While Twilight deals with the fallout of the Friendship Games, the notorious Fake AH Crew come to town to lay low and rebuild. Twilight soon finds herself entwined in the plots that surround them, hoping to do some good after having done so much bad.
It's Twilight Sparkle's first week at Canterlot High School after the Friendship Games—after she unleashed the magic and turned into a monster. Sure, Twilight has Sunset Shimmer and her friends, but the rest of the school has not forgotten, and many have not forgiven.
Half a state away in Los Santos, the once powerful criminal organization known only as the Fake AH Crew is near the end of its rope. Geoff the Boss is in prison, and his gang is losing territory. But the Fake AH Crew have one last play to make: If they can spring their boss, they may have a chance to reclaim everything they lost.
But when fate brings the Fake AH Crew to the small town of Canterlot, everything begins to unravel. A web of plots ensnares the little community, turning it into a powder keg waiting to explode. At the center of it all is Twilight, hoping to prove to her friends and to herself that she's not a monster... even if it means facing very real ones.
The buzz that sounded as all of the doors on the cellblock simultaneously slid open was like a wasp in Peaceful Ramsey’s ear—one of the many things he’d come to hate about the world within the drab, cracked walls of Bolingbroke Penitentiary. A few of the other things Ramsey hated about the prison was the arid climate of the surrounding desert, the quality of the food, and—above all else—his cellmate.
“Stay golden, pony boy,” a black man at least a head taller than Ramsey said with a dark chuckle, patting the side of Ramsey’s face as he passed to exit the cell, leaving the comparatively smaller man sitting on his bunk.
Ramsay watched the large man with almost as many tattoos as he had himself disappear down the cell block with dozens of other men in identical orange jumpsuits. Ramsey didn’t know his real name, just that the other inmates called him “Big Dong.” Ramsey scowled; he had become all too familiar with Big Dong’s namesake over their time together. Stroking his luxurious black mustache and feeling the week’s worth of stubble around it, Ramsey’s blood boiled as he thought about how far he had fallen.
Sure, in here he was known by his birth name of Peaceful Ramsey at the best of times, but just four months ago he was known across the State of San Andreas by the criminal underworld and law enforcement both as “Geoff the Boss”. It had been his idea when they first formed their crew to use old-fashioned names as pseudonyms, and pretty soon he and his crew found themselves preferring the names they’d made for themselves over the ones they were born with. But that all ended four months ago when their latest heist had gone south: When Geoff the Boss had “got Got”, as he liked to put it.
Now here he was, rotting in a state penitentiary, sitting at the bottom of the food chain. But it wouldn’t last. As much as he hated it, being a prison bitch had one upside: Big Dong was the most well connected man in Bolingbroke. During their “pillow talk”, Ramsey had convinced the man to use his connections to help him escape, with the promise to use his empire on the outside to make Big Dong’s prison smuggling business more lucrative than he could have ever imagined.
And so, with the delivery of a couple of cakes (one of which, for some reason, was shaped like a pie) from a longtime associate posing as his lover, Ramsey had in his possession a crude lockpick and a phone. The first of the new iFruits to go in someone’s ass, Ramsey thought distastefully.
He checked outside his cell briefly one more time. The rest of the inmates on his block were lining up as the SASPA officers prepared to move them into the recreation yard. Ramsey only had a brief window.
With swift fingers, Ramsey dialed the only number in the phone’s contact list. Every ring seemed like an eternity as Ramsey glanced back towards the cell’s entrance, but soon enough someone picked up the phone and a chorus of voices shouting “EEEEeeeey!” greeted him. Clearly his crew had him on speaker.
“Hello?” he asked.
Right away a familiar voice answered, “Hey Geoff!”
At the sound of his true name being uttered, Geoff felt a calm sense of familiarity, like putting on an old pair of shoes that still fit him just right.
“Gavin!” Geoff exclaimed, having never been so happy to hear the man’s dumb British voice.
“How’s life in the clink, Geoff?”
“How the fuck do you think it is, asshole?!” Geoff hissed, careful to keep his voice down. “My roomate- ah, cellmate… he calls me ‘Sex Butt’! Prison sucks!”
“Well don’t worry, we’re comin’ to bust you out, Geoff!” another familiar voice said, this one with a slight New Jersey accent—Michael.
Geoff thought he heard someone else mutter, “...before they keep bustin’ you,” on the other end before Gavin spoke up again.
“Right, here’s what we’re gonna do: We’ll be in position by sixteen hundred hours. When we give you the signal, use the lockpick to get out of your cell and make your way to Rec Yard B. We’ll take care of everything from there.”
“Alright, what’s the signal gonna be?” Geoff asked.
Michael was the one to respond. “Trust me, you’ll know when the plan is happening.”
Geoff smiled. “Good.” If this was going to be anything like their heists, he was going to break out of prison in style.
“One more thing, Geoff,” Gavin said, “Make sure you don’t….”
Gavin was cut off as the call abruptly ended. Geoff looked at the phone, momentarily puzzled. It was probably just the bad reception that came from the prison being in the middle of literal butt-fuck nowhere. It didn’t really matter. The plan was in motion, and by the time twilight fell, he would be a free man. Geoff hastily smashed the phone into the wall until it broke in half, and dumped the pieces into the toilet. The sound of a nightstick banging against his open cell door rang out as Geoff flushed.
“Hey, Ramsey. Get a move on!” the guard shouted, giving him a look that promised hell if he didn’t obey. “We don’t got all day!”
Content that the guard simply thought he’d only been relieving himself, Geoff dusted off his hands and gave the uniformed man a lazy smile. “Why of course, officer,” he said pleasantly as he stepped out of his cell to join his fellow inmates. The SASPA officer regarded him warily. Said guard would later go on to state for the record that it was the happiest he’d ever seen Ramsey in his four months of incarceration—that he should have known that something was wrong.
Michael stood at the head of the table with the four other main members of Geoff’s crew standing around him. The warehouse they currently occupied was one of the last ones not yet seized by the police or that new gang (the one with the Nazi symbol or whatever). On the table of the boardroom they were currently standing in was a single smartphone on speaker.
Their boss was on the other end, and Michael could tell by looking at their faces that they hated hearing him like this. The once proud crime boss now had fear and despair clearly audible on the fringes of his voice. It was quite sad; like looking at a lion in captivity.
Even so, everyone in the room couldn’t help but laugh when Geoff told them his cellmate called him "Sex Butt."
“Well don’t worry, we’re coming to bust you out, Geoff!” Michael said, hoping to restore some of his boss’s dwindling hope.
Beside him, Gavin leaned over the table to explain the plan to Geoff. As always, the Englishman’s no doubt hungover, bloodshot eyes were covered by a pair of reflective aviators.
“Alright, what’s the signal gonna be?” Geoff asked after Gavin was finished.
“Trust me, you’ll know when the plan is happening,” Michael replied.
“Good,” Geoff said, and just like that he started to sound like his old self again.
“One more thing, Geoff,” Gavin said, leaning even closer to the phone. “Make sure you don’t….”
Without another word, Gavin disconnected the call and stood ramrod straight, pocketing the cell phone before walking out of the room. The others wordlessly followed while Michael just stood there, staring ahead with a dumbfounded expression. What… what was he gonna say?
Deciding then that it was a lost cause trying to understand how Gavin’s mind worked, Michael merely pulled out his own phone and opened up a text file. On it was a list of names of small towns in the other counties of San Andreas. Once they sprung Geoff, they would need to lay low for a while. Los Santos was out of the question; it would be way too hot after what they were about to pull. So Michael had spent the past few weeks scoping out potential fallback locations where the crew could lay low.
Many of the towns listed were good choices, but only one was perfect: A relatively small town in Paleto County—its most notable feature it's ridiculous name….
“Good morning, listeners! It’s another beautiful spring day here in Canterlot, SA. The temperature is a pleasant 86 degrees with slight cloud coverage later in the day.
“But today’s a good day for another reason. Long Play, wanna take a guess at what that reason is?”
“Uh, it is my sister’s birthday, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that’s not what you’re talking about, Record Label.”
“Haha, well, not to steal your sister’s thunder, but today finally marks the day where the case is officially closed on notorious criminal Peaceful Ramsey.”
“Oh, you’re talking about the boss of the notorious gang, the Fake AH Crew?”
“That’s right, Long. Ramsey, better known by the alias ‘Geoff’ was arrested four months ago thanks to a tip from an anonymous source warning police about the target of their latest heist: the Humane Labs Research Facility in Blaine County.
“Ramsey and his ‘Fake AH Crew’ were notorious for pulling off dramatic heists. Often using military-grade hardware, they’d intentionally cause as much collateral damage as possible, destroying anything and everything that the police could use to find them.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing the news footage of an army helicopter carrying a tank shooting at other helicopters!”
“Mmm-hmm. Ramsey alone was wanted in connection to the deaths of over two dozen LSPD officers, and that’s not even counting the rest of his crew. It took a long time for the Prosecutor’s Office of Los Santos to weed out enough of the corruption in the city’s Department of Justice for Ramsey to get a proper trial. The man had a lot of judges in his pocket before his imprisonment.”
“Well, I’m sure enough people wanted to see him locked up. I mean, look at how much the crime rate in Los Santos has gone down since the Fake AH Crew fell….”
Twilight Sparkle reached over to the dashboard and turned down the volume on the radio, letting the talking voices fade into background noise. She then returned to fidgeting with her clothes. It felt strange to be going to a school that didn’t have a uniform, the only semblance of a dress code being the simple “nothing too revealing” rule for the girls. Not like Twilight would have dressed like that anyways.
She currently wore a light blue skirt that went down to her knees with gray stockings. Her white button up top was done up all the way to her neck, and she wore a light violet jacket over top of it. Twilight continued fidgeting with the bottom of her skirt with both of her hands, stopping only to push the large glasses up the bridge of her nose.
“Nervous, Twily?” her brother asked from the driver’s seat. The car stopped at a red light and Shining Armor looked over to give her an encouraging smile. He looked handsome in his new uniform, and Twilight was pretty sure Cadance would be inclined to agree.
“No! Why would I be nervous?” Twilight answered all too quickly.
“Well for starters, you’re currently having a second breakfast consisting of your own hair,” Shining said, grinning.
Eyes suddenly wide, Twilight spat out the lock of dark violet hair and set it in place while her brother chuckled. The light turned green and Shining’s attention returned to the road as they pulled forward.
“Seriously though, you know you can tell me what’s on your mind, right?” Shining said not unkindly.
After some nervous hesitation, Twilight started, “Well, public school is really different from prep school socially speaking….”
Shining nodded. “True, but you already have friends there, right? That’s more than most kids can say when they go to a new school.”
Twilight had to give him that. Sunset Shimmer and her circle of friends had been incredibly kind and forgiving to her after… after the Friendship Games. Unfortunately, they weren’t the ones she was worried about.
“Shiny, most kids can’t say that they turned into a magical monster that almost tore apart the very fabric of reality!”
Just like that, memories started to pour into her like a sudden torrent from a burst dam. Holes opening in the air around her, the screams of the students threatened to be consumed by them, the things she’d seen on the other side. Things beyond all comprehension. And the hunger… that terrible, all-consuming hunger that drove her onward. The hunger for understanding and so much more....
The look on his face as she continued opening more portals and pulling more innocents in….
“Twily!” Her brother’s hand jolted her out of her thoughts, and just like that she could breathe again. “We’re here.”
Twilight looked out the window. Sure enough, the car was pulled over along the sidewalk outside of Canterlot High. How long had she been lost in her thoughts? The school’s red bricks towered over them, the white marble statue of a horse rearing up on its hind legs seeming to greet her. Except horses don’t rear up to be friendly. It’s more like the statue is trying to fend me off.
“Thanks for the ride, big brother,” Twilight said as she opened the passenger side door and grabbed the backpack at her feet.
But before she could step out of the car, Shining put a hand on her shoulder. When she turned to look at him, she saw something very strange. Her big brother seemed so concerned he almost looked… afraid.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay, Twily?” he asked.
“I…” At first, Twilight wasn’t sure how to answer. “I’ll be okay,” she finally said.
Shining seemed unsure of her answer at first, but then he gave her his usual goofy smile. “Hey, if anyone gives you any trouble, just let me know and I’ll kick their butt for you!”
Twilight laughed as she remembered a much younger Shining Armor and his friends chasing a group of boys that had picked on her in elementary school. Sure, her brother and his friends had been total nerds back then, but they were the big kids. And you didn’t mess with the big kids.
“Shiny, you’re just starting your career as a police officer!” Twilight exclaimed, still giggling. “You can’t go around beating up highschoolers!”
Shining grabbed the shiny badge on his lapel with “CPD” etched across it. “C’mon Twily, if I can’t use this to scare off bullies, then what good is it?”
This caused a fresh round of laughter to travel through the two siblings until Shining finally motioned for her to go. “Now get going or you’ll make us both late on our first day. Don’t turn us into anime cliches, Twily!”
Twilight snorted one last time before stepping out onto the sidewalk. “Good luck today, BBBFF,” she said as she turned to close the door.
“You too, Twily. See you later.”
Before she knew it, Twilight was walking down the bustling halls of Canterlot High. The cacophony of noise was a complete contrast to the uniform, orderly halls of Crystal Prep as all around her students talked, laughed, and roughhoused. At least, that’s what they had been doing until they started to notice her.
Back when Twilight first came to Canterlot High for the Friendship Games, everyone she passed seemed to recognize her (the reason for this later became apparent in an encounter she had trouble wrapping her mind around even now). As she passed through the school now, the looks of recognition were of a very different kind. Rather than the smiles and waves one would give an old friend, Twilight was greeted with cold, uncertain stares.
Each time she glanced over to meet one of their eyes, they shied away like skittish animals, only for Twilight to feel their eyes on her again as she returned her gaze forward. More than once she saw groups of boys and girls whisper to each other as they passed, and the few words she managed to catch (monster) did nothing to encourage her. One boy with two-tone blue hair and a black jacket that she vaguely remembered looked at her sympathetically and for a moment seemed about to say something before apparently thinking better of it. A girl wearing a blue sweater with pale cornflower hair sneered at her before whispering something to the two girls with her, making them laugh cruelly.
Twilight wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her forearms as she kept walking. It took all of her willpower to keep from taking off running until she was somewhere away from all of the watching eyes. She kept going at the same pace even as the girl in the blue sweater and her friends started walking towards her. Shivering, Twilight closed her eyes. She had never wished for the ability to disappear more than that moment.
“HI TFILIGHT!” a high pitched voice yelled around a mouthful of frosting.
Twilight had to bite her lip to keep from shrieking in alarm before she turned to see the girl with bright poofy pink hair standing beside her. Pinkie Pie grinned with cheeks packed like a chipmunk, waving at her with the hand not holding a precarious tower of cupcakes.
“Pinkie! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?!” Twilight exclaimed, and was promptly sprayed with more crumbs.
“Why? Dfo you wan wun?”
A familiar blonde girl with freckles wearing a stetson appeared beside her, alongside another with fancy purple hair. “Land sakes, Pinks! Swallow first!” said the first.
Pinkie only threw her free arm in the air. “THAT’F WHUT HE FED…!”
The girl was abruptly cut off when Applejack pounced her and pinched her nose. There was a brief struggle before an audible gulp was heard and Pinkie took a huge breath through her mouth. Rarity simply rolled her eyes beside them.
“Aw, I was saving it…” Pinkie said as Applejack released her.
A warm voice chuckled and Twilight’s heart swelled. “Why? You have like, ten more!”
A girl approached the group wearing a dark leather jacket over a teal blouse and jeans, her red and yellow hair a wild, untamable flame. Sunset Shimmer: the girl who saved Twilight Sparkle from herself. As Sunset fell in with the others, Twilight noticed with relief that all the students who had been staring at her and whispering were turning away.
It was undeniable Sunset Shimmer had that certain something about her—an almost palpable magnetism that just drew people to her; or away from her if that was what she wanted. Twilight realized that the definition of this was “charisma.” It was hard to believe that—according to her friends at least—there was a time when Sunset was in a position not so different from Twilight.
“Have an alright weekend, Twi?” Sunset asked with a smile that came all too easily.
“Yeah, my brother’s girlfriend took me clothes shopping, which seemed practical given I can’t just wear my Crystal Prep uniform every day.”
At this, Rarity pouted. “Aw, Twilight darling, you should have told me you were looking to expand your wardrobe! I could’ve helped make you look fabulous!”
Twilight matched Rarity’s pout with one of her own. “You don’t like it? You think I look bad?” she asked, grinning and doing a little twirl in place. She knew that wasn’t what Rarity meant, but thought it would be fun to milk it a bit.
“Now you’re putting words in my mouth and you know it!”
At that moment the first bell rang through the halls, indicating it was five minutes until classes started, and the group of girls started walking down the halls.
“AAAAAAH I’m so excited Twilight's going to school with us!” Pinkie shouted, jumping up and down to the alarm of Sunset and Rarity, who were eying the wobbling tower of cupcakes in her hand nervously.
“So what homeroom are ya in, Twi?” Applejack asked as she walked beside her.
Twilight took out her class schedule even though she already had it memorized. “Science with Ms. Cheerilee.”
Looks of disappointment crossed the other girls’ faces. “We all have English with Mr. Doodle,” Sunset said, and for a moment Twilight’s heart sunk. “But Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are in Cheerilee’s class!”
Soon they reached the door to Twilight’s homeroom, and as the rest of the girls made to depart for their own period one class, Sunset put a hand on Twilight’s shoulder. When she looked over, Twilight saw Sunset’s normally confident face looking at her with concern.
“Hey, don’t let it get to you, okay?” she said.
“Huh?” was Twilight’s response.
“I saw the way the other kids were looking at you, Twi,” Sunset told her, her strong cyan eyes betraying a hint of something else—something vulnerable. “It was the same way they all looked at me after, y’know... the Fall Formal.”
Sunset had told her about that, alright. “What do I do?” Twilight asked.
“Just keep being the same smart, sweet, fun girl we know you are,” Sunset said, letting go of her shoulder and turning to head to class with the others. “They’ll warm up to you eventually!”
Feeling better already, Twilight smiled and entered the classroom. Hopefully Shiny’s first day is off to a better start than mine.
Officer Shining Armor wasn’t quite able to hide his lack of enthusiasm as he and his partner made their way across the station parking lot to their squad car. The same could not be said of the pretty but rather short (for a police officer, anyway) young woman who practically skipped beside him.
“C’mon, Shining! We’re about to go on our first beat together. Where’s the enthusiasm?” Melati Jasmine was one of Shining Armor’s closest friends at Royal Guard Police Academy, and was one of the few graduates to remain in Canterlot. It was no secret that Shining envied those that were able to move on, but circumstances kept him here.
“I’m saving it for when we get an actual case,” Shining replied dryly, nonchalantly pulling out his key fob to unlock the car. As he and Melati got in, Shining found his frustration pushing to continue his rant. “I mean, I know Canterlot’s a small town and all, but is a missing dog really the only thing worth checking out?”
Melati ran a hand through her tri-colored pink, orange and yellow hair as she replied, “Hey, you heard Chief Hardline. This is the fourth missing pet report in the same neighborhood in as many days. You’ve gotta admit that’s a little suspicious!”
“So, what? You think some whack job’s going around stealing people’s dogs and cats?”
Melati shrugged. “We won’t know until we we at least check it out, will we?” The young woman then nudged him and gave him a smile. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll bust up a meth lab that was testing their product on animals.”
That got a legitimate chuckle out of Shining. “Yeah, that’ll be the day.”
The young man’s brooding mood returned, however, when he pulled out his phone to put the address they were going to into Google Maps and was confronted by the recently added background. The image of himself wearing his high school graduation robes smiling between his father, his mother, and an older man wearing a brown coat and stetson looked back at him from the lock screen, his graying mustache curved up with his smile. Shining remembered looking up at the man with such wonder when he was a kid, and a melancholy sigh escaped his lips. He felt his partner’s hand on his shoulder at that moment.
“Hey, I know how important it is for you to join the LSPD,” Melati said. “Really, but your mother’s right. You need to start with something a little smaller. What happens when you try to learn to swim by jumping straight into the deep end?”
“I drown,” Shining replied instantly, having repeated this conversation time and again with her.
And she was right; it was his mother’s frantic tears that had convinced him to stay in Canterlot for a few years before moving on to a bigger city like Los Santos. His poor mother who hadn’t quite been the same since the week after the picture on his phone was taken. Shining knew he couldn’t very well move to Los Santos with the past five years still weighing so heavily on her mind.
“Damn right,” Melati said, giving his shoulder a few pats before starting the ignition. “Now come on, let’s focus on not drowning for now, okay?”
She found Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy sitting near the back of the room where the lab equipment was, who greeted her with a “‘Sup?” and a barely audible “Hello,” respectively. Twilight’s first instinct was to sit near the front of the room where she could best focus on the lesson, but then she remembered why she decided to go to Canterlot High in the first place.
Taking a seat by her two friends, Twilight exchanged quick pleasantries with them and listened to Rainbow tell of her exploits during Saturday’s soccer game until Ms. Cheerilee stood at the front of the room and cleared her throat.
“Good morning, class. I hope you all had a pleasant weekend,” Cheerilee said. “Now, before we begin, we have two new students joining our class today!”
Wait, two? Is there a new kid besides me?
Cheerilee gestured to her. “Twilight Sparkle here is joining us from Crystal Prep Academy…” Cheerilee then gestured to a boy further down the rows of desks. “And this here is Dusky Darneil. Dusky, where did you say you were from?”
Dusky was a small, somewhat pudgy boy with frizzy orange hair. He fiddled nervously with some kind of necklace as he answered, “Red County, ma’am.”
Behind him, two boys wearing tattered clothes and dog collars snickered. “What kinda stupid-ass name is Darneil?” one of them whispered.
“Holy crap dude, he’s wearing socks and sandals!” the other one hissed, barely containing his laughter.
A hard glare from Cheerilee silenced them quickly, and once she was sure she had the class’s attention, she continued, “Now, you all remember how we covered electrical currents and how they work last week, right? Because today we’re going to be building closed circuits! Everybody partner up and grab a kit from the back….”
Immediately everyone got up from their seats and started seeking out their close friends while Cheerilee raised her voice so she could tell the class how she would be grading them. Rainbow Dash immediately leaned over to Twilight.
“Hey Twi, wanna be my partner?” she asked.
Twilight just gave her a playful frown. “You just wanna partner with me because you know it’ll be an easy A.”
Rainbow raised her arms in defense. “No, I wanna partner with you because we’re friends. It’s not my fault you just happen to be an egghead!”
Twilight grinned, and was about to take up Rainbow on her offer until she glanced further down the room. The other new kid, Dusky, was looking around helplessly. He leaned over to the girl next to him, but she simply laughed and moved across the room to partner with another girl.
“You already have friends there, right? That’s more than most kids can say when they go to a new school.”
In that moment, her brother’s words sparked something in Twilight, and she found herself feeling weighed down by a deep sense of pity. Glancing over to Fluttershy, who looked similarly alone, Twilight turned back to Rainbow Dash and said, “Actually, why don’t you partner with Fluttershy? I, uh… have someone else in mind.”
But Twilight was already moving down the classroom and soon enough found herself standing in front of the other new kid, who was now just sitting there looking down at his feet. Sure enough, he really was wearing socks and sandals. He fidgeted nervously with the object on his necklace, which curiously resembled five cubes stacked on top of one another: the top four shiny yellow and the bottom a dark purple that was almost black.
“Hey, um… Dusky, right?” she asked. The boy in question looked up at her, a suspicious look on his face indicating he expected her to laugh at and make fun of him. “Wanna partner up?”
Dusky tilted his head in surprise. “Wait… really?”
Twilight gave him her best attempt at an easy smile. “Sure… why not?”
After taking a moment to process this information, Dusky clasped his hands together and looked up in the sky, mouthing what appeared to be “Thank you God!” before looking at her suspiciously again. “So… you’re not gonna make fun of my name, or anything like that?”
“No!” Twilight exclaimed immediately. Giving her a genuine smile, Dusky got up from his seat and the pair of them made their way to the back of the room to get the kit.
“Actually, if I’m being honest, I think your name is pretty neat,” Twilight said as they grabbed a box full of assorted copper wires, a battery, and a board with metal points to connect them to. “Is it an actual family name?"
“Amazing!” Twilight exclaimed, her sheer enthusiasm causing Dusky to take a step back. “Passing down family names hasn’t been popular since the turn of the century! Everyone just calls each other by name meanings now.”
Dusky smiled, though it was clear he was starting to get a little uncomfortable. “Yep. G-guess my family is just old fashioned like that….”
Not picking up on Dusky’s discomfort, Twilight continued. “I actually looked up what my name would be if I was given a more traditional name: Lycoris Brilliant. It’s part Greek!”
“Look, I’m glad that you think my name is cool and stuff, but can we, like, talk about something else?”
“Oh, okay,” Twilight said, glancing down at his strange necklace again. “That’s a really interesting necklace you’ve got there. What exactly is it supposed to be?”
Dusty grabbed the object in one hand and turned away. “Nothing! Why does it have to be something, huh?! Why can’t it just be a cool necklace?”
Jeez, is there a reason this kid is so jumpy?
Twilight started to have regrets about her decision to partner with Dusky until they actually began work on their project. Twilight thought she would have to do most of the work herself, but Dusky proved to actually be pretty competent with the intricacies of a circuit. He may be a bit odd, but he’s certainly not stupid.
“Hey, you went to Crystal Prep before coming here, right?” Dusky asked as they worked. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you leave? I can’t imagine you were getting anything but straight A’s while you were there.”
Twilight felt her cheeks turn hot and she rubbed the back of her neck. Not only was this Dusky not stupid, he was pretty darn perceptive. “Oh, I just… needed a change in environment, I guess. Crystal Prep was great for my academic career, but the social environment was just… toxic, you know?”
“Yeah, I felt that way when I met the principal,” Dusky said, and Twilight found herself looking at him with surprise.
“You applied to get into Crystal Prep?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t make the cut. I did well enough on the entrance exam, but Ms. Cinch said I didn’t ‘represent the personal level of quality Crystal Prep built its reputation on.’” Dusky looked down, having forgotten about the copper wires in his hand. “I think that was just her way of calling me a freak.”
Twilight tried giving him a reassuring smile. “Hey, don’t feel bad. If anything, you should be thankful. Not getting accepted means you don’t have to deal with her for the next two years.”
Dusky finally smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. You must have nerves of steel to have been able to exist in the same building as her for so long!”
“Yeah,” Twilight laughed. “I can’t imagine many people worse than her!”
High up on a hill, a man looked through the scope of a bright pink sniper rifle. He wore a purple sweater and a black tuque (which admittedly made things uncomfortable in the heat). I regret everything, Ray thought as he surveyed the prison below.
Bolingbroke State Penitentiary was surrounded on all sides by two layers of barbed wire fence, its buildings arranged in a vaguely pentagonal shape. Ray had never seen a more bland, dreary looking place: It made his old New York apartment look like a luxury suite. Well, a luxury suite that happened to have no furniture save for an old mattress and a single lamp. On second thought, Ray would have happily gone to live in a prison back then.
Now though, Ray lived a life of luxury as one of the top echelon of the Fake AH Crew. But that life was about to slip away as more and more of the gang’s assets were seized either by police or that rival gang. That was why he was here in the desert sweating his balls off: One part his own poor wardrobe choices and the other because his boss was currently sitting in the prison below. They were going to need Geoff if they had a hope of returning their empire to its former glory.
“This is TAFKAR, I’m in position,” Ray said into his radio headset, somewhat annoyed that ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Ray’ was too long to be used as an actual codename.
“This is Valet, I’ll be at the front gates in five,” Michael’s Jersey voice responded.
“Team Love ‘N Stuff is in the air,” the deep, dark voice of Ryan intoned while Ray looked up to see what by all outward appearances was a news chopper flying above the prison. “We have a good view of things from up here.”
“This is Overlord, the cargobob is standing by,” Jack reported.
Satisfied that everything was in place, Ray got up from his prone position and walked back to where the vehicle he called in from Pegasus was waiting. The prison was well guarded—the San Andreas State Prison Authority guards were well armed with sniper rifles, assault rifles and carbines. That was why for his job as diversion, Ray was using the Rhino.
“I could blow up the whole goddamn world with this thing,” he had once said to Geoff. What he needed it for now was a little short of ‘the whole goddamn world,’ so he figured he would do just fine.
Jumping up to climb into the top hatch of the desert tan armored vehicle, Ray opened his channel with the rest of the Fake AH Crew so he could officially start the operation off in the traditional Fake AH Crew way.
If there was one word SASPA officer Takedown would use to describe the moment, it would be “content.” Sure, he may have been working long shifts at a state penitentiary in the middle of the desert, but the pay was good. And yes, working gate duty in a small booth that acted as a hot box in this heat was unpleasant, but the company was worth it. A woman with red and pink hair done up in a ponytail sat at the other end of the booth, her feet up on the open window: Pepper Spray, his partner for most of these shifts.
“...and as if it wasn’t already clear that the idiot had never been to a classy restaurant in his life, he tried to pick a fight with the fucking waiter! And when I say ‘fight,’ I mean full on standing up, jackets off, ‘settle this like men’ crap!” Pepper exclaimed, and Takedown chuckled.
She had a way with words that always put a smile on his face, and she had a plethora of stories to tell. When Takedown was with her, sitting in that booth wearing that stifling white uniform didn’t seem to matter. Her raspy but sweet voice gave him more comfort than the tiny fan trying desperately to give the booth ventilation.
“All this over a steak?” Takedown asked incredulously.
Pepper nodded, her ponytail bouncing behind her. “Yep! ‘Do you shitheads know what well done is? Because I’d be glad to teach ya!’ I swear, that kinda shit is why I can’t stand the alpha male types.”
Takedown gave her a teasing grin. “Oh, so you’re saying there’s no second date?”
“Please, I’d sooner go out with one of the scumbags,” Pepper said, jerking her head back in the direction of the prison before sighing. Just like that, her jovial tone became more melancholic. “Still though, I’m getting kinda tired of just going back to my apartment alone at the end of the day.”
Before Takedown even knew what he was doing, his mouth said the first thing that came to mind. “Well if you want, you and I can go out for drinks when both our shifts are over.”
A grin with a hint of amorousness formed on Pepper’s face. “Takedown, are you… asking me out?”
Flustered, Takedown cleared his throat a few times before answering. Fuck it. “Why not? I, uh, like you well enough. Doesn’t have to be serious or anything. Could just be a casual night between frien-”
A strong yet soft finger suddenly came up to Takedown’s lips. “Ssh, look. I’m gonna stop you right there before you use the F-word like that.” Pepper leaned forward and put her hand on his, and Takedown suddenly found his heart beating very quickly. “I would love to go out with you.”
Takedown couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Wait… really?”
“Of course! In fact, I was starting to think you’d never ask!” All too soon Pepper pulled her hand away and she leaned back in her chair, giving Takedown one of her teasing grins. “Guess you do have a pair somewhere down there after all!”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!” Takedown laughed, and in that moment he wasn’t simply content: He was truly happy. Nothing could have ruined the good mood he was in at that moment… except maybe for the sudden change in Pepper’s face.
“What the hell is that…?” she muttered as she leaned forward, looking out the window of their booth past him.
Takedown turned around in his chair to see what she was looking at and spotted a black splotch down the paved road moving closer and closer. His chair creaked as he leaned forward to grab his binoculars and looked out across the arid plain to the object in question. A black limousine was driving down the road toward Bolingbroke Penitentiary at a hasty speed. Something green was on the hood but he couldn’t quite make it out.
“You haven’t heard anything about a VIP visitor to the prison, have you?” Takedown asked.
“No…” Pepper answered warily, checking the sidearm on her waist as she stood up.
She and Takedown both exited the booth and stood in front of the gate, ready to meet the approaching vehicle. As the limo drew closer, the splotch of green on the hood caught Takedown’s eye again, so he raised his binoculars hoping to get a better look at it.
“Oh no. You’ve gotta be kidding…” he muttered as he finally saw what the green mark was: A circular logo with a green duck in the center.
“What?” Pepper asked, a hint of worry entering her usual confident tone.
Takedown ran back for their booth to grab his riot shotgun; they were going to need more firepower for what was coming. “It’s the Fake AH Crew!” he exclaimed. “Get on the radio with CP, tell them…!”
Takedown was cut off by a distant boom like a cannon shot, followed not a second later by a deafening blast right next to them. Takedown was thrown off his feet and crashed headfirst into one of the booth’s glass windows, the force of the impact shattering it. All at once Takedown felt like he was swimming through swamp water.
The whole world spun around him and became muffled under the ringing in his ears. Takedown rolled onto his back, put a hand to his head, and became alarmed when he felt that it was wet. He tried to stand up, but an immense pain in his lower chest kept him from getting past a sitting position. Shit, that probably means broken ribs. Takedown leaned against the booth he and Pepper spent so many hours in on a day to day basis as he tried to regain his senses.
The ringing in his ears died down around the time the black limo zoomed by, passing through the now destroyed gate and into the prison. Another distant boom was followed by an explosion as one of the guard towers went up in a plume of fire. With wide frantic eyes, Takedown looked around to try and find what was causing all this damage. His question was answered when he traced the sources of the noise to a large hill overlooking the entire prison and saw a tank painted in desert tan colors as it fired another shot.
“Pepper…” Takedown coughed, then coughed some more. His veins turned ice cold when blood started coming up with the coughs. Oh shit, that’s gotta be internal bleeding. Shit shit….
“Pepper!” he called out again, but the only response he heard were the distant shouts of men and women inside the prison walls as another blast went off.
Clutching his chest and coughing up more blood, Takedown crawled forward, looking around for his partner. He found her lying a few feet away, the dirt and pavement around her covered in blood.
No... no no no oh please God no…. Takedown prayed to every god he knew of as he dragged his way across the pavement, each movement giving him endless agony. Finally he reached where Pepper lay and felt her neck, only to confirm his deepest fears.
Takedown allowed himself to collapse beside Pepper Spray’s lifeless body, one arm still around her. He was only partially aware of the frantic chatter coming from her radio as more blood came out in dry coughs. As he looked at her two-toned hair and emerald green eyes, Takedown was assaulted by a rush of thoughts of what could’ve been.
The two of them went out to a nice bar—nothing too fancy. They ordered drinks and talked and laughed as they always did together. He walked her home, holding her hand in his, her head resting on his shoulder. She invited him in, they kissed, then went into the bedroom for a night of passion. A few months later, they moved in together, and a few years after that he got to one knee and gave her a ring. They bought a house, had children, watched them grow….
Takedown winced as he forced the thoughts from his head. They wouldn’t do him any good now. It occurred to him then that he was having a lot of trouble breathing. What was more, he was freezing. The hot desert sun was still beating down on him, but Takedown was just cold. After a while, it wasn’t so bad. After a little while more the pain stopped as Takedown closed his eyes, deciding he’d really like to take a long rest….
A serene smile formed beneath his black mustache as all hell broke loose around him. Geoff the Boss stood in the rec yard outside Cell Block B, drinking in the sounds of destruction and calamity around him. Now if only I had an actual drink….
Getting outside had been child’s play. The lockpick he’d received with the pie-cake got him out of his cell with ease, and his pathway to the rec yard was unimpeded as the guards let him pass—Big Dong had been true to his end of the bargain. Once his empire was back to its full strength, Geoff would be sure to return the favor. Of course, if Big Dong tried anymore funny business, or thought about calling him ‘Sex Butt’ again, Geoff would have to teach him a lesson about respect. Ryan could certainly put the fear of God into him as he had with so many others.
The screech of tires drew Geoff’s attention over to his right, where a familiar black limo adorned with the green duck sigil of his crew sped around the corner and pulled up to a stop in front of him. Habitually, Geoff reached up to straighten the collar of his suit jacket before getting in, only to remember he was still wearing his orange jumpsuit.
“Geoff, you just got probation!” a Jersey rasp greeted him as he stepped into the back of the limo. Michael looked back at him through the driver’s window and grinned. He was dressed in a finely pressed gray suit with a ridiculously large matching top hat. It would appear that, as always, his crew had prepared special costumes for this job.
“Good to see you, Michael,” Geoff said. “You guys are really bustin’ me out in style, don’t think I don’t appreciate it!”
Several dull pings sounded across the outside of the limo, and Geoff looked out the window to see several SASPA guards moving towards them bearing pistols and carbines. The limo was outfitted with bulletproof armor and tires, so they wouldn’t be getting inside with any of that. Even still, the guards quickly had them surrounded.
“Uh, I don’t suppose you’ve got a plan for getting us out of here?” Geoff asked.
“Geoff please,” was all Michael said, and that was when Geoff heard the helicopter rotors getting closer and closer. “You wanna climb up and help hook up the ‘bob?”
Michael passed an assault rifle through the window and opened the sunroof. After giving the rifle a quick check, Geoff rose up through the sunroof and immediately began laying down fire. The SASPA guards, for their part, had been too distracted by the sight of the massive double-rotored tan military helicopter swooping in to be ready for the attack. Two of their numbers fell to hot lead and the rest scattered to get to cover. Geoff wouldn’t have much time after that, but it would be enough.
The cargobob lowered itself closer to them until Geoff was able to reach up and grab the tow hook on the bottom. He had just enough time to hook it to an attachment they made to the roof of the limo for that express purpose before the guards began to return fire.
“We’re hooked, Jack,” Michael said into a walkie-talkie as Geoff sat back down into his seat. “Take us out!”
The limo shifted as the helicopter above it rose up. Geoff felt the tingling sensation in his stomach as the limo left the ground. Before he knew it, the guards and then Bolingbroke itself began getting smaller and smaller below them. Geoff leaned back and allowed himself to relax as the limo flew through the air. The only problem with his current situation quickly made itself known.
“Hey, there’s no minibar in this goddamned thing!”
The rest of Twilight’s day had gone fairly well, all things considered. The rest of her classes had way more of her friends in them, and she hardly got any trouble from any of the other students. Even Dusky was in another of her classes (Sociology) and she got to chat with him some more. Eventually the last bell of the day rang and soon the halls were filled with students rushing to their lockers so they could go home or go out.
“Hey, Twilight,” Rainbow said as they all walked out of the classroom. “The Rainbooms and I are gonna have a practice in the music room. Wanna come?”
Twilight smiled nervously and brushed a strand of dark blue and violet hair aside. “I don’t know… I-I don’t really know how to play any instruments.”
“You don’t have to play anything just to hang out, Twilight,” Sunset said reassuringly. “I didn’t start actually playing with them myself until after the Battle of the Bands.”
Twilight’s every instinct pulled her towards her old habits. She was certainly more comfortable with the idea of just going home and getting started on her homework, but then she remembered that was what Crystal Prep Twilight would have done. Canterlot High Twilight was a whole new person.
“Well, I’ve never heard you guys play before…” she said, which resulted in a big whoop from Rainbow Dash.
“I hope you’re ready to get your face melted off, because our songs are awesome!” the prismatic girl exclaimed.
“I don’t doubt it, let me just go to my locker real quick to put my books away,” Twilight said with a smile as she started making her own way down the hall. “Meet you girls there!”
With that, Twilight rounded a corner and in short order made her way to her locker. Most of the other students had already cleared out of this hallway, but there were still two or three milling about. Twilight paid them no mind as she set her bag down and started putting in the combination to her little silver lock. It was as she pulled her door open that she heard the muttering voices down the hall.
“That her?” a male voice asked.
“That’s her,” a female voice responded, and Twilight’s hair stood on end as she felt eyes boring into the back of her head.
A few moments later a girl leaned against the locker beside hers and cleared her throat in a clear effort for Twilight’s attention. Twilight looked up to see the same girl in the blue sweater who had glared at her that morning.
“Hey… Sparkle, right?” the girl asked casually.
“That’s me,” Twilight answered, figuring it would be rude not to. “And, you are…?”
“Trixie. Well, the Great and Powerful Trixie to most,” the girl said with a faux-affable smile. “So, that calculus homework for Harshwhinny’s class: Pretty absurd, right? I mean, can you believe she wants us to do four pages of questions by Wednesday?”
Twilight thought that was a lot of work even by public school standards, but based on what she’d observed about the teacher, it wasn’t anything unusual from her.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Twilight said, not realizing how much she would come to regret that.
Trixie’s grin was predatory. “That’s just what I was hoping to hear!” she said as a boy about a head taller than her joined them. Trixie put an arm around him and said, “Maybe you could do my homework for me? My parents aren’t home, and me and Curly here have far better things to do than calculus….”
The boy ‘Curly’ gave her a stone cold glare and put a hand on Trixie’s waist, letting it venture a bit further south than Twilight herself would have been comfortable with.
“I… don’t think I can do that,” Twilight answered.
“Oh, she doesn’t think she can do that,” a voice behind her said with mock-pity. Two more girls were standing behind her, one with blonde hair and the other grape-colored. “That’s funny, I could’ve sworn she just said it was ‘nothing she couldn’t handle,’ right Fuschia?”
“That’s what I heard, Lavender,” the grape-haired girl—Fuschia—said. “After all, the work we get is probably nothing compared to what she got at Crystal.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Fuschia,” Trixie said, before scowling and jabbing Twilight’s shoulder with a finger. “So don’t give me any of that ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do that’ horseshit!”
Trixie’s friends chuckled at her mocking impression of Twilight, who stammered and looked back and forth anxiously between them before finally stuttering forth, “I-I-I mean that I don’t think that I-I’m… comfortable with doing that.”
“Why not? It should be easy for you!”
“It’s dishonest! I can’t in good conscience….”
“Good conscience?!” the boy ‘Curly’ spoke up for the first time in the conversation. “You callin’ my girl dishonest?”
“That’s rich, coming from someone with your track record,” Trixie stated coldly.
Twilight did her best to look annoyed, but she couldn’t help but feel anxious as she noticed the way the four of them had boxed her in. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Curly smacked her shoulder. “Look at her, thinks she’s so much better than us!” the boy’s glare then turned deadly, and Twilight couldn’t help but recoil; she had never seen so much hate in somebody’s eyes before. “It’s almost like this bitch doesn’t remember nearly dropping me through a fuckin’ wormhole!”
Instantly Twilight’s mind brought her back to that awful night, and she vaguely remembered a boy with dark blue hair wearing a football jersey slipping into one of the ever expanding portals to the other dimension: The terrified brown eyes that had looked at her then were the same ones glaring hatefully at her now.
“I always knew the administration here was incompetent, but this?” Trixie gestured to Twilight in her entirety. “I mean, it was bad enough that bitch Sunset Shimmer got off as easily as she did, but then they had to go and let a monster into the school!”
Twilight’s throat clenched up and she realized her hands were shaking. “I-I’m sorry, I…”
“Oh, you’re sorry!” Curly said, throwing a meaty pair of arms into the air. “Well that automatically solves everything!” He turned to Trixie and the two girls behind Twilight, all of whom were snickering. “Hear that? She says she’s sorry!”
“Yes, I really am!” Twilight pleaded, feeling the beginning of tears sting her eyes. “Please, just… tell me what I can do. How do I make it right?”
“I already told you,” Trixie said with a sneer. “Do my calculus homework… as a start!”
Twilight’s head was spinning as memories of that night flooded back into her as easily as they did that morning. She could hear their screams of horror in the back of her mind; see the world collapsing around her; feel the hunger threatening to consume her.
“Oh, that’s right. You’re not comfortable with that, are you?”
But all Twilight heard were the voices. The students screaming, her friends crying out to her, and the hunger… the hunger had a voice of its own. “Stop it… Please stop…” she whimpered, covering her ears.
“Or what?” a meaty hand roughly shoved her. “You gonna turn into a demon again? Huh?!” Another shove. “Gonna unleash some magic?!” Twilight was sent back into a locker, knocking the wind out of her. The other girls just laughed.
Twilight’s breaths came more and more quickly, and she was overcome by a desire to run. So she ran. Twilight pushed past the two girls behind her, barely holding back tears as they shouted after her, “Go back to Crystal Prep, freak!”
She turned a corner and ran until she came across the girls’ bathroom. She pushed the door open and went inside, briskly passing two girls putting on makeup in front of the mirrors. She pushed open one of the stalls and entered, locking it behind her as quickly as possible so she could sit on the toilet seat and sob into her knees.
Shining Armor was already feeling down in spirits when he and Melati Jasmine had entered the police station, but the image on the television all of the other officers were crowded around unleashed something vastly more unpleasant in him.
The day had been a slog leading up to that moment. The owner of the missing dog (a golden retriever named Sandy) had very little in the way of information. Her dog had disappeared from her backyard while she was in the shower the other morning. According to her, Sandy had run away once before, but had turned up before the day was over, having only wondered up to the elementary school a few blocks away and back. When evening came and she still hadn’t come back, her owner had decided something was wrong. After sweeping the area and finding nothing, the rest of the day had been spent patrolling downtown Canterlot, passing by his old stomping grounds around Crystal Prep, where they’d pulled over a man texting and driving. Hardly the life-saving work Shining signed on to do.
When they finally returned to the precinct, none of their fellow officers were at their respective desks. They were all crowded around the TV in the break room.
“What’s going on?” Shining asked as he and Melati entered.
Sergeant Nightstick, a man who at times Shining thought was too nice to be a police officer, turned to them and gestured to the TV. “Los Santos News. Somebody attacked Bolingbroke!”
“Somebody? Who?” Melati asked.
Nightstick only jerked his head to the TV screen and Shining moved around with Melati right behind him to get a better look.
Live footage from what could only have been a news chopper played showing a sight most unusual: a desert tan military helicopter with two sets of rotors flew through the air with a black limousine suspended beneath it, swaying to and fro. A pair of police helicopters were in hot pursuit, but the military bird was much faster. One of the other officers cranked up the volume.
“We can only speculate at this time as to the identity of the attackers,” the newscaster said. “But considering the use of both heavy military grade hardware, and the fact that notorious criminal Peaceful Ramsey appears to be the target of this operation, it seems safe to assume that this is the work of the Fake AH Crew….”
“The Fake AH Crew? I thought they were finished?” one of the officers said.
“Yeah, didn’t the LSPD raid their main warehouse last month?” another asked. “Seized all of their military hardware and everything!”
“Well, clearly they didn’t get all of it.”
Shining’s hands closed into fists. There was no way those bastards could be back. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like it would last: the engines of the cargobob were smoking heavily, having clearly taken damage from the police chopper fire. The news chopper following the scene momentarily lost visual on the cargobob as it dipped sharply towards the ground, and it was only a few minutes more before the tan helicopter crashed into the treeline partway up Mount Chiliad.
The whole room watched with bated breath as the police helicopters hovered over the wreckage, shining spotlights to illuminate it in the quickly darkening sky. There was no movement in the chopper, and Shining could only hope that meant those murdering bastards were injured or worse. Soon, LSPD officers on the ground arrived on the scene and began to surround the downed helicopter, but there was still no movement within. That was when one of the officers in the room noticed something.
“Hey, where’s the limo it was carrying?”
The tiny officers on the ground below started a search of the cargobob, but Shining already knew what had happened.
“They must have dropped it when the helicopter went out of frame,” Melati Jasmine said, echoing his own thoughts. “They’re long gone!”
“Dammit…” Shining swore silently, but not silently enough to escape notice of the others in the room.
Before anyone could ask about it though, a harsh female voice rose over the sound of the TV. “I can understand the desire to keep up with current events, but there’s still a few more hours in the work day,” Police Chief Hardline stated. She was tall by a woman’s standards, and carried herself with uncompromising professionalism. “All of you back to your desks, now!”
The room scattered like cockroaches in the light, with mutters of “right away,” or “sorry, Chief.”
Melati put a hand on Shining’s shoulder. “Gonna be okay, man?”
“Yeah, just need to do something to take my mind off it,” Shining said. He was about to head out to his desk in the bullpen with the rest of them when he noticed Nightstick giving him an uncertain look.
“You sure?” he asked. “I hate the Fake AH Crew as much as the next cop, but you took that news kinda personally.”
Shining exchanged a knowing look with his partner. “Do you wanna tell him?” Melati asked.
Shining sighed, realizing that Nightstick would likely only be the first of many to ask about this. Regardless, he shook his head. “Maybe another time, if you get enough drinks in me.” He turned to the sergeant. “All you have to know is, my family has a sort of, uh… history with the Fake AH Crew.”
Shining’s thoughts naturally went to the photo of himself, his parents, and his namesake. The image was joined briefly by one of a man in a skull mask, but Shining pushed it away before it could take shape.
“If I go the rest of my life without ever meeting the Fake AH Crew, that would be fine by me.”
It was dark out by the time the yacht first appeared on the horizon. There was a peaceful silence out on the water, with nothing but the engine of the speedboat and the sound of its wake as Geoff and the three with him all basked in the afterglow of another successful operation. Michael the Rage sat to Geoff’s left. He still wore his gray suit for the job, but lost his ridiculous top hat. To Geoff’s right sat Jacqueline, or “Jack” for short. The brunette was pretty, if somewhat on the chubby side, and wore her favorite Hawaiian shirt over khaki shorts.
The limousine Geoff and Michael had been in was released by Jack in the cargobob and had dropped a short distance into the trees below as the helicopter made its sharp descent. Jack herself had jumped out of the helicopter and parachuted to safety sometime later. The LSPD would have found Geoff and Michael quickly if not for the next phase of the plan: Jack had dropped them off by the trainyard at the edge of the Chiliad Mountain Range, and the Fake AH Crew had timed it so that they could sneak aboard a cargo train as it made its scheduled departure.
They rode the train until it entered a tunnel and then passed over Cassidy Creek along the Calafia Train Bridge. That was when Geoff realized what the parachutes they had pulled out of the trunk of the limo were for. Ryan and Jack had been waiting for them with the speedboat in Cassidy Creek below, and before long the four of them had made their way down the river and out into the Pacific Ocean.
Now, Ryan the Vagabond remained eerily stoic as always behind the wheel of the speedboat, wearing the black and blue leather jacket he always wore. His two-toned black and blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail, his face hidden behind his trademark skull mask even now after the job was done. Something about the hitman was unsettling even to someone like Geoff the Boss—he remembered the last time he and Ryan were in a speedboat like this together.
Not soon enough, the speedboat pulled up to the stern of the huge ship, where two men and a woman were waiting. The S.S. Boner was Geoff’s eight million dollar yacht: two-hundred and ten feet long with three upper decks, one of which was an expansive sun deck complete with a hot tub. Two helipads sat on either end of the vessel, and the lower decks had a few guest suites along with—much more importantly—a small arsenal of carbines, heavy sniper and assault rifles, and homing missiles.
The Boner was one of Geoff’s few remaining assets not seized by the LCPD for the simple reason that Michael and the others had stolen the keys from his apartment while he was sleeping and moved the yacht as a practical joke. Geoff could honestly say when he was arrested that he had no idea where the thing was. Now though, Geoff’s mustache curved upwards with a grin: He was home again.
As Geoff and the other three hopped out of the speedboat onto the Boner’s stern dock, the three awaiting their arrival greeted them.
“Babe!” the woman with dark red hair tipped with purple exclaimed, arms open wide. Michael met her and the two embraced, sharing a tender kiss.
“‘Sup, Lindsay,” he greeted casually.
As Geoff understood, Michael’s wife had been running the Fake AH Crew in his absence, and though their empire had suffered significant losses during that time, Geoff knew that he couldn’t entirely blame her. Lindsay was an extremely successful business manager in her own right and owned several of the corporations that acted as fronts for their organization. The problem was his arrest allowed their enemies to smell the proverbial blood in the water, and the feeding frenzy that followed all but crippled the empire.
“Geoff, I missed you, Geoff!” Gavin exclaimed redundantly. The young Englishman wore his sleek blue dress shirt that matched his well groomed light blue hair. Even though night had fallen, he still wore his large reflective aviators. According to Michael, Gavin had been flying the fake news helicopter that he and Ryan had used to survey the prison, and had dropped Ryan off at the speedboat he’d then used to pick them up under the Calafia Bridge.
“I missed you too Michael- I mean, Gavin,” Geoff stuttered.
“Yeah? Well, didn’t miss me enough to remember my name apparently,” Gavin muttered, looking down sadly.
“So, making the Puerto Rican do all the work again, huh?” Ray asked as he struggled to tie off the speedboat all by his lonesome. After dropping Ryan off, Gavin had then went around to pick up Ray, who had managed to lose the numerous LSPD forces pursuing him by taking his Rhino tank up the side of Mount Chiliad where their cruisers couldn’t chase him, then had allowed it to roll back down towards them after jumping out. “Fucking typical.”
Ryan wordlessly moved to assist Ray with the speedboat, and the two of them worked in tense silence for a few moments. “What’s got your panties in a twist today, Ryan?” Ray asked after a moment.
The masked man was silent for a few moments before answering. “You got to have all the fun today.”
“Well, the next time we need someone to go on a rampage in a tank, I’ll be sure to throw in your name for your consideration.”
Geoff turned to Lindsay as she and Michael parted. “I want to have words with you in a bit about the future of the organization.”
Lindsay replied, “I can give you words right now: Not fucking great. We have less than half of what we did when you first got arrested. We lost the last of our Rhinos in this job and only have one cargobob left at one of our few remaining warehouses.”
The five of them made their way up to the main sun deck, and Ray and Ryan shortly followed when they were finished tying off the speedboat. Lindsay was quick to disappear into the depths of the ship, likely to give their heading to the captain.
“Now, I don’t know about all of you, but I could sure use a drink,” Geoff said. He also wanted to change out of this orange jumpsuit as soon as possible. “Especially since there wasn’t a minibar in the limo or the boat!”
“Wot?” was Gavin's response. "Well, bloody hell, Geoff. Shit's expensive."
Geoff ignored him and turned to Michael. “Now, the first order of business for when we get to the fallback point is getting back our lost assets. Have you found the missing data yet?”
The take from their Humane Labs raid four months ago was the key to a major payout from a rival company, but until they could reacquire it, it would do them no good.
Michael folded his arms and shook his head. “Not a damn trace of them, Geoff. No one’s heard from Kerry in a long time. It’s possible the Popo got him, or maybe that new gang moving in on our turf.”
“Well, keep looking,” Geoff ordered as the group headed inside the yacht.
“I’ve got Matt and Li’l J on the hunt. It’ll take time, but we’ll find him.” A dark look crossed Michael’s face. “Or... find out who got him.”
“Good man,” Geoff said, giving him a pat on the back.
The group entered a moderately large ballroom complete with a bar, and the barkeep wasted no time in serving up drinks, which Geoff happily took. The six of them then gathered around a table where a map of the state of San Andreas lay open. The large island containing Los Santos County and Blaine County took up a portion of the left side of the map, while the right consisted of the coastline and inland parts of the state where San Fierro and Red County were located.
“While we’re laying low, we’re gonna need to build up our arsenal again,” Geoff said between drinks of straight whiskey. “We’ll need to be at full strength if we’re going to take back everything we had from that ‘Funhaus Gang.’”
“I organized a meeting tonight with our usual suppliers,” Jack said cooly. “We're meeting them at a cafe in the town we'll be laying low in.”
Geoff looked down at the map and allowed a grin to creep across his face beneath his mustache. “Perfect!”
At that moment, all six of them looked down at the map and the town that had been circled with red ink. Canterlot, SA looked back at each of them, almost seeming to welcome them from its place in San Fierro County.
“Just think about it,” Ryan said. “That whole town is going about their lives right now, completely unaware of the role it will play in our glorious return to power!”
Geoff could only nod as he kept his gaze on the map laid out before him, and the name “Canterlot” circled with red ink. Indeed, the Fake AH Crew was going to put the little town on the map in a big way by the time they were finished.
While Twilight Sparkle stood at her locker being antagonized by Trixie and her friends, Dusky Darneil stood in front of his own open locker on the opposite wall further down the hall, fidgeting nervously with the shiny yellow tower idol on his necklace. He remained quiet and stiff, hoping that he would remain for all intents and purposes invisible. He was, after all, far too familiar with the situation that Twilight found herself in now—it had been the role he played throughout his school life up to that point. That was why Dusky had been relieved when he first saw the girl with violet streaks in her hair walk down the hallway surrounded by cold, hateful stares. To his shame, Dusky knew that if the school’s hate was directed at her, maybe he would be able to fly under the radar.
But then Dusky had gotten to know Twilight Sparkle. He got to see for himself that the girl was smart, kind, and even funny in her own dorky way. Not to mention she was very cute. But most of all, she didn’t treat him the way so many others had. She didn’t talk down to him, make fun of his name or the way he looked, or treat him as an inferior. She treated Dusky as a friend.
So when Dusky glanced down the hall to see the large boy aggressively shoving a helpless looking Twilight amidst the laughter of the other girls, he suddenly found his hands clenched into fists. Dusky couldn’t even remember the last time he felt such genuine rage flowing through him. However, he still had enough rationale to know that going over there to confront the group would be a bad idea. Not only would it likely not do any good, but he would put himself on the radar of the group of bullies, and that would run counter-intuitive to Dusky’s “fly under the radar” plan for this new school.
So it was thus that Dusky merely closed his locker and slung his backpack over his shoulders before walking down the hall towards the school’s exit. He felt a sickening feeling in his gut as he did so. He knew he was making the smart choice in avoiding the situation, but it still didn’t feel right.
Unfortunately, Dusky had to pass the scene unfolding by Twilight’s locker to reach the front entrance. He would have made it past without stopping if Twilight hadn’t turned to run from her harassers. Dusky caught a brief glimpse of the girl’s face as she ran past him, and seeing the tears building in her eyes was all it took to bring the rage back tenfold.
One of the girls yelled something at Twilight as she disappeared around the corner, but Dusky didn’t register it. His vision was a red haze of anger as he marched up to the three girls and one boy and gave the latter a hard shove. The boy was a good head taller than Dusky, and was built... well, like a high school football player. But he hadn’t anticipated Dusky’s attack, and as a result was sent awkwardly stumbling into the lockers he and the others so recently had Twilight cornered against. The girls around him stopped laughing.
“What the hell?!” the blue-haired boy exclaimed, pushing off the lockers and giving Dusky a retaliatory shove. “The fuck’s your problem, kid?”
Dusky raised his pointer finger. “What the fuck is your problem... asshole?” he asked, punctuating it with a jab of his finger against the bigger boy’s chest.
For his part, the boy looked mildly perplexed before swatting the finger away. “It’s gonna be you if you’re not gone in the next five seconds, Carrot Top!”
The familiar mean-spirited nickname brought Dusky momentarily out of his blind rage—it would seem that all bullies were universally uncreative. Regardless, Dusky wasn’t phased by the bigger boy’s threat; Dusky had known far scarier people than him. After all, it was why he was here.
“Ooh, well aren’t you a fuckin’ tough guy!” Dusky exclaimed, trying to regain some of that rage to get his momentum going again. It was too late to back off now, so he might as well keep going. “Tell me, uh….”
“Curly!” Dusky pointed dramatically. “If that is your real name!”
“Does picking on helpless girls make you feel like a big man? Huh?!”
A look of genuine confusion adorned Curly’s face. “What?”
“Twilight Sparkle!” Dusky all but shouted, now unable to stop. “She’s a nice girl and you treated her like crap!” Dusky was glaring daggers now. “You made her cry. You can’t do that. You don’t make nice girls cry.”
“Nice girls?” the girl in the blue sweater with cornflower blue hair said. “Pssh! Twilight Sparkle isn’t a ‘nice girl’, she’s a menace!”
“Exactly! She’s…” Dusky trailed off as the girl’s words registered. “Wait, what?”
“You’re awfully eager to play Twilight’s white knight, but do you even actually know her?” the girl sneered.
Dusky opened his mouth to answer but found that he couldn’t.
“That’s right, you only met her today, didn’t you?” the girl continued. “You weren’t there for the Friendship Games. You didn’t see what she did; what she became!” Now it was her turn to jab Dusky with a finger. “So why don’t you get back on your high horse and ride off into the sunset? Your noble intentions are wasted on a girl like Twilight: That monster deserves everything we gave her and more!”
Just like that, Dusky found the righteous fury he had when he first approached, and with all of his might shoved the smirking girl in the blue sweater. She fell and landed on her rump with a surprised yelp. The other two girls shrieked, and before Dusky could react, something collided with his face hard enough to rattle his brain in his skull and make him see stars. He only had time to realize the object in question was Curly’s fist before he was grabbed by the collar and roughly thrown to the ground.
Dusky thought he heard the sound of something snap and hit the floor just before he landed, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it before Curly was on him again. It would be sometime later when he’d figure out what it was.
“Don’t you fucking touch my girlfriend you little shit!” Curly shouted as he brought another fist to Dusky’s face.
He could feel something wet trickle out of his nose and his whole face was in a world of pain. Curly raised his fist for another blow but a voice suddenly boomed, seeming to stop Curly’s fist with its sheer power.
Everyone looked up to see a woman dressed in purple with hair like the night sky storming down the hall towards them looking ten times more furious than even Dusky himself had felt earlier.
“Shit,” Curly swore under his breath as he stood and straightened himself out. “Uh, hey Vice Principal Luna. I was just fooling around with my buddy….”
“THE POOR BOY IS BLEEDING, CURLY!” the vice principal stated. Even though it was only his first day at CHS, Dusky had already heard stories about what the other students called ‘the Royal Canterlot High Voice.’ Hearing it in person, it was no wonder Curly and the others were frozen in place. “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR!”
Curly pointed an accusing finger at Dusky. “But he….”
“I DON’T CARE WHAT MR. DARNEIL SAID OR DID, VIOLENCE IS NEVER THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE!” VP Luna yelled. “Now, if you’ll follow me to the principal’s office, I believe you and Ms. Celestia need to have a talk about appropriate behavior!”
“But Miss…!” the girl in the blue sweater started, but the vice principal silenced her with a look.
“DON’T START WITH ME, TRIXIE LULAMOON. THIS KIND OF TROUBLE HAS YOU WRITTEN ALL OVER IT!”
Trixie wisely replied with nothing.
“Now, I’ll be taking Mr. Winds to the principal’s office,” Luna said, grabbing Curly by the back of his collar before shooting Dusky a sympathetic look. “Mr. Darneil, I suggest you stop by Nurse Redheart before going home. It’s just down the hall left of the front entrance.”
“Thank you, Vice Principal Luna,” Dusky said, and though the sentiment was genuine, he probably wouldn’t have been able to answer any other way due to the sheer terror.
Before VP Luna escorted Curly to the principal’s, the bigger boy turned to Dusky and hissed through his teeth, “You’re dead, Carrot Top.”
Trixie and her friends made themselves scarce after that, and Dusky made his way to the nurse’s office pinching his nose to keep any more blood from coming out. It wouldn’t be until after he made it home when he realized he’d lost something very important.
“Awesome as I wanna be!”
Rainbow Dash finished the song with a dramatic slide on her knees, strumming one final powerful guitar chord before holding her pick high above her head. The massive grin on her face was weathered by the lack of the same enthusiasm in the others.
“C’mon, guys! Where’s the flourish?” she asked.
“I think we’re gettin’ tired of playin’ the same song over and over again, RD,” Applejack said, setting her own guitar down on the nearby stand.
“Pssh, I can’t help it if it’s our best song!”
Sunset Shimmer ignored the bickering friends and pulled out her phone. To her disappointment and growing concern, there were no new alerts: Her message “where r u?” remained unanswered.
“Any of you heard from Twilight?” she asked.
A quick check of their phones put a stop to the bickering and all of the friends reported negatives.
“Do you think she’s alright?” Rarity asked from behind her keyboard.
“Maybe she just went home,” Fluttershy suggested.
“Without even one teensy text?” Pinkie Pie asked, somehow scrolling through her bright pink phone with one of her drumsticks.
It had been nearly twenty minutes, and Twilight’s locker was pretty close to the music room. She should have been here by now, or failing that, have at least texted as Pinkie Pie said.
“You girls keep playing,” Sunset said as she stood. “I’ll see if I can find her.”
Stepping out into the hallway, Sunset made her way towards Twilight’s locker. She passed the main entrance and managed to catch a glimpse of Trixie and her friends as they made their exit. A bad feeling entering her gut, Sunset double timed it down the hall and around the corner and before she knew it found herself in front of Twilight’s locker.
The hallway was empty and at first glance everything seemed to be in order. But on closer inspection, Twilight’s locker door was slightly ajar. Additionally, Sunset spotted something on the floor not far away. Picking it up and bringing it closer for study, Sunset was unable to determine exactly what the object was.
It looked like a tiny tower made of five cubes: a dark purplish-black one as the base and four shiny yellow ones stacked on top. Additionally, a small ring was attached to the top, indicating perhaps that the strange object was meant to be worn as a necklace. Sunset didn’t think it was Twilight’s—she’d certainly never seen the girl wear a necklace like that before.
“Sunset! There you are!” a familiar male voice called out.
A handsome boy with spiked blue hair wearing a black jacket over a white t-shirt made his way briskly down the hall towards her. A whirlwind of conflicting emotions flew through Sunset at the sight of him. After all, this was the very same kind boy without whom she might not have survived her first days in the human world. The same boy whose feelings for her she’d taken advantage of in her bid for what little power there was to be had as a student at Canterlot High. She’d managed to get herself back on good enough terms with Flash Sentry after the incident at the latest Fall Formal, but there would always be the lingering tension between them. If I hadn’t been such a power-hungry bitch, then maybe….
Regardless, it did Sunset no good to dwell on what could have been. Instead, Sunset dwelled on the simple fact that the aforementioned awkwardness between them meant that they rarely went out of their way to talk to each other. If he was trying this hard to find her….
“Is something wrong, Flash?” Sunset asked.
He nodded. “It’s Twilight. I think something happened.”
That bad feeling in her gut returned stronger than before, as if reveling in its vindication. “What do you mean? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Flash said solemnly. “I just saw her run into the girls’ bathroom looking really upset. I think she could really use a friend right now.”
Giving Flash her sincere thanks, Sunset wasted no time in rushing past him toward the girls’ bathroom. Most of her haste was born of a desire to ensure her friend was okay, but Sunset knew another part of it was to get away from Flash as quickly as possible before things could get too awkward and painful for both of them.
Rounding the corner and passing a pair of girls on their way out of the bathroom, Sunset approached the door and carefully stepped in. The bathroom appeared empty at first glance and for a moment Sunset thought maybe Flash was mistaken about what he saw, but then Sunset heard the sound of a soft whimper followed by a sniffle. A closer look around confirmed that one of the stalls was shut, and Sunset could see a familiar pair of nice shoes and stockings beneath the door.
“Twilight? That you?” Sunset asked, moving closer.
Sunset heard the quick clearing of a throat as the person in the stall quickly stood and unlocked the stall.
“Oh… hey, Sunset,” Twilight said hoarsely, rubbing her eyes as she opened the door. Right away Sunset noticed her red eyes.
“You okay?” Sunset asked as Twilight stepped out, sniffing again.
“I…” Twilight’s hesitation was an answer in itself. “I’ll be fine.”
“Did something happen?”
“It’s fine,” Twilight insisted as she stepped past Sunset towards the bathroom door. “Let’s just go back to the others.”
Sunset grabbed her arm and gently but firmly held her back. Sunset gave her a compassionate smile. “Look, I know you’re still new to the whole ‘having friends’ thing, but you know you can tell me if something happened, right? Me and the rest of the girls… we’re all here for you.”
Twilight looked back at her, the look on her face longing to believe the promise on Sunset’s own. But still she said nothing.
“It was Trixie, wasn’t it?”
Twilight looked away, and for a moment Sunset thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then Twilight nodded.
“That’s not surprising. Trixie was the resident Alpha Bitch before I showed up,” Sunset said, her face filling with hard resolve. “The girls and I will have words with her if she keeps giving you trouble.”
“I should be used to it,” Twilight said. “I mean, people at Crystal Prep didn’t exactly treat me with kindness. But here, it’s like… they genuinely hate me.”
“No one hates you, Twilight,” Sunset said, rubbing her shoulder. “Sure, a lot of them are still distrustful and perhaps a little fearful of you, and some of them—like Trixie—express that through hostility. But most of them will come around eventually. They did for me.”
Sunset put an arm around her and with some hesitation, Twilight finally allowed herself to be comforted.
“How did you do it?” Twilight asked after a few moments of being held. “How did you deal with all of the fear? All of the hostility?”
“It wasn’t easy, but keeping my friends close helped.” Sunset laughed as a thought occurred to her, and she couldn’t help but share it. “Of course, beating a trio of fish monsters in a music battle helped too!”
“Hmm?” Twilight looked up from their embrace with a somewhat puzzled expression.
“The Sirens,” Sunset explained, and Twilight gave her an ‘Oh’ of understanding, having heard the story about the Battle of the Bands. “Guess it helps people trust you when you help defeat a threat greater than you were!”
Sunset chuckled at her little self-deprecation, but Twilight just looked away. This wasn’t the same timid avoiding eye contact she had displayed earlier, Sunset noticed: She could see the gears turning in Twilight’s mind.
“Thanks, Sunset,” Twilight said, at last giving her a smile. “I think that helped.”
Relieved, Sunset gave Twilight’s back a few final rubs. “Glad to hear it. Wanna get back to the others?”
Twilight’s smile became slightly more strained then. “Sorry, but… I think I just wanna go home.”
Sunset was disappointed, but hid it behind an understanding smile. “Hey, that’s totally understandable. But listen, the girls and I were planning on getting dessert at the Sugarcube Corner this evening and we’d love for you to join us.”
“Yeah, I’ll…” Twilight said, struggling to find an answer. “I’ll let you know how I’m feeling later.”
“Alright, just… as AJ would say, don’t be a stranger, okay?” Sunset said as the two of them stepped out of the girls’ bathroom and back out into the hallway.
After waving goodbye, the two girls went their separate ways down the hall; Twilight towards the front entrance and Sunset back toward the music room. Sunset let out a rueful sigh when she was alone. She wanted to make friends with Twilight, and she knew the nervous girl wanted the same, but for someone as introverted as her, old habits apparently died hard. Sunset knew it would take baby steps for Twilight to come out of her shell after the Friendship Games. She just hoped that Twilight would be willing to take them.
“I’m home!” Twilight called out as she came in through the front door. Usually both of her parents would still be at work by this time (and Shining Armor recently started living with his girlfriend Cadance), but she knew at least one person would be there waiting for her.
“Twilight!” The exclamation was followed by an excited whimper and the sound of paws frantically skidding across hardwood floor. Sure enough, a tiny purple dog came running around a corner and bolted straight towards her, tail wagging and tongue happily lolling out. “I’m so so glad you’re home! I thought you were gonna be gone forever!”
The idea of owning a talking dog was still one Twilight was struggling to get used to. If anything good could be said to have come of her meddling in forces beyond her ability to grasp, being able to know what her loyal companion was thinking was one.
“Spike, you knew I was coming back!” she said with a smile as she scooped the little guy up into her arms and braced herself for zealous face-licking.
“Yeah, but it felt like forever!” Spike whined as he started to settle down. “There’s nothing to do here all day when nobody’s home.”
“Well, maybe I can bring you to school tomorrow,” Twilight said as they started heading upstairs. “If I could convince Principal Cinch to bring you to Crystal Prep, certainly Miss Celestia would let me bring you to CHS.”
Of course, Twilight had Dean Cadance backing her up then, and the only reason Cinch had agreed to allow Spike on the property in the first place was because she thought Twilight was using him as a test subject for her research. As if I would ever let that happen to my little Spike.
“So, how was your first day there anyway?” Spike asked as they entered her room.
Twilight’s bedroom was a far cry from average as far as teenaged girls’ bedrooms were concerned. Scientific graphs, charts, and the table of elements adorned her walls in place of popular boy bands. Her desk and shelves were all organized in perfect symmetry. The closest thing to a stuffed animal she had was a small, worn-out gray doll (Miss Smartypants), and a framed photo of Spike by her bedside table. A few more photos hung on the walls by her bed depicting family and—in the case of the one featuring an eight year old Twilight holding hands with a man wearing a duster and stetson—extended family.
“All things considered, it could have been worse,” Twilight sighed as she flopped onto her bed. “But it could have been better too.”
Spike tried to cheer her up with a grin. “You mean you’ve had a… ruff day?”
“That’s so funny I forgot to laugh,” Twilight deadpanned, but nevertheless found herself unable to resist smiling at the cheeky canine wiggling his eyebrows (can normal dogs even do that?).
“Seriously though, what happened?” Spike asked, dropping the jovial tone for a moment. “Do I need to bite somebody?”
Twilight smiled and stroked his head, feeling better already. “No, some people gave me a hard time after classes, but Sunset was there to support me.” Twilight’s smile fell slightly. “I just need to decide whether I’m up for hanging out with them tonight.”
Spike’s eyes suddenly lit up and his tail started to slowly move back and forth. “Is Rarity gonna be there?”
Spike’s tail was now wagging at full force. “Then we should definitely go!”
“I figured that would be your answer,” Twilight said, but wasn’t too sure herself. After the events of the day, she was totally drained, and just wanted to stay at home work on her projects and maybe get started on a new book.
“Well why not? What do we have to lose?” Spike persisted.
“I don’t know… what if Trixie or her boyfriend will be there?”
Spike’s tail was not stopping. “Then your friends will be there to tell ‘em off. And you know I’ll bark at anyone that makes you upset!”
Twilight grinned and stroked behind his ears, causing the little dog to go stiff and start kicking his back leg. “Yeah, you’re very ferocious.”
When Twilight stopped (much too soon in Spike’s opinion) the two lay there in comfortable silence for a while.
“So, we’re going, right?” Spike finally asked.
“Maybe,” Twilight said noncommittally. “I guess we’ll see how I feel later….”
“Twilight, I thought the whole point of you going to CHS was getting out of your comfort zone and making friends. If you wanted to keep spending your days living as a hermit, you should have just stayed at Crystal Prep!”
Grinning again, Twilight said, “You know, I always thought that if I ever reached the point in my life where I was taking advice from a talking dog, it’d be because I’d gone insane….”
“Wait, are you not?”
Twilight’s rebuke was a swift flick of her finger against Spike’s nose, causing the pup to grumble and rub his snout with a paw.
“Well, considering everything that’s been happening in my life lately, maybe I have gone insane,” Twilight said. “And if that’s the case, then the best thing I can do is just run with it!”
The Sugarcube Corner was only marginally busy as Geoff the Boss and two of his compatriots sat down in one of the booths by the side. The only other patrons in the establishment were a few night shift workers getting some coffee before starting their shifts and a group of teenage girls at a table across the way.
Geoff himself had put away his orange jumpsuit in favor of his usual suit and bowtie. He’d also gotten a chance to shave since his escape and his mustache was now immaculately trimmed. With him was Jack, who still wore her Hawaiian shirt, and Gavin was sitting across from him still wearing his eye-concealing aviators.
Gavin put a hand to his ear as Ray said something through his earpiece. The Puerto Rican was watching the area through the scope of his garish pink sniper rifle, hidden on a rooftop across the street.
“Ray says they’re pulling in now, Geoff,” Gavin reported, and Geoff nodded.
The Fake AH Crew had dealings with this group of arms dealers before and hadn’t had any problems with them in the past, but Geoff was a cautious man. Sometimes a little too cautious, as the rest of the crew sometimes made fun of him for going so slowly he might as well have been going backwards.
Right on cue a black sedan with tinted windows pulled into the parking lot outside. Two large men in black jackets stepped out and opened the rear door for another who was similarly dressed. The only differences were this man wore a leather jacket and a pair of large biker boots. Geoff glanced at Jack, and the two shared a knowing look: They both knew who would do the talking. The dark man entered the establishment and made his way over to the crew’s booth.
“Hey, B!” Gavin greeted, standing up to give the other man a handshake-hug.
Blackthorn was a friend of Gavin’s back when they were both in the English army together. Back when Gavin was known by his birth name White Hawk.
“How’s it goin’, little Hawk?” Blackthorn asked in a similar British accent to Gavin’s own.
“Not bad, B. Met a bird the other week down at the pub.”
“Oh yeah? You jeb her?”
“Yeah, B, her fibble was bloody scrotised!”
“Gave her the ol’ knob and bob? Nice. Was it a wafty minge?”
Geoff had no idea what the two were saying, other than it was probably vulgar. However that wasn’t what bothered him about their conversation.
“Do you think you guys’ll speak a real language at some point this evening? Jesus!” he exclaimed.
Just like that, the two Englishmen adopted a much more business-like demeanor and cleared their throats as they sat in the booth across from Geoff and Jack.
“So, Geoff. I see it’s true, then,” Blackthorn said, removing his sunglasses. “Congratulations on your escape.”
“Thanks,” Geoff said.
“But I imagine Jack and Gavin didn’t call me all the way out to this quiet burg just celebrate your return.”
“You know me too well, Blackie,” Geoff said, leaning forward. “How’s business been since the Funhaus Gang took over?”
Blackthorn scowled. “Those limey gits don’t pay me nearly enough for my services. I think they got someone else selling them weapons.”
Geoff had heard as much, of course, and even knew who the Funhaus Gang was getting their weapons from thanks to his own sources.
“Ready to do business with respectable clients again?” Geoff asked.
“You still owe me for the last bit of merchandise I lent you,” Blackthorn was quick to say. “That Rhino I saw steamrolling cop cars on the Los Santos News wasn’t cheap, you know.”
Jack decided it was her time to step in with her patented temperance. “I know we promised to pay you after our Humane Labs heist was finished, but we hit a little snag.”
“Yeah, your boss ‘got Got’,” Blackthorn said, air quotes and all. “But now he’s back.”
“The real problem was that our take from the heist went missing shortly after, and is still missing now. We’re looking for it, but we don’t have the resources we once did,” Jack explained. “Our information network is a shadow of its former self.”
“But if we take back some of our territory from the Funhaus Gang, we’ll be in a position to track it down,” Geoff explained. He and Jack always worked well as a team, and pitches like this one were one of the many skills they shared. “All we need is the manpower to do it.”
“Which, of course, is where your extra weapons and manpower comes in,” Jack finished. “Think of it as making a very prudent investment in a stock that can only go up.”
Blackthorn looked at them skeptically. “I can’t run a business on promises, Jack.”
“B, how long have we known each other?” Gavin asked. “Years, right? And at what point during those years have my boys here ever gone back on a promise?”
Blackthorn shook his head. “That’s not enough.”
Gavin bounced anxiously in his seat. “But, B….”
Geoff raised a hand to silence him. “How much do we owe you for the tank?”
“Considering the five-hundred thou deposit you put on it already…” Blackthorn said thoughtfully. “One million.”
Gavin opened his mouth to respond, and the drink he had forgotten to swallow spilled onto the table in front of Jack, who gave the spill a mildly shocked look.
“Goddamn dude, you’re a mess,” Jack said.
“I was flummoxed!”
“If we can get you your money, and you help us take back Los Santos, we can make you a partner,” Geoff said, ignoring Gavin in favor of giving Blackthorn his best pitch face. “This means you would get a percentage of all of our profits in all of our business ventures.”
Blackthorn tried to keep up his poker face, but the slight twitch of his eyebrows betrayed his intrigue. It was no lie that the Fake AH Crew’s various businesses, legitimate and otherwise, had been incredibly lucrative at their peak. Technically, Geoff and his crew didn’t even need to do any more heists after their first couple. By that point they’d had enough money to get into the drug trafficking trade and filled the void left by the Vagos and the Lost MC.
“Get me my money first, then we can start talking about partnership,” Blackthorn said, standing up. “If you have the money, we can meet again in a few days to settle up. There’s a bar in this area called ‘the Crev.’ We’ll make the exchange there.”
“You’re a prudent man, Blackthorn. You won’t regret becoming a part of our family!”
Jack looked over at Geoff. “If he’s going to be an official member, he’s going to need a callsign.”
All too familiar with the idiosyncrasy of the Fake AH Crew’s callsigns, Blackthorn spoke up. “As far as old fashioned names go, I’ve always been fond of Dan myself.”
“Dan the Man. I like it.”
Blackthorn nodded. “Right. Now, if I’m going to be spending more time in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, I might as well meet a decent bird. Cheers, boys!”
And with that, Blackthorn - now also known as Dan - put his sunglasses back on and exited the establishment. As soon as he was gone, Jack turned to face Geoff, dropping her calm indifferent mask to show mild concern.
“Geoff, I know you’ve been in prison for a little while but we don’t have the cash we used to have, man.”
“She says when we’re living on an eight million dollar yacht,” Gavin muttered, but not quietly enough.
“We can’t sell the yacht, that’s our hideout!” Geoff hissed.
“To be fair, there are plenty of other places we could use as a temporary hideout,” Jack said. “I think Michael told me there’s a pretty good warehouse district that had some abandoned-looking places.”
“C’mon, what are we, plebs? The S.S Boner is one of the only luxuries we have left, and I’m not giving it up!” Geoff argued. Besides, Geoff had heard about those same warehouses from Michael, who also told him he’d seen some very suspicious people around there. People too high-end for just a local gang. Geoff didn’t want to get involved with whatever might have been going on there.
“We can always sell whatever souped-up supercars we have left,” Jack mused. “But even that might not be enough….”
“That’s why I want you to call the Wonder Twins over here tonight so they can start looking for leads tomorrow,” Geoff said, looking at Gavin. The man nodded, his large sunglasses hiding this rare moment of comprehension.
Jack also figured out what her boss was getting at. “Leads? No way, Geoff. We’re here to keep a low profile, remember?” she said.
Geoff’s retort was briefly interrupted by one of the girls at the table across the restaurant screaming at the top of her lungs. Fuckin’ kids….
“We didn’t make it big the first time without taking a few risks, did we, Jack?” Geoff asked, ignoring the outburst. “Besides, once we have Blackthorn on our side, we’ll be one step closer to finding that missing data. And once we get our payout from that, we’ll be unstoppable….”
Sunset Shimmer could feel the strange object in her jacket pocket as she approached the front entrance of the Sugarcube Corner. She hadn’t given the shiny blocky object a second thought since first picking it up, but for some reason at that moment—as she removed the earbuds from her ears and had a few moments with nothing but her thoughts as she approached her destination—she found herself remembering it again. Sunset allowed herself to forget about it once more as she entered the Corner, passing a man in sunglasses and a dark leather jacket on his way out. She quickly spotted her friends at a table near the back.
A pair of frantically waving arms erupted from the table, and Pinkie Pie tried to call out to her around a mouthful of donuts. The establishment was relatively empty, the only other filled booth being occupied by a group of three adults—two well-dressed men and a woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
“Hi, Sunny,” Fluttershy said, being the first to greet her as she arrived at the table. The other girls followed suit as Sunset sat down.
“Is Twi comin’?” Applejack asked hopefully.
Sunset could feel the disappointed frown forming on her face. “Sorry girls, but you know she had a rough day today. If she’s not already here….”
“Than she’s probably only a few seconds behind you!”
Startled, Sunset looked over her shoulder to find Twilight Sparkle standing there, giving the table a shy grin. She was holding a small, familiar dog with purple fur in her arms.
“I tried calling out when I saw you, but you seemed distracted,” Twilight said as she pulled over a chair from a nearby empty table and sat down.
“Plus you were wearing those things in your ears that makes humans ignore you!” Spike exclaimed, sitting happily in Twilight’s lap. Sunset noticed the slightly alarmed look on Twilight’s face as she did a quick scan of the restaurant, but she seemed to relax once she realized there was no one close enough to notice a talking dog.
“Aw, I always forget how precious you are, Spikey-wikey!” Rarity cooed, picking the little dog up and moving him to her own lap.
For his part, Spike seemed perfectly happy with this development, looking at her with his tail wagging. “Well, not as precious as you, Rarity…” Spike sighed. “Got any treats?”
Rarity glanced over at Fluttershy, who gave a good-natured roll of her eyes as she produced a dog biscuit from one of the many compartments in her bag. Rarity gave him the biscuit and Spike happily devoured it.
“Who’s a good boy?” she asked.
Spike gave her a mildly curious look. “I dunno. Who?”
“Who’s a good boy?”
“I dunno, why’re you asking me?”
Spike whined. “I dunno, please tell me, Rarity!”
“...!!!” Spike gasped, eyes widening and tail going into overdrive. “You just blew my mind….”
Sunset couldn’t help but giggle at the scene before turning to Twilight and adopting a more serious look. “Feeling any better, Twilight?”
“A little,” she answered. “I guess that’s one reason I’m here: To get my mind off of today.”
Pinkie Pie suddenly leaned across the table and looked at Twilight with wide eyes. “You should totally try the Super Double-Chocolate Sundae Supreme! It takes my mind off of stuff so much that it really hurts sometimes!”
Sunset noticed Pinkie appeared to have that very product on the table in front of her now.
“Pretty sure that’s called ‘brainfreeze,’ Pinkie,” Applejack said. “And it typically means you should slow down.”
“Pfft! I’ll drink as fast as I want!” Pinkie said before doing exactly that. Putting the straw in her mouth, the hyperactive girl took a huge, unrestrained slurp of the sundae in front of her. This was immediately followed by an ear-piercing scream as she clutched her head and bounced uncomfortably in place.
Sunset took a brief look around the restaurant, ready to apologize to the other patrons, but the only other group she’d seen coming in appeared to be resolutely ignoring the outburst. It did, however, draw the attention of one of the proprietors, a portly, but nice middle-aged woman Sunset knew as Mrs. Cake. Her arrival was well-timed, as after they explained to her that their friend was just overreacting to a brainfreeze, Sunset and Twilight were able to make orders for themselves.
“I’ll have what she’s having,” Twilight said dryly, nodding at Pinkie Pie.
The group of girls couldn’t keep themselves from giggling after Mrs. Cake left to get their orders.
“So, Twilight…” Rarity said once the giggles subsided. “When are you going to tell us about this boy you’ve been seeing?”
Twilight gave her a genuinely puzzled look. “Boy? What boy?”
“C’mon, you know who we’re talking about,” Rainbow Dash said, giving the awkward girl a lecherous grin. “Dusky What’s-his-face.”
“Word is you two are absolutely adorable together!” Rarity exclaimed.
“What? No! No, it’s nothing like that,” Twilight protested, even as her face turned beet red.
“I mean, he’s not my type,” Rainbow said. “He’s actually a little weird if you ask me, but you like who you like. Ain’t nothing wrong with that!”
The other girls nodded while Twilight shook her head and waved her hands. “No nononono. I mean, I don’t disagree with, uh, the principle of what you said, but Dusky’s just a friend. He’s new and seemed alone and I empathised with that, so I decided to show him a little kindness. And he’s not weird... I mean, he is, but he’s also actually pretty nice. And smart, too.”
“Well, I for one think it’s great that you’ve made a new friend,” Sunset said, trying to save the poor girl from further teasing. “You should see if he wants to come to Countess Coloratura’s event tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe I will,” Twilight said, before following up with a question, “Wait, the what event?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard? Countess Coloratura is doing a record signing tomorrow afternoon at Blue Note’s,” Rarity explained while Fluttershy nodded along. “It’s part of her campaign to raise money and awareness for record stores and small businesses.”
“Ain’t surprised you haven’t heard about it,” Applejack added. “Since Coloratura actually grew up here, she’s makin’ this event very low-key: No press or anythin’.”
“AJ, are you gonna try to convince us that you used to know Countess Coloratura when you were kids again?” Rainbow asked.
Applejack gave Rainbow a deadpan stare, and was about to reply when Twilight decided to ask the next question on her mind: “And, uh, who’s Countess Coloratura?”
Suddenly all sound in the diner stopped as everyone at the table stared dumbstruck at Twilight. Even Mrs. Cake, who was approaching with their orders, seemed shocked. Sunset was certain that if a pin were to drop, she would have no trouble hearing it, and that wasn’t just because of her somewhat more sensitive pony hearing. A plate dropping to the floor in the back kitchen seemed like a gunshot.
“WHAAAAT?!” And yet Pinkie Pie’s voice was even louder. “YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF COUNTESS COLORATURA?!”
“WHO’S NEVER HEARD OF COUNTESS COLORATURA?” an older man’s voice cracked.
The girls all looked towards the front of the restaurant to see the other group of patrons by the door. The three appeared to have just been on their way out but were now looking over at the table of teenage girls, the man in the suit wearing an expression bordering on horror.
“Uh… me?” Twilight answered.
The man in the suit with the big black mustache sputtered incoherently for a few moments before saying, “But how?! She’s the greatest pop artist of our generation! You must have heard her music: The Spectacle?”
“Um, I don’t know. I might have heard it. I’m not exactly big on the popular music scene...” Twilight started, but couldn’t get any further than that as the man then decided to demonstrate by actually singing the song. At least, that’s what it seemed like he was trying to do. Unfortunately, it was clear the mustachioed man had no clue how to actually sing, and was more just screaming the words in a high-pitched voice at the top of his lungs.
“TIME FOR THE SPECTACLE!” he shouted, and the woman in the Hawaiian shirt and the younger man in blue joined in. “TIME FOR THE SHOW!”
“THE LIGHTS ARE BRIGHT AND THE COLORS GLOW!”
Somehow, each one of them were exactly as inept at singing as he was, screaming the lyrics out in ridiculous high-pitched voices.
“I’m not just anybody. I THINK YOU KNOOOOOOW! I AM THE COUNTESS!”
And just like that, the absurd serenade was over. Pinkie Pie cheered loudly and clapped her hands, demanding an encore even as the others gave her discreet head shakes.
“It’s a great song, right?” the mustached man asked.
“It’s a great song, but was it worth looking like a bunch of lunatics?” the man in blue beside him asked with what Sunset noted was a very British accent.
“So yeah, Coloratura is great. Stay in school, don’t do drugs,” the woman said to the group of girls as she led the her two companions out to where a man in a brown leather jacket was waiting in the parking lot.
The instant they were gone, the table of teenagers erupted with laughter.
“Forget the Rainbooms,” Twilight snickered. “I want to join their band!”
The next day, Twilight found herself taking the bus to school. It was a lonely ride, as she was the only one of her friends who lived in the downtown Canterlot area. She didn’t even have Spike with her, as she still needed to get permission from the principal to bring him to school. Lonely as the ride was, Twilight was used to it. Nevertheless, when a familiar face stepped onto the bus, Twilight was glad for the company.
“Hey, Dusky!” she called out, waving at the somewhat short, orange-haired boy and inviting him to take the seat beside her.
But when Dusky turned to face her, Twilight’s joy fell away. The boy’s pudgy face was swollen on his right side, with a bruise right beneath his eye.
“Hey, Twilight. You okay?” And yet his concern was entirely focused on her as he took her up on her offer. “I, uh… I saw what happened between you and that Trixie girl.”
“I’m fine, but what about you? That looks really nasty,” she said, reaching to touch his face without even thinking.
Dusky winced and gently nudged her hand away. “Yeah, it’s still kind of tender.”
The boy gave her a lopsided nervous grin that was, admittedly, pretty cute. “I may have… sorta-kinda picked a fight with Curly Winds.”
It took a few moments for the name to register in Twilight’s memory. “Trixie’s boyfriend? Why?”
“I don’t know, it all happened so fast…” Dusky sighed. “I-I saw them picking on you, and I just got mad. I think I only meant to talk to ‘em and tell them what’s what, but things kind of got out of hand.”
Twilight didn’t even realize she was holding a hand to her chest until Dusky was finished. She wasted no time in correcting that and straightening up.
“Well, I appreciate you sticking up for me, Dusky. I really do. But do you think you could maybe just… not next time?” Twilight pleaded, and then without thinking, added, “The last thing I need is someone else getting hurt because of me.”
Immediately, Twilight closed her mouth, wishing she could pull her words back in just as easily. Dusky looked at her curiously.
“Did something happen between you and them?” he asked. “That girl Trixie said some strange things about you.”
Twilight’s heart started to race anxiously as he continued, “She… she called you a menace. A monster.”
Wincing slightly, Twilight looked away. “Let’s just say there was an… accident during the Friendship Games a week ago. People got hurt, and I was mostly to blame.” She saw Dusky’s curious look out of the corner of her eye and looked down at her shoes. “I don’t really want to talk about it….”
Dusky raised a hand and for a moment seemed to struggle with some internal decision before finally letting it rest on her shoulder. “For what it’s worth, you don’t seem like a monster to me.”
Twilight allowed herself to smile, even as she realized with a certain amount of despair the true reason she enjoyed Dusky’s company so much: He was the only one at the entire school who didn’t know about her. The only one who hadn’t seen Midnight Sparkle.
The sound of a strange car horn playing part of some song sounded out just then, and the bus honked its own horn as it was nearly cut off while pulling up to a bus stop. As the bus rolled to a stop and opened its doors, Dusky looked at the window. His eyes went wide for a brief moment before he muttered a curse and ducked.
“What? What do you see?” Twilight asked, turning to look out the window herself and expecting to see Trixie or her boyfriend waiting to get on.
A moderately large crowd of morning commuters stood waiting to board, but Twilight didn’t see Trixie or Curly Winds out there with them. It took her a few moments to find Trixie’s two friends among the crowd - at least, two girls that looked like Trixie’s friends. Twilight honestly couldn’t remember them that well, but she was sure it was them. She couldn’t imagine any of the others out there would elicit such a response from Dusky.
“Don’t worry, they won’t bother us. I’m sure they won’t even notice we’re here,” Twilight said.
Taking another glance out the window at the boarding passengers, Twilight spotted a familiar well-styled head of purple hair among the crowd.
“Hey, it’s Rarity!” she exclaimed with a wide grin. She then took a closer look at the scene. “Who’s she talking to?”
Covering her mouth with a hand, Rarity giggled at the joke told by the man waiting beside her at the bus stop.
“The pop-up ad said: ‘Sad at your job at the can crushing factory?’” he had asked, the cheekiness audible in his voice. “‘Visit www.myjobissodapressing.com.’”
It started when the relatively short man complimented the Sapphire Shores paraphernalia on her backpack. Rarity had proudly proclaimed that she’d gone to almost all of her North American concerts, and had gotten the exclusive button for each one.
“And I thought I had no life…” the second man said around a mouthful of chips, resulting in the shorter one to casually knock the miniature bag out of his hands.
The two of them had built up a friendly rapport from that, talking about their favorite music with a number of website related puns thrown in. The man was short—Rarity herself wasn’t exactly a tall girl, but the man’s orange tinted sunglasses were about an inch below her eyes. Rarity also couldn’t help but notice he was pretty beefy, and likely had some well-toned muscles beneath his orange shirt and purple sports jacket. His head was covered by a white cowboy hat even bigger than Applejack’s, and he seemed to consistently wear the grin of a loveable rogue.
His friend, on the other hand, was incredibly different. Tall and lanky, the man wore a baggy red sweater and jeans. He had a short scraggly beard which along with his long, flowing auburn hair made him slightly resemble the popular depiction of Christ. He proceeded to disinterestedly eat out of another mini-bag of chips he’d quickly replaced the other one with, clearly wishing to be anywhere else.
“So, you’re a big fan of Sapphire Shores,” the shorter man said. “Tell me, you a fan of Countess Coloratura?”
Rarity’s eyes lit up and she giggled some more. “Is the sky blue, darling?”
“Sometimes…” the other man muttered.
“I’m something of a fan of the Countess myself,” the shorter man said, crossing his meaty arms. “I heard a rumor that she’s doing an event here or something?”
Rarity nodded. “Why yes, a record signing actually. Part of her fundraising tour to raise money for small businesses in the music industry, especially since traditional CDs are going the way of the dodo, unfortunately. I hear there even might be an auction of sorts for rare collector’s items!”
“Hmm, it’s weird that I haven’t seen anything about this event on any of her social media.”
“Well, because she grew up here, she doesn’t want a lot of press around for it. Just her and the fans. So she let it spread by word of mouth.” Rarity straightened up proudly as she said, “I’m always keeping my ear to the ground when it comes to my favorite artists, and my family happens to know some people in the industry who knows some people on Coloratura’s staff, so….”
Rarity let the sentence trail off there, and the short man grinned. “Pretty cool. So you said this was part of her charity tour? Think her people will have the rest of the tour’s proceeds with ‘em?”
Putting a hand to her chin, Rarity “hmmed” and said, “From what I’ve been told, that’s usually how her people does things. Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” the man shrugged. “Just a curious Coloratura fan.”
It was then that the lankier man with him tapped him on the shoulder. “Dude, ride’s here.”
Rarity thought he meant the bus at first, and a glance down the street confirmed that the bus was indeed approaching. But then Rarity heard a sound that surprised her. It sounded like the first several notes from Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but played on a car horn. The bus’ own horn sounded as a black and green car swerved in front of it, pulling up to the curb just ahead of the bus stop.
Not being a car person, Rarity had no way of knowing that what she was looking at was a 1920 Albany Roosevelt. All she knew was that it was old. Well, maybe old wasn’t the right word. Vintage. The car was clean and shiny, looking like it was fresh off of the factory floor, albeit of a prohibition era factory. Clearly its owner strongly believed in keeping it authentic.
“Welp, that’s us,” the short man said, removing his large hat and dipping his head at Rarity. He had appropriately short hair, and although the sides of it were a dark onyx color, the hair on the top of his head was green like a grassy plain. “Thanks for the conversation, Miss…?”
His hesitation reminded Rarity that she hadn’t even properly introduced herself the entire time they had been talking. Honestly, Rarity. A lady should know better!
“Rarity,” she said, before realizing the little faux-pas extended both ways. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I got your name, either.”
The man put his cowboy hat on and tipped it in her direction. “I am Monster Truck.”
Rarity smiled. “It was very nice to meet you, Monster Truck.”
Monster Truck’s taller companion nudged his shoulder. “Hey, you comin’, Romeo?”
Rarity then realized that the bus was already stopped and people had been starting to board. She quickly but elegantly stepped on, payed her fare, and in no time spotted Twilight sitting next to that strange boy she had befriended.
Meanwhile, Monster Truck hopped into the Roosevelt with his lanky companion. Once inside the fine leather interior outfitted with various modern conveniences in the otherwise old-fashioned car, he was able to shed the name he had used all his life for the new name he’d made for himself with the Fake AH Crew.
“Get any good intel, Li'l J?” Gavin asked from the driver’s seat. As usual, he was wearing his aviator sunglasses and his blue hair was spiked to perfection.
“Pretty good,” Jeremy answered, gesturing to his partner.
“We’ve confirmed that Countess Coloratura’s event is indeed happening at Blue Note’s Music Emporium,” Matt explained. “Which I could’ve just told you if anyone ever listened to me….”
“Additionally, multiple people including the girl I just talked to confirmed that Coloratura’s people are indeed keeping all of the proceeds from the tour on them,” Jeremy continued, tactfully ignoring his partner. “About one-hundred and seventy five thousand.”
Gavin grinned as he returned his focus to the road. “Top.”
“EEEEEY HEIST!” Gavin proclaimed a few hours later.
He was standing at the head of the table in the main conference room on board the S.S. Boner with the other five leading members of the Fake AH Crew sitting around the table before him. All of them gave a resounding “EEEeeeeey” of varying degrees of enthusiasm in response, as was tradition.
“Right, so Li’l J and Matt recently provided us with some tippy-top information about a promising take right here in Canterwot or whatever,” Gavin explained. “Now, you might all be wondering: Why would I lead a heist? What skills do I have?” The others all nodded, and so Gavin continued. “Well, let me tell you. I have… confusion, and disorientation.”
“There’s medicine for that,” Jack snarked, and beside her Ray and Michael snickered.
Geoff stood just behind them, his arms folded and a stern look on his face. Gavin knew that his boss believed in him, but the uncompromising eyes above that mustache reminded the young Brit that failure in the big leagues was unacceptable. Ryan stood a few feet away from the door, his face an unreadable mask—literally. Gavin still didn’t know why Ryan kept wearing his famous skull mask in the depths of their own hideout.
“Right! So the place we’re hitting is a music shop called Blue Note’s. I’ve already taken the liberty of scoping it out,” Gavin said, reaching into the dossier folder in his hand to pull out the pictures he’d taken earlier that morning.
Gavin posted the first photo of their target to the whiteboard behind him, and right away the other members of the crew noticed something was off.
“Why the hell are you in the photo?” Ray asked, scratching his head under his beanie.
Sure enough, the photo of their target happened to have Gavin in the foreground, appearing to be holding the phone himself, and waving at the camera while the supposed subject of the photo was across the street just behind him.
“This is the store we’re gonna hit,” Gavin explained, paying no attention to Ray’s perfectly reasonable question as he posted up another photo of the target. This one showed what could only have been a rear entrance in an alleyway just behind the building… and Gavin making a weird, petrified-looking wide-eyed face in the foreground.
“So… we’re going to have to burn these photos and you when we’re finished with this heist, right?” Ryan asked in his deep, quiet voice.
“You do realize you can use the camera on the front of your phone too, right?!” Michael yelled, making frustrated gesticulations.
“Look, if you see a guy going around taking photos of a place… pretty suspicious, right?” Gavin asked. “But a guy going around taking selfies? Just a normal occurrence, innit?”
“God, I hate your generation…” Geoff muttered with a sigh.
“Right, so I’ve devised a plan to steal Coloratura’s charity money using nothing but cheap disguises and equipment we already have from previous heists,” Gavin explained, gesturing to a list he’d written on the whiteboard. Some of the items included a cell phone jammer and a phone line jack. “The only thing we don’t have that we need is a fire truck….”
A knock on the door interrupted the rest of Gavin’s explanation, and Ryan turned to open it. Lindsay poked her red head into the room with a look of slight concern.
“Boss, we’ve got our employer on the line,” she said. “He’s requesting a video conference immediately.”
“Wait, you mean…?” Geoff asked.
Lindsay just nodded and Geoff sighed. “Alright, let’s put him on.”
A few minutes later a laptop was set up at the end of the table with Geoff the Boss sitting opposite to it. In short order a dark older man appeared on screen, well dressed in a black suit and tie, and sporting dark red hair separated by streaks of gray.
“Hey, Mr. Clupea,” Geoff greeted. “Long time no video chat.”
Geoff and his crew had never actually met Smoked Clupea in person. Their mysterious employer for the Humane Labs job months ago only ever contacted them by phone or video conference. The company Clupea represented, Glamorie Industries, was by all outward appearances a manufacturer of perfume and cosmetics. Of course, so was Humane Labs, and considering the kind of projects that they actually worked on, it seemed likely that Glamorie also performed research in a similar field. At least, it made sense considering their willingness to hire a notorious criminal enterprise for something as simple as industrial espionage.
“Mr. Ramsey. Back in the land of the living I see,” Clupea said in a stilted, almost robotic tone. “If I had to guess, you’re now trying to put the pieces of your crumbled empire back together.”
Geoff straightened his tie as he tried to maintain a calm demeanor. Dealing with Smoked Clupea always set him and his crew ill at ease. Something about the way he seemed to know way too much about them while Geoff in turn knew next to nothing about him or his organization didn’t sit well with him.
“Maybe. Not sure why you or Glamorie Industries gives a damn.”
“The other gangs that have risen in your place have proven to be… insufficient to our purposes.”
So Glamorie had been trying to hire the Funhaus gang and some of the others now fighting for control of Los Santos.
“Mr. Clupea, I told you time and again, if you’re looking for quality of service, than look no further than the Fake AH Crew!”
“So you have,” Clupea said, giving Geoff a dismissive glare he did not care for. “And yet you’ve been no more successful at retrieving that research data than your peers.”
“Uh, except we actually succeeded in our Humane Labs raid,” Michael stated, habitually cracking his knuckles. “If shit hadn’t gone south at the end, we would still have….”
Geoff calmly raised a hand, and his associate wisely silenced himself. “We think we can track down the missing data, but we need more time to get our own affairs straight first. Just give us a little more time. Uh… a week! We’ll have that data, and your company can catch up with its competition.”
Traces of a smile finally formed across Clupea’s face. “Good. Despite this setback, Glamorie Industries is willing to pay the original agreed upon amount in full."
Geoff raised an eyebrow: He certainly hadn’t been expecting that. “Fifteen million dollars all for a bit of research data,” he mused. “Whatever’s on that drive must be pretty important….”
The dark man on the laptop screen nodded. “Indeed. If our information is to be believed, Humane Labs has recently opened up an entire newworld of possibility. No price is too great to join a new age….”
Sunset Shimmer sighed as she took a seat in front of the monitor. As a pony who had already gone through all of her standard schooling in Equestria, most of the subjects she studied at Canterlot High were ones she’d already learned as a filly… except Computer Sciences. So it was a cruel twist of fate that the teacher for the one class Sunset was genuinely interested in could not care less about actually teaching.
Sure enough, Mr. Flask—a somewhat obese older man with gray hair—came staggering in ten minutes late with a fedora and a pair of sunglasses covering his eyes. Sunset could tell the man was once again hung over by the way he immediately shut the blinds before slowly lowering himself into the seat behind his desk, wincing as if the action was causing him great pain. Looking around her, Sunset could see that those students who had bothered showing up were either scrolling through social media or playing Counterstrike.
“Seriously, how does this guy still have a job?” Sunset muttered, glancing at her friends. Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity were at the computers beside her while Fluttershy, Applejack, and Twilight were in a Global Studies class down the hall.
“Teachers’ unions,” Rainbow Dash casually answered as if that explained everything, not taking an eye off her monitor. She then let out a silent “Yes! Suck it!” as a soldier was blown away on her screen.
Sunset thought for sure Mr. Flask would have been fired after hearing rumors of how he was blatantly drunk during parent-teacher interviews last month, and that they would finally get someone who would actually teach the course material, but alas. Perhaps this was just another way the universe was punishing her for her past misdeeds. Indeed, if Sunset had known how to use a program like Photoshop when she’d attempted to frame Princess Twilight, it would have been that much harder for Flash to have proved her innocent.
“Derpy? You’re on OkCadance?” Rarity’s voice brought Sunset out of her thoughts, and she turned to see the young fashionista talking to a blonde girl that Sunset regrettably remembered bullying for her wall-eyes. She had what looked like some sort of dating website on her own screen, and was chatting with someone.
Derpy looked over at Rarity sheepishly. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not actually planning on hooking up with anybody or anything,” she said. “It’s just… it’s nice to know there are people out there who find me attractive, y’know?”
Sunset winced. She knew that her bullying had likely caused poor Derpy all kinds of unneeded self-esteem issues, and although she had apologized to her after the Fall Formal, Sunset doubted Derpy had simply gotten over those issues overnight.
“Hey Derpy,” Sunset said carefully, moving closer to the wall-eyed girl. “Just… be careful, okay? I don’t want some predator to find out where you live or something.”
Derpy gave her a smile, but something about it looked hollow. “Thanks Sunset, but I’m fine. I’ve already hacked the site and hid my IP behind several fake ones. I’m good.”
It had been only after she’d made peace with Derpy that Sunset learned the girl was actually a genius hacker and all around computer whiz.
“Hey Sunny, do you have a pen?” Pinkie’s high-pitched voice pulled Sunset away from the conversation with Derpy. She found Pinkie practically gyrating in her seat, looking at Sunset expectantly.
“What happened to the one I gave you last period?” Sunset asked.
“I’unno!” Pinkie coughed into her hand, and for a moment Sunset thought she saw blue ink on the girl’s palm as she pulled it away from her mouth.
“Just try not to lose this one, okay?” Sunset said as she opened her bag and reached in to feel through the assorted mess of books, paper and random supplies for her pen. She had to reach deep to find it, and as she pulled it out a plethora of other junk fell out onto the floor. I should really organize this stuff, Sunset thought.
“Here,” Sunset offered the pen to Pinkie, but the girl’s attention was focused entirely on something on the floor by Sunset’s feet.
“What’s that?” she asked.
Sunset looked down and saw the familiar shape of five cubes stacked on top of each other, one black and the others shiny and yellow like gold. Somehow, the thing had landed on the floor standing up, looking like a gold tower with an obsidian base. Rainbow Dash looked away from her game to stare at the tiny tower on the floor, and Rarity hesitated in her conversation with Derpy as she too looked at the strange object. Sunset had to admit, something about it had an almost alluring quality. The object seemed to promise great things and more, which Sunset thought sounded hilariously vague.
“I don’t know,” Sunset admitted, picking it up and looking at it. “I found it the other day. I was planning on taking it to lost and found, but I guess I forgot.”
Pinkie extended a hand and made an urgent grabby motion. Seeing no harm in it, Sunset passed the strange object to Pinkie and the poofy-haired girl studied it with the intensity of a detective investigating a critical piece of evidence. Rainbow Dash moved to lean over her shoulder.
“It looks like some kinda pimped out tower,” she said, putting a hand to her chin. “Now, what would you call that…?”
“You think it’s real gold?” Rarity asked.
“Why would it be real gold?” Sunset asked, even though the idea certainly piqued her curiosity. If it was real, then it was probably worth a lot of money.
“Only one way to find out!” Pinkie Pie proclaimed. She then proceeded to put the object in her mouth gold end first and started gently but persistently biting down on it.
“Pinkie, do you even know how to identify gold by doing that?” Sunset asked, already knowing the answer.
“It’ll probly tathte like gold,” Pinkie said as she continued nibbling.
She quickly changed tactics and started sucking on it like a lollipop, and Sunset started to grow concerned as the little tower started slowly being pulled deeper into her mouth. Soon, the dark obsidian-like base was all that was visible, and all at once the recent image of Pinkie coughing up what looked like ink entered Sunset’s mind.
“Alright Pinkie, that’s enough,” Sunset said, reaching over to retrieve the object before the girl could choke on it.
Sunset grabbed the dark cube and pulled, but Pinkie bared her teeth and growled, and the object didn’t budge.
“Pinkie, I’m serious. Drop it,” Sunset ordered, pulling harder. The other girls giggled as Pinkie continued to hold on, growling. “Drop it… drop it… drop….”
Sunset heard a faint snap as a piece of the object came off with another sharp yank. She looked down at her hand and saw only the dark cube making up the base. Sunset rolled her eyes.
“Great. We broke it.”
“Ptthoo!” Pinkie spat the other, much larger piece of the object from her mouth as Sunset continued to look down at hers.
Oddly enough, the small dark cube was concave on one side, and kind of looked like a lid or a cap of some kind. Maybe we didn’t break it after all. But why would…?
A gasp and a high-pitched exclamation of “WHAT IN THE WHAT?!” interrupted Sunset’s train of thought.
“Lower your voice, Ms. Pie,” Mr. Flask groaned from his desk at the front of the classroom.
“Sorry Mr. Flask!” Pinkie said at a much more reasonable volume.
Sunset was about to ask what had prompted Pinkie’s reaction when she looked at the rest of the tower that had so recently occupied her mouth. Where the dark obsidian-like base had been was a small metal protrusion. One Sunset recognized despite her relative lack of computer knowledge.
“Is that a… USB drive?” she asked.
Indeed, the little metal bit sticking out of the tiny tower’s base was shaped to fit into a USB port.
“That thing was a hidden drive all along?” Rarity asked as she and Rainbow moved closer. Even Derpy shifted her attention from her online conversation to the mysterious miniature drive.
“Where did you say you found this, Sunset dear?” Rarity asked.
“Just the floor by Twilight’s locker,” Sunset said. “Wonder what’s on it….”
“Only one way to find out!” Pinkie exclaimed, and before the others could say anything, she bent down and tried to insert it into her computer’s USB port. “Oops,” she muttered as the drive didn’t go in. Pinkie turned it over and tried again. “Darn it!”
After turning the USB stick over a few more times, Pinkie finally managed to insert the drive into her computer. A few moments later a new icon appeared on the screen labelled “FAHC”. Pinkie clicked it eagerly and a red, blue, and yellow logo appeared, and beside it the words Humane Labs and Research.
“Humane Labs?” Rarity said.
“You know what this is?” Sunset asked.
“Not exactly. I’ve just seen the name on some of my perfume bottles.”
The sound of Pinkie’s rapid clicking on the mouse prevailed, but all the screen showed was a pop-up window with a seemingly random jumble of letters and numbers.
“Huh. It’s not letting me in,” Pinkie said as she kept fruitlessly clicking. “C’mon, Mr. File! Pretty please?”
“It’s encrypted,” another voice said, and Derpy rolled closer in her chair. “Move.”
Pinkie obliged, and Derpy parked in her place and started typing like she was a machine herself. “Looks like a basic Triple DES. Pretty outdated, but it’s still sometimes used to encrypt government files. Hold on, I have a few programs I can use to brute-force it.”
“W-wait, w-why are we hacking into the mysterious hidden drive with government encryption?” Rarity asked, looking around nervously as Derpy grabbed her bag and started pulling out external hard drives and hooking them up.
“It’s cool?” Rainbow Dash asked with a casual shrug. “We could be in a spy movie!”
“Rarity’s right, we have no idea what this is,” Sunset said. “Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“I think we should,” Pinkie stated with uncharacteristic seriousness. When the others looked at her for an explanation, Pinkie just said, “Look, I don’t know what this is, but I just have a feeling about it. Like… there’s something here we’re supposed to see.”
The girl shrugged and her more characteristic silly grin returned. “I don’t know… just call it my ‘Pinkie Sense’, heehee!”
The rest of the girls looked at each other. Sunset couldn’t deny that something about that USB drive seemed to call out to her, and had indeed been doing so ever since she found it. She wasn’t sure whether this was just curiosity or something far less mundane.
She looked at Derpy, who had set up her external drives and was waiting, and nodded. “Do it.”
Nodding back, Derpy typed a few more things and her programs were off. “Hmm, fifty-six bit encryption on three different keys. This shouldn’t take too long.”
And yet most of the period had passed, and they were still waiting for the decryption. The girls had made some small talk in the intervening time, but mostly remained quiet as they preoccupied themselves with their own activities. Sunset couldn’t help but find the whole situation amusing. Here they were, working on hacking into decrypted files like something out of a spy movie, but in the middle of their second period class right under the nose of their hung over teacher.
Finally, Derpy announced, “We’re in,” and the others all gathered around.
The screen now displayed several files. Many of which seemed to display budgetary numbers and quarterly corporate data, but a few stuck out. “Chemical Research” and beside it, “PROJECT: PROSPERO”.
Remembering her studies into Shakespeare, Sunset took the mouse from Derpy and clicked the latter. Two files appeared: “RESEARCH: San Chianski Branch” and “RESEARCH: Canterlot Branch”.
Exchanging an increasingly worried look with the others, Sunset clicked the latter and a myriad of files appeared. Opening a few at random didn’t show the girls much: They were all a series of overly detailed notes, charts and graphs that Sunset couldn’t make sense of without their original context. Then she spotted a file labelled “REPORTS” and opened it. She clicked the most recent file, which was labelled only with the date of six days ago.
Hmm, the day after the Friendship Games ended, Sunset thought to herself as she studied the report.
The first thing she noticed was the recipient email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“IAA…?” Rarity gasped behind her.
Sunset thought she too had noticed the email address, until she glanced down at the document itself, and saw the blue and yellow round symbol with bits of white and red within it. An eagle’s head sat in profile above a shield with a gold star in its center, flanked by a pair of downward pointing arrows on each side. The circular perimeter contained the words International Affairs Agency, United States of America.
“Wow… I thought this was the work of some amateur hacker,” Derpy said at barely a whisper. “I didn’t know we had actual government data on our hands.” The wall-eyed girl looked at the others with unguarded worry. “Do you have any idea how many laws we’re breaking just by looking at this?!”
Sunset Shimmer ignored her as she started reading through the rest of the report. Her eyes had caught a few words further down the document that gave her more reason to worry than anything Derpy had just said.
Animal testing for Project: PROSPERO continues to be inconclusive. Exposure to the harvested foreign energy appears to result in increased intelligence in most subjects, but additional effects vary widely from subject to subject. Cannot recommend human testing until further progress is made on this front…
Sunset skimmed the next couple of paragraphs, which contained mostly a lot of highly technical gibberish in what she could only guess was an effort to figure out how to get more consistent results with whatever they were testing. However, repeated mention of the “foreign energy” formed a nervous lump in her throat as she started realizing what it could be referring to.
Continued surveillance at the possible origin site of the foreign energy fluctuations has presented us with further significant finds. At eighteen-hundred hours yesterday, a significantly larger than usual fluctuation heralded the appearance of another creature, pictured below. Apart from a few aesthetic differences, this specimen was extremely similar in appearance to the one that appeared six months ago.
Sunset’s heart raced as she read on and the description of the events surrounding the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the “creature” sounded all too familiar. Finally, Sunset scrolled down to see the picture the document mentioned and her racing heart skipped a beat. Behind her, the girls watching over her shoulder gasped.
“What the hell?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.
“That’s…” Rarity gasped, unable to finish her thought.
“A really bad photo!” Pinkie exclaimed. “What did they take it with? A potato?”
But it was what was in the photo that had Sunset so worried. “We have to warn Twilight about this as soon as possible!” Sunset exclaimed, looking at the others with wide, serious eyes. “If these people, whoever they are, find out about her….”
Sunset couldn’t finish the sentence, in part because the end of period bell rang, and in part because the implications were too horrifying to contemplate aloud. She turned back to the screen to close out of the document—no, the entire drive—and got another look at the photo.
Pinkie was right about it’s quality: The image was extremely pixelated thanks to what Sunset assumed was an attempt to enlarge it. But the subject of the image was unmistakeable: A dark figure floating against a dark sky clad in various shades of purple, with great black wings and teal energy around its eyes and forming a horn coming out of its forehead.
“Then what?” Pinkie asked. “What does this all mean?”
Sunset closed out of everything and hastily removed the shiny yellow drive from the computer’s USB port.
“Someone is researching the magical phenomena at Canterlot High. Someone working with the IAA… someone who saw what happened to Twilight on the last night of the Friendship Games,” Sunset said, unable to keep the worry from her voice as she looked down at the drive in her hand and remembered with ever growing horror where she’d found it.
“And whoever it is, they’re inside the school’s walls!”
As Canterlot’s resident low-income district, Shady Hollows was one ugly dump. Everywhere Officer Shining Armor looked, dilapidated buildings stood covered in graffiti. He could tell which ones were actually still in use by which buildings covered their broken windows with wooden boards nailed in place. Groups of young men in baggy clothes avoided eye contact as Shining’s police cruiser drove past, and he was hard-pressed to discern whether the various homeless people around were sleeping or dead.
Soon enough, Shining and his partner arrived at the address they were sent to investigate and the two of them stepped out of their vehicle. A myriad of musty smells assaulted Shining’s nose and based on the way Melati Jasmine’s face crinkled beside him, he figured she noticed it too. Shining knew his day would be interesting when he came into the station that morning and heard that he and Melati would be working Shady Hollows, but he had no way of knowing he would be ending the day with a few wounds, both new and old.
“So this is it, huh?” Melati mused beside him, giving the small apartment complex a once-over. “Yeah, I don’t blame the Fire Department one bit for worrying about the crew they sent here.”
The whole reason Shining and Melati were stopping there was because the Fire Department had contacted the CPD saying that a fire crew they sent to this address in response to an emergency call hadn’t reported back in a couple of hours. A quick glance around the immediate area confirmed no sign of the fire truck. Shining and Melati were only to assess the situation and call in backup if necessary. Even so, he kept his hand near his holster as he and Melati entered the building.
The apartment building’s interior was just as much a mess as the exterior. Old newspapers littered the floor, which creaked under the pair’s weight. The front desk was deserted, and none of the lights were on. Is the building having power issues?
“Hello?” Shining called out as he stepped on some broken glass. “CPD, anyone here?”
The continued silence was his only answer. Melati moved over to the front desk and reached over the top to rummage around. After a few seconds, she asked, “Did the Fire Department ever say whether the 911 call was made by a resident at this address?”
Shining tried to remember the call from Dispatch that sent them here, and shrugged. “You’d have to ask them.”
Melati pulled out a piece of paper and held it up so Shining could see what was clearly a condemnation notice from the Canterlot Health and Safety board.
“Because I don’t think anyone actually lives here anymore,” she said.
It certainly seemed strange that someone would make an emergency call to an abandoned building. It was possible that some passerby saw smoke or something from the outside, but something still didn’t feel right.
“Wait, you hear that?” Melati asked, and the both of them went quiet. Sure enough, Shining heard a faint “thump” sound sound coming from down the hall.
Exchanging some non-verbal words, Shining and Melati crept down the hall until they found what appeared to be the source of the noise. The worn door to apartment number 109 looked back at them, the “thumps” now much louder. Shining knocked on the door and called out to anyone inside, but the only response was more frantic thumps. Exchanging a quick look, the two police officers came to an unspoken agreement and Melati readied her weapon as Shining stepped back. Calling back to his training, Shining put all his force behind a kick that sent the door flying open and his partner stepped in, pistol raised. Upon seeing what was in the room, the woman hesitated and allowed her stance to relax somewhat.
“Pardon my French, but what in the flying fuck is this?”
Shining followed her into the room and saw the fire crew they were here to find. Three had their hands and feet bound, and were gagged with gaffer tape, their eyes wide and afraid. The fourth was crumpled in the corner, unmoving. One of the bound firefighters had managed to inch his way to the wall beside the door and had likely started kicking it as soon as he realized the CPD was here. Shining immediately went to the nearest firefighter to unbind him while Melati checked on the motionless one in the corner. Shining had a bad feeling about that one: He noticed what appeared to be blood on the floor.
Removing the tape from the man’s mouth, Shining asked him the obvious question, “What the hell happened?”
“G-got a call to take care of a fire in this building and got jumped,” the man said.
Shining glanced over at Melati, who looked up from the still man on the floor and shook her head sadly before moving to free the other firefighters.
“I know you guys just went through a tough ordeal, but I need you to tell me everything that happened starting from when you arrived,” Shining said gently as he got to work untying the man in front of him.
The man rubbed his wrists with shaking hands before answering, “When we arrived the lady at the front desk pointed us down the hall where the room with the fire was. What looked like the tenant of the room was there too. A Puerto Rican guy by the looks of him. We told them both to get out of the building….”
“Wait, so there are people living here?” Melati asked.
“I’ll admit, I figured the building was abandoned when we got here too,” the man said. “But when I saw those two, I just chalked it up to ‘Shady Hollows’.”
Something definitely didn’t feel right. There was certainly no woman at the front desk when Shining and Melati had arrived, and no one had answered when they announced their presence. And then there was the condemnation notice….
“We entered the room, but we didn’t see any signs of a fire. Place didn’t even look lived in,” the firefighter continued. A cursory glance around the room from Shining confirmed the lack of furniture. “Then before we knew it, a bunch of men came in behind us with masks and guns. Told us to get on our knees and put our hands behind our heads.”
The man rubbed his face with a trembling hand. “And Torrent over there, he… God, he was always hot-headed. He didn’t cooperate. Tried to fight back, so they… they….”
The man was unable to finish, but Shining easily figured out that Torrent must have been the one lying dead in the corner.
“After tying us up, they took the keys to the truck and left us here. We tried banging on the walls of the neighboring apartments, but I guess no one was there…” the shaken fireman concluded.
“It’ll be alright, you guys are safe now,” Shining said before turning to his partner. “Looks like we have a stolen fire truck on our hands. Better call this in.”
Melati nodded and started speaking into her radio while Shining returned his attention to the men they’d just rescued.
“Can you give us any kind of description of your attackers?” Shining asked.
The man he’d been talking to shook his head. “Like I said, they were all wearing masks. Animal masks to be precise. There was a wolf, a raccoon, an owl, and an eagle.”
Shining figured as much. That wasn’t going to make tracking down the perpetrators easy. “Did you hear them say anything?”
“They started arguing after the raccoon shot Torrent,” one of the other firefighters said, a dark-skinned man who seemed to be keeping it together only slightly better than the man Shining had been talking to. “The guy in the wolf mask kept yelling at him, ‘what happened to your murder break?’ or something. Kept saying ‘we can’t use their outfits now.’”
“And you didn’t hear any names?” Shining asked, and was answered by three shaking heads.
Just then, Melati got off the radio and joined Shining. “Dispatch is sending a few more cruisers to investigate the scene and question these guys. Any idea what the fuck this is about?”
Nothing about this whole thing made any sense. To Shining, it looked like someone had called the Fire Department for no other reason than to ambush the fire crew they sent and steal their truck. The big question was “why”?
Shining Armor certainly wouldn’t have expected to find the answer later that very day.
Twilight’s morning classes passed relatively slowly. That was the problem with someone of her intellect being taught lessons she’d already mastered at Crystal Prep. Still, at the very least she was in good company: Applejack and Fluttershy were with her in Global Studies, and she’d even gotten to know a couple of other students, including two very talented young musicians with very different tastes.
When the period bell finally rang and the lunch period began, Twilight went her own separate way from Fluttershy and Applejack, promising to meet up with them and the rest of their group in the cafeteria. She walked down the hall toward the school’s administrative office, so focused on her mission that she almost didn’t notice the cold stares of the students milling about the hallways. She certainly wasn’t expecting to see a familiar face walk out of the very same office she was now headed towards.
“Oh! Hey, Dusky,” she greeted pleasantly.
The somewhat pudgy boy jumped slightly, but seemed to relax once he saw it was her. “Oh, hey Twilight. What are you doing here?”
“I was hoping to talk to somebody in this office so I can find out how I can get permission to bring my dog to school.”
Dusky’s face lit up. “Oh, you have a dog? Awesome! What kind?”
Twilight opened her mouth to answer and paused. “I… don’t actually know. Purple?”
“Is… purple the breed, or the color?” Dusky asked. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a purple dog before.”
“Purple and green.”
Dusky started snickering. “Purple and green? Is he Barney the Dinosaur?”
Twilight snickered along with him. “I think I’d know if Spike was a reptile of any kind!” Their mirth abated, so Twilight thought to ask, “So what were you doing here, Dusky?”
Something about the boy’s countenance changed, and he looked away. “Oh, uh… I was just checking the lost and found.”
Giving him a curious frown, Twilight asked, “Oh? Did you lose something?”
Dusky nodded. “Yeah, just yesterday. A little gold tower. I need to get it back. It’s… really important.”
Twilight suddenly remembered the object in question. “Was that the thing you were wearing on your necklace?”
“Yeah, that’s the one! It’s sort of, uh… a good luck charm. You haven’t seen it, have you?”
Twilight shook her head, and was about to reassure him she would keep an eye out when she heard a familiar voice call out, “Hey, Twilight!”
Down the hall, Twilight saw Sunset Shimmer waving her down. The rest of her friends were with her.
“Guess I’d better go,” Twilight said with a friendly smile as she started walking away. An idea quickly came to her and she turned back to Dusky before she left. “Oh! My friends and I were gonna go to this ‘Countess Coloratura’ record signing event after school. Do you wanna come?”
Twilight only realized what it sounded like she was really asking after it was too late. Oh God, he must think I’m such an idiot! I should probably leave before….
“Yeah, I’d love to!” Dusky answered immediately, before suddenly wincing and rubbing the back of his head as evidently something just occurred to him. “Except… I probably shouldn’t.”
“I’m not supposed to be….”
“Twilight!” Sunset called out again, more urgently this time.
Dusky shook his head. “Forget it. See you later, Twi.”
“Bye…” Twilight said, giving the boy a weird look as he walked away. Shrugging to herself, Twilight turned to see what Sunset wanted only to find her and the other girls making their way toward her. “Hey Sunset, what’s up?”
It was then that Twilight noticed for the first time the looks of fear and urgency on all of the girls’ faces. Had something happened?
“Twilight, we just found something you need to know about,” Sunset said, holding up a small object for her to see.
It didn’t take long for Twilight to realize what the familiar shiny yellow object was. “Wait, that’s…” she turned back the way she came and called out, “Dusky, wait! Dusky!” But the boy was already gone.
“What are you doin’, sugarcube?” Applejack asked.
“Dusky, he was looking for that just now,” Twilight explained. “Told me he lost it yesterday.”
“Wait, slow down, Twilight darling,” Rarity said, the fashion-conscious girl looking at her uncharacteristically seriously. “Do you mean to tell us that this tower thing belongs to your new friend Dusky?”
Twilight nodded, and Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened. “He’s a spy!”
Twilight, along with every other student within audible range, looked at Rainbow with confusion. “Um… is today ‘Outrageous Accusation Day’, or something?”
“Nah, that’s Friday!” Pinkie Pie said while Sunset continued looking at Twilight with desperate eyes.
“Twilight… this little tower isn’t just some weird trinket. It’s a hidden thumbdrive,” Sunset said, the seriousness in her tone only rivalled by the looks on the other girls’ faces.
“Okay… so what’s on it?”
An unmarked vehicle sat across the street from Blue Note’s Music Emporium. It was four in the afternoon and already people were lining up for the big event inside. The two men inside the vehicle tried to remain inconspicuous as they looked on.
“The others are in position,” Michael said after checking his phone. “You ready?”
Ray looked down at the bag by his feet, where hidden inside a bright pink assault rifle awaited its master’s touch. He and Michael performed their part of the plan perfectly: The cell phone jammer was placed on the roof and the phone line was jacked (their maintenance worker disguises lay in the trunk of the car they currently sat in). Ray was an ace—if a plan ever went wrong, it was rarely because he’d done his job incorrectly. No, when a plan went wrong, it was usually because of some flaw in the plan itself.
“You really think this is gonna work?” Ray asked, hoping to probe Michael for his thoughts.
The red-haired man gave Ray a look that he did not appreciate. “You doubtin’ my boi’s plan?”
With a sigh, Ray gave Michael a placating look. “Listen, I know Gavin is like the brother you always wanted, but do you really think he’s qualified to plan a heist? I mean, let’s face it: He ain’t the sharpest tool in the Ted.”
Michael gave him a perplexed look, so Ray felt the need to explain himself. “Smash Mouth?”
“You know that’s not how the song goes, right? It’s ‘sharpest tool in the shed.’”
“Ooooooh! That makes a lot more sense!”
Michael’s consternation persisted. “So… have you been singing it the other way…?”
“My entire life. Yeah,” Ray said, now desperate to get back on topic. “But seriously though, do you really think Gavin’s plan is gonna work?”
“Hey, I believe in my boi!” Michael said, jabbing a finger at Ray. “You should too.”
Ray thought about it. “Yeah, maybe you’re right….”
“After all, Geoff’s the one who put him in charge of this job,” Ray continued. “You think maybe his time in prison might’ve made him lose his touch?
“Oh my God! I am not having this conversation right now!” Michael exclaimed as he opened the door and stepped out of the car. When he turned to grab his own bag, Michael added, “You’d better make sure nobody else hears you saying that shit, Ray!”
Before Michael could close the door, Ray decided to pay back his reprimand with one of his own, “Hey, we’re heisting remember? Use our code names!”
“Right, forgot. Let’s go Secret Ray.”
“I’ll be right out, Secret Michael.”
Michael slammed the car door while Ray sat still in the passenger seat collecting his thoughts. He remembered a time when he and Michael used to be better friends. That changed when they both became a part of the Fake AH Crew. Now, Michael’s best friend—his ‘boi’—was Gavin. Ray didn’t know what that weird Brit had that he didn’t, but Michael and Gavin had gotten closer over their time in the Fake AH Crew than he and Ray ever had been before. Sure, Ray liked Gavin well enough (they even spent a short time galavanting around the city under the guise of superhero alter-egos) but around the dynamic duo of Michael and Gavin, Ray always felt like a third wheel. Although his time in the Fake AH Crew had been extremely lucrative, Ray was starting to wonder whether it was worth it to continue.
“Maybe it’s time for me to go…” Ray muttered as he stepped out of the vehicle with his bag of heisting equipment.
“What was that, Ray?” Michael asked.
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it,” Ray said. “LLLLLLLet’s heist!”
For what felt like the hundredth time, Twilight’s eyes scanned the crowd at Blue Note’s. The store looked far more crowded than it was normally. She could barely see the names of all the vinyl records on the shelves through all of the bodies. The space that might normally have instruments on display was cleared out to make space for a signing table, where a black-suited security guard stood waiting.
“Still looking for your friend?” Fluttershy asked sweetly. She was holding a small white bunny in her arms. Angel Bunny if Twilight remembered.
Twilight couldn’t hold back the sigh with all of the willpower in the world. In truth, she was hurting. Here she thought she’d finally made a friend at Canterlot High all on her own. Someone who didn’t see her as the monster that almost tore apart reality, because he wasn’t even there to see it. Someone who just saw her for her.
At least, that’s what she had believed. Sunset Shimmer and the others had told her a very different truth. Now, Twilight didn’t know what to believe. Had the friend she’d thought she made really known all along? Was he really spying on her for the IAA? The thought drew another heartbroken sigh from her, and Sunset put an understanding hand on her shoulder.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked.
Twilight mustered a nod. “I just… thought he might come.”
They hadn’t been able to find Dusky Darneil at school during or after classes. Hadn’t been able to get answers. And although Dusky had said he couldn’t go to the event after school, his initial excitement at the prospect made Twilight think for a moment that he might surprise her. But it was just another lie.
“You’ll have your chance to talk to him again, so don’t fret dear,” Rarity said.
“Oh, we’ll talk to him alright!” Rainbow said menacingly, pounding her palm with a fist. Sunset and the others gave her a ‘not helping’ glare.
“Exactly! Dusky’s not going anywhere, so just try to enjoy the event!” Pinkie exclaimed.
As if on cue, the crowd around them erupted in excited cheering. Sure enough, when Twilight looked up she saw an exceptionally attractive young woman enter. She wore a sparkly purple jacket and her trademark veil over her face, and had her long, flowing purple-streaked orchid hair done up in a haughty manner. Escorting her was a man in a three-piece blue suit with pale vermillion hair and round glasses—her manager if Twilight had to guess.
“Rara! Hey Rara!” Applejack shouted over the rest of the crowd, waving at the pop star.
For her part, Coloratura actually dropped her haughty appearance and looked at Applejack with a smile. “AJ! It’s been forever!”
“I know! It’s great to see you, Rara!”
Her manager gave her a swift tap on the shoulder then, and whispered something while gesturing to the signing table.
“We definitely need to catch up later!” Coloratura said before moving on to her table. The group of girls all looked at Applejack in shock.
“Holy crap on toast, you weren’t lying about knowing her!” Rainbow exclaimed, wide-eyed.
“‘Course I wasn’t! It’s me,” Applejack said. “You gals want to hang out with her later?”
Twilight cracked a smile as all of her friends nodded earnestly as one. Applejack cracked a smile for a much more mischievous reason.
“Well, too bad. Y’all shoulda believed me from the start!”
“Whuh-what?!” Rarity exclaimed in a most unladylike fashion. “Now Applejack that’s not fair….”
As her friends tried bartering with Applejack, Twilight caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of someone with red hair wearing a brown leather jacket open the door to the back room that Coloratura just came out of. She turned to look more closely, but only briefly saw the face of a snarling wolf on the back of the jacket before it disappeared behind the door. Paying it no mind, Twilight returned her attention to her bickering friends.
After a few minutes, Applejack agreed to put in a good word for her friends. Then a few more minutes passed. Then a few more. Before they knew it, a half-hour had passed and they were still far at the back of the line to see the Countess.
“UGH! At this rate, I don’t think we’re ever gonna get to see Countess Coloratura,” Rainbow moaned.
“I told you we should’ve come here way earlier,” Sunset said calmly.
Rainbow whined and looked around for a few more seconds before moving away from the line. “I’m gonna see if I can barter for a better spot,” she said before moving out.
Applejack’s grip on her arm stopped her. “No yer not. Do you want us to get thrown out?”
“But what if Coloratura has to leave before we get our autographs?”
“Oh puh-lease! Countess Coloratura’s scheduled to be here all afternoon,” Rarity reassured her. “She won’t be leaving for anything short of a complete emergency!”
At that exact moment, a shrill beeping sounded throughout the entire store, and an aura of alarm began to fill the space. This was followed shortly by a man running out of one of the back rooms yelling, “Fire! There’s a fire in the back!”
Twilight had no time to realize it was the same man in the brown leather jacket she’d seen earlier before everyone started pushing their way to the front door. Sure enough, smoke was billowing out from the door to the back area. One of Coloratura’s people grabbed the pop star by the arm and rushed her out a nearby side door, her manager close behind.
“Somebody call the Fire Department!” a woman shrieked.
Regaining her senses, Twilight pulled her phone out and tried to dial, but quickly ran into a complication. “I have no signal!” she shouted.
“Yeah, me neither!” Pinkie exclaimed.
The other girls all confirmed similar findings. Weird, must be a dead zone. Twilight saw what appeared to be the store’s manager on the phone by the front counter, and realized with some relief that he was probably on the landline with the Fire Department now. She went on believing that as she and the others poured out onto the sidewalk outside. But as she would later discover, it was just another lie.
“About bloody time,” Gavin muttered as he saw the outgoing 911 call from Blue Note’s appear on his screen. The four of them were currently set up in an apartment they’d rented well away from the one in Shady Hollows where they’d ambushed the fire crew. With a few deft finger movements, the call was rerouted via the phone line jack to a burner phone.
“Ready, Jack?” Gavin asked as the phone started ringing.
The somewhat chubby woman sighed and collected herself before picking up the phone and putting on her most professional voice. “Nine-one-one what is your emergency?”
“This is Blue Note, of Blue Note’s Music Emporium. Our back room is on fire! Oh God, all our records….”
“Sir, I need you to calm down. Can you give us your address please?” Jack asked calmly. They already knew exactly where the store was located, but appearances had to be kept. The man on the phone gave her the address and Jack responded as cool and businesslike as ever. “We’re sending a fire crew to your address now. Please make sure everyone is clear of the building.”
After hanging up, Jack turned to the three men with her. “Alright, it’s go time!”
The four of them quickly packed up the computer equipment, unhooking it from the rented apartment’s phone line and stowed it away in bags. All four of them were dressed in yellow from head to toe. Gavin had commented while they were suiting up that they all looked like bananas, to which Jack had reminded him that this was his idea in the first place.
Technically, the plan had been for them to steal the uniforms of the fire crew they had stolen the truck from, but Ryan’s zeal to deal with the uncooperative firefighter in his usual way made their uniforms all but unusable. At least, assuming people would notice all the blood covering them. Thus, Gavin came up with the brilliant backup plan to buy cheap firefighter costumes at a local dollar store. Since they hardly looked convincing on their own, the four of them had next hit up a clothing store and all bought the yellowest ensembles they could find.
Looking at Geoff, Gavin, and Ryan now, Jack thought they looked at best like cheap strippers. She only hoped that no one would notice just how awful these ‘firefighters’ looked in the heat of the moment. If we all end up in prison, I am one-hundred percent blaming Gavin.
They all emerged in the apartment’s back alley, where they’d hidden their stolen fire truck. Ryan tossed the bag full of their computer stuff next to the duffel with the rest of their heist equipment, including the animal masks they had been wearing when they ambushed the fire crew and the small arsenal of firearms… just in case. Jack realized all too late that Ryan’s red, white, and black war paint that was normally hidden behind his skull mask was in plain sight beneath his plastic fire helmet and sighed. If this actually works, I’ll be fucking amazed.
The fake firetruck pulled out of the alleyway with the Fake crew on board, and after turning the corner, Gavin figured out the lights and siren, grinning ahead with childlike wonder.
When Melati Jasmine stepped back into the car, the aroma of the two cups of coffee in her hands was almost enough to reenergize Shining Armor right then and there. Almost.
“You’re a lifesaver, Mel,” Shining said before taking his first sip, savoring the feeling of anticipation before the caffeine kicked in.
The day had turned into a slog ever since the two of them found the kidnapped firefighters. For hours they briefed the officer in charge of the investigation and generally assisted before they were finally dismissed. After that they were able to get a quick lunch before resuming their patrol. They had to deal with three domestic disputes before having to stop to refill on coffee.
“We still haven’t gotten a coffee maker for the new place, and I’m usually the one to walk up to the corner to get some for Cady and myself,” Shining said.
Melati grinned around her own cup. “Living up to your name, I see.” A barely perceptible frown suddenly crossed her face. “Lucky her.”
But it was perceptible to Shining, “Surely a charming woman like you has someone in your life?”
Melati just gave him a sad smile and said, “Oh, I do. But that someone seems immune to my charms.”
Trying to give her a smile of his own, Shining said, “Well, keep trying. If this person doesn’t see what a great person you are now, they will.”
His attempted encouragement only drew a bitter laugh out of Melati that she elected not to elaborate on, so the two of them simply sat together in the silence of their police cruiser, silently sipping their java. This silence was broken by the sound of a siren, and Shining glanced up from his cup to see a firetruck race down the street past them, lights flashing and horn honking. Shining was ready to dismiss it when a crazy thought occurred to him, and he glanced over at Melati. The young woman looked back at him and right away he knew she was thinking the same thing.
“C’mon, Shiny. What are the odds?” she asked.
Starting the engine, Shining Armor answered, “Good enough to be worth a look at least.”
Doing a quick blind spot check, Shining pulled the cruiser out onto the street and started discreetly following the larger emergency vehicle. After several minutes of driving, they found it pulled over on the side of the road by a store called Blue Note’s Music Emporium. A sizeable crowd was gathered on the sidewalk outside, and parted as the firefighters got out of their truck and rushed inside. Shining pulled over on the other side of the street a short distance away.
“Guess I’ll go ask some of the bystanders what happened,” Melati said as she opened the car door. “Why don’t you get on with Dispatch and see if they can get in touch with the Fire Department? See if they responded to an emergency call from this address.”
It wasn’t long after the policewoman finished questioning them and moved on to another group that Rainbow Dash started getting bored again. And when Rainbow Dash started getting bored, everyone else had no choice but to be aware of it.
“Don’t worry, Rainbow,” Sunset said after the girl’s latest loud groan. “The Fire Department will deal with this in no time, and then we can get back to….”
“To standing in line some more!” Rainbow exclaimed, thrusting her palms against her forehead. “Ugh, I’m gonna lose my goddamn mind!”
“This is exactly why ya gotta remember to charge yer phone, RD,” Applejack said. “We keep telling you that.”
“Oooooh, so that’s why you haven’t liked my post!” Pinkie exclaimed, holding up her own cell phone to display what appeared to be a selfie featuring herself standing in front of the door to the back room with smoke billowing out of it, wearing a strangely serene smile.
Twilight wasn’t sure why, but the photo kind of made it look like Pinkie was guilty of something and couldn’t help but imagine the photo overlaid with text like one of those image macros she always saw online.
“Now just where are they going?” Rarity asked, and Twilight looked over to where the aspiring fashionista’s attention was focused to see a group of three students creep back into the store, clearly trying to act inconspicuous.
A gasp from Rainbow Dash indicated that she understood for all the wrong reasons. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. “If we go back inside right now, we can wait by the signing table and be at the front of the line when it starts again!”
“What?! That’s a terrible idea!” Sunset exclaimed. “We could get hurt!”
“Please, Rainbow. Let’s just wait outside until the firefighters are finished,” Fluttershy all but begged.
Rainbow was silent, and for a moment Twilight thought that Fluttershy had reached her.
“No, I’ve done enough waiting already!” Rainbow said, straightening her shirt. “You guys can wait to get back in line like suckers, but I’m gonna get ready to meet Countess Coloratura!”
“And I will come with you because my phone just died too!” Pinkie proclaimed.
“Yeah! C’mon, Pinks!”
“Wait, seriously!” Twilight desperately said as the two of them went for the door. “You could get in trouble!”
“Twilight, ‘trouble’ is getting locked underneath a stage by a thrall while a trio of fish monsters wreaks havoc on the student body with evil music,” Rainbow said very matter-of-factly. “This is nothin’!”
Rainbow opened the front door for Pinkie, who entered in a single bound with a “wheee!”
“Those two are a terrible influence on each other,” Rarity said after the door shut.
“Well, c’mon y’all. It’ll probably take all of us just to drag Pinkie out,” Applejack said with a resigned sigh.
“And we should probably get those other kids out of there as well,” Sunset added.
Twilight nodded in agreement, and with one final whimper from Fluttershy, the five of them entered the establishment. Right away Twilight noticed that the smoke had mostly cleared out. Maybe the firefighters had finished dealing with the fire after all? Regardless, Twilight looked over to where Coloratura’s signing table was and saw the small group of teenagers standing around it. Twilight actually recognized the other three.
Two of them were the musicians Twilight had met in class earlier that day. Octavia and Vinyl Scratch if she remembered correctly. Currently, it looked like the latter wanted to be here more than the former. The other person was a boy from her old school. Trenderhoof was an aspiring writer with blonde hair and white rimmed glasses. He wore a fashionable scarf over his Crystal Prep uniform.
“Hey! So you guys came to your senses, huh?” Rainbow said with a pleased smile on her face.
Sunset did not look so pleased. “Rainbow, I’m not kidding around. We need to leave now!”
As an argument started between the two groups of teenagers, Twilight found her attention pulled away from them and to an unusual noise coming from the back room. Is that… a drill? she wondered.
Sure enough, the noise sounded again and Twilight undoubtedly heard something being drilled into. What would firefighters need to drill? The thought brought on another: Namely, that the firefighters that had hopped out of the fire truck and raced inside hadn’t looked much like real firefighters. Something about what they were wearing had just seemed… off. Twilight hadn’t thought to question it any further in the heat of the emergency, but now she had to wonder….
Twilight hadn’t even realized her feet had been slowly moving her closer to the door, and her friends were too busy arguing to notice. Now, Twilight stood just on the other side, and she could hear voices.
“Why am I always on drill duty?” one man asked. He had a somewhat deep voice that might once have had a Spanish accent, now long buried by years of speaking English.
“Because this is what you wanted, TAFKAR. You trained for this,” replied another man’s voice, this one with a somewhat Jersey-sounding accent.
“Oy! That’s the wrong heist! I mean, codename. I mean, wot?” a very confused sounding British man said.
“Right. Sorry, Secret Gavin.”
“Alright, everybody stay cool,” an older man’s voice said, its potential wizened quality withheld by the slur of a lifetime of heavy drinking. “Everyone just do your jobs right and we’ll all come out of this just fine.”
Twilight’s curiosity was piqued. She had no idea what was going on behind that door and she had to know. Just a quick peek wouldn’t hurt, right? You didn’t think learning a little more about magic would hurt either, and look at where that got you. Ignoring the voice in her head, Twilight pushed the door open a crack and had to suppress a gasp. The familiar image of a snarling wolf looked back at her, but that wasn’t what elicited her response. No, it was what the man wearing the jacket was holding that made her heart stop.
“Jesus, Secret Michael! What’s that for?” the British voice said.
“I brought an automatic pistol because I’m not fucking around!” the Jersey-accented man Twilight saw said, holding up said weapon.
The back room had four men and one woman all standing around a single safe. A man wearing a purple sweater and a beanie had a large safe-cracking drill in his hands and was using it to try to break into the safe. The other two men and the woman were all dressed as firefighters, only now Twilight realized their helmets were plastic and their uniforms too small. The room they were in was a disorderly mess… but nothing looked burned.
“Yeah, I never leave home without at least one automatic weapon…” a deep, dark voice said. Twilight didn’t have time to reflect on just how close the voice sounded before a black, white and red painted face suddenly filled the crack in the door, a pair of cold eyes staring lifelessly back into hers.
“Because you never know when some miscreant will come poking their nose about….”
Officer Melati Jasmine was hoping that with the more witnesses she talked to, the clearer it would be that the fire truck they’d tailed was only that. Sure, it would appear there really had been a fire at Blue Note’s. However, the various teens and young adults gathered for the apparent celebrity record signing event continued to give her information that raised flags as red as the fire truck still flashing its lights at the side of the road. Stuff like the firefighter team didn’t bring any hoses into the building, or that one of them appeared to be wearing clown make-up or something.
It was as Melati was considering how to tell all of this to Shining back by the patrol car when a chorus of terrified shrieking erupted from inside the store. So without even thinking about calling over her partner, Melati raced into the store and right away all of her and Shining’s suspicions were validated.
The sight of a firefighter wearing some sort of gang warpaint threatening a group of about ten teenagers with an automatic rifle was all the proof she needed something was wrong.
“FREEZE!” Melati shouted, quickly pulling her sidearm out of its holster and flicking the safety off. “DROP YOUR WEAPON AND PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!”
The painted man turned his head, regarding her with a dead expression—like everything around him was nothing more than a dream. He kept his rifle trained on the group of teenagers over by the side. Melati noticed that six of them were gathered around one with dark blue hair with a pink streak who was looking at the man with wide-eyed terror.
“I said drop your weapon! I’m not going to ask you again!” Melati said, hoping that cocking her own weapon would drive the point across.
The painted man only kept staring at her with the same impassive dissonance that sent shivers down her spine. Then a childishly gleeful grin spread across his face.
Just like that, the door to the back room opened and two more guys ran out, also carrying weapons. However, the first thing that Melati noticed was that they were wearing masks: Animal masks. A man in a brown leather jacket wearing a wolf mask opened fire with an automatic pistol. Melati felt her hair move with the wind of the bullets as they passed within inches of her face as the teenaged girls started shrieking again. This resulted in her return fire being wild with panic, her shots passing harmlessly between the gunmen. And yet more poured out of that back room. Three, then four, then five, and all of them with guns and masks.
Officer Jasmine did the only logical thing she could think of, and that was to run back out the front door as the rest of the gunmen started shooting. All except the man with the painted face, who only stared after her with that childish grin.
Shining Armor was already halfway towards her from the car with his own gun drawn. “What the hell’s going on?!” he asked, before something behind her caught his attention. Melati instinctively dropped to the ground just before the rapport of the automatic pistol rang out, followed closely by the screams of the crowd of bystanders. Shining returned fire as both of them retreated to cover behind their cruiser.
Melati wasted no time getting on the radio with Dispatch, answering Shining’s question as she said, “Officers Jasmine and Armor going for Dispatch! Shots fired at 56 Main Street. Encountered multiple armed gunmen. Request immediate backup! They have hostages. Repeat: They have hostages!”
Dispatch answered, confirming that they were sending backup. It was only as Melati put down the radio that she realized her hands were shaking.
“Today just got a whole lot worse, didn’t it?” Shining said. But neither he nor Melati knew just how much worse it was about to get.
“Dammit! She got away!” the man with the Jersey accent said—Secret Michael, according to his compatriots—heading briskly back into the store. His voice was somewhat muffled by the wolf mask he now wore.
It would seem that as soon as the group of criminals realized they were being watched, they all donned masks. All except for the man who had initially spotted Twilight, who was only wearing his scary warpaint. Perhaps he figured that since she’d already seen his face, there was no point in wearing a mask?
At the moment, Twilight was not in any state to be considering the situation too carefully. She, and likely the rest of her friends now standing around her, were a bit too preoccupied with their terror over the brief gun battle that just took place in front of them. Sunset Shimmer and Applejack had both helped Twilight to her feet after her legs gave out from the shock. Rarity and Rainbow Dash were holding Fluttershy steady, as the delicate girl had very nearly fainted when the shooting started. Pinkie Pie only seemed relatively curious.
“Secret Ray, Secret Ryan, get these kids under control, yeah?” the man with the British accent said. Ironically, he was wearing a mask resembling a bald eagle.
In response, the face-painted man and a man wearing a purple sweater and a monkey mask stepped forward, leveling their rifles and barking orders.
“Against the far wall. Now,” the painted man said in his dark voice.
“Go on!” the other said, waving his gun menacingly. Twilight recognized him as the one with the drill and the vaguely Spanish accent.
Exchanging uncertain looks with her friends, Twilight complied along with the rest of them. “Secret Ray” immediately began heckling anyone who didn’t follow their instructions fast enough.
“Nice shades,” Secret Ray said, yanking the big purple-tinted glasses from Vinyl Scratch’s head. “What, is it dark on Planet Cool?!”
The man threw the shades on the floor and stepped on them, resulting in an audible crunch. A dejected looking Vinyl Scratch moved against the wall with the others.
“Now, put your hands on your head…” Secret Ryan intoned, “and turn around.”
As Twilight and her fellow hostages made to do just that, something completely unexpected happened.
“Turn around, bright eyes…” the man in the wolf mask, Secret Michael, suddenly started singing.
“Turn around!” the other criminals chimed in.
“Every now and then I get a little bit lonely…” the British one, Secret Gavin, sang.
“Every now and then I get a nananana na na…” Secret Michael continued, apparently foregoing the bridge to cut right to the chorus, to which the others joined in. “CUZ EVERY NOW AND THEN I FALL APART!”
At that moment, a man who carried himself like a man in charge approached the group wearing an owl mask and the same bright yellow clothes as the rest of them.
“Hey guys…” the man started, but the other five were already too into their impromptu musical number to listen now.
“AND I NEEEED YOU HERE TONIGHT!” the other five sang in ridiculous high-pitched voices, each one in harmony with each other but so horrendously off-key.
“Guys, can we get back to opening the safe?”
“AND I NEEEED YOU HERE FOREVER!”
“This is a great song, but can we get back to work?”
“Oh shit!” Secret Ray exclaimed, apparently just remembering he still had a job to do. The man immediately raced back towards the back room to continue his efforts to break into the safe.
Just like that, the song was over, but it was too late for Twilight and her friends not to have heard it. Indeed, the poor quality of the group’s collective singing was strangely familiar. Twilight remembered hearing the same kind of discordant harmony before, and recently too. She turned to look at Sunset Shimmer standing beside her, who was already looking back at her.
“Why do I get the feeling we’ve met these people before?” Twilight asked rhetorically.
If Sunset’s look was any indication, she knew exactly what she was talking about. Twilight realized that between seeing Secret Ryan, Secret Michael, and Secret Ray in the back room, and seeing the other three at Sugarcube Corner the other day, she had seen the faces of all of the criminals in this group.
She glanced back up at the man they called Secret Ryan, who studied her with distant curiosity. Now if I can just survive to put that information to good use….
It seemed a painfully long time for Shining Armor and Melati Jasmine as they waited in cover behind their own police cruiser, weapons trained on the front door of the music store, before they finally heard the sounds of sirens in the distance. It was shortly after that that several police cruisers pulled up around the facade of Blue Note’s, and dozens of uniformed police officers got out and assumed positions of cover around the establishment, weapons drawn.
It was only after they were certain that the front entrance was secure that Shining and Melati stood and stepped away from their own vehicle, moving towards the small army of police to try to find the man in charge. As it happened, the correct term was woman in charge.
“Chief Hardline!” Shining Armor exclaimed as he and Melati approached.
The hardened policewoman was looking out on the sea of police officers and flashing red and blue lights, a hand on her own firearm. She turned to face the pair as they saluted her.
“Officer Armor, Officer Jasmine. Report,” Hardline stated. “Just what are we dealing with here?”
“About six perps armed with automatic weapons,” Melati reported. “And about a dozen hostages.”
Hardline sighed. “When it rains….”
“All due respect, ma’am, we’re going to need a lot more than this,” Shining armor said. “We need a SWAT team.”
“Yeah, and I need one million dollars and eternal life,” Hardline replied dryly. “The Canterlot City SWAT team is in the middle of a raid on a drug compound just outside of town. Hate to say it, but this is all we’re getting.”
Shining looked again at the two dozen or so officers set up around the store. Against weapons like assault rifles, it wasn’t going to be enough. If things came down to a shootout, there would be casualties. Many casualties.
“We have a professional hostage negotiator being flown in from Los Santos. He’ll be here within the hour,” Hardline told them. “You two just get in position and be ready for anything.”
Shining nodded, and Hardline turned to Melati. “Any idea why so many armed men are hanging around a record store?”
“Oh, I can tell you why,” a haughty male voice answered.
Shining turned to see a rather pompous looking man in a three-piece blue suit wearing round glasses walking towards them escorted by another officer Shining recognized as Thin Blueline.
“Blue, who’s this and why did you let him past the blockade?” Hardline asked him.
“He said he has something very important to tell you,” Blue replied.
The man in the blue suit nodded. “Svengallop. Countess Coloratura’s manager. She was doing a record signing in this building before the incident.”
“No shit, really?” Melati said, an excited gleam entering her eyes. “Uh, is she…?”
“No, Ms. Coloratura is no longer on the premises,” Svengallop answered without letting her finish. Evidently, he’d been expecting the question. “As soon as the shooting started I made sure to get her back to her hotel immediately.”
Melati nodded in understanding, but Shining detected a hint of disappointment.
“You said you have information for us?” Hardline asked.
“In that building is a safe belonging to our company,” Svengallop explained. “And in that safe is all of the money raised from Countess Coloratura’s charity tour: Almost two-hundred thousand dollars!”
Hardline’s face didn’t change, but her eyes briefly flicked to Shining and Melati. Well, now we know what these guys are after, Shining thought.
“Getting that money back needs to be your first priority!” Svengallop exclaimed.
“The hostages are our first priority, but rest assured we will do everything we can to secure Coloratura’s money,” Hardline said firmly.
The scowl on Svengallop’s face indicated that it wasn’t the answer he was hoping to hear.
Twilight wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she and her friends found themselves in the middle of a hostage situation—she was too afraid to pull her phone out even to glance at the time. She guessed it must have been at least thirty minutes in total. It only took a few minutes for the group of thieves to finish breaking into the safe in the back, and now a pair of duffel bags full of money sat on the floor against the far wall.
“Only the truly despicable would steal charity money!” Rarity hissed under her breath. Twilight didn’t blame her for not wanting to bring her complaints to the criminals themselves.
After getting the money, the band of criminals quickly started working out how they were going to deal with the apparent snag in their heist. The small army of police now surrounding the building outside and the dozen or so teenagers inside with them was most certainly not part of their original plan. At some point during the conversation, the one they called Secret Michael took out a cellphone and called someone called Lindsay.
“Hey uh, you think you could bring the chopper and pick us up?” he had asked. “Ga… uh, Secret Gavin’s plan kinda went to shit.” He paused as the person on the other end said something. “I know. Shocking.”
For some reason, this made the man they called Secret Ray “pssh” and lean his head back. Even though he was wearing a mask, Twilight could almost see his eyes rolling.
“Okay, my wife’s going to bring the chopper and pick us up from the roof,” Secret Michael explained to his fellows after hanging up. “Now, the chopper only has seating for four, so Secret Ray, myself, and someone else are gonna have to get away on the two motorcycles we planted in the back alley for the original plan.”
“I’ll share a motorcycle with someone,” Secret Ryan, the creepy man with the facepaint, said.
“Dude, R&R Connection!” Secret Ray exclaimed, and he and Secret Ryan fistbumped.
The whole time, Twilight paid as close attention to the conversation as she could. She wanted to give the police as much information as she could to help them catch these guys when this was all over and they inevitably questioned her. This was easier said than done, as a lot of what the group of five men and one woman were saying didn’t make any sense whatsoever.
“There’s a lot of gaff out there, lads. You havin’ a laugh?” The fact that the British one—Secret Gavin―didn’t even use real words half the time was especially frustrating.
“I don’t know what Secret Gavin just said, so I’m just going to ignore him and ask: How are you getting past all the cops outside?” the woman called Secret Jack asked.
“Oh, I’ve got some toys I can bring out…” Secret Ryan stated ominously.
“Right, now my wife’s still out buying groceries…” Secret Michael continued, “so it’ll take her a little while to get back to the Boner to get the chopper.”
Twilight exchanged a confused and mildly disturbed look with the others. If she was confused earlier, she was definitely confused now.
“Right, here’s what we’re gonna do, lads. We’re gonna stall for time until Lindsay gets here with the chopper,” Secret Gavin said.
“How are we gonna do that?” the apparent ringleader, Secret Geoff, said. Twilight wasn’t sure why, but she felt like she’d heard the odd archaic name somewhere recently.
“HELLO IN THERE,” a voice boomed from outside, amplified by a megaphone. “DOES ANYONE HEAR ME?”
The gang members all looked at each other, and Secret Geoff moved towards the front door to the establishment (which the gang had barricaded using what had been Countess Coloratura’s signing table). The man moved the table so he could open the door a crack, and then lifted his owl mask just above his mouth, revealing a luxurious mustache.
“What do you want?!” Secret Geoff called out.
“I JUST WANT TO TALK, SON,” the voice outside replied.
The robbers silently conferred with each other, and Twilight couldn’t hear what they were saying despite her best efforts. Finally, Secret Geoff returned to the door.
“ALRIGHT! We’re gonna send out a guy to talk to you. If you guys try any funny business while he’s out there, we’ll start giving hostages back with a few more holes in them, capice?”
“OKAY, TRY TO REMAIN CALM NOW,” the booming voice said placatingly. “WE DON’T WANT ANYONE TO GET HURT HERE.”
Secret Geoff nodded at Secret Gavin
“What? Me?” Secret Gavin asked.
“Yeah, didn’t you say you wanted to stall them?”
After some more mild confusion on Secret Gavin’s part, the masked brit moved to the door and awkwardly tried to step over the table as Secret Geoff and Secret Jack moved it aside to make room for the door to open fully.
When he was gone, and most of the group of criminals seemed focused on what their British associate was doing, Twilight felt someone tap her shoulder.
“So what’s the plan for getting out of here?” Rainbow Dash whispered.
“If I recall, you and Pinkie are the reason we’re in this mess in the first place!” Applejack hissed back. “If you’d just waited outside like we done told you, we wouldn’t be here!”
“Which is exactly why I want to get us out of it!”
“By asking us what to do?”
“I’m giving you an opportunity to think of something!”
“If I was gonna think of somethin’, I woulda done it during the past forty minutes!”
“Can’t you guys just do that thing?” Twilight asked, and the others looked at her curiously. “You know, that thing that you do. With the magic.”
“Ooh, Pony Up? I hadn’t even thought of that!” Pinkie Pie stage-whispered.
Sunset didn’t look convinced. “We’ve never used our powers on anything non-magical before,” she said, taking a look around at the rest of the teens kneeling beside them. “Besides, we’re not the only hostages they have. If it was just us, I would be on board with it, but who knows how these people will react if we start doing magic?”
Twilight would certainly feel terrible if one of her classmates was injured or worse because the heavily armed gunman got panicky at the sight of six glowing girls floating in the air growing pony ears. No, using magic was out of the question. After all, it’s what got you in trouble before.
“Hey!” the deep, sinister voice cut off the one in Twilight’s head as the man with the painted face stepped closer, the end of his weapon beginning to drift in their direction.
“What’s all the psst psst about?” he asked with eerie casualness.
Twilight and the others looked guiltily at him for a couple of seconds before Rarity piped up.
“Oh, just… sharing a bit of gossip,” she explained diplomatically. “You know… girl stuff!”
“Oh yeah?” Secret Ryan said warily, carefully evaluating each of them. After several nerve-wracking seconds, the big man sat cross-legged in front of them and placed his gun in his lap. “Well shit, gimme the scoop!”
“Yeah, I wanna know the juicy teenage gossip!” the man exclaimed with a gleeful smile on his face. “It’s those two, isn’t it? They’re totally doing each other!”
Secret Ryan gestured to where Vinyl Scratch and Octavia were kneeling, who both looked thoroughly mortified by the accusation.
“Um… no, I don’t think….”
“No?” Secret Ryan asked. “Well what about Glasses McHipster over there? He’s been eying up Cowgirl here the entire thirty six minutes!”
Applejack looked across the row of hostage teens to Trenderhoof and scowled. “That so?”
For his part, the Crystal Prep student suddenly made a show of looking in every other direction, deciding that something on the ceiling was particularly fascinating.
“Oooh, no luck there, McHipster. Guess the feeling isn’t mutual!”
“Hey, Secret Ryan!” Secret Michael called out from where he and Secret Ray stood. “Quit making friends and get over here. We need to plan our exit strategy.”
Making friends. As the tall dark man with the painted face stood up and walked over to his compatriots (the woman Secret Jack taking over his watch), Twilight suddenly had an epiphany.
“‘Making friends,’ that’s it!” she exclaimed silently. “We’ll beat them the way you guys have beaten all the threats in the past. With friendship!”
“With friendship?” Fluttershy asked, fidgeting nervously. “But I thought we decided not to Pony Up?”
“We won’t need to. We’ll just befriend them the old fashioned way,” Twilight explained. “We’ll get to know them, and let them get to know us. If we can manufacture Lima Syndrome—make them see us as people instead of things….”
“It’ll be harder for them to pull the trigger. Maybe make them hesitate at a crucial moment!” Sunset exclaimed, understanding exactly what Twilight was getting at. “It’s not much of a plan, but it’s all we’ve got.”
Twilight nodded and looked at the unruly group holding them. The first hints of doubt started to creep into her mind.
“Right. Now all we have to do is befriend the armed maniacs….”
Shining Armor kept his gun steady as the criminal stepped out of the store and stood on the sidewalk, looking out at the rows upon rows of police officers aiming weapons at him from behind their cars. Hope getting a good look at us makes this guy reevaluate his options, Shining thought to himself. The man was dressed in yellow from head to toe, and wore what looked like a cheap firefighter costume jacket over top of it. An eagle mask sat on his head, covering his face.
“Why don’t you take that mask off so we can talk face to face?” the hostage negotiator, Talkdown said, taking a step forward, his bullhorn at his side. He was an older man who wore a dark blue jacket with shoulder pads underneath, the kind that people only wore in the seventies. Additionally, he was missing most of his hair, with only a little gray and white growing out of the back. The man had arrived just five minutes ago, and was wasting no time in getting to work.
“I’m not falling for that load of pap,” the man in the eagle mask said. Right away Shining noticed his thick British accent. There weren’t a lot of people with that accent here in Canterlot. “You slags just wanna know what my face looks like so you can find out who I am!”
“I’m sorry, but I just can’t hear what you’re saying with that thing on,” Talkdown said. “Why don’t you just take it off? Just for a few minutes while we’re talking?”
He’s good, Shining thought. Unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough, as the masked Englishman wasn’t falling for it. Instead, the man only lifted his mask enough so his mouth was showing before continuing the conversation.
“Okay, can you hear me now?” the man asked.
“Yes, I can hear you,” Talkdown replied, evidently disappointed that he couldn’t give the analysis team a face they could use to figure out who these guys were.
“So, you wanted to talk,” the Englishman said. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Well, why don’t we talk about you? What do you want?”
“We want to rob this place. We were doing great until you drippy spaffs turned up!”
Shining furrowed his brow as he tried to consider just what a “drippy spaff” could possibly be.
“And why are you robbing this place?” Talkdown asked calmly. “Are things going okay in your life?”
The yellow man shrugged. “Well, since you asked, no. Things are pretty much bang out of order!”
“Well, I’m sorry you’re going through a rough patch. I know what it’s like, believe me, we’ve all been there,” Talkdown said reassuringly. “But you can get through this!”
“Of course we can. It’s why we’re gettin’ all this money. So we can hire more muscle to take back our turf.”
“Look, I know times seem hard, but turning to crime isn’t the answer. Your actions aren’t only hurting innocents. You’re hurting yourself! Please, don’t throw your whole life away!”
The masked man in yellow changed his posture. He seemed to be getting agitated. “What are you on about? This, what we’re doing now, is our whole life. We’ve been doing it for years!”
Just who are these guys? Shining Armor wondered as he kept the strange British man in his sights.
“Alright, if you guys are such pros, maybe you can let one of the hostages go as a sign of good faith,” Talkdown said. “Surely you don’t need all of them.”
The man sputtered incoherently for a few seconds, making weirdly appropriate bird-like squawking noises. “We’re not giving any hostages away for nothing!”
“Okay, so what do you want?”
The man seemed to consider this for some time, glancing back to the store where his compatriots were waiting with the hostages before finally answering, “Right, here’s what we want, yeah? We want… all of the original Care Bears!”
Shining almost did a double-take, and beside him, Melati snorted.
“Even Monkey?” Talkdown asked.
The two were silent for a few seconds. “Well, what about the lion?” Talkdown asked. “He was sort of one of the originals even though he was kinda different.”
If the man in the bird mask was as perplexed at the hostage negotiator’s Care Bear knowledge as Shining was, he made no indication of it.
“Quimmy? Sure, he was like the best one!”
It had been several minutes since Twilight had come up with her “friendship” plan, and so far none of her friends had taken the first step to executing it. Evidently working up the courage to talk to an armed robber was more difficult than she had expected.
Currently one such criminal was pacing down the line of hostage teens, stopping only to make catty remarks about whatever one of them was wearing. At some point during the past ten minutes, the group of criminals had foregone wearing their masks, either deciding they didn’t need them while they were out of sight of the police or simply having gotten tired of wearing them.
“Hey,” Secret Ray said to a rather nonplussed Rarity. “Nice shoes. They make ‘em in smaller sizes than ‘extra large’?”
“I’ll have you know I’m a size seven and a half!” Rarity pouted.
“Noted.” Satisfied that his job was done, Secret Ray moved further down the line.
“Hey.” Secret Ray was now standing in front of a nervous looking Trenderhoof. “Nice scarf. Does it come in men’s?”
A moment of tension passed during which Twilight noticed Rainbow Dash seemed to be struggling to hold something back. Evidently, the struggle was in vain, and before she knew it, Rainbow blurted out, “You would know all about coming in men, wouldn’t you?”
Secret Ray looked over at her with an expression of stupefied shock. Twilight’s heart started beating fast. Well, it was nice knowing you, Rainbow Dash, she thought.
Instead of bringing down some furious justice on the spunky teen, Secret Ray started laughing hysterically with genuine mirth.
“Oh man, fucking got ‘em! Get wrecked, me!” Secret Ray said between bouts of laughter. He then turned to Secret Michael. “Did you hear what she just said?”
“Yeah, I feel like I got Got a little it was so good,” Secret Michael said. “Well played, uh….”
“Rainbow Dash. Nice,” Secret Ray said. “Hey, that a Pounders shirt you’re wearing?”
“Fuck yeah it is!”
“Sweet! You catch last night’s game?”
“Of course! Can you believe Stont made that touchdown with that epic fake out?”
“I know, right?!”
Twilight couldn’t believe it. Somehow, against all odds, Rainbow’s inability to keep her mouth shut at a crucial moment got her bonding with one of their captors. What was more, they had bonded over her insulting him! Twilight decided to try it for herself.
“Hey!” she called out to the one called Secret Michael. “You’re so dumb, you probably couldn’t find the square of the hypotenuse even if you had the value of the remaining two sides!”
The man just looked at her with confusion and mild annoyance. “What?”
“Never mind!” Twilight squeaked. Okay, so maybe a Pythagorean theorem based insult wasn’t the best idea.
Looking around, Twilight could see the other girls were executing their part of the plan. Fluttershy took her pet bunny Angel out of her backpack (who she’d been hiding up until this point out of fear for its safety) and Secret Ryan of all people was the first to come check it out. Applejack offered the leftovers of her homemade lunch to Secret Jack, who had been complaining about her hunger for the past ten minutes. Sunset brought out her phone and started showing Secret Michael funny videos on YouTube, and Pinkie Pie started bonding with Secret Gavin over, of all things, Care Bears. Coming up with an only marginally better idea than her math insult, Twilight raised her hand.
“Uh… what?” the apparent leader of the gang, Secret Geoff asked, looking at her in a way she couldn’t quite figure out.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” she lied.
“Oh. Well, just hold it in.”
“I can’t hold it in, I’ve been holding it in since we were standing in line for Coloratura!”
Secret Geoff let out a breath, and Twilight thought she heard him say “fuck” before gesturing for her to get up. “Come on then. I saw a bathroom in the back area.”
Twilight followed Secret Geoff into the employee area, past the open safe belonging to Coloratura’s people and into a storage area. A small room with only a toilet and a sink was off to the side, and since she hadn’t thought of anything else yet, Twilight simply thanked him and entered, closing the door.
“Hey, are you just going number one in there or are you feeding the bears?” Secret Geoff asked. “I wanna know how long I’m gonna be standing guard out here.”
“Feeding the bears?” Twilight asked, extraordinarily confused.
She heard Secret Geoff swear under his breath before he explained. “Sorry, force of habit. It’s kind of an inside joke between me and my daughter.”
This was exactly the kind of information Twilight was hoping to glean from her little gamble. “You have a daughter? How old is she?”
The crime boss hesitated. “A few years younger than you, I guess.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty cool.” Secret Geoff then went on to explain what ‘feeding the bears’ meant, and Twilight couldn’t help but laugh.
“Why would you tell your daughter that bears eat poop and live in the toilet?”
“I had to toilet train her somehow, and she really likes bears,” Secret Geoff said. “I dunno, it seemed like a really good idea at the time.”
“Heh, well it sounds like you guys are pretty close,” Twilight said, smiling. This ‘Secret Geoff’ guy didn’t appear to be all that bad.
After chatting with him through the closed door for a little bit longer, Twilight flushed, washed her hands and stepped out. Seeing the rifle in Secret Geoff’s hands was a cold reminder that the man she had been chatting with was a hardened criminal.
When they got back to the main room of the store, the atmosphere seemed much more relaxed. Teenagers and criminals alike were hanging out and talking about anything and everything. Rarity was telling Secret Michael how a properly tailored suit would look good on him, and Pinkie Pie and Secret Gavin were coming up with definitions for made up words. Applejack was telling Secret Jack her family’s recipe for something she called “zap-apple jam”, and Secret Ryan was giving Fluttershy surprisingly well-informed advice on improving Angel Bunny’s diet.
Eventually, Secret Michael’s cellphone started to ring. After answering it and giving a series of one word affirmatives, he hung up and addressed the rest of his crew.
“That was Lindsay. She’s airborne now and about five minutes out,” he said. “It’s time to put the rest of the plan in motion.”
He then turned to Twilight, and the rest of her friends and appraised them for a moment. “Let’s use these six. Let the others go.”
Just like that, the five men and one woman were back in full hostage taker mode, and motioned for Vinyl, Octavia, Trenderhoof, and Sunset Shimmer to stand up. Sunset put a hand on Twilight’s shoulder before doing so and nodded, saying “it’ll be okay” without words. After announcing to the police outside that they were releasing four of the hostages as part of their Care Bear agreement, the door was opened and the three girls and one boy were released into the hands of the waiting police officers.
Now it’s just the six of us, Twilight thought, and worried for a moment that her plan for them to befriend the criminals had worked too well. The man with the painted face reached into a bag, pulling out one of their animal masks (the raccoon) as well as a roll of gaffer tape. Twilight saw a rectangular object with wires and buttons in the bag beneath them.
“I know Halloween has long passed,” Secret Ryan said. “But how would you girls like to dress up?”
Clutching some sort of bright pink stuffed bear under one arm, Shining Armor watched as the four teens ran out of the building to the waiting police officers, who quickly led them away to safety. Only a girl with red and yellow hair like fire seemed to want to stay. In the distance, Shining could hear a helicopter getting closer and closer. Perhaps one of the local news stations was trying to get some aerial coverage?
“Alright, we have your Care Bears, what do you want us to do with them?” Talkdown asked.
There was a pause, and when the British man inside finally replied, it sounded like he’d honestly forgotten about their bargain. “Right, just leave ‘em by the curb.”
Shining and the cops who were holding the criminals’ unusual demands all walked out and did as they were told. They then returned to their blockade and waited for the gunmen to collect their prizes. Instead, the British man called out again.
“Right, well it’s been a long day,” he said, sounding tired. “Now that we’ve got what we want, I think we’re just gonna give up now.”
Shining and Melati exchanged a look. They had honestly been expecting this crisis to last well into the night. No, something doesn’t feel right.
“Alright, we’re coming out now, yeah?” the Englishman shouted from his unseen position inside the building. “So uh, make sure you don’t shoot us or anything!”
A few moments later, six figures emerged from the store’s front entrance with their hands raised. All of them were wearing various animal masks, and four of them had firefighter jackets while the other two wore a brown leather jacket and a purple sweater.
They didn’t appear to be armed, so Sergeant Nightstick signaled Shining, Melati and three other officers to move in with him and make the arrests. Shining moved to apprehend the one in the owl mask. Strangely, all of them were a lot shorter than he’d been expecting. When he cuffed the perp, Shining was surprised to find that their hands were incredibly small and dainty.
“Okay Nightstick, get your team in there and secure the hostages,” Chief Hardline ordered, and another team of officers moved into the building.
Shining’s team brought the arrested thieves over to the assembled police cruisers and started lining them up to be put inside. Strangely enough, he thought he heard the one he had arrested screaming, or trying to scream. It was as if something was keeping them muffled underneath the mask.
“Chief, there’s no sign of the other hostages,” Nightstick’s voice sounded over the radio.
“What about our money?” Svengallop demanded, approaching Chief Hardline.
“I told you the hostages are our priority,” Hardline stated without so much as glancing at him. “Once they are safe and the premises is secure, then we’ll look for your money.”
Svengallop ground his teeth and looked around. “Fine. I’ll just get it myself.”
Without saying anything else, the haughty man jogged past police officers towards the building.
“Wait, sir!” Hardline called out to him. “Get back here, we haven’t finished securing…!”
“Securing what? You’ve already apprehended the criminals, the danger is gone!” Svengallop yelled back without stopping. Before Hardline could do anything, he had disappeared inside the store.
Shining returned his attention to the suspect in his custody when he heard what sounded like a soft whimper come from beneath their mask.
“What the?” But it was Sergeant Nightstick who was the first to unmask the person in his custody.
A young girl with poofy pink hair was underneath the eagle mask, her mouth taped over. She seemed completely unconcerned with her predicament, smiling and trying to say ‘hello’ around the gaffer tape. Shining’s heart started to race as he began to realize what was really going on. But it outright stopped the moment he unmasked the person in his own custody, and saw familiar locks of dark blue hair with violet streaks.
The way his sister’s eyes widened when she saw him indicated that she was just as surprised as he was. Regaining his senses, Shining Armor immediately removed the gaff tape over Twilight’s mouth.
“Shining!” she gasped. “You need to get those cops out of there now!”
That was when it fully dawned on Shining Armor: If the remaining hostages were here, where were the gunmen?
Before Shining could get the word out to the chief, a deafening BOOM nearly shook him off his feet. The windows of Blue Note’s Music Emporium were shattered, black smoke pouring out of the spaces where the glass had been. It took a few moments for Shining to steady himself, and when the ringing in his ears started to clear up, he could hear several car alarms going off up and down the street.
The other thing he could hear was that helicopter, now significantly louder. At the same time Shining noticed the aircraft landing on the roof of the half-bombed building, he heard the sudden rapport of gunfire in the distance.
“Bravo Team is taking fire! Multiple officers down!” a voice called out over the radio.
Bravo Team were the officers assigned to setting up blockades on the two other streets where the alleyways around the store exited… exactly where the gunfire appeared to be coming from. Taking stock of his more immediate surroundings, Shining noticed that Twilight hadn’t been so lucky in keeping her footing. The girl lay on the ground and looked to have hit her head. After kneeling down to check on her, Shining waved over a paramedic before noticing Twilight’s hands were still cuffed and freeing them.
He then looked back towards the half-destroyed building, and a hot rage suddenly began to boil up inside him. The monsters responsible for all of this had used his sister as a pawn in their sick game, and now who knows how many good police officers were dead because of it. It was thus that Shining Armor didn’t think twice about removing his pistol from his holster. He didn’t hear Melati shout after him as he raced around and through the alleyway beside the building.
He ran through black smoke and past crumbled brick walls until he rounded a corner and saw them. Three men were getting on two motorcycles, and seemed to be getting ready to ride out onto the street that Bravo Team had been posted on. All three of them were facing away from him, and had whatever weapons they had put away.
“Freeze! CPD!” he shouted over the roar of the helicopter on the roof above, aiming his weapon at them steadily.
He heard one of them groan in frustration.
“Put your hands on your head, fingers interlocked, and get on your knees!” Shining demanded.
The three men half-heartedly raised their hands into the air, but rather than kneel down, they all turned to face him.
“Only one? You fucking kidding me?” one of them said—a vaguely brown man with glasses and a black toque.
“You gonna arrest all of us by yourself, little man?” one of the other two said in what sounded like a Jersey accent.
“I might not have to bother with the arrest if you keep refusing to cooperate,” Shining warned, keeping his gun steady. “Hands on your head. On your knees. Now!”
To Shining’s consternation, the three men only laughed. The middle one gave him a curious look. “Something about you seems familiar…” he said. “Did I shoot you once? Maybe held you hostage?”
Strangely, Shining thought that something about his voice sounded familiar, but he certainly didn’t remember ever having met such an unsettling man before. “This is your last chance. Do it.”
The man just gave him a mad smile, made all the more sinister by the red, white, and black face paint he wore resembling a skull.
“Or what? You’ll shoot us?” he asked in a deep voice laced with poisonous eloquence. Somehow, the tall man managed to look intimidating even while wearing yellow from head to toe.
“If that’s what it comes to.”
“And have you ever shot a man before?” the man with the painted face asked, smiling. “Have you ever killed a man before? Watched as the blood poured out, and the life left his body?”
Shining didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He had trained to be able to pull the trigger—to take a life—when the situation called for it. But somehow, everything felt different now. Shining’s thoughts kept going back to his sister: How little Twily would look at him if she knew he had blood on his hands.
“You may look the part dressed in all that blue, but when I look at you I see nothing but green,” the painted man took a step forward, testing the waters. Shining did the same in response, leveling his gun further, but made no other move.
“Do yourself a favor and put it down, kid. Killing you won’t mean anything to me,” the painted man continued. “You spineless cops all look the same to me. To me, you’re all just Edgar.”
Shining’s eyes widened, and his heart skipped a beat. That name was all he needed to place where he’d heard that man’s voice before. All it took for him to realize just who it was he was talking to.
Unfortunately, the man caught on to Shining’s brief loss of focus, and with one lightning fast motion, a throwing knife flew through the air and landed in Shining’s right shoulder. Shining stumbled back, and barely had time to register the pain flowing from his shoulder when the man rushed forward. His painted face inches Shining’s, the man swiftly disarmed him and knocked him down with a precise punch to the face.
Shining lay on the ground, dazed. He was barely able to register the sound of a motorcycle’s engine as one of the other two men rode away. He heard the second motorcycle start up, and the brown man—no, not the brown man. The Brownman, Shining realized—shouted, “C’mon, Secret Ryan! Get on! What are you doing?!”
Shining suddenly felt himself pushed onto his back, and found himself looking up at the painted face of the owner of the knife in his shoulder. The man bent over him and gripped the handle of the knife, but rather than retrieve it, he twisted it in place, sending fresh waves of hot pain through Shining’s whole body.
“You know me,” the Vagabond said. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of fact. “How do you know me?”
Shining Armor could barely answer through the pain, but he did manage to get out three words through clenched teeth. “You… killed him….”
“Dude, come on!” the Brownman shouted as gunfire suddenly erupted. The Vagabond reacted immediately, leaping off of Shining Armor and jumping on the motorcycle behind his associate. The Brownman appeared to be holding off attackers behind Shining with a bright pink pistol. The two criminals pulled out of the alleyway on their motorcycle (the Vagabond holding up a middle finger for good measure), and soon the alleyway was quiet. Even the helicopter that had been on the roof was long gone.
Before Shining knew it, Melati Jasmine was kneeling over him. He could see more officers moving through the alley behind her.
“Hey there, bud. You’re okay, it’s not that bad,” she said before telling one of the officers around her to get a paramedic over here. “What the hell were you thinking running back here without backup?”
“I wasn’t. Just jumped into the deep end,” Shining groaned, sitting up.
“Exactly, and you’re very lucky you didn’t drown.”
The paramedics arrived and got to work, removing the knife and filling the wound with gauze. When it was all done, Shining had nothing to distract him from the very disturbing fact he’d just learned.
“Melati,” he said, his expression deadly serious. “It was them. They’re here.”
After arriving home that evening, Twilight Sparkle’s mother hugged her tightly for what must have been the tenth time since she and her father had arrived to pick her up from the police station.
“Mom, I’m fine, really!” Twilight insisted as the older woman with purple and gray hair held her tight. She was shaking tremendously, but at least she wasn’t sobbing like she had been when she and Twilight’s father had arrived at the precinct. “To be honest, the criminals weren’t exactly unpleasant to us.” At least, before they sent us out in front of the police dressed as them, she mentally added.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Twilight Velvet apologized, forcing herself to let go of her daughter. “I was just….” Velvet wiped the last of the tears away from her eyes and tried to smile for her youngest. “Nevermind. I’m okay now.”
“Vel honey, why don’t you go lie down? Take a few moments to rest,” Night Light suggested, Twilight’s father rubbing her mother’s shoulder tenderly. “I’ll prepare the dinner tonight.”
Twilight Velvet gave her husband an appreciative peck on the cheek before going upstairs to do exactly that. Night Light then proceeded towards the kitchen.
“Twily, would you mind giving Spike his dinner?” the older blue-haired man asked.
On cue, Twilight heard the jingle of a dog collar and the sound of skittering paws trying desperately to find purchase on the hardwood floor. The little purple dog appeared around the corner and came skidding to a stop, looking up at Twilight with a wagging tail. A knowing look passed between the two of them before Twilight followed her dad into the kitchen and brought the bag of kibble out from the cupboard by the fridge.
“So, is it just me or was mom overreacting just a tad?” Twilight asked as she poured some kibble into Spike’s bowl.
Night Light, who was cutting carrots on the counter over by the stove, let out a sigh. “Your mother’s just… had a rough go of it ever since your uncle died.”
Twilight remembered the man in the duster and stetson from the photos. She herself had only met him a handful of times, and then only when she was much younger.
“She’ll come around, though. Always has,” Night continued.
Twilight wanted to ask more—like what Mom and Shining Armor had been fighting about back at the police station—but the rest of her family have always been vague on the details of what happened to her uncle, and she wasn’t expecting that to change any time soon.
“So, are you guys still going to that dinner party over in Griffonstone tomorrow night?” Twilight asked, preferring a change of subject from the grim events of the day.
“Yep. Griffonstone’s a good two hour drive from here, so we’ll probably be home late if we come home tomorrow night at all,” Night paused as he realized where his daughter might have been going with this line of questioning. “Unless… you’d rather we stayed? Considering what you’ve just been through, I’m sure Godfrey would understand if you needed us….”
“No no, it’s okay. I told you, I’m fine,” Twilight said. “Wouldn’t want you and Mom to miss out on an evening with your friends on my account.”
Her father smiled. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were planning a wild party while we’re gone.”
Twilight smiled back. “Yep. Don’t be surprised if you come back to a half-destroyed house!”
It was at that moment that Spike approached Twilight, having finished his supper. The little dog looked up at the girl and gave an almost imperceptible nod towards the stairs in the front hall.
“Well, if you don’t need help with the dinner, I’m gonna go to my room to do some reading,” Twilight said.
“Alright Twily, I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
Stopping only to pick up her backpack where she’d set it down in the front hall, Twilight climbed the stairs with Spike trailing happily behind her. It was only after the door to Twilight’s bedroom was firmly shut that the little dog let out a big sigh.
“Ugh, I hate having to pretend to be just a normal dog whenever your parents are around,” Spike whined.
“I know, Spike. But I’m still trying to figure out the best way to break to them that magic is real, and it made you able to talk,” Twilight said as she sat down at her desk.
In truth, Twilight had been procrastinating on that particular reveal more due to the fact she didn’t want to try to explain what happened during the Friendship Games. Whatever. It’s clear that my parents are keeping some secrets from me. Why can’t I keep some secrets from them?
Spike hopped up onto Twilight’s lap and looked at her with big concerned eyes. “So, what happened today? You and your parents seem… tense.”
“Me and the girls had a run in with a group of criminals at the Coloratura event today. They took us hostage and made off with some money.” Seeing the look of increasing terror on the little dog’s face, Twilight added, “Rarity’s fine, Spike. As far as I can tell, so are the rest of the girls.”
Twilight felt the dog’s muscles relax and Spike’s tail started to wag slowly. “Oh good.” Spike turned around three times before lying down on Twilight’s lap, and the girl stroked his head.
“Oh, so guess who got permission today to bring her dog into school?” Twilight asked.
Spike looked up at her. “I dunno, who?” he asked, before he figured it out and his eyes widened. “Aw yessss! I’m gonna get to hang out with you and Rarity and the girls all day and if any criminals tries to get you again I’m gonna bark so much they won’t know what to do!”
Twilight giggled. “I appreciate the thought Spike, but I don’t think we’ll have to worry about seeing those guys ever again.” Twilight momentarily paused as she remembered exactly what she had found out immediately after she’d gone to the administration office. She reached into her bag to find that the miniature golden idol hiding the thumb drive was still there. The drive that had all of that information on her.
“What makes you so sure, Twilight?” Spike asked, distracting Twilight from thinking about the inevitable talk she was going to have to have with a certain strange boy tomorrow.
“Because I know that my brother and the rest of the police are going to be working overtime to catch these guys.”
Six dead, eight more seriously wounded, and a few more with only minor injuries like Shining Armor. All of the CPD precincts across Canterlot were feeling the aftermath of the incident at the music store that afternoon. Not the least of which was Shining himself, whose left shoulder still burned where the knife had dug in. It wasn’t as bad now, but every once in awhile he felt the need to rub the area around the wound. He fought that urge this time: Melati Jasmine had already warned him not to touch it, lest he rip out the stitches.
The sound of Chief Hardline clearing her throat at the front of the room drew every officers’ attention. The whole precinct was currently gathered in the briefing room, ready to receive an emergency briefing from the chief herself. Most of the officers present already had an idea of what it would be about. Rumors were circulating fast: News of Shining’s encounter in the alley had spread quickly. Shining had hoped that the briefing would help take his mind off of the pain in his shoulder, but instead found himself facing the memories of what—or who―had caused it in the first place.
“Thank you all for meeting us here,” Chief Hardline began. “I know it’s late, and many of you are staying here well after your shifts were supposed to end, but some potentially disturbing information has risen in the wake of the hostage crisis earlier today.”
Hardline paused and with the flick of a remote turned on the projector in the room. The projector sheet beside her was filled with photos of six individuals.
“There is mounting evidence to suggest that the perpetrators responsible for the incident were none other than the Fake AH Crew,” a chilling silence settled over the room. “They’re here. In Canterlot.”
Of course, the incident matched their MO perfectly. A fake fire and fake responders. Shining couldn’t believe he didn’t see it before.
“But how can we be sure it was them?” another officer fresh out of the academy asked. “They were all wearing masks, weren’t they?”
“The hostages, in addition to one of our own officers, has seen the culprits without their masks.” Although Hardline didn’t name him, most of the officers in the room knew she was referring to Shining. “We were able to get the hostages to identify them using these pictures,” Hardline continued, gesturing to the projected images beside her.
It was then that Shining’s thoughts returned to his little sister. Twilight, along with the others who had been taken hostage, had naturally been brought back to the precinct and questioned. He’d only gotten a brief moment to talk to her through all of the craziness of that evening, and was very worried about how she was handling the whole thing. By all outward appearances she was fine, but there was no telling just how scared she really was. At least she’s safe at home with Mom and Dad now, Shining thought, and tried not to think about the argument he’d had with his mother when she and his father had come to take Twilight home.
“Besides, even if we didn’t have any faces to go by, there’s just too much evidence to suggest it’s them,” Hardline said. “After all, what other criminal group do you know uses military grade hardware and has a flare for the dramatic?”
The chief went on to brief the room on each core member of the Fake AH Crew, and Shining couldn’t help but tune out a little. He already knew most of this information anyway. His eyes instead lingered on the image of the one he’d encountered in the alleyway. The picture on the projector was clearly a few years older—the man didn’t have much facepaint then. Just two black circles around his eyes—but looking at it now, Shining could definitely tell it was the same man who put the knife in him. His blue eyes were filled with the same cold malice. His smile filled with the same childish glee.
“We have people searching the whole city, but haven’t had any luck finding them,” Hardline said. “Like with all of their other heists in Los Santos, they seem to have vanished into the woodwork.”
“All due respect, but how are we supposed to deal with these guys?” asked Lieutenant Case File. He was Hardline’s right hand man and usually the first to support her decisions. “The CPD is not equipped to deal with a threat like this!”
“We’ve been talking with the LSPD and some of the spooks from FIB to figure out the best way to proceed,” Hardline answered. “It seems likely that both organisations will be sending people to assist us.”
With that, Hardline finished up the briefing by telling the gathered officers what they can expect in the days to come, and everyone started filing out of the room.
“Great,” Shining said, turning to look at Melati. “Canterlot’s about to turn into a fucking warzone, and it’s only our second day on the force!”
“Well, look on the bright side,” Melati said. She tried to smile, but Shining could tell she was scared. “You wanted to go to Los Santos to deal with crime there, but it came to you instead!” Melati’s look then turned to one of deep concern. “Just… promise me you won’t Leeroy Jenkins it again like you did today, okay? I was….” Melati turned away, for some reason no longer able to look Shining in the eye. “I was really worried about you.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Shining said. “Trust me, I already got chewed out by Hardline for that.”
“I’d kind of like to know what happened there myself,” another voice said. Sergeant Nightstick was standing against the far wall, the big dark-skinned man evidently hoping to have a few words. “Don’t forget you were on my team when you pulled that little stunt. If anything more serious than that knife wound happened to you, I would’ve felt a little responsible.”
“I don’t know,” Shining shrugged helplessly. “I guess seeing my little sister in the line of fire like that set something off in me.”
Nightstick nodded. “Hey, I get it. Your judgement can get a little fuzzy when loved ones are involved. Trust me, I’ve been there,” he said. “But I need to know I can count on you in the future if we’re going to keep working together.” Nightstick then gave Shining Armor a look that was one part sympathetic, and another part deadly serious. “And I know you and your family has a bit of a history with the Fake AH Crew.”
Shining remembered saying as much to the sergeant the other day. “Right. Well, considering what we’re up against, I guess now’s as good a time as any to tell you about it.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder then, and looked over to see Melati giving him an encouraging smile. She had heard this story before, and knew it was a hard one for Shining to tell. So collecting himself, Shining reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, holding the image on his lock screen to Nightstick and pointing to the man beside his mother.
“You see this guy?” The man in question wore a duster and a stetson, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a spaghetti western.
Nightstick studied the picture and gave a humorous grin. “You mean the Lee Van Cleef clone?”
Shining ignored the comment—he didn’t know. That was exactly why they were having this conversation. “That’s my uncle,” Shining told him. “His name was Shining Badge. As you can probably guess, my parents named me after him. He was kind of the reason they got together, you see.”
Nightstick listened to Shining soberly. There was no way he could have missed the way Shining kept describing his uncle in past tense.
“He was an ace detective in Los Santos, and was damn good at his job. He must have taken part in dozens of busts. Drug operations, smuggling rings, human trafficking, you name it. And not just small time criminals, but the big gangs like the Vagos, and the Lost MC. Became known as a sort of crime-fighting superhero,” Shining chuckled fondly at the memory. “I just knew him as my ridiculously cool uncle. And he was very cool. Still found time to visit us in Canterlot as often as he could.
“And I idolized him, of course. Probably made my dad jealous, truth be told,” Shining saw Melati crack a smile. She’d met Night Light on a few occasions, and probably knew as well as he did that his father wasn’t the jealous type. “Because despite all of the amazing things he did, he was just a regular guy that wanted to do some good. He certainly didn’t believe he was any kind of hero, even though he was.”
Shining sighed. He was done telling the easy part. Now the hard part. “And then the Fake AH Crew appeared.”
Nightstick’s mouth formed an ‘o’. It seemed he’d figured out where this story was going. “After their third heist, Shining Badge got put in charge of the unit responsible for taking them down. It made sense, I guess: the Fake AH Crew had turned Los Santos into the fucking wild west, so the police needed the closest thing they could get to a real cowboy.
“He was doing pretty well at first, but it was only a matter of time before Geoff the Boss realized the threat he posed. So he sent his hitman to take him out: The man with the skull mask. The one they call the Vagabond.” Shining couldn’t help but glance again at the photo on the projector, and had to quickly look away from the smiling face of the man, like trying not to stare directly at the sun. “That psychopath abducted him from his home, made a video of himself torturing and murdering him, and sent that video to the LSPD… through his relatives.”
Nightstick’s hand raised to his mouth. “Oh God… did you…?”
Nodding, Shining said, “We didn’t think anything of it when we received the package in the mail one evening. The return address was my uncle’s after all, and we hadn’t yet heard that he’d gone missing a few days before. Mom played the DVD without even giving it a second thought. We didn’t even know what we were really watching until the man in the video, the Vagabond… got to work.” Shining sighed, forcing himself to continue. “He said… he said that anyone who opposes the Fake AH Crew will become nothing but another statistic. Forgotten by the world at large, their very identity thrown to the wind… becoming Edgar.”
“Jesus…” Nightstick muttered.
“Yeah, I don’t even fully know what it meant. The guy is a fucking lunatic! Thank God Twily wasn’t home that evening so she didn’t have to see it, but Mom….” Shining closed his eyes and tried to shake all of the images from his head. “Mom wasn’t the same after seeing that. Dad’s been a real rock for her, but it’s taking time for her to move past it, and we ended up fighting a lot. She was desperate to keep me from joining the police academy. Guess she’s afraid of losing her son the same way she lost her big brother.”
She looked up to Shining Badge much the same way Twily looks up to me, Shining realized, and tried not to think of what would happen to his little sister if he were to suffer a similar fate. “But Shining Badge was the reason I wanted to become a cop. And to not do so after that… it would go against everything he stood for.”
The Fake AH Crew had used his uncle to spread fear through the hearts of anyone on the side of justice. If Shining Armor had given up on his dream to be a police officer because of that, than that endeavor would have succeeded.
Shining finished his story with a casual shrug. “Anyway, I guess that’s my ‘tragic backstory’. Truthfully, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Regardless, you can count on me to do my job.”
“Hey, I can understand the way you feel,” Nightstick said finally. “A lot of families have been broken up by the Fake AH Crew.”
“That’s also why Shiny wants to join the LSPD,” Melati Jasmine added.
It was true: Not only was Los Santos the place where Shining thought he could do the most good carrying on his uncle’s work… “Yeah, I used to have this fantasy of being the one to make the arrest on the Vagabond,” he said.
Of course, Shining didn’t mention the other fantasy he sometimes had. The one where the Vagabond refused to surrender, and chose instead to go down fighting. In that one he got to put a bullet through that skull mask. Too bad when I got the chance, I couldn’t pull the trigger.
“Anyway, I eventually decided that arresting the Vagabond personally isn’t gonna bring my uncle back, or give my mother peace of mind about my choice in career,” Shining concluded.
“Well, I’m glad to know we can count on you,” Nightstick said. “I feel like we’re going to need every last man and woman with a badge and a gun that we can get over the next few days.”
The smaller speedboat pulled up to the docking area at the back of the much larger luxury yacht, and the other half of the core crew boarded the S.S. Boner. Ryan the Vagabond was puzzled, and he hadn’t been puzzled for a very long time. That young cop who had so foolishly tried to take on Ray, Michael, and himself alone knew him. He hadn’t just seen his picture on the news or in a police file. No, the look of recognition on the boy’s face was laced with horror and a hint of something else deep and personal.
Before Ryan could ruminate on his encounter any longer, he, Ray, and Michael reached the deck of the ship where they met up with Geoff, Jack and Gavin. The latter three had arrived back to their floating hideout about an hour prior, as Lindsay had picked them up with the chopper. The bags of cash were likely already down in the hold being guarded by one of the lower ranking members of the Fake AH Crew.
“Did anyone see you come back here?” Geoff the Boss asked. He was wearing his trademark suit again, having all too eagerly ditched the obscenely yellow outfit from Gavin’s heist. Jack and Gavin had similarly changed into their normal clothes.
“Geoff, please! We’re pros,” Michael said. He wore only a black t-shirt and jeans. One of those six lucky girls got to keep his brown leather jacket as part of their diversion. If the police didn’t decide to keep it as evidence, that is. “We lost the cops well before we made it to the docks.”
“After which we dropped the motorcycles into the ocean,” Ray added. His purple sweater was likely the same place as Michael’s jacket. Ray now only wore jeans and a t-shirt that looked like the front of a tuxedo.
“Exactly, we’ve done this all before,” Michael said.
Geoff at first seemed pleased, and Michael and Ray might have been content to leave it at that, but Ryan wanted to express his concern.
“There may be a problem,” he said. “A lone police officer confronted us in the back alley while we were getting our motorcycles ready. He knew who we were. Or at the very least, he knew who I was.”
“Well, why the bloody hell didn’t you bip him as soon as you saw him?” Gavin asked.
“Because it was fun to fuck with him a bit,” Michael said. “Guy looked greener than fucking summer grass!”
“Well, did you at least kill him after you were done toying with him?” Jack asked. The brunette looked at them disapprovingly. Everyone knew that Jack believed she could run this crew better than any of them.
Michael looked at the other two with him. “Ray? Ryan? I left him to you guys to deal with.”
“Didn’t get the chance,” Ryan stated. “More cops showed up before I could finish him.”
“Ryan thought it would be fun to torture him some more before finishing it,” Ray stated, sighing.
“Look, I was questioning him. I wanted to know how he knew me!”
“Well, that’s just great!” Geoff said, his already naturally droopy eyes looking even more tired than normal. “Now the whole state probably knows we’re here!”
“Actually, that might not even matter,” Jack said, and everyone turned to look at her. “Tomorrow we’ll meet up with Dan and give him his money, then we’ll have no reason to stay here. By this time tomorrow we should be long gone.”
“Unless something else goes wrong,” Gavin said.
“Yeah, with you there’s always margin for error,” Jack said before turning to head inside the ship. With a few consternated squawks, Gavin followed her asking what she was on about.
Ryan was about to head down to the armory to clean his weapons when Ray approached him. “Hey Ryan, can I talk to you for a minute?” the Brownman asked. “I could use your help with, uh, something I’m planning. I know it’s something you have a lot of experience with.”
Nodding, Ryan wordlessly agreed to hear Ray’s proposition and together the R&R Connection went inside.
Geoff watched them go with only mild curiosity. At the very least, he wasn’t as interested in whatever it was they were doing as Michael was beside them. Geoff didn’t have time to ask him what he was thinking as another man approached them.
“Hey Geoff, a word?” Jeremy asked. Geoff wasn’t a terribly tall man, especially compared to a giant like Ryan, but Jeremy still needed to look up to talk to him.
“Sure, what is it, Lil J?” Geoff also noticed that Jeremy’s formerly grass green flat top hair was now sea blue.
After taking a quick glance around, Jeremy gestured for Geoff to lean in, and both he and Michael did so. “I’ve just now confirmed what we’ve always suspected,” Jeremy said in a low voice. “When you got Got during our raid on Humane Labs, it was because somebody sold you out. Somebody from our gang.”
Geoff exchanged a look with Michael and frowned. “Any idea who it is?” Geoff asked.
Jeremy shook his head. “No. I got this from an informant I have in the LSPD. According to him, his office had been talking to somebody in our gang in the weeks leading up to the heist, but have been keeping their identity a secret. Only the cops on the case know who he is. The name has been removed from all the case files.”
Geoff “hmmed” with concern. “You think whoever it was might also have silenced Kerry?”
The newest member of the Fake AH Crew had been with Geoff when both of them were cornered and arrested at the designated meeting point atop Mt Chilliad. It had been the young man’s first time playing a major role in a heist, and Geoff had wanted to keep him close. According to Jeremy, there had been no sign of Kerry anywhere in any police records: He’d just disappeared.
Geoff had been holding out hope that Kerry had somehow managed to escape and was hiding real well, but the more Geoff thought about it, the more he realized it was a fool’s hope. The cops who had picked up Kerry had been on the Crew’s payroll. It was far more likely that poor Kerry never even made it to the police station. And that raised an even more disturbing possibility.
“If Kerry really was killed by the cops on our payroll, that means that whoever had him killed had to be a high enough rank in the Crew to be able to give that kind of order,” he said, looking at Michael. “Only the six of us have that kind of authority.”
Michael’s loyalty to Geoff was unquestioned, rivaled only by his loyalty to his wife Lindsay. That left Jack, Gavin, Ray, and Ryan as the potential traitor.
“Jack’s always going on about how much more efficient things would be if she were running them,” Michael said.
“But Jack and I have been working together for years. We practically started the Fake AH Crew together!” Geoff cried.
“Is there anyone else you think would have a reason to sell you out?” Jeremy asked.
Although he couldn’t think of a specific reason why, Geoff could think of one very specific person who might have betrayed him. It didn’t perfectly add up yet. After all, this particular individual’s MO would be just to kill him personally. Then again, maybe he was counting on people to think that. After all, this man’s reputation preceded him. There was a reason people called him the Vagabond.
“I think it could be Ryan,” Geoff said.
“Ryan?” Michael asked, looking perplexed. “Look, I know the guy’s a creepy motherfucker and probably insane, but he never expressed any desire to overthrow you. Besides, he was one of the first who got on board to bust you out!”
The fact that some of his crew might have been hesitant to bust him out of Bolingbroke made Geoff uneasy, but then again so did the fact that one of them definitely betrayed him. But it didn’t make him as uneasy as one of his earliest memories of working with Ryan.
“I never told you guys what happened between me and Ryan after our very first heist, did I?” Geoff asked.
Michael and Jeremy shook their heads, so Geoff took a breath and started his story.
“As you know, Ryan and I made our getaway by boat. Ryan was driving…”
...Ryan was driving, and Geoff was in the seat beside him with thirty-six hundred dollars in his bag. It was a brisk night, but the chills running through Geoff’s body had nothing to do with it. His crew had just pulled off a successful heist, and Geoff had never felt so alive. Things had gotten dicy for a while, but both Bravo Team (consisting of Jack and Gavin) and Charlie Team (Ray and Michael) had reported in over the radio, having successfully lost the cops on their respective tails.
Now Alpha Team just had to take the boat around the island and up the river to the foot of Mt. Chilliad, where they would all meet up to head back to their hideout. Geoff, who being the boss was going by the codename Alpha One, leaned back in his seat, feeling content.
“Well, that was a pretty good run, Alpha Two,” Geoff said to the man next to him. “You’re looking at a solid six-hundred dollars there, buddy.”
“Yep,” Ryan, or for this heist, Alpha Two, said. Even though they were well clear of the cops, the man was still wearing his mask: A menacing gray skull. Perhaps he simply liked wearing it? “That was, uh, that was quite a take!”
“Whoo!” Geoff exclaimed, the last of the adrenaline from the earlier chase finally leaving him. “I had a feeling….”
But Geoff didn’t get to finish his thought as he noticed the sudden absence of the sound of the boat’s engines and the wake behind them. As the wind blowing through his hair and mustache became a gentle breeze.
“Why are we stopped?” Geoff asked, looking around at the miles of dark ocean on all sides.
Ryan’s only answer was to remove the keys from the ignition and stand up. “I mean…” Geoff then felt the barrel of Ryan’s assault rifle against the back of his head. “There doesn’t really have to be two of us left at this point….”
Now the chills going through Geoff’s body had an entirely different source. It had been such a simple oversight, but such a massive one. He’d allowed himself to get left alone with Ryan in the middle of nowhere with over three thousand dollars. Geoff suddenly knew he should have accounted for this. After all, Ryan’s reputation as the Vagabond preceded him.
Before he was Ryan the Vagabond, he was a gun for hire who had worked for just about every major gang and PMC imaginable. He’d earned his nickname relatively early in his career, when he’d moved between five organisations in as many months. Each and every one of the Vagabond’s former employers had met with an… unfortunate fate. Either arrested by the cops, or just simply killed. Geoff had hired the Vagabond knowing this, assuming that it was only a streak of bad luck on the man’s part, and hoping that bad luck would end with him. Now, Geoff wondered whether luck ever had anything to do with it.
There was nothing to stop the Vagabond from putting a bullet in Geoff’s head, taking the entire thirty-six hundred dollars, dumping his body into the ocean and using the boat they were currently sitting in to go anywhere on the West Coast.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Ryan the Vagabond just started laughing. He laughed like he’d just told the funniest joke in the world, and continued laughing even as he made his way to the edge of the boat.
“ALPHA TWO WINS!” he shouted as he suddenly performed a swan dive over the side of the boat and splashed into the ocean.
Geoff could only watch as he circled the boat, doing a backstroke and still cackling madly. Geoff wanted to simply take the boat away and leave Ryan stranded in the middle of the ocean as deep and black as his madness, but Ryan had the key to the ignition. It was after Ryan got over his fit of insanity and climbed back into the boat—looking as calm and stoic as always—that Geoff understood the message Ryan had given him.
I could have killed you if I wanted to. I didn’t.
But I could have.
When Twilight arrived at school that morning, her heart nearly skipped a beat when she saw the face of a wolf snarling at her from the back of a familiar brown leather jacket. It was only when she saw the head of rainbow hair just above it that Twilight realized she was in no danger of being taken hostage again. In her arms, Spike looked up at her and let out a barely audible whine, evidently sensing his master’s momentary distress.
“I can’t help if it looks so good on me that they thought it was mine!” Rainbow Dash said to the others as Twilight approached.
“Hey girls,” Twilight said when she reached them. “What’s the latest drama?”
“Rainbow Dash has elected to keep the leather jacket that belonged to one of those ruffians from the other day!” Rarity exclaimed.
Twilight remembered how herself and each of her friends had been forcibly dressed in their captors’ clothing as part of their diversion to escape. “And the police didn’t ask you to give it to them?” Twilight had given them the ridiculous yellow shirt that she had been wearing after all.
“Nope. Guess they didn’t know it was his,” Rainbow said.
“Don’t you know how irresponsible that is?” Sunset asked, clearly alarmed despite her best efforts to be diplomatic. “What if it’s crucial evidence?”
“W-what if that guy wants his jacket back and…” Fluttershy audibly swallowed. “Comes looking for it?”
Seeing that even Pinkie Pie wasn’t backing her up this time, Rainbow relented, “Fine fine, I’ll give it to the police… after school.”
Seeing that was the best they were going to get, Sunset nodded and Twilight looked around. The group of girls was currently down a member, but Twilight was searching for somebody else.
At the sound of Applejack’s tired voice, Twilight and the rest of her friends turned to see the country girl making her way down the hall towards them, wading through other students like a salmon swimming upstream. She squinted at them through tired eyes, and her friendly smile seemed strained. Twilight was glad to see her, sure enough, but was nevertheless disappointed not to see the person she was hoping for.
“Are you alright, darling?” Rarity asked when Applejack reached them. “No offense, but you look dreadful!”
“I’m alright, Rares. Jus’ didn’t get much sleep is all.”
“Considering everything that happened yesterday, I’m not surprised,” Sunset said with a concerned frown, glancing with some distaste at Rainbow Dash.
Applejack shook her head after sparing the sporty girl’s new wardrobe a glance and said, “T’ain’t jus’ that, sugarcube. Winona’s gone missin’ last night.”
“Oh yeah, I remember her,” Spike said from his place in Twilight’s arms. “She was nice enough, but wouldn’t keep her nose out of my butt.”
Twilight remembered the little border collie in question. Just the other weekend, the girls had organized a little pet playdate at the park on Fluttershy’s suggestion.
“Oh dear, I hope she’s okay,” the chiffon-haired girl in question said nervously.
“We let her out in the back wood like we always do in the evenin’ after she’s had her supper. Usually she comes back on her own after a while, but she didn’t this time,” Applejack said, rubbing her arm anxiously. “Gonna be honest with y’all, I’m real worried.”
“Have you contacted the authorities about it?” Twilight asked. She remembered her brother mentioning something about a rise in missing animal cases lately.
“Of course! But I reckon they have bigger things to worry about in light of yesterday.”
“Well, maybe at lunch we can make some flyers and after school we could put them up around the neighborhood!” Fluttershy exclaimed, giving her friend an encouraging smile.
“Ooh! I can help!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “I still have tons of glitter left over from arts and crafts!”
To demonstrate, Pinkie gave a flourish with her hands and the gathered girls received an impromptu glitter shower.
“Thanks, gals. I appreciate it,” Applejack said, smiling at them as she brushed off the errant sparkles. Her tired eyes suddenly brightened, and all of a sudden the farm girl looked much more awake. “Oh! I almost forgot, I have some good news that came outta yesterday that’s gonna blow y’all’s mind!”
Applejack looked at the others with a sly grin, playing out the moment for all it was worth. After deigning that she’d kept them in suspense for long enough, Applejack spoke up again. “Remember when Coloratura recognized me at the event yesterday?”
“You’re never gonna let us forget that, are you?” Rainbow Dash asked.
But Applejack only kept grinning. “Guess who messaged me on Facebook the other day wanting to meet and catch up?”
Twilight couldn’t help but give an amused snort when five pairs of eyes widened in unison.
“No. Way!” Rainbow exclaimed.
“Surely you’re pulling our legs right now?” Rarity asked.
“HOLY FRICK-FRACK KNICK-KNACK PADDYWHACK, APPLEJACK!” Pinkie yelled, earning a few curious stares from passing students and staff alike.
“Personally, I’m just happy to be catching up with an old friend,” Applejack said, dropping her teasing act for more natural modesty. “But I get why y’all are so excited. Anyone who wants to come along is welcome to, of course.”
“Oh, nonsense! We wouldn’t want to intrude on a reunion between old friends,” Rarity said.
“Yes we do!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, before forcing herself into a much more calm demeanor. “I mean… we’d be happy to come along if you’re inviting us.” She then muttered, “After all, we didn’t get a chance to meet her yesterday….”
The conversation petered out as Twilight’s focus fell away from her friends and she once again found herself scanning the hallways for any sign of a short pudgy boy with orange hair. She then felt a hand on her shoulder.
“No sign of that boy, huh?” Sunset asked, looking at her sympathetically. Twilight smiled appreciatively—it seemed that the fiery-haired girl could always tell what was on her mind.
“No. He wasn’t on the bus this morning,” Twilight sighed. “What if he knows that we know? What if he’s avoiding me?”
For some reason, the thought hurt more than Twilight could rationalize. She wanted answers from him, sure enough, but the thought of Dusky Darneil actively avoiding her made Twilight’s throat close up and her heart sink in her chest. Perhaps a part of it was that Dusky’s desire for friendship with her seemed genuine, regardless of whether or not he was just trying to spy on her.
Seeing the vulnerable look on Twilight’s face, Sunset pulled her into a hug. “Hey, he’ll turn up eventually, okay? If anything, he’ll have to show up to class with us at some point.”
Any further conversation was halted by the sound of the ringing bell signifying the start of classes. After saying their goodbyes, the group of girls split up to go to their respective homerooms. As Twilight took her seat in Cheerilee’s science class next to Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy (the latter reaching over to scratch Spike’s ears affectionately), she reached into her bag to pull out her books and found herself grasping a familiar shiny yellow object. Twilight studied the tiny tower forlornly, wondering how such a small object could bring her so much distress. The final class bell rang, and there was still no sign of the tower’s elusive owner.
Ms. Cheerilee addressed the gathered students. “Alright everyone, today we’ll be continuing the lab experiment we started with the other day, so if you could all find your lab partners….”
Twilight looked up at the sound of the door opening, and found that Sunset’s earlier words to her were more right than she thought. There was Dusky, the orange-haired boy staggering into class rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Twilight couldn’t stop the heated glare from coming over her face as she realized Dusky hadn’t been avoiding her: He’d merely overslept.
Dusky looked up and for a moment the two of them locked eyes. In that moment, more than a dozen unspoken words were exchanged between the two of them, and Dusky’s sleepy face shifted to one of recognition, then terror. Twilight only realized that she was giving him a death glare while holding his secret thumbdrive in her hands at the moment Dusky turned and fled the classroom.
Well, if he didn’t know I was on to him before, he definitely knows now, Twilight thought as she raised her hand.
“Yes, Ms. Sparkle?” Ms. Cheerilee asked.
“Gotta go to the bathroom may I be excused?!” Twilight blurted out all at once, impatiently dancing in her seat.
Based on what Twilight said, Cheerilee mistook the reason for her urgency and wasted no time in excusing her. Twilight bolted out of her seat and ran after Dusky. As she left the classroom, Twilight heard Rainbow Dash mutter to Fluttershy, “Eesh, what do you think she drank this morning?”
Twilight ignored her as she stepped out into the hall. She quickly looked around and barely caught a glimpse of someone turning a corner and ran after them. When she made it around the corner, she spotted the back of Dusky’s head disappear out the front door to the school. Twilight sighed—she was already getting winded. She could have just given up and gone back to class—in fact, it was probably what she should have done.
But Twilight had spent the whole morning and the previous afternoon obsessing over this. Wondering who or what her supposed friend Dusky Darneil really was. And considering the speed with which he was now running away, Twilight doubted very much she’d ever get another chance to confront him about it. So she ran down the hall and out the door after him.
As the second bell rang (indicating that Period 1 classes had now begun), a group of three boys were hanging out on a small hill amongst a few trees by the edge of the school’s property. Known among the Canterlot High students as “the Grassy Knoll” (or just “the Knoll” for short), it was the prime hangout spot for the smokers and tokers of CHS, being just tucked away enough to be out of sight of the school faculty.
Two of the boys were indulging in some of the fine herb they had obtained the other day, but one of them was not. Curly Winds preferred to keep a clear head on days he had football practice. Instead, the blue-haired jock was merely taking drags of a cigarette and scowling at nothing in particular. In truth, Curly was not in a good mood. Naturally, his father had gotten a call from the school yesterday about the brief fight (if you could even call it that) Curly had gotten into with that new kid. Curly had gotten an earful when he’d returned home.
“I didn’t spend four years in the army fighting for God’s America to raise a no good piece of shit son who picks fights at school!” his father had roared as he held him by the collar and shook him. Curly hadn’t needed to smell the whiskey on his breath to know his father had been drinking—it was easy to tell whenever he started talking about the army and “God’s America.”
Naturally, Curly was grounded harder than a plane without wings. This in turn meant that his plans to go to his girlfriend Trixie’s place so the two of them could take advantage of her parents’ absence for the night were moot—Curly knew he would get more than just an earful of words if he disobeyed his father. Now, not only had he missed out on what would have been a night of fun (Trixie had mentioned she even bought special intimates for the occasion), he had a girlfriend who was less than happy with him.
Curly’s sour mood didn’t go unnoticed by his friends. Laces Out didn’t notice much usually—the large linebacker was slower to pick up on things than most, probably due to smoking a gram of weed every day since middle school—but even he knew to keep his mouth shut after Curly’s first glare. Calf “Crazylegs” Burns was better at acting cool around Curly, but he was clearly being careful not to say anything that might set him off.
“Guess we should get going to class soon, huh Curly?” Crazylegs said, finishing off the joint Laces Out passed him.
“In a minute,” Curly said, taking another drag. He intended to smoke this cig down to the butt. “Besides, it’s not like we’re gonna miss much in Mr. Flask’s class.”
Curly turned his gaze to the sidewalk just in time to catch a glimpse of a pudgy orange-haired boy running down the street as fast as his sandals could carry him. A hateful grin spread across Curly’s face at the sight of him.
“Well well, if it isn’t Carrot Top….” Curly turned to his friends. “Remember that kid I told you was talking shit to my girlfriend the other day?”
Laces and Crazylegs followed Curly’s gaze and managed to catch sight of Dusky Darneil round a corner and disappear.
“Huh. Where do you think he’s off to in such a hurry?” Crazylegs asked.
“Maybe he’s on a morning run?” Laces suggested.
“C’mon dude, does he look like the kind of kid who exercises regularly?”
Both Laces and Crazylegs shared a good laugh at that, but Curly ”shushed” them as he saw someone else sprinting down the road across from the Knoll.
“Oh shit! It’s her!” Laces dropped his roach and practically dove to the ground. The idiot was still afraid of the girl the school collectively knew as “the Monster.”
“Get up, moron,” Curly said as he watched the girl called Twilight Sparkle sprint by and disappear around the same corner as Dusky.
Seeing the two of them filled Curly with a fresh rage. Both of them had been involved in some way with the fight that got him grounded. Now, all of the pent up anger Curly had been carrying over the past day was combining with the overflow of hormones that—thanks in part to his grounding—had no outlet. Until now.
“C’mon, boys,” Curly said as he started making his way down the Knoll towards the street. “I wanna teach that Dusky freak some manners. Him and that Twilight bitch.”
Laces and Crazylegs exchanged uncertain looks. “But… b-but her powers…” Laces started.
“Are gone!” Curly interrupted. “Remember? That Sunset Shimmer girl did something and now whatever freaky-ass powers the Monster had aren’t around. Now, are you two pussies coming or not?”
Laces and Crazylegs continued to look uncertain, but nevertheless followed Curly down the Knoll and across the street towards where their quarry had run off to. Curly reached into his pocket and felt the small object inside. The end of which he planned would become very closely acquainted with the little red-headed freak.
A vintage Roosevelt pulled up to the curb, and a chorus of car doors opening and shutting sounded as the shady group of characters got out, turning to face the building in front of them. “The Crevice” was a bar that had been open since Canterlot was nothing more than a small harbor town, and had seen better days. A large portion of the right half of the sign had come off over the years, earning the establishment the nickname “The Crev” by those who lived in the neighborhood.
Aside from being a place to get cheap, shitty booze, it was also known in certain circles to be the prime hangout spot of the local gangs. Thus, it had been easy for the Fake AH Crew to organize a meeting at this early hour of the morning when the place was usually closed. Apparently these small time gangs had the owner of the Crev quite thoroughly under their thumb, and the Fake AH Crew were no small time gang.
“Stay here and watch the car, Lil J,” Michael ordered, and the stocky man in the cowboy hat and aviators nodded in affirmation. The rest of the Lads then proceeded into the establishment, Michael keeping a tight grip on the aluminum briefcase in his right hand.
“Team Lads” was the nickname given to the younger guys of the upper echelon of the Crew, and consisted of Michael, Gavin, and Ray. Jeremy was showing lots of promise to become an official Lad himself, but Michael didn’t think he was quite there yet. Then again, Michael wasn’t so sure about the guy they were here to meet, but Geoff was ready to make him a partner if it meant getting their empire back.
“Dan the Man!!!!!” Ray shouted excitedly. If the Puerto Rican was having similar doubts about working with the man, he was doing an excellent job hiding it.
The man in question looked up from a laptop where he was seated in a booth and nodded to the Lads, who made their way over.
“Hey B, what you lookin’ at, B?” Gavin asked, gesturing to the laptop.
“Not much, B. Trying out a local dating app called OkCadance,” Dan replied.
“Get outta town!” Michael exclaimed as he plopped down in the seat across from Dan. “Meet any cute girls?”
Dan rotated the laptop to face him. “See for yourself.”
Gavin and Ray crowded around Michael to get a good look at Dan’s screen.
“Huh. She’s certainly… a girl,” Ray said.
The laptop displayed the image of a girl’s profile with the screen name “MuffinL0ver42”. The profile prominently featured a photo of a nice enough looking girl with messy blonde hair and gold eyes smiling coyly. But something was noticeably… off about her.
“Dan, you must be takin’ the piss, because she’s even more cross-eyed than your last girlfriend!” Gavin exclaimed, looking up from the picture of the girl apparently named “Derpy Hooves” according to her profile to gauge Dan’s response.
“Wot? No, no she’s not,” Dan protested.
“She is!” Gavin said, turning to the other two Lads. “Dan will never admit it, but he is super into cross-eyed girls.”
Ray laughed, “Hahaha, wonder if there’s a fetish site for that?”
“Jeremy probably has a website pun for it or something,” Gavin mused.
Dan’s online girlfriend was alarming to Michael for an entirely different reason. “She looks young, dude. Like… too young, know what I mean?”
“She told me she’s twenty-one,” Dan said. “What am I supposed to do? Ask her to show me her ID? Besides, she’s way too smart to be some random high school kid. We were chatting just the other day and she told me all about how she helped some friends of hers hack into some encrypted harddrive or something.”
“Alright man, but if you get sent to prison for this, don’t expect us to come busting you out! We’re not doing that shit again.”
“Whatever, can we just get to business please and thank you?”
Suddenly remembering the entire reason they were here, Michael forced himself to adopt a more business-like demeanor and presented the aluminum briefcase. Gavin handed him a small key, which he used to open the case and reveal to Dan the incredibly large sum of money inside.
“That’s two-hundred thousand right there, the rest is being wired to your usual account as we speak,” Michael said.
Dan pulled the briefcase full of money closer and gave it a once over. After briefly counting to see that it was all there, the man gave a satisfied nod and closed the case, putting it under the table by his feet.
“Everything seems in order,” Dan said before leaning forward and giving Michael a serious look. “But don’t think I don’t know where you got it from. I saw the little incident at that music store on the Canterlot News last night. I know your handiwork when I see it. If we’re going to be full time partners, I want to make sure I can count on your boss not to do anything reckless that’ll get us all in deep kack, yeah?”
“Don’t worry, B, we’ve got it all handled,” Gavin said. “Now that we’ve sorted this out, we’ll be leaving Canterlot today. If you’re still in, we’ll need you to meet us at the docks at 18:00 tonight.”
“Right, just wanted to make sure now that my arse is on the line too,” Dan said, before reaching for his laptop navigating away from OkCadance with a few clicks. “As a token of goodwill towards our new partnership, I thought I’d bring along a new toy of mine. Feel free to use it in whatever manner you see fit.”
Dan rotated the laptop so it was once again facing all of the Lads. Displayed on the screen was the website for Warstock Cache & Carry, the page currently displaying a product that immediately lit up the faces of the three Lads. Michael imagined that wasn’t all it was capable of lighting up. Not even close.
“Holy shit that’s badass!” Ray exclaimed.
“Could you imagine if we had this during the Prison Job?” Michael asked.
“Would’ve made your part of it more fun, innit?” Gavin said.
“I thought you boys might like it,” Dan said, giving the Lads a grin. “It’s the perfect mix of style and firepower that I know you appreciate.”
Panting, Dusky Darneil leaned against the brick wall of the building, believing himself safe behind the dumpster in the alleyway one block away. The worst possible case scenario had happened. Somehow, another student at the school had found his secret drive. Worse still, it hadn’t just been any student. It had been Twilight Sparkle: the one girl in his young life to show him kindness. His first real friend.
His phone vibrated at that moment, and a quick check confirmed he had received a text from an unknown number.
“On our way to you. Be ready” it said.
Dusky couldn’t help but give a sad laugh. If anything, their timing was perfect. For all he knew his cover was blown. It was just as well he’d be moving on. Still, he wished he could have had more time with the girl that had been his friend.
The phrase “be careful what you wish for” came to Dusky’s mind as he turned to leave the alley and came face to face with a pair of familiar magenta eyes brimming with fury.
“Gah!” Dusky shrieked, stumbling back into side of the dumpster.
Twilight Sparkle was panting even more heavily than he was—clearly the girl didn’t get much exercise—but nevertheless, here she was having left class to chase him down. He could honestly say he never would have expected such a thing from such an academically concerned girl. Of course, he imagined she was concerned about a lot more at the moment.
Twilight held up the golden tower again, putting it inches from Dusky’s face to make sure he could see it.
“Dusky… what is this?!” she asked. “Why do you have a thumb drive with top secret government research on it?!”
“Right, okay… I know this looks bad, but as much as I’d like to, I can’t tell you anything...” Dusky said, but Twilight kept going, her lip quivering.
“I thought you were my friend… I really, really thought y-you were my friend….”
Something wasn’t right. Sure, Dusky hadn’t been entirely honest with Twilight about who he really was, but the look on her face at that moment…. There were tears in her eyes, and her voice was breaking. Dusky couldn’t help but imagine that tiny gold tower as a knife she’d just pulled out of her heart.
“Twilight, I am your friend!” Dusky exclaimed. “I know there’s a lot about myself I haven’t told you, but why are you so upset?”
“Why am I so upset?!” Twilight said, wiping her eyes. “How about the fact you’ve been spying on me?!”
Dusky tilted his head. “Wait… what?”
Twilight gestured to the drive. “It’s all on here. You’ve been studying the magical phenomena at this school for months, haven’t you? What are you? FIB? IAA?”
“When you asked about what happened at the Friendship Games, I thought you really didn’t know.” Twilight just kept going. The proverbial knife had indeed cut her, and she was uncontrollably bleeding words. “But you knew all along, didn’t you? About what I did… what I became. You were only asking because you wanted….”
Desperate to quell the girl’s clear hysteria, Dusky did something more bold than he would have ordinarily considered. He grabbed her by the shoulders, looked her in the eyes and said firmly, “Twilight, slow down, okay? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
That statement managed to silence the hysterical girl, and she stared at Dusky in silent disbelief. Dusky, in turn, took the brief respite to try to make sense of everything she’d been saying.
“Now, why do you think I’m spying on you?” he asked, looking at her with genuine confusion. “Is something about you… on this drive?”
Twilight studied his face for a moment, appearing just as confused as Dusky felt. “Do you mean to tell me you don’t know what’s on it?”
“Yes, I couldn’t get past the encryption!”
After studying him a moment longer, Twilight’s eyes finally fell to the ground. “Why should I believe you? As far as I know, Dusky Darneil isn’t even your real name.”
Her voice sounded so broken that something inside of Dusky broke as well, and against his better judgement, he told her, “It’s Dusky Shawcross.”
Twilight looked back up at him, the look in her eyes urging Dusky to continue. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that. Telling you my real name kinda ruins the point of being in Witness Protection.
“You see, I tipped off the LSPD about a big heist in San Chianski outside of Los Santos. They never made my name public, but some higher up in the department thought it would be prudent to put me and my family in Witness Protection anyway.”
“Why’s that?” Twilight asked.
“Because the Fake AH Crew has enough people in the LSPD that they could have figured out it was me.”
Twilight looked at him, wide-eyed. “So the tip that got Geoff the Boss caught… that was you?”
Dusky nodded, and Twilight took a moment to consider all this new information. “So, what does all that have to do with what’s on this drive?”
Gesturing to the shiny hidden drive in Twilight’s hand, Dusky said, “You’re looking at the take from the very heist Geoff got busted on—the raid on Humane Labs. Apparently some research corporation is willing to pay lots of money for the contents of that drive.”
A dozen questions raced through Twilight’s mind, not the least of which was “Why do you still have it?” It was only as the horror dawned on Twilight when she realized the implications for her if what Dusky said was true that her thoughts were interrupted.
“Hey there, Carrot Top!”
Twilight jumped, the sudden hostility of the new-yet-familiar voice not lessened by her dark thoughts. She and Dusky both turned to see Curly Winds and two other big jocks standing at the mouth of the alleyway.
We’re cornered, Twilight realized with growing dread.
“Oh back off, guys,” Dusky warned, trying but not quite succeeding at sounding brave. “We’re in the middle of something and don’t have time for your bullshit right now!”
“Aw, are you two having a moment?” Curly asked mockingly.
“Do scrawny girls with world-ending powers do it for you, Carrot Top?” the boy to Curly’s right asked. The other, much bigger boy to Curly’s left just stood there, quietly cracking his knuckles.
To make his point, the boy jabbed Twilight with a finger, and the irate girl smacked it away. The group of boys all “oohed” and chuckled darkly.
“Careful, Crazylegs. She might zap you to another dimension or something!” the larger boy to Curly’s left exclaimed.
“Shut up,” Twilight said icily, having just about had it with being antagonized over the “Midnight Sparkle incident”.
“Oh yeah? Why don’t you make us, Monster girl?” the boy “Crazylegs” said, nudging her again. “C’mon, why don’t ya unleash the magic again? Do it, I dare ya! Do it!”
For a brief moment Twilight heard another voice not belonging to any of the boys present. It was dark and deeply familiar, and seemed to come from within herself.
But before she could do anything else, Crazylegs was shoved back by Dusky.
“Just fuck off, guys!” he shouted. “Seriously, what the hell are you even talking about? ‘Unleash the magic?’ What does that even mean?”
“You actually don’t know?” Curly asked, looking genuinely surprised. “You’ve been hanging out with this monster for however long and you have no idea?”
“She turned into some kinda demon and almost tore apart the very fabric of reality!” the bigger boy said, his well-spoken explanation surprising Twilight, Dusky, and even Curly and Crazylegs.
“Um… I still don’t understand, is that a metaphor for something?” Dusky asked. “How could she turn into a literal demon? That's crazy!”
“And it’s true,” Twilight said at barely a whisper, but all eyes nevertheless turned to her. With a defeated sigh, Twilight continued. “I was studying a strange energy force that turned out to be actual magic, and it kinda… got out of my control. I nearly destroyed the world with it… and what’s more, apparently that very moment was recorded on that thumbdrive of yours. You can see for yourself if you want.”
Twilight tried to keep it together as Dusky looked at her with utter confusion and, more importantly, newfound trepidation. The look on his face was too similar to those of her peers on that fateful night.
“To be honest, I don’t really give a shit about that anymore,” Curly said, reminding the two that they were still in for a world of hurt. “What I do care about is that you disrespected my girlfriend. And when you disrespect my girl you disrespect me!”
With her secret now out to Dusky, Twilight found she no longer wanted to hide. No longer wanted to roll over and let everyone step all over her. So with nothing short of pure venom, she glared at Curly and said, “I hate to break it to you, but your girlfriend’s a bitch!”
Twilight’s cheek suddenly exploded in pain as the back of Curly’s hand swiftly swept across it. That was when Dusky had his own moment of deciding he’d had enough from them. With an angry cry, he flew at Curly with fists flying. Taken completely by surprise, Curly tried to raise his hands to block the flurry of punches but Dusky was wild and surprisingly precise. The way he circumvented Curly’s defenses and pushed him back with punch after punch made Twilight realize: He had been in fights before.
For one brief moment Twilight thought they might actually get out of this relatively unscathed, but she had forgotten all about the other two boys... and apparently, so had Dusky. The bigger boy grabbed Dusky and his last punch swung wide, missing Curly completely. Dusky then cried out in pain as the big boy twisted his arm behind his back.
“Stop it! Let him go!” Twilight shouted, leaping into action and attacking the bigger boy with her own punches. Unfortunately, Twilight weighed 125 pounds soaking wet, and her attacks glanced harmlessly off of the large football player until Crazylegs came over, grabbed her and threw her to the ground in a painful heap.
Twilight looked up to see that Curly had recovered from Dusky’s assault with little more than a bloodied nose, and was so angry he looked red in the face. Curly punched Dusky in the stomach a few times in a fit of anger. Dusky tried to crumple over in pain, but the bigger boy continued to hold him up.
“Looks like you need to be taught a little lesson about not disrespecting me, huh Carrot Top?” Curly said after catching his breath. Then to Twilight’s horror, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object Twilight realized was a switchblade.
“Hold him still,” Curly told his bigger friend. “I’m gonna write a little message on him so he won’t forget!”
Crazylegs and the boy holding Dusky exchanged an uncertain look—It seemed neither of them were expecting things to go so far.
“I said hold him!” Curly shouted, lifting Dusky’s shirt to expose his soft round belly.
Regardless of whether Curly’s friends wanted to go through with it, it seemed they weren’t going to disobey him.
Then the strangest thing happened: The sound of the most unusual car horn Twilight had ever heard filled the air around them. It sounded like the first several notes of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Just like that the horrible scene unfolding in front of her froze, becoming a twisted tableau. Then a car pulled up along the sidewalk and a loud male voice called out.
Twilight’s eyes widened and her heart stopped when she looked at the vintage old car to see a familiar man with fiery red hair leaning out the passenger side window.
“Michael?” Dusky asked, and Twilight realized all at once how he had been able to tip the police off about the Fake AH Crew’s heist. “W-what are you doing here?”
“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” Michael said, “Everybody thinks you’re dead!”
“Well, I’m clearly alive.” Dusky—or “Kerry” as the man Michael had called him—looked over at Curly, who was still holding the knife as he stared at the new arrivals with significant confusion. “For now, anyway….”
“Well shit man, get on over here. We’ve got a lot to catch up on!”
Curly, who seemed to be fighting an internal battle with the decision of whether or not to say something, finally came to a decision that he would later that day come to regret deeply.
“Hey, I don’t know who you assholes are but you’d better fuck off before somebody other than Carrot Top here gets hurt!”
Michael stared at Curly in shock for a couple of seconds: Not intimidated shock, but genuine surprise.
Twilight could see the angry look on Curly’s face change to one of worry as a chorus of furious “What”s came from the car and suddenly the sounds of car doors opening sounded as Michael and three more men stepped out. Twilight recognized the blue-haired British one—Gavin—and the man in the tuxedo t-shirt—Ray, but she didn’t know who the shorter man with the white cowboy hat dressed in purple and orange was.
Being football jockeys, Curly and his friends were pretty big as far as high schoolers went. But they were still only three kids now face to face with four adults. Michael and the members of his crew all pulled out an assortment of weapons: A crowbar, a baseball bat, a golf club and—oddly enough—a bright pink flare gun.
“The fuck you just say to me, son?” Michael asked, his Jersey Temper boiling beneath the surface.
Curly’s mouth opened and closed like a drowning fish for a few seconds before he croaked forth, “Fuck… off?”
Evidently it was the wrong answer, as both of Curly’s friends took off running down the sidewalk at speeds neither of them had run in all their years playing high school football.
“Ooh I’m gonna go mental with a golf club!” Gavin exclaimed as the short man beside him tapped his baseball bat into his open palm.
“Get him! Fuck him up!” Michael shouted, and that was all Curly needed to hear before he too took off running.
"Hap hap HAP!" the short man shouted as he, Gavin and Ray took off after him, ready to put their baseball bat, golf club and flare gun to good use.
“NICE FOOTBALL JERSEY, LOSER! WE GET IT: YOU’RE STRAIGHT!” Ray shouted as they ran after him.
“Fuckin’ bustas…” Michael said as he watched them disappear around a corner, putting his crowbar away.
Without thinking, Twilight went to Dusky on her hands and knees to make sure he was okay as soon as they were gone, not caring that Michael was watching.
“You get a girlfriend while you were here, Kerry?” Michael asked.
Dusky… or Kerry’s face turned beet red. “What? No… Twilight’s… a friend.”
“Twilight, huh?” Michael said, studying her closely. Twilight wilted under his gaze: The last time they met, Michael had been one of the criminals holding her hostage. That and she may have tried to insult him with a math joke.
The man’s arm shot towards her and Twilight flinched, shutting her eyes… but no blow came. “Nice to meet you, Twilight. You can call me Michael!”
Opening her eyes, Twilight saw that he had only extended his hand to shake. Does he... not remember me?
“N-nice to meet you, heh heh…” Twilight laughed nervously as she shook his hand, and gave a startled yelp as he pulled her to her feet.
“Well, any friend of Kerry’s is a friend of mine,” Michael said amicably, patting her roughly on the shoulder. “Now, why don’t you both come along with me? The rest of the Lads have some… business to resolve with those other kids, so I could use the company!”
“Oh, I’d love to Michael, but Twilight and I should really get to class,” Kerry said.
At this Michael said, “Pfft, what’s school gonna teach you that you can’t learn from us?” Michael put an arm around him, “Besides, you and I have some things to talk about, Kerry my man!” Twilight tried not to stiffen as Michael then put his other arm around her. “And I’d hate to exclude your friend here….”
A cold pit of fear entered Twilight as she and Kerry were led to the car. The golden tower that hid a thumb drive was still in her hand, and it was a minor miracle that Michael hadn’t noticed it yet. She was thankful that they were no longer at the mercy of Curly and his friends, but Twilight couldn’t shake the feeling that she and Kerry had been rescued from the frying pan only to end up in the open flame.
Heart pounding in her chest, Twilight tried to keep cool as she sat on the fine leather seat in the back of the Roosevelt. In the driver’s seat, Michael chatted up a storm as he drove them through the streets of Canterlot.
“...and one of them, he didn’t even have a body!”
Twilight only half-listened to the man’s unusual story about an old neighbor. Unconsciously, she reached up to her chest and felt the slight bulge where she had hidden the thumb drive. It was a minor miracle that Michael hadn’t noticed it before she had shoved it down her shirt, where (she hoped) nobody would think to check. Dusky’s words repeated themselves over and over again in her mind, drowning out whatever ridiculous story Michael was telling.
Apparently some research corporation is willing to pay lots of money for the contents of that drive.
It was all too simple for Twilight to imagine the sequence of events that would entail if Michael or his associates were to discover that drive. They would give it to their mysterious employer, who would then scour its contents and learn all about her existence. And if this corporation, whoever they were, was ruthless enough to hire a notorious criminal organization like the Fake AH Crew to steal from their competition, Twilight was very afraid of what they might do if they learned about her.
Of course, even a worst case scenario was still a problem for the distant future, and one Twilight could conceivably prepare for. The worst case scenario for the boy sitting beside her, however, had much more immediate and much more dire consequences. Dusky—or Kerry when he rolled with the Fake AH Crew—looked pale as he gazed out the window at the passing traffic. If the Crew found out about his role in their boss’ capture, his end might come much more quickly. If Twilight was afraid what would happen to her, she couldn’t even imagine how her friend must have been feeling at that moment.
So with her best reassuring smile, Twilight put her hand on his. Despite everything he must have been feeling at that moment, he returned her smile and for a moment Twilight felt united in their purpose. Each of their fates relied on the Fake AH Crew’s continued ignorance of their respective secrets.
“Hold on, boys and girls. We gotta make us a stop,” Michael said as he pulled the vintage car into a grocery store parking lot.
Waiting for them by the entrance was a familiar brunette woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. She stood with a shopping cart filled with plastic bags, each one filled with various food and snacks.
“C’mon, let’s give Jack a hand with the groceries,” Michael said as he pulled over beside the woman in question.
And so Twilight and Dusky got out of the car with Michael and went around towards Jack, who expressed surprise and genuine joy to see Dusky.
“How’ve you been, Kerry?” she asked with a smile.
“Been alright,” Dusky answered as he hefted a bag full of cartons of milk into the trunk.
“You playing anymore of the, uh… what’re the kids playing? The Pokemans?”
Twilight just looked around the parking lot. A fairly large amount of people were walking in and out of the store, but none of them paid her or the others any mind. To them, they just looked like a mother and father with their two teenage kids. Twilight remembered what she had always been taught as a child: If you’re ever kidnapped in public, scream at the top of your lungs. Her heart raced as she realized that might be her best chance to get out of this, but the part of her brain wired for social interaction proved to be quite an obstacle. She hated making a scene and generally being the center of attention in the best of times.
Feeling a hand on her arm, Twilight turned to see Dusky giving her an urgent look. He must have guessed what she was thinking, as he shook his head and mouthed don’t.
When they were finished loading the groceries and put the shopping cart back, the four of them got back into the car, with Jack in the passenger seat beside Michael. As they started to pull out of the parking lot, Twilight heard the tell-tale vrrm vrrm of a smartphone vibrating, and Michael looked down at his device and frowned.
“Goddammit,” he swore as he set his phone down in the cupholder. “We have to go pick up Ryan.”
“Oh boy, what did he do this time?” Jack asked, knowing they would find out one way or another soon enough.
Twilight just tried to remember which one of them was Ryan again. Apparently Dusky remembered, as he took a trembling breath and closed his eyes.
Several minutes later, Twilight remembered as well when they pulled up to a public park in a relatively quiet neighborhood. The sight of innocent civilians running away in terror was what sparked the first embers of familiarity in Twilight. Then she saw the rubble of three cars piled up next to the swing sets, a blazing inferno reaching for the heavens. Standing silhouetted by the flames was a man in a black and blue leather jacket wearing a gray skull mask, a few empty red cans of gasoline at his feet. Absolutely shredding on air guitar, the man was lost in his own world and didn’t notice the arrival of the others until Michael honked the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy horn.
What could only be described as “the scent of a garage” filled Twilight’s nostrils as the man opened the passenger side door beside her, forcing her to move over and cozy up beside Dusky.
“Jesus, what the hell happened, Ryan?!” Michael asked, dumbfounded as they drove off, the sound of sirens filling the distance.
Ryan was quiet for a very long time, his expression unreadable behind his mask before he finally answered, “They looked at me funny.”
“Well of course they looked at you funny, you were driving around in a goddamn skull mask!” Jack exclaimed as Michael just sighed and shook his head. Twilight got the feeling that if he weren’t driving, his palm would be covering his face.
“I wasn’t wearing the skull mask then!” Ryan protested as he took the controversial facewear off, revealing black, white and red warpaint.
Twilight could feel the awkward beat that took place as if it were a physical presence, as the whole car (herself included) stared at the man dumbfounded. The topic was swiftly dropped after that, with the car suddenly filled with silence and the stench of gasoline. Wordlessly, Michael opened all four of the windows, and the awkward silence was replaced with wind as the vintage car aired out.
Slowly, Ryan glanced over to Twilight and Dusky, a perplexed expression on his painted face. “Huh. Don’t remember killing you…” Ryan said, looking at Dusky.
Dusky tilted his head in some confusion before answering, “Well, that might be because you didn’t. Hence why I’m here. Alive.”
“Wait, you’re real?” Ryan asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “I thought you were another manifestation of my psyche come to torment me over my past sins.” The man then looked at Twilight and scratched his chin with a puzzled expression. “Now, you… you look familiar….”
Swallowing nervously, Twilight’s mind raced as fast as her heart. Oh no, he recognizes me from yesterday’s heist! What if they decide they need to kill me to tie up loose ends? Isn't that what they always do in the movies?
“You’ll have to remind me, because I honestly don’t remember…” Ryan continued, “how did I kill you again?”
It took a lot for Twilight to keep herself from breathing a sigh of relief when she realized what was really happening.
“Oh, I’m real too Mr. Ryan, sir.” She then gave him what she hoped was an easy smile, but the sweat trickling down her forehead might have given her away.
“Oh. Good for you.” Seeming satisfied, Ryan turned to look out the window with a dreamy smile and eyes that were miles away. Twilight could only look at him and wonder just what was going on in his head.
The five of them drove along for another ten minutes or so, Michael taking them out of Canterlot proper. They all talked about a real random assortment of topics, from stories of their previous heists, to absurd theoretical science (which Twilight actually contributed a lot to, finding she was saying ‘to clarify…’ a lot), to Ryan’s former career as a male model. Eventually, they came up on some relatively thick traffic on the freeway and Jack looked over at Michael.
“Hey Michael, you wanna do the shortcut?” she asked.
“Yee let’s do it!” Michael said.
Then, as calmly as if he were taking a right at a stop sign in a quiet neighborhood, Michael turned the car ninety degrees and cut across the rest of the freeway, the other cars honking their horns as they either slammed on their brakes or swerved around them. Twilight frantically reached across Dusky and grabbed the door handle, shaking as she held on for dear life. The car lurched violently as it ran over a ditch, and suddenly they were no longer on the road anymore.
Twilight could only imagine how insane the sight of a prohibition-era car speeding up the side of a grassy hill weaving between trees must have looked to the rest of traffic, but at the moment she was too busy white-knuckling the handle to care. Her stomach did flips and flops as they reached the top of the hill and went sailing over it like a stunt jump, then did the same thing at the next hill. Twilight couldn’t keep in the terrified shriek as they achieved far greater hang time on the second jump.
“Jeez kid, you’re really freakin’ out back there,” Michael said calmly as he continued to drive along.
Twilight then realized that everyone else in the car was completely unconcerned, continuing their conversation about Ryan dressed as a gnome without a care in the world. Even Dusky, who she was practically wrapped around, was the very picture of calm and collected, as if this was nothing but a Sunday drive to him. And of course it was; he was used to rolling with these people after all. He did, however, recognize Twilight’s clear discomfort and gently rubbed her back.
After another thoroughly terrifying jump, the car landed with its back end on top of a boulder sticking far in the air, its front end smashed against a tree.
“Oops, wedged it. Hold on,” Michael said with the same calmness he had displayed throughout the nightmarish drive. He then changed gears and started backing the car further up, tilting it more and more vertically before switching back to Drive and turning the wheel as far to the left as he could. “Tease it… tease it…” he muttered in a mock British accent that Twilight thought might have been an imitation of Gavin, but sounded more like the Penguin from that old Batman movie.
Finally, with a few more maneuvers and “tease it”s, Michael managed to un-wedge them and continued driving like nothing was wrong until the terrain finally evened out. Twilight didn’t let go of the door until a few minutes after that.
She then felt her phone vibrate, and Twilight didn’t need to look at it to know it was her friends back at CHS wondering just where the hell she was. Were it not for the lingering gaze of Ryan beside her, she would have replied to reassure them that she was alive (against all odds). Seeing another hill on the horizon, she wasn’t sure how much longer things would stay that way.
Canterlot High seemed significantly busier than normal when the bell rang for lunch period, but Sunset Shimmer didn’t particularly care at that moment. Instead, she merely pulled out her phone and looked at it for what must have been the dozenth time. Her own message “Where are you? You ok?” looked back at her on the screen, along with the words “Delivered at 10:31am”
It was now about ten past noon.
“You’re sure Twilight didn’t say anything else before she left Ms. Cheerilee’s class?” Sunset asked.
“For the zillionth time, yes!” a very exasperated Rainbow Dash exclaimed, adjusting her too big brown leather jacket with the effigy of a wolf on the back. “All she said was she had to go to the bathroom really bad.”
Naturally, the girls’ bathroom had been the first place Sunset had checked when lunch period started, worried that Twilight had retreated there due to more harassment from Trixie and her friends, but had no luck. The sound of a small whine drew Sunset’s attention to Fluttershy, or more specifically, the small dog she held in her arms.
“It’s okay, Spike. I know you’re worried about her, but I know Twilight will turn up!” Fluttershy said, holding the pup a little bit tighter to her chest.
As the group of six girls continued walking along, Sunset kept thinking about her interactions with Twilight that morning, hoping to find some clue as to her whereabouts. She had been really concerned with finding Dusky; that boy who seemed to know more than he should. Sunset hadn’t seen him all day either. Maybe Twilight pulled him aside for a talk? But there was no way that explanation alone made sense. She’d been unaccounted for since the start of first period.
“What in Sam Hill is goin’ on here?” Applejack asked, rousing Sunset from her thoughts.
She looked up to find that they’d made it to the front of the school, where an especially large congregation of students were gathered around a single spot. Some instinct Sunset couldn’t explain drove her to move forward, leaving her friends and pushing through the crowd of curious onlookers until she reached its core. There she saw Trixie Lulamoon looking more frantic and afraid than she’d ever seen her. The source of her distress was leaning on her for support.
“Give us some space, you vultures!” Trixie exclaimed. “He needs to go to the nurse’s office now!”
Leaning with one arm over Trixie’s shoulder was none other than Curly Winds, looking like he’d just been chewed up and spit out by a dragon. Blood and bruises covered his body, one eye was swollen shut, his nose was bent unnaturally, and his clothes were tatters. It looked like his shirt had been burned, and he was currently wearing his pants over his head like a weird head scarf.
Sunset knew Curly was an unpleasant brute who hadn’t exactly been subtle about his intentions to get in her pants before he started dating Trixie, herself being not much better. Sunset had half a mind to turn around and continue towards the cafeteria with her friends. But she had to remind herself that she was New Sunset.
So without saying a word, she got on the other side of Curly and put his other arm over her shoulder. When Trixie noticed she wasn't holding nearly as much of her boyfriend’s weight, she looked over at Sunset and scowled when she saw her. Sunset was too busy dispersing the crowd with a warning glare to notice.
“We didn’t ask for your help, Shimmer!” Trixie spat. “This is your fault to begin with!”
“What are you talking about?” Sunset tilted her head, confused. “What happened to him?”
“As if you don’t know! Curly was just talking to your monster friend and that red-haired creep when you and your friends jumped him!”
So he’d seen Twilight! Sunset thought, some hope returning that she might find her. Still, Trixie’s words were unsettling. Sunset continued helping Trixie carry the dead-on-his-feet Curly towards Nurse Redheart’s office (one of his legs was definitely broken), but nevertheless gave the girl a stern look.
“Trixie, my friends and I were in classes all morning. There are plenty of students and teachers who can corroborate that fact, so how about you think more carefully before launching wild accusations.”
Trixie merely “hmphed” and said, “The rest of this stupid school may believe your whole ‘nice girl’ act, but Trixie is not so foolish! Curly told me that you and your friends….”
Curly chose that moment to spit out a good sized wad of blood, cutting Trixie off before looking directly at Sunset. “I said friends of theirs jumped us. I never said anything about Sunset’s friends.”
Whatever Trixie planned to say next died on her tongue as Curly continued, his voice muffled by his swollen mouth. “If anything, it seemed more like they were Dusky’s friends than Twilight’s.”
Sunset started putting pieces together in her head immediately. If their suspicions about Dusky were true….
“Do you have any idea who they were?” Sunset asked him.
Curly tried to shrug, but gave up with a wince of pain. “Don’t know, never seen them before. They just rolled up in a weird old car and started beating the hell out of me and my boys. We weren’t even doing nothing!”
Sunset was positive Curly wasn’t telling her the whole truth, but decided it didn’t matter at the moment. “Think you could describe them?”
Curly seemed momentarily puzzled that Sunset was giving him the full interrogation, but her reputation preceded her, so he continued talking.
“There was an angry Jersey one, a British one, a brown one, and a short one who kept shouting ‘hap hap hap!’”
Something about those descriptions seemed familiar, but Sunset couldn’t put her finger on it. She should have figured any description Curly could have given wouldn’t have helped, so she instead opted for the final and most important question as she and Trixie brought him into Nurse Redheart’s office.
“And what about Dusky and Twilight? Where are they now?”
Now seated, Curly was able to manage a shrug. “I’unno. If they aren’t back here, they’re probably still with those guys.”
A pit of dread formed in Sunset’s gut. She didn’t know for sure that Twilight was in any danger, but she nevertheless had a bad feeling. Sunset didn’t have much time to dwell on these thoughts, as Nurse Redheart came out and immediately began checking on Curly, asking Trixie and Sunset both as many questions as Sunset herself had just asked Curly.
“Go to the principal’s office and get Ms. Celestia down here quick!” Redheart had said when she was finished, going back to administering aid to Curly. “We’ll probably need to get the police involved.”
Sunset didn’t miss the way Curly swallowed nervously.
“We might not even need the police for this,” Trixie said after the both of them were out of Nurse Redheart’s office. “You’ve already interrogated him like a criminal!”
Sunset’s friends were all waiting in the hall, their expressions equally curious and worried.
“If there’s a possibility Twilight is in danger, I need as much information as I can get,” Sunset said, explaining her motivations to Trixie and updating her friends on the situation at the same time.
“In danger?!” Rarity exclaimed, and Sunset brought them all up to speed.
“That’s why I need to know where this all happened,” Sunset said, turning to face the upset looking girl beside her. “Trixie, did Curly mention anything about where they all were when he was attacked?”
The girl was silent for a long time, and Sunset was about to press further when Trixie answered with a huff. “Why should I tell you? This incident with my boyfriend is just the latest that monster is responsible for, even if it was indirectly this time.”
Sunset tried not to grind her teeth. Tried to keep a cool countenance. But with everything that has been happening, she found herself unable to contain the sheer rage she felt. “Trixie, you can hate me all you want. I get it. I did horrible things to you to become the queen bee here. You can hate me until you’re in your grave for all I care! But stop with this petty bullshit grudge against Twilight! She already feels bad enough about the mistakes she’s made without you antagonizing her over them, and you weren’t even affected any more personally by them than the dozens of others that were also there that night!
“So if you could please build a bridge, get over yourself and answer my fucking question, that would REALLY BE GREAT FOR BOTH OF US!”
Sunset suddenly found herself short on breath, and hadn’t realized she had backed Trixie against the wall until she’d taken a few moments to catch it.
Trixie had to shake her head clear of the cobwebs before answering stiffly, “T-the alleyway behind the pizza place around the corner on John Street.”
“Thank you,” Sunset said much more amicably before turning to her friends. “I’m going to go look for her.”
“Not alone you’re not!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.
“You’re right, I’m not going alone,” Sunset said, looking over at the pup in Fluttershy’s arms. “Spike? I may need to use your nose.”
At this, the little dog’s tail started wagging. “Oh, I can track her down. It’ll be just like that time at the book fair when she got separated from the family because she thought she saw a limited edition Daring Do protractor set!”
“Pfft… she would,” Rainbow snickered.
Pulling a set of keys out of her jacket pocket, Sunset gave her friends an apologetic look and said, “Sorry girls, but as much as I’d like to have you along, time may be of the essence and I don’t exactly have a spare motorcycle helmet.”
The others all looked disappointed (except for Pinkie Pie. She just looked hungry), but they gave her understanding nods.
“Jus’ be careful, sugarcube,” Applejack warned.
“Indeed. If you think there’s going to be trouble, just stay out of it and call us,” Rarity said.
“Or better yet, the police,” Fluttershy added quietly.
“Have fun saving Twilight from bad guys!” Pinkie exclaimed. “And always remember: If your chocolate chip cookies don’t taste like chocolate chip cookies, they’re not yours!”
The others gave her askew glances.
“I really want chocolate chip cookies!”
“WhereEEEEEEEEEEEEVER YOU AAAAAAAAAARE...!”
There were few moments in life where Twilight had to stop and seriously consider just how she got there. Sitting in a hot tub wearing a borrowed one-piece bathing suit with Dusky and a bunch of adults on the deck of a luxury yacht while two of them recreated a scene from Titanic on the bow in front of them to the tune of discordant singing was one such occasion.
“I’m flying, Jack!” exclaimed—ironically—Jack, spreading her arms like the character Rose Petal from the film. She wore a two-piece bikini and had gotten out of the tub to recreate this moment.
Playing the part of Jack Hammer for the little impromptu reenactment was none other than Gavin, who still wore his blue shirt and jeans. He and the other Lads (that was what they seemed to call the younger members of the crew) had arrived at the yacht shortly after Twilight and the others, and reassured her and Dusky that ‘those bustas’ won’t bother them anymore. Twilight knew ‘those bustas’ were Curly and his friends, and she hoped the Lads hadn’t hurt him too badly. Still, Twilight had to privately admit it felt pretty good to know the rowdy group of men and women had her back. It was almost enough to make her forget the hidden thumb drive she still had.
The Titanic moment was abruptly interrupted when Ray—in the tub next to Dusky—fired a flare gun directly at the reenactors. The bright red flare bounced off Gavin harmlessly enough, but his blue shirt started to burn a little.
“AAAAAAAAAGH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” Gavin shrieked in a shrill register that would have put Rarity to shame.
It was only a tiny flame, but the panicked young Brit still ran full tilt towards the tub, performing an awkward flop face-first into the middle of it. Twilight’s amused giggles were cut off by the splash of water that followed, and then turned to full blown laughter when Gavin emerged sans his shirt and pants.
“Dude, you got lit up!” Michael exclaimed. He and Ryan sat in the tub opposite to Twilight and Dusky. Michael had a few tattoos of what appeared to be video game characters on his arms, and Ryan had a truly impressive amount of chest hair shaved in the shape of—unsurprisingly—a skull.
Waving away the residual smoke from the incident, Dusky quipped, “All this smoke, it’s like four-nineteen up in here, right boys?” which elicited a bark of laughter from Ray. It still amazed Twilight how easy his rapport with the Fake AH Crew was. They definitely had known each other for a while, which made Twilight wonder why Dusky had sold them out in the first place.
The steady thrum of helicopter rotors sounded above the voices and laughter, growing quickly louder.
“Oh, is that Geoff?” Jack asked as she got back into the water.
Her question was answered moments later when the sound of the helicopter became deafening. The chopper now hovered directly above the hot tub, the wind from its spinning rotors causing the water to ripple fiercely.
“HEADS UP!” an older man’s voice shouted over the noise, and Twilight looked up just in time to see a man in swim trunks leap out of the helicopter.
With another shriek, Gavin dove out of the way as Geoff performed a perfectly executed cannonball in the center of the hot tub. The others laughed and cheered, and Twilight gave him a polite round of applause when he surfaced. She noticed right away that the man had many times more tattoos than even Michael, running all the way up his arms like sleeves. Geoff moved to sit beside Dusky, and did a brief double take when he noticed Twilight.
“Wait… who are you?”
Giving him her best and totally not nervous smile, Twilight said, “Twilight Sparkle, sir. I’m friends with Dusky.”
“You mean Kerry?”
Twilight nodded, and Geoff seemed ready to leave it at that, but then he looked at her more closely. “Wait a minute… I remember you!”
Twilight gulped. Of course he does. She had gotten to know him a little bit during their heist yesterday. He talked a bit about his daughter, for some reason opening up to Twilight in a way she wasn’t sure he ever had with any of his crew.
“Yeah,” Geoff continued, nodding confidently. “You’re the girl who doesn’t know who Countess Coloratura is!”
Twilight blinked. That wasn’t how she was expecting him to remember her. Geoff just laughed and reached into the pocket of his swim trunks.
“That’s okay though, we can remedy that right now!” Geoff pulled out a smartphone and a pair of headphones.
I hope those are waterproof, Twilight thought as the man gave her the headphones. Evidently they were, as Geoff pulled up the song without any problems and Twilight found herself listening to heavily synthesized beats and the melodic voice of a young woman. She had to admit, it had a good rhythm, and Twilight found her head moving along with the beat.
“Pretty good, right?” Geoff asked.
“Yeah, I like it,” Twilight said, smiling sincerely.
Geoff then placed his phone in her hands. “Well, why don’t you hold onto that for a little bit? I’ve got her whole discography on there!”
“Thanks!” Twilight exclaimed, and with a nod, Geoff turned to talk to Dusky, leaving her to listen to the music flowing through the earbuds.
It was strange, but Twilight felt herself actually quite at ease with the rowdy group of criminals. Upon learning she was friends with Dusky—or Kerry—all of them had accepted her without question. It was far more than what she had at Canterlot High, where Twilight felt like an outsider even among her friends there. The Fake AH Crew had never seen her at her lowest like Sunset and the others had, and while Twilight knew they didn’t resent her for what she’d done… she still didn’t feel like she was really a part of the group.
That realization suddenly made her feel sick. How could she be feeling that way after all they’d done for her? Furthermore, Twilight didn’t want to consider the implications of what it meant to be more at ease with known criminals than her own friends. That perhaps in a way, she had more in common with the Fake AH Crew than she did with Sunset and the others.
After all, were gangs and monsters really all that different?
Before she could slide any further down the slippery slope that was her self-loathing, Twilight felt a tap on her shoulder. When she looked up, Twilight saw that the others were getting out of the pool, and that the short man dressed in orange and purple was crouched by the side of it, motioning for her to remove her earbuds. Twilight did so, and Coloratura’s melodic voice faded away from her ears.
“Hey, we’re gonna play some cards,” Jeremy (aka Li’l J) said. “You in?”
Twilight smiled, and was about to say yes when she noticed Dusky wasn’t going over to the table where they were setting up. He was following Michael and Ray inside the ship proper.
“Let me just change out of this bathing suit first,” Twilight said. Jeremy looked a little suspicious initially, but one of Twilight’s patented awkward ‘almost smiles’ was her ticket out of the conversation.
After quickly toweling off, Twilight entered the yacht interior just in time to see Dusky and Michael disappear into a room further down the hall. She moved down the hall as quickly and quietly as she could, but the sounds of her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor seemed deafening to her ears. She slowed down as she got closer to the slightly ajar door, and could hear Michael’s voice as she closed in.
“C’mon, Kerry! You can’t honestly expect me to believe you lost the fucking tower!” Michael exclaimed.
“I’m sorry Michael!” Dusky’s voice chimed in in his defense, “but it’s like I said: I lost it after that Curly kid knocked me down.”
“Yeah, well we checked his pockets after we beat his ass,” Twilight heard Ray’s voice next. “He had twenty dollars, some cigs, and an iFruit 4, but no hard drive!” The sound of a clatter indicated the Brownman had just dumped those very items on the table.
“Well… maybe someone else found it….”
Twilight’s heart stopped. Oh please Dusky, if you care at all about me….
“Maybe someone found it and turned it into lost and found!”
Twilight sighed with relief. Dusky still had her back.
“Hey! Who the hell’s sighing out there?!” Michael called out.
Before Twilight could even blink, the brown spectacled face of Ray poked through the door, regarding Twilight warily.
“Um… which way’s the… bathroom?” Twilight managed to stutter.
With an almost comically big frown, Ray pointed down the hall, where Twilight saw the universal bathroom signs only a couple of doors down.
“Oh… thanks,” she said quietly as she slinked off.
Of course, Twilight didn’t actually need to go to the bathroom—no more than she needed to when she tried to get to know Geoff during the heist the other day. Instead, after checking to make sure Ray was no longer watching, Twilight continued down the hall to the room the crew had lent her to change in.
Moderately sized guest quarters awaited her, with little more than a bed and a couple of side tables. Her stuff was all neatly placed on the bed, and the first thing Twilight checked when she came in was her underwear, relieved when she felt the USB drive hidden within. It was the only place she figured the Fake AH Crew wouldn’t check. Indeed, it appeared that all of her stuff remained undisturbed for the duration of her time in the on-deck tub.
After changing into her dry clothes, Twilight held the little gold tower in her hands. Further down the hall, she knew Ray and Michael were still grilling Dusky over it, and Twilight momentarily considered giving it to them just to spare her friend further interrogation, but quickly quashed that idea. It would have been a great way for her to have to start a new life and identity just like he had done. So instead, Twilight slipped the tower back down her shirt and exited the room.
She nearly bumped into Geoff on her way out. “Oh, hey. There you are!” he said, his eyelids still managing to remain droopy even in his apparent gladness.
“Were you looking for me?” Twilight asked.
“Yeah. You still have my phone.”
“Oh, right!” Twilight exclaimed, remembering she’d left it on the bed in the room she used to change, and quickly ran back to grab it.
“Thanks,” Geoff said when she returned the device to him. “I, uh… also wanted to say I’m sorry. About yesterday.”
Twilight nodded at first, and was about to give a non-committal reassurance that it was okay before moving on, until she realized the implications of what he said. Of course, how could I have been so naive to think he actually didn’t remember me?
“I didn’t want to put you kids into the line of fire like that. Gavin’s stupid heist didn’t go at all the way we planned it,” Geoff sighed. “Anyway, glad all y’all are okay. As a father, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if something had happened to one of you guys.”
The pure sincerity in Geoff’s voice as he spoke directly into her eyes was unmistakable. Sure, being held hostage had been scary at the time, but it was good to know that in a way, Twilight’s desperate plan to manufacture Lima Syndrome had worked. Kind of.
“Besides…” Geoff continued, scratching his head, “it was kind of nice to talk to someone about my daughter for a bit. I don’t really get to do that with the guys.”
It seemed that Twilight wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel like she could talk about deeply personal matters with her own group of friends. She may have been socially incompetent on the best of days, but even Twilight couldn’t have missed the sad, nostalgic quality to Geoff’s tone.
“You miss her, huh?”
Geoff nodded. “Yeah, being in prison and then on the run doesn’t give me a lot of opportunities for quality time with my family.”
“When’s the last time you got to see them?” Twilight asked, genuinely curious.
“They visited me at Bolingbroke last month.” Unbeknownst to Twilight, Geoff’s thoughts had been consumed by the memory of that very visit every moment he was idle.
Geoff had called in a lot of favors with the prison guards and Big Dong to arrange for a little surprise for his young daughter: Tickets for a special VIP screening of a movie he knew she wanted to see.
“So, what do you think?” Geoff had asked through the phone connecting his side of the glass and hers. “I’m pretty much the best dad ever, right?”
But the young girl with pink and teal hair just looked disinterested, barely looking up from her iFruit. “You know you’re not the best dad ever, right?”
Perplexed and a little hurt, Geoff asked, “Alright smarty-pants, if I’m not the best dad ever, then who is?”
“I don’t know who he is,” she said with a noncommittal shrug, and what she said next continued to haunt him now. “I just know he’s not you.”
Geoff knew very well that he wasn’t the best dad ever. The fact he would never earn that title was probably the one thing he regretted about choosing his life of crime. Even so, to hear the words from his own daughter….
Geoff blinked, forcing himself to the present. Twilight looked up at him, confused and a little concerned by his sudden silence. She almost thought she saw tears in his eyes.
“I really hope she turns out like you when she gets older, Twilight,” Geoff said, leaving the next part unspoken. Instead of turning out like me.
With nothing else said, Geoff walked past Twilight further into the ship, the girl feeling pangs of sympathy for the man who looked older at that moment than he had any of the other times they’d met. Convincing herself (upsettingly easily) that the man’s problems were none of her business, Twilight continued towards the deck. She found Jeremy, Jack, Gavin, and Ryan sitting around a table just beside the hot tub, each with a deck of cards in their hands.
“Ah, Twilight! You got here just in time,” Ryan said as the tall man stood from the table. Pushing his hand of cards to her chest, he said, “I need you to fill in for me, kid. I’ve got, uh… other business to do.”
For some reason, this caused a chorus of groans from the other card players. “We are going to die here!” Gavin exclaimed, despairing.
“Have fun!” Ryan said as he walked away.
As Twilight sat down with the others, the first thing she noticed was that they weren’t playing with a traditional deck of cards. They were holding Uno cards.
“Welcome to Hell, kid,” Jeremy said sombrely.
Twilight wondered what could possibly be so bad about a game of Uno, not knowing how naive she truly was at that moment.
For what might have been the dozenth time since they arrived, Shining Armor glanced back towards the stack of three burned out cars in the middle of the park. The Fire Department had already finished putting out the fires, but the police were still keeping the area blocked off. Shining was one of the officers assigned to keeping nosy civilians from getting close to the crime scene, but right now his mind was occupied by one thought: He was here.
“Penny for your thoughts, partner?” asked Melati Jasmine, giving him a curious look hiding well-concealed concern. It would appear Shining was more obvious than he thought. After all, they both heard the eyewitness descriptions of the man who had apparently caused this.
“Just trying to figure out the motive behind this,” Shining lied easily.
“How do you know it wasn’t just a really bad case of road rage?” Melati asked with a humorous grin.
“This isn’t a joking matter, Mel,” Shining said, perhaps a little harshly.
Just like that, Melati’s grin disappeared. “What? No one was hurt.”
“Which is why I want to keep this as lighthearted as possible while we still can,” Melati said, chewing her lip. “If things get as bad as I think they’re going to get with the Fake AH Crew here, we’re gonna need as much morale as we can get for whatever’s going to come next.”
“If we stay focused and catch these assholes before they hurt more people, there won’t be any ‘next,’” Shining said, folding his arms and looking away.
Melati’s concern was no longer concealed. “You’re taking this whole thing with the Fake AH Crew very personally—which is totally understandable—but you need to lay off the trigger a little, you know?”
Realizing he was sounding like a petulant child—but at the moment not particularly caring—Shining asked, “Why?”
“Because it’s affecting your judgement, and as your partner it’s my job to make sure you’re flying straight.” Melati looked at him with hard, yet somehow vulnerable, eyes. “That’s why I can’t help but feel like what happened to you yesterday was as much my fault as it was yours.”
“No, that was all on me,” Shining said absolutely, ignoring the pain—real or phantom, it was hard to say—in his shoulder.
Whether Melati would have continued to argue the point or not, Shining would never know. The both of them adopted a full professional demeanor as somebody approached.
“I’m sorry miss, I’m going to have to ask you to keep your distance,” Shining told the girl with red and yellow hair like fire, and bright cyan eyes.
Something about the girl struck Shining Armor with a sense of familiarity, but he couldn’t say for sure whether he’d met her before. However, Shining knew exactly why the purple dog that was with her looked familiar. It was almost exactly like the pup his little sister had. Maybe this girl got hers from the same breeder?
“Sorry, I was just wondering what exactly happened here,” the flame-haired girl said.
“All we can say on the matter is that somebody destroyed the cars of two people as well as their own after an apparent incident,” Melati answered. “Fortunately no one was injured, but we currently have no suspect.”
“Do you think it could have been the guys that caused the scene at Blue Notes’ yesterday?” the girl asked, and suddenly Shining remembered one of the hostages had looked a lot like the girl now standing in front of him.
“It’s possible…” Shining said without really thinking.
This news made the girl frown, and Shining was sure she was the one from the hostage crisis the other day.
“Thank you for your help,” she said before turning around.
Had Shining Armor paid further attention to the girl, he would have seen her glance at the dog and heard her say, “C’mon, Spike!” as they headed for a nearby motorcycle. But by that point his attention was already back to the pile of burned out cars. A thought had entered his head with such inexplicable suddenness it chilled him. This wasn’t just a random act of violence or ‘road rage’ as Melati had put it.
This was the Vagabond sending a message.
Twilight had no idea how long it had been. Days? Weeks? Months? Surely it couldn’t have been the mere two hours that her smartphone’s clock said it was. Twilight felt like she had lived a lifetime in the world of the green, blue, red, and yellow numbered cards in her hands.
The unique game of Uno had been pretty fun at first. The unusual house rules the crew played with making for a very different game from what Twilight herself had experienced once or twice with her own family. Indeed, Twilight had been plenty confused when she played a 0 and everybody had to rotate their hands among themselves. And then there was the time Jeremy first played a seven and Twilight had to trade hands with him.
“Ooh, is my card red?” Twilight had asked the table facetiously. She’d only had one card left in her hand, and was certain she’d win the round if no one changed the color. “Is it red?”
“I don’t know, lemme check!” Jeremy had said as he put down the 7.
Yes, it was all fun and games... until the first hour or so. Then she began to understand the despair of the others. It turned out that Gavin, in his infinite wisdom, had decided to set the game to end after someone gains a total of five hundred points. Still, going through this experience with the rest of the crew gave her a sense of camaraderie unlike any she’d felt before… when they weren’t all trying to screw each other over.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Jeremy said, again, as he laid down a +2, forcing Gavin to pick up two cards and miss his turn.
“If Jeremy says ‘here’s looking at me’ one more time…” Gavin grumbled as he picked up two cards. It was a mere slap on the wrist, however—Gavin currently still had the smallest hand out of everyone at the table.
It was Twilight’s turn. “Here Gavin, you can get your turn back,” she said, putting a green reverse card on top of Jeremy’s +2.
“Aw, thanks Twilight! You know what?” Gavin put down another reverse card on top of Twilight’s. “You go. You certainly need it.”
He wasn’t wrong. Twilight’s hand was a monster. “Aw, you’re sweet. Here, take this token of my appreciation!” Twilight put down another reverse card, and the whole table groaned, getting ready for another endless back and forth.
“Cheers, love. Hey, you know what my favorite color is?” Gavin put down a blue reverse card. “Blue. Blue for you!”
Twilight spied the blue 7 in her hand and grinned. “Thanks. You know what my favorite hand is?” Twilight put down her 7. “Yours.”
Gavin let loose an agonized scream as he and Twilight exchanged hands, and the rest of the table nodded respectfully, acknowledging her masterful play despite how much they were suffering. Twilight had suggested changing the rules, or ending the game before someone reached five hundred points, but the others looked at her with shock and disbelief. Clearly their sense of honor towards properly completing this game of Uno outweighed their reason.
Indeed, the whole scenario reminded Twilight of an exercise she’d read about once called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, whereas two theoretical prisoners are separately given the opportunity to rat the other one out. Should one of these prisoners rat the other out, they would get a reduced sentence, however, if both of them should rat each other out, then they both get a longer sentence. The ideal solution for each of them is to both remain silent—to cooperate—giving each of them relatively low sentences. However, the sad truth of human nature is that everyone works toward their own benefit. The four players of this card game were no exception.
“We all want it to end, but no one wants to lose!” Gavin groaned.
But another hour later, someone finally won. When everyone’s hands were full of high scoring cards, Jack intentionally gave Jeremy the round, and the group watched with baited breath as he added up his points.
“YEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!” Everyone cheered when Jeremy’s points added up to a win. Twilight actually caught herself wrapping her arms around Gavin with joy, before being hoisted up by Jack and spun around.
It was during this celebration that Ray approached, and Twilight wondered whether he and Michael were finished talking to Dusky.
“Hey, Twinkie,” Ray said.
“Right. Ryan’s offered to give you and Kerry a lift back to the mainland, and wants you to come get him whenever you’re ready to go. He’s down in the hold.”
A quick glance at her phone confirmed it was ten after three. She’d already missed the entire school day. So after grabbing her bag and bidding farewell to the rest of the crew, Twilight entered the ship and descended the stairs to the hold. An imperceptible sense of unease filled her as she reached the bottom, and passed through an open valve door to a room full of crates of various shapes and sizes. A small stack of assault rifles atop one of the crates was a cold reminder of the true nature of the people she’d just spent the better part of a day with.
Oddly enough, she also found an opened box full of Huggies baby diapers.
She found Ryan seated atop a crate deeper in the hold. He was dressed in his usual blue and black leather jacket, a fresh coat of facepaint completing his monstrous look. He had a half-disassembled rifle in his lap, and was cleaning its parts with a damp rag.
“Ah, it’s Twilight Sparkle, isn’t it?” Ryan asked in his deep, yet eloquent voice.
Inexplicably sweating, Twilight replied, “Yep. Ray told me to come get you when I was….”
“Ready to leave?” Ryan asked, setting aside the weapon he was cleaning but to Twilight’s anxious note, made no move to stand. “Not just yet. I want to have a little chat first.”
The hint of menace under his pleasant tone made Twilight uneasy, but she did her best not to let it show.
“So, you and the boss have bonded quite a bit while you’ve been with us, huh?” he asked, and Twilight nodded. Ryan sighed, “Part of me wonders if Ray was right, and Geoff really has gone soft. I’m not completely convinced, though. Geoff’s always had a bit of a, uh… blind spot when it comes to girls your age.”
Twilight was perplexed. “Girls my age?”
Ryan nodded. “Girls like his daughter, yes. Clearly he doesn’t have it in him to do what’s necessary, so once again I have to pick up the slack.” He then leaned forward, his cold blue eyes boring into hers. “You’ve seen us in action in our heist yesterday, and you’ve spent a fair amount of time with us today. Tell me, have you figured out who we are yet?”
Twilight was reluctant to answer, and evidently, Ryan picked up on that. “Don’t worry, Geoff made me swear I wouldn’t hurt you, and my word is my bond. Just tell me who you think we are.”
Swallowing audibly, Twilight answered, “Y-you’re the Fake AH Crew.”
“That’s right. You’re a smart little girl…” Ryan said with a grin. “But so am I!”
“Um… sure,” Twilight said with a nervous, wobbly grin. “You can be whatever you want.”
“Smart enough to know a potential security breach when I see one,” Ryan continued taking no notice of his own poor phrasing or Twilight’s response to it. “You know where we are. Well, maybe not exactly where, but you know we’re on a ship off the coast of your hometown. And you were involved with our most recent heist. If the police should bring you in for follow up questioning, you may be sorely tempted to tell them everything you’ve seen today…. I can’t allow that.”
Twilight took a step back, visibly trembling. “B-but you said….”
“I said I wouldn’t hurt you. I made no such promise towards your family.” A pit of fear colder than any Twilight had felt entered her then as Ryan continued. “Much like you, I like to do thorough research. I know the university where your father works. I know where your mother’s office is in downtown Canterlot. And your brother….” With all that facepaint on, Ryan’s grinning face looked like the devil. “It’s a small world after all. Turns out I ran into him yesterday. Let’s just say I left quite an impression on him.”
Twilight remembered the wound Shining Armor had sustained the other day. Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to her until now that one of the people she was spending the day with had caused that injury.
“If you talk to the police, I will know. And I will be very unhappy… as will your family.” The room was ice cold as the two of them stared each other down for what felt like an eternity. Then, the tension was broken by the sound of an unusually jolly ringtone.
With a sigh, Ryan pulled out his phone and answered, “Hi, hon…. Yes… no, we haven’t left yet… I’m just tying up loose ends for the boss… yes dear… yes dear, I know….”
Just like that, Ryan’s demeanor did a complete one-eighty. Gone was the menacing killer, and in his place was a thoroughly meek, subservient husband.
“Yes dear…. Yes, I am still on my murder break… okay… yes dear… love you too. Bye.” Hanging up, Ryan gave Twilight a much more innocent smile and said, “Alright, shall we get going?”
Gulping, Twilight nodded eagerly, and soon she was following Ryan to the upper decks, contemplating with quiet horror just what kind of woman could have such a powerful influence over a man like the Vagabond.
Dusky was waiting for them on the helicopter pad beside what Twilight assumed was to be their ride back to town. A sense of relief washed over Twilight as she felt the little tower-shaped thumb drive hidden in her clothes, and realized that she and Dusky were in the clear.
“Hey Twi,” Dusky greeted as Ryan entered the cockpit and started getting ready. Glancing back at him, Dusky leaned closer to Twilight and said in a quiet voice, “So, did Ryan just give you the talk?”
When Twilight’s answer was another half-stunned nod, Dusky elaborated, “Don’t worry, he does that with every new member of the crew. He’s very protective of us.”
“You don’t say?” Twilight deadpanned, before a thought occurred to her. “Did he give you the same talk?”
Dusky grinned awkwardly. “Sure did! Almost pissed my pants for the first time since I was a toddler.”
Twilight snrked, already feeling… not necessarily better about riding in a helicopter with the man who threatened her family, but certainly a little less terrified. Something about being around Dusky always seemed to make her feel more at ease. Except he prefers to go by Kerry when we’re with his crew. She only belatedly realized the full implications of what Kerry just told her.
He does that with every new member of the crew….
The pair of them climbed into the helicopter as Ryan finished prepping it for takeoff, adorning the noise-canceling headsets. As the chopper rose into the sky, Twilight saw Geoff standing on the landing pad below, flanked by Michael and Jeremy. The mustachioed man was in his suit and tie again, and he gave them a smile and a wave as they flew away, which Twilight happily returned.
Unbeknownst to Twilight, Geoff’s mind was filled with darkening thoughts as he watched them fly off over the horizon.
“What did you find out from Kerry?” Geoff asked.
“He says he lost the drive at the school he and Twilight goes to,” Michael said. “But he’s not telling us the whole truth. There are a lot of gaps in his story.”
“Fortunately, I’m already on top of getting to the bottom of it,” Jeremy said, removing his hat and running a hand through his sky-blue hair. “I’ve just sent Matt on a deep cover assignment….”
As students poured out into the hall in the wake of the three-thirty bell, five girls met up by the lockers. The worried looks on each of their faces was not reassuring to Applejack.
“Guess none of you heard from Sunset, huh?” Applejack asked the others.
The other four girls shook their heads, and Applejack cursed under her breath. First Twilight goes missing after being attacked, and now Sunset has gone dark after going out to search for her. Applejack had a really bad feeling about this, and based on how the other girls looked, the feeling was mutual.
“I sure hope Sunset and Spike are okay,” Fluttershy said, before amending, “and Twilight of course.”
“I know Sunset’s okay,” said Rainbow Dash stubbornly. “She and Spike probably found Twi and the three of them are getting ice cream and just forgot to let us know they’re okay.”
Applejack wondered whether Rainbow was trying to convince all of them or herself.
“Hey, who’s that?” Pinkie suddenly asked, and the group turned around to where she was pointing to find a peculiar sight.
Leaning against some lockers a few meters down the hall was a man in a red sweater and jeans with a scruffy beard and long auburn hair. A pair of glasses adorned the man’s face and a backwards ball cap sat atop his head. Oddly enough, a skateboard was tucked under his arm.
“How do you do, fellow kids?” the clearly adult man said in what sounded like a bad imitation of a Russian accent. “I am being exchange student!”
“Uh… hi,” was all Applejack could muster.
Rarity, on the other hand, looked at the man through squinted eyes. “You seem incredibly familiar. Have we met somewhere before?”
“No, you are mistake,” the man said in his carefully engineered broken English.
“Uh, don’t you mean ‘you are mistaken?’” Rainbow asked.
The man narrowed his eyes. “I know what I said.”
Rarity sputtered. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“Say, you know what’s good place for hanging out like cool person?” the red-sweatered man continued, ignoring her. “Filing and records room. Where find?”
Applejack exchanged a look with the others. Whoever this mysterious man was, he was clearly here for something. Remembering what they’d all seen on the tower-shaped thumb drive, Applejack decided it was in their best interest not to tell him anything and alert the principal as soon as possible. So Applejack gave a barely perceptible nod to the others, and they returned it, an unspoken understanding between them. Or so Applejack thought.
“Down the hall and to the left, mister. Right past the administrative office!” Pinkie cheerfully informed him.
“Thank you, pink-haired one.” With that, the unusual man pulled out and ripped open a bag of pretzels, munching on them as he made his way in the direction Pinkie had indicated.
“What’d you do that for, Pinkie?” Applejack hissed when the man was gone.
“What? You gave me a ‘let’s help him’ nod!”
“No, I gave you a ‘he seems suspicious, don’t say anything to him’ nod!”
“Huh… I figured it was either that or your ‘there’s a sale on applesauce’ nod. Honestly, you have so many nods, Applejack, it’s hard even for me to keep track of them all!”
The argument was interrupted by a chorus of chimes from all of the girls’ phones at once. A quick check confirmed that a new message had been posted to their Lifeinvader Messenger group chat. To their cumulative relief, it was a message from Twilight.
> Hey, I’m okay. See you guys soon.
“Oh thank goodness,” Fluttershy said with a relieved sigh. “Looks like Sunset and Spike found her after all.”
Applejack, however, wasn’t so sure. So she started hastily typing in a reply as the hallway thinned out, the other students eager to leave for the day.
> Glad to hear it. Is Sunset and Spike with you? Applejack’s message read.
In a few quick seconds, the moving ellipses appeared beside Twilight’s icon, and a response promptly followed.
> No, why? Were they looking for me?
Applejack frowned. Sure, it was a relief to hear from Twilight, but now Sunset was MIA. As the girls all headed to their respective lockers, Applejack couldn’t help but worry her friend was in some kind of trouble. Indeed, the thought had her worried for the rest of the evening, and she forgot all about the strange man in the red sweater.
Matt entered the filing room still munching on pretzels. Picking the lock was but a trifle. The plan went off without a hitch, and the group of girls he’d briefly interacted with were none the wiser. Matt was, after all, a master of stealth—unparalleled in his ability to blend in anywhere as if he belonged. And now here he was at his objective.
Row upon row of filing cabinets lay before him, containing all information on students, budget, and everything else the school would need to keep track of going back as far as it was first built if Matt had to guess. But he didn’t care about that. Instead, he wasted no time finding the most current records, and started sifting through student profiles quickly and dexterously. As expected, a quick look through the ‘S’ files turned up nothing on their old friend Kerry, or Dusky Shawcross.
But further searching turned up something else under ‘D’. In the profile for one Dusky Darneil was a photo of a boy who was unmistakably Kerry, grinning innocently. Oh, but you’re not so innocent, are you? Matt thought as he went over the file. Dusky Darneil had quite the thoroughly crafted history in Red County according to the file, but Matt knew if anyone were to more closely investigate the school he’d supposedly went to, or the neighborhood he’d supposedly grew up in, this finely crafted history would unravel faster than a poorly knitted sweater.
Pulling out his phone, Matt hit one of the numbers on speed dial and after barely one ring, someone answered. “Hey L’il J, it’s Matt,” he said. “Looks like you were right after all….”
“You’re sure you can’t pick it up again?” Sunset asked a tad forcefully.
Spike looked up at her, ears folding back. “I told you, Sunset. Twilight’s scent is gone.”
The two of them had spent a good majority of the day riding all around the city in search of Twilight. After talking to the police officers and some of the witnesses to the strange incident with the burning cars in the residential park, they rode around all over town in the direction they figured Twilight and the Fake AH Crew (there was little doubt in Sunset’s mind now that was who she was with) had gone. It was all for nought though, and now they found themselves in the middle of a deserted warehouse district without any more leads. They heard the sound of a helicopter flying past overhead, and Sunset noted with only passing curiosity that it seemed to have come from the ocean.
Feeling some guilt at the dog’s chastened look, Sunset said, “I’m sorry for getting mad, Spike.”
“It’s okay. I’m worried about her too.”
Sunset rubbed her arm. “It’s not just that, I guess.” Spike gave her a curious look, and she continued, “I don’t know, I’ve been worried about Twilight well before today.”
Spike frowned. “Let me guess… since the Friendship Games?”
Sunset nodded. “For a dog who only recently gained sapience, you’re pretty perceptive.”
“It’s what I do!” Spike said with the tiniest of grins.
“Seriously though, part of me wonders whether she was really kidnapped or whether… whether she wanted to go with them.”
“You think Twilight’s run away to join a gang?” Spike asked, tilting his head and giving her the most befuddled look Sunset had ever seen on a canine face.
“Maybe not exactly, but… what Twilight’s going through now I went through myself, and I’d be lying if I said I had never thought about just running away back then. The idea of getting a fresh start away from everyone who can only remember your mistakes can be pretty tempting.” Internally, a dark thought entered Sunset’s mind as she considered this. I know what she’s been going through, yet I’ve barely done anything to help. I’m a terrible friend!
“Twilight wouldn’t do that,” Spike said resolutely.
“I guess you know her better than I do,” Sunset admitted, allowing herself to push aside her self-deprecation for later. She took another look around the empty lot they were currently standing on. Dilapidated old warehouses flanked them, with nothing but a few empty pallets and rusty barrels long since abandoned. “Regardless, I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. C’mon, Spike.”
Sunset pulled out her phone as she turned to head back to her motorcycle. Once again she tried to send a text to her friends to let them know her situation, and once again her phone informed her in red text that her message failed to send. Looking at the single on-again-off-again bar of service, Sunset sighed. Guess she’d have to wait until they got to a place with better reception.
“Wait, hold on. I smell something,” Spike said, sniffing at the air rapidly.
“Twilight?” Sunset asked, but Spike shook his head.
“No. It’s… Winona?”
Sunset’s brow furrowed, and she was about to ask how that could be possible when she remembered what Applejack had told her that morning: Winona had disappeared at some point the other night.
“Which way?” Sunset asked, and Spike indicated with a tilt of his head to a warehouse way down the other side of the lot.
Without saying anything else, Sunset jogged in that direction with Spike hot on her heels. The first door Sunset tried was firmly locked, but after walking around to the other side of the building, Sunset found a loading bay with the door open to accommodate an unmarked panel van. This was the first thing to make Sunset seriously reconsider her impromptu investigation, but the sound of dogs barking inside and someone raising their voice piqued her curiosity. So against her better judgement, Sunset looked at Spike and raised a finger to her lips before creeping into the structure.
The loading bay was devoid of anything of note; the aforementioned van and a pallet with some empty boxes stacked on it were about the only things inside. Sunset crept towards the door in the back, stepping over an empty pallet and ready to dive into the nearest hiding spot should she see the knob begin to turn. But it didn’t, and as Sunset drew closer, she heard voices. Familiar voices.
Opening the door a crack and peeking into the main part of the warehouse, Sunset couldn’t make out much at first. Old industrial equipment lay strewn around covered in tarps—long abandoned. Then Sunset saw movement on the far side of the room, and quietly gasped when she saw the dozen-or-so cages, just about each one holding a dog. A few of them were mangy and collarless—strays, if Sunset had to guess—but most of them wore different collars. They clearly had owners. It didn’t take Sunset long after that to spot the brown and white collie, looking—as always—like she was just happy to be there.
“Winona!” Spike exclaimed, and made a run for it, but Sunset grabbed him by the collar and held him back. Spike seemed about to protest, but then they both heard the voices from before, and a moment later two familiar figures walked into view.
“The clients should be here any minute, brother mine,” the first said, a reedy man with red and white striped hair.
“Well it’s about time! I’m getting sick of listening to these mutts yap,” said the other, almost identical to the first save for his big red mustache.
“What are they doing here?” Sunset whispered.
Spike looked up at her and asked, “You know them?”
Sunset nodded. “The Flim Flam Brothers. They own a pawn shop in town the girls and I go to sometimes!”
But what are they doing out in the middle of a run down warehouse district with a bunch of kidnapped dogs?
“I don’t like this, brother,” the first one said after some silence. Flim… or Flam. Sunset honestly wasn’t sure.
“So you’ve said plenty of times already,” the mustached one said. Flam? “Just as I’ve pointed out plenty of times that we need the money. Our debts aren’t going to pay off themselves!”
“I know, but it doesn’t make me any less uneasy…” Flim said, turning his attention momentarily to the restless dogs in their cages. “What kind of company needs so many animals anyway?”
“The kind that doesn’t like people who ask too many questions,” a new deep, gravelly voice said, and suddenly Flim and Flam were standing ramrod straight.
“Ah, Captain Lock! Didn’t see you come in!” Flim exclaimed as three more men entered from the other side of the room.
Alarmed, Sunset noticed the new arrivals wore gray military fatigues and tactical vests. The one in the middle had patches on his shoulders displaying a mostly red logo that Sunset couldn’t identify from where she was hidden. He sported short dark hair, a big nasty scar across his face, and carried himself like someone in charge. Just behind him and the other two soldiers was a wiry man with glasses and a lab coat, with tousled yellow hair and an unshaven face.
“Yes, welcome back to Flim and Flam’s Captured Canine Emporium! For all your captured canine needs!” Flam exclaimed, but the lead soldier—Lock, if Sunset heard right—stopped him with a hard glare.
“Spare me the sales pitch, Mr. Skim.” He then turned to the man in the lab coat. “Do your thing, Doctor Star, and be quick about it. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
Nodding, the man in the white coat pulled out a round device that Sunset couldn’t identify, but struck an odd chord of familiarity with her. The man then began pacing along the row of dog-occupied cages, scanning each one with his device. While he did this, Sunset pulled out her phone.
“What are you doing?” Spike whispered with noticeable worry.
“Getting something we can show people,” Sunset replied.
She used to do this all the time back when she was the menace of Canterlot High: Sneak around, take pictures of her fellow students (and even a couple of teachers) in compromising positions, and then use them for extortion. This time, though, Sunset was using her skills for good. Whoever these people were, they were Bad News with a capital B. Some sort of scientist with a military escort? Sunset couldn’t help but think of the files they’d found on that hidden thumb drive.
As she took a few different pictures, the man in the white coat—Dr. Star—picked three different dogs to take back to “the lab”: a daschund, a golden retriever, and to Sunset’s dismay, Winona.
So after snapping a satisfying image of the scene, she brought up her text messaging app next. Sunset took a look at the single waning bar of cell reception, and briefly wondered whether there was even any point trying to send the picture to her friends. But then the image of Twilight’s horrific transformation captured from a hidden vantage point changed her mind. She had to at least try! There was just too much at stake.
But before she could act, a sudden flurry of messages appeared on her phone; a broken dam bursting with text that had finally found a way through the area’s shitty reception. Confirmation from Twilight that she was okay was among the sudden flood of messages, but at that moment it was the furthest thing from her mind. Instead, Sunset was too preoccupied with the terrible reminder that she had her phone’s ringer volume cranked up to the max, in order to make sure she didn’t miss a text from Twilight.
Thus, Sunset wasn’t the only one not to miss the messages.
“What the hell was that?” one of the Flim Flam brothers said. Sunset couldn’t be bothered to figure out which one. She was too focused on the soldiers, who had pulled out their sidearms and were making their way in her direction.
Swearing under her breath, Sunset gave a quick, panicked, “Time to go!” to Spike before whirling around and making a break for it.
She didn’t get very far before tripping over the wooden pallet she had stepped over earlier, scraping up her knees in a way she knew would sting later. Sunset’s trip caused her to lose her grip on her phone and she didn’t notice as it slid underneath the white panel van. Spike failed to notice the phone as well, too focused on making sure Sunset was okay. As she struggled to her feet, Sunset thought in a dazed stupor that she could never make fun of the protagonists in horror movies who keep tripping over nothing trying to get away from some monster.
“Sunset come on!”
Shaking off her daze, Sunset pulled herself to her feet and she made it outside with Spike leading the way. Together, the two of them ran back around to the front of the building. Sunset’s only goal at that moment was to get back to her motorcycle, and wasn’t thinking about anything else. She certainly wasn’t thinking about the fact that the soldiers had originally come from the front entrance.
Waiting for her in the lot at the front of the building was a pair of black vans with a logo on the side: A white bald eagle glaring directly at her over the red words Merryweather Security. Outside the vans were two more soldiers who appeared to be having a smoke, both of them looking at Sunset and Spike with some confusion before drawing their weapons. Sunset looked over her shoulder to find Captain Lock and the two men with him had caught up, the five of them completely surrounding her and Spike (who started to give very non-threatening high pitched growls).
Out of ideas, Sunset just said in her best valley girl voice, “Yeah… this isn’t the mall, is it?”
She heard one of the other soldiers laugh and mutter, “Freaking Cali girls….”
“Tell me, kid…” Lock said, still studying her for… something. “How much did you see?”
Sunset hesitated, but that seemed to be all the answer Lock needed, as something about his expression changed. Hardened.
“Whatever she did or didn’t see does not matter. She has no context for any of this,” said a nasally voice, and the man in the lab coat joined the group flanked by Flim and Flam, who looked on curiously.
“Strange, I feel as though I’ve seen this girl before,” one of the Flim Flam Brothers—the one with the mustache—mused
“If we wanted your thoughts, we would have asked for them,” Lock said dismissively, before turning back to Sunset. “If she talks, she could blow the entire operation,” Lock argued, his finger drifting worryingly to the trigger of his firearm. “The director’s orders….”
Dr. Star’s eyes briefly grew saucer-like. “She’s just a kid! You can’t…!”
“After the attack on the main facility months ago, we cannot risk any security breaches.”
Taking a step forward, Spike growled and then to everyone’s surprise, shouted, “You’re not doing anything to my friend!”
A loud silence followed, only broken by a soldier’s cough. Realizing his error all too late, Spike sighed and face-pawed, and Sunset merely waited to see what new wrench this development would throw into everything.
“Well… you don’t see that every day…” the clean-shaven Flim Flam brother said.
Speechless, Dr. Star pulled out the device he had used on the other dogs earlier and held it toward Spike.
“Remarkable, this dog is giving off huge readings of the alien energy,” he said. “Is it yours?”
“Uh… not technically…” Sunset muttered, overwhelmed by everything.
“Well if that’s the case, I’m sure it could be greatly beneficial to our research.” The man nodded to the soldiers, and one of them stepped forward to apprehend the small dog.
Seeing the advancing soldier and Spike back into her while whimpering, Sunset’s fear and confusion went away and was replaced by indignant rage. That was when something remarkable happened.
“I was just looking for my friend, that’s all! Just leave us the hell alone!”
Sunset thrust out an arm as if to push the soldier away, and to the shock of everyone present, she did… without touching him. Cyan energy sent the man sprawling, and unbeknownst to Sunset she had sprouted a pair of pony ears and a hair extension resembling a tail.
“Curiouser and curiouser...” both Flim Flam Brothers said simultaneously.
The still standing soldiers all raised their weapons nervously, but Dr. Star shouted, “No, don’t shoot her!”
“All I wanted was to find my friend, so if you could please just let us go, we can avoid—” The sound of a bang and the feeling of something like an insect biting into her neck stopped Sunset Shimmer in her tracks.
“Sunset?” she heard Spike say, but it barely registered.
In a daze, Sunset reached up and felt something persistently digging into her neck. She pulled it out and saw some kind of dart. Just outside of her vision, Lock lowered the pistol in his hand.
Sunset found herself suddenly losing the feeling in her extremities—first her fingers and toes, then her hands and feet, and so on. She tried to speak but suddenly it was like her mouth was full of cotton. Her legs stopped working and she collapsed to the ground. Spike called out to her again, but it was like he was suddenly miles away. Her vision started to fade as darkness closed in around her. The last thing Sunset saw was Spike being carried off by a soldier, and the last thing she heard was Dr. Star’s voice.
A light drizzle of rain began to fall from the clouds overhead as Rainbow Dash walked down the path from the nice tudor house back to the sidewalk, where her friends waited. Based on her slouched posture (which made the oversized brown leather jacket hang limply around her), the others were able to guess what she was going to say before she said it.
“Twi’s not here,” Rainbow reported. “Doesn’t even look like her parents are home.”
The other four exchanged nervous looks. They’d already been to Sunset’s apartment, and had found it similarly empty.
Rarity caught herself chewing a fingernail, and partly in an effort to stop the habit, asked, “So, what do we do now?”
With a diplomatic look, Applejack said, “Girls, it’s almost five o’clock. I don’t know about y’all, but my family’s gonna be mighty upset if I’m not home for supper.”
“Are you suggesting we just… give up?” Fluttershy asked, aghast.
“I don’t like it any more than you, sugarcube. But there ain’t much more that we can do right now.”
“Bullshit! We’ll just start looking around until we find them!” Rainbow exclaimed, turning to walk down the street.
Rarity stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. She hoped Rainbow didn’t notice her chewed up nails. “Canterlot’s a big town, darling. There’s no way the five of us could cover enough ground to find them!”
“Unless you have super speed!” Pinkie exclaimed with a bounce.
“W-well we can’t just do nothing!” Rainbow said. She was all but shouting now, and Rarity realized the girl was not really angry, but scared.
“Sunset and Twi are strong, smart girls. They can handle themselves,” Applejack said, resting a comforting hand on Rainbow’s other shoulder. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll show up on their own?”
Rarity thought she heard a sound in the distance; a quiet hum that seemed to be growing louder by the moment.
Rainbow continued, “Please, AJ. I doubt Twilight is just going to swoop in from the sky!”
It was then that all five of the girls noticed the strange sound growing ever more all-encompassing. It took a few moments more before they realized they were hearing a helicopter’s rotors. A sudden gust of wind picked up as the sound grew louder still, and Rarity noticed Applejack clutch her Stetson tightly to keep it from flying away. Some instinct deep inside her told Rarity that she should have followed the hat’s lead. However, much like the hat, Rarity too was held in place, but not by anything as permeable as Applejack’s hand.
No, Rarity—and by extension the other four girls—were all held in place by the sheer force of awe at the sight of the rather luxurious looking helicopter flying just several feet over their heads before touching down in the middle of the otherwise quiet residential street. Only Pinkie had the presence of mind to make any sort of noise: An impressed sounding whistle.
Then the helicopter’s door opened, and the girls’ collective shock doubled. The first person to hop out of the aircraft was none other than a familiar girl with lavender-streaked dark blue hair.
“Oh, hey Twilight!” The sound of Pinkie’s voice easily rose above the sound of the rotors, shaking the rest of the girls out of their stupor, and they watched as Twilight was assaulted by a poofy pink blur. “Where the heck have you been?! We looked everywhere for you!”
“…I was on a boat,” Twilight said stiffly, shifting awkwardly in Pinkie’s grasp.
The rest of the girls approached once they were moderately sure it was safe. Twilight managed to pry herself free of Pinkie’s grasp only to find herself in the middle of an affectionate double-hug between Rarity and Fluttershy.
“Yes, some of us were exceptionally worried,” Rarity said, shooting a knowing look Rainbow’s way.
“What?! No I wasn’t!” Rainbow protested, folding her arms. She then realized how that sounded, and amended, “Well… maybe a little.”
Something happened on Twilight’s face in that moment that Rarity couldn’t quite figure out. A brief war of emotions, the winner of which produced a look that seemed… touched.
“You guys… really care about me, huh?” Twilight stated.
“Of course we care about you, egghead!” Rainbow said, giving Twilight a friendly punch in the arm. “You’re our friend, you dingus!”
Rarity laughed. “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Rainbow darling.”
Just as Twilight’s smile grew wider, she received a hearty slap on the back, which caused her to sputter and cough.
“So Twi, I’ve gotta ask: Jus’ what the heck are ya doin’ flyin’ around town in a helicopter?” Applejack asked, giving Twilight a few more—thankfully softer—pats on the back.
The sound of a sharply honking horn cut off Twilight’s answer, and the girls turned to see a few cars lined up along the street, clearly waiting for the helicopter to move. Then they saw a demonic face appear in the helicopter’s window—demonic due to the black, white, and red warpaint that covered it. After some fiddling, the helicopter’s window opened and a leather-jacketed arm extended towards the honking cars, its middle finger raised proudly.
The girls looked back at Twilight for an explanation, who rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. “I, uh… I think I’m in a gang now.”
Despite the rotors and honking horns, there was a permeable silence that followed. Before any of the other girls could say anything, they noticed someone else climbing out of the helicopter. Rarity thought for a moment that it was Sunset, but then she saw it was a boy. A very familiar boy with a pudgy frame and orange hair.
“You….” Evidently, Applejack recognized him too, if her sudden death glare was anything to go by.
“M-me?” Dusky asked, followed by a yelp as Rainbow lunged forward and grabbed him by the collar.
“Rainbow, stop!” Twilight exclaimed, trying her hardest to pull the much more muscular girl off him. “He’s not a spy!”
“Then why’d he have that hard drive with all that stuff about you—mmf!”
Twilight hastily put a hand over Rainbow’s mouth, glancing nervously at the man in the chopper’s cockpit. The painted man was giving the group a cold glare, and when he noticed Twilight looking at him, he motioned with his head toward the slowly building traffic jam behind them. That was when Twilight got the hint.
“Why don’t we all head into my place? I’ll explain everything there!”
With a nod of agreement, the group of girls followed Twilight off the street and up the path towards her house. Rainbow tried to keep a hand on the back of Dusky’s shirt like some kind of prison guard, but a glare from Twilight put an end to that. They heard the sound of the helicopter taking off as they approached the front door, and when the group was inside, Twilight finally noticed someone was missing.
“Hey, where’s Sunset?”
Sunset Shimmer awoke in her bed from a most peculiar dream. She dreamt she’d gone to the doctor’s office for a routine check-up—something she did on occasion with money saved up from her part-time job at the sushi stand. Evidently the doctor had discovered something in her, because the next thing she knew she was in an operating room with blinding bright lights. A whole team of doctors wearing surgical masks stood over her, poking and prodding her with needles and other instruments.
Sunset had tried to speak—tried to ask what was going on—but it was like her mouth was full of cotton. It was as if that dream phenomenon where you wanted to run from something but moved like you were in waist-high water had transferred to her mouth.
What a weird dream, Sunset thought as her rapidly beating heart began to slow. Must have eaten something funny for dinner. But it occurred to Sunset suddenly that she didn’t even remember what she’d had for dinner last night. In fact, now that she was thinking about it, Sunset wasn’t even sure she had eaten dinner the previous day. Sunset turned over in her bed and tried to push the troubling thoughts from her mind, but something about it felt wrong, and another much more troubling thought entered her mind like an undesirable person might enter a high-class establishment.
This isn’t my bed.
Sunset’s eyes shot open and she sat up in bed, squinting to see in the pitch-dark room. It didn’t remain that way, as a series of fluorescent lights suddenly activated, as if reacting to her sudden movement. She was sitting on a bed in what appeared to be a small one-room apartment, but one thing was immediately apparent: It wasn’t hers.
The floor, walls, and ceiling were a spotless, pristine white. To her left was an open kitchen area as well as a door that led to a small bathroom, and to her right an unassuming steel door. In the center of the room it had a simple couch facing a television, with a small coffee table that looked like it was bought at Ikea between them. Apart from that, the room was empty; devoid of any of the usual clutter that would indicate a space that was lived-in. Sunset had to admit her own apartment was getting pretty cluttered and had been meaning to clean it up the first chance she got, but there was something just unsettling about the utter lack of stuff in this place. It was more than just clean: It was sterile.
The most unsettling detail of all only occurred to Sunset a few moments later: There were absolutely no windows. For some reason, Sunset thought of a novel she’d read for Literature class the previous year. A pretty old book from what Sunset knew, it had depicted a vision of a future dystopian society ruled by the oppressive State and its figurehead, the faceless Big Brother. Sunset felt very much like the protagonist of that book in that moment.
Suddenly finding it difficult to breathe, Sunset raced for the steel door to her right, figuring it had to be the way out. She turned the knob, but the door refused to budge. She searched for a lock to turn, but apart from the knob, the door’s surface was bare.
“Hello?!” Sunset called out desperately. “Is anyone there?!” Sunset called out a few more times, banging on the door for good measure, but the results were the same.
She turned around and leaned her back against the door. Her heart was racing now, and she needed to take bigger and bigger breaths. C’mon, Sunset, she thought to herself as fought back terrified tears. Keep it together! Let’s really take a look around and analyze the situation.
Collecting herself, Sunset took a step away from the door. The first thing she noticed was the clock on the wall, its hands pointing at just a few minutes past eight. There was a set of clothes folded neatly on the coffee table in the center of the room: Socks, underwear, blue jeans, and an orange shirt with a yellow and red sun on the front. Sunset looked down at herself and saw she was wearing a faded blue hospital gown. She suppressed a shudder at the thought that someone had changed her while she slept; it would seem human conventions of modesty were really sticking.
Her first instinct was to change into her own clothes right then and there, but Sunset’s thoughts returned to that book. Big Brother is watching. Another look around confirmed her suspicions: A small opaque glass dome hung upside down from the ceiling in a corner of the room, the dark glass clearly concealing a camera. Gathering up her clothes, Sunset entered the bathroom and after she was sure there weren’t any cameras in there too, got changed quickly and quietly.
Sunset froze when she stepped out of the bathroom. A woman was standing in the middle of the apartment. She looked middle-aged (late forties to early fifties if Sunset had to guess) and wore a gray business suit and skirt. Her faded blue hair with green highlights was done up neatly, and a pair of glasses adorned her face. She was holding a tray with some food on it, and smiled kindly when she saw Sunset.
“Ah, good evening Miss Shimmer. I hope you don’t mind that I let myself in,” she said, her matronly smile growing a little as she held the tray a little higher. “I brought you some dinner. I thought we might eat together and talk.”
Dinner? Sunset glanced up at the clock, now fifteen minutes past eight. She’d assumed it was eight in the morning.
“Uh… who are you?” Sunset asked.
At that, the older woman gave a good-natured roll of her eyes. “Right, I’m sorry. Guess even simple things slip your mind when you get to be my age.” The woman walked over to the kitchen counter to set down the tray. Sunset eyed the meal of dressed chicken, beans, mashed potatoes and rice and realized she was quite hungry.
“Director Omnis Cognize. I’m the one in charge of this facility.”
“Facility? What facility?”
Cognize held up a gentle hand. “I know you must have many questions, and I will try to explain everything as best I can. Please, just relax and eat. Poor girl, you must be starving.”
Sunset couldn’t deny she was quite hungry, and after only a moment’s hesitation, took a seat at the counter and began to take tentative bites of the meal she’d been provided. Dr. Cognize took the stool next to her.
“Now, to answer your question, this is a research facility commissioned by the United States government. The purpose of our research here is to ensure the continued safety and security of the country. Do you understand?”
Sunset swallowed a bite of chicken—she still wasn’t so sure about eating meat, but she found the concept a lot less unthinkable now than when she first arrived through the portal. “I think so. But… what am I doing here?”
“Well, our latest project has been to learn as much as we can about your world,” Cognize said, her serene smile never faltering even as Sunset nearly choked on her next bite of chicken. “Yes, we know all about where you come from, Miss Shimmer. Rest assured, your secret is safe with us.”
“You still didn’t answer my question,” Sunset stated, trying to collect herself.
“It’s quite simple, really. We were hoping you would help us understand the nature of this… alien energy of yours that seems to be leaking into our world.” Cognize’s motherly smile grew to resemble Twilight’s when she was excited. “We took the liberty of performing some… preliminary tests, and the results have been very promising. But with your cooperation, I think we can make some very important discoveries!”
Sunset’s thoughts suddenly went to the dream she’d awoken from—the doctors wearing surgical masks poking and prodding her. Was that really just a dream?
When Sunset didn’t answer, Cognize continued, her smile never leaving. “We would compensate you for your time, of course. Think of this as an academic collaboration. You could have a promising future when this is over!”
“Okay. I’ll think about it…” Sunset finally said as she took a bite of her mashed potatoes.
“That’s the spirit, Ms. Shimmer!” Dr. Cognize stood. “I’ll give you some time to finish your meal and think about it some more.”
Sunset nodded, and was almost ready to leave it at that when the question that had been nagging at the back of her mind finally surfaced. “Do I get to go home?”
Dr. Cognize froze, and for a moment Sunset thought she saw a flicker of… something across the older woman’s face. The sweet smile she’d worn throughout the conversation was still there, but something about it seemed… hollow, now.
“We thought it would be in your best interest to stay with us,” Cognize hesitated. “As our guest, of course.”
Chewing her lip in thought, Cognize answered, “Not long at all. A couple of weeks. Maybe a month. But rest assured, we will provide you with anything you need during your stay….” Then with a far too sweet smile, Cognize added, “Within reason, of course!”
The older woman let out a happy little giggle, clearly meant to be jovial, but something about it made Sunset uneasy.
“But… I have school!” Sunset exclaimed.
“We are more than equipped to provide you with your education while you are here…”
“And what about my friends? Do they know I’m here? And what about…?
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” The sudden shrillness of Cognize’s voice froze Sunset in place. The woman than cleared her throat, and continued as if nothing happened. “My apologies. I know this is a lot to take in, but please… no more questions.” Her sickening sweet smile returned. “Okay?”
Taking a deep breath through her nose, Sunset stood and faced Dr. Cognize. “No, if you want my cooperation, you need to tell me everything.” Sunset looked around, taking in the windowless room, the security camera, and the steel door with electronic locks. Big Brother is watching.
“I’m your prisoner here, aren’t I?” Sunset asked, barely keeping the tremor out of her voice. “If you really want my help, you will tell me the truth.”
The smile finally dying on her face, Dr. Cognize let out a long sigh. “Such a pity. Here I was hoping we could work with each other. Oh well.”
With that, Dr. Cognize took the tray with Sunset’s partly eaten dinner still on it and began walking to the door. A sense of dread slowly building within her, Sunset went after her.
“Hey! I wasn’t finished with that!”
“Well, that’s too bad,” Cognize said without breaking her stride. “If you’re going to act like a child, then you’ll be treated like one. And when my children are naughty, I send them to bed without supper.”
The older woman reached the door, and Sunset heard the click of the magnetic locks on the door opening. Dr. Cognize reached for the door knob, but Sunset wasn’t ready to let her leave. So with a strength that surprised even her, Sunset grabbed the older woman, spun her around and slammed her against the wall. The tray full of food fell to the ground in a loud clatter. At the same time, the steel door swung open and a second later a pair of rough hands was pulling Sunset off of the director.
Sunset struggled and kicked, but the man holding her had an iron grip. “Argh let me go! You can’t do this! You can’t do this!!!””
The man got a hold of her arm and twisted it behind her back, pulling it tighter and tighter until Sunset’s indignant shouting became screams of pain. Cognize raised a hand, and suddenly the man let her go and took a step to the side. As Sunset felt her aching right arm, Dr. Cognize took a step towards her and smiled that sweet smile.
“‘I can’t do this?’ Miss Shimmer, you couldn’t be more wrong.” The older woman straightened out her suit jacket where Sunset had grabbed it as she continued. “We did a full background check on you, Miss Shimmer. You have no birth certificate. No social security number. According to the public school system’s database, you didn’t even exist until four years ago.”
Dr. Cognize adjusted her glasses and looked Sunset right in the eye. “You’re an illegal alien, Miss Shimmer. In the most literal sense of the phrase. I can do whatever I want to you while you’re here, and so long as I say it’s in the interest of national security, the U.S. government won’t do a damn thing about it!
“So the choice is yours. You can either cooperate and make things easy for all of us. Or you can make things difficult, in which case, so will we!” Dr. Cognize kept right on smiling, except now it seemed to be a vicious mockery of the sweet, motherly look she had on at the start. “Do you understand?”
Despite the pain in her arm and the fear in her heart, Sunset managed to give the director a defiant glare. “I understand, but I don’t think you do! Because I didn’t mean ‘you can’t do this’ because it’s illegal. I meant ‘you can’t do this’ because my friends are going to find out. And they’re not going to be happy.”
Oddly, it was the man who had grabbed her before that answered, and his gravelly rasp struck a familiar chord. “More teenage girls? I’m shaking.”
“Hmph. Well put, Captain Lock.”
Sunset turned to look at the man in gray camo pants and a military tank top with the scar running horizontally across his face. Sunset felt the back of her neck, where a band-aid covered the place she’d been shot, and all at once Sunset remembered the circumstances of her capture. The warehouse full of dogs, the men in military vests and fatigues. The vans that said “Merryweather” on them. And one more very important detail.
“What did you do with Spike?”
Sunset had caught Dr. Cognize and Captain Lock as they were leaving her room, and the former turned and gave her a smile like a parting shot.
“If you’re a good girl, maybe you’ll get to see him.”
Feeling miserable, Spike was carried through gray hallways inside a tiny dog crate by an overweight balding man. Spike had no idea what this place was, only that it was worse than every vet Twilight had ever taken him to. He was wearing a muzzle—something the doctors had implemented after Spike had bitten their fingers one time too many. The doctors had stuck him with needles, prodded him with devices, and deeply investigated his ears and mouth. Then they brought him before a machine that emitted crazy lights that gave him a funny feeling that reminded him of when he’d first learned to speak. Then they repeated the process again even asking him questions coldly and clinically. Unable to physically bite them, Spike resorted to biting insults instead. But despite his bravado, he was afraid.
It wasn’t just for himself Spike was worried. The worst part was Spike had no idea what happened to Sunset Shimmer. He knew she was alive when they were taken—even though those men had shot her with one of those “gonnes” humans had, Spike could still smell her breathing. But the little dog had no idea where she was, or if she was hurt. The thought caused a sad whine to escape him, and the human carrying his crate muttered an annoyed “shh.”
The man brought Spike into a large dimly lit room full of cages, each one holding a dog, or sometimes two. All of them started barking immediately when they saw him and the human carrying his crate. It didn’t take long for Spike to notice something was… off about these dogs. Plumes of green fire erupted from a golden retriever’s mouth with every bark, and a chihuahua tilted its head and said, “¿Dónde está la fábrica de hues?”
The man carrying Spike’s crate seemed undisturbed by any of this, only occasionally shouting for the various canines to shut up as he walked. Eventually they reached the enclosure that was to be Spike’s home for the duration of his stay at the mysterious facility, and Spike was roughly removed from the crate and placed inside. The man took another moment after locking Spike’s cage to kick an adjacent one and yell at the barking dogs inside, then stalked off when it was clear the action had no effect.
The barking of the rest of the dogs began to subside after the overweight man left, and a nervous Spike began to take in his surroundings. The enclosure he found himself in wasn’t very big, with nothing in it but a single bowl of water. The floor was cold and hard, and something smelled bad—Spike couldn’t imagine how he was going to sleep in here.
Yet somehow, someone found a way. In the corner opposite to the door, a small bundle of white and brown fur was curled up tightly, its chest rising and falling steadily. Spike thought he caught a bit of the familiar scent upon entering the room, but couldn’t believe his luck at the identity of his new roommate.
The little collie’s ears perked up and her tail started to wag at the sound of her name, and the dog raised her head and let out a sleepy yawn. Spike rushed forward, sniffing her up and down, but thankfully he couldn’t sense any injuries. “Good to see you’re okay, Winona.”
“Well shucks, sure is nice to see ya too, Spike!”
“Thanks.” It took a moment for Spike’s mind to process what it’d just heard. “Wait… Winona, did you just talk?!” Winona gave him an airy grin—Is that what it looks like when I do that? That is kinda weird—and said, “Oh yeah, I guess I did… neat!”
Winona then proceeded to scratch one of her ears with a hind leg while Spike just looked at her, dumbfounded. “But… how did this happen? You can’t normally talk… right?”
Winona stopped scratching and shook her entire body before answering, “I don’ rightly know! Them humans in the white coats put me in front of this big do-hickey with a lot of pretty lights, and all of a sudden I could, like… think! Didn’t take long before I could put my thoughts into words.” Winona stood tall and wagged her tail. “They gave me treats for it!”
I didn’t get any treats, Spike thought sourly. Though come to think of it, that was probably because he kept biting the lab workers.
“So, any idea on how we can get out of here?” Spike asked.
“Why?” Winona asked in turn.
“Why? Y’know, because they abducted us and they’re experimenting on us?”
“They are?” Winona seemed to consider this for a while. “Naaaaaah… they’re giving us treats!”
“They’re giving you treats!” Spike let out a long sigh, predicting many more frustrating conversations like this one in the future. “C’mon Winona, think about it! These people stole you right from Applejack’s backyard!”
With a confused head tilt, Winona replied, “No. These two nice identical humans had milk bones, so I just climbed right into their van!”
Spike had to resist the urge to put a paw to his face, and wondered if Winona was the easiest capture the Flim Flam Brothers ever had.
“Don’t you want to see Applejack again?”
“’Course! But she’ll come and get me when it’s over, right?”
Spike shook his head. “Winona, Applejack doesn’t even know you’re here. We were stolen!”
Winona’s eyes got big and glossy. “But… but that’s mean!”
“These are mean people, Winona.”
“I always thought mean people were a myth. Like eating people food off the table.” A determined expression crossed the little collie’s face then, and Winona stood proud. “Very well. Then I, Winona—aka Li’l Stinky—will do everything I can to help us escape!”
Winona’s tail started to wag at that moment, and this time she caught a glimpse of it in her peripheral vision. Winona turned to look at it over her shoulder and let out a low growl. “You again….”
With a little yip, Winona whirled around and tried to catch her prey, but the thing was too fast for her.
“Dagnabbit! Get back here, ya varmint!” Winona exclaimed as she proceeded to spin in circles as she haplessly chased after her own tail.
Spike just sighed. Well, it’s a start I guess. Deciding it would be prudent to wait until Winona tired herself out before starting to plan their escape, Spike went to the corner, spun around three times, and lay down. As he rested his head on his paws, Spike found himself thinking of Twilight.
“OOOOOOH GET WRECKED SCRUB!” Rainbow Dash cheered, momentarily taking a hand off of her video game controller to pump a fist in the air. She immediately came to regret that decision. “Wait no! How did you survive that?!” A second later, the controller was thrown to the ground. “No that’s bullshit! That’s bullshit! REMATCH!”
Beside her on the couch, Applejack chuckled. “Humble in victory, graceful in defeat, huh Dash?”
Twilight just smiled and shook her head from her own chair, having been knocked out of this round of Super Smash Bros. well before the others. All things considered, the night ended up being pretty good. Twilight had been worried about how things would go at first when the rest of the girls had brought Dusky into her home and started interrogating him, but once he told them his story (with Twilight to corroborate), they very quickly warmed up to him.
Rainbow Dash got a little too eager when she started asking Dusky what it was like to be a part of a gang as notorious as the Fake AH Crew, and asked him all kinds of questions about its members like a girl asking about her favorite band. Rarity practically swooned over how romantic it was when Twilight described Dusky sticking up for her against Curly and his thugs, but Twilight had insisted the situation had been more terrifying than anything.
At long last, it had been Fluttershy who had said she was starting to get hungry, and before anyone could say anything else, Pinkie Pie had ordered three extra large pizzas and Twilight suddenly found herself hosting her very first after school party. Her friends had warmed up to Dusky pretty quickly: The fact that he was good enough at Smash to take Rainbow down a peg certainly helped.
Outside, the rain continued to pour, and every once in a while the rumble of thunder sounded. According to the news, there would probably be flooding on some roads around the Greater Canterlot Area.
It was as the next match in the virtual arena began that Twilight’s phone started to ring. For a brief moment all eyes were on her, the unspoken hope that it was Sunset stealing all breath from the room. Unfortunately, one look at the name on her screen confirmed this was not the case.
“It’s my brother,” Twilight said, and the rest of the room went back to watching the screen. Feeling like another slice of pizza, Twilight got up and went into the kitchen as she answered. “Hey Shiny!”
Shining Armor’s voice came in clearly. “Hey Twily, how’s it going?”
“Pretty good, actually! I have some friends over.”
Twilight could hear the beat of genuine surprise on the other end before Shining said, “Really? That’s great! Look at you, you’re a regular socialite now!”
With a bashful giggle, Twilight asked, “So, what’s up, Shiny?”
“Just wanted to check in on you, what with Mom and Dad both being out tonight. I’m gonna be working late tonight again, and will probably just spend the night at Cadance’s.”
“Is it the Fake AH Crew?”
There was another beat, and Shining’s lighter tone took a more serious turn. “Sorry Twily, but you know I can’t talk about that.”
“Right, I know. It’s the rules. I was just… curious.”
“You still shaken up about, y’know… what happened at Blue Note’s?”
If she was being honest, Twilight had forgotten all about the Fake AH Crew’s heist at the Coloratura signing the other day. So much more had already happened. “No, it’s not that,” she said, immediately regretting it.
“Well, is there something else bothering you?” Shining asked earnestly. “Did something else happen?”
In a moment of weakness, Twilight considered telling her brother everything. That she spent the day with the Fake AH Crew, actually managed to befriend them, and that one of her closest friends was also a member before selling them out, and that it was only a matter of time before they found out about both that and the mysterious golden thumb drive with her deepest, darkest secrets on it.
“No, I’m good.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, and for a moment Twilight was worried that Shining would continue pressing her—worried because she knew if he did, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from telling him everything. And she couldn’t do that. Not after her talk with the Vagabond.
“Okay,” Shining finally said. Twilight wasn’t sure he believed her, though. Not entirely. “Just… don’t hesitate to talk to me if you need anything.”
“Okay. I will.”
“I’m serious. If anything happens, just give me a call. Anytime, anyplace.”
“Alright already, don’t you have work to do, you big sap?”
Shining let out a genuine laugh, and Twilight sighed with relief. “Yeah okay, you caught me. Just trying to get out of working for as long as possible. Seriously, do you have any idea how much paperwork getting stabbed involves?”
Now it was Twilight’s turn to laugh. “Okay, I’ll let you get back to your stab work. Seeya later, BBBFF.” Shining said goodbye, and Twilight hung up the phone, finally turning to the counter to get a slice from one of the pizza boxes.
“Can you grab me one?” Dusky’s voice asked behind her.
Twilight passed the slice she’d just grabbed for herself to Dusky, and then grabbed another for herself.
“Thanks,” Dusky said before taking a bite. “Mmm! I don’t know why nobody likes pineapple on pizza, this stuff’s delicious!”
“I know, right? It’s the great mystery of our time,” Twilight said with a chuckle. The pair ate in silence for a moment while the sounds of raucous gaming trickled in from the other room. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask…” Twilight said after swallowing her bite of pizza. “How did you end up with the Fake AH Crew in the first place?”
Dusky—or Kerry (I wonder which one he prefers, Twilight thought)—shrugged. “The same way the rest of them joined up, from what I understand. Geoff found me.”
“He found you?”
But Dusky had taken another bite of pizza, and only managed an “Mm” before swallowing. “My family and I grew up dirt poor in Los Santos. I used to rip off rich assholes to help us make ends meet. One day I stole from Geoff.” Dusky let out a little laugh. “Had no idea who he was at the time. Thought he was just another rich asshole. Then the next day two members of his crew showed up—the R&R connection. That’s Ryan and Ray. Thought I was a dead man. Instead, they offered me a job.”
“Geoff was that impressed by you?”
“No,” Dusky shook his head. “But I think he saw something in me. Potential maybe. Whatever the reason, I was in. Geoff took me on as a sort of apprentice. He even had Michael set my family up with a nice apartment.” A nostalgic smile crept across Dusky’s face, and for the first time since she’d met him, Twilight noticed he looked wise beyond his years. “I really owe Geoff a lot.”
Twilight nodded. It was a nice enough story, but there was just one little detail that didn’t add up. “If that’s true… why did you betray him?”
The nostalgic smile was gone in an instant, and Twilight felt a moment of guilt. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound….”
“I didn’t want to do it—it wasn’t my idea,” Dusky answered anyway. “I had to go along with it… he gave me no choice.”
“Dusky… did someone else in the Fake AH Crew put you up to it?” Twilight asked, and Dusky’s silence was telling. “Who?”
“What do you care anyway?!” Dusky snapped. “This doesn’t affect you!”
“Of course it does!” Twilight snapped back. “If you get killed over this, it’s gonna affect me a lot! I…” Twilight sighed, letting the petty anger out in a single breath. “I care about you, Dusky.”
The words seemed to take all of the indignant anger out of Dusky too. “Right. I’m sorry.” He then gave her a comforting smile. “But you have nothing to worry about. I’m in the clear. We both are!
“The Fake AH Crew still has no idea you have the thumb drive… and they have no idea I betrayed them.”
“HEIST!” A little man dressed in orange and purple exclaimed to his gathered fellows. It was seven in the morning, and each of them nursed a cup of coffee like a newborn babe as they sat around the conference room table. The gentle rock of the S.S Boner gave some of the men present the thought that they might still be dreaming. Later revelations would prompt the same thought.
Li’l J wasn’t wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, and the gathered members of the Fake AH Crew couldn’t help but notice that his previously sea-blue hair was now bright red. Indeed, the stocky little man seemed particularly impassioned today, and privately, Geoff the Boss suspected he knew why.
“Alright gentlemen, yesterday I sent my partner Matt to do some investigating, and he was able to confirm something we’d always suspected... we’ve been betrayed!” Jeremy held up a small file folder with “Li’l J’s Heist” written on it in black sharpie. “The identity of our turncoat is none other than….”
Jeremy reached into the folder and pulled out a stack of papers, firmly slapping them down on the table for all to see. The black and white image of what appeared to be a pudgy young teenage boy looked back up at them, smiling innocently.
“Kerry,” Li’l J finished succinctly. He made it a point to study the reactions of the gathered members of the crew carefully, searching for any tells.
Gavin gripped the gold embossed handgun on his hip and muttered, “That prick….”
Ray opened his mouth and made a few strangled noises, like he didn’t quite know what to say.
Michael only gave the picture a rage-filled glare.
Ryan reached forward and grabbed the picture to study it closer, his face as unreadable as the mask he usually wore.
Jack merely shook her head and let out a disappointed sigh.
Finally, Geoff looked straight ahead in Jeremy’s direction, but he was somewhere very far away. None of the others’ reactions were telling enough for Jeremy to suspect anything one way or the other, but that had been expected.
“Matt found this information in the records at Canterlot High School, which Kerry has been attending for the past few days… under the name Dusky Darneil.” Curiously, as Jeremy explained this, Ryan started to meticulously tear at the piece of paper with Kerry’s image on it, his face twisted in concentration.
“He’s doing something sick over there,” Michael noted quietly. Ignoring them, Geoff nodded for Jeremy to continue.
“Gentlemen, I’ve spent last night planning a new heist for us,” Jeremy said, folding his beefy arms. “This one isn’t about getting money, or gold. It’s about getting Kerry! Tomorrow, we bag him.”
“Have to say, I’m not sure how I feel about going after one of our own,” Jack said.
“Kerry isn’t one of our own,” Geoff said, his distant gaze now sober and focused. “He gave that up when he gave me up!”
“Right you are, Boss. So here’s what we’re gonna do….” Jeremy spent the next several minutes going over a plan for them to ambush and acquire Kerry, using a map of the area as a visual aid. The plan involved Geoff, Jack, and Jeremy staging a fake ambush, at which point Michael, Ray, and Ryan would appear as fake witness protection officers.
“You guys might need to disguise your voices until you get Kerry in the car,” Jeremy explained.
“I can do that!” Michael replied in a ridiculous deep voice that sounded almost like a discount Sylvester Stallone.
“Uh, I have a question,” Ray said, raising his hand like he was in school. “If we know Kerry betrayed us, why don’t we just bip him as soon as we see him?”
Privately, Jeremy took note of Ray’s apparent eagerness to silence Kerry quickly before explaining, “Because we don’t know how much Kerry told the cops. We need to take him back to the yacht, find out what he knows… and then we’ll deal with him if necessary.”
A hush fell over the room. Despite Ray’s earlier suggestion, the thought of killing someone they had considered a friend seemed unthinkable. Then again, so was the thought of being betrayed by him.
“Ooh, by the time we’re finished with him, I’ll be able to create a new line of suits,” Ryan said, and the rest of the crew all looked at him. “I’ll call it… Kerry Couture!”
Ryan’s painted face was once again covered by a mask, but this one was a far cry from his usual skull mask. The smiling face of Kerry now looked back at each of the members of the Fake AH Crew, cut out from its original picture and taped to Ryan’s forehead.
“I told you he was doing something sick,” Michael said, glancing down at the now headless picture of Kerry on the table.
“Do you have other fashion lines, Ryan?” Gavin asked, genuinely curious. Jeremy was surprised that was the thing Gavin thought was weird about this scene.
“Right, now that we have the plan, we’re only missing one more thing,” Jeremy continued. “We need codenames. Now….” The door to the conference room opened slightly at that moment, and someone cautiously peeked in. Without even thinking about it, Jeremy turned and shouted, “GET OUTTA HERE, WE’RE HEISTING!”
Clearly Li’l J’s choler over Kerry’s betrayal was making him lose focus, as a closer look at the person peeking in revealed it was none other than Lindsay.
“Sorry guys, but I thought this was important,” she said, cautiously stepping in with an encouraging nod from Michael. The natural red-haired man shot a glare at Jeremy as Lindsay approached Geoff. “You left your phone by the bar. Looks like someone has been trying to reach you. There’s quite a few missed calls.”
Right away something didn’t add up. Geoff had gotten a simple burner phone ever since his escape from Bolingbroke. Nobody should have that number that wasn’t already in this room.
The phone started ringing as Lindsay placed it in his hand, and Geoff exchanged a perplexed look with the rest of the crew.
“Just let it go to voicemail so we can finish planning this heist,” Jack said.
Geoff pressed a button to do exactly that, but his curiosity over who could possibly be calling him on this phone was piqued. So, Geoff decided to put the phone on speaker as his personalized voicemail message started to play.
“…. Uh… me-uh, eugh…. Is it… recording? New- hello? New voicem- This is Geoff!”
A bemused silence filled the room as a female monotone instructed the caller to leave a message at the tone.
“Somehow that’s actually more concise than your last voicemail,” Michael noted.
It was then that a familiar dark, accented voice was emitted from the phone. “Geoff, for your own sake I hope you’re getting these messages,” said the voice of Smoked Clupea. “Call me back as soon as you get this.”
Geoff didn’t waste any time scrambling to pick up the phone. “Hello? I’m here, Mr. Clupea!”
“Ah, finally. Do you have the research data from Humane Labs?”
“Whoa, slow down there, buddy. We still have a week to find it, remember?”
“The situation has changed,” Clupea stated ominously. “I have just been informed that just last night Humane Labs has come into possession of a certain… asset. We need to accelerate the deadline.”
“But that’s impossible!” Geoff exclaimed. “One week is cutting it close as is. There’s no way we’ll be able to find it in even less time!”
“You are going to try,” Clupea simply said. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to find someone who can. Someone like, say… the Funhaus Gang?”
“You wouldn’t… no one in their right mind would associate with them!”
“I will do whatever it takes to put Glamorie Industries at the top of the weapons development industry. Even if it means scraping the bottom of the barrel.
“Two days, Geoff.”
Just like that, the call was disconnected.
“Alright, well… everybody take five. We’ll reconvene in a bit to assign codenames,” Jeremy said, but suddenly the prospect of getting Kerry didn’t seem as important as it had before.
The other five Fakes left the room with Lindsay, and soon it was just Geoff and Jeremy in the conference room.
“We could always call the heist off to look for the thumb drive,” Jeremy said. “Kerry can wait.”
“No,” Geoff said firmly. “Kerry knows where it is. I know that kid too well to not be able to tell when he’s lying.”
“So we get Kerry, we get the drive.”
“The drive, and the identity of which of them betrayed me,” Geoff said, inclining his head to the door where the others had left. “Though, I think I found a flaw in your plan: Whichever one of them it is, they will warn Kerry we’re coming for him.”
“You’re right. That’s why we’re not going to be getting Kerry tomorrow like I said. We’re getting him in two hours. The setup has already been completed.”
Finally, a pleased smile appeared on Geoff’s face. “Good. Then there’s no one who can help that kid now….”
Twilight Sparkle yawned as she stood at the bus stop in the early morning air. The previous night’s festivities went on a little later than anyone had really planned, as such she hadn’t quite gotten a full night’s sleep. She wouldn’t have traded it for anything though. It felt good to have friends like hers.
She checked her watch and frowned. It looked like her bus was running late. But as luck would have it, she wouldn’t even need it. A plain, unassuming sedan pulled up to the curb beside her and rolled the window down. Inside, Twilight saw the familiar face behind the wheel.
“Oh, hey Dusky! I didn’t know you had your license,” she said with a smile. “Or a car for that matter!”
“Hop in, Twilight,” Dusky simply said. He didn’t say it unkindly, but there was a certain… tension in his voice that gave Twilight pause.
“Everything okay, Dusky?”
“I’ll explain later. Now c’mon. You don’t want to be late for school, right?”
Still uncertain, Twilight nevertheless decided to give her friend the benefit of the doubt and got into the passenger seat beside him, and they were off. After a couple of minutes of silence, Twilight thought to break the ice with some small-talk.
“Can’t believe Rainbow actually tried to buy us all booze last night.”
Dusky smiled a smile that was both happy and sadly nostalgic. “Yeah. Your friends are… they’re a real colorful bunch of characters. Wish I had more time to get to know them.”
Twilight was about to ask what he meant, but Dusky kept right on talking. “You heard anything from Sunset yet?”
“No,” Twilight sighed when she remembered her friend’s current MIA status. “If she doesn’t show up at school today, I was thinking we might have to file a missing person’s report with the police.”
“Well, she seems like a tough girl. I’m sure she’s doing fine.”
“You’re probably right.” Twilight gave him an appreciative smile. “Thanks.”
Dusky smiled back, like his mood was being led along by hers. The two of them drove along in comfortable silence for a bit, until Twilight noticed they were approaching the highway.
“Um, Dusky? The school’s the other way.”
“I know. There’s… something I have to do first.”
Twilight studied him with a curious frown. “Dusky please, what’s going on?”
“I told you, I’ll explain everything, just…” Dusky trailed off for a moment, a frown forming on his own face. “I just want to savor this moment a little longer. Please… tell me some more stories about your friends.”
Twilight was puzzled, but nonetheless honored his request. She told him about the pet playdate she and them had in the park the previous weekend. She talked about how she met each of them during the Friendship Games. She told story after story about herself and her friends, and Dusky listened quietly, taking in every word.
Finally, they exited the highway and arrived at a worn-out road off the beaten path. The road ended at what Twilight quickly realized was a private airfield, with a run down, moderately sized hangar off to one side and a single-engine plane waiting on the tarmac. Twilight followed Dusky as he got out of the car and moved around to the trunk, where a couple of suitcases waited. Twilight got a sinking feeling in her gut.
“I… I have to go,” Dusky said with a sense of finality that put a lump in Twilight’s throat.
“Go where?” Twilight asked.
“I-I can’t tell you,” Dusky said, letting out a long, resigned sigh. “I was wrong. We’re not in the clear. Or I’m not, anyway.”
Dusky pulled out his phone pulled something up on it, then turned it to show Twilight. A single text from an unknown sender was on display in front of her.
> They know. You need to leave town immediately. Plane is waiting at the evac point as previously discussed.
That painful lump in Twilight’s throat grew, and already she could feel the tears start to come, but she fought them off. It was a pyrrhic victory. “S-so, t-this is… goodbye?”
“Please don’t…” Dusky pleaded. “Please don’t make this harder than it already is.” With a confidence uncharacteristic of him, Dusky took her hands in his, and for a moment he seemed ten years older than he was. “Twilight, you were the first friend… the first real friend that I’ve ever had. As long as I live, I will never forget that.”
Without a second thought, Twilight threw her arms around him, and after the most minute of pauses, Dusky returned the embrace. The two of them stood there, holding each other for a few more moments before separating much too soon.
“Sorry for bringing you out all this way,” Dusky said, and gave her a sad smile. “Guess you’ll be late for school after all.”
“It’s not a big deal. Though… I don’t exactly have my license yet. How am I getting back?”
At that, Dusky gave a single self-deprecating laugh. “Man, I’m such an idiot. Didn’t even consider that. Didn’t even plan on taking you all the way out here—was just gonna drop you off at school and say goodbye then.” Dusky pulled out his phone again. “Here, I’ll call you an Uber.” He then gave her a silly little grin. “You’re an Uber.”
“Pfft. That was so funny I forgot to laugh.” But sure enough, Twilight did find herself laughing at the lame joke. With the Uber driver on the way, Twilight and Dusky proceeded to say their final goodbyes, and Dusky turned and started walking across the tarmac to the waiting plane.
“Wait!” Twilight called out as she realized something. Dusky turned back around and Twilight ran out to him and spoke in a hushed voice. “Uh, what about the, y’know… your little gold tower?”
Also remembering the valuable thumb drive, Dusky asked, “Do you have it with you?”
Twilight thought for a second, and realized she had left it back at home. “No, sorry.”
“It’s okay, maybe this is for the best. After all, it’s your deep dark secrets on that thing. So keep it, destroy it, do whatever you want. As far as anyone else knows, it’s lost forever.”
With a cautious smile, Twilight nodded. “Okay.”
“Goodbye, Twilight.” Dusky turned around again, but Twilight had one last thing to say.
“And Dusky…” Dusky turned back around. “If this ever blows over… when you no longer have to hide, look me up. I’d love to reconnect.”
“It could be a very long time before it’ll be safe. We could be old farts living on alzheimer's’ meds and Werthers,” Dusky gave her one last grin. “But we’d have a lot to tell each other!”
Dusky turned again and resumed the long trek down the tarmac. Twilight couldn’t think of anything else to say—no more little excuses to keep him in her life for just one moment longer. So Twilight simply watched him go, wondering if whatever was still left unsaid would haunt her until she was old—living on alzheimer's’ meds and Werthers.
Twilight’s ruminations were abruptly interrupted by a deafening BOOM and a blast of heat. The plane Dusky had been walking towards was now a burning husk of twisted metal. In front of it was Dusky, lying on the ground. He was still.
“DUSKY!!” Without thinking, Twilight ran across the tarmac until she was beside him. The heat from the flames that engulfed the plane made her sweat, but Twilight didn’t care. She turned Dusky over so he was on his back. “Dusky wake up!!!”
For one agonizing moment Twilight thought he wouldn’t, but then a feeble groan escaped the pudgy boy’s lips and the next moment his eyes were open.
“W-whuh da hell…?” Dusky didn’t have time to finish that thought, as the loud sound of a gun’s rapport cut him off. Twilight heard the bullet whoosh past and impact on the pavement mere meters behind them. The sound was immediately followed by another. The shots seemed to be coming from the treeline on the hill overlooking the south side of the tarmac. Twilight looked around. There wasn’t a lot of cover out on the open runway but she did spot a few concrete barriers set up just off to the north of the runway, separating it from what appeared to be a small parking lot.
Using all her strength to help Dusky to his feet, Twilight ran for it. The third gunshot seemed to bring him back to his senses, and before long he was helping Twilight scramble for cover as much as she was helping him. What was only a few seconds felt like minutes, but eventually the pair made it behind the first concrete barrier unscathed. There was enough gunfire raining around them that it felt like a warzone, and Twilight thought it was a miracle that they made it to cover unscathed.
“It’s the Fake AH Crew, isn’t it?!” Twilight asked loudly over the gunfire.
“Yep, sure looks like it!” Dusky replied sardonically.
“Well what do we do?!”
“Working on that!”
Twilight heard a sharp whoosh and another BOOM, and the car Dusky had picked her up in went up in another fiery explosion. Twilight had to admit the attack had been scary at first, but by the looks of things it was pretty uncoordinated. There’s gotta be a way we can use that.
Another gunshot took out a large chunk of the concrete barricade they were hiding behind. Whatever they were packing was clearly pretty heavy duty, and Twilight found herself wondering how much longer their cover was going to last.
Just then she heard the sound of a car horn frantically honking over the gunfire, and a look in the direction of the noise yielded a strange sight. A black limousine was flooring it along the tarmac towards their position. As it got closer, Twilight noticed it looked more heavily armored than a car like that should be, and on top where the sunroof should be a large machine gun was mounted.
For a brief moment Twilight thought they had been flanked, and her heart stopped in her chest as she saw someone climb up onto the mounted turret from inside the limo. But then the vehicle pulled up just beside where she and Dusky had taken cover, and the gunman started firing the turret into the trees where their attackers seemed to be.
Then a man dressed in a black suit and tie wearing large sunglasses got out, and shouted, “Mr. Shawcross! You need to get in the vehicle now. We’re here to protect you!” For some reason, his voice sounded like a man from New Jersey doing a bad Sylvester Stallone impression. “We’re the special security that you ordered!”
The other man grabbed Dusky by the back of his collar and kept him low as he led him into the back door of the limo. Not knowing what else to do, Twilight followed, far too overwhelmed to even consider that it was all an elaborate trap.
“Welcome to Hell, bitch!” the familiar voice of Ray the Brownman shouted from the driver’s seat as the doors locked and the limo sped away.
The man in the mounted turret swiveled his seat in the cramped confines of the limo, placing his groin uncomfortably close to Dusky’s face. “Your penance is you have to stare at my penis for the rest of this trip!” the voice of Ryan the Vagabond called down.
Sitting opposite to them, the man who had called out to them to get into the limo put a hand up to his earpiece. “This is Savage Animal Idiot. Fuck Train, Daddy Cock and I have the Package,” said the Jersey voice of Michael. “On our way to the bridge!”
“Why are you guys using codenames?” Twilight asked, folding her arms crossly and trying not to show just how much she was still shaking. “Dusky and I know who you are!”
Michael and Twilight locked eyes for several seconds. Finally, Michael gestured to her and shouted, “What the fuck is she doing here?!”
On the hill overlooking the private airstrip, Geoff slung his high-powered sniper rifle over his shoulder and took a breath. Kerry’s betrayal had angered him so greatly that for a moment he was tempted to actually shoot him for real. Then he saw that girl… Twilight, and all of a sudden he had the opposite problem. He might not have been able to shoot at all if Jeremy hadn’t taken the first shot and snapped him out of his stupor.
Geoff really didn’t want to hurt the girl. Truth be told he’d grown rather fond of her in the short time they’d known each other. But he had to follow through with the plan. Had to find out which one of his crew had betrayed him through Kerry. So with that in mind, Geoff had joined in firing on the two teens far below. None of the shots were meant to harm, of course. They just needed to get Kerry scared enough not to question a convenient avenue of escape when it presented itself.
He heard Michael’s voice through his earpiece as the limo drove away, reporting that he and his team had “the Package.” Geoff put a hand to his own earpiece and replied, “This is Scary Butt. Monster Truck and I are executing the next phase of the plan. Water Choo-Choo, what’s your status?”
A second later, he heard Jack’s voice answer, “I’m making my way along the coast to the extraction point.”
“Very good. Asshole Baguette?”
“Flying over the bridge,” Gavin reported.“C4’s already been planted.”
Geoff turned to Jeremy and nodded, and the two of them returned to their own vehicle—a modified green Bifta. The pair drove away, completely unaware that they’d left a witness down at the airstrip. Parked just on the edge of the parking lot, engine still running, was the Uber driver who had been called by Dusky to drive Twilight back into town. The man sat behind the wheel, mouth agape at the brief but explosive mock battle he had just witnessed.
Shaking his head in disbelief, the man reached for his phone and dialled 911
Siren wailing, a single police cruiser raced down the highway at speeds well above the speed limit. Traffic in front of it parted like the red sea before Moses, and all the while its driver gripped the wheel so tightly his palms were sure to have an imprint of the pattern on its underside later. This did not go unnoticed by the female officer riding shotgun.
“You think it’s them?” Melati Jasmine asked.
“Who else could it be?” replied Shining Armor.
“Gotta admit, the use of explosives and heavy weapons is a pretty dead giveaway, but I can’t imagine what they could possibly be up to.”
Shining allowed himself a cocksure grin. “When we catch them, we’ll ask them.”
“They’re probably long gone by now, bud.”
But it was a few minutes later when they saw it. “Does that limo have a fucking fifty-cal on it?”
Sure enough, approaching down the highway from the opposite direction was a black limousine with a massive gun where the sunroof should have been. Shining and Melati exchanged a brief look that communicated everything that needed to be said.
In one swift motion, Shining put on the brakes and spun the wheel, letting the police cruiser spin one-eighty degrees into the oncoming lane. As Shining accelerated after the clearly illegally modified limousine, Melati grabbed the radio and spoke into the receiver.
“All units, this is officer Jasmine. Spotted suspect vehicle heading east on Highway 7. Approaching Horseshoe Bay.”
“Fuck. It’s the Popo!” Ray shouted from the driver’s seat. Sure enough, a police car with its sirens wailing was approaching down the highway from the other direction.
“Just keep driving, Fuck Train,” Michael ordered. “Maybe they’re not after us.”
But when they passed the police cruiser, it did a full one-eighty sliding spin into their lane and started accelerating after them.
“Nope, they’re definitely after us! Shoot ‘em, Daddy Cock!”
“On it!” Ryan exclaimed as he swiveled in the turret, once again putting his codenamesake in Dusky’s face.
“Of all the codenames you could have gone with…” Twilight groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose to keep the migraine at bay. “Daddy Cock? Why…?”
“I dunno, ask Jer… I mean, ask Monster Truck!” Michael said. “He came up with the theme for the codenames.”
Twilight had to wonder what theme incorporated both Fuck Train and Daddy Cock, but any response she might have had was cut off as Ryan started firing on the turret. Covering her ears, Twilight turned to look out the window behind her, and saw the police cruiser swerving desperately to avoid the oncoming hail of bullets. The officer in the passenger’s seat of the police car tried to return fire with their sidearm, but it did little to penetrate the limo’s armored exterior.
Ryan got a bead on them again with the machine gun, and Twilight watched as the front of the hood of the police car filled with holes, and one of the headlights shattered to pieces. The police car swerved to the left and got behind the trailer of a large eighteen-wheeler that the limo was passing. Ryan tried to track them with the turret to put a few more holes in their cruiser, but only ended up hitting the side of the trailer.
For a few moments the gunfire stopped, and the two vehicular combatants drove along in silence with nothing but the massive truck trailer dividing them. The Fake AH Crew’s limo pulled ahead of the truck, and Ryan readied the turret to fire on the police cruiser as soon as it appeared.
Except the cruiser had accelerated fast enough to pass the truck well before they did, and before Ryan could realize his prey was now ahead of them, the officer riding shotgun took aim with her handgun (the officer was definitely female, Twilight realized) and fired. Although the bullets from the sidearm weren’t enough to penetrate the limo’s armor, Ryan’s position on the turret was much more exposed. The first two shots went wide of the mark, but the third managed to graze the killer’s left shoulder, eliciting a cry of surprise and pain. Ryan got off the turret and ducked down into the limo clutching his bleeding shoulder, avoiding two more shots.
With the machine gun turret temporarily neutralized, the police cruiser slowed enough to get beside and slightly behind the limo, then with a sharp swerve rammed the back side of it. Twilight and Dusky were jostled in their seat as the limo started to slide to and fro from the attempted pit maneuver.
“OOOOOOOUGH!” Ray shrieked as he tried to bring the limo under control. It took a few seconds but Ray eventually managed to get the limo driving straight again.
Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Michael picked up his assault rifle and knocked out the window with the butt. He then took aim at the police cruiser as it prepared another attempted pit maneuver. It never got the chance, as Michael’s finger squeezed the trigger and Twilight pressed both hands to her ears once again.
The side of the police car was riddled with bullets, and a loud POP accompanied the utter destruction of the front tire. Now it was the cruiser’s turn to skid uncontrollably. By some stroke of fortune (or misfortune for the police) the cruiser hit a pothole and completely flipped over, rolling around once, twice, and three times before coming to a stop upright.
Smirking, Michael sat back in his seat, resting the assault rifle beside him. His smirk quickly disappeared at the sound of more police sirens.
As Ryan got back on the machine gun turret and resumed firing, Twilight only hoped the police officers in the crashed cruiser were okay.
His heart racing, it took Shining Armor a couple of seconds to process that they’d stopped moving. Removing two trembling hands from the steering wheel, Shining checked himself. By all appearances, he wasn’t injured, but his right shoulder hurt like a son of a bitch. Clearly the crash had agitated the injury there from the other day. And seeing him up on that machine gun certainly didn’t help.
“Ugh… you okay, Mel?” Shining asked, but received no answer. “Mel?”
Shining’s heart started racing again as he looked over to where his partner was seated… and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw her put a hand to her forehead.
“Ow… yeah, I’m fine. Sorry,” Melati said. “Whew, if there was ever a time I’m glad to have been wearing a seatbelt….” “Yeah, no kidding…” Shining then noticed the smoke rising from the hood of their vehicle. “I don’t think we’re gonna be continuing the chase any time soon, though.”
Melati just gave him a grin. “Well, not with that attitude!”
With that, the Muslim woman hopped out of the car and Shining followed. A blue beamer had pulled over to the side of the highway just behind their wreck of a police car and an unassuming bald man poked out.
“You okay, officers?” the man asked. “I’m a trained paramedic, so if either of you’re injured I can take a look. It’s my day off, but….”
Melati gave the man her most charming smile. “Actually, if you want to help, my partner and I need to commandeer your vehicle. I promise you’ll get it back!”
“Oh, well I suppose I can do that… just so long as I make sure neither of you have a concussion or any similar injuries.”
Shining pulled Melati aside. “Mel, I’m loving the enthusiasm, but this isn’t necessary. We did our duty, now let’s let the other officers handle this.”
“What happened to the guy who was so gung-ho about getting the Fake AH Crew?” she asked in response.
Shining hesitated. “He’s still there, it’s just…” Shining felt his shoulder, “he thought he’d actually listen to his partner for a change.”
“And his partner might just know a shortcut that will allow us to cut them off, assuming they’re headed for the coast like I think they are.” When Melati saw Shining’s uncertain look, she gave him a smile. “Don’t worry, we’re not rushing into a situation we’re not prepared for. Not this time! Nobody’s going to carve you up while I’m around!”
At last, Shining returned her smile. “Well, we’d better hurry if we want to catch them.”
From his position in the pilot’s seat of the dual-rotored cargobob helicopter, Gavin looked down at the bridge that spanned the Horseshoe River. The bridge spanned the point right where the river emptied into Horseshoe Bay, and all around him was water. Gavin had his left hand on the helicopter’s controls, and in his right he held the remote detonator, its red button seeming to say, “Push Me.”
Not yet, Gavin thought. But soon. He was keeping an ear on the radio frequency he and the other members of the Crew were using for this “heist” (such as it was). The acquisition team was nearly there. Sure enough, further down the highway to the west, Gavin could see the flashes of gunfire and police lights as the tiny limo raced towards the bridge, the police in hot pursuit.
They look like toys from up here, Gavin thought, his thumb stroking the red button on the detonator. He did always love playing with toys….
Right as the limo approached the bridge, a bright red flare shot up from it. For good measure, Michael’s voice came in over the radio. “Blow it, Asshole Baguette! Now!”
Gavin didn’t need to be told twice. His thumb depressed the button, and after a satisfying click, a trail of explosions followed the black limo along the bridge until it stopped right in the center. A chorus of screaming over the radio accompanied the sight.
“Jesus you almost killed us!” Ray shouted.
“Sorry boys, comin’ down to get you!” Gavin said, before bringing both hands to the chopper controls and beginning his descent.
The police had been trailing the limo quite a distance back, most likely to avoid the machine gun turret that Ryan was no doubt having far too much fun with. As such, when the explosives on the bridge went off, all of the police cruisers managed to slam their brakes on and stop just before crossing the bridge’s threshold. Seeing the now ravaged concrete bridge, none of the cops dared set foot on it. Gavin had been careful not to set any explosives anywhere that would seriously compromise the bridge’s structural integrity… but the police didn’t know that.
Thus, Gavin was able to bring the cargobob down over the limo with minimal harassment. In less than half a minute, Ryan managed to attach the hook on the bottom of the cargobob to the limo and Gavin took off, bringing the limo high above Horseshoe Bay. There was only one more step in Li’l J’s heist now, and Gavin checked to make sure the one item he needed would be ready: A parachute pack with the Union Jack on it.
“This is Savage Animal Idiot, the acquisition team is in the air. What’s your status, diversion team?”
Further up the Horseshoe River, Geoff and Jeremy exited the treeline and made their way to where Jack was waiting in a large speedboat. The two of them were rubbing their aching necks. Despite that, they were faring better than their ride.
Jeremy spoke into his earpiece, “Hey, Savage Animal Idiot. Scary Butt, Water Choo-Choo, and I are rendezvousing with whiplash. Our next stop is the main rendezvous point.”
“Who the fuck is Whiplash?” Michael asked incredulously. “Did we bring another guy onto this heist?”
As he and Jeremy climbed into Jack’s boat, Geoff took a forlorn look back up the tree-covered valley, where somewhere up there was a green Bifta with its metal hood crushed against a tree.
“Whiplash may or may not be code for ‘Monster Truck can’t fucking drive.’”
Twilight had thought she was terrified during her road trip with the Fake AH Crew yesterday. Now, she wished she could go back to that simpler time. At least then, the crazy gang’s ride had been on the ground. Twilight clung to the handle above the door for dear life as she tried not to look out the window at the ocean far, far below. Twilight was afraid for a moment that her breakfast would come back up, but she managed to keep it down by focusing on what else was happening in the limo.
“We got you now you rat fuck!” Michael shouted, sounding incredibly Jersey.
“Snitches get stitches, bitch!” Ryan added, sounding incredibly white.
“Yeah, so you’d better tell us who put you up to it or things are gonna get real bad for you!” Ray said. Dusky looked to each of them in turn, eyes wide and afraid. “I can’t… I can’t tell you!”
Ryan took the seat beside Dusky and put a hand on his shoulder. “Kerry… do you have a family?”
Shaking, Dusky nodded.
“And would you like to see them again?”
“Hey! Let’s leave the family out of this. It’s not necessary,” Michael said, before giving Kerry a wolfish grin. “He’ll tell us everything we need to know back on the yacht.” Michael then pounded a fist into his open palm threateningly. “He just needs some encouragement!”
“No!” Twilight suddenly shouted, surprising even herself. Every other head in the flying limo slowly turned to look at her.
“Excuse me?” Michael stated, making a show of cleaning out his ears and leaning forward to listen.
It took some courage, but Twilight thought of the consequences for her friend if she remained silent and looked Michael right in the eye as she repeated. “No. You are not hurting my friend!”
Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw Ryan beside her sign something to Michael, who glared at him and vehemently shook his head before leveling a surprisingly calm gaze at Twilight.
“Listen, kid… I’m only gonna say this once: This doesn’t concern you.”
“It does when you’re threatening one of my friends!”
“It’s just business, don’t worry about it!” Michael explained with a casual shrug. “Once we learn what we need to, Kerry’ll be let go. Easy-peasy!”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Don’t insult my intelligence by lying to my face.”
With another shrug, Michael said, “Sorry kid. Them’s the breaks.” Michael pulled out a pistol and turned his attention to Dusky. “Kerry shoulda known what he was getting into when he betrayed us!”
With growing despair, Twilight realized she wasn’t going to convince them to spare her friend. At least, not without something to offer. Evidently, Dusky realized this too, as the pair exchanged a knowing look, and Dusky just shook his head and mouthed don’t.
But Twilight knew she had to. It would be akin to sacrificing her own life for him, but if she didn’t….
If she didn’t, Twilight couldn’t honestly tell herself she wasn’t the monster everyone seemed to think she is.
“I know where the thumb drive is.”
For a moment, it was as if time froze inside the flying limo as once again every head turned to look at her. Every face was one of utter shock, and in that moment Twilight had complete control of their attention. It was terrifying, but in a way, kind of empowering. Twilight used it to go on.
“Dusky’s little gold tower. The one with all the data you stole in one of your big heists. I found it.”
Ryan immediately reached toward her with an outstretched hand. “Give it!”
“I… don’t actually have it with me. But I do have it.” Twilight took a breath. That little tower had her deepest darkest secret, and here she was, using it as a bargaining chip. “And I’ll give it to you… on one condition: You let Dusky go!”
“We can’t do that,” Ray said from up in the driver’s seat. “We need to know what he knows.”
“More than you need that tower?” Twilight asked.
The limo was silent save for the sound of the rotors outside. Finally, Michael said, “Alright, here’s the deal: We let you go, you grab the tower, and you meet us at the docks down on Harbor Street at sun down.”
“Dusky comes with me,” Twilight said boldly. A little too boldly.
“Nuh-uh,” was Michael’s response.
“We’re gonna keep him until we get the tower,” Ryan said. “Think of it as insurance. Gotta make sure you stick to your end of the deal.”
Chewing her lip, Twilight looked to Dusky, who gave her a reassuring nod. I’ll be okay, he seemed to be telling her.
“F-fine,” Twilight conceded. “But if you even put one scratch on him, I’ll smash the drive right then and there!”
Michael nodded, and beside her, Ryan gave her a look that seemed to indicate that he was genuinely impressed… and perhaps even proud.
“Sounds like we have a deal then,” Michael said.
It was at that moment Gavin’s voice appeared on the radio. “Alright guys, we’re at the main rendezvous point. Time to jump!”
Twilight’s heart sunk into her chest. Jump? It then occurred to her to express that thought aloud. “J-JUMP?!”
But the others didn’t answer her. Instead, Michael and Ryan pulled what appeared to be backpacks out from under the seats. Ryan pulled out an additional one and gave it to Dusky.
“Hey Ray, you didn’t happen to bring any extra ‘chutes, did ya?” Ryan asked.
Ray—who Twilight noted through the little window to the driver’s cabin was putting on his own “backpack”—said, “Of course. Any heist that involves Gavin flying something I always pack extra!”
The Puerto Rican reached under his feet, pulled out another pack and passed it back through the window to Michael, who in turn placed it into Twilight’s lap. Twilight suddenly heard what sounded like a shrieking bird and briefly caught a glimpse of what appeared to be the Union Jack pass by the window.
“You’d better hurry up and put that on,” Michael said. “Looks like the helicopter’s already on its crash course.”
With that, Michael opened the door and with a cry of “Geronimo!” leapt out into the blue. Ryan all but tossed Dusky out after him, before glancing back at Twilight, pointing at his watch, then jumping out himself. Trembling, Twilight took the long journey over to the open door. The rushing wind felt like a hurricane, and drowned out even the helicopter’s rotors. Twilight felt around for a chord and found it, clutching it tightly. Then, she looked out at the ocean miles and miles below.
This time, Twilight was not able to keep her breakfast down.