Sunrunner sooner. You’ve already got enough on your plate as it is.”

Twilight gave a sad sigh. “All the more reason to clear it off.”

-

Granny Smith couldn’t help but be reminded of the number of times that she’d sat waiting in a hospital for either good or bad news as she found herself patiently waiting for someone to emerge from the bridge realm. Her granddaughter suddenly passing out was one thing to worry about, but all of her friends doing the same just made it worse. She knew they’d be alright, but that didn’t stop her from worrying. She’d buried far too many relatives in her time, after all, and the longer it took before the next funeral, the better.

Fortunately, today wasn’t that day as her granddaughters’ friends emerged from the portal, Apple Bloom among the first and Applejack among the last. Both moved to her as she stood up and gave her a warm hug. “Land sakes, darlin’s, you had me plum worried ‘bout you two!”

“Sorry Granny,” Applejack pulled back and assured her, “It’s all over now though, don’t worry.”

“Ah figured as much.” She looked to Principal Celestia and asked, “Lemme guess, more a’ this magic stuff?”

“Nothing your granddaughter and her friends couldn’t handle.” The administrator looked to her charges and said, “Oh, and all of you need to head to the main office to see about your missed classwork for this afternoon. Not to mention your homework.” A light groan sounded as she smirked. “You’re not getting out of it that easy, Rainbow Dash.”

“I guess.” The athlete looked to the Crusaders and added, “Of course, the same goes for the three of you. We’ve got practice. Come on!” The Crusaders were ushered out with light protest, most of the rest following until just three remained.

Dr. Hope managed a small laugh. “Well, I think our collective secret is safe.” She then turned to Sunset and offered a hand. “I’m glad that I met you Sunset, even if it was under these circumstances. Hopefully the next time we talk won’t turn into a crisis.”

“I’ll second that, ma’am.” Sunset warmly shook the accepted hand, then watched her depart with a slight frown upon her face. She then turned to the last one remaining with her. “Principal Celestia, do you have a minute or two? I think we still have something we need to talk about.”

“I’m not surprised. May I sit?”

Sunset nodded, and the older woman did so upon a nearby sofa. The flame-haired girl then took a deep breath. “Almost three years ago, I came to this world, stubborn and angry and full of spite and frustration. And so much of it was directed at the other you, my world’s Celestia. But despite all that, how the two of us parted, she asked you to look after me.” Celestia looked as though she wanted to interrupt, but a small hand-raise from Sunset prompted her silence. “You didn’t come right out and say anything. Probably wouldn’t have helped if you had. But you did as she requested, and you kept me safe. You directed me to the bridge realm, gave me keys to the school and money for clothes and food and whatever. I didn’t question it either, just chalked it up to good luck and went on like the idiot that I was.

“And then the Fall Formal happened. I finally woke up to the monster that I’d turned myself into and, instead of forcing me to go back or forcing Twilight to take me back, you let me stay. I was punished and forced out of the bridge realm, but now I knew whom my benefactor was, and where I probably should have been sent to juvenile hall or whatever, instead, I was given a light sentence, ushered into a new home, got a new cell phone, and a few weeks later, a job. All thanks to you.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. You could have turned your back on me after everything I did, but instead, you chose to help me. I am not about to resent you for that because frankly, I didn’t have any other options. But I can see the other side of that too.” Her expression was pained, but her voice was even and her emotions under control. “You’ve had me on a leash ever since I got here, in one way or another. The debit card was funded by money from your account. You got me admitted into this school and kept me from being on anyone’s radar, despite every mess I’ve caused. The apartment I live in is one you own, where members of your family have resided. The first cell phone you gave me? Cloned and monitored, by you. The job I have is at a shop, run by a friend of yours who knew my secret. The therapist? Another friend of yours who knew the truth about me. If I were more cynical, I’d say you were covering your ass and trying to use what I went through to your advantage and keep me under your thumb.

Sunset chose that moment to sit down beside her. “I’m not mad about you monitoring me, or making certain I was kept under watch. You’d be an idiot not to, after everything I’ve done here. But I’m not thrilled about being manipulated or kept in the dark. You could have said something, point blank, to me and the girls. If you’d intervened, done something, we might have avoided everything that happened over the last few weeks. Sure, Sweetie Belle would still resent me and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo would probably still be afraid of me at best, but better that than what I did go through. Princess Celestia was a lot of things, but one thing she was adamant about was that she wasn’t a god. Long-lived, powerful, wise, yeah, but not a god, and definitely prone to make mistakes. Me being here is proof enough for that. And you don’t have nearly that many advantages going for you to be playing chessmaster.”

A long pause held after that until Celestia was the one to finally break it. “I almost think this would have been easier if you were mad at me, Sunset.”

A shrug. “I’ve been through way too much lately to keep all that anger up. Besides, we’ve both made mistakes. Mine only involved fewer good intentions.” She raised a hand and left it hanging. “I’m not saying that I’m moving out, or quitting my job, or telling you where to put it. All I’m saying is that I’m done feeling like a puppet dancing on a string. Stop playing Dumbledore, and trust me enough to just talk to me. Please.”

Celestia looked to the extended hand, and a small smile formed upon her face as she took it. “I suppose I should be doing that.” The smile faded as she amended, “Alright, but you need to know this. There are many things that I can’t tell you, either because I don’t know them myself or because I’ve promised someone else to maintain secrecy. But you’re anything but stupid, Sunset, and you figured out plenty by simply paying attention and reading between the lines, so if you make some supposition based on what I tell you, or what you already know, and it lines up with what I’ve surmised myself, then I won’t discourage it.”

“I can agree to that. But I won’t keep this from the girls, or Twilight.”

A relieved sigh escaped the older woman’s lips. “Good. I can live with that.” Their hands broke contact, and Celestia began her tale. “As Luna’s already told you, she and I met your Celestia shortly after she started attending CHS. She was fourteen, I was sixteen. By the time I graduated, we’d ended up sharing our secret with some of my classmates. Whether anyone else knew about the bridge portal, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone did know about it and kept it secret.”

“But Zecora and Doctor Hope were two of the ones you shared the secret with.”

“Two of three, and only three. The third graduated the same year as I did, along with Zecora and Hope. Out of all of us, though, she’s probably the most famous out of our graduating class. But she never forgot where she came from. She set up the best scholarship this school has, even accounting for athletics programs.” She grinned and noted, “And from what I’m told, her counterpart is rather famous for the same thing here as in your world.”

Sunset’s expression lit up as she realized whom the principal spoke of, and she let out a small laugh. “Sapphire Shores. I should’ve known.” Her expression shifted as she asked, “And all of you kept in touch with Princess Celestia?”

“For a long time, we five made an effort to meet with her once a year, every year, on the anniversary of our graduation from Canterlot High.” She shook her head at her poor choice of words. “Sorry, the graduation of the older four of us. Luna still being there another two years made things easier for me personally, but over time, eventually, it was just Zecora visiting her for a while. Eventually Luna and I came back, of course, a little bit before you came along, but today was the first time that Hope came by in a long time.”

“I can imagine. And Sapphire has her career, so excepting carefully-timed tour dates…” Sunset put that aside. “Alright, but as far as you know, none of them has told anyone about me?”

“As far as I know.”

“And no one among the five of you told anyone anything about Equestria?”

“Not directly.” Celestia sighed as she admitted, “There was one person I talked about Equestria with, but as far as they knew, it was just a fairy tale, something I cooked up for a bedtime story.”

“This world’s version of Cadance?”

A nod. “And you were right that the loft was where she lived before you moved in. She’s living with her boyfriend now, this world’s version of Prince Shining Armor. And as far as I know, that’s the closest anyone else has come to learning about Equestria from our circle. She definitely doesn’t know about you, or about Princess Twilight, and I’m not planning on telling her for a while.” She raised a hand and explained, “The less she knows for now, the better for all of us, but the instant that she has to know, she will.”

Sunset nodded in acceptance. “What about Lyra and Sweetie Drops?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t say for certain how much they know or don’t know about you, Sunset. Zecora made me promise not to pry or interfere, just to let her handle things. How well that’s worked, I don’t know, but I can say that neither of them contributed to the Anon-A-Miss postings.”

“But Zecora does know about me and Equestria and the portals, so the possibility still exists that they either know, or can put enough pieces together to figure things out.” Sunset sighed. “And those drawings I gave them for Christmas couldn’t have helped.”

“Do you regret having done that?”

“No, not in the slightest.” She smiled. “Hearing Lyra’s reaction was easily worth it.” The smile faded as she noted, “Still, there’s so many ways this can go. I just hope that other Twilight and her friend kept out of sight.”

“Agreed. We’ve all been lucky so far that no one’s been digging into everything here at Canterlot High, but after the Fall Formal, it’s only a matter of time before some conspiracy nut tries to shove us into the spotlight.”

“And the last thing we need is to become another Roswell.” At Celestia’s surprised expression, Sunset explained, “I’ve done a lot of Wiki Walking in the last three years.”

“Of course.” A sad smile crossed her face, and she noted, “And I suppose that leaves us with one more thing, an apology.” She turned to fully face Sunset and admitted, “You were right. I could have, and no doubt should have, stepped in immediately and shown your friends the proof I had that you weren’t responsible for Anon-A-Miss. Maybe it would have convinced them of your innocence, and maybe not, but at least I’d have done something, even if it risked my career and your safety. And even if I hadn’t done all of that, I should have spoken to you and them directly, rather than operate through an intermediary like a coward.” Now it was her turn to prompt silence from Sunset as she remarked, “And yes, it was cowardly. I could have called in any board-approved therapist to talk to whomever decided to talk about the incident, and even if I’d gone ahead with Hope, I should have had her admit to you that she knew about Equestria and sit in on it. I am your legal guardian, after all, appearances of favoritism be damned.” She beamed proudly as she admitted, “But that doesn’t change the fact that what actually did happen led to you doing something amazing today. We’re both very proud of you. After all, it’s not every day that you kill a Nightmare.”

“Eh, it was just a fragment. And I had a lot of help.” Sunset grinned. “Still, it felt pretty awesome. And I am proud.”

“And you have every right to be.” The two stood up together, and Celestia promised, “Now, I can’t promise that they’ll go away, but no more purposeful deceptions from me. You deserve better than that. But I want the same in return. Deal?”

“Deal.” All sense of propriety cast aside, Sunset hugged the principal. “And thanks. For having my back.”

Celestia smiled, and responded in kind. “And thank you for trusting me to do so.”

The embrace ended. “One more question, though. You mentioned having looked into the whereabouts of my counterpart. Given you know about this world’s Shining Armor, that means you’ve done the same with Twilight, right?”

A small nod. “And thankfully for her, her family is little different from that of her counterpart.” A sad frown formed on her face as she added, “Unfortunately, there’s a chance that she’ll show up here before too long.”

“Yeah, that video I made of her…”

“No, there’s a different reason. You’re aware of the Friendship Games this coming fall?”

Sunset suddenly realized the implications of that question. “This world’s Twilight attends Crystal Prep?” She mentally cursed Flash for tempting fate and noted, “Dash is not going to be happy about that. But the sooner I tell them, the better.”

“And speaking of, I have something that might be of assistance with your and Twilight’s project.” Celestia pulled a flash drive from her pocket and handed it off to Sunset. “Suffice it to say, Luna and I have been curious about a few things on our own. We’re hoping that the two of you can confirm something for us.”

Sunset eyed the thumb drive. “We’ll see.” Her attention then turned back to the mirror as the last of their group emerged. “Hey Flash. You okay?”

He shrugged. “Okay enough, I guess. What’s with the thumb drive?”

“Something from me,” Celestia explained. “I’m sure you’ll hear all about it soon enough.”

“Yeah, right now, I need to get to…” A gentle hand was upon her shoulder before Sunset could finish. “What?”

“I’ve already talked with Zecora. You have the day off if you want.” She gently smiled and noted, “And if I were you, I’d take it.”

-

“We all saw that, right?”

Pixel Pizazz bowed her head at her friend’s question with a groan. “Yes, Violet. For the fourth time, we all saw the two ponies go into the teacher’s lounge.” She gestured to the rest of the waiting group and added, “And everyone else seems to be accepting it better than you are. Mostly.”

Vinyl Scratch had opted to remain standing as her head bobbed along to the beat provided by her headphones, her eyes obscured by her signature sunglasses. The two new girls and the new physics teacher kept their place a small distance away, but they’d remained silent, what little action they’d done coming from the odd glimpse one way or another. Photo Finish, however, seemed practically catatonic after everything she’d seen.

That last tidbit got Violet Blurr really anxious. “Do you think we’ll ever know what’s going on here?”

“No. I mean, odds are this is all connected to the Fall Formal, but it’s not like we understand this crazy magic stuff.” They looked to their usual ringleader and asked, “What about you, Photo? Any ideas?” No response answered her, and Pixel prodded, “Photo Finish?”

The white-haired photographer looked up at them briefly, and then turned away. “Apologies. My mind vas elsewhere.” Before the two could even glance at one another curiously, she looked up and asked, “Girls, am I ze bad guy?”

The two looked at her with surprise, with Violet asking, “What brought that on?”

“Vhat Sweetie Belle said, I suppose.” Photo Finish’s shoulders were slumped as she explained, “I vas at ze Fall Formal. I saw ze magicks and everything. Und I am still bitter about being turned into a zombie slave by Sunset Shimmer.” She frowned as she added, “But ze idea of her dead? I vant to say zhat it never crossed my mind, but…”

“Hey, I think just about everyone here at CHS still has a grudge against her.”

“Perhaps, Pixel, but earlier? Rarity und Fluttershy were unconscious, und I vas more interested in taking the photos of ze cute little bunny rabbit than in helping zhem. Aside from both being victims of Anon-A-Miss as you were, Rarity is another of Canterlot High’s artists, and Fluttershy is ze most adorable thing evah! And zhere I vas, treating zhem like trash.” Her head bowed as she continued, “Having Sweetie Belle chew me out only makes things vorse. Und ze ponies ve saw is creating ze perfect storm of confusion und I vish for it to cease.”

Violet and Pixel looked to one another, not sure how to proceed, before the former turned back to her friend and gently laid a hand upon her shoulder. “Photo, you’re not a bad guy. I mean, yeah, you’re no angel, and you can be a bit of a control freak, but you’re not evil. You’re just driven, and focused upon the task you’ve set out for yourself. And the results tend to speak for themselves, and all the hard work you put into them.”

She looked up at her friends and noted, “Zhat does not change what Sweetie Belle said.”

“No, but me and Violet are just as guilty, aren’t we?” At her friend’s nod, Pixel continued, “Anyway, this just means you’ve got something to work on. And I’m sure Rarity and Fluttershy will accept whatever apology we give them.” She managed a small smile and noted, “Besides, it could’ve been worse.”

Photo Finish considered that and nodded. “Ya. Sweetie Belle could have called me a Nazi.” She then whimpered in declaration, “Und I am not a Nazi! My family is Austrian!”

Her two friends exchanged a brief glance as Vinyl Scratch paused in her bobbing to lower her sunglasses to reveal an arched eyebrow. Before any of them could make any sort of verbal response, however, the door to the teacher’s lounge opened. Sweetie Belle was the first to emerge, the other Crusaders close behind and followed shortly thereafter by those they’d been worried about.

Excited relief flooded the hall as five students rushed the door, Vinyl and the lone teacher hanging back as the rest gathered around the five. Even Rainbow Dash seemed a little overwhelmed by the attention as she urged, “Whoa, easy now! Geez, you’d think we were a boy band or something.”

Nervous chuckles greeted that as the group backed off and Sparkler spoke up. “Well in our defense, you had us all worried.”

“Agreed, und ve are all pleased to see you…”

A terrible hiss caused everyone to jump back in shock before they looked into Fluttershy’s arms to find the source. “Angel!” she chided the rabbit in her arms. “We don’t hiss at people! It’s very rude!”

The lagomorph buck took on an indignant look before Pixel spoke up. “Actually, I think the three of us probably deserve that. When we came across you and Rarity unconscious, and Sweetie Belle needing help, well…”

“Hush!” With a dramatic sigh, Photo Finish continued where her friend left off. “I, Photo Finish, vas more interested in taking pictures of ze worried rabbit zhan I was in helping ze two of you. Violet und Pizel vere caught up in mine enthusiasm.” She bowed her head and noted, “Fluttershy, Rarity, Angel, I apologize profusely to each of you.” She then looked to Sweetie Belle and noted, “Und you as vell, Sweetie Belle. Vhat you said vas not without truth.”

Rarity gave her little sister a glance that promised discussion upon this very topic later, then looked to the photographer and noted, “Well, we’ve all made lapses in judgment of late. And the three of you did come to your senses eventually, so thank you.”

“What’s that I’ve always tried to tell you girls, Sparkler?” Dr. Turner gave the group a smile. “An eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind.”

“Only a million times, Dad.” Sparkler and Rose rolled their eyes at that, only for the former to catch Rarity’s flabbergasted look. “Oh, I guess we didn’t mention that earlier, did we?”

“It would have been nice if you had done so!” the fashionista answered with gritted teeth and clear embarrassment. She recovered herself and noted, “Apologies for that, Doctor Turner, it’s just…”

“Aw, don’t worry about it.” The dismissive wave ended as the same hand was brought up to indicate his wedding band. “Just do me a favor and admire from afar, eh? I’d rather not get yelled at by the wife.”

“Or lose your job?” Vice Principal Luna offered with a smirk.

A shrug. “Well, I’d think that went without saying.”

Luna and Hope looked to one another with a grin, and the administrator gave her friend a small hug. “See you again soon, Hope.”

“Likewise, Luna.” The psychologist then went on her way. “Good afternoon, everyone.”

As she made her way towards the main entrance, Violet pointed after her and asked, “That was the shrink you all talked to, right?” Nods answered her. “Thought so.” She then looked among the girls with eager, curious eyes. “So what happened? Did this have something to do with the Fall Formal? Was this more crazy magic stuff, or what?”

“Und vhere are ze ponies?”

“It was the craziest thing ever!” Pinkie exclaimed. “This nasty thing called the Nightmare – well really it was a piece of the Nightmare and not the whole of the Nightmare – anyway, it tried to possess Sunset and use her as a host, and it was drawing power from all of us using all the guilt we had about how we treated Sunset a couple weeks ago, and we all fought it in a dream! And one of the ponies you saw…!”

Applejack clamped a hand over the party girl’s mouth and explained, “It’s a long story, gals. Maybe one day we’ll give it to you in detail.”

“Vell, I vould much rather…” Photo Finish paused as Celestia, Sunset and Flash finally emerged into the hallway, then adjusted her glasses and continued on another track with a lowered voice. “Another time zhen. Violet, Pixel, ve’d best be off.”

She and her friends then left, the odd nervous glance thrown back towards Sunset, and the rest watched them. Sweetie Belle crossed her arms. “Would’ve been nice for them to say something more than that.”

Sunset gave a small smile and gently laid a hand upon the girl’s shoulder. “Baby steps, Sweetie Belle. I’ll take what I can get for now.” She then looked to Sparkler and Rose and said, “Thanks, by the way. You didn’t have to carry me here.”

“Yes we did!” Rose protested. “We’re your friends. And you’d do it for us.”

The flame-haired girl laughed and hugged the two. “Yeah, I would.” The embrace ended and she looked to the lone adult male among them. “And thank you too, Doctor Turner. We’re lucky to have you here.”

“No such thing as luck, Miss Shimmer. Just the right people in the right place at the right time.” He motioned to his daughters and called, “Anyway, come along, girls! Don’t want to be here all night, do we?”

The teacher and his children then departed. Flash moved to follow and waved back as he said, “All’s well that ends well, right?”

Sunset smiled encouragingly, the sad look in her ex’s eyes all too clear. “Something like that.”

The Crusaders and their elder siblings – surrogate and otherwise – soon followed, while Pinkie gave Sunset a quick hug. “Maud’s probably waiting for me out in the parking lot. See you tomorrow, right?”

“Of course.” She waved as the party girl skipped off, then turned to Fluttershy. “You okay?”

“I should be asking you that question.” Some gentle prodding from Angel, and the shy girl relented, “But yes, I think I’m okay.”

“Well, if you ever need to talk, you’ve got all of us, remember?” Sunset moved to lay a supporting hand upon Fluttershy’s shoulder, only for Angel to jump into her arms and affectionately rub against her. “Wow. Never saw this coming.”

“And as cute as that is, I’d rather not see it again on campus.” Celestia looked to Fluttershy and noted, “You do recall the rules against pets on school grounds, Fluttershy. I ended up suspending one of Applejack’s cousins over that more times than I’d like to count.”

“Yes ma’am, I remember.” Fluttershy moved so that Sunset could gently place Angel back into her backpack, then softly hugged Sunset and assured her, “And you’ve got all of us, too.”

Fluttershy then went on her way, leaving Sunset alone in the hall with the two sisters and one remaining student. “She’s got that right.” The three turned to Vinyl as she slipped off her headphones. “Apologies for the ‘tunes, ma’ams. I know headphones aren’t allowed either.”

Despite her surprise, Celestia managed to answer, “I’ll allow it this once, given classes are out now.”

Sunset had a little less control. “Vinyl? You’re talking?”

The music-lover chuckled. “What? Did’ja think I was mute or something?” She took off her sunglasses and stepped forward. “I’m just a big believer in actions speaking louder than words is all. Sometimes, though, you gotta speak up, and this was a long time in coming.” She raised a hand towards Sunset and offered, “I’m sorry, Sunset.”

“For what?” Luna looked at her in surprise. “You didn’t contribute to Anon-A-Miss. And none of the posts were about you either.”

“No, but I didn’t exactly stand up for her either. That’s my bad, and I gotta own up to it.” She looked to Sunset and added, “You needed someone in your corner. If I’d been there for you, maybe things would’ve gone a little better.”

Sunset grinned and took the offered hand. “You were in my corner, Vinyl. You didn’t give a damn about my bad reputation.”

Surprise was briefly upon Vinyl’s face before she laughed. “Dude! You figured it out!” She put her shades back on and explained, “Would’ve signed it, but I figured it would’ve meant more if it was anonymous. That way, it could’ve come from anyone.”

“Oh, like that MP3 player could’ve come from anyone?” Their hands broke contact before they shared a fist-bump. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

“Hey, I remember you hanging with Flash back in the old days, the odd shred you did with him and his bunch. Figured some awesome tunes would be right up your alley.” She lowered her shades slightly and added with a smirk, “Of course, I left plenty of space for you to add to the playlist. Just in case.”

“I’ve noticed.” Sunset sighed. “Still, you were there for me more than most were. I won’t forget that anytime soon.”

“Yeah, well, I still think I should’ve done more.” She pulled out her phone and started to bring something up on its browser. “So maybe this’ll finally balance my accounts. Principal Celestia, when the Crusaders fessed up about Anon-A-Miss, did they say anything about Sunset getting mobbed?”

“They did, and Sunset verified their story, but without evidence to back them up, I couldn’t do anything about it.” She grimaced as she noted, “And I won’t be able to do anything about that prank pulled on Sweetie Belle either.”

“Assuming it was just her,” her sibling added.

Vinyl raised her phone up as a video started playing. “Then let the truth set you free.” Celestia took the phone as the music lover explained, “I can’t help with the prankster, but this should free you up on the other thing.”

The principal frowned as a stern expression settled over her face. “It does. And maybe I can get lucky with the prankster too.”

-

“Well, sounds to me like the two of you had yourselves a very good first day.” Doctor Turner beamed gleefully as he led his two charges towards the parking lot and his car, an old English four-door sedan straight from the sixties colored a deep blue, the logo on its front bearing the word ‘Rover’. “Certainly made yourselves some interesting new friends.”

“You make that sound like a bad thing, Dad.” Sparkler waited as her father unlocked the doors for her and Rose, then climbed into the vehicle. She waited until he climbed in himself and closed the door before continuing. “Besides, we had instructions. And the first one was to stick close to Sunset Shimmer.”

“Which’ll be a lot easier now that we’ve befriended her.” Rose buckled in her seat belt and looked up with concern. “I just wish the rest of the instructions we got were as easy.”

“Oh, one of them was pretty easy to understand. It’s the other one that worries me. Pretty open to interpretation, something like that.” He sighed and noted, “That’s the sad thing about what we’re doing. Cases like this you end up with both horribly clear and horribly vague instructions. It’ll all make sense in time, of course, but there’s still the chance we won’t be able to figure it out before it’s too late.” He looked to Rose and noted, “I’m sorry that you had to be a part of this, but…”

“I know, no choice.” The nervous young girl sighed. “Lots of that with this. I don’t like it, keeping things secret from her.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, I suspect Sunset and the rest of your new friends might be keeping a secret or two of their own. And that’s ignoring the two ponies we saw roaming the school.” Dr. Turner then pulled a cylindrical device from the inside of his jacket, the blue light at its tip briefly pulsing as it made a high-pitched whirring noise. “Did a little bit of snooping about when I had time, and there’s an unusual flow of thaumic energy about the place.”

“Something’s radiating magic in the school?”

He made a half-shrug at Sparkler’s question. “Not in the school, but definitely on school grounds. The epicenter looks to be the Wondercolt statue; it’s practically white hot with the stuff. Most of it is being drained into a mirror in the teacher’s lounge, of all things, but there’s still a fair amount of leakage. Probably for a long time, considering how long the school’s been in operation. Those ponies were likely connected.”

Curiosity was alight in the girl’s violet eyes. “Do you think anyone knows about it? I mean, there won’t even be proper studies of thaumaturgics for a few years yet.”

“More likely that they do than they don’t, but that’s not the really interesting thing.” The device was put away, and the teacher pulled out his 3D glasses from earlier. “Looked at Sunset with these in class, almost didn’t believe what I saw sitting in her place.”

Rose looked at him anxiously. “What did you see?”

“A unicorn. Cute little unicorn pony, just big enough that someone your size could ride on her back. Wouldn’t be comfortable, but still.”

The two younger girls looked at one another in surprise before Sparkler asked the obvious question. “We see two ponies walking around the school, and one of the first friends we make here looks like a third one under special conditions. What do you think that means?”

Her father grinned as he tucked away his shades. “Don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.”

-

“I promise, I’ll tell you and everyone else everything I’ve learned tomorrow morning, including what Twilight’s told me about that other her and her friend. Just make sure you’re there, alright?” Sunset smiled. “Thanks Flash. See you then.” She ended the call and set aside her phone, then gave the timer on her oven a quick glance. “Still five minutes to spare.” A knock sounded from her door, and in curiosity, she walked over and opened it. “Vinyl?”

“’Sup, Sunset.” A grin was on the music lover’s face. “Can I come in?”

Dumbfounded, Sunset gestured her in. “Sure, but what are you doing here?”

“Strangest thing happened to me after I got home, I had this text on my phone telling me to come here.” Vinyl stepped inside and handed over her phone for examination. “No clue who sent it, so I called Lyra. She told me this was your place, so I figured it was safe.”

“And Lyra knew this was my address because she has access to my info through work.” Sunset scrutinized the ID code on the text with a smirk as she closed the door. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Anyway, this wasn’t from Principal Celestia or Vice Principal Luna. I’ve got their numbers on speed dial, and besides, they’d have warned me you were coming after everything that went down today. But why come?”

A shrug. “My parents are out of town, brother’s got a date, and Tavi’s busy practicing for a cello recital. Plus I was curious about your digs. Not bad, by the way.”

“Thanks, though I kinda think it’s a little much for one person. I mean, I’ve got two bedrooms upstairs that aren’t seeing any use. Gets a little lonely whenever the girls aren’t visiting.”

“Easy solution for that. Get a pet.”

“Well, that would make Fluttershy’s day.” She gestured to her oven and asked, “Hey, I’m a couple minutes away from dinner. You hungry?”

An eyebrow arched on her guest’s face. “Is it kosher?”

“It’s vegetarian lasagna.”

Vinyl nodded. “Beats fast food.” The oven timer chose that moment to chime, and Sunset immediately rushed to retrieve her meal before it burned. As her host dealt with the food, Vinyl slipped off her fingerless gloves and washed her hands, then took a seat as Sunset set out an extra place for her and poured her a glass of milk. “Guess you’re lonely enough to not turn away company.”

“It helps that you’re in my corner.” Sunset served her guest one chunk of lasagna, then one for herself before she sat down to eat. “If you want to pray or something, I’m not offended.”

Vinyl smiled before she took off her glasses, set them aside, then held her hands in prayer. “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei minei mezonot. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam shehakol niyah bidvaro.” Satisfied, she took up her fork and took a bite of her meal. “Not bad. Store bought?”

“Unfortunately. I only have so much time after I get home to get a meal ready. And even if I wanted to make my own, well, it wouldn’t be right without a good homemade sauce, and I’m still trying to work that out.” Sunset shrugged. “It’s a long story. Hang out with me more, and you might get to hear all of it.”

“I’m hoping for that.” A smile formed on the music lover’s face as she added, “Anyway, thanks. For accepting that apology. Sometimes me and Tavi argue about stuff and it takes forever for us to make up. I try to avoid it, but sad truth is that she can get a stick up her ass about some things and…” She noticed the uncomfortable look on Sunset’s face and amended, “Sorry, sometimes I’m a little too casual about my language.”

“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” Sunset turned nervous and admitted, “It’s another long story, linguistic and cultural thing. Anyway, don’t worry. We’re cool. I’ve even got a late Chanukah present for you.” She turned resigned and prodded, “But something tells me there’s one more reason you’re here.”

Vinyl grinned. “I hope you don’t play poker, otherwise you’d make a killing in Vegas.” She got comfortable in her chair and then turned her gaze upon the girl beside her. “Sunset, things have gotten crazy at CHS since the Fall Formal. Not bad crazy, lots of folks know that even if they’re trying to ignore it. Me, I’ve accepted and carried on, but I’ve paid enough attention to know that you and your friends know a lot about what’s going down. And after today, with two talking ponies walking around the school, someone’s gonna be curious about all of that and the Fall Formal and Equestria, whatever that is. I know I am, and I figured I’d beat the rush.” She shrugged and added, “Kinda hoped that you’d be up for letting me in on what’s going on.”

Sunset considered that, and idly tapped her fork against her plate as she weighed her options. “Well, you kept one secret for three months.” She smiled. “I think you can be trusted with another. Tell me Vinyl, what do you know about quantum mechanics?”

“Enough to know that if physicists and rock stars weren’t smoking the same stuff, then they should have been.”

“Well, there’s something in quantum mechanics called the Many-Worlds Interpretation. In a nutshell, it says that there are a potentially infinite number of parallel worlds coexisting alongside of the one we’re in, like in comic books, and they’re all created with every choice people make one way or another. One tiny event, one small difference, can lead to any number of changes down the road, and new worlds.”

“Turn left and you get a nice job, turn right and you get hit by a car and die.”

“Something like that. Anyway, as crazy as this is going to sound, the interpretation’s right. And somewhere out there in the multiverse, there’s a universe or timeline or whatever you want to call it where things went very differently for planet Earth. Different enough that the human race never evolved, where other species came into existence and filled its niche as sapient lifeforms, and where magic isn’t something out of a fairytale, but instead studied as diligently as any science known to man.”

Vinyl’s interest only grew. “That world have something to do with Equestria?”

Sunset nodded. “That’s where Princess Twilight came from. It’s also where I came from.”

The music lover’s cerise eyes went wide, and she smiled in awe. “Dude, tell me everything!”

Chapter Nine - Unfinished Business

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“…And that’s pretty much everything.”

Sunset took a sip from her drink, then looked around among her gathered friends. Getting them together this morning at Sugar Cube Corner had been easy, especially with their newest addition to the collective secret, but telling them everything that had been revealed to her yesterday hadn’t been easy, even with the things that she’d already surmised and shared with some of them. And what she’d just learned had made it even worse.

Rainbow Dash had a foul expression on her face as she stewed over what she’d learned. “Sunset, is there some Equestrian equivalent to the F-bomb?”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘rut’.”

“Thanks.” She groaned. “This rutting sucks.” She looked back to Scootaloo, who was peering over her shoulder alongside the rest of the Crusaders. “And don’t you start using that language yourself.”

“I jinxed it.” Flash already felt like the odd man out, being the only man present, but this made it even worse. “It’s like the universe just enjoys jerking my chain.”

“Flash, you jinxed nothing.” Rarity considered her tea as she noted, “We already knew thanks to Pinkie Pie that our world’s version of Twilight Sparkle lived in the city. I’m uncertain how many high schools there are in the greater metropolitan area…”

“Twenty-nine, spread among four districts with Crystal Prep right in the middle.” Heads turned to Sunset as she explained, “Part of my research for Princess Twilight. And that includes middle schools that were turned into high schools after the redistricting a few years ago.”

“Well, my point remains.” Rarity took a brief sip, then continued, “Her being enrolled at Crystal Prep was always a possibility, even if it was an unpleasant one. And given Princess Twilight grew up in the Equestrian equivalent of the upper middle class and had close contact with the nobility herself, it’s not improbable that her human counterpart is rather well off.” She sighed. “But I’m still not happy about it.”

“I don’t blame any of you for how you feel, but I figured telling you now was smarter than keeping it from you until it became a bigger deal.” Sunset glanced at all of them and noted, “And given what’s coming this fall…”

“The Friendship Games, plus their old ritual with the Wondercolt statue.” Applejack looked to the flame-haired girl and admitted, “The one good thing everyone had to say about you ‘fore the Fall Formal was the fact that you were always the first one out there cleanin’ it up. ‘Course now things’re in a different light, but still.”

“No kidding.” Vinyl gestured with her cup and noted, “I remember the stories my brother told me about what happened with the Games when he was at CHS. Those Crystal Prep guys are jerks.”

“Well, it’s not all bad, right?” Fluttershy looked to Pinkie and asked, “The local Twilight didn’t seem mean, did she?”

The party girl shook her head. “Nope. I didn’t talk to her, just saw her playing with her Spike and hanging out with a buncha people that she seemed happy to be with.” At the others’ questioning looks, she elaborated, “Two couples, one a middle-aged man and woman and the other more like they were in their twenties.”

“Probably the local versions of her parents, Shining Armor and Cadance,” Sunset surmised.

“If that’s true, then Rarity’s right. Shining Armor is a hunk.”

The fashionista choked in embarrassment. “Yes, well, we’re getting off-topic. Assuming the trend of similarities between counterparts holds and our world’s Twilight is of similar temperament to Princess Twilight, then there’s a chance that she isn’t of similar ilk to her classmates. But what do we do, attempt to contact her?”

“We shouldn’t.” Sunset’s gaze swept over everyone as she explained, “A bunch of students from another school, one known for having a strong rivalry with the one you attend, suddenly show up and try to be social. Even if she isn’t aware of what happened at the Fall Formal, that’d raise several red flags. And that’s assuming she even wants to be social; Twilight wasn’t a jerk by any means, but she didn’t go out of her way to socialize before she moved to Ponyville. As far as she was concerned, her circle was big enough with just her, Spike, Shining Armor and Cadance. If she comes to us, it’s a different matter, but us going to her is a bad idea for the time being.”

“Yeah, but we’re going to run into her eventually.” Flash looked decidedly mixed on that subject. “Us knowing about her in advance’ll save us some embarrassment, but still, what do we do?”

“The only thing we can, and take things as they come.” Sunset grinned and offered, “But maybe it’d be a good idea to let her give her name first.”

“Yeah, us knowin’ her name might creep her out a touch.” Various murmurs of agreement answered Applejack’s remark before she moved onto other topics. “So, now that we’ve dealt with that elephant in the room, Ah think we still gotta deal with the other one.”

Sunset gave a sad nod. “I guess all of you saw the video then?”

“Yes, unfortunately.” Rarity laid a comforting hand upon that of her friend and said, “Sunset, I’m truly sorry that you went through that experience. Hearing about it from you and Sweetie Belle was one thing, but actually seeing it…” A sad sigh. “And I’m ashamed to say that, had I been there, I’m not sure I would have sprung to your defense. I like to think I would have, but…”

“You would have.” Sunset looked to the Crusaders and noted, “Or at least you would have followed me into the bridge realm.”

Apple Bloom bowed her head in shame. “Yeah, I think seeing that really got the sick feelin’ goin’ in our stomachs.” She looked up and said, “But if’n we’d known it was bein’ recorded, if’n we’d gotten it…”

“And you can bet someone would’ve sent it into Anon-A-Miss, just on the off-chance that it wasn’t you,” Scootaloo noted bitterly.

“Girls, relax, I know you would’ve shown it to Principal Celestia.” Sunset turned grim as she continued, “And she’s promised to do something about this.”

“Good.” There was an angry tone to Flash’s voice as he remarked, “I can let go of Cherry’s contribution to Anon-A-Miss, but I’m not getting over her being a hypocrite anytime soon. I’m not sure if I should thank the guy who posted the video or…” He sighed. “Okay, so there’s nothing serious behind that ‘or’.”

“I dunno, the day that ‘or’ becomes something real is gonna be a scary one for me.” Rainbow turned nervous as she admitted, “You confronting me was actually kinda intimidating. Kinda.” She regained her composure and continued, “Still, I’d go with the ‘or’. If he cared about getting justice, he wouldn’t have put that video up on MyStable. He’d have gone to Principal Celestia with it, like Vinyl did.” A grin went to the musician among them. “Thanks again for that, and for helping Apple Bloom with Pinkie.”

She got a grin in return. “Like I keep saying, I don’t hold grudges. Too much hurt in the world as it is.”

“Well we’re still glad that you did. Now Principal Celestia definitely knows about it, along with the rest of the school.” Flash looked to his ex with concern. “You going to be okay, Sunset?”

“Eventually, yeah, but compared to everything else that’s happened?” She shrugged. “So the student body’s seen me vulnerable again. Some of them probably got some sick enjoyment out of it.”

“And by some, you mean a certain someone whose name rhymes with ‘Dixie’.”

“Dash.” The athlete caught her friend’s warning tone before Sunset continued, “The point is that I can live with it. They want to see me knocked down, then fine. But I’m not going to stay knocked down.” She smiled and declared, “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s getting back up on my feet.”

“And yer on better footin’ every time,” Applejack declared with a grin. “But what’re ya gonna do about the folks that mobbed ya? Ah mean, you ain’t gonna give ‘em payback, are you?”

Sunset laughed. “That’s not me anymore, AJ. They’ll be getting something a little different.”

-

The conference room door creaked open, and Cherry Crash stepped inside. She paused as she recognized a number of those already waiting for her. “Kicks? Goldie? What’s going on?”

“No clue.” As the rocker settled into a seat beside her, Cloudy Kicks shrugged and explained, “All of us just got pulled aside in homeroom and told to come here right away.”

“I heard something about there being a therapist here yesterday,” Teddy offered. “Maybe that’s why we’re all here?”

Captain Planet shook his head. “Dude, no way. My vibes are fine; no need for me to get psychoanalyzed.”

Before any more discussion could be done, one of the doors leading into the conference room opened. “Hello everyone.” Principal Celestia entered, and all of them quickly took note of her unpleasant expression as she strode towards a monitor and turned to address them. “Seems we’re missing a student.”

Golden Hazel raised a hand and asked, “Principal Celestia? Why are we all here?”

A frown formed on the principal’s face as if she were weighing options in her head, before she took a breath. “Well, I’d rather we have everyone here while we discuss this, but…”

The door swung open, and before anyone could look to see who their apparent last arrival was, their question was answered as a voice drawled, “Hey, how y’all doin’?” Every student present, despite not wanting to, turned to look upon their addressor, and inwardly groaned at the sight.

“Leading Rose. How nice of you to join us.”

“Had to take a detour.” The male student strode in and left the door to swing shut behind him. He was of average height, but noticeably pudgy compared to most other male students. He cast a quick look at Sweet Leaf and gave her a leering grin as he greeted her, “How you doin’?” before finding a seat, the two students on his right and left scooting to one side to give him a wide berth.

For her part, Sweet Leaf looked paler than normal.

“Oh hey, Principal Celestia!” Seemingly unaware of her glare, he remarked with his face still fixed on a grin, “Yer doin’ a great job!”

Celestia, for her part, didn’t seem to hold his sentiment. “If I may?” She looked over the gathered students to make sure she had their attention and then folded her arms. “I doubt that I need to remind any of you of the recent Anon-A-Miss incident.” Her eyes quickly darted to Cherry Crash, who made a clear effort to not meet her gaze and had a clearly worried expression on her face. “Well, this is related to how it ended.”

“Kinda wish it hadn’t.” Leading Rose looked to the boy at his left. “Good times, huh? Hey, any of you know what that final secret was? I missed out on that last day…”

Celestia loudly cleared her throat before she continued. “As everyone should know by now, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo came forward and admitted to being the ones behind the Anon-A-Miss account. They admitted to purposely framing Sunset Shimmer, and provided a list of e-mails for everyone who contributed to their postings. Everyone who did so is currently serving their punishments.”

Cherry looked as though she wanted to sink into her seat at that point, having been among those to contribute to the postings. Her parents had seen fit to revoke a number of her privileges for her part in the incident, which included limiting her access to the Internet and shutting down her social media accounts. The rest of the students each looked similarly downcast at the thought of what had happened, with the only exception being Leading Rose as he maintained his leering grin. Clearly, he was the only one to not suffer such punishment.

“Uh, Principal Celestia?” Fido raised a greyish hand and asked, “What’s that got to do with all of us?”

“That’s a very good question.” Celestia pulled a remote from her pocket and explained, “When they explained themselves, the Crusaders mentioned witnessing an incident involving Sunset Shimmer being accosted by a number of students before running off somewhere in the school. I asked Sunset about this, and she was able to confirm their story, and even provided the names of the students who took part.” She studied the remote for a moment before admitting, “Of course, I didn’t do anything about it at the time. This was just a story, after all, and there wasn’t any clear proof of their claims. And then this was pointed out to me yesterday afternoon.” She pressed a button on the remote to turn on the monitor, with another to start a video that had been cued up and waiting for them.

“Augh!”

Aside from Leading Rose, all of the students watched the video in horror as they recognized their faces and voices (“Secret stealer.” “Monster.” “She-Demon.” “Way to go, thief.” “You’re getting off too easy.” “Why don’t you just die?!”) and all of them surrounded the familiar, cowering form of Sunset Shimmer on the ground. And aside from Leading Rose, all of them had exactly one question on their minds – where had this video come from?

“Hey! That’s my video!” Several terrified eyes turned to the pudgy teen with dull yellow hair as he remarked, “Would’ve sent it to Anon-A-Miss to post, but I got sick over the holidays. Finally got it up myself on MyStable yesterday.” Oblivious to the other students, he looked to his right to find Captain Planet staring at him in shock and said, “I thought it was funny.”

“Are you BRAINDEAD?!” Cherry jumped to her feet and screamed at the boy, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’VE DONE?! HASN’T ANYONE TOLD YOU WHAT HAPPENED?!”

“I’m guessing the answer’s no.” Heads turned to find Sunset standing in the same doorway that Celestia had entered through. She entered and allowed the door to slowly close behind her, an angry glare unlike any of them had seen since before the Fall Formal upon her face.

Leading Rose, for his part, remained oblivious. “Hey, Sunset Shimmer! How you –!”

“Leading Rose, don’t finish that sentence.” Celestia’s order brought him to instant silence before she amended, “And kindly refrain from speaking unless asked to do so.” She groaned and rubbed the bridge of her nose before addressing her students again. “Do any of you remember the assembly we had during the week after the Fall Formal? How I asked all of you to act upon your better natures and not seek reprisal against Sunset? Looking at this video, I can’t help but think you forgot it.” She crossed her arms again and noted, “I remember the Fall Formal just like all of you, and I’m not the only one who does. Believe me, many of us carry scars from that night.” She turned to Sunset and noted, “And some run deeper than others.”

“I’m not about to defend what I did then, or all the time leading up to it. And I’m not about to justify it either. I was a monster before I put that crown on my head, and if there’s anyone here who won’t forget what happened that night, it’s me.” Sunset tapped the side of her head and explained, “Eidetic memory. I can’t forget anything. I remember all of that energy surging into me, my skin searing, my body being torn apart and put back together again. I remember the rush of power and feeling like there was nothing stopping me from using it. And I remember what it was like to almost kill six people.” She sighed. “I felt like I deserved to die after that. And thanks to Anon-A-Miss, well, think about it. No one left to support me, beaten down, pushed to my lowest point, and months of seeing the same monster that all of you saw every time I looked in the mirror.” Her gaze went over all of them as she asked, “What do you think I did, after I fell, and all of you decided to get your revenge against Sunset Satan?”

A gasp escaped Golden Hazel’s lips, and very shortly, every student present except for Leading Rose suddenly felt a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. At once, all of them realized exactly who it was that had almost died as a result of the Anon-A-Miss incident. “It was you?”

“Not that it makes it easier, but what all of you did was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Sunset tipped her head towards the monitor and noted, “I don’t think you knew you were being recorded, but that doesn’t really help you out any. All this proves is that all of you in that video decided to take a pound of flesh out of someone at their weakest, and have spent the last couple weeks feeling like you got away with it.” She scowled at all of them and declared, “I’ve regretted everything I’ve done up to the Fall Formal, just like the Crusaders regretted setting up that account and my friends regretted abandoning me. But all of you? I don’t see regret for your actions here.”

“If there had been, one of you would have come forward and admitted to this before now.” Celestia’s tone was cold as she declared, “All of you, save for Leading Rose, are suspended from school for the remainder of the week, and will be serving detention for an additional two weeks upon the completion of your suspensions. And that’s in addition to whatever punishments you face for your participation in the Anon-A-Miss incident. Don’t bother asking to call your parents – they’ve already been contacted. Main foyer, now.” All of them rose to depart, but the principal quickly amended, “Leading Rose? You’re staying.”

The named student promptly sat back down as the rest left, his grin having shrunken down by a small amount. The rest slowly made their way to the door, only for Sweet Leaf to look back and protest, “But we really thought…”

“You thought wrong.” Sunset’s glare was fixed upon them as she recounted, “I’ve learned two things from my friends. One, that monsters don’t see monsters when they look in the mirror. Two, that actions speak louder than words. I forgave them because I believed they were sorry, but all of you? Whatever the hell I did to all of you in the past – and I remember everything I did to each of you – it doesn’t mean that I deserved to get mobbed by all of you. You want to apologize? You want my forgiveness? Do what I did and grow the rut up.”

The group of students at least had the decency to look ashamed of themselves as they made their exit. Both Celestia and Sunset then turned their attention to the last student remaining as the former asked, “You thought it was funny?”

The grin returned as he admitted, “Well, yeah.”

Another click of her remote, and Celestia showed a different bit of footage. This time it wasn’t Sunset depicted, but instead it was Sweetie Belle as she opened her locker and found herself deluged with fake vermin. “I suppose that was funny too.” Her glare only seemed to intensify as she continued, “This footage went up just this morning, long after I contacted the police about the incident depicted and we confirmed the other surprises left in Apple Bloom and Scootaloo’s lockers. They had a forensics team in here, and found, among other things, tiny cameras put in place to record the events, signs of their locks having been tampered with, and what were probably your fingerprints upon their locker doors.”

“Pretty sure that’s a vandalism charge, minimum.”

“Among other things, punishable by immediate expulsion.” Leading Rose’s eyes finally took on an expression of shock at this statement as Celestia noted, “Do excuse us, but I believe my sister can take things from here.” She led Sunset to the door leading into the hall and opened it to find the vice principal waiting for them. “Luna.”

“Celestia.” The younger of the two sisters entered, her gaze fixed upon the soon-to-be former student as her sibling and Sunset departed. “Now then, as for punishments outside of school…”

The door closed behind them as Celestia sighed. “I am not going to enjoy the paperwork for all of this.” She turned to Sunset and asked, “Are you alright?”

A nod. “Better, anyway. And I’m sorry about my language there.”

“Oh? I didn’t hear anything offensive.” The bell rang, and as students began to pour out of nearby classrooms, the principal offered, “Go on, you’ve got class to get to.”

“Yes ma’am.” Sunset then went on her way down the halls, still feeling the odd stare upon her back but now finding herself caring a lot less. Granted, they probably wouldn’t talk to her, but…

“Sunset!” She turned to find a familiar pair on the approach as the minty green girl in the lead asked, “Are you okay? We didn’t see you at the shop last night, and then we saw the video…”

“Lyra, I’m fine! But thanks for asking.” She caught sight of Vinyl coming down the hall and shared a fist-bump with the girl before she continued. “Yesterday was just kinda draining for me is all. But things are settled now.”

“Still, all that?” Sweetie Drops looked down briefly, then looked back up at Sunset as she admitted, “Look, for all my issues with you, I don’t think you deserved that. Especially considering you weren’t Anon-A-Miss in the end.”

“Not that we thought you were,” Lyra quickly added.

“No, we didn’t.” A sigh, and she admitted, “But it was pretty easy to look at you and remember what you’d done. I hope you understand that.”

Sunset smiled. “I do. I’ve done the same thing for months.” She caught a faint reflection in the window to a nearby classroom and smiled just a little bigger. “But I’ve got other things to remember too.”

“I figured.” Sweetie Drops then did the one thing that Sunset didn’t expect, and suddenly rushed forward and took her into a tight embrace. “So you remember this, alright? Don’t you ever try and kill yourself again. Nothing is worth taking your own life. You count.”

Sunset’s surprise quickly turned to a smile as she hugged the girl back. “Thanks.” The embrace ended, and she then rushed off with a wave, leaving the two alone.

Lyra smiled proudly at her friend. “I hope you didn’t have an ulterior motive for that, Bonnie.”

A sigh and a shake of her head. “No. I just thought about how I could’ve ended up feeling like that, if circumstances were different.” She grinned and admitted, “Thankfully, I’ve got you.”

“Awww!” The two then went on their way to class. “So, we gonna ask her to hang out with us?”

“Eh, maybe. Someday.”

-

The day continued to pass without incident for Sunset until her free period came. She swiftly found herself in the library with an optimistic smile on her face, one mirrored by the first person she saw. “Morning, Miss Cheerilee.”

“Sunset, good morning!” The young teacher smiled back at her, clearly pleased. “You look like you’re in a good mood. Ready for your first day as a tutor?”

“CHS might not be ready for me, but yes.” She shrugged and noted, “And if no one wants my help, well, I’ve got homework I can take care of.”

An encouraging grin answered her. “Well, don’t give up on tutoring just yet. Anyway, go ahead and find a table. People will be coming in soon enough.”

Sunset did as suggested and found a place in the first floor of the CHS library, making sure that it was out in the open. If someone did decide to come to her for help, then she’d make it as easy for them to find her as possible. She couldn’t force them to come to her, nor did she want to, but she wasn’t going to discourage them either.

“Hey. I was hoping no one would snap you up before I got here.”

Sunset had barely settled into her seat when one of her friends had joined her. “Dash?”

“Yeah, turns out my GPA’s starting to get a little on the low side. I gotta bring things up, or Coach Spitfire’ll drop me from every team I’m on.” A desperate look was in the athlete’s eyes as she added, “And I really don’t want that. Think you can help?”

“Depends.” A smirk crossed her face. “You think you can keep up with all the egghead talk?”

Dash smirked right back. “You put it like that…” The two chuckled. “I’m glad you’re back, Sunset.”

“Back and better than ever.” The smirk faded as she asked, “So, you had a chance to talk to your mom yet?”

“No, but she calls on Saturdays. I’ll talk to her then, with my dad.” A hopeful smile crossed her face as she added, “Here’s hoping I can tell her some really good news.” At Sunset’s curious expression, she explained, “You heard the announcement this morning about the Musical Showcase in March, right?”

“Yeah, a little bit before Spring Break. What about it?”

“Well, I wanna do something for it! Put together a band! Magic or no magic, I know we’d be awesome at it!” Dash raised a hand and counted off her fingers as she continued, “I play guitar, AJ’s got her bass, Pinkie plays like a bazillion instruments, Rarity’s had piano lessons, and Fluttershy’s a great singer. It’s practically made already!” Her tone dropped with hesitation as she added, “And I’m kinda hoping that you’d be a part of it. Don’t want to leave any of my friends out if I can avoid it.”

Sunset considered that for a moment, and managed a small smile. “Well, it sounds like a great idea. But, I’ll have to pass on being in the band.”

Dash frowned with disappointment, but gave a small nod. “I get you. Still a little worried just in case something comes up with your magic?” At Sunset’s nod, she laughed. “Hey, no big. But you’re cool with coming to practice with us, right? Someone’s gotta be there to record it in case we pony up again.”

A grin answered her. “That, I’m happy to do.” The bell rang, and attention turned elsewhere. “So, where do we start? Physics?”

“Good a place as any.” Dash opened her textbook to their lesson earlier today. “Hey, who knows? Maybe if I improve, it’ll get other folks to come to you for help.”

Sunset shrugged. “We’ll see. It all depends on them.”

Epilogue One - Twenty Percent Cooler

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“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I am.” Derpy gave an apologetic smile to her friend. “You’ve got something you want to do for the Musical Showcase, and so do I. I don’t want to force you to accommodate me, and I don’t think you’d want me to do the same to you. It’s better if we’ve got two separate acts, with two separate bands.”

Trixie sighed sadly. “Very well, if that’s your wish.” She found fresh resolve as they reached their destination. “Still, one cannot have a band if one does not have an instrument.”

Once the announcement had been made about the Musical Showcase, many within the student body at Canterlot High scrambled to put together a band for the event. It didn’t hurt that the event was serving as a means to raise funds for the school’s extracurricular activities, including the upcoming trip to Camp Everfree during the summer. Being a performer herself, Trixie leapt at the chance to take part and draw attention to her talents. One problem existed, however, in the lack of the classic guitar. She knew how to play, of course, but she was lacking one, for reasons she had no desire to elaborate upon. Hence, her and Derpy being at the Canterlot Mall late on a Saturday morning, where a particular music store was having a sale.

They entered just in time to see a familiar girl with electric blue hair tuck away her headphones and MP3 player. “Hi Vinyl. Is the sale still going on?” At the girl’s affirmative nod, Trixie smiled. “Excellent. Now to find a guitar worthy of the Great and Powerful Trixie.”

As Trixie went off to further her quest and Derpy followed, several more students from CHS approached the store, one with a multicolored head of hair in the lead with a guitar case in hand. As Vinyl turned her attention to them, the fashionista among them continued, “I’ve nothing against being part of this band, Rainbow Dash, but I simply don’t understand why you cannot just play the guitar you already have.”

“Trust me Rarity, you’ll understand in a second.” Sunset approached the counter and shared a brief fist-bump with the clerk. “And you won’t like it any more than I did.”

Without any fanfare but with some shame, Rainbow laid her case upon the counter and opened it. Within was a battered, beaten old Gibson 335 that had clearly seen better days. Its pale green surface was bruised, battered and cracked, with various scuff marks all across. The neck, meanwhile, had been broken, and one string chose that moment to snap with a terrible ‘sproing’.

Aghast, Rarity looked to her friend and apologetically noted, “Now I understand. But why bring it here?”

“I’m kinda hoping I can turn the old guitar in for store credit towards the new one.” Rainbow looked to the clerk and asked, “So how does it look, Vinyl? Can this ax be reborn, or am I better off giving it a Viking funeral?”

“Jimi Hendrix would approve,” Pinkie sagely noted with a nod.

Vinyl examined the instrument in the case, then smiled and flashed a thumbs-up, much to Rainbow’s relief. “Vinyl Scratch, you are awesome.” The athlete then turned to examine the shop’s wares. “So now that’s done, I can find me a new one.”

“How about this one?” Pinkie offered as she held up one unusual-looking guitar, decorated in varying shades of purple with a design that brought to mind zebra stripes.

Sunset examined the instrument and thoughtfully crossed her arms. “Modified Dean ML. High sustain, more comfortable for some guitarists to hold than others.”

“Not for me though.”

Rarity let out a relieved sigh at Rainbow’s appraisal. “Good. That was a horrid color scheme.”

“Oooh, lookie here!” Pinkie held up another instrument for Rainbow to consider.

The athlete shook her head. “No Pinkie. That’s a banjo.”

“What about this one?” Another instrument took the place of the previous one as Pinkie offered, “Super groovy!”

“Super not a guitar, neither. She ain’t lookin’ for a brass horn.” Applejack gently relieved Pinkie of the instrument and asked, “You got any specifics in mind?”

“That’s not the problem!” Rainbow looked among the offerings before her and explained, “It doesn’t matter what guitar I get, just as long as it looks as awesome as I’m gonna make it sound.” She gasped as she laid her eyes upon one guitar in particular. “And that one is definitely awesome!”

Her friends looked to the guitar in question as Rainbow slowly approached it as if it were a holy relic. Fluttershy wondered aloud, “Um, why does it have two necks?”

“Well, the thinking is that one neck is strung differently from the other. That way, a guitarist doesn’t have to switch to a different model for a different song.” Sunset shrugged and admitted, “They always struck me as impractical, though. The bigger the instrument, the harder it is to carry around.”

Rarity looked to her with surprise. “You’re surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject of guitars, Sunset. I know you’ve been taught to play, of course…”

“By Flash, who hangs out with other guitarists. I figured learning a thing or two wouldn’t…”

“Hey!” The girls turned their attention back to Rainbow Dash to discover that she had some competition. One of her hands was upon one neck of the guitar, but holding the other neck… “Hands off my guitar, Trixie!”

“I got into the store first, Rainbow Dash! Derpy and Vinyl can both verify that!” As the two girls nodded, the aspiring illusionist added as she tugged at the instrument, “And I touched it first! So there!”

“Steady there, you two. Y’all don’t wanna break the thing and each get half a guitar, do ya?” The two looked to Applejack, who rolled her eyes and groaned in acknowledgement of her own lame joke. “Anyway, this sounds to me like the makin’ for a nice, friendly competition. Best player gets the guitar.”

Trixie showed clear interest in the idea as she looked to her rival and proposed with a confident grin, “A shred-off?”

Rainbow answered back with a grin all her own. “Shred on.”

Vinyl approached and claimed the prize guitar as the two girls were each given instruments for the contest. Pinkie selected a Fender Stratocaster and passed it off to Rainbow Dash, while Trixie found herself with a left-handed Gibson Flying V courtesy of Derpy. Vinyl placed their prize back upon the wall, then raised her hand and looked between the two to see if they were ready. At their nods, she sharply lowered it, and the shred-off began.

The two girls volleyed music back and forth, wicked chords sounding from the shop’s speakers with each stroke of their guitar strings. After several seconds, however, brief flashes crossed Rainbow Dash’s face – Trixie was actually pretty good. But she wasn’t about to let the boastful girl beat her; she was starting a band with her friends, after all, and she wasn’t about to let them down by losing before things even got started. Besides, this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

And that was when it happened. From Dash’s perspective, she felt a surge of energy build up inside of her as her feet lost contact with the ground. Those watching saw her eyes go white as energy surged through her and her instrument and a familiar pair of ears formed upon her head. The guitar itself shifted as well as it changed color from the same blue as its wielder’s skin to a darker, brilliant shade, save for its neck turning red with yellow lightning bolt details.

Trixie, much to her credit, continued to play as she watched in shock as her rival rose up and gently spun about, with a pair of wings and a long ponytail extension completing her transformation. As it finished, Rainbow dropped to the floor and finished her performance with a rainbow shockwave and a bright flash of light. Combined, they were strong enough to knock Trixie off her feet and back into a drum set.

“Whoa! Check me out!” Rainbow examined herself as her friends rushed up to her. “Please tell me someone recorded that!”

“Got the whole thing!” Sunset pocketed her cell phone with a grin. The grin faded as she caught sight of Trixie; the look of disappointment was obvious upon her face, even if it was quickly replaced by a scowl as she was helped to her feet by Derpy.

Rainbow didn’t notice Trixie’s disappointment as Vinyl presented her with her prize. The joy at getting her new guitar, however, faded as she looked to the one in her arms. Fancy and elaborate it wasn’t, but nonetheless, she’d won with it, and that counted for something. “You know what? Trixie can have that one.” She hugged the guitar close and declared, “Turns out this is the one that really speaks to me.”

The shock at having gotten her prize anyway quickly faded into triumphant glee as Trixie claimed the guitar and declared, “The Great and Powerful Trixie always wins in the end!”

“Yeah, think again.” Dash strode up to the counter as Vinyl rang up the price. Money and a receipt were exchanged, and Vinyl presented her customer with a new case for the new guitar.

As all of this transpired, Trixie examined her prize and finally noticed the price tag. “Twelve thousand dollars?!” She turned back to her rival as the magic subsided and she returned to normal. “You’ll pay for this, Rainbow Dash!” Her words went ignored as Rainbow Dash and her friends departed, and she bowed her head and groaned, “Stupid Rainbow Dash with her stupid magic and her stupid guitar.”

“Well, maybe you can get an installment plan?” Derpy offered.

“I wouldn’t bother.” Both girls looked to Vinyl in shock as she explained, “That’s a right-hander. I can special order a lefty for you though.”

Trixie grumbled and put the guitar back on the wall, then held up the Flying V she’d used. “I’ll take this one. If I’m going to best Rainbow Dash, I’m going to do it with this guitar, and nothing else!”

Derpy looked at her with confusion. “But the Musical Showcase isn’t a competition.”

“Then I’ll make sure that my performance is more memorable than hers!” Trixie raised a hand skyward, index finger extended, and declared, “And nothing shall stop me! Nothing!” She then looked to Vinyl and amended, “Assuming, of course, you accept payments via credit card.”

-

“Am I the only one who feels bad for Trixie?” Sunset and her friends made their way into the lobby of Skycastle Apartments, Rainbow Dash’s abode. Much to all their relief, it was in walking distance of the mall. “I mean, you know she isn’t going to take this well.”

“Meh. How she takes it is her decision.” Rainbow Dash gave a dismissive shrug as she led her friends towards the elevator. “No fault of mine if she can’t afford the guitar.”

“Yeah! If she wants it, then she’ll have to pay for it!” Pinkie gleefully declared.

“That’s not what I meant.” The elevator doors opened for them as soon as Dash pressed the button, and they filed in together. Once the doors closed, Sunset continued, “Trixie’s already got a competitive streak, and I wouldn’t put it past her to say that the only reason you beat her was because you had magic.”

“Okay, fine, but it’s not my fault that Twilight’s crown pumped it into me at the Fall Formal.” The elevator stopped, and the girls stepped out as the door opened. “If she’s gonna feel jealous about that, then that’s on her.”

“Envious, dear,” Rarity corrected her. “And let’s not forget that she was among Sunset’s victims that night. As grateful as she is, I can easily see her being resentful if it was rubbed in her face.” She quickly turned to her flame-haired friend and added, “No offense meant for bringing it up, dear.”

“None taken, I’d have brought that up myself.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Jealous, envious, same diff. I’m not wrong, and besides, it’s not like I’ve been bringing up the Fall Formal every time she’s in earshot.” As they reached her apartment door, she turned to her friends and offered, “Look, if I’d lost, I’d have accepted it. And what’s done is done anyway, so let’s move on and get to this study session already.” She unlocked the door, opened it and called out, “Dad, I’m home!” As she and her friends filed in, she called again, “Dad?” She turned back to them as she wondered aloud, “Where is he? He said he’d be free today.”

“Probably ran into traffic on the way back from getting pizza.” Footsteps sounded behind her as a voice assured her, “Special occasion and all.”

Rainbow Dash caught the surprised expressions upon her friends’ faces, no doubt mirrored by her own, and turned to look upon the source of the voice. Standing before them in casual clothing was an athletic woman, her skin a pale cerise color and her blue hair in a shoulder-length, professional cut. Her violet eyes had a mischievous twinkle, and her smile spoke of well-earned confidence. Her own eyes were wide as the athlete gasped, “Mom?”

A gentle laugh answered her. “Hi Dashie. Surp-!” She gasped as the wind was knocked out of her by her daughter taking her into a tight hug. “Whoa! Careful!” She then noticed her daughter trembling, followed shortly by a wet feeling on her shoulder. “Tears? Not afraid of losing your cool in front of your friends?”

“Don’t care. Too happy.” Dash looked up and started wiping her tears away. “You came home.” She fought back more as she sobbed, “I’m so sorry, Mom, I…”

Her mother embraced her and held her close. “I know. I didn’t want to go either.” She gently wiped away some of her daughter’s tears and added, “But no way was I going to leave you forever. And I won’t.”

Each of her friends watched with a smile, Sunset especially as she gripped her friend’s guitar case. “Told ya so.”

Her friends laughed at that, and Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Yeah, laugh it up.” But her smile betrayed her as she broke off from her mother. “You remember my friends, of course.”

“I do, all except for one.” Her gaze fixed upon Sunset as she strode forward with a military bearing. “Sunset Shimmer, I presume.”

For her part, Sunset didn’t flinch. “Yes ma’am.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you. Almost didn’t believe my husband when he told me that my daughter was friends with…” She looked to Dash out of the corner of one eye and asked, “‘The Alpha Bitch of Canterlot High’?”

Dash flashed a nervous grin, but Sunset firmly corrected her, “Recovering Alpha Bitch, ma’am. Thanks in part to your daughter.”

The older woman turned her gaze back upon her with a critical expression, only to grin. “I heard that too. And that you’ve been good for my daughter in turn.” She laid a hand upon her shoulder as the grin softened to a smile. “Welcome to our home.”

Sunset smiled back. “Thank you, ma’am.”

A chuckle answered her. “Don’t ‘Ma’am’ me – you’re not in my chain of command. And don’t call me ‘Mrs. Dash’ either. My name is Firefly.” She then took the guitar case and looked to her daughter. “Now what have I told you about just hoisting things onto other people? Go and put this away, then make sure your friends are comfortable.”

“Got it.” Dash did as she was ordered and went off to her room with the guitar.

“Dash!” Her mother’s call stopped her, and she looked to find Firefly pointing downwards. “Forgetting something?”

A nervous chuckle, and Dash turned to Sunset and asked, “Hold this for me please?” Sunset accepted the guitar case with a nod, and the athlete slipped off her boots before retrieving it and continued on her way.

Her friends did the same with a laugh, and Firefly gently ushered them inside. “Come on all of you, get comfortable. I’ve got catching up to do, especially with you, Fluttershy. That brother of yours still chasing after my daughter?”

Epilogue Two - The Future Awaits

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It was still and quiet within the cave that housed the Tree of Harmony. Celestia was glad for this, especially as it had been a lot of trouble to clear a brief span of time in her schedule to come and visit it. She could only use the excuse of “Official State Secrets” so many times with Kibitz after all. Still, what little time she had gave her the chance to once more examine the Tree with somepony whom she trusted.

Soft hoofsteps heralded another’s arrival, and she turned to face them with a smile. “I hear you had a busy time last night.”

Luna held her head proudly and remarked, “I was not busy, dear sister. I was engaged.” A smile formed upon her muzzle as she added, “In matters most pleasant and long overdue.”

Celestia smiled in return. “It’s about time. It feels like we’ve been waiting for that to happen for years.” She turned to the Chest and noted, “I only hope that we don’t wait years for this to be resolved. I’ve faith that Twilight is up to the task, but still, there’s so much that we don’t know.” A sad look crossed her face. “Luna, do you remember the first time we saw the Tree of Harmony?”

“Clearly. It was shortly after we were crowned, on the land that would one day become the city of Canterlot. We toured Equestria, escorted by Star Swirl the Bearded as he began teaching us in magic, and sought a place to build our home. When we came upon the Tree, it seemed logical to build our castle nearby.” She narrowed her eyes and realized, “It was smaller then.”

“Indeed. It had grown to this size by the time Star Swirl directed us to it as a possible means of defeating Discord. He never explained how or why either, only that the Tree would give us what we needed.” She turned to her sister and asked, “Do you think I took after him too much?”

“Oh, heavens no, Sister. Star Swirl never purposefully left others in the dark when he could have simply given them the information they needed before sending them on their way, or kept secrets for the sake of keeping secrets.”

Celestia frowned at her sibling’s sarcastic tone. “He never gave us the answers, Luna. We had to figure them out for ourselves.”

“No, but he did give us the information we needed, explained how to apply that information, and then made certain that we understood that which we learned under safe conditions. It doesn’t matter if the fate of Equestria is at stake, Celie, that’s no excuse for tossing your student to the wolves with nothing but sheer faith.” Luna leaned in and added, “Even if it has worked a few times, it won’t work forever.”

The elder sister bowed her head. “I know. And I’ve been trying, Luna, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time before history repeats, and Twilight lashes out at me as Sunset did. It’s no wonder the Elements were beyond our use after I used them against you.” She sighed. “I don’t know who was more disappointed in me after that. Myself, or Star Swirl.”

“He never stopped talking to you, Celie. That’s hardly a bad sign.”

“Still, he vanished without explanation within years of that incident. I haven’t been able to justify entering his old rooms at Canterlot since. For all I know, the books within have been torn apart by squirrels or something, and all his knowledge was lost.” She looked back up at the tree and asked aloud, “Wherever he went, is he aware of what we’ve done? What would his thoughts be?”

“He’d be stubbornly opposed to Spike even setting foot in Canterlot. That much is certain. How he felt about other things, I’ve no clue, but he’d probably be horrified by the modern era.” A sympathetic look crossed her face as she admitted, “I know that I was at first.” She shook her head. “In any case, we can agree that this mystery is frustrating. The longer one lasts, the less likely it is to be resolved to satisfaction.” She looked to her sister and noted, “Though I suspect that you have a theory. Knowing you, however, you’re keeping it close to your chest, lest you find yourself wrong.”

“It’s less fear of being wrong and more trying to avoid getting my hopes up.” Celestia steeled herself and noted, “Still, it does me no good to keep this theory to myself. Excluding you caused far too much trouble, and solved none.” She looked to her sister and offered, “Luna, when the Tree granted us the Elements, there were six.”

“Yes, three for each of us two. Five of the six would be foundations for a strong bond and create the sixth, the magic of friendship itself.”

“Yet they were not enough to prevent so many things from going wrong over the years, prominent among them the loss of you for a millennium.” Celestia looked to the core of the Tree and the Element of Magic in particular. “And for all that time, I hoped that I would find those able to carry them before your return. I thought Sunset was my last chance until Twilight came along.”

“Indeed, I think that even she has acknowledged that she was not the intended bearer.”

“And yet…” Celestia took on an enigmatic smile as she reasoned aloud, “perhaps Sunset’s contact with the Element of Magic brought about something we didn’t see at first glance. Something missing from the original formula.”

“A seventh Element of Harmony?” Luna offered. “What could be missing? Honesty, kindness, laughter, generosity and loyalty are all equal parts of a strong friendship.”

“Yes, but think. We were as close as they, and we were divided because something was lacking. Something that Twilight and her friends have sometimes failed to use. Something that only came to me through many years of reflection and consideration.” Celestia’s eyes twinkled as she added, “Something that Sunset has, for good and for ill.”

“Which helped her to defeat the Nightmare.” Luna’s expression brightened. “If this supposition is true, Celie, then…”

The elder alicorn laughed. “Then I think someone’s inflicted us with that old kirin curse. We live in interesting times.”

The younger smirked. “As if we did not already live in such times.” She sighed and noted, “Still, harmony alone is not enough. I think, at times, we’ve forgotten something of equal import, something which produces harmony if meted properly, but is not an Element itself. We both know of victims of injustice, Celie. There are so many, even a few due to our actions, and we need to answer for them.” She tilted her head and noted, “I’m not saying I wish to be banished to the moon again or anything, but…”

“No, you’re right.” Celestia stood up. “And we’ll face them as they come.”

-

Another world away, it was a crisp Saturday morning in February as Sunset stepped out of the building which housed her apartment. The air was cool and the sun was barely peeking out from behind the clouds above, but there was no wind to bite at her exposed skin. Still, she pulled her jacket in close before slipping on her earbuds and starting up the MP3 player tucked into her pocket. She grinned as she recognized the song, and then went on her way.

The last month had been smooth sailing for her and her friends. Applejack confirmed that she’d regained the use of her magic the night after Rainbow Dash had found hers once more and reunited with her mother. The rest of the girls followed shortly thereafter as Dash assembled her band for the upcoming Musical Showcase, with Fluttershy being the next much to everyone’s surprise. Sunset hadn’t been there to see it for herself, but Rarity had thankfully recorded her ponying up on her cell phone, and filled in the rest without any hesitation and much glowing praise for her animal-loving friend’s ways with small creatures and hypnotic talent with a tambourine.

Sunset, for her part, playfully teased Rarity about how she’d quickly warmed to the mass of hamsters, only for them to quickly go out of control as she attempted to dress them. To her credit, the fashionista took it in stride.

Pinkie was the next one. Due to her excess energy and her tendency towards percussion with anything and everything available to her, the party girl soon found herself recruited into the band as a drummer. Sunset chuckled at the memory of her first drum session’s aftermath and the sight of Pinkie ponied up with her tongue sticking out of one corner of her mouth like a deranged Muppet.

Rarity had been the last to find her place in the band, though not for lack of trying. Somehow, she’d managed to acquire a grand piano, though it proved to be more trouble than it was worth to transport – no wheels. Rarity briefly resorted to having the Diamond Dog boys carry her about upon it like a palanquin before she was convinced to go with a more portable instrument, a keytar. Much to her surprise, she took to it like a duck to water.

All of this hadn’t been lost on the rest of the school, however, particularly with Sparkler and Rose. They chose to tell them part of the truth, rather than all of it – no mention was made of Sunset’s origins, but they had the full particulars of the night of the Fall Formal. Much to Sunset’s relief, they hadn’t changed their opinion of her at all, and were happy to continue hanging out with their friends.

The rest of the student body, meanwhile, was slowly starting to shift in its views towards her. Vinyl, of course, flashed her a smile whenever the two crossed paths, though Octavia remained coldly polite. As for the rest, there were still many who looked upon her with scorn, with Trixie chief among them, but a few had begun to view her with shame and guilt, and her coworkers at Zecora’s shop were actually being more social than before. Perhaps word had spread about what she’d said to those who’d mobbed her shortly before Winter Break, and other students had gained some sympathy for her over the Anon-A-Miss incident. Perhaps they’d felt an odd sense of gratitude for her role in Leading Rose’s expulsion from the school; the boy wasn’t feared or hated like she was, but he was universally considered obnoxious. Either way, it was a change that she enjoyed, however small.

Some things nagged at her, however, among them the fact that she was still keeping secrets here and there. Sparkler and Rose not knowing the full truth bugged her, even if her silence on the matter was necessary. Less necessary for her was the fact that she was still keeping some tidbits from Principal Celestia. Her principal had opened up to her about everything, but there was one detail she’d kept to herself – her message journal. Sunset wasn’t proud of this, but as of yet it hadn’t been important. Hopefully, one day, she’d have a chance to reveal those secrets once and for all.

Beyond that, however, she’d kept in touch with Twilight. Her mentor in the magic of friendship found time to fill her in with what was going on in Equestria even as they worked together on research regarding the portals and the mysterious Chest of Harmony. Sunset, in turn, had kept Twilight in touch with what she knew and found out. Much to her surprise, the princess had been delighted at some of the news, in particular that Sunset had met and befriended the counterpart of one of Twilight’s own classmates from their alma mater. That had raised questions of its own regarding Doctor Turner, but that was a mystery for another day it seemed.

In any case, these were all the last things on Sunset’s mind as she made her way down the street towards Sugar Cube Corner and her steps went from normal to a loose, gleeful dance as she went along and let the music move her. Maybe she’d see her friends, but she was definitely going to snag some donuts. Mrs. Cake made some fantastic donuts.

“Come on down to the grand opening of the Flim Flam Brothers’ Everything Under the Sun Emporium!”

Sunset stopped upon the sidewalk in surprise just a short distance from the door to Sugar Cube Corner at that call, itself loud enough to be heard over the fairly light sounds of her music. As she plucked out her earbuds, she heard a familiar chord from a bass guitar, and made her way as quickly as she could to the source. A short dash over a couple blocks and some additional calls, and she found the source. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Standing a ways down the block in front of a storefront dominated by large signs were her friends and their younger siblings. What really caught her attention about it was that each of them were dressed up in banana costumes, Applejack forced to have her Stetson perched upon the stem, and playing their instruments. The only one who seemed enthusiastic about all of this was Pinkie Pie as she gleefully played out a rapid beat on a snare drum strapped around her waist. The Crusaders, just adding to the absurdity, were shaking banana-themed maracas. People passing by, some among their number other students at CHS, watched on with amusement and took the odd picture or video of the sight with their phones.

Sunset herself wasn’t sure if she should laugh or stand there and gawk at the sight, until Pinkie finally noticed her and gleefully waved. She approached as her brain finally caught up with what she was seeing and asked, “Did all of you guys just get some weird part time job, or what?”

“It’s something like that, darling,” Rarity admitted as she played a few notes upon her instrument. “Though perhaps karma is also finally catching up with us.”

“Hopefully it doesn’t run us over in the process,” Sweetie Belle quipped, leading to gleeful giggles from Pinkie.

It was at this point that Sunset found herself thinking of an old comedy skit that she’d seen once in Equestria, one that Celestia herself had gotten a laugh out of despite it casting the princess in a less than pleasant light. Despite the fact that she hadn’t thought too highly of the skit itself, she couldn’t help but laugh at it along with her teacher and ruler, and the giggles were coming back to her now seeing her friends in front of her. “So, um, were the costumes your idea?”

Rarity glared at her. “What do you think?”

This caused a snort before Sunset asked, “So, I guess…you don’t like…bananas?”

Applejack looked over to her and called out, “There somethin’ we’re missin’ out on?”

Sunset struggled to think of something not funny as she worked to regain control. “It’s a long story, you don’t want to know.” After several seconds and a couple deep breaths, she calmed down. “Sorry. I’ll get out of your hair and…”

And then she felt a familiar vibration from her backpack and heard a familiar buzzing sound from behind her. She moved against a wall and into cover as best she could, then pulled out her message journal as her friends watched. “Sunset? What’s going on? Is it bad news from Twilight?”

“No.” Her eyes quickly scanned over the latest message. “It’s good news.” Sunset looked up to Rarity with joy as she answered, “It’s Sunrunner. They found her.”