Cross Reference

by Eyeswirl the Weirded

First published

Following the events of the Friendship Games, various parties adapt to their new lives.

A few weeks after the Friendship Games, the sirens settle into their new school lives. Waiting for them are friends old and new, acquaintances, complete strangers, and a few people they're not sure how to react to at all. The human Twilight Sparkle formally begins her studies into Friendship, with Sunset and the others there to help whenever possible. Across town, Principle Cinch makes the effort to find out exactly what her school is made of as the Shadowbolts... just kind of do stuff as normal. Nothing really changed for them, bar a few new students they'll be getting to know soon.

They and others will take each day as it comes.

Chapter 1: First Days (Part 1)

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Standing in the living room one Monday morning, Adagio found herself nearly overwhelmed with a torrent of feelings. She couldn't identify many of them, but she was sure some kind of pride was in there somewhere and she could probably ask Sunset about the rest. The source of these feelings came from the girl in front of her; standing before a full-length mirror and wearing her new, long-sleeved Crystal Prep uniform. Sonata looked so sharp, so smooth, so... professional!

At least when she stopped picking her nose.

"This is really it," Sonata said with a nervous grin as she turned to face Adagio, "we're really going! Our first day at the super school!"

As she wouldn't be joining Aria and Sonata where they were going, Adagio wore her old, purple dance outfit with the jumpsuit and spiked heels. "It is not a 'super school,' but they will have higher expectations from you than what we glimpsed in CHS." She winked playfully. "So, put in about half as much effort as you did back home and you should be fine."

As Sonata giggled, Aria trudged in, looking a lot less enthused about her new outfit. "Ugh. It ain't a belly-shirt, but... Plaid. Do we really have to wear these?"

Sonata looked her over, looked over herself, looked at Aria again, crossed her arms, and huffed. "Well, one of us is gonna hafta change."

Aria facepalmed. "It's a uniform, stupid. We wore one when we were CHS's cheerleaders?"

"Just because we're in uniform, doesn't mean we have to look the same!"

"That is exactly what uniform means!"

"Nuh-uh! The Crackhead Prep kids we saw had all kindsa different outfits!"

She chose to just let Sonata get in trouble if she said that when they got there. "No they didn't!"

"Did too! Some had short sleeves, some had miniskirts, and there were a bunch of different sock lengths! I know my clothes!!"

"Er..." Her memory on what the other team was wearing not being in crystal clarity, she looked to Adagio for a 50-50 shot at being backed up vs. Adagio taking Sonata's side just to mess with her. Somehow, she got neither, the two finding Adagio to be holding a tissue and looking back at them with watery eyes.

"Oh, I-I'm sorry," she said with a wobbly smile, "j-just..." Sniff! "They grow up so fa-ha-haaasst!!" She loudly blew her nose, even if Aria wasn't the least bit fooled by her routine. Luckily, it appeared that Sonata was, as ever, less perceptive, the most adorable little blush blossoming on her cheeks as she awkwardly brushed the back of her neck.

"Jeez, Dagi..."

Aria's head tilted. "'Grow up'?! We've been together for over a century!!"

Dropping the act, Adagio giggled. "You're sure you have everything you need?"

"We're good. You gonna be okay all alone at CHS?"

At this, Adagio stopped smiling. "I'll be fine. It might get a little boring during the day, but I'll be here when you get back."

Besides, I'll have Sunset and the rest to talk to, so it's not like I could get lonely.

She was startled by Sonata latching onto her in a hug, looking at her with soft, tender eyes. "Don't get in trouble, okay?"

"Hmph," Adagio answered with an amused smirk, "I'm not the one going to the stricter school. See that I don't need to pay bail on top of your tuition."

"Ack! Uh..." Sonata took a step back, wearing that smile that said she was already cancelling certain plans in her head. "Um, haha... right, we'll be-WOAH!"

Aria dragged Sonata towards the door. "We gotta catch the bus. Later!"

Adagio gave them a little wave as they left, resisting the urge to follow them out to the bus stop, wait until it pulled up, then smother them both with hugs and kisses. She felt a just little guilty for even dreaming up such a thing, but this far from Crystal Prep, it was doubtful many of their classmates would see it anyway.

Double-checking that she had everything she needed too, Adagio set out on her own for CHS. She was the head cheerleader now, which seemed to give her a surprising amount of... not power, but, maybe influence, because other students acted like she had some kind of authority over the gym, which happened to be the area she was given for cheer practice if anyone joined. She was treated almost deferentially by students in sporting clubs, even though so far, she was a cheer-squad of one. It was a good thing cheerleading had kind of grown on her, because she had never known it was such a respected position!

Well, that, or they're all afraid of me because of the first time I visited their school.

...Come to think of it, that sort of explained why, in the past week or two since the Friendship Games, no one had joined. Not that she was complaining, especially since, as she told Aria and Sonata, she was trying to learn to be more subordinate herself. Or, at the very least, adapt out most of what she learned in The Hadal Zone. That should be easy enough, surrounded by the Friendship is Magic crew.

It was while waiting at a crosswalk that Adagio first turned her head.

"Aria, do y-...?"

She was alone.

...Well, that was fast.

She wondered how their bus ride was going. If they were arriving at Crystal Prep without incident. If she missed something on one of the forms she'd had to fill out and they weren't being admitted to the school. They would call her if that happened, right? It wouldn't be entirely out of character for them to shrug their shoulders, go home, and spend the rest of the day goofing off, but she wanted to think they would at lea-

"-ight is green now."

Quickly turning her head, she accidentally startled the human Twilight Sparkle. "...I'm sorry, what was it?"

Smiling sheepishly, Twilight pointed at the traffic lights. "I said, the light for our side is green now, you can safely cross the street."

A quick scan of her surroundings revealed this to be the case. "Ah, yes."

There was an awkward pause as the two stood there, but Adagio set off before the light changed again, taking the sound of nearby footsteps to mean that Twilight was following. Made sense, they were almost certainly going to the same place.

"So, you're not wearing the cheerleading outfit today."

"No, the belly-shirt and miniskirt are not my default wardrobe."

"Haha! I-I guess not."

"Any reason you're still wearing your uniform?"

Twilight glanced down at herself. "Um, well... habit, I guess."

"Hm." Small-talk initiated, Adagio seized the opportunity to get some perspective. "How have things been for you in Canterlot High thus far?"

"Great, actually! Everyone's been really friendly and welcoming." Her smile took a slightly rueful turn. "Almost as if I didn't come from a rival school, or possibly endanger the entire universe."

"You did," Adagio said so casually that Twilight flinched, "but CHS has had a bit of a warm-up to these sorts of shenanigans in the form of Sunset Shimmer and my group, so forgiving you probably wasn't much of a leap for most of them." She chose to leave out her suspicions that Twilight's likeness to the princess that came before may have swayed a few minds much faster, as it was something Twilight was probably worried about already.

"Yea, I... guess so. Are you worried about how the other two will do at Crystal Prep?"

Caught off-guard for a split second, Adagio schooled her features before Twilight reacted. She made the mental note that the girl was sharper than her innocent, naive demeanor would suggest. "They'll be fine, I'm sure."

Crystal Prep might not be quite as welcoming a place as CHS, but if one school can put aside such a long-held hatred for its rival, perhaps the other can too?

She was confident that she'd be able to gauge the day Aria and Sonata had had by the looks on their faces when she got home, and spent the rest of the walk to CHS thinking up countermeasures for various outcomes.

Walking beside her, Twilight wasn't sure if they were done talking now, or if she was supposed to say something else. Would they be considered friends at this point? She hadn't really spoken to Adagio much since the sportsmanship-slap was met with a painful (and mortifying, once Cadence heard about it!) face-slap at the Friendship Games after-party, and given what she'd heard about this girl from the others, wanted to make sure there was absolutely no bad blood between them. No topics came to mind until they arrived at the school, where the pristine replacement statue proudly stood. She smiled. "Thanks again for helping with that project, the cement bags were a lot heavier than they looked!"


They kept walking, Twilight's smile gradually slipping away as they stepped through the front door.

Is it me, or is this person just hard to talk to? Am I doing something wrong?

Maybe if she tried some physical gesture of companionship, something other than butt-slapping! She stepped closer to touch Adagio in one of the four or five friendly ways she could recall Sunset and her friends casually demonstrating, but her lack of coordination struck with poor timing, which left Twilight to unintentionally throw her full weight into the contact. The next thing she knew, she was lying partly on top of Adagio, hands on the back of her (soft, but firm!) thighs, one of Adagio's spiked heels scraping against her stomach as the older girl lay face-down in the middle of the school lobby.

Horrified to find herself in this situation (again!!) though she was, Twilight felt the temperature of her insides drop a little further when she looked up to see the rest of her newfound friends at Canterlot High.

"Wow," giggled Pinkie, "first thing in the morning, huh?"

"N-no," Twilight stuttered as she quickly hopped up, "I, it wasn't, I-I didn't mean t-"

Her attention was quickly seized, along with the collar of her shirt, when Adagio got to her feet. It was not thermodynamically conceivable to get hypothermia from fear and distress alone, but the glare on Adagio's lightly flushed face almost made her forget this as her internal organs grew just a little colder.

"Twilight Spark-"

"Wait," Sunset interjected while gently pushing Twilight and Adagio apart, facing the latter with a warm, earnest smile. "I don't know what she was trying to do there, but it probably wasn't to feel you up. Forgive her, please?"

Adagio opened her mouth, but Twilight immediately jumped on the chance to apologize, doing so repeatedly and at slightly higher volume than was called for. The pitiful display mixed with Sunset's Magic of Friendship™ grin made her relent, sighing. "Alright, alright. Wasn't going to hurt her anyway."

Sunset smiled wider. "Great!" It weakened a little when she looked at Twilight. "You could really stand to be more careful, though."

Blushing brightly, Twilight folded in on herself as she studied the floor. "I know." The quiet giggles from the others, and Sunset in particular, didn't exactly make her feel better, but they were leaps and bounds ahead of the mocking jeers she'd experienced elsewhere.

Enjoying the adorable sight of a flustered Twilight though she was, Sunset figured it would be best to limit the poor girl's humiliation as much as possible, especially so early in the day. "C'mon, we should get to first period."

As Sunset started off, Twilight turned to everyone else. "Hello! I mean goodbye! I mean... both!"

The other five Rainbooms, and Adagio, watched in mildly perplexed silence as Twilight sped off in the same general direction as Sunset, but she was fortunate enough not to trip again. And then they looked at each other, that feeling of Our Mutual Friend Has Left fully sinking in on both sides, leaving them in a lasting, awkward silence. Rarity opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by the warning bell.

Rainbow scratched the back of her head, an almost apologetic look on her face. "Well, like, class, so..." She smiled a little. "I mean, unless anyone feels like playing hooky?"

She was lightly thwapped on the back of the head by Applejack, which at least let everyone part in a giggly, light-hearted atmosphere. It wasn't until she was sitting in class that Adagio pondered whether or not Rainbow did that on purpose.

Chapter 2: First Days (Part 2)

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Stepping off the bus, Aria clenched her teeth at the sight of several variations in the Crystal Prep uniform, at least for the girls. Luckily, Sonata's Sonata-ness had kicked in and she apparently didn't even remember arguing about it, but more importantly, this meant that they could at least change up their looks a little. It was as she tried to decide between keeping Sonata close by to scope the place out together and splitting up to have a look around on their own that she was startled by a peppy voice.

"Hi there!"

Turning, she saw that three-flavors-of-girly lady she remembered from the Friendship Games, wearing a welcoming smile as she stepped closer.

"You must be Aria Blaze and Sonata Dusk, right? I'm Dean Cadence, we have about twenty minutes before the first round of classes start, so I can show you around and answer any questions you may have until then."

Briefly looking her over, Sonata smiled. "Wow, I didn't know this place had a maid! Could you bring us some cookies and a soda?"

While Cadence stared blankly back at them, her face frozen in the smile with which she greeted them, Aria slapped a hand over Sonata's mouth. "Uh, don't mind her, she's an idiot. You were gonna show us around?"

"Er, yes," Cadence muttered, brushing off the weird moment, "let's start with the general layout of the building. The first place you'll probably wanna know about is the cafeteria!"

She gestured for them to follow her as she began explaining where they could expect to find the most important rooms with simple directions. Aria and Sonata didn't ask any questions as they went, so her mind was free to wander a little.

A maid, huh? Wonder what Shining would think.

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

With the first three classes of the day finished, Aria could almost physically feel the sensation of stepping out into the first break period, and not just because everyone around her seemed so comparatively cheerful now.

Heh, even here, nobody really likes school, do they?

That had certainly been the case for her and Sonata, way back when. The material in Coltlantis had been much more sophisticated than anything neighboring civilizations would teach, but even so, it had been over a century since their school days, and maybe Aria was just a little bit rusty. That was what she was going to say if Adagio pried about how she was handling the classes so far, backed up by being dumped into the middle of the school year, which meant she could at least say she was just getting into the groove of things. The bright side to all of this, of course, was that Sonata was most likely having even more trouble than her, and deciding who was taking the lead first was as simple as seeing who did better in class.

That wouldn't be the sole determining factor, she knew, but it'd be the first sign of who was on top, one she'd claim for herself just as soon as she found Sonata.

"Well, look who it is!"

Not Sonata, Aria thought to herself as she paid no attention to the familiar voice, would she have gone to the cafeteria first? Cadence even said it was important and Sonata's always been sort of impressionable, so she might have acted on that alo-

"H-hey," complained Indigo Zap as she stepped into Aria's path, a faintly hurt look on her face, "you could at least say 'hi' or something! What, did you pick up the snotty, too-good-for-you gig already?!"

"Maybe," Aria sniffed as she stepped past her, "I'm a fast learner." Proud of herself though she was for her smoothness, she kept looking around for Sonata.

"So how long before you learn some manners?"

Aria stopped. That felt like a burn, and one she couldn't ignore if she wanted to retain the feeling of superiority she thought she'd just secured. She turned around. "As long as it takes you to deserve some."

They stood in silence, and from the look on Goggles Girl's face, she didn't think that was very witty either.

"I called out to you and you ignored me. Who doesn't deserve basic politeness here?"

Aria silently cursed herself. Catty, verbal evisceration was more Adagio's thing, but Aria couldn't exactly threaten anyone here and singing them into shutting up (and possibly bashing their own heads against the nearest rock) wasn't an option anymore, so she'd have to think a little harder. New subject! "Where's the idiot that followed you around before?"

Hands on her hips, Indigo raised an eyebrow. "Where's yours?"

Aria nearly flinched. Either they were a lot more vicious over here or she'd picked a particularly sharp nemesis. "Probably stuffing her face in the cafeteria. By the way? Don't equate me and her, we're nothing alike." She was quickly growing to hate the blank way this girl stared at her.

"...'Kay. Wasn't really gonna, but... So," she said while stretching her arms backwards to loosely support a large, invisible object with both hands, which Aria immediately registered to mean she was pantomiming an embrace of what could only be Adagio's fluff, "where's the other chick?"

A bolt of panic shooting through her chest, Aria quickly glanced around before remembering the arrangement. Even while her face burned, she summoned the will to look at her newest enemy anyway, though she was faintly surprised not to see a look of smug satisfaction so much as the same blank, perplexed stare. "She's. At. CHS."

"No foolin'? Why?"

"Because she didn't wanna come here."

"But she was okay with you guys coming here?"

Personal questions. Aria did not like, and she let it show on her face. "She had her reasons." To her slight gratification, Whatsherface took the hint, taking a step back with palms upraised.

"Okay, okay, jeez! Just thought it was weird that you were here without your boss around, so-"

"What makes you think we take orders from her?"

Now Indigo was well and truly surprised. "You don't?! I mean, the vibe I got from you three was that she called the shots, no questions asked. Trust me, at a place like Crystal Prep, you learn how to spot people who are used to ordering others around, and she looked like she'd been doing it all her life."

Trying to sound as uncaring as possible, Aria broke eye-contact as she crossed her arms. "And I don't?"

"Uhh..." Indigo scratched her head. Why does it feel like I'm dealing with one of Sunny's snooty cats? "I guess? Kinda?"


"I mean, y-yea," she answered with a faintly nervous grin, "I could totally see that, just... she's got it going a lot harder, y'know?"

Aria blinked. She very, very much knew, as it was part of the reason she gave Adagio the time of day way back when. She'd just seemed like she was meant to be on top of everything, a quality that had fascinated and terrified Aria until she learned the reason.

If I knew how to strut around projecting that feeling myself, that alone might wipe out any competition here!

Would Adagio be willing to give her that kind of advantage by teaching her? No, no, part of the reason she was even here was that she didn't want to live in Adagio's shadow forever, so she'd have to do her own thing. She glanced at Goggles.

Competition... maybe that's her? Is that why she came to talk to me? I wasn't really getting a Bow To Me vibe from this girl, but...

She gave her new rival a measured grin. "And I guess you think you've got it too?"

Blink. "Huh?"

"You're the -what'sthatstupidphrasetheyuseinthemovies- queen bee around here, right? Something like the head honcho as far as students go?"

"Uh, no, that's actually-"


The two turned to see Sunny Flare dragging Sonata (who stuffed her face with some kind of pastry as she walked) by the wrist, flanked by Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet. Sunny scowled at Indigo while pointing at Sonata, then Aria. "You did this."

Again, Indigo defensively raised her hands. "Innocent!"

She pointed at Indigo. "Llllliar! You had them brought in so you could eye them up during cheerleader routines! Where's the last one? Did you arrange for her to be here too or just hire her as a "maid" so you could-"

A little annoyed, Aria grabbed Yappy-Dog Girl's wrist. "We're here because we want to be, Adagio is back at CHS because she wants to be, Goggles over there had nothing to do with it." Deeply gratifying though the fear in her eyes was, Aria let go when it was clear her point had been made. She was all ready to throw out some one-liner and walk away with a solid impression of herself left in their minds, but then Sonata happened.

"Hey, Aria," she said after gulping down the last of her snack, "they got fancier food here than the other place! Oh, and-" She grabbed Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet's hands, holding them up as though the attached girls were prizes won in a contest. "-I found these guys again!" She snickered, nodding to Sugarcoat. "This one went all pale and sweaty when she saw me, 'cuz she thought Dagi was right around the corner and-"

Flushed, Sugarcoat tore free of Sonata's grip as the others giggled at her. "I was not the only one to experience undue panic; as you practically had a nervous breakdown when I inquired as to her location."

"Oh, y-yea!"

Though visibly embarrassed, Sonata laughed it off so easily that those around her joined in, a move Aria faintly wished she had thought to make herself. Still, she allowed herself a few seconds to sympathize with Sonata before remembering manners. "So, uh... names?"

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

By the time everyone was acquainted (Lemon Zest had startled everyone but Indigo by appearing out of nowhere when a chance to introduce herself came, claiming to have been there for a while), Aria couldn't help noticing that everyone there was wearing something slightly different. While Sonata didn't seem to be rubbing in that she was wrong yet, she figured it was better to risk alerting her to the uniform customization than just go on dressed exactly like Sonata for her entire stay here.

"Do they distinguish classes by little tweaks to the uniform here?"

"Oh, no," Sunny answered in a posh tone, "we have plenty of options. Would you like us to show you?"

Arms crossed, Sour Sweet rolled her eyes. "Always with the dress-up with you."

"You hush!"

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

While Aria and Sonata were getting changed, Indigo realized that she'd somehow been duped into flattering Aria, like they were on a date and she was offended that Indigo wasn't giving her enough compliments or something.

"How did she do that?!"

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

Aria went with a tight vest over a white shirt tucked into a miniskirt, wearing full-length pantyhose beneath it to keep from violating those pesky 'modesty' rules. As if half this school hadn't seen more of her when she was bouncing around during the Games. She glanced to her side to see Sonata in a short-sleeved shirt with rolled cuffs, worn loosely over a regular skirt and ankle-length socks. Internally, Aria opted to rest easy knowing that since Sonata still hadn't said anything about her being wrong by now, she'd look more stupid herself for taking that long to point it out.

When they stepped out of the locker room, a cool, collected voice seized their attention.

"Is everything to your liking so far?"

The two looked up to see a blue woman they recognized as the one who pushed Nerdy Twilight into going Scary Twilight. She wasn't showing any sort of hostility, but the look in her eyes said she fully recognized them, which put Aria on edge. It must have been bad, because Sonata got her thoughts together first.

"Yea," she said quietly and without her usual, vacant smile, "we're fine."

"Good to hear," she nodded. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I am Principal Abacus Cinch, pleased to make your acquaintance."

Sonata managed a hesitant little grin. "I'm Sonata. Uh, Dusk! In case there are other ones..."

"I'm Aria." When Cinch looked at her, the rest spilled out of her mouth almost automatically. "Blaze. Ma'am."

Principal Cinch didn't show any reaction in her face. "Charmed. The two of you were until recently enrolled in Canterlot High School, correct?"

Aria tried to be cool and dismissive, but this lady was like a concentrated form of when Adagio was mad at them! "Yes, ma'am."

Well-mannered, Cinch noted, for Canterlot High girls, at least.

She turned away, focusing on the schoolyard through the nearest window. "I understand certain anomalies are not uncommon over there, but I wish to assure you that Crystal Prep Academy has no such blemishes on its facilities, nor its students. There is no magic here, and that is how it will remain."

Behind her, Aria and Sonata traded worried looks as they noted what would probably happen if they did anything magical here (not like they could anyway), schooling their features when Cinch turned to face them again.

"As such, I invite you to embrace what we have to offer here without fear of disturbance." She offered them a small, but sincere smile. "I wish you well, and please, if you have any questions or concerns, know that you are more than welcome to make an appointment to discuss the matter personally."

Again, Sonata was quicker on the draw. "S-sure, thanks!"

Cinch nodded, leaving them without another word.

They didn't lie, about their names or their time in CHS. Not sure why I thought they would, but it would bode ill for my regular student samples to engage in any sort of delinquency so soon.

So far, it seemed they were perfectly normal girls, none of that sorcery nonsense that had tainted Celestia's school. It was far too soon to gauge any level of their performance here, but she heartily looked forward to the results of this experiment. Speaking of which, she wondered how young, asocial Twilight was holding up now that she didn't have her lab/closet to flee to.

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

Setting down her tray with a tired breath, Twilight practically fell into her seat (well, not literally 'my' seat, but the one I am currently occupying) in the cafeteria. To her immediate joy, she was greeted with warm smiles from most of the girls at the table, Applejack in particular.

"Still gettin' used to CHS, Sugarcube?"

Sighing, Twilight nodded. "I hadn't realized how having my own little room to spend almost all my time in could leave me unprepared for being surrounded by people every day. It's surprisingly exhausting!" Truth be told, she had still sought refuge in the back area of the library a few times when things got too hectic, but all things considered, she was doing rather well!

Chuckling, Sunset turned to the other relatively new student here. "How about you, Adagio?"

She shrugged. "It's... a school. The most trouble I've had so far is paying attention in some classes, and I think some of the instructors have noticed. Harshwhinny called on me three times in English class just today."

Well, there was that, and that she'd glanced over her shoulder to look for nonexistent followers two more times, but that didn't have anything to do with the school itself.

Fluttershy scratched her head. "I've never known her to call on people in class just to pick on them, she'll usually just tell them to stay focused when she thinks they're drifting off."

Adagio crossed her arms, suspicion clear in her face as she arched a brow. "Then why does she keep asking me?"

Sunset offered a warm little grin. "Maybe she just likes the sound of your voice?"

Eyes briefly widening, Adagio turned her head away to hide a wide smile and a rosy blush. "Hmph," she said while making a show of haughtily brushing her hair aside, "can't fault her taste, then."

The others giggled a little, but knowing she'd just hit a friendship bullseye, Sunset beamed with pride.

"So," Rarity said as she looked Twilight over, "on the topic of regular inquiries, I hate to be a pest, but...?"

Twilight glanced down at herself. "Is my uniform really that ugly?"

"Not ugly," Pinkie answered with a little frown, "just, if you can pick your own look, style yourself however you want, do you really want someone else to do it for you?"

"Rarity might be a pain to deal with in a dressing room," Rainbow ignored the indignant scoff, "but she always makes sure her living mannequins are happy with the results, so you don't have to worry about her just sticking you in whatever's pretty, either."

"Why thank you!"

While the others talked fashion, Sunset considered the task she'd taken up with Twilight and Adagio. Both were hoping to learn a bit more about friendship, but both came from very different backgrounds, had very different views on things, and she'd have to be careful how she handled sharing what she'd learned with the two of them if she didn't want anyone getting all hurt and confused like she was a few times. Luckily, she had her friends to help out, and right now, she spotted a chance to utilize that.

"So, speaking of makeovers," half the table flinched in apprehension, though she understood why, "I'm a little surprised you haven't even tried to style-" she nodded toward Adagio, "-her, Rarity."

This time, Rarity flinched. "Err... I, w-well, oh dear, how do I say this? It's not that I'm not interested, just, I was rather, ehm..." The rest of the table gave her curious looks, though Adagio's came with a hint of offense, as though she were waiting to be insulted, while Sunset's worried little frown said she was regretting putting Rarity on the spot. Rarity cleared her throat. "Well, I confess that the idea has occurred to me one or two or perhaps seven or eight times since the day you, Miss Blaze, and Miss Dusk tried on the cheerleading uniforms, Miss Dazzle, but in your particular case, I thought it might be better to... pace myself? I mean, I am interested in the prospect so long as you're willing, believe you me, but the question of what exactly to do with-"

Applejack pointed at Adagio. "That hair?"

So did Rainbow. "Dat belly?"

And Pinkie. "Dat ass?"

Half the table turned red. "PINKIE!!"

A few others were giggling, including Adagio. When the rest of the table was quiet, she focused on Rarity with a smile. "Fair enough, I suppose." Then she frowned a little. "And, er, if it's about the stomach cheer, is now a good time to say we were just kidding?"

Rosy though she was, Rarity smiled. "Water under the bridge, Darling."

Adagio smiled too, an expression reflected by Twilight in particular. Then Rainbow made a face as though she'd just heard that school lunches were made from small children.

"Wait, Rarity doesn't have a gut fetish?!"

Blushing brighter, Rarity facepalmed as Applejack thwapped Rainbow and the rest of the table giggled.

Chapter 3: First Days (Part 3)

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Following another round of classes that reminded Aria she would need to brush up on quite a few things, she and Sonata had found themselves drafted into lunchtime by the five Shadowbolts they'd met at the Friendship Games. Sugarcoat's idea, apparently, Sunny Flare having said something about not letting Aria and Sonata get mixed up with 'the wrong crowd' while they were here. Once all were seated, Sunny asked with a hint of apprehension.

"So, how soon should we expect you two to start up your own cheerleading squad?"

Aria and Sonata shared a look, answering in unison. "Uhh...?"

"...You aren't? I mean, I kind of thought that was why you were admitted here. It's not like you come from a wealthy family, so it's gotta be either that or your good looks, if you're in one of those industries."

The two weren't sure how to respond to any part of that statement, but despite the compliment, they again reached a consensus in feeling like some part of it was at their expense. It was hard to tell through her unchanging expression, but Sugarcoat may have noticed.

"What she said was not intended as a form of class warfare, it is just the understood norm of Crystal Prep. This is the most prestigious school in the state, but the open secret is that just about everyone only gets in through being really good at something or having a lot of money, ideally both. If you two had the former, you'd have been here sooner, whereas if you had the latter-"

"I'm sure I'd have heard of you," Sunny finished. "I mean, unless your family just never gets invited to upper... class... parties..." It was only on the tail end of that statement that she started to realize she might be saying something offensive, contrition immediately showing in her face. "Uh... s-sorry?"

Again, Aria and Sonata shared a look, the former raising an eyebrow. "Is the tuition really so steep that nobody but the rich can pay it?"

Because if so... damn, Dagi, where'd you get the money?

"That's not really it," Sour Sweet said with a smile, "it's just that getting in is one thing, but sticking around is another! Like, any normal kid that got in and didn't have money for a private tutor or something they were really good at-" She went Sour. "-would stink up the place by sucking so hard, then either flunk out or transfer to somewhere that everyone didn't know they were losers." Sweet. "So which one are you guys?"

On the surface, Aria did her best to keep a cool, passive expression. Internally, she was screaming at the top of her lungs. Just the classwork she'd seen so far had mostly left her stumped (math was the same, but she always hated math!!), and if she didn't get better fast, not only was Sonata (who wasn't even sweating despite hearing every word Sour Sweet had said, just vacantly smiling as though she weren't the least bit worried) going to pull ahead of her, but everyone at this prissy little school would look down on her, she'd never have a chance at reaching the top, she'd never win Adagio's respect, and she'd spend the rest of her life in someone else's shadow! It was as she scrambled to think of something she could do to secure her place here that Indigo spoke up.

"Uh, hey," she offered with a little grin, "like Sunny said, you guys still have cheerleading going for you. When I asked Dean Cadence why CeePee's never had its own squad, she told me Principal Cinch always thought just 'having your own drive,' whatever that means, should be enough, but that she'd go for it if the students did."

Ooh, Aria thought, there's that. Come to think of it, I'm a pretty fantastic singer, too, but Sonata can do both of those right along with me...

She shrugged in a practiced effort to look nonchalant. "Maybe. Figure we'll get familiar with this place first, see where it goes from there." She looked to Sonata for a comment and disappointed herself for having expected anything other than to see her stuffing her face. Sonata looked back at her.


Sunny scowled. "Don't talk with your mouth full!!"

Amused though she was that Sonata actually closed her mouth, chastised, Aria made the mental note that manners really were a big deal here. She was going to have to completely master politeness if she was going to dethrone Sunny Flare as the local queen.

I mean, I'm guessing it's her... Haven't seen anybody else that acted so stuck up so far.

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

Walking out of the lunchroom, the group was stopped in their tracks by an incoming, regal voice.

"I'm coming for you, My Deeeeeeear~!"

Sunny Flare paled. "Ohh, no," she muttered as she ducked behind Indigo for security, "hide me!!"

Before Aria could ask why none of the other Shadowbolts were reacting at all, she caught sight of a young, muscular blonde man with pallid skin coming down the hall at a brisk pace (not running, but you probably weren't allowed to do that here), wearing what kind of looked like a tuxedo in Crystal Prep's dark-red and purple colors with the exception of a blue bow-tie around his neck. Aria didn't have much interest in guys, but even she knew he was pretty good-looking. And not just because Sonata was making that face like she'd just found a big bowl of candy.

"Good day, ladies!"

Smiling a little, Indigo casually waved at him. "How's it hangin', Blue?"

"We have been over this before, Lady Zap; my bow-tie does not 'hang' in any particular manner, as it is fixed in place!"

"Heh, right on."

As those two made small talk, Aria leaned toward Exposition Gir- Sugarcoat. "Who's this?"

"Prince Blueblood," she whispered back, as though having been waiting to be asked, "son of Principal Cinch and most sought-after bachelor of Crystal Prep, been pursuing Sunny Flare for a few years now. She is not receptive to his advances, despite him striving to be every bit the gentleman she claims every man should be." Sugarcoat smiled with what Aria interpreted to be just a hint of malice. "I enjoy watching their interactions."

"He's the principal's kid? Is that allowed?"

"Yes. While nepotism is greatly frowned upon, she has as little to do with him as possible during school hours, a relationship she is suspected to have fostered since his youth, likely for fear of exactly the accusation of coddling and/or pushing him too much, which would be all too typical for the woman in control of Crystal Prep. Few friends, no hobbies, and while he is one of the top students in most every field, if not for his infatuation with Sunny, he would probably be a sad bastard." She glanced at Aria to see a slightly incredulous face. She shrugged. "That is my take on it, anyway."

Blueblood briefly glanced around. "Have any of you seen Lady Flare? She is almost always accompanied by at least one of you."

Indigo immediately thumbed over her shoulder. "Right here." Her hair was blown around from the sheer force of Sunny's screech.


Rubbing one ear, Indigo winced. "When was I ever on your side with this?"

She didn't get time to answer, Blueblood having already gently, but firmly seized her hand as Indigo stepped away from the two of them. "Good day, My Dear! I had hoped that we could resume our discussion regarding our agreement prior to the Friendship Games, in which I have most decidedly kept my end of the bargain!"

Even if a handsome young man delicately holding her hand was something she'd once fantasized about, Sunny blushed. Gently trying to pull away, she found that Blueblood's grip wasn't quite delicate enough to slip out of. "Y-yes..."

"I dropped out of the Friendship Games to ensure that neither of us would be distracted by the other's presence, as per your request-"

"Tearful request," smirked Indigo.

"Desperate plea," added Sugarcoat.

"Pitiful begging," growled Sour Sweet.

Sunny shot all three a glare that made them take a step back. "I hate all of you!!"

"No you do not," Sugarcoat corrected, "you just dislike that we draw amusement from your predicament."

"Grrr..." Flushed crimson, she looked back at Blueblood. "Y-yea, I said that, but, uh..."

"And," Sugarcoat added with just a hint of a grin, "it would be veeery poor form if a lady were not to honor her agreements." Sunny's enhanced death-glare made her smile a little wider.

"Yes," Sunny hissed through clenched teeth before taking a breath, letting out a sigh, and looking back at Blueblood, "I did say that, so... I guess I'll see you at the dance...?"

Blueblood smiled. "I look forward to that distant evening, Lady Flare." He closed the statement by kissing her hand, not reacting to the way she shivered and blushed in response, then turning away. "Well, the day's last round of classes begin soon, so I shall be off. Have lovely day, ladies!"

And away he went, never having given Aria or Sonata a sideways glance. Aria took that to mean that this guy was some kind of weirdo, but more importantly, a plan was coming together. As he walked past her, Lemon Zest squeaked, blushed, and ducked behind Indigo, who looked at her over her shoulder.

"Still can't talk to boys?"

She got a sheepish nod in reply.

"So," Aria asked, "what was that about a dance? There a party coming up soon?"

"Not for a few months," answered Sugarcoat, which made Aria turn to Sunny with an incredulous look on her face.

"...You wanted him to skip out of the Friendship Games in exchange for taking you to a dance that isn't happening for months?"

"Nooo," Sunny corrected, arms crossed, "I agreed to an arrangement made several weeks in advance with the condition that he not be around to embarrass me in front of our competitors."

Aria almost asked why, if she didn't like him, she didn't just tell him off, but that wouldn't have worked out as well for her new plan. She glanced at Sonata, whose hungry stare as she watched Blueblood disappear around a corner became another piece of the puzzle for how she'd dominate this place.

On the way to their next class (gym, finally, which Aria and Sonata had together), the two nearly bumped into someone, but Aria didn't listen to the ensuing sounds of displeasure and Sonata's gibberish as she kept walking, just resisting the urge to grin like Adagio at her Adagiest as she pictured the 'most prestigious school in the state,' all these rich kids destined for positions of power and influence, firmly in her command.

And then she'd work out how to do stuff with magic again, and none of that harvesting crap this time!

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

With the end of the school day, Twilight stepped out into the hall with a healthy sense of caution, and did not bump into anyone! That hadn't happened since her unfortunate moment with Adagio that morning, but being careful could only pay off if she didn't want to be known as-

How had Sunny Flare referred to me? A rampaging beast or something? With how many times I've already collided with her, Adagio probably thinks so too, but it's not like I'm trying to-

Cold fear gripped her heart as she bumped into someone, but to her immediate relief, she did not initiate another embarrassing contact, just harmlessly stumbled back as the other person whirled around to face her.

Sunset chuckled. "Hey, Twilight. My turn now?"

She blushed. "N-no, sorry."

"Sorry you bumped into me, or sorry you're not groping me?" She snickered at the spastic noises Twilight made before gently touching her shoulder. "Okay, okay, calm down, I was just kidding."

Twilight let out a breath. "Half the school must think I'm a crazy pervert by now."

The urge was strong, but Sunset refrained from saying 'Oh, it's much more than half!' or anything like that. "I'm sure they don't. You might be surprised just how forgiving this school can be." She closed the statement with a wink, which won a tiny smile.

"That's... reassuring, I guess." The smile faded. "Uh... does that include Adagio Dazzle, or...?"

"Umm..." She kind of wished Adagio hadn't already gone home for the day, erasing worries about hard feelings between people was always much easier if all parties were present. "well, she might rib you a little harder than most would, but a little teasing between friends is normal, and if she did bear a grudge, I'm sure you would know it. Want to go see Rarity for that makeover?"

Twilight wore a worried frown. "Is there an emergency escape button?"

"It won't be that bad," Sunset said with a giggle while leading Twilight toward the workshop, "and if it is," she grinned wider and raised the hand not on Twilight's shoulder to make squeezing motions, "you can always just-"



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

Sitting on the bus and heading home, Aria wrestled with her pride against how badly she needed to know something for her plan. The one with the important details was sitting right next to her, in her own little world as she watched the world go by through the windows.

Aria snickered. Must have been nice being so spacey that just riding a bus felt like some kind of magical journey. As luck would have it, this got Sonata's attention.


She still hadn't perfected the way she wanted to word this thing, but she had a vague idea of how to get Sonata to spill how she was doing in class. "Was just thinking about what Adagio said this morning," she lied, "how we'd have to try about half as hard as we did back home?"

Blink. "Try what?"

Right, guess that would have been too easy.

"With the classwork, that stuff they made us do for like six hours today?"

"Oh, that."

And then, much to Aria's ire, Sonata didn't say anything. Just kept smiling, not a thought in the world. That such sweet silence annoyed her for once was infuriating by itself. She needed to know if, somehow, Sonata had a better handle on this than she'd have ever thought, because who was getting better grades was something she had to factor into her plans. Even if they both had a good handle on Gym, acting as though the rest was a breeze for her would backfire if Sonata learned she was still rusty, so she couldn't say she was doing great even just to gauge Sonata's reaction, but maybe if she-

"So, how're you doing in class?"


"Uh-" Fastanswerquickthinkthinkthink! "the, material's based on stuff from this world, so, y'know, just processing all that first."

She had practically just admitted that she was doing badly, but just when she thought Sonata's giggles meant a really long bus-ride home followed by Sonata ratting her out to Adagio, she heard it.

"Yea, I got no idea what that crap was about! We'll get it, though, how hard can it be?"

"Uh-" Aria found herself smiling, and maybe not just because she'd heard what she wanted to. "-yea, we've handled worse, right? Remember that class about Crystal Leyline Reconfiguration?

Tinting green, Sonata made a miserable face, put her hands over her ears, and groaned. "Stooooop!"

Aria chuckled, even if, in the back of her mind, she felt a little stupid for having worried.

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

Tempted as she'd been to pick up with that morning's performance, Adagio didn't know where she'd find knitting supplies with which she could sit in the recliner, pretending to be knitting a sweater when Aria and Sonata got home. It was a shame, she was sure the looks on their faces would have been priceless.

Oh, maybe if I had gone with Rarity for the...?

Then again, it was clear that Rarity took her hobby very seriously, so perhaps asking for props wouldn't be taken well. Maybe if she had asked Pinkie Pie?

I've still barely spoken to any of those girls, or much of anyone but Sunset. I may not need anyone else and I doubt all of them would prove as trustworthy, but having more people to talk to, more people to confide in, can only be a benefit when something goes wrong.

She was probably going to have to make some friends.

Where to start? Do I just go around convincing people to join the cheerleading squad and use my resulting authority over them to learn more about them, or take a more subtle approach and investigate random students to find the best candidates, entice those few with quick motions and passing glances in the hallways until they can't resist a chance to talk to me, and use their interest to-

"♫Da-gi, we're hooo-ooome!♪"

Putting those thoughts aside, she smiled. "Living room." The two came in, and she took the relaxed, almost pleased looks on their faces to mean that their first day was a success.

Or that they'd completely skipped school to go fool around somewhere, but she knew what she'd do if she heard they hadn't been attending.

Even so, she asked. "How was school?"

"Fancy," Sonata answered right away as the two came in to sit on the couch, "the walls and floors were all super shiny, the place totally makes CHS look like it's made of drywall painted with barf! When you go in, there's even bushes and stuff growing on the building so it feels like you're walking into a castle, only there's no freaky-headed dog guys or rent-a-cops telling you you can't go places!"

Adagio nodded. Disney World had been interesting, if nothing else. "Same for you, Aria?"

"I went to the same place, so, yea."

"And no one mistook you for Twilight?"


Next question! "Did the cafeteria charge anything?"

"Uh..." Not wanting to risk one of Adagio's teasing mind-games, Aria just moved on. "Nah," she answered with a little grin, "we were worried for nothing; they still let students eat free, even there."

"Ah, good."

"What about you? Anything interesting happen?"

The memories of being pushed down by Twilight and Sunset's sentiment to her during lunch sprung to mind, but they weren't quite worth sharing. "Nothing much. No problems on your end, I hope?"

Glancing away, Aria shrugged. "Not really." She looked right back at Adagio to gauge her reaction, and not seeing any open suspicion, pushed forward with a smile. "We met those five girls again, by the way."

Adagio's amused grin said she was sold on this topic. "Oh?"

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

Letting her hair fall in a wide spread as usual, Adagio settled into her place in the middle of the bed, shortly followed by Aria and Sonata nestling into place at her sides. She spared each a glance as she pondered what she was doing, whether or not it would work, but she knew one thing without a doubt: If the two of them ever learned, ever remembered, what happened to them before the fall of Coltlantis, they were going to be in desperate need of help, and she needed to prepare the means to abundantly offer it.

Just Sunset was enough for Adagio, as she had been living with the knowledge for decades, had time to quietly stew during the period in which she and the others were under the control of the four kings, but for Aria and Sonata, ignorant of their treatment in that time, it would all come as a shock for which they didn't have the option of lashing out in bloody vengeance, not if they didn't want to risk something worse than another dose of the rainbow beam.

So she'd prepare; find some pleasant, reliable, comforting people to be around, win their companionship, and if the time ever came, beg their help when Aria, Sonata, or both most needed it. She knew they weren't weaklings, she knew they had experienced some horrifying things in all their time together, but given her own reaction even after her years in The Hadal Zone? Maybe they were stronger than normal people, but they weren't as strong as her, and if they needed it, she wanted something to cushion the blow and bandage the wounds.

Lying comfortably beside her, Aria again went over the details of her plan in her head. She would start with either establishing herself as someone to fear and respect, or taking down Sunny Flare so her position would be open for the taking. Probably better to start with the first one, gather more info in the process. Then she'd get Blueblood to fall for Sonata (should be easy enough, Sonata's over-inflated water balloon tits doing half the work for them) to take him away from Sunny (because whether she wanted him or not, there was no doubt he was a status symbol. Sunset lost a lot of points when Flash dumped her, right?), and when Sonata was distracted with her new boy-toy (who might just so happen to see some embarrrasing side of Sonata that gets her dumped too), she'd dazzle amaze the whole school with some awesome show of greatness!

...Okay, obviously she didn't have all the details together yet, but on her checklist was proving herself to Crystal Prep, removing Sunny Flare from the top, inserting herself there, and making sure Sonata was too busy with something else to care about taking the lead.

Little did she know that Sonata, cozily lying by Adagio's opposite side, was barely keeping her grin from erupting into crazy, full-on, No-seriously-do-you-need-to-see-Dr.-Chrysalis-again giggles. She didn't know what Aria was doing or going to do, but she hadn't forgotten that they were in a fierce battle for the rank of Top Bitch!

The first order of business when that role was picked would have to be to name it something less... S&M-sounding, maybe...

Anyway, she'd let Aria do whatever she was doing, wait until the hard work was out of the way, then swoop in, nab it all for herself, and be The Best of the three of them from then on! She didn't know how yet, but that was sorta Aria's job in this plan, and Top Bitch Working Title had to be able to think on their feet anyway. She'd bide her time, have fun at Crystal Prep whenever possible, and let Bestness come to her at its own pace.

None aware of the others' thoughts, the sirens cuddled together, thinking of what tomorrow might bring as they drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 4: Goals

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Goal: Get big and powerful again, at least back to what they were before the Battle of the Bands.

Stretch goal: Become super-awesome queen of everything.

Way to do that: Come to Crystal Prep and take it over.

Specific way to do that? Sonata didn't know, and Aria was kind of dragging her feet so far.

"So," she thought out loud on the bus-ride over, "takin' over a school without magic is kinda tough, huh?"

"Maybe," Aria muttered back as she watched the world go by through the window, "but at least we don't have to go to little diners, parks, and any family outings we stumble across to grind up enough energy to do it."

Seriously, five months straight and Adagio said we had just enough to bewitch the cafeteria. No more of that crap; we're gonna go for the real power in this world; cold, hard cash!


Or, like, credit too. The kind you buy stuff over the internet wi- Just, money! Money in general! That's what they've got at Crystal Prep, and that's what's gonna be in my control when I have 'em all eating out of my hand.

Sonata stared at the side of Aria's head as she waited for a clue, but she could see from her expression that she was just daydreaming about tons of people pulling her around in a golden sleigh or whatever. Fine, Sonata would fantasize too!






Porcupines. Porcupines are cool.

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

Expectations were a bitch. That was what Indigo Zap had firmly decided today.

Specifically, the one that 'prim, proper,' and whatever else Crystal Prep students were expected to be that meant everyone had to get to school early, like at least half an hour before classes were supposed to start. It wasn't a hard rule, there was no punishment if you showed up two seconds before the bell rang, but everyone would look at you funny and whisper behind your back, then make fun of you for it to your face and make the whispering part a little extra stupid.

She didn't know why it was a big deal, it just was, and it was the reason she once again found herself sitting idly in the cafeteria (where a lot of other students waited for the day to actually start) with nothing to really do. As annoying as all that was, though, it wasn't the thing really bugging her as she passed the time by talking to Lemon.

" it's like, I don't know about the blue one, but if Aria doesn't like it here, she's probably just gonna go back to CHS. Maybe there's somewhere she could be the best at something around here, everyone's favorite thing, but she gets so evasive every time someone brings up cheerleading that I don't think she's gonna go for it."

Sitting next to her, headphones on, Lemon bobbed her head as Indigo kept talking.

"Of course, even if she was the best ever at something, she'd just be another snotty, I'm-better-than-you-because-I-can-walk-a-tightrope-with-pretzels-hanging-from-my-ears kinda kid, so would it be better to hope she just sorta settles in on her own?" Lemon kept nodding, drawing a smile as Indigo reached out to pat her head. "You always know what to do."
"Well, if it isn't Indigo Sap!"
Lemon happily accepted her head-pats.

Artist's depiction:

"...Uh, hey! I'm talking to you!!"
"C'mon," Indigo said as she got to her feet, "they'll probably be here soon." The two of them headed off together, paying no mind to any other voices in the cafeteria.
"Why do you always do this?!"

"Probably because she doesn't like us, Glitter."

"...Shut up, Glitz."

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

Even if she was starting to feel like she might have been getting a good handle on Sociology (basically just memorizing tid-bits of one big, long story), Aria still knew she wasn't doing great in school so far. That was fine, there was plenty of time before they'd be doing report cards or anything, right? Not that it would matter if Adagio straight up asked her how she was doing, but until a test was taken, graded, and passed back, she didn't have to solidly answer anything!

For now, she'd focus on taking over the school. It was only their first week here, so she opted to stick with recon until she was pretty sure she knew the score, and the second break period was a pretty good time for that. Her current objective was to find out if Sugarcoat had clued in that she was hatching a plot to usurp Sunny Flare's place and whether or not she cared as they sat at the lunch table together.

"So," she began, nodding to Sunny Flare and Blueblood a few seats away, "most likely king and queen for that dance comin' up?"

"I assume you are referring to the standard event of regular schools," she answered without looking away from her sandwich, "in which a hollow, fleeting position is filled by winners of a popularity contest. That is not how things are done here."

Briefly thinking back to Cinch's disdainful comments on popularity contests back in the Friendship Games, Aria nodded, knowing Sugarcoat's reaction to her next question would give her a hint about how much she suspected. "And how does Crystal Prep do it?"

"Titles and minor medals are awarded based on academic merit and accomplishment, which are most often boiled down to bragging rights until the next such gathering. That in mind, Prince Blueblood may still net a title or two, as well as Sunny Flare if her relevant academic rivals haven't improved to the point that they may have been chosen for a competition like the Friendship Games instead."

No sign of suspicion for asking, thought Aria, so far so good. Unless I want her to know. Would she work with me? I know she likes tormenting Sunny Flare, but these two have known each other for a lot longer.

"Do these medals and stuff matter to anybody else, or is it like when you guys won the first round in the Friendship Games?"

"Both. While not universally applicable, many of those that you saw that day were not remaining quiet out of apathy, but envy. To succeed means recognition, which the pressured students of Crystal Prep can almost always be expected to long for. To put that another way, even if not everyone will outright show it, everyone notices when someone outperforms them."

That was something Aria could certainly relate to, noting that she might have a better understanding of Crystal Prep than she first thought. In fact, it reminded her just a little of Coltlantis. Kelpies certainly noticed when she won that showcase, the one that first got her Adagio's atten-

Her train of thought was thrown off by Sonata's loud laughter. Turning her head to see the culprit sitting between a giggling Lemon Zest and a confused Sour Sweet.

"Hey, hey Aria," called Sonata as she tried to pull herself together, pointing to Sour Sweet, "you should talk to this one, she's really funny!"

Sour Sweet's eyes narrowed as she grumbled her response. "Not as funny as your career prospects."

"Yea, that-" Sonata blinked, her smile vanishing in an instant. "Hey!"

Surprised, Aria snorted in amusement. "Heh, yea, I see what you mean; she is funny."

Sonata's brow furrowed. "She was talking all nice a second ago."

Smiling sweetly, Sour Sweet folded one arm over the other. "Hahaha, I'm always nice," her tone changed again, "when I'm not talking to a moron."

Sonata huffed and pouted as Aria laughed again, the latter wiping a tear from her eye before addressing Sour Sweet. "Just a heads-up; she doesn't get sarcasm." Chuckling at the resulting eye-roll, she turned back to Sugarcoat. "So, this contest thing, what are the categories? Is it just whoever does best in whatever classes or are there specific marks to reach?"

"Once more, both, but being at the top of a class is much easier to boast about on account of other people still being in those classes once awards are passed out, unlike the groups of people working toward specific achievements. And yes, those specific achievements are, in most circles, seen as 'tryhard bait.'"

"Seriously? Those exact words?"

"Most often, yes." She smiled a little. "I hope you enjoy hearing the dignified, sophisticated students of Crystal Prep being forced to use modern slang when more appropriate terms are not forthcoming, because it happens more often than you might suspect."

"Sounds like you do."

"If you're interested, I'll print you a copy of my Bingo card."

"Heh, I'll think about it."

"Noted. The way it works is that there are primary and secondary categories, the former being more valuable in the eyes of Principal Cinch and potential employers, the latter more valuable in the eyes of your fellow students. The secondary categories are simply those at the top of the class, holders of the highest grade point averages and best performance in extracurricular activities. There is an unspoken rule that winners are expected to have won at least one competition recognized by Crystal Prep, brought back some kind of trophy to display, but it is not 'strictly required.'"

"So I'd have to join a club?"

"Or make one."

Sugarcoat discreetly studied Aria's face here, and from the contemplative uncertainty she witnessed, determined that Aria may have been on the verge of starting up Crystal Prep's very own cheerleading squad if she wasn't confident that she would excel in existing clubs. Perhaps she could get something out of Indigo Zap with that information. Adjusting her glasses, she continued.

"The primary categories are a little more involved, because to win them requires going above and beyond what students are already expected to do; pulling off something amazing in Science, The Arts, or Study. Please note that this is a Crystal Prep tradition that goes back many decades and is not taken lightly by the staff, not a simple contest to be entered and prizes bestowed to the best of whoever shows up. It is entirely possible to go to great lengths in the hope of earning recognition only to be met with disdain and dismissal, as many have lost considerable social standing in finding out."

"...Oh." Aria briefly looked away. "So it's... pretty much just something to impress shareholders somewhere and keep that 'reputation' intact? Prove the school is doing that whole 'best and brightest' minds shtick?"

"As far as the school itself is concerned, yes. There are personal, long-term benefits to attaining these accolades, but the endearment of the student body is not one of them."

"Huh. Well, I'll, probably stick to the secondaries, then. For now. Maybe."

Part of Sugarcoat was disappointed, and not just because she was interested in seeing what Aria might have come up with for any of the primary categories. She had anticipated that the two newcomers would get intimidated sooner or later, but had hoped that part would at least wait until they had seen direct competition of some sort.

Oh, well. Play through.

"I assume you'll gravitate towards something athletic." She got an irritable eyebrow raise for this. "I am not calling you mentally deficient, you have a lean and hungry look to you."

"Oh." Aria scratched her head. "Well, I mean, the looks on peoples' faces in gym tell me I was doin' pretty good, so... helps to know your strengths, right?"


Sugarcoat continued with her lunch, again disappointed that her reference seemed to have gone completely over Aria's head. Must not have been paying attention when they went over Caesar and Cassius in class. No matter. Whatever Aria, and possibly Sonata, were planning, it was bound to make things interesting around here.

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

Standing near the cafeteria doors just after lunch, Dean Cadence quietly watched the students as they returned to classes. Two in particular stood out; those cheerleader girls that transferred from CHS the other day. She frowned a little as Aria Blaze brushed past another pair of students that were trying to get her attention (students that made Cadence feel like a bad dean for failing to remember their names again), not feeling any better when Sonata Dusk outright pushed the other girls out of the way to catch up to her. It wasn't like a shove or anything, but a crowded-hallway-acceptable push.

Still, she didn't want to judge them for it, because they were probably under a lot of stress by now. Figuring out how hard the course material was here had certainly given Cadence a shock when she was younger, and not just because she learned the hard way, so she could understand the two not being as polite as might be ideal.

Or heck, maybe they just weren't confident about navigating the halls yet and wanted to be sure they got to class on time? Couldn't fault them for that, right? Well, she couldn't, but she'd find out if Principal Cinch could when she got to her office to deliver her report.

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

"I see. Was that the peak of their ill behavior?"

"That's all I've seen, yes."

"Hm." Sitting at her desk, Cinch steepled her fingers, resting her chin on them as she idly glanced at the clock. "Then perhaps they are in good shape. Truth be told, I've never understood the need people have to stop in busy hallways for idle chit-chat, much less the merits of doing so when there are places to be. Even if it is not sheerly due to focus on their attendance record, I think we can allow this without comment. On that note...?"

"I've checked with their teachers," Cadence said while drawing a paper from her bag to double-check, "and it kind of looks like they're... not doing so great. Not a single F or D so far, but no A's, either." To her equal surprise and concern, Abacus Cinch smiled.

"In other words, their scores are average? Standard? Neither great nor terrible?"

"Er, yes?"

Cinch chuckled. "I'll need you to do me a favor: Do not interfere with their academic lives unless they come to you." Seeing Cadence make a face as though she'd been instructed to leave mewling kittens out in the rain, she rolled her eyes. "You are free to offer assistance, if only as a reminder that it is available to them, but the initiative to improve must be their own. Is that clear?"

Relieved, Cadence smiled. "Crystal clear, Principal Cinch."

It was cheesy and stupid, Cadence knew that, but she'd been giving that answer for two years and she'd give it for many more as long as it kept making her stoic, stony boss smile even just a little. Cinch was the one that kept setting her up for it anyway, right?

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

Reclining as best she could on the gym bleachers, a miniskirt-and-belly-shirt-clad Adagio wondered if it would be too tacky of her to have a lawn chair brought in here. There was little direct sunlight at this time of day, but with no one else in her 'squad' and no one to talk to, she felt like lounging a for a bit. Maybe while wearing sunglasses, just to complete the image for anyone that walked in. Unfortunately, even with her excessively fluffy hair to lean back on, she couldn't quite get comfortable enough to stay where she was.

Getting up with a mild sigh, she took a quick look around the gym to see that she was still alone. Not that that bothered her or anything, but it did mean she had some time to spare. Bringing out her phone, she swiped the screen a few times to put some music on, got to her feet, and started going through the routines she'd be sharing if anyone ever joined.

Slowly gyrating her hips in rhythm with wide, sweeping arm-motions, Adagio smirked. If anyone actually ended up joining her unit, she knew exactly what she would teach them. If Celestia had willingly given her control of the school's cheerleading subdivision, there was no reason she had to emulate Sonata rather than practicing dances that reflected her own sexy style a little more. She'd keep it classy, of course, but what were Rarity's words on this occupation? That young ladies would 'parade about a bit'?

She moved her body in rhythm with the slow, but percussive beat of the song she'd chosen, swinging her legs to step into a hip-shake just strong enough to flick the side of her skirt upward without outright flashing anyone. She knew some kind of chant would be important too, so she'd need to either come up with cheers for pretty much any sporting situation or instruct any prospective members of her squad on suggestive improv.

Or, since any random girl that joined probably wouldn't be as in-sync with me as Aria and Sonata, maybe having several general-purpose cheers is the way to go.

She'd need to know who and what she was working with before she could make any kind of concrete plan there, so for now, she focused on the dancing.

Unbeknownst to Adagio, two of her fellow students watched her through the gym's double-doors, cracked just enough to peek through.

"So she really does mean it with the cheerleading stuff," whispered Trixie, eyebrow raised in mild disbelief and crouched down to avoid detection. "Or, whatever she's up to involves copious amounts of hip-swinging. Man, look at her go..."

Standing behind Trixie at an angle from which she could still see through the crack, Maud had no comment to offer for the situation, but was content to join Trixie on her whimsical adventures anyway.

The practice went on for a while, the head cheerleader demonstrating a variety of dances from slow, hypnotic motions to quick, but calculated movements to draw attention to particular body parts for only an instant before resuming a less racy routine, but no cheers or chants were heard. Eventually, Adagio checked her phone, put it in her hair (Trixie knew it!!), and walked off toward the locker rooms, presumably to change into her street clothes and head home.

Shaking her head a little as she stood up, Trixie turned to Maud. "It's so weird, isn't it? I thought for sure that sending the other two away meant that she didn't want them caught in the blast for whatever she was doing, but she's legit just kind of existing now."

"Yes," replied Maud in complete monotone, "existing is very weird."

Grinning playfully, Trixie replied with a light shove. "Freakin' smartass. I mean it's weird seeing her of all people not planning our collective demise or even going all wimpy-apologetic like Sunset Shimmer and the new Twilight Sparkle did. Been like a week now and nothing's happened!" Thinking about it, her lips slowly curved into a sinister smile. "Still... If she's not up to anything, maybe that means there's room?"

Maud raised a single eyebrow just enough for it to be noticeable.

"Think about it; the position of Head Bitch In Charge of CHS has been pretty much vacant ever since Sunset ate the dirt at the Fall Formal, and if Little Miss Hips-For-Days isn't gonna step up and take it, that means it's still open!" She adopted a particularly wicked look as she wrung her hands. "And if their power isn't built on magic, nobody'll even try to stop them!"

Trixie held her pose and facial expression for almost a full minute before noticing that Maud wasn't saying anything, leading her to look askance at her geology-loving friend. "...You see where I'm going with this?"

The most obvious sign of Maud tilting her head was her hair slowly shifting to hang at uneven lengths on each side. "You seek this title for yourself."

It didn't sound like a question, but it felt like one, Trixie answering with a hint of a frown. "Well, yea. It'd be pretty fantastic, ruling all over the place like Sunset did, just without any of the crater stuff that came when she brought Magical Girl crud into the mix. Does that bother you?"

Maud Pie, Trixie had learned, was not always quick with her responses, but when asked why, she had shared a nugget of wisdom that made Trixie completely fine with that:

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.”

She figured it meant that Maud was always thinking about what she heard, not just what she could say, so her responses actually meant something. That usually made it easier to wait a little longer than when talking to a normal person, but this time, the wait was just a little tense.

"...It does not bother me, per se, it makes me worry."

Seeing where her thoughts were going, Trixie regained a confident smile. "Well don't, because Trixie will not repeat the stupid mistakes of Sunset Let's Just Leave All This Evidence On Top Of The Trash Can Shimmer, will not be careless and overconfident like she was, and will not get expelled!" Crossing her arms and raising her chin, she smirked haughtily. "Even Sunset managed to avoid that last one, so Trixie will surely be safe." Studying Maud's face, she found no signs that she had gotten more worried, which, knowing Maud, she took to mean acceptance. "Still, there is one big, fat question hanging over this little Become The New Head Bitch scheme..." Her confident demeanor shifted to a perplexed one as she idly brushed her chin. "How will I actually do it?"

"You can be a bitch," Maud replied without the faintest hint of emotion, "I believe in you."

Smirking in amusement, Trixie very lightly punched Maud's shoulder. "Freakin' smartass. C'mon," she said while striking a comical Adventure Awaits kind of pose, a fist in the air, "I believe Trixie was promised the wonders of cathedral geodes today!"

Trixie didn't notice as the two headed out to go see the aforementioned museum display, but Maud's lips quirked into the tiniest grin.

In their excitement for pretty stones (Trixie's favorite kind), neither noticed the two freshmen that stuck closely to a wall just around the corner, Diamond Tiara peeking around when things were quiet to confirm that they were both gone.

"Did you hear all that?"

"Yea," answered Silver Spoon, "what's a cathedral geode?"

"I dunno, but that's not the important thing! She said that there was room for somebody to take over the school and do whatever they want! Just like bacon girl used to!"


Diamond facepalmed. "Seriously?"

"Okay, okay, but don'tcha think the girls with the magic will just run up, steamroll over anyone that tries to be like Sunset was, and call it a day? I kinda thought that was why there hasn't been another queen bee since then."

"Uhh..." The prospect of consequences sinking in, Diamond scratched her head. "That, that's just, um..."


"..." Diamond folded her arms and glared at the floor. "Dammit, that's a pretty big problem. But," she said with a simultaneously annoyed and hopeful expression, "Trixie sounded like she really thought she could do it! Didn't she say that as long as there was no magic involved, it'd all be cool?"

Silver shrugged. "Trixie's stupid."

Diamond angrily pouted. "Well I'm not... There's gotta be a way around those girls."

"Around which girls?"

Diamond and Silver both shrieked in fright at the sound of the new voice, whipping around to see a slightly perplexed Adagio Dazzle looking down at them, eyebrow raised.

"Uh," stuttered Diamond, "the, th-the ones that, uh-"

"COTTON CANDY!!" Adagio and Diamond turned to look at Silver, who quickly turned the hue of her shouted food as she stared back at them. "Uh, I-I mean, at the carnival, there's always these girls who crowd around the cotton candy machine, a-and, we always have a hard time getting around them to grab a stick, so we were talking about what we'd do about that?"

She'd said it all in one breath and faster than strictly necessary, but that wasn't the detail that got Adagio's attention as her eyes narrowed. "Would these girls happen to be purple with pigtails and blue with a ponytail? Carrying a shillelagh? Because I told them to stop doing tha-"

"Uh, n-no ma'am," answered Silver, too afraid to blink.

"Oh. Well," she said with a shrug as she turned to walk away, "best of luck with that situation anyway." Smiling a little, she called over her shoulder. "Maybe try talking within earshot about diabetes and weight gain, see if that moves them!"

As the older girl left, cackling, Silver Spoon finally started to feel her insides warm up again. She looked at her only friend to find her still staring after the huge, bobbing curls as Adagio left, her eyes wider than the time her dad actually did come home early to spend Christmas with her. Silver had a bad feeling.

Diamond started to grin. "Hey, Silver?"

A very bad feeling!

The grin slowly turned all evil, her eyes still focused on Adagio's back. "I've got an idea..."

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

Setting down her bookbag as she closed her bedroom door, Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. Once her puppy had settled down and the daily period of overflowing excitement he felt upon learning that she had survived another day was concluded, she sat at her desk, looking over her notes on magic.

There wasn't much added since the end of the Friendship Games, just random, disjointed tidbits from things Sunset had told her here and there. She'd learned a bit about unicorns, the kinds of creatures in the other world, the concept of 'Cutie Marks' (Sunset insisted that that really was what they were called), and the more controllable properties of Equestrian alchemy, but nothing usable on this side of the portal. None of the new information had come from Adagio, because... she was hard to talk to, even without the serial-groper difficulties Twilight had been trying to work through.

That wasn't to say that she was groping Adagio on purpose and struggling to stop, she was struggling to not have that happen at all, because there had already been so many accidents like that and-

She shook her head. Nothing like that had happened within the last few days, so maybe she was in good shape. Did it matter that she achieved this through very rarely being within arm's reach of Adagio and remaining cautious any time they were in physical proximity to one another? It felt disingenuous to say otherwise, but she wanted to make it perfectly clear to everyone (Adagio and the rest of the school, the many witnesses to my embarrassing impacts) that she wasn't the crazed pervert she must have looked like during the Friendship Games. Not helping at all was that Adagio Dazzle was a very, very pretty girl, and anyone within viewing range of her was bound to let their eyes linger longer than strictly necessary. She knew this, because she'd even seen her newest friends doing it a few times!

Well, maybe once that was all behind her, she would have an easier time focusing on the thing that brought her attention to CHS in the first place. She wanted to study magic, but slowly this time, carefully, in short, easily-controlled steps. The spectrometer was history, and even if she couldn't bring herself to destroy the blueprints, she wouldn't be rebuilding it any time soon. She'd been far too greedy, far too careless last time, and the consequences could have been apocalyptic had she not been stopped.

...The propensity to doubt statements was directly proportional to the dramatic level with which they were delivered, which may have had something to do with teenage tendencies toward exaggeration, but in this case, she knew it was true!

Luckily, life on Earth continued, and with it, her chance to learn more about these energies from another world. It had occurred to her that she probably could have made a new model of spectrometer to only measure, not contain magical energy, but that was what the first one was supposed to do, so it was safe to say that she didn't understand enough about these things to even measure them yet, and wouldn't be repeating her past mistakes.


In a slightly irrational moment, she looked around her otherwise empty bedroom (Spike wouldn't tattle on me now that he can't talk anymore, and hopefully not even if he could), opened a drawer in her desk, and smiled. The new project was by no means done, and probably wouldn't be for a while, but who could resist tinkering a little? She wasn't going to fully assemble this thing until she understood how these energies worked, whether they flowed from high to low like heat, along some kind of circuit like electricity, or just went by completely alien rules that she couldn't begin to guess at on her own, but some day, she wanted to be able to detect, measure, and analyze this stuff.

That wasn't too much to ask, was it?

Chapter 5: Rivals (Part 1)

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The cafeteria of Canterlot High wasn't exactly a secret clubhouse, or even an everyone-knows-but-kinda-just-lets-it-be clubhouse, but with all the noise everybody else was making, it wasn't a bad place to talk plans for the Canterlot Misfits Club. And not just because school food tasted like it had been sitting uncovered in the fridge all night and it was more fun to eat at their actual clubhouse anyway.

"Okay, fine," huffed Sweetie Belle, "I guess a rocket-powered scooter could be fun, but where would we get the rockets?"

"Uh..." Scootaloo, with the confidence she'd held in her idea just seconds earlier now slipping away from her (as if on a rocket-powered scooter), scratched her head. "Maybe somebody in the science clubs has one?"

"Ah don' think they'd just give 'em to us after The Frog Incident, Scoot."

Sweetie's eyes narrowed. "Justice for Kermit."

Ignoring that and the flashbacks it might incur, Scootaloo shrugged. "Maybe we could buy 'em off?"

"They prob'ly ain't gonna trust us about money either, since The CMC Bank Incident."

"Justice for Miss Piggy."

Apple Bloom shook her head. "Even if we got the gizmos, remember how bad our ramp turned out when we tried to build one?"

Resting her head on the table, Scootaloo sighed. "So much tree sap."

"Sap is right," came the haughty voice of Diamond Tiara, here by herself for as long as it took Silver to get both of them a lunch tray, "because that's all three of you!"

There was a moment in which the CMC exchanged deadpan looks, but none so much as turned their heads before Apple Bloom spoke up. "So, did we ever get around to tryin' that giant rubber band ball idea? 'Cuz if we just got the bands and some ladders, Ah'm sure we could-ow!" She winced and rubbed the back of her head, finally turning to look at the girl who'd thwapped her with a sigh. "Whaddya want, Diamond?"

"From you?" She scoffed. "Like, nothing! I-"

Tiredly propping her head up with an arm on the table, Scootaloo cut her off, the look on her face one normally reserved for school assemblies and sitting in a waiting room full of old people. "Then why are you bugging us?"

Diamond sputtered indignantly before remembering her reason for heckling them today. "I'm just letting you know that I'm gonna be in charge of the whole school soon! It's like, advanced notice." For some reason, Sweetie Belle was the only one who didn't look annoyed at her. Probably from Fancy Big Sister genes or something.

"How will you do that?"

"I'm gonna get that siren girl to help me," she answered with a cocky grin, "and when she teaches me everything she knows, there'll be nobody who can get in my way!"

There was another pause as the CMC traded glances, Scootaloo being the first to ask this time. "Like, what, with cheerleading?"

"Wha-?! No, stupid, I-"

"Ooh," squeaked Sweetie, a hopeful smile on her face, "maybe this is our chance! Maybe we can be cheerleaders now!"

"Luna shot us down buhfore," added an uncertain Apple Bloom before donning an optimistic smile, "but that was buhfore we had any big girls doin' it!"

Scootaloo smiled too. "The outfits we put together should still be in the costume trunk, let's go!"

Diamond stood there in shock as the trio got up, clenching her teeth when Apple Bloom waved at her with a "Thanks again, Diamond!" before running off without her.

The 'again' was probably because they owed her their stupid group name, but that was supposed to be a burn!

"Hah, all by yourself again, Apple Bloom? Hey, here's a club for you; The Canterlot Misfits Club!"

"Stupid Apple Bloom and her stupid friends," she grumbled as she stormed away from the now-empty table, "they're all gonna be sorry when I'm running this school!"

She was startled by something sharply yanking her jacket, pulling her face-to-face with that weirdo magician girl, sitting at one of the tables she was passing.

"Sorry," she said with a face like Spoiled Rich when she caught Diamond trying on her jewelry, "what was that? Trixie swears she heard a little baby say she was going to be running the show around here."

"I am," Diamond immediately shot back with narrowed eyes, "I'm gonna get the Fluffy Lady to tell me how to make people do whatever I want, and there's nothing you can do about it!"

Barely resisting the urge to point out the gaping hole in this kid's plan, Trixie repressed a smirk. "You wanna ask Adagio Dazzle, possibly the most sadistic and ruthless mind this school has ever seen, for a favor like how to make everyone worship the ground you walk on?" Chewing the thought, she smiled. "Glad I thought of it!"


Letting Diamond go, Trixie chuckled and stood up. "If Trixie knew as much about manipulating people as she does, getting her long-overdue recognition as The Great, and Powerful Trixie would be a cakewalk!"

Her face reddening with rage, Diamond harshly pulled on the sleeve of Trixie's jacket. "You can't just-"

Unfazed, Trixie pushed her back with a light shove, then pointed at her while wearing a condescending smile. "I can, because one? Conquest of Canterlot High was already Trixie's idea, and two? One of the rules Adagio set for joining the cheer squad was completing Health class, which means she doesn't wanna waste time with little girls." She took a moment to savor the seething look of hatred from her already-beaten, hopelessly ill-matched opponent and chuckled. "Well," she said with a haughty toss of her hair before walking off, "Trixie is off to make arrangements for her spot in the cheer squad, where she'll have plenty of time to learn everything she needs to know. Seeya in the funny pages, short-stuff!"

It was as Diamond was trying to decide which would hurt more; running after Trixie to pull her skirt down in front of everyone or throwing someone's food at the back of her stupid head, that she heard Silver's voice.

"Wow," she said while standing next to her with two lunch trays, "I wasn't exactly expecting your plan to work, but I didn't expect it to fall apart that fast, either."

Still glaring at Trixie's departing figure, Diamond swiped a little carton of chocolate milk off one of the trays, popped it open, and chugged the contents for all she was worth before uttering a solemn oath: "I'll get her for this, I swear I'll get her back."

Ignoring the little tingle from the hairs on the back of her neck, Trixie walked out of the cafeteria, turned a corner, and stopped to lean her back against a wall.

All I have to do is join the cheer squad, use it as an excuse to get near her, and learn all her tricks, right? But, how would I get her to even talk about that sorta stuff? Just hang around her in the hope of free Mastermind tips? Stupid kid, this plan stinks!

She sighed.

Maybe it just needs work. Not like I know another way to get close to her without arousing suspicion. I'll probably have to build up some athleticism first, if I don't want her to laugh me out of the room for not being able to do enough splitty-leg jumps or whatever. Maybe Maud can help me out?

Pushing off the wall, she smiled. It was time for a trip to the Rock Pit!

...Or, it would be after school, because she didn't want to get busted for skipping again.

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

Back in the cafeteria, Rarity turned her head back to face the others after watching Trixie leave, eyebrow raised. "I can't be the only one worried that Sweetie and her friends just left not even halfway through lunch and Trixie Lulamoon followed them?"

"I'm sure the kids will be okay," assured Sunset before her gentle smile contorted into a mild grimace, "Trixie, though..."

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "She probably just wanted to make a dramatic exit for some reason. It's what, Tuesday?"

She and the others waited for the exact date, but looking at Twilight, they found her engrossed in composing an email on her phone, which led Rainbow to nod.

"Yep, Tuesday."

Dear Principal Cinch,

Nothing much has changed since Friday's message, but I am feeling more comfortable here than I thought I would. I confess that I feel silly now, re: Roving Bands of Bullies, but the students and staff alike are more welcoming than what I'd have expected from a regular high school. I'm still eagerly awaiting my first graded test at CHS, but until then, I'm afraid I have nothing interesting to share.

That concludes the first segment of the bi-weekly report!

I look forward to hearing from you,
Twilight Sparkle

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

"'More welcoming,'" Cinch uttered to herself as she scanned the email for a second time in the solitude of her office, "I should ask exactly what she means by that."

Dear Ms. Sparkle,

I seek clarification of the term: More Welcoming. Does this refer to a tendency to extend greetings on a regular basis, a general sense that your presence and that of those around you is 'welcome,' or another sense of the words? Feel free to ruminate on this until your next message to

Stopping, Cinch read over what she'd just typed, loosed a quiet sigh, highlighted the whole paragraph, and erased it with a single stroke of the Backspace key. She knew full well what 'more welcoming' meant; it was what a normal facility did with its human residents.

Back when she first attended Crystal Prep, she thought the brisk system of regarding students as students, not as children, was a refreshing change of pace, that the 'Hi, how can I help you's and 'It's okay, just do your best's could just as well stay in the common service industries where they belonged. That was where the failures went, wasn't it? Stuck waiting tables and scrubbing floors, moving boxes and packing shelves, none of the things an accomplished, successful mind that graduated from one of the finest schools in the world would be doing in their professional environments.

That was why it made so much sense to her; common schools and their more 'friendly' atmospheres were for common people who would be working 'friendly' jobs for those lacking in talent, where elite facilities like Crystal Prep Academy enforced exactly the kind of uncompromising demands and expectations on their students as would be seen in an expert-level occupation. Medical research and technological development didn't have time for 'How do you do?', did they?

Perhaps, perhaps not, but for her purposes, the question was "Does it help students learn at all?"

Aria Blaze and Sonata Dusk had yet to make use of Cadenza's aid thus far. As far as she knew, they hadn't so much as asked a question in class. They couldn't go to the guidance counselor until just today, because Cinch had only just found a replacement for the staff member that retired some weeks ago, but was it because the help was not needed, or that they just didn't feel welcome?

If Twilight felt it noteworthy enough to relay to her, perhaps it was worth consideration.

Dear Ms. Sparkle,

There has been little noticeable change on this end of things as well. The two girls from Canterlot High seem to be doing well enough, though I have no new findings to share in their adjustment myself. Should you ever decide to visit, I would ask that you not disturb them.

Abacus Cinch

Chapter 6: Rivals (Part 2)

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In the same building, Aria wandered the halls as she thought about how best to approach this domination thing, Sonata in tow.

That whole 'specific achievements' thing Sugarcoat told her about sounded like a huge hassle, and one in which she wasn't even guaranteed to win anything if she succeeded. She said that just being in the top ranks of a class or two would get her recognized, and this dance Blueblood was taking Sunny Flare to was the place to nab as much attention as possible, so she'd need something by then.

Unfortunately, every time she started to get a good grip on the material, classes moved right along to the next thing, or added new stuff to the old thing, so she could never even feel like she was getting good enough to snag top-tier grades! The homework alone was completely kicking her ass, so if she didn't come up with something before the big-time test rolled around, she might have to come up with something for-

Before Aria knew it, she was headed straight for the floor, barely extending her arms in time to not mash her face against the tile. She still got a cheek smushed against the cold linoleum when Sonata fell on top of her, but at least nothing was broken.

"Wow," giggled an unfamiliar voice, "might wanna watch'yer step there, these floors can hurt!"

Looking up, Aria saw a smiling girl with long, straight, purple hair, so dark it was almost pitch-black and meticulously styled to stop just above her waist in a perfectly even line. There was nothing remarkable about her choice in uniform; the standard blazer and skirt with tights, but her face, in some kind of contrast with her hair, was such a pale green that it almost looked white, containing the gleaming, yellow eyes that looked back down at her. Aria couldn't place it, but there was something she really didn't like about those eyes.

"Yea-ha," chuckled another voice, "bruises aren't a good look for anyone!"

The other girl wore short socks, a normal skirt, and a standard blazer, but with the top button of her shirt undone. That and subtle make-up on her pink, smirking face were the only deviations Aria saw from the CP uniform, though the thick, deep-red ringlets hanging just over her shoulders looked like they took an hour to style.

Aria knew an attempt at intimidation when she saw one, and tripping her so that she'd be looking up at them was definitely deliberate, so she denied them the effect by waiting until she could shove Sonata off and stand up before replying. "Good tip." To her annoyance, neither of them looked at all bothered that she hadn't responded the way the victim normally would in this situation.

"Now that we have your attention," said the pale, peppy one, "I'm Powder Glitz," she gestured to the other one, "and this is Glitter Spark."

Remembering Politeness™, Aria restrained herself to a dull glare. "Nice to meet you." She'd expected that this would force them to look deferential to her by having to ask her name or have Sonata say it for her, like she was too important to introduce herself, but the pink one Glitter just gave her a deadpan stare.

"We've met before. Twice."

"Oh yea," chirped Sonata with her usual, vacant smile, "we bumped into these guys on our first day here!"

One of Glitter's light-grey eyes twitched. "And when we tried to introduce ourselves last week, you shoved us out of the way."

Knowing that she was in a serious Politeness™ deficit right about now, Aria shrugged and took interest in some nearby architecture. Crystal Prep really did have some pretty interiors. "We were in a hurry."

Sonata idly scratched along her jawline as though trying to remember yesterday's weather. "I think it was more like a push anyway."

Now Glitter really did look angry, glaring daggers as she spoke with cold contempt. "I knew I hated you. Like 95% of students here are arrogant as all get out, but most of them have done something to earn that attitude, not just waltzed in like they already had a place here. I know you're both from CHS, and I know you didn't stick around there long either, so if-"

"Woah, wait," interrupted a shocked Sonata, "why do you know this stuff?! Are you stalking us?!"

"Wha-?! No, you idiot, this is Crystal Prep! The first thing anyone learns to do here is their homework!"

While slightly impressed with that snappy word-choice, Aria didn't let it show on her face. "So you think you've got dirt on us?"

Looking more tired than angry now, Glitter sighed, softly facepalming. "'Dirt'? No, it's normal to want to know who you're dealing with."

Glitz kept her passive smile. "Especially the competition!"

That word wrapped around Aria's throat like a snake. These two considered themselves competitors to her in some way, which meant they were a threat.

"Anyway," continued Glitter, "if you think that just showing up and looking pretty will get you everything, you're in for a rude awakening!"

Try as she might, Aria couldn't think of a good way to use 'rude' against these two in any way. Luckily, she had something just as devastating. "Well whatever you think you've got going on, I bet it's not working for you, because in the week or two since we got here, I haven't heard anything about you guys." She smirked with satisfaction as Glitter's eye twitched again.

"And your point is?"

"That if you weren't nobodies, I'd have at least heard your names somewhere. I know who all the top-ranked students are in their respective classes, and you two aren't on that list. Come to think of it, I don't remember seeing you guys compete in the Friendship Games, either, and seeing as how I'm already hanging with the girls who did make the cut every day, I'd say I'm already way ahead of you."

"Uh," Sonata cut in, eyebrow raised, "don't you mean 'we'?"

Aria ignored the question as Glitter seethed in silence, Powder Glitz raising a question of her own as she scratched her head. "Ahead in what?"

For a split second, Aria felt like she'd been duped; made to reveal her true intentions for this school without realizing it, but she hadn't said anything that could be used to turn anyone against her, right? "In, securing my place at Crystal Prep. As like, one of the big dogs, the ones Cinch would pick to represent the school for... stuff."

Her rage slowly ebbing away, Glitter gave Aria a look of baffled disbelief. "...Are you, saying you just want to be a... representative? One of the school's 'top students'?"


A weird, but infuriating little quirk in her grin, Glitter snorted, then started laughing, loud and long as Glitz joined in while Aria and Sonata stood there feeling like it was an entire hallway cackling at their expense.

An angry pout on her face, Sonata eventually spoke up. "What the heck's so funny?!"

Wiping away a tear, Glitter did her best to reign herself in. "Ma-ha-ha-haan, you guys are rich! Hey, by all means, keep shooting for those high scores, because being a top student-" Aria caught the extra mocking emphasis, "-is great and all, while you're still here, but what happens when you graduate Crystal Prep?"

Silence. Glitter's smirk approached maximum smugness.

"Haven't thought it through, huh? Okay, it goes like this: While you might get a tidy scholarship related to whatever you were good at, sooner or later, you're just going to end up mediocre again, because most graduates hit stiff competition in college from others that take their field just as seriously, if not more, and end up working just as hard as an ordinary person from a 'lowly' school pursuing an ordinary profession, even if they do make it big. Having 'came from Crystal Prep' in your resume isn't the ticket to easy street Cinch wants people to think it is, being 'The Best' isn't living a high, comfortable life above lesser plebeians like people act like it is, and that's if nothing goes wrong."

Still grinning, she touched a hand to her chest. "What I want is to become as popular and influential as possible," she admitted with no shame or hesitation, diminishing, but not destroying Aria's worries about being found out and ousted about that, "so that when the hard-working success stories of Crystal Prep look back on their school days, they'll think of me-" A genuine smile on her face, she leaned close enough to Glitz to nearly touch their heads together, "-and my best friend," Glitz shot them a smile, a wink, and a peace-sign before Glitter returned to a normal stance, "from the day they graduate onward.

Being the most popular girl in the best school around means being close to societal big wigs for years after, and all I'll have to do is secure some easy (that is, easy for a Crystal Prep graduate), but well-paying job until I hook a billionaire, use my influence from my time as a student to keep and expand my social circle, and essentially be the Most Popular Girl In School for life among the rich and powerful, all without having to bust my hump like a normal person would!"

"And because I'm totally down for this plan," Glitz chimed in, "I'll be helping out!"

Glitter gave her an amused smile. "Thanks."

Aria clenched her jaw, not because these bitches were making fun of her, but because that sounded almost identical to her plan. There was a little more detail, but it was still 'win adoration of future big dogs, exploit for personal gain,' which meant that these girls really were her biggest competition. Glaring, she took a step forward.

"You girls are way out of your league. I know a thing or two about turning people against each other, so if you don't wanna end up with everyone in Crystal Prep hating your guts, you'll stay out of my way."

Eyes widening in surprise for a second, Glitter scoffed. "If you could just sing your little song and make everyone do what you wanted, you'd have done it by now." She responded to Aria and Sonata's shock by regaining her smug smirk. "That's right, when our team came back from the Friendship Games, they had some stories to tell. Have you heard the one about the army of zombies? Or the teleporting cupcake girl? The weird, sudden moments of people zoning out? The bumbling dork who grew wings and started ripping holes in time and space was the most popular story, but maybe you know the one about three witches who took up cheerleading?"

"There weren't any witches," Sonata said with a blank stare, "just me, Aria here, and our boss-slash-kinda-sorta-mother-figure."

There was a pause as Glitter stared at Sonata and a facepalming Aria, her own expression unamused as she answered in complete deadpan. "Wow. Really? I had no idea."

Sonata proudly crossed her arms and raised her chin as though she'd made a salient point. "Well now you do!"

Glitz leaned closer to Glitter. "The dumb one doesn't get sarcasm, remember?"

"Right, forgot."

Remembering that crack about homework, Aria could see that she badly needed to fall back and learn just who these girls were before going any further, so she rolled her eyes and started walking away. "We've got a lot more than just songs at our disposal, so don't do anything we'll make you regret."

That Aria didn't hear any kind of comeback as Sonata followed her felt like a good sign, at least in the sense that those two weren't as witty as Indigo. Speaking of whom, Aria now knew that she'd been mistaken twice about who her greatest adversary was, because while both were very driven and pretty competitive when it came to stuff they actually cared about, neither Indigo Zap nor Sunny Flare showed any interest in the idea of ruling anything, of being in control.

Still, it was weird that Aria hadn't even heard anyone mention either of these new previously unremarkable girls at all, and if they normally acted like that, there had to be a reason. Maybe that reason was something she could use to her advantage.

Chapter 7: Rivals (Part 3)

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In another hall of the same building, Dean Cadence strolled with a little box of donuts in hand, humming a cheerful tune as she made her way to the guidance counselor's office. Truth be told, she wasn't sad about the previous one retiring, because serious old men trying a little too hard to prove how much they knew about all the different psychological theories and studies would not have been her first choice to comforting upset teenagers.

But maybe it'd be Cinch's... The last guy was working here before she was, so maybe she didn't just pick an identical replacement?

Either way, Cadence wanted to make a good first impression and welcome the new staff member to the school. Hence: Donuts. Reaching the door, she gently knocked twice and walked in.

"Hello! I'm-..."

The room was empty. Well, there were still chairs and a big desk and shelves with books and stuff, but no people. Cinch said the new counselor was supposed to be in right now, but it looked like Cadence would have to settle for leaving them a note. She walked over to the desk, set down the donuts, and started looking around for sticky notes or something.

I really should start carrying around my own little packet. Would Cinch let me leave pink notes on things? With little hearts on-

"My, my," came a low, sensual voice, "is that Cadence? Never thought I'd see you here."

Cadence whipped around to see someone she'd have said the exact same thing to. Stretched out in a provocative pose on the red, leather therapy couch (placed in a corner opposite to the desk) was a tall, dark-skinned woman in an even darker suit; a pitch-black skirt and blazer that covered a tight, white blouse and striking, green tie that disappeared between the wearer's massive breasts. Covering her long, slender legs were dark-green stockings, riddled with holes all the way down to her shiny, black high heels that dangled over the edge of the couch. At first glance, one would think her long, dark-blue hair was just a windswept mess, but the uneven ends were deliberately styled with the help of a black, jagged hairpin to reveal one ear and most of her neck from the front and left side, one long, thick set of strands hanging between her green eyes and reaching just a little past her chin, the dark-green lipstick on that mouth curved into an amused smirk.

"Finished eyeing me up yet?"

Cadence immediately broke into a furious blush, but refused to dignify the question with a direct response, eyes narrowing as she loosed a dark whisper. "What are you doing here?"

Chrysalis leisurely stretched her arms to indicate the surrounding area. "Can't you tell? I'm the new guidance counselor. I haven't really unpacked yet, but I'm sure I'll find some kind, helpful soul to lend me a hand with that."

Not wanting to hear another word, Cadence set her eyes on the door and marched.

"♫I wouldn't do it if I were youuu~♪"

Cadence stopped, hissing her reply through clenched teeth. "Do. What."

"You were thinking of complaining to Principal Cinch, weren't you? Trying to get me fired right away by telling her that I'm-" she theatrically draped an arm over her face, "-not fit for Crystal Prep, that I'd surely damage the school's sterling reputation just by being here." She peered out from under her arm, a devious smirk on her lips. "Ignoring how you would know such a thing in the first place."

Cadence looked away, heat again crawling up her neck. "W-what makes you think I'd say anything about that?!"

Eyes alight with fiendish glee, Chrysalis smiled wider. "So you were going to try."

"I didn't say-"

"Just keep in mind: Even if it should somehow come to light that I was involved with something-" she hung on the word in a slow, breathy whisper that made Cadence visibly stiffen her shoulders, "-scandalous... You and your dear boyfriend were there too." She adopted a curious, contemplative expression. "How's that going, by the way? Still sticking to the fairytale approach, or have you finally knuckled down and told him what you really want?"

Fire and hate in her eyes, Cadence clenched both fists. "That is NONE of your concern!!"

She innocently touched the tip of an index finger to her lower lip. "Oh? I can't be concerned when I see a lovely couple headed for inevitable disaster? I really am worried, you know, because I know your man is a boyscout, but let's face it; sooner or later the Perfect Prince and Princess™ routine will be just that."

"We are getting along because we love each other," Cadence declared firmly, "something you will never understand!"

Rolling her eyes, Chrysalis dismissively waved a hand. "I understand people, Cadence," she noted with a hint of delight that it still annoyed her when Chrysalis addressed her by that name, "and it only took me about five minutes of watching you two interact to see where you stand. Unless you and Shiny really are Disney animatronics masquerading as humans, you'll be a lot happier in the long run if you drop the act and tell him everything."

Nearly snarling, Cadence turned to leave, racking her brain for a way to tell Cinch what little she knew about Chysalis's... extracurricular activities without incriminating herself when she was stopped by a surprisingly gentle voice.

"Oh, and Cadence?"

She turned to see Chrysalis, having rolled over onto her stomach, resting her chin atop her folded hands with a peaceful smile on her face.

"Thanks for the donuts~!"

Eyes narrowed, Cadence left without another word, but she at least controlled herself well enough to not slam the door.

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

Sitting on the steps to the front door of CHS after school, Sunset Shimmer closed the journal she'd been using to communicate with Princess Twilight over in Equestria. She did like talking to Twilight, both of them, really, but this last message left her... troubled.

...So, this filly breaks into her castle, screws with time and space, and she makes her her student? That's the first thing that came to mind?

She thought for a second.

I mean, what I'm doing with this world's Twilight is completely different, she's-... She doesn't have magic anymore!

Looking at the cover of the journal, her cutie mark emblazoned on the front, she frowned. Not that she wasn't grateful for how things turned out, but-


Snapping to attention, Sunset looked up to see Adagio, an eyebrow curiously raised as she stood there in that sassy hand-on-hip pose. "I'm sorry, what?"

"I said, it's rare to see you by yourself. Are the others having some kind of No Equestrians party, or...?"

Shaking her head, Sunset smiled. "Nah, I was just talking to Princess Twilight again and communicating through a book isn't a great group activity."

"Ah." When Sunset patted the concrete step next to her, Adagio briefly considered suggesting softer seating and sat down anyway. "How is the good princess these days?"

Sunset knew that none of the sirens liked Princess Twilight, given her part in ruining them and no part in helping them recover, and it showed in Adagio's tone. Still, Sunset didn't lose her grin. "She's doing fine, even picked up a new student." Adagio loosed an apathetic hum and looked out over the school grounds, so she tried a different topic. "Speaking of students, how are Aria and Sonata doing over there?"

"They tell me they're not having any problems every time I ask, but I haven't heard a peep of their triumphs so far, either, and I know they would report those."

Sunset chuckled. "Don't worry too much, I'm sure your kids will do fine." She beamed at the flat look Adagio gave her for this. It must have been contagious, because Adagio smiled a little herself as she lightly shoved Sunset.

"Hmph. It's not like I'm expecting them to bring me crown jewels and their enemies' severed heads on pikes by the end of the month, or at all, because I don't know what I'd do with the latter, but I'd like some kind of progress report."

At this, Sunset's mirth was replaced with curiosity. "'Progress'? Progress in what? And, come to think of it, you never did tell me why they went over there without you."

"You never asked, but I suppose you are now?" Sunset nodded. "As you may recall, building power was my whole life before we lost the gems, and without that kind of magic, I don't have it in me anymore to take us anywhere. My long-time cohorts, however, wouldn't mind a turn at the wheel, so to speak, so I've left them to spread their influence and make names for themselves over there while I try to replace what I learned in The Hadal Zone here. Eventually, one of them will emerge as the clearly dominant force, and that one will decide what we're doing from here on out. Or, such is the plan."

"Uh huh... And, what if neither of them are up to it?"

"We'll regroup and figure out our next move from there."

"Ah." Sunset wore a worried frown. "You kinda make it sound like you guys are still villains."

Adagio shrugged. "I can't say whether we will be or not, because I won't be in charge anymore, but right now? We're not really anything."

"Should I be worried that this is going to be trouble later?"

"Without magic? I don't know, how much of the trouble and wrongdoing in this world falls under Rainboom jurisdiction?" The question made Sunset flinch, so she pressed on a little more gently. "I heard two freshman girls scheming something the other day, are you and your friends intending to combat them, too?"

"Freshman girls?" Sunset scratched her head. "What are you talking about?"

"Something about 'the girls with the magic (that being the word that got my attention) steamrolling over' anyone trying to be what you were, Trixie being stupid, pulling something off without magic, and there having to be a way around 'those girls,' by which I suspect they meant your group, not mine. Once I made sure of that (neither reacted when I feigned ignorance and alluded to Aria and Sonata), I figured it wasn't my problem, so... Do you wait until there's a real, magical threat, or will you and your friends be policing everyone you aren't sure about from now on?"

"Uhh... Well, I'm just worried that, with what you guys did before, that if I don't say or do anything, it'll become a magical threat, you know?"

"I repeat," said Adagio with a little smile, "if we still had magic, I might have had something to go on. As it stands? The only means I've seen to do that is Twilight's spectrometer, and that method is so unstable that it's a miracle it didn't kill her. They may not tell me much about what's going on over there, but Aria has mentioned that she plans to build her power with currency, not magic. Does that make you feel any better?"

"Lots, actually," Sunset answered with a bright, hopeful grin, "because no amount of money is going to enslave or destroy a planet."

"I don't know about that, have you seen the way these creatures behave when financial gain is involved?"

"You know what I mean," Sunset said with a little smirk and a playful shove, Adagio smiling back. A quiet moment later, she raised an eyebrow. "Why'd you play dumb with a couple of freshmen, though?"

Adagio answered as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "So I'd be in a better position to use them later if needed, them not knowing that I'm aware of what they're up to meaning I can watch unmolested from the sidelines and possibly use that information as leverage against them." She sat in silence as Sunset, her mouth hanging open, stared back at her. "...Bad?"

"Um... y-yea. Bad."

"Sorry," she said with full, pouty lips and half-lidded eyes, "I'm a bad girl." Watching Sunset slowly turn fluorescent pink, she restrained her reaction to a giggle as she stood up. Again surveying the immediate area, she finished with a whisper. "I'll work on it, though."

Looking up at her, Sunset smiled. "My friends and I will be around if you need us."

Adagio glanced over her shoulder with a grin. "I should head home, Aria and Sonata will be back soon. See you tomorrow, Sunset."

And off she went, hips swinging no less than... well, any other time Sunset had seen them in motion.

Twilight swears up and down that those impacts were all an accident, but if even one wasn't... I guess I get it?

Sunset immediately slapped herself. She had heard Adagio's full account of what happened to them back in Coltlantis, her ten long years as a fully-conscious plaything for four depraved lunatics, and she would not allow herself to think of Adagio in the same way. Not now. Not ever.

...I mean, unless she-

Sunset slapped herself again.

Chapter 8: The Best-Laid Plans (Part 1)

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"Whaddya mean 'they're nobodies?!'"

"Just what I said," scoffed Sunny Flare, sitting nearby at the lunch table as she lightly massaged an ear, "they aren't an academic threat and hold no titles, have earned no trophies, and aren't even in the top five students of any class. Nobodies."

Kind of seeing what CHS kids were going on about now, Aria tried to ignore Sunny's snobbishness in favor of focusing on what this meant about her new rivals. Of course, Aria and Sonata themselves didn't have any of those things yet either, but they were still new here, so at least they had an excuse.

"They're total wimps, too," Indigo interjected, "I told the pink one to pick any sport she liked; archery, badminton, baseball, basketball, boxing, climbing-"

Is she going in alphabetical order...?

She was, until gently poked in the head by Sugarcoat, whereupon she stopped and cleared her throat, a hint of contrition on her face. "A-anyway, she and the other one always chickened out, so I just stopped talking to them."

Sonata tilted her head. "Like, total I-can't-see-you-but-you-know-I-can-nyah-nyah-na-na-na ignoring?"

Indigo shrugged. "I don't know how things are at other high schools, but this is Crystal Prep. If they're not gonna bring any game, they're not worth anyone's time."

Having thought that Indigo Zap was one of the most laid-back students here, witnessing the utter disdain in her face and voice clued Aria in that putting your money where your mouth is was a big deal here. That suited her fine, because she wasn't the type to talk big if she couldn't back it up. As long as she could prove that, she'd have a huge head-start over Glitz and Glitter.

"For the sake of your sanity," added Sunny as she examined her expertly-manicured nails, "it'd be best if you ignored them too."

Aria disappointed herself by looking at Sonata with the expectation of any kind of thought or understanding of what they just heard regarding their new rivals, but as usual, the idiot was just stuffing her face. Well, maybe that was okay this time, because it sounded like Glitz and Glitter were small-time. The thought that they had essentially the same plan as Aria bothered her a bit, but if they never 'brought any game,' then what did it matter?

She'd focus on her own rise to power, which would start with a presentation in Social Studies. She and Sonata were in that one together and everyone was told to group up for this thing, probably to keep each individual student from rambling on for twenty minutes apiece. Just as she'd hoped, nobody had any faith in the new girls, especially because they came from CHS as 'dumb, pom-pom-swinging' cheerleaders, which meant she and Sonata would be by themselves.


What the rest of her class didn't know yet was that Aria had spent over a hundred years watching Adagio instruct Sonata, and knew just what gears to turn and which wind-up back-things to spin to get her to do just what she needed to blow everyone else's little show-and-tell out of the water. Since it was basically just History, all they had to do was memorize a story and get a powerpoint presentation put together.

Oh sure, the standards were gonna be high, she knew that before the assignment was even given, but while these hard-working stiffs were gonna have all the boxes checked and do exactly what was expected of them, they'd be missing something a siren had down pat: Presentation!

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

"Isn't there anything you can do?!"

Sitting in the living room recliner with a copy of the Canterlot Police Department regulation handbook (and not the For Dummies edition!) open on his lap, rookie cop Shining Armor frowned. "Even if I were authorized to just go digging through her files, assuming she has any, because I felt like it, if there were anything that'd get her arrested in there, don't you think she'd have already been taken in for it?"

Letting herself fall backward onto the couch, Cadence let out a long, exasperated breath. "There's gotta be something she did, or something she does all the time, that isn't legal, or at least something shady that we can use if she steps out of line!"

Shining raised an eyebrow. "Shady like... literally conspiring to get someone fired?" He flinched when Cadence's head whipped in his direction, pouting.

"Whose side are you on?"

"Yours, but look at what you're asking me to do here!"

Thinking about it, she pouted harder. Okay, so maybe she wasn't going about this in the cleanest possible way, but Chrysalis was a bad person! Cadence could feel it from her! Who knew what kind of twisted, unethical things she would impart on the impressionable youth of Crystal Prep?! Not helping was that the prestigious school already had a bit of a... reputation, in that department.

Come to think of it, was that why Principal Cinch hired her in the first place? I don't think she's anywhere near as bad as Chrysalis, but I have to admit that the woman has had some... ethical lapses herself.

She was brought back to awareness by Shining sitting on the couch beside her, placing a very warm and sympathetic arm across her shoulders.

"It'll be alright, Cady. If she crosses a line, you'll be there to stop her, but if she doesn't? She'll just be a coworker that was involved in what'll be a funny story some day."

Slumping against him, Cadence sighed, as much in defeat as with cuddly bliss as she nuzzled into his shoulder. "I guess."

She definitely wasn't laughing about that incident right now, though. Maybe it was funny from the outside; a lovely and adventurous maiden bringing her charming prince along to a place of... less than wholesome activity, if one didn't believe wholeheartedly in the love between those making use of such a building.

Okay, okay, it was something like a hotel for hook-ups, something a friend from college had told her about when she hinted that she wanted to try something exciting with Shiny. You'd pay a modest fee, look over the options, and pick out a room with whatever tickles your peach. Cadence went there with her adorably naive boyfriend, made sure he understood what he was supposed to do when he found her room, and then headed off to get ready by herself.

What went wrong was some kind of mix-up at the front desk, sending him to completely the wrong room.

Her room.

Apparently, one Q. Chrysalis was there that same night, bound, gagged, and blindfolded while waiting for her own date to arrive.

Cadence wasn't mad at Shiny, because when she came looking for him and heard what went wrong, she was able to confirm that, yes, it was pretty dark in that room when the door was shut. That explained why she found her loving, faithful boyfriend with his hands and tongue all over a strange, nearly naked woman.

That might have been funny! His face when he understood the mistake was pretty memorable, but that wasn't what had Cadence so angry about the whole incident even to this day.

No, no, what bothered her was that, when Chrysalis was untied and Shiny was waiting out in the front room, she insisted on offering her thoughts on their relationship.

"He's barely got foreplay figured out and you take him to a place like this?"

"Got itches he isn't scratching, hm?"

"I can tell he thinks the world of you, but you haven't been completely honest with him, have you?"

"I heard those pet names, by the way. Cute, but the fairytale couple thing never lasts."

"Hahahaha! Ohh, honey, if I were you, I'd open up with him right away, because the longer you keep this little facade going, the harder it'll be on him when he sees the real you."

Only because the smarmy bitch had no qualms sharing her presumption that she knew more about their relationship than someone who was actually in it did Cadence let her know exactly what she thought of her before storming out, expecting to never see that vile woman again.

Maybe running into her at work would be in the 'funny story' category someday too?

We still have the coupons they gave us for that place to make up for the wrong room thing, but I really don't wanna make a hat trick out of this if she still goes there.

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

Heavy rocks. Hot sun. Grainy, grimy dirt. Sweaty clothes. Aching body. Trixie was not having a good time in the rock quarry, but it was definitely helping her build muscle. Besides...

"Thank you for helping me out here," droned Maud in her quiet monotone. Not that she needed help, but it was nice to have company.

Moving rocks into arbitrary formations seemed to make Maud happy (Trixie could tell, okay?), and Trixie loved to be appreciated! That is why she stopped to appreciate herself with a rest, sliding to a sitting position and slumping against the latest in a row of big rocks.

"...Are you okay?"

Looking up at Maud, Trixie didn't want to think about what this girl had to be made of to not even look winded. She was pretty sure Maud had passed her a few times, too. Still, she managed to shakily raise one arm to wave her off.

"Trixie is fine, thank you for asking."

Turning away from the same rock, Maud sat down to lean against it. "...There are easier ways to exercise. If your goal is to join the cheerleading gang, a runner's physique may have been more appropriate."

Trixie scoffed. "What, take up jogging? That thing people say they'll do from now on, do for like two days, then quit?"

One would have to look very closely to see Maud raising an eyebrow. "By 'people,' do you perhaps mean yourself?" She waited through Trixie's indignant noises.

"Th-that is beside the point! I need to get stronger fast because Adagio isn't going to be around forever! The junior year will be over in a couple months, and then there's just one year, minus summer, to learn all her tricks and take over the school!"


While she was used to slow replies from Maud, this one seemed to take a little longer than usual, Trixie turning her head with a raised eyebrow. "No comment?"

"...It's a pretty short reign, isn't it?" Trixie's face said elaboration would not go amiss, so she complied with that silent wish. "If Adagio is the puppetmaster you believe she is, how long would it take you to learn everything she could teach you? If you do not ask her directly, even if she were to accept without question, how long will it be before the learning even begins? How long after that would it take to achieve conquest of the school as you hope to? How much time after all of that remains to enjoy the fruits of labor?"

It was unlike Trixie to take longer than perhaps ten seconds to respond, at most, but the silence lingered into minutes this time. Maud was not opposed, happy to spend the quiet moment together, but the wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock suggested that Trixie was not as at peace with this situation. Perhaps it was due to perception of a great flaw in her plan, meaning that the effort to train her body was for nothing and her prospects for the future were dashed.

In silent treachery, that had been Maud's hope. However, while she wished to lead Trixie away from her scheme, Maud knew it wasn't her place to decide that for her, and if Trixie realized on her own what Maud already knew, Trixie may be even less pleased. That in mind, she divulged the last detail.

"...Given the remaining time, you could always apply her lessons to college."

For better or worse, Trixie brightened immediately. "Hey, yea! I could totally be on top of the food chain in higher-than high school! I bet things would be a little different there, but it's okay, because thinking fast and adapting are things I know Adagio knows how to do! If I get in on the ground floor of her cheer squad before anyone else joins, I'll have until we both graduate to learn all I can from her, then the rest of my life to use it! Hahahaha, it's perfect!"

Still internally conflicted, Maud was at least happy that Trixie was in a good mood now. She still suspected that Trixie's plans would eventually hurt her, and likely others, but Trixie might ultimately be saved from her short-sightedness by another fault Maud had gotten to know in her.

Trixie was fickle.

Chapter 9: The Best-Laid Plans (Part 2)

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She was being careful this time.

She had been careful the first time, but now Twilight really took steps to prevent disaster.

Of course, given that she was attempting to experiment with something she knew so little about, it was difficult to say where the lines were, and Sunset either wasn't keen on telling her, or didn't know herself. This essentially meant that she was, as before, blindly groping in the dark as far as her research into magic went, but this time, she knew what she wasn't going to do:

-She wasn't going to recreate the Spectrometer Mk.I.

-She wasn't going to place her research above the lives and well-being of other people.

-She wasn't going to recklessly push ahead to gather as much potential data as possible.

-No matter the outcome(s) or possibilities opened to her, she wasn't going to use whatever was attained from her experiments to wreak havoc and revenge on those she felt had wronged her in some way, no matter how 'justified' she felt at the time.

No, no, this time, she would have people to talk to, people to share her findings with! That was mainly just Sunset for now, but if Adagio didn't secretly (or not so secretly, on account of our many unwanted moments of physical contact) hate her guts, maybe she'd be willing to offer some insights too? Regardless, Twilight would take this slowly, do her best to understand every change and every effect before going further.

That in mind, she clutched the remote control to the cylindrical, metal object now sitting on her bedside table; the Spectrometer Mk.II. It was a completely different build from the previous, insanely dangerous model, and with any luck, it would detect a current of magic in the air, let it go, and then immediately deactivate again. Having taken apart the Mk.I, Twilight was fairly sure she figured out where in the device the magic was unintentionally stored, and without that compartment, it shouldn't be able to happen again, right?

Taking a deep breath, she pushed the button.

Nothing happened.

Snorting, Twilight devolved into gigglefits. There should have at least been some kind of noise to acknowledge the presence of magical energy in the air, but the Mk.I didn't activate constantly either, so maybe the sensitivity of the instruments needed to be adjusted before it could detect whatever energies were left over in Twilight herself following her massive infusion of magic.

Until then, however, she disassembled the Mk.II just on the off-chance that it was doing something and her own instruments weren't sensitive enough to detect it, and headed out to the mall, where she had agreed to meet her relatively new friends today.

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

When Twilight reached the mall, Sunset was the only one out front waiting for her.

"There's our straggler!"

"Sorry I'm late," Twilight replied with a sheepish smile, "but thanks for waiting."

There was an apologetic grin and a shrug. "I kinda didn't wait, I just came out here when you said you were on your way."

"Oh. Well, I guess it's about the same, functionally."

"C'mon," giggled Sunset while gesturing toward the door, "the others are inside."

As the two entered, Twilight was, as with the last time she was here, somewhat impressed with the scale of the place. It wasn't Sunny Flare's favorite, four-story mall in the high end of the city, but the glass and white-tile architecture, interladen with rectangular, steel bars and heavily favoring triangular patterns and long, diagonal lines, still tickled her imagination with visions of a futuristic space station. But, with two floors of shopping and amusements instead of voyages to distant worlds and robot maintenance stations. Daydreams aside, she refocused on their business here today.

"So, have I missed anything?"

"Rainbow and Applejack challenging each other to something or other at the arcade, Pinkie trying and failing to get a mall-wide song going, and I don't know what she and Fluttershy are up to now, but Rarity is with Adagio."

"Then Adagio has my sympathies."

Sunset chuckled. "Your makeover not go so well?"

"She put makeup on me!"

"You're a girl."

"Which does not necessitate the application of makeup!"

"Okay, okay," Sunset said while doing her best not to giggle, "but you've been wearing your school uniform since then, so I'm guessing you didn't find a look you liked?"

"We tried a lot of things, but at the end of the day, I found that I prefer a simple, yet dignified wardrobe, and that's pretty much my school uniform." She frowned. "However, as I no longer attend Crystal Prep, it's probably inappropriate for me to keep looking like it, so I'll try to find something new today."

"Does that mean you wanna head to where Rarity and Adagio are first?"

"I guess so."

"Cool, I'm gonna go look for Pinkie and Fluttershy. Meet up by the arcade?"

Twilight smiled. "Sounds like a plan."

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

While she hadn't exactly enjoyed their session, Rarity's fashion tips had certainly expedited Twilight's efforts to assemble a new outfit. She had done her best to mitigate the 'schoolgirl' look that had earned her some odd stares and embarrassing comments since coming to CHS, starting with shorter socks and a normal, blue-striped t-shirt, but couldn't help missing the feeling of some kind of tie around her neck, which she replicated with a pink ribbon. This, combined with a slightly puffier, purple skirt than the plaid one she'd been wearing still reminded her a little of the crystal prep uniform, but as almost every girl in CHS wore a similar skirt, she was now in-tune with that somewhat paradoxical freedom to show her individuality in approximately the same way as everyone else.

She even let her hairbun loose into a wild, flowing ponytail!

Ohh, yes! She was now a free spirit!

Well, okay, this was still pretty tame, but until the day tight, space-age style bodysuits caught on with society at large, she would be happy with what she'd picked out today. Fairly proud of her new look, she paid for her purchases and wore them out of the store, curiously not seeing a hair of Adagio or Rarity anywhere since she'd arrived.

I know I heard their voices on my way in, maybe they finished here and left?

Sunset had mentioned meeting up at the arcade, so she went there first, finding the rest of the Rainbooms almost immediately. Pinkie and Fluttershy were wearing big, green top hats with black, gold-buckle belts tied just over the rim, which she took to mean they had either been doing some dress-up themselves or involved in something very Irish, but the rest were wearing their usual clothes. She joined Sunset, Pinkie, and Fluttershy in standing behind Rainbow and Applejack, plastic pistols clutched tightly as they competed in one of those light-gun games, but the numbers on their scores moved so fast that Twilight couldn't tell who was winning. She was just about to ask when Rainbow spoke.


YOU ARE DEAD, went the words on Rainbow's side of the screen, Applejack's score slightly higher now that the numbers had stopped moving.

"Welp," said the smirking farmer, who would have twirled her gun around a finger if not for the wire connected to it, "looks like yer wearin' a clown wig to school tomorrow."

Unfortunately for Rainbow, she had long ago gotten used to composing comebacks when she was on the winning side of things, and her friends' giggling at her didn't help. She sighed.

"Should'a just went with Rarity."

"That may have been an even greater mistake, Rainbow Dash."

The slightly startled group turned to see their fashionista friend, standing with a slumped posture, her head tilted abnormally to one side, and her pupils shrunk to pin-pricks in her wide, sunken eyes. Sunset put a hand on her shoulder.

"Rarity, what hap-"

"We're doomed."


"I have made a dire mistake, and all of us are doomed."

Applejack rolled her eyes. "So, what, ya picked out the wrong color sock again?"

"If only... If only. It started as normal, you see, Miss Dazzle confided in me that since coming to this world, she had little in the way of a sense for fashion, didn't really care for clothing, but let Sonata take care of that for her. At first, like a fool, I was thrilled; 'What a chance, what an opportunity, to take such a rare beauty and a clean slate on which to impart a masterful dress sense!' I was reckless," she said with both hands on her cheeks, "careless, I didn't think of the consequences of the powers I was playing with, and now all of us will pay the price!"

"Ah'm sure it ain't that ba-"

She grabbed Applejack by the shirt and shook her. "I HAVE SCUH-REEEEWED THE PROVERBIAL POOCH, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!"

Before Rarity could catastrophize further, the group's attention was seized by melodious humming, rapidly growing louder in conjunction with very oddly-paced footsteps. The answer became clear as Adagio skipped around the corner, wearing the daintiest, laciest, most adorable little dress Twilight had ever seen.

It was a soft, light pink on the very modest, puffy-shouldered shirt and thigh-length skirt, which extended almost to her knees with white frills that hung somewhat outward at an angle, barely concealing the tops of her immaculate, white, shin-length socks, which were embroidered with little hearts in the same shade as her dress. The black Mary Janes on her feet and corset cinched tightly around her midsection provided a striking contrast, but didn't take away from how soft and huggable the outfit made Adagio look, especially now that her hair was down and adorned with thin, white ribbons.

Smiling since before she strolled into the arcade, she waved.

"♪Hello, everyone!♫"

Many jaws were dropped. People around the arcade even stopped what they were doing to stare.

"Man," whispered Rainbow, "a clown wig ain't that bad."

Sunset chuckled. "Was this what you meant, Rarity? She looks really cute."

"You don't understand," Rarity answered gravely, "the threat isn't just her appearance, it's-"

"I'll admit," cooed Adagio as she paced toward them, slowly swinging her hips like always, "when Rarity first showed this outfit to me, I didn't expect much of it, but it really has grown on me. I can go from disarming innocence-" she folded one arm over the other while clasping her hands and lowering her chin, grinning a little as she made what could only be called puppy eyes at Fluttershy, drawing an immediate, heart-felt smile of 'Oh, you precious little thing, let me hold you and love you forever' from her target, "-to elegant radiance-" she struck a dignified, lady-like pose with a faint smile on her lips, to the reverent awe of almost everyone with line of sight before she shifted her attention to Pinkie, tracing a fingertip under her chin and continuing with cocked hips, a husky voice, sharkish smirk, and half-lidded eyes, "-to raw passion in just seconds."

Eyes bulging and her entire head redder than the time she tried to eat her remaining stock of spicy, black beans before they went bad, Pinkie melted, quivering knees buckling under her to bring her to the floor in a sexually-confused heap as many somewhat envious eyes looked on.

"Really," chuckled Adagio as she looked back at Rarity, "you've outdone yourself!"

Okay, Sunset admitted to herself, this might be bad, but it's easily fixed.

"Um," she began, taking a tentative step forward, "Adagio? Not that you don't look nice, but would you maybe like to try on something else?"

Adagio giggled, which was especially cute and girly in that outfit. "No need, with the sheer range I now have in my command, I doubt any other arrangement will be necessary. I think I'll just dress like this from now on!"

Oh, no.

Sunset understood now; Rarity's choice of clothes had come out to be just the right blend of cute, graceful, and sexy as to simultaneously project those looks themselves and enhance them by contrast with the others based on the wearer's behavior in a given moment. Difficult for an ordinary person to pull off, but not for a trained-from-infancy sociopath (if there could be such a thing) with many years of experience in manipulation by beauty. Adagio was, arguably, more powerful now than she had been with the gems' magic, because Sunset doubted even Friendship Lasers would stop this.

Unless they strip her na-ANYWAY.

"A-are you sure? Because, I-I mean, there've gotta be other options you haven't explored, right?"

Adagio shrugged. "Maybe, but I'm content with this. And I think I'm not the only one!" Smiling, she closed one eye and blew a kiss to a group of teenage boys that had stopped their games to gawk at her, each one seizing up and collapsing like fainting goats as she giggled merrily. She followed it with a twirl toward a row of claw machines, stopping with a smirk and her hands behind her head as she popped her hips to one side, costing more people their ability to stand up straight.

"S-such destructive power," muttered a trembling Twilight, "and that's the one thing she doesn't look the part for!"

Sunset finally looked away from the rampaging monster, if only in the hope of getting her thoughts together a little more. "Huh?"

Twilight looked back at her, nodding. "Y'know, like... in fictional media, such a presence is usually illustrated with black capes, shiny leather, pointy boots, that kind of thing."

And then it hit her. Smiling, Sunset took a good look at Adagio, especially her bare neck. "I think I know how to stop this, but I need you to keep her busy."

"WHAT?! ME?!"

"And anyone else who can still think straight," she answered while jogging to the exit, "I'll be back, I promise!"

And then she was gone, leaving Twilight with just a fawning Fluttershy, a regretful Rarity, a puddle of Pinkie, and...

Oh, good, those two are still conscious!

"Rainbow, Applejack, we need to buy time until Sunset gets back. Can you get the others?"

Though visibly flustered themselves, the two saluted. Applejack looked at Rainbow. "Ah'll get Rare, you get Fluttershy, first to wrap up with them gets Pinkie?"

"Game on!"

They split, Applejack quickly grabbing Rarity by the shoulders. "Hey! You know more about clothes than anybody, what would it take to get her to take that off?" The reply was an unintelligible mutter. "Dangit, Rarity, snap out of it!"

"Hopeless, I said."

"'Hopeless'? How ya figure?"

"Because," she answered wistfully while taking another look at the monster she'd created as it froze another group of pubescents with a coquettish giggle, "what could possibly convince someone to abandon my fashion choices?"

There was a silence. She found Applejack looking back at her in a thoroughly unamused deadpan, to which she blinked in earnest confusion.


Meanwhile, Rainbow did her best with Fluttershy, but couldn't get more than things like "Isn't she just lovely?" and "I'd love to brush her hair" out of her, so she moved to Pinkie.

"Pinkie? C'mon, get up!"

Her hopes rose when Pinkie's eyes cracked open, though her voice was faint.


"It's me, Pinkie, I'm here!"

"Rainbow, I..."

Worry clear in her face, Rainbow held her hand. "Yea?"

Pinkie coughed. "I... I... I can see up her skirt from here."

Her big, green top hat fell off when her head lolled lifelessly to one side, blood leaking from her nose as Rainbow screamed skywards.


Looking at her surprisingly dramatic friends, Twilight gulped.

Guess I'm on my own here. No pressure.

Fortunately, she had an idea. "Um, Adagio?"

Chuckling to herself after another arcade-goer tripped over their own feet just looking at her, Adagio turned her head, an inquisitive eyebrow raised. "Hm?"

Twilight gestured to herself. "I picked out some new clothes today too, what do you think?"

Asking a question like that in public did not help with the resulting wave of self-consciousness that came with being looked over, but she held her ground in the appraising silence that followed.

"...I'm afraid I don't have a great eye for clothes, but I suppose it looks good on you?" She wasn't sure how she felt about the ponytail, though, because if that was an attempt to remind her of Sonata, it wasn't going to make her any more forgiving of accidents from this girl.

Come to think of it, I'm a little surprised she hasn't fondled me already. If she can contain herself now, then maybe...?

Taking a few steps closer, she kept her tone casual. "I'll be honest, though, I half-expected you to be wearing a labcoat."

Doing her best to ignore the needling tension in the back of her head, Twilight managed a little smile and a shrug. "It wouldn't be a labcoat if I just wore it everywhere." The tension ebbed somewhat as Adagio giggled.

"I suppose so." She stopped just barely within arm's reach, which was more than close enough if Twilight were to suddenly 'trip' and fall at her. "You could have joined me and Rarity today, you know, the changing rooms are abundantly spacious."

As Twilight blushed and tried to form a coherent sentence, Adagio kept her cool, passive expression.

Alright, she's flustered by the idea, but she doesn't show excitement or eagerness to go along with that plan. I wonder...

"I say that because Rarity knows a great deal about clothes," she said while slowly running a hand down her side, Twilight's eyes following as she stopped on a thigh. "This outfit is both functional and very comfortable. Want to feel it?"

Twilight's pupils shrunk. "Huh?!"

"The dress is as soft as my hair," she assured with a nod, "go on, touch me."

And if you go for anywhere but the shoulders, she thought to herself, I'll know those groping moments were no accident...

She watched in silence as Twilight scanned her options, face growing redder by the second. It was a cute look for her, but probably not something Rarity would have picked out. Eventually, Twilight reached for her, purple hands going for a hip until they clasped onto one of Adagio's own hands. Adagio raised an eyebrow as Twilight inspected her palm and slender fingers, delicately brushing her own fingertips along her skin as though afraid she would leave marks somehow.

Adagio snorted, amused. "I know I said 'touch me,' but my skin isn't part of the outfit, Twilight Sparkle."

As though she were just realizing this, Twilight retracted her hands, smiling sheepishly. "N-no, I, guess not."

While Adagio mulled over whether or not to try testing her again, Sunset returned to the arcade, short of breath and clutching an unfamiliar object, practically panting as she jogged toward them.

"Hey, Adagio, you- huff! -you m-mind trying this on?" She held up the black band with inch-long, metal spikes sticking out in a straight line along one side, but neither Adagio nor Twilight seemed to understand the thing's purpose, Adagio tilting her head.

"I, don't think that'll cover very much, Sunset..."

Seeing where her mind was going, Sunset blushed and shook her head. "No, no, it's not- I mean," she raised it to her own neck, pressing the flat, non-spiky side against her skin as though wearing it, "it's like a necklace, see?" Adagio didn't say anything, but Sunset could see by her widening eyes and her mouth forming a little 'o' shape that her curiosity was piqued. She smiled when Adagio lifted her chin and held her hair back with both hands.

"Would you do the honors?"

Sunset quickly whispered "Grab a mirror from somewhere," to Twilight and stepped forward, trying not to look down as she gently fastened the spiked neckband in place.

"Ooh," cooed Adagio when it was on her, "it's leather! It feels the same as our old necklaces did. How do I look?"

On cue, Twilight raised the pocket mirror acquired from a near-catatonic Rarity, holding perfectly still as Adagio admired herself. The bright smile said she very much liked this new accessory, but then, just as Sunset hoped, she made a face as though she'd tasted something odd, turning to view herself from multiple angles in search of the problem.

"Hm... I feel like... something's off."

As casually as possible, Sunset shrugged. "Well, the necklace doesn't exactly go with what you're wearing now, but other than that, it looks great on you!"

Adagio studied herself further. "...It's the same shade of black as my shoes and corset, so I suppose I could just find a version without the spikes," Sunset's heart sank as the hole in her plan came to light, "but..." She smiled almost bashfully. "I think I like the spikes."

"Your usual clothes are very spiky," added Twilight with a hopeful smile.


Sunset, Twilight, and the rest of the Rainbooms (bar Fluttershy) held their breath. For a tense moment, all they could do was pray.

"Well," shrugged Adagio after a long, contemplative silence, "I guess this outfit is more of a 'special occasion' kind of thing anyway."

With that, Rarity awakened in full. "Yes," she said with a smile, "that, that was exactly what I had in mind for that look!"

Truth be told, she had really been trying to get Adagio away from pointy things in her wardrobe (apart from some stunning heels, perhaps), but this regression seemed a fitting punishment for her earlier hubris.

Moments later, she left with Adagio to discuss spiky-collar-friendly options, Sunset wiping her brow in relief of another day saved. "Man, I wasn't sure that would work!"

Twilight giggled. "It was close, but good thinking on your part. Where'd you get the necklace, anyway?"

"There's a punky, gothy, I-wanna-be-a-rebel-and-lack-the-awareness-of-irony-to-keep-me-from-feeding-the-very-consumerism-I'm-supposedly-against sorta shop a floor down from here, it's where I get most of my jackets."


An awkward silence followed. Rainbow scratched her head.

"So, that was pretty stressful. Who's up for ice cream?"

Enthusiastic replies were heard as the group headed for the exit, Applejack stopping to tap Fluttershy on the shoulder.

"You okay, Sugarcube?"

Fluttershy blinked twice, quickly glancing around before looking at Applejack.

"...What day is it?"

Chapter 10: Shifting Routines (Part 1)

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Crystal Prep was a pretty snazzy place.

Aria had had that thought more than once since their first day here, but the pretty furniture, polished floors, art hung on the walls, important-looking books, futuristic computers and gizmos (granted, it was still pretty weak compared to what they had in Coltlantis, but seeing as how this was all done without magic, she couldn't complain), and super comfortable chairs quickly made Crystal Prep's library one of her favorite places. They even had private little rooms in this three-story house of study, with air-conditioning! It was the perfect place to work on their presentation, but not as perfect a place as she would've liked for general hangouts.

They didn't let you bring food in here and just using the huge, how'd-they-even-fit-that-through-the-door tv screens to goof around and watch movies would probably get them thrown out, but Aria firmly kept this room in her mind for what she had to look forward to when she was commanding this kind of money. Of course, no facility in the world was going to make Sonata happy about doing schoolwork, as she signaled with a groan and a miserable grimace.

"This kinda suuuuucks. If we didn't have to pick our own topic and how it helped out the Adjustial Revolution, we coulda been like, halfway done by now!"

"It's Industrial Revolution, and-"

"Wait, really?"

"Um... Yea. You might wanna start paying attention in class, or it's gonna come back to bite you."

Ignoring that, Sonata defended her stance with an angry pout. "Adjustial makes more sense, because they were adjusting to a different part of history!"

Sometimes, Aria needed a few extra seconds to process the level of Stupid that Sonata was operating on, but she couldn't dwell too long or the idiot might think it meant she'd 'won' somehow. "...That's, kinda implied by the 'revolution' part."

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"


Glitter Spark nearly kicked open the door as she stepped in, an exasperated look on her face. "Are you both five years old?!"

Aria and Sonata sat in stunned silence, the former drawing a blank for how to respond to the someone other than Adagio catching them like that.

She'd call us idiots all the time, but is that really how people see us?

As Powder Glitz stepped in behind her, Glitter continued. "I knew you were idiots,"

It is!!

"but I don't know how you even got this far when you carry on like that!"

"For real," nodded Glitz, "I thought you guys were gonna be serious competition, but this is sorta disappointing."

That, for whatever reason, was the line that made Aria angry, brows knitting as she fired off the line she'd been waiting days to use. "Big talk for a couple of nobodies."

It'd have been great if she could remember the clever and devastating word choice she'd picked out in her head the other day, but Glitz and Glitter both looked like she'd just spit on their shoes, so she stuck with it.

"I've done my homework on you two, and it wasn't a long paper, because according to Sunny Flare and her gang- y'know, the girls who have actually done something since they got here-" the sight of Glitter's eyes narrowing and her jaw clenching was so, so welcome, "-you two are all talk, no action, and that's literally all anyone can say about you."

That last part might have been embellishing things a bit, but it was working great in getting Glitter to seethe in hatred, even if Glitz was still just sorta standing there. Passively. Aria still didn't like that girl's eyes, so she looked away from both of them and pretended to focus on the book open in front of her while dismissively waving a hand.

"We don't have time for you, so if you could just crawl back under your rock, that'd be great."

It took effort not to smile at the rage in Glitter's shaky voice.

"Y-You arrogant-"

Aria immediately cut her off, still not looking at her. "Hey Sonata, how many uses for the steam engine do ya think you can find? I figure that's a good enough link right there."

"I'm talking to-"

It was hard to say whether Sonata caught on to the plan, or if it was her own natural Sonata-ness that had her talking over someone. "I know I saw pictures of old-timey cars and boats with clouds over 'em, so at least the gettin' around business."

"Cool, we can start there."

Her eyes firmly on the book, Aria let herself smile at the sounds of Glitter's frustrated groan and stomping out of the room, glancing up to see her sleeve vanishing around the doorway. Glitz, however, stood where she'd been, no expression on her face, yellow, creepy eyes locked on Aria's for at least three solid seconds before she turned to follow Glitter. Aria shivered.

Luckily, Sonata didn't seem to notice. "Maaan, there's a lotta steam stuff to talk about! This'll take us hours!"

Aria shrugged. "Then we'll catch the late bus back. This is important, so we've gotta do an amazing job on it, remember?"


For once, she actually chuckled at Sonata's pathetic whining. Maybe because she could kind of sympathize this time; the work was totally boring to actually do, but once they had the info down, they could talk about how they'd spice up the way they'd show that info with some good old siren razzle-daz- their own flair, and that was gonna be more fun.

Not wanting to worry Adagio, she dug her phone out of a pocket and started on a text.

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

Dancing alone in the gym wasn't fun anymore.

At first, Adagio felt free; it was just her practicing her moves with more space than she could ever need, like she had the whole ocean to swim around in again, but inevitably, she would stop, open her eyes, and see the big, empty, somewhat dim room as the sun slowly sank. Every time, it made her feel a little more like there was something wrong with her, like she'd contracted some serious mental illness and it was only a matter of weeks before she was dancing on the roof, or in a subway, or in the middle of an intersection, possibly trying to direct traffic with high kicks and hip-thrusts.

That was why she opted to just head home a little early today, not even having switched out of her usual clothes (plus the spiked collar Sunset gave her) to wait around in the cheerleader outfit as she headed for the exit, worries about going senile whirling about in the back of her mind.

It's because I don't normally dance alone, I'm sure. I hardly danced at all before I met Aria and Sonata, and was seldom apart from them after, so it only makes sense.

Luckily, she'd soon be home, they'd soon join her, and maybe the three of them could sing karaoke or something if they weren't too busy with-

She jumped as her phone pinged (still an unfamiliar feeling, because they used to be physically near each other all the time), quickly pulling it out to see Aria's text. She stopped just outside the school, by the repaired horse statue.

Oh... I'm home alone tonight, then. At least for a couple more hours.

Well, that was fine. She was the one who sent them to the school of higher standards, after all, they needed that time away from her. Same as she needed time away from them, if she was going to find more potential comforters.

...Which was going poorly so far.

Where do I even begin? Sunset told me her friends were assigned to her, I got to know her through a mutually beneficial arrangement, and I haven't seen anyone doing anything that impressed me! What does 'it just happens on its own' even mea-

She was snapped out of this thought by someone tugging on a short, puffy pant-leg of her siren suit, looking down to see one of the Rainbooms' sisters with a worried look on her face. And, a colorful cheerleading outfit, strangely enough.

"You okay, 'Dagio? Yer lookin' sorta serious."

"And standing out here by yourself," added the purple-haired one, similarly garbed to the first.

The purple-and-pink-haired one had two cents of her own. "Which is kind of worrying."

I knew it!!

She didn't respond to their question, though, instead posing one of her own. "Why are the three of you dressed that way?"

Forgetting their concerns immediately, all three smiled, the bumpkin being the first to speak. "We'll show ya!"

The three of them quickly moved into a triangular formation, drawing pom-poms made from many colors of thinly-cut strips of colored construction paper from somewhere and sucking in deep breaths. Adagio held up a hand.


Three breaths were released in the form of sputtering and a short coughing fit.

"You okay, Sweetie Belle?"

"I'm f-hack, hack, ahem... I'm fine, Scoots."

A hand on one hip, Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Have any of you passed a sex-ed class?" The looks they gave each other were a clear enough 'no,' but she waited until they said it anyway.

"W-well," Applejack's sister muttered, "no, but-"

"I won't be involved in any sort of cheerleading operation with anyone that hasn't at least completed Health, it was my only rule to Celestia when I agreed to be the new captain. That in mind," she said as she continued toward the sidewalk, pointing at one of their paper pom-poms, "good luck with the arts and crafts."


Stopping with a look over her shoulder, she found three frowns where she'd expected scowls.

"The three of us don't really have much we're good at," explained Applejack's sister, "so we try all kinds'a things an' see what sticks."

Sweetie Belle smiled a little. "It doesn't have to be cheerleading, but we'd like to do something together with you."

Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Me, specifically?" They must have been sharp, for children, because she could see in their faces that they caught the suspicion in that question.

'Scoots' scratched her head as she looked away, regret on what Adagio could see of her face. "Full story? We weren't really nice to Sunset when she turned herself around, so we didn't wanna do the same thing again with you."

"And Twilight Sparkle?"

The trio shared a quick, confused look, the red-haired one tilting her head as she asked.

"Why would we give her the bad guy treatment? She's been pretty nice since she got here."

"Other than nearly destroying the universe?"

It took a moment's contemplation, but she saw it click in their heads simultaneously, announced with a trio of "Ohhhh"s before they whispered to each other.

"The thing with the portals, right?"
"I totally forgot about that!"
"Same here!"
"I thought it was somebody else."
"Naw, she just looked dif'rent, like when Sunset was flingin' fireballs at people."
"Oh, yea."

Seeing that Adagio was now looking at them like they were covered in tree sap again, Sweetie cleared her throat. "I guess, part of it's that, since she's already made friends and been getting along with people, that mistrustful period came and went so fast that it was like it was barely there, but there are some around here that have been waiting for you to do something bad ever since you came back. But," she added with a smile, "we wanted you to know that we're not one of them."

"Three of them," corrected 'Scoots,' drawing a raised eyebrow from the one she was increasingly tempted to call 'Bow Bumpkin.'

"What're you, a calculator?"

Scoots raised a fist in mock menace. "I'll calc you later!"

There was a pause as the trio looked at each other before bursting into gigglefits, which they were surprised to see Adagio joining in. She composed herself a second later, partly covering her mouth with one hand as if to hide her embarrassment.

"Regardless," she said without looking at them, "given that I won't be aiding your cheerleading prospects any time soon, I'm afraid I have nothing to offer you."

I may have a variety of skills, but I doubt any of them are kid-friendly.

Bow Bumpkin smiled brightly. "Then maybe we could all try somethin' new!" Adagio looked confused again, so she glanced at Sweetie and Scootaloo. "We still got that super-mower all hooked up, right?" Then back to Adagio. "You wanna trim up a field with us?"


"It's like," Scoots began, "we've got this big ol' tractor-slash-lawnmower thing ready to go at Sweet Apple Acres, but Granny Smith, Big Mac, and everybody else tell us we're too young to use 'heavy machinery' for some reason, but with you here-"

"-We can do all the stuff we've always needed a chaperone for," Sweetie finished with a smile.

"So," asked Bumpkin, "whaddya say?"

She closed the question with big, wide puppy eyes, which the other two immediately backed up. Adorable as it was, Adagio had long ago developed an immunity to Sonata's tricks, but the idea did intrigue her.

What, really, did she have to do if she refused? Sit at home, by herself, until Aria and Sonata finished their schoolwork? Most likely not even to share the details of what they'd been up to today, or at any point since their transfer? She could probably call Sunset, but her time was already mostly monopolized by her older friends, and to just insert herself into their activities felt lonely awkward pathetic inconsiderate.

I'm looking for potential comforters, sympathetic ears and shoulders to bear the full story of what happened in Coltlantis, and these girls are nowhere near ready to handle such a thing, couldn't possibly understand what we've been through.


The three of them were friends, right? She'd learned of the shoulder-touching gesture from observing the Rainbooms during the friendship games, so if nothing else, she stood to gain a wider repertoire of comforting actions at no real cost. Yes, that was abundant reason to play along with these girls.

She allowed herself to smile. "Alright, where is exactly is Sweet Apple Acres?"

The Canterlot Misfits Club beamed with joy.

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

"Alright," Sophisticata sighed into her clipboard, "the wardrobe is finished and up to live performance standard, so I think we're ready to begin rehearsals in costume."

Garbed in a purple, Victorian-era dress, Octavia looked over herself with a faint smile. "We're fortunate that the fashionistas have such an appreciation for theater, we couldn't have afforded more than one outfit like this on our budget." And even then, the quality would have certainly been in question.

"We'll still need more people to wear 'em all," noted Golden Hazel, wearing a beige dress similar to Octavia's, "but Rarity's crew'll probably help us out again."

"Enough about them," snapped Trixie, dressed in black, high-heeled, knee-high boots, very tight, leather pants (which complimented her developing muscles nicely, if she may say so herself!), a long, close-fitting, dark-brown coat over a corset and white blouse covering just enough cleavage that they wouldn't get in trouble again, the outfit complete with a wide-brimmed hat the same hue as the coat, "we already have enough people to play the stars of this show!"

"Yea," an uncostumed Indigo Wreath said with an eyeroll, "but not all the bit-parts and the most important role of our little vampire story; the vampire." He was surprised by a smiling Watermelody gently putting a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't worry, we're doing the murder-mystery thing at the same time, remember? The audience isn't going to know who the vampire is until pretty much the very end."

"Okay, but do we know who that is yet?"

Silence. Watermelody looked away with an awkward laugh.

"Might have a point there."

"I was hoping we could get Rarity for that role," Sophisticata frowned as she flipped to another page on her clipboard, "but one of the conditions for using her resources was that she be cast as the heroine's mother." Something about wanting to see if she could play the part of a mature, older woman. Sophisticata hadn't pried.

Octavia idly rubbed her chin. "Given her history, using Sunset Shimmer there would be... uncomfortable, perhaps. The same goes for Adagio Dazzle, if she would agree to help."

"Eh," shrugged Indigo Wreath, "they'd both be way too obvious, and Sunset's better as a stagehand anyway. If we wanna keep that whodunnit feel going right up to the end, we need somebody they'd never see coming. Think we could get Pinkie to do it?"

There was a pause as all present contemplated that mental image, and while they didn't all imagine a hyperactive bloodsucker that only bit diabetics, everyone laughed just as hard.

"Okay, okay," said Golden Hazel as she pulled herself together, wiping away a tear, "we doin' this or what?"

Getting the last of her giggles out, Sophisticata cleared her throat. "The scene is after the vampire's second attack, when Parapluie D'argent, the eccentric night-hunter, arrives to assure Lily Vieil Arbre, the heroine suspected to be the vampire's next target, and Canard Assis, her closest friend, that no harm will come to them. In three... two... one!"

"Fear not, tender maidens," boomed Trixie as she pantomimed throwing open a door, "for your prayers have been answered!!"

"Cut!" Meeting Trixie's mild scowl with a sheepish smile, Sophisticata held a thumb and index finger very close without touching. "Bring it down just a little, please, we don't need to deafen the front row."

Tinting pink as the others giggled, Trixie rolled her eyes and tried again, performing the same motion as before. "Fear not, tender maidens, for your pra-" She was interrupted by a sharp pain on her behind. "-AAAAAAAAAAAIIIEEEE!!"

While Trixie's hands covered her stinging backside, everyone else covered their ears.

"Trixie," complained Watermelody, "you don't need to deafen us, either!"

"It's not my fault," she retorted while turning to check her rear for arrows or needles or fireballs or whatever had hit her, "something bit me!!"

Not finding any trace of what put out a cigar on her ass, she looked further behind her to see the rich brat from the other day, peeking around a distant corner and clutching a BB gun with a fiendish grin on her face.

That little-!!

Unfortunately for the forces of cosmic justice, the runt immediately disappeared around the corner, and Trixie couldn't risk damaging her costume in a chase. But there would be revenge later, dammit!

Indigo Wreath scratched his head. "Other than the volume, that wasn't too bad. We sure it's too late to make this thing a comedy?"

"Kinda," answered Golden Hazel, arms idly crossed over her stomach, "'cuz it's our last show of the school year and comedy is always rated lower than the straight-faced stuff."

"Yet we put Trixie in a leading role?" He barely managed to stumble out of the way of a very shiny, but blunt, plastic sword swinging toward his head. "Woah!!"

"Stand back, ladies of House Vieil Arbre," growled Trixie, her eyes full of fire and unspent rage, "for I believe I have found the horror of the night!"

Not for the first time, Indigo paled, raising both hands in defense as he stepped back. "T-Trixie, calm dow-"



As Indigo was chased around the room by a rabid vampire hunter, Watermelody quietly watched, arms folded and her cheeks puffed out in a pout.

"Why is it always her?"

Standing next to her, Golden Hazel leaned closer, a playful grin on her face. "Because somebody won't just say something?" She snickered as Watermelody lit up like a stoplight and looked away, trying to pull her hat down to hide her face.

Chapter 11: Shifting Routines (Part 2)

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While she didn't look like she was having as much fun riding the hybrid of tractor and lawnmower as the three girls seated on the machinery behind her, holding tightly to the railing all around the seat, Adagio was definitely smiling. At least, she was when Big Macintosh could see her face from where he stood by the barn.

He'd figured, when Apple Bloom called him to ask about bringing out the big mower, that it'd be another open-and-shut case of 'You're not old enough, so no,' but when she and her friends showed up, he found out that they had back-up. More than that, it took about a minute of talking to her to see that she was more level-headed and mature than Applejack, and if she was old enough for Granny Smith's liking, it'd be a hard sell saying 'no' to this girl. Even without that funny hundred-years-old thing he'd heard one of Applejack's friends say about the Dazzlings.

She didn't even bat an eye when he said he'd feel better if he could keep an eye on them, so that's what he was doing now; watching the big mower go around with the sounds of girls at a playground. Or, maybe a playground full of lawnmowers. Warmed his heart a little.

That it meant it'd save him time cutting the grass was a mighty fine bonus, too, because even if she was a little shy of trimming close to trees (probably afraid she'd cut up roots or something), Adagio was hardly even missing spots anywhere.

Still, if she wasn't lying about having a license (not that it mattered, as long as they didn't go on the open road), he wondered where the Dazzlings learned to drive.

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

"So, dude, you probably get this all the time, but I've never heard anybody answer, so I gotta ask; why Sunny Flare?"

Sitting across the table from his assignment partner, Neon Lights, as the two took notes on the medicinal breakthroughs of the time period, Prince Blueblood remained silently thankful that Mr. Lights had agreed to straighten up his vernacular a little when the time came to speak to their class.

"Does one need a particular reason?"

"Kinda? I mean, when you're the guy every girl in school is not-so-secretly keeping their eye on, it's weird to go for the one that sorta treats men like criminals waiting to happen. Why not somebody prettier, like Fleur or Crystal Lullaby, or even one'a those new chicks?" There were other cute girls, like Lemon Zest, High Kick, Powder Glitz before Glitter Spark got to her, Orange Sherbette, and some others, but those were the ones people talked about.

"Fair enough, I suppose. In short, it is because she is one of very few proper young ladies in more than appearance, her dignified air more than the shallow imitation projected by most girls of her standing."

"Huh. I guess that's cool."

Blueblood smiled, but only he would ever know why. What he said may have technically been true, but it was far from the real reason he pursued Sunny, just the one he'd learned got people to leave him alone about it.

In truth, he grew fond of her because despite the girl very genuinely being a haughty, elitist, vapid shrew, he had long ago recognized the altruistic spirit she carried in everything she did. Well, at least when not dealing with those she determined to be competition of some sort, at which point, he acknowledged, she could get a little too stereotypically 'Crystal Preppy' about it, but even her termagant moments had grown endearing to him.

Oh, certainly, his classmates expected Perfect Prince Blueblood to find himself an equally Perfect Princess™, to seek out the fairest maiden of the land and live out some fairytale existence free of worry or struggle, but nothing he had ever said seemed to smother the flames of that little fantasy. Blueblood was very much aware that he was just a man, albeit a young one, and that there were no perfect people.

Human beings had faults, and having seen the good and the bad in Sunny Flare, Blueblood was secure in his feelings for her, because overall, she was a good person without being too good a person. She was nothing like Dean Cadence, whom Blueblood always suspected, but could never prove, was hiding something. That, too, was something he liked about Sunny Flare; there was no facade, no attempt to cover her faults, she wore her imperfections on her sleeves.

Not those metal bracelets, per se, unless one considered being a closet sci-fi junkie to be a fault, but that was beside the point.

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

"Alright," breathed Adagio as she wiped her brow with one of the oven mitts she'd just taken off, "now we just have to wait."

Leaning in close to peek through the little oven window (but not close enough to touch it, a lesson she'd learned the hard way) of the Apple Family kitchen, Apple Bloom whistled. "Will ya lookit that?! Ah don't think we've ever had brownie mix just in the pan buhfore!"

It usually had a funny way of getting all dribbled all over the sides and being uneven in the pan somehow, which meant half the pan was thin, overcooked brownies and there'd be burnt bits of brownie mix all over the rim when they pulled it out of the oven. Those were never fun to clean off. But now, the long, glass cooking tray was so clean and so even it looked like they'd gotten Rarity to help with it! There wasn't even a mess outside the pan this time, and that was always even less fun to clean up! She turned to Adagio with a bright, proud smile.

"These're lookin' like the best brownies we've ever made! You've really got a knack fer organizin', huh?"

Adagio chuckled. "I have some experience in directing people, yes."

It helped that there were formal directions on the box, and the Canterlot Misfits Club, as she'd learned they call themselves, were surprisingly good at following directions. At least, when she gave them all specific instructions. She hadn't picked up any new friend-making/comforting secrets yet, but it amazed her how things changed when the bickering was toned down a little. Looking over her shoulder, she watched the other two enjoy the remains of the brownie mix. Sweetie Belle busied herself with carefully licking the whisk without getting its sticky contents all over her face while Scootaloo quickly scraped the bowl with a spoon.

Sonata gets like that with sweets too; wolfing them down like someone's going to take them away. Probably because Aria makes a game of stealing a bite whenever Sonata's guard is down.

Sunset had told her that friends ribbed each other, that a little teasing was normal, but she'd begun to wonder if Aria and Sonata's... moments... were a little more than-


"Ah toldja that'd happen, Scoots," sighed Apple Bloom as she shook her head, "why do ya always eat so fast?"


Sweetie Belle giggled. "How'd we cure it last time? Standing on your head while yodeling the alphabet?"

Scootaloo sighed. "Can ei-hic!-either of you hold my legs? Staying upside down is-hic! hard."

Adagio looked at Apple Bloom. "Where do you keep the peanut butter?"

Blinking once in confusion, Apple Bloom pointed to a cabinet. "Uh, in there, next to the mayo. Why?"


"Get me a butter knife, would you?"

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo watched as Adagio retrieved the jar of peanut butter, accepting the knife from Apple Bloom with a benevolent little smile-


-before turning to Scootaloo. "Do you have any peanut allergies?"

"Um, no, but-hic!"

"Good," she said while offering the knife and the jar, "get a big glob of this on the butter knife, then eat it all at once."


"Just try it."

Perplexed though she was, Scootaloo did like peanut butter! Taking the jar and knife as ordered, she scooped out as much as she could and opened her mouth wide to get the whole thing in one bite.

Chewing was a whole different thing!

It took her about a minute, not sure how to feel about the others watching her pig out on smushed nuts, but she eventually got the whole thing down, capping it off with a big gulp of air.

...And no hiccups!

"Wow," she said with a smile, "I'm totally using peanut butter for hiccups from now on!"

"It worked," cheered Apple Bloom, wrapping both arms around Adagio's waist, "thanks, Sis!"

There was a pause as Apple Bloom seemed to realize what she just said, Adagio looking down at her in confusion. "'Sis'?"

Backing away with her arms sheepishly folded behind her back and a bashful smile, she burned redder than her namesake. "Uh, haha, sorry, Ah uh, got a little mixed up."

Sweetie Belle smiled. "You do have that Big Sister feeling to you."

Resting a hand on a hip, Adagio smiled in amusement. "Do I, now?" All three girls nodded affirmatively, drawing a chuckle and a mild blush. "Right, well, what are we putting on these things when they're done?"

Peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip-topped brownies were a first for the four of them, but Adagio pondered the merits of making such a thing at home.

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

There weren't a whole lot of students that Twilight felt close to since kindergarten, and even fewer teachers, but one of those she remembered fondly had told her, possibly in jest, that the difference between messing around and doing science was writing things down. While she believed there was more to it than that, writing things down certainly helped, and could only help her with her current project.

Unless I successfully trigger magic of some sort that erases/incinerates/animates my notes, but those specific outcomes are highly unlikely. I hope.

That in mind, she wrote down what she'd done to tweak the Spectrometer Mk.II since last time and her intentions this time. Just in case something happened and whoever found her notes needed to know what not to do. Terrifying thought, but she knew she was exploring dangerous territory here.

Setting down her pencil, she got to work, flipping the switch on the Mk.II and focusing on the feelings she'd been led to believe the Rainbooms the Rainbooms and Adagio the Rainbooms and the sirens? everyone shared when what could be called the Magic of Friendship manifested. Warm security, being wanted, passive fondness, all those things she'd gotten to experience first-hand since coming to CHS, as well as vague sensations she couldn't quite put adequate descriptors to. Recalling specific moments helped considerably, or at least she had to assume it did, because it was as she did so that the Mk.II started to light up.

There was a light at the top of the cylinder, just where she'd have expected magical energy to be concentrated, but the beeping sound that was supposed to acknowledge this wasn't heard, nor did anything show up on the device's external display. She didn't know if it was possible to think/remember harder at it, but she did keep up what she was doing to find out whether this could be a sustained effect, or if it was building the longer it went on. Her answer for now was the latter, because the light gradually grew brighter and she was startled by a brilliant, purple spark shooting out of the top of the cylinder, which was when she stopped concentrating (obviously!).

A pang of distress crackled through her heart as the light began to fade, but as much as she wanted to immediately try again, just to see what happened, it was, ironically, thoughts of her new friends that firmly convinced her to shut off the Mk.II.

The spark had dissipated in less than a second and didn't seem to have any lingering effects or cause any damage, but it was worrying all the same. Quickly disassembling the Mk.II, she again picked up her pencil, jotting down her immediate recollection of what had happened in addition to the note that, with the current design, she may have accidentally created a miniature cannon. Another redesign may have been necessary to prevent out-of-control magic blowing a hole in her roof, or the fabric of reality. Still, she smiled.


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

"I can kind of see why your sisters forbade you to do this one, girls."

Adagio stood back, perplexed, as Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle helped Scootaloo into the hanging seat held between two trees by giant rubber bands. Being launched into the sky wasn't something that made sense to her in daylight hours, but seemed like an especially bad idea now that the sun had gone down. The stars were brighter out here, but not enough to see where the passenger would land without trouble.

"Yea," Scootaloo answered with a smile, "but now that you're here, we totally can!"

"No, I mean, I think I agree with them that you shouldn't."

"Why not? I know you let Aria and Sonata climb around the bike ramps like they were monkey bars during the Friendship Games."


"And Ah heard they roller-skated down that one big hill in town," added Apple Bloom.

"That was-"

"Not to mention the stuff with magic, which is a lot more dangerous than anything we get up to."

"Those two," Adagio said with a mild scowl, "are more than old enough to make their own decisions!"

It'd have been a very bad idea to send them to Crystal Prep if they weren't. Not that they hadn't had some... unwise moments, but it still held that she couldn't force them not to do those things.

Scootaloo scratched her head. "How old is that, anyway?"

"Usually somewhere in the late twenties, maybe later, but in this world, I think it's legally considered to be twenty-one. And yes," she said the second the girl in the giant slingshot opened her mouth, "I know your sisters aren't twenty-one either, but I haven't seen them or their friends doing anything like this."

"Have you hung out with Rainbow at all?"

"No, why?"


Before Scootaloo could deliver her answer, they heard none other than Rainbow shouting in their direction.

"There they are!"

Adagio turned to see her, Rarity, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie for some reason, all four holding flashlights as they closed in. Rarity sounded like she'd had to run around Sweet Apple Acres after dark a few too many times before, and it showed on her face.

"What, were you thinking?!"

Applejack seemed evenly angry and disappointed. "Thought you knew better than this."

Adagio crossed her arms. "This wasn't my idea and I was trying to talk them out of-"

"No, no," Pinkie said with a handwave and an apologetic little grin, "not you, we were talking to them."

Confused, she turned in the direction Pinkie was pointing to see a stern-faced Rarity wagging a finger at Sweetie Belle as Rainbow lifted Scootaloo out of the seat.

"Honestly, Darling, I thought you'd dismantled this mad contraption ages ago, and on top of that, you're setting a terrible example for Miss Dazzle here!"

Applejack was similarly unhappy with her younger sibling. "Y'all know how hard it is fer someone tryin' to go straight without you bein' a bad influence on 'em?"

At the sound of three 'we're sorry's from the Canterlot Misfits Club, Pinkie giggled, looking at Adagio to find her all 'what the heck just happened?', so she tried to help. "Canya believe something like this happened before with Sunset? Back then, though, we jumped to conclusions and thought it was her fault, so that was an easter egg full of vitamins, and not the neat dinosaur ones, either! Also, Big Mac told us you were probably out here and he didn't follow because he felt like you had a pretty good head on your shoulders and wouldn't let anything happen, and he's usually a good judge of character and all, but it's still late and unless you guys were just telling scary stories or something, it'd probably be better to do whatever you were doing during the day anyway, so we came out to find you, and now here we are!"

"...I, see."

"Sorry about them," Rainbow said to her with an abashed grin, "they sorta drag people into their shenanigans sometimes, hope they didn't get you doing anything bad."

"Er, no," she said uncertainly, still amazed that the consequences of this little venture apparently weren't falling on her, "just... lawn-mowing, baking, and... well, whatever this was going to be."

"Cool. Anyone joined your squad yet?"


Rainbow blinked in surprise. "Really? Weird, know I heard somebody talking about it..." She shrugged and smiled. "Well, if you've got nothin' better to do, you could always give any of us a ring."

"I'll text you our numberrrrrs," sing-songed Pinkie.


Looking over her shoulder as she was led back toward the house, presumably for a ride home, Sweetie Belle smiled. "We've usually got nothing planned after school, if you want to join us again." Rarity cleared her throat. "Um, to do, non-dangerous stuff, I mean."

Adagio had vaguely hoped to learn a thing or two about friendly, comforting behavior this afternoon, but she quietly reeled at the thought of gaining nine contacts in one day (if Rainbow's offer extended to all of the Rainbooms, that is). "I'll, think about it," she answered instinctively, making her way back toward the house, and therefore the road, "Aria and Sonata should be home by now, so I'll be seeing you."

Goodbyes were exchanged, Pinkie sticking around the Apple house for a little while after for another taste of those peanut-butter-choco-chip brownies! While the two of them sat at the Apples' kitchen table, Applejack asked her.

"What Rainbow was sayin' about somebody wantin' to join the cheerleaders, was that you?"

Swallowing her mouthful of mutant Reese's explosion (which she was totally going to use as the name for this recipe if there wasn't one already), Pinkie giggled. "Nah."

"Really," she questioned with a skeptical eyebrow, "'cuz the rest of us were sure you'd be jumpin' around swingin' them ruffly things with the best of 'em inside a week."

Pinkie shrugged. "It's not that I don't think it'd be fun, or even that I wouldn't be good at it, just..." Her smile weakened. "If I went in all hyperactive all over everything, I might end up taking over the cheerleading stuff through sheer, well, me-ness, but that me-ness would be meanness in this case because I'd be shunting Adagio off to the side, either going so nuts with it that I'd end up pushing her out altogether, or she'd get fired up and do things her own way so hard that I'd get pushed out, but because her way is full of her-ness, everyone would act like she was the bad guy for it." Now she frowned. "Even if it didn't go that far, it's possible that she'd just get fed up with me and quit, like 'Oh, one of the school's heroes wants this now, guess I'd better fudge off and do something else,' and I'm pretty sure she actually kinda likes cheering, so I really don't wanna take that from her!"

Applejack blinked slowly. "...You told her any'a this?"

"No, but," she smiled again, "I'd rather be setting up parties and stuff anyway. Besides," she admitted with a sheepish blush, "I only got a D in sex-ed."

Chapter 12: Setbacks (Part 1)

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The day was here.

This was the day that Aria Blaze would stamp her name on this school in gold dust and raging fireworks, because when she was done giving her presentation, everyone was gonna be talking about it.

Oh, and Sonata would be there too, another pretty face and rack to subconsciously sway the crowd their way, but if she thought for a second that anyone would believe it wasn't all Aria putting things together (which it was, thanks to the usual factors, Sonata not having done much more than find some of the stuff Aria could use), she was even dumber than most people already assumed she was.

By itself, doing a flashy, memorable show on steam inventions, complete with quiet background music, moving .gif images on just enough slides to keep it from getting annoying, and sound effects at all the right times would only be pretty impressive, she knew, but considering it was coming from 'some dumb cheerleader' from CHS? The sudden explosion of brains and beauty were gonna knock the socks off her entire class.

For now, though, she sat pretty in the cafeteria, bookbag by her feet, having opted to just grab a snack and relax during the first break period until the time came. The tables and chairs were cozier than the hard plastic and metal ones in CHS, too, so it was actually easier to bask in her own awesomeness before the time came to-

Wait, is that why this place has nicer furniture? So its students can be all smug and feel like royalty just for being here and actually do better in a feeds-into-itself kind of way? I bet it's a lot harder to really get that feeling going when you're sitting on the same seats as the kids who ride the short bus, so-

"-so disgusting," said a wrinkle-nosed Glitter Spark to Sonata as she stuffed her face with a plate full of sweets, "can't you even eat like you belong here?"

"Sho wuh," challenged Sonata, scowling as best one could when talking with their mouth full, "wihnnrs cn eat howevuh theh wahn!"

Turning her head away as though she had just witnessed... well, Sonata eating, reasonably enough, Glitter tinted green and touched the back of one hand to her forehead as though she might faint. "Ugh, should have known better than to even talk to you."

While Aria again internally nodded her head, she hadn't forgotten that this girl, however small a fry she might have been, was still the enemy, and thus warranted slapping down. "And why is a nobody talking to us at all?"

Looking at her, Glitter quirked a brow as though Aria's nonexistent-in-these-uniforms fly was open. "I just thought I'd say that if you're going to daydream that hard, you really ought to find a room where you can hang a sock on the doorknob or something. People eat here."

Repressing her physical reaction to that line, Aria quickly grasped that Powder Glitz was nowhere to be seen, immediately using it for a counterattack. "Eat alone, apparently."

That was supposed to have an invisible "like a loser!" on the end of it, but Glitter didn't care, because she swung it right back at her with a smirk.

"Some of us aren't attached at the hip, incapable of moving without a living crutch to cling to." That alone made their hackles rise, so of course she kept going. "Glitz and I don't depend on one another to do the other's grunt work or ride the other's coat-tails when we aren't sure what to do," she silently savored the hints of fear as they glanced at each other, "because it's common sense that no matter our respective strengths and weaknesses, we need to be good enough on our own to get by. That's probably why you're doing poorly in all your classes."

Feeling as though she'd just been nailed right between the eyes, the only thing that kept Aria from saying it wasn't all of their classes or asking how Glitter knew that was the two thoughts slamming into each other before either could fly off her tongue. Unfortunately, Sonata.

"How'd you know we're doing bad?!"

At this, Glitter made what might just have been her most punchable face yet, smirking and looking down her nose at them (which, Aria then realized, was probably why she waited until they were both seated) as she cattily raised the back of one hand to one side of her mouth, her reply coming very loudly. "So it's true, you are just barely scraping by? Ahahahahahahaha!!"

Aria felt herself burn as other students glanced their way, eyes full of judgement and disdain. Running away would only make her look like the loser here and she didn't have the kind of ammo she needed to escalate this by shouting back, but it wasn't backing down to keep the same tone she'd been using.

"Whatever, we've got everything we need to do great here, and our presentation in Social Studies is all the proof anybody is gonna need."

"Oh, really," she replied with even more smugness, somehow, just loudly enough that anyone still paying attention would hear her clearly, "put together a top-tier show for the class, did you? Hate to break it to you, but what passes for good in CHS gets a totally different reception here."

"It isn't just-"

"Sure, sure," she chuckled as she started walking away, dismissively waving a hand, "you do your best, and if nothing else, you'll be the toast of the town when you go back with your tail between your legs to CHS, where they celebrate the losers."

Still fuming, Aria decided that she'd only look like an idiot if she shouted something back when all she could think of were insults without enough bite. Sonata either had the same idea, or instinctively comforted herself with baked goods as she huffily took a bite of a big ol' sugar cookie.

It didn't matter. Glitter was just trying to get into her head, and it wasn't going to work. She'd still deliver that presentation like a star, blow everybody else away, and keep that fire burning until she was on top of this school. Maybe one of her followers would use their wealthy connections to get Glitz and Glitter expelled, maybe the teachers would give them bad grades for getting in the way of the top student, or maybe she'd just see that she was out of her league, eat shit, and disappear, like a nobody should.

That girl really was an idiot, because the break period was ending, and now Aria was more fired up than before!

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

Aria and Sonata weren't the first ones to present, but sitting through two other groups gave her an idea of where the bar was. Same as in the Friendship Games, nobody visibly reacted much to anyone else's performance, which, knowing what she knew thanks to Sugarcoat and Twilight's win with the big math problem, she took to mean the first two presentations were good. Or at least, good enough.

Big, easily-readable titles for almost every monochrome slide, snippets of information in Regulation Boring font, technical pictures that were probably supposed to be intimidating if you didn't know how what those things were or how they worked, and dry, simple deliveries that'd have fit perfectly for some corporate board meeting. They got the job done to the letter, but didn't really go anywhere, leaving Aria (and probably everyone else, whether they were allowed to admit it or not) with a dull, heavy sense of "Yea, so what?"

This was going to be cake.

When their turn came, Aria cleared her throat, warming up the crowd while Sonata got the powerpoint ready. Knowing that her audience was all homework-doing Crystal Prep students, she didn't waste time pretending she had to introduce them to the material, that there was any actual point to these presentations other than showing off.

"We all know steam power is garbage today, but it had a good run that led us to what we've got now, so today, Sonata and I'll be taking you through the highlights."

Just as hoped, the light of the presentation hitting the screen behind her reflected over the class at that exact moment. She hadn't expected that alone to get much reaction, but the looks on her classmates' faces changed from the dull, passive, couldn't-care-less ones they'd been wearing to wide-eyed amazement and... incredulity? Looking around a little more, she saw some that looked like they'd just seen someone throw up on a wedding cake, a few even glancing at each other as if seeking confirmation that their eyes hadn't betrayed them.

A sickly sense of foreboding washing over her and dripping down her back like that time in the giant snail's cave, Aria looked back at the screen, horror setting in immediately.

What she saw was not what she and Sonata had come up with for their title page. At the top of the purple page was a badly distorted, bulbous text Aria could just barely make out to be 'Steam engines' in a hideous, graffiti-style font. Below it was a bunch of random clip art of trains and boats and a few old-timey cars, all surrounded by grey, pixellated, MS-Paint-Spraycan-looking blobs that Aria interpreted to be steam. She glared at Sonata, keeping her voice down as much as possible.

"I told you not to add anything without telling me!!"

"I didn't," Sonata whispered back, genuine confusion on her face, "I thought you did this!"


Hark Back, the fat, balding, tan-ish guy with greying hair teaching this class, clearing his throat was a pretty clear sign that they were expected to continue. They probably couldn't just say "Hey, we need some time to fix this, rain-check?", either. Didn't matter, the rest of the slides were fine, so Aria motioned for Sonata to bring up the next one.

"There were-"

She was immediately cut off by loud, awful dubstep, a sudden assault that made most of the room jump in fright, cringe, cover their ears, or some combination of the three. Whirling around again, Aria gaped for the second time at what was not one of their slides while Sonata frantically clicked on things to make the music stop. This time it was a page with the background set as a close-up of burning coals, the red and yellow making the bright, gold text listing steam-powered inventions of the time VERY hard to read. Even when Sonata managed to stop the noise, the teacher did not look impressed.

"This isn't our thing," Aria half-pleaded to him and Sonata alike, getting an equally distraught reply from the latter.

"It's the only one on the flash thingy!"

"The due date for your group is today," Mr. Back sighed as though he'd just been told a dog ate their homework, "if you don't present, you will get a zero."

Figures; stupid, stuck-up, high-expectations school like this doesn't let anyone get do-overs. Glancing at the many disapproving faces, Aria felt herself sweat. Still, it's either no points or some points, right...?

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

"Disaster" would have been way too generous a word for what Aria just endured.

The sneering disdain and open disgust, the looks that said they weren't even surprised, and the teacher silently judging them even when he knew (or should have known, because she had just fucking told him) that this wasn't their fault all would have been fine, or at least bearable, but things got worse. The jacked powerpoint had all kinds of bogus info, and Crystal Prep students being more than happy to react when someone doesn't do well, they jumped at every little misstatement and spelling error.

Aria kind of thought students weren't supposed to speak out without so much as raising their hands, but the teacher didn't do a thing as the rest of the class had a field day kicking her around, and Sonata, of course, let her take pretty much all the heat, sitting there doing nothing even when they were both supposed to deliver part of the presentation.

Now she sat in the shade under the plant-covered archway-thing leading into the front door of the building, not even caring that the next class was starting soon. Sonata was there with her, but probably less because she was grappling with the weight of what just happened and more because she just wanted to skip too. Aria couldn't even yell at her for that, because she was so close to rage and tears at the same time that it was like both were trying to fit through a door at once and she just couldn't let anything out at all.

She could barely get her thoughts together regarding just how badly they were screwed now, like she had been beaten senseless without being physically touched. Public humiliation, bleak prospects for their grade in that class, bleaker prospects for winning anyone over at this stupid school, which they weren't exactly going to find a replacement for without having to move, total failure in either of them proving themselves as the future leader, the chance that they'd really have to go back to CHS, tails between their legs, and either find a way to subdue the Rainbooms without magic or suck eggs and do things the "friendly" way for the rest of their lives, and she didn't even know how it happened.

"So," Sonata asked as she gently kicked at nonexistent pebbles on the immaculate floor, "what're we gonna tell Dagi?"

That did it. That was the push that sent Aria over the edge, but contrary to her occasional, grisly fantasies, it wasn't into the rage that would see countless bones broken and buildings burned to the ground in a warpath of devastation to be spoken of in whispers for centuries to come. Instead, she wept; covered her face with both hands and sobbed like she hadn't since the night of the Battle of the Bands.

Sonata, for her part, began to panic. She had known Aria for a long, long time, and knew she didn't cry for just anything. Mostly because of that whole hide-my-emotions-because-I-wanna-have-a-poker-face-like-Dagi's-and-also-I-think-it-makes-me-cool thing, but still, this was a big deal!

"Uh, h-hey," she tried with an uncertain smile, "it's not that bad, we didn't flunk a big-time grade thingy in all our classes, right? Heck, if anybody asks, we can just say it's because we're not from this world!"

Aria must not have bought that excuse, because she kept crying.

I guess all that researching was sorta supposed to make up for that. Okay, whatever, next one.

"It's not like we can't come back from this one, y'know? There was nothing we could do about getting deported to another dimension or losing the gems, but what did we lose here?" There was a response, but Sonata couldn't make sense of it through all the blubbering. "Huh?"

"Our chance," Aria choked out as she looked up, doing her damnedest to wipe away the tears that kept falling, "we lost our chance to make an impression, to prove everyone wrong, we're not gonna get that again! They all thought we were losers to start, nobody's gonna look twice at us now!"

Sonata stared blankly back at her. "Nuh-uh."

Rage and Tears must have found some kind of compromise, because Aria was already leaning toward anger again even as she continued crying. "How many first impressions do you get, dumbass?!"

"I dunno, but like, if they thought we were stupid before, and they think we're double stupid now, then can't we just get twice that thing you were monologuing about the other night where-"

"I don't monologue!"

"Do too, -where they get proven extra wrong when we show them we're not?"

Sometimes, Aria needed a moment to process the stupid things Sonata said. Sometimes she needed longer, because sometimes they actually made some kind of sense if she looked at them from the right angle. They weren't going to get another chance to make their first big thing a surprise, out-of-nowhere success, that was still true, and they were definitely at a huge popularity deficit right about now, but what if they pulled off something amazing after that? What if they did it after explaining that they were robbed, getting the story out that they'd been sabotaged somehow and that presentation wasn't even their fault?

Then they could make a comeback. Then they might have a chance. Aria stood up.

"I'm gonna go wash my face," she said without looking at Sonata, "we haven't lost anything yet."

Watching her walk away, Sonata smiled with relief. There was no way she could conquer this place on her own!

Chapter 13: Setbacks (Part 2)

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"How does someone 'sabotage' a powerpoint presentation?"

"I don't freakin' know," Aria snapped back at an incredulous Sunny Flare, "but that dumpster fire was not what we put together!"

"Ordinarily," Sugarcoat interjected, "your story might be seen as making excuses and imagining conspiracies to cover up a failed attempt to stand out from the crowd, but as most of us saw you in the library multiple times-"

"And you never shut up about how great your presentation was gonna be."

"-and that, yes- your story does seem feasible."

"But like," Indigo asked with crossed arms and a quizzically tilted head, "who did it?"

The first answer that sprung to mind made Aria's stomach churn for multiple reasons. "About that... remember those two girls you guys said were 'nobodies'?"

"Uhh... no?"

Aria facepalmed. "Glitz and Glitter! The ones that-"

"Glitter and Glitz," Lemon corrected, her rare verbalization startling the rest of the table into an awkward silence. She shrugged. "I've never talked to them, but Glitter seems more like the ringleader type, Glitz just doing whatever she says, so her name should probably be first."

Sunny scratched her head. "I feel like 'Glitz and Glitter' rolls off the tongue better."

"Yes," concurred Sugarcoat, "but Lemon is right about their power dynamic."

Aria was surprised to see Sonata have two bright moments in one day when she asked a question. "Wait a sec, how do you guys know so much about them when they're nobodies you don't care about?"

"Rumor flies on wings, Sonata."


"It means that despite the higher standards, this is still a high school, and the students are teenagers like anyone else their age, craving all the same things even if they'll never admit it. As it happens, gossip serves a useful purpose in providing information on potential competition, provided said information is true."

"Whatever," Aria said with a flippant hand-wave, "I'll keep calling 'em 'Glitz and Glitter' just on the offchance it annoys Glitter, but more importantly, I'm pretty sure they're the ones that screwed us."

"Why is that?"

Aria briefly recounted their encounters with the pair up to just a few hours ago, particularly how smug Glitter got when she put extra emphasis on their upcoming presentation.

Sunny Flare raised an eyebrow. "Okay, so, how did they change your powerpoint? Are they hackers or something?"

Slumping, Aria let out a long sigh. "I have no idea."

Indigo made a face like she'd tasted anchovies. "Didja save it to one of the school computers? 'Cuz even with the login stuff, that's not totally safe."

"We kept it on a flashdrive that I keep in a bookbag, so I don't see how they could've gotten at it."

"Unfortunately," noted Sugarcoat in her usual, neutral tones, "that is a hole in your sabotage story."

"Yea, I figured," she grumbled, but familiar thoughts bubbling to the surface, her grimace became a smirk, "but even if I can't prove it, if I got the right dirt on those two, bet they'd confess to the whole thing." To her great annoyance, the entire table, bar Sonata, was looking at her like she was an idiot. "...What?!"

"Ignoring that you're seriously talking about blackmailing Crystal Prep students," Sunny answered with unmasked disdain, "if you had 'the right dirt' on them, you could probably make them say they did it whether they were guilty or not."

"Yes," Sugarcoat continued for her, "regardless of what anyone said or thought in that scenario, you would have nothing to prove you were capable of better work. In that matter, your saboteur has still won."

Aria scratched her head. "So you're saying we've gotta make some kinda comeback on paper before we can even swing back?"

"It would certainly help your case. Have you given any thought to the Proficiency Accolades?"

"The what?"

"Those marks of accomplishment we discussed a few weeks ago, with the primary and secondary-"

"Oh! Right, right, those were, um... Refresh my memory a little?"

"Awards given for primary categories that impress Principal Cinch and potential employers and secondary categories that involve greater social standing among the students of Crystal Prep. You said you would aim for the latter, which is effectively just having the highest grades in a given class (though having more than one is welcomed and encouraged) and outstanding performance in extracurricular activity." She glanced around the table, but if no one else was going to say it, she would. "Your odds of winning that for Social Studies are very poor."

"Thanks," growled Aria through clenched teeth and a frustrated blush, "I couldn't have guessed."

"There's still time to do the primary ones," Sunny added quickly, "if you've got something amazing you can do."

"Assuming that doesn't get sabotaged too," Sour Sweet cheerfully chimed in before shifting again, "or that you don't mind wasting months of your life to please some suits."

Aria had thought about it, but something told her that singing a really great song and labelling it with the 'art' sticker wasn't gonna be enough, and if it wasn't, she wasn't sure she'd be able to fluff it up enough to win without a ton of cash to fund a show. That or starting from scratch on something totally different, meaning way more work. Luckily, she seemed to have a kindred spirit in Indigo.

"Screw the primaries," she said while propping up her head with one arm, elbow on the table and a bored look on her face. "There's no real limit on the group size, 'cuz one'a the Art winners was a whole orchestra, but even if you work together, they're a freakin' pain. Even without all the extra hoops you gotta jump through, just being the best of the best should be the more important one. It's like, who cares if you do one great thing and then pretty much nothing with the rest of your life?"

There were murmurs of agreement that tasted of a familiar bitterness, one Aria had gotten to know from countless negative energy harvests to be resentment and frustration, cooled with grudging acceptance and a hint of doubt and anxiety. That delicate little worry that the source of these feelings was themselves inadequate, that it was because they just weren't good enough, had been one she and the others only needed to give the slightest nudge to push into fits of rage, despair, and even insanity. None of them lasted long, but for the sirens' purposes, they didn't need to.

If the worst happened and she really was screwed, giving a few Adagio-style pushes to send this school into a downward spiral of self-destruction might not help her, but it'd be one hell of a revenge/back-up plan.

"So," Sunny asked as though she wanted to know what Aria liked on her pizza, "what do you think you'll be doing?"

"Uh..." The primary options looked bleak, but with how things were going, she wasn't even sure she could make a comeback in the normal classwork, let alone as the top of her class! "Well, there's-"

"Aria Blaze, Sonata Dusk?"

Use of full names had those not already facing Dean Cadence turned around in a heartbeat, finding her with an uncharacteristically severe look on her face. She continued without waiting for a reply.

"Principal Cinch would like to talk to you before the end of the school day." Again not waiting, she turned and started off, stopping several steps away when she didn't hear movement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder with an apologetic smile and a whisper. "That means 'right now,' by the way."

Immediately stomping down the bubbling terror in her chest as the Shadowbolts traded curious looks, Aria took the escape route for all it was worth, motioning to Sonata and getting up to follow.

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

Principal Cinch sat with both elbows on her desk, fingers folded together as Aria and Sonata finished their story.

"Let me see if I understand... While you did make use of our services to put forth your best effort, someone found a way to undermine you in an attempt to remove you as competition, an act for which you have no proof whatsoever?"

Seeing exactly how that sounded, Aria begrudgingly nodded.

"Such claims are not uncommon, and in some cases, they are even found to be true, but in such cases, the target is always an academic rival." Neither of them responded, so she spelled it out. "Which, given your performance so far, it would seem strange to direct something like this at you two rather than any of the more accomplished students."

'You wouldn't be saying that if you saw our real presentation!' was the first thing Aria wanted to scream back, but that was totally gone now, so she could just as easily say they would have cured cancer with it. Luckily, she'd had a little time to think. "Yea, but that's sorta how I know who did it; these two girls that have had it out for us since-"

"Once more, do you have proof?"

Clenching her teeth, Aria tried her damnedest to say 'no' in a way that still could have worked out for her, but all she could do was shake her head.

"I cannot act on your accusation alone. This matter is very serious, cheating of any kind is not looked on favorably here, and if there is no credible evidence, dispensing blame in this manner will not be tolerated. Are we clear?"

Again, Aria felt like crying, but she forced herself to swallow the pill and nod her head.

"Very good. I have your records from Canterlot High, short though they are, and Principal Celestia had a few choice words she saw fit to share when I asked for details about your time there."


"In particular, she warned me that while you two and Adagio Dazzle, who stayed behind, had experienced some change of heart, you were previously known for manipulative behaviors and deception..."

Aria couldn't have pictured her past biting her in the ass any harder if it physically manifested into a bear trap on each cheek. She was just about to throw up her hands and say 'screw it' when Cinch's eyes narrowed.

"...which makes you susceptible to precisely this kind of attack." Both girls, two out of the three 'sirens' she'd heard plenty about, looked at her in confusion. "You remember my former star pupil, yes? One Twilight Sparkle?" They nodded. "I gather that, like her, your group was once involved in a magical incident, this one of your own deliberate design, and it would be very easy to believe that someone capable of such things would pass blame to cover up their own failings, making them a natural target for those actually willing to go to such underhanded lengths, wouldn't you agree?"

The two shared a look, Sonata's brain working faster this time. "Does this mean you believe us?"

"Not exactly, but I can see that something is out of place with the simplest explanation. I have looked into this, called Proper Place, our librarian, to learn more, and your log-in records from the school system indicate several hours-long sessions over the past week or so. Our library is monitored, there is little tolerance for just 'hanging about,' and while her memory isn't perfectly clear, Proper Place tells me that whenever she walked by, the two of you were focused on your work, and she has absolutely no memory of any of the slides you showed today."

Nor the dreadful dubstep, which, if played at the same volume as when that particular page was opened, would have surely seen them expelled from the library in minutes.

Aria tentatively crossed her arms. "Okay, so, you don't really believe us, but you don't really believe it's our fault, either? What happens now?"

"I would advise returning to class, doing your personal best to succeed despite setbacks. There are tutoring services available should you see fit to use them, the library remains open to students, and should you inquire, instructors are to provide helpful feedback." Her brows knitted. "I do not know exactly what befell the two of you, but I will say this: If there is a repeat of this incident, there will be an investigation, for good or ill. Are we clear?"

Aria reeeeally hoped that meant "we'll actually look at the most likely culprit instead of their victims," but saying so would probably be pushing her luck. "Yea, crystal."


Aria and Sonata witnessed a rare sight just then; that of Principal Abacus Cinch losing her composure for a split second, then pulling herself together as best one could when on the verge of a gigglefit, her face tightening up as she forced herself not to laugh.

Damn you, Cadenza.

"Very good," she uttered through clenched teeth and a warped little smile, "best of luck to you in your future endeavors."

For slightly different reasons, the two were unable to completely keep from smiling themselves as they left her office. When they were gone, Cinch found it much easier to sober up. Particularly so when her own words echoed in her ears.

"Cheating of any kind is not looked on favorably here..."

Nor at CHS, in all likelihood. "They did it first," she'd told herself, "We only want what we deserve," felt reasonable, and if she couldn't stop the Wondercolts from using magic to gain the upper hand, the only recourse was to do the same. So was it cheating? It certainly didn't give Crystal Prep any advantage, the third event having been entirely called off due to Twilight's temporary insanity. Would it have been better to just play through, let come what may? Every fiber of her being protested the notion, but what did that say about the two sirens' predicament?

It said that, following Cinch's own example, which they were present to witness, they should cheat and sabotage right back. Aria had made it sound like they even had names. She'd be a hypocrite to tell them otherwise, so it seemed that she was a hypocrite.

Shaking her head, she sighed. Normally, she wouldn't have bothered with what she'd been told today, because students understandably choked under the pressure on a regular basis, but not to the degree of that slideshow and more importantly, not entirely missing a class afterward. At least this wasn't just a case of delinquency. She again checked over her the file on her desk.

Adagio Dazzle. Said to have been the brains of their operation, and yet you stayed at Canterlot High School. Why?

Her name was the one filled in for emergency contact and other such spaces in Aria and Sonata's paperwork, but she didn't seem to be a parental figure to them, and was clearly at least close enough to their age to be able to attend a high school, so the only reason Cinch could conceive for not coming too was a lack of funding. Was it a difficult choice? Did the three of them agree that she wouldn't need the prestige this school had to offer as much as the other two? She'd wanted to know about that more than this presentation matter, but that would have been prying into students' personal lives.

Granted, her students' personal lives were technically part of this little experiment she was conducting. It seemed to her that Aria and Sonata, her 'normal' samples from a 'normal' school, were genuinely putting forth their best effort, but some kind of rivalry was getting in the way. Or was it? Competition could, after all, be a galvanizing force provided one side didn't completely overwhelm the other, but if their story was true, that was most likely the intent of this strike. One carried out by, there could be little doubt, her own Crystal Prep students.

As this was intended to test her school more than any individual attending it, she supposed the best thing to do was let it play out naturally, to see if their facilities would outweigh these interpersonal conflicts. If not, it was possible that it would be a failing of the students to make the most of what was offered, but it seemed to her that any decent school wouldn't let that be an issue; encouraging students to take advantage of any and every opportunity to succeed.

"Well," she muttered to herself, "we'll just have to wait and see."

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

Keeping what happened a secret wasn't going to end well for her, Aria knew that before she'd even gotten on the bus. That in mind, tired of it though she already was, she knew they had to tell the story for the third time that day when they got home. At least doing it in the beanbag-chair-room-comfort of their own home made it a little easier. When she heard the full account, Adagio sighed.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I didn't expect you to have the place under your complete control already, but this is... what, did they get implausible back-up out of nowhere?"

Sonata shrugged. "Sorta? They might've hacked our thingy somehow, and it sounded like that wasn't supposed to be possible."

Eyes narrowing, Adagio crossed her arms. "Did they have a transforming car too? Because if that's just standard issue around here, it's time we got our own."

Aria facepalmed. "No, it- listen, she, the two of them, they did something sneaky, and I don't know how yet, but-"

"Then perhaps we should start there. You told me you keep the flashdrive in your backpack, did you leave it unattended at some point?"

"Not really, unless they found out which locker is mine and broke in between classes."

Sonata scratched her head. "Maybe they did, 'cuz like, all they'd have to do is follow us around for a while and-"

"I mean, there are cameras all over those hallways, and I'm pretty sure they've got a clear view of the lockers all over the place." Probably for exactly this reason.

Adagio thoughtfully rubbed her chin. "Were they in or near the room when your turn to present came?"

"I think they'd have had to straight-up turn invisible to pull that off."

"And are we certain they can't do that?"


"Twilight -the one from this world- was studying magic over there for a while, and may have left something behind whether she realized it or not. If so, these nemeses of yours may have found it and put it to use, for invisibility or anything else it could do. Have either of you felt any pulses or currents in your time there?"

"Uhh..." Aria glanced at Sonata, who only shook her head. "I don't think so."

"Hm. While we didn't exactly spend much time exploring, we never found any other magic in this world before the Fall Formal, so I wouldn't rule out magic entirely, but perhaps it was something else. You said the presenting groups are to operate the machinery themselves to prevent exactly this sort of situation?"

"Basically, so I think it had to be before class even started."

"Could she have influenced the students who went before you to tamper with the computer?"

"Maybe, but like, I don't know how that would overwrite a file on a flashdrive. If they had some kind of attack-the-next-powerpoint-to-get-opened virus or something, I'm not sure how they'd have known who went just before us or how that'd have been activated without anyone noticing."

"I know it sounds far-fetched, but if we learned anything from the Battle of the Bands...?"

"I get that, but like, the only people in this world we've seen pull something outta their ass like that were packing rainbow magic, which I don't think can do anything this subtle."

"And that's if magic even works with computers," Sonata added.

Adagio shrugged. "With what we've witnessed so far, I'd say nothing is off the table. Still, there may be a simpler explanation: Was there a moment in which the flashdrive wasn't in your locker, but wasn't immediately in your sight, either?"


Aria hadn't exactly sat there staring at her bag until her turn came, but it wasn't like she left it out in the open. The only times she could think of when someone might have been able to touch it were when she was walking through the halls full of potential witnesses and cameras, and-

"The cafeteria," she hissed, "she wasn't just trash-talking, she was distracting us!" Adagio's expression said she could use a few more details. "The smarmy one, Glitter, got to talking during a break period, went on about how bad we're doing and how our presentation was gonna suck, but the other bitch was nowhere to be seen. I bet she got close, waited for Glitter to bait us, and... did... something! She either swapped our flashdrive for an identical one with the crap powerpoint on it or uploaded it to ours from her phone or maybe she hacked the thing with a satellite, I don't know, but she did something while Glitter was secretly doing her misdirection shtick!"

"I see. We may not know exactly how they did this to you, if it was them, but if your theory is right, this is something to note for future encounters; if Glitter is present, but Glitz isn't...?"

"It means they're probably about to pull something," Aria finished, "we won't fall for that again."

"What's your next move going to be?"

'Break those bitches' kneecaps' was her first choice, 'turn the whole school against them like I said I would' was the second, but she knew both would really just be dragging them down with her, which was only fine as a last resort when she was absolutely screwed anyway. Begrudgingly, she had to go with the Shadowbolts' idea. "We should probably make our comeback with better grades first, prove we're not stupid while telling anyone who asks that we were sabotaged."

"They've got tutors or something at CeePee," Sonata added with a hopeful smile, "maybe they can make it all look easy."

Adagio again stroked her chin, an almost sinister smile forming. "There might be one better. Would either of you object to study sessions with this world's Twilight Sparkle?"

Aria was the first to fully process the implications behind that question, starting to smile herself. "Oh yea, she was the reigning nerd queen for a while, wasn't she? If we got half as good with the classwork as she was, we'd probably still put everybody else to shame."

Sonata beamed. "Totally, as long as we don't ask her about Gym!"

There were giggles.

Chapter 14: Setbacks (Part 3)

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The next morning, Adagio kept an eye out for Twilight on the way to school, noting the direction she came from as she waited for her at the crosswalk. As was often the case, she was greeted with a smile.

"Good morning, Adagio!"

"Good morning. Are you usually busy after school?"

"Huh? Uh... well, I'm not in any clubs or anything, so I'm normally either spending time with the others or working on things at home." Her memory caught up with her mouth, which shifted into a nervous grin. "Er, nothing dangerous, I promise!"

"Right. Were you aware that Aria and Sonata are attending Crystal Prep now?"

"I had heard something about that, yes. Why?" She watched in increasingly perplexed silence as Adagio's face shifted with discomfort, as though she were being forced to confess to a crime she hadn't committed.

"Well... they don't exactly have the best grip on the material at the moment and I was hoping you could alleviate that a little. Do you think you could stop by our place for a tutoring session some time?"

Taking into consideration that she could soon be sharing her knowledge with willing listeners and that such an offer indicated that she was deemed trustworthy enough to visit the cheerleaders' house despite multiple incidents of accidental sexual harassment, Twilight beamed. "I'd love to!! Do they just need a few details elaborated or would a full outline be necessary? Oh, I could probably put together my own lectures if-"

"I'm not sure," Adagio interrupted with an upraised hand and a slightly worried look on her face, "you'd have to ask them. Would some time this week work for you? I'd like to see this started as soon as possible."

"Tonight works for me! I anticipated the possibility of being asked to help study at some point, so I already have the necessary supplies! Of course, I was doing so in preparation for CHS's material, but luckily, I still have all forty-six notebooks, twelve textbooks, thirty-eight powerpoint presentations, and seventeen projects from my time in Crystal Prep!" Remembering a few details, she smiled apologetically. "Or, I 'have' some of those in the sense that they're in the city, not necessarily that they're in my sole possession."

"Just your person should be enough, thank you," she said while drawing her phone from her hair, "but by all means feel free to bring what you need. Do you already have my number?"

"Um, no, I don't think s-" She was startled by her ringtone, immediately checking her phone to see a message from an unknown number.

[See you tonight.]

She knew the context of this message. She knew it was about studying. She knew there was no deeper meaning to it than that. She knew that reading it that way would not help her relationship (of the purely chaste and academic kind!!) with Adagio at all. Still, Twilight felt her face burn when she read those words. Doing her best to stuff those wayward thoughts into a class-five compression chamber in her brain allowed saner thoughts to emerge.

"Um, how exactly did you get my num-"

Adagio was gone. She looked around to see her standing on the other side of the crosswalk leading to CHS, a hand on one hip and her head tilted.

"Will you be joining us at school today, Twilight?"

"Er, y-yes," she mumbled while starting across, "I just-"

She jumped as a vehicle sped past, unconsciously taking a step backward as she checked to find that the light had turned red again. Across the street, Adagio chuckled, sparing her a fleeting wave before turning to walk away. Waiting for the next green light, Twilight sighed.

Note to self: DO NOT allow your mind to wander when in the sirens' house.

...Post-script to self: How exactly do you plan to prevent that when it's just you in a room with those three girls?

She was going to need a plan.

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

Today, Adagio had been thankful that her daily school life was so uneventful, because it gave her time to plan for tonight. By the time she got home, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, rearranging the living room to suit a schoolwork meeting rather than just lounging about and possibly watching television. She unpacked and unfolded a simple, rectangular table and placed it in the middle of the seating arrangement, unpacked and assembled another soft chair, then dragged it in (both to serve as another seat and to replace Sonata's lounging spot on the carpet), poured some chips into a big bowl, and set it in the center of the table. When it came to the drinks, she had second thoughts.

"Do I arrange them around the bowl now and risk them getting warm before they're wanted, or wait until they're asked for and interrupt the studies to bring them fresh...?"

This was when she heard the front door open, a split second of anxiety gripping her heart before Aria's voice signaled that she had a little more time to figure this out for when their guests arrived.

"We're home!"

"Living room."

The two walked in, Sonata letting out a short, surprised gasp. "You opened some boxes!"

"Yes. Twilight should be here soon and we didn't have enough furniture ready for study purposes. Do either of you know how long it takes for cold drinks to get warm?"

"Er, no," Aria answered with a hint of confusion, "pretty sure Crystal Prep doesn't teach Thermodynamics."

"Hm. How were things for you two since...?"

With an exasperated groan, Aria flopped down on the couch. "Awful! We were getting some funny looks before, but now damn near everyone looks at us like we've got brain damage!"

Sonata scratched her head as she searched her memory. "I sorta thought it'd be worse. Like, we got some ha-ha-you're-dumb comments, but nobody shoving us around or spray-painting stuff on our lockers or anything."

Aria shrugged. "Not that they didn't want to, I bet, it's just that that place has higher standards and they'd get way worse consequences than at a public school." It wasn't like they were being bullied so much as subject to elitist dirtbags being... well, elitist dirtbags, all too happy to have a safe target for stomping down and assuring themselves that they're better than someone. "The thing that throws me is that Glitz and Glitter haven't swung by to rub it in. Haven't even seen either of 'em since that moment in the cafeteria."

"It may be an attempt to cover their tracks," Adagio mused, "but if they made a point of coming around to harass you on a regular basis, the sudden absence, now of all times, seems like a mark against them."

"Maybe, but something tells me that won't be enough to nail 'em both. Still," she said with a hopeful smile, "if we take those two down, we'd probably be getting rid of the boldest girls in Crystal Prep, and if everyone else knows, but can't prove that we did, I bet nobody would have the guts to mess with us after that."

Adagio smiled with a hint of pride. "So you have a plan outlined?"

"Yup! But first we gotta do-" she motioned to the table, "-this. Where's Twilight, anyway? If you got here before we did, I figured she'd be-"

The doorbell rang, drawing a chuckle from Adagio. "Hopefully that's her now." Host duties in mind, she moved to answer the door as Sonata helped herself to some chips. Some kind of nostalgia rippled through her as she opened the door to find Twilight and Sunset.


"Hello." Not directly asking, she looked to a slightly nervous Twilight for explanation.

"I-I was, I mean, I ran into her on the way here and figured, 'why not?', right?"

"Totally," Sunset concurred, though her bright smile shifted to a confused frown. "Can you believe people don't ask me for help in schoolwork all that often? Not even the rest of the Rainbooms ask me to tutor them."

Similarly perplexed, Adagio raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have some of the best grades in the school?"

"I do!"

"Hm. Well, at any rate," she said while turning back toward the living room, "we're setting up in here. Close the door, would you?"

The pair did as she asked, following to find Aria on the couch and Sonata on one of the chairs, both having spread their textbooks and notebooks on the table. They turned and spoke in unison.

"Hey, Sunset!"

Both blinked, seeming to realize something was amiss before Sonata added the correction. "And, Twilight!"

The pair smiled back.

"What's up?"
"Um, hi."

The drink decision having been made for her now (which was fine, because in hindsight, this method allowed her guests to pick what they liked), Adagio continued things. "Take a seat, there are chips on the table and we have at least four kinds of beverage if you get thirsty."

"Thanks," answered Sunset as she sat next to Aria on the couch.

Twilight's first instinct was to take the seat a little further from the siren that seemed to like her the least (unless Sonata's warm, smiling exterior is a facade to mask a cruel, vicious mind beneath and she secretly wants to hurt me in a variety of ways. Something similar may be true of Adagio, come to think of it, for at least as long as I'm useful to her, so I really don't know which one hates me the most!), but something told her the recliner was Adagio's designated seat, and occupying that position herself could send a very unwelcome message. That in mind, she took off her backpack, sat at Aria's opposite side on the couch, and readied herself for study.

"So... What subject would you like to cover first?"

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

Things were coming along nicely. Aria and Sonata were by no means mastering the material, but within an hour, even Sonata easily soared passed novice level! The basics out of the way, things started to slow down a little more, leading Sunset's mind to wander as she puzzled out a particularly difficult example problem Aria couldn't make heads or tails of.

"Y'know, I didn't notice the last time I was here, but your house is kinda barren, isn't it?"

There was no artwork or decoration of any kind on the walls, no pictures or mementos sitting on the few tables and shelves around the living room, almost nothing but what they were immediately using and a decent-sized television. If Sunset hadn't known better, she'd have said they must have just moved in within the last week or so.

Taking a quick look around the room, Sonata frowned. "We've got more stuff, but most of it's all boxed up."

Eyes still on the paper in front of her, Aria shrugged. "We lived a really long time as wanderers with pretty much nothing to our names, so when we got to this world, sleeping in the same place every night was kinda new. Home ownership was fun for a while, but when the novelty wore off and we settled in a little, we had a bunch of stuff we didn't need and didn't feel like taking out and putting somewhere."

Glancing around, Adagio finished for her. "We agreed that, should we get tired of this town or need to leave for some reason, it'd be convenient to have just about everything packed up and ready to go."

After a short, contemplative silence, Sunset smiled. "Do you think you'll be sticking around for a while?"

Smiling back, the trio nodded in unison, Aria answering verbally. "Even if it's easier, moving still kinda sounds like a huge pain. We don't really have anywhere to go except closer to Crystal Prep anyway, but the cost of living over there's way higher."

"Can confirm," Twilight added with a hesitant smile, "I lived in the city when I was younger. There were other reasons my family moved, but saving on the house was a welcome bonus."

There was a quiet moment, which Sunset was just about to fill by asking how exactly the sirens made their living these days when Aria pointed to a problem in her workbook, asking how she was to differentiate between the most recently proposed method of finding a solution versus the one in the previous section. Sunset was again beaten to the punch when Twilight answered almost automatically and their studies resumed.

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

Things continued, there were speedbumps, some banter followed, and a combination of Aria's taunts that she and Sonata were learning higher-level stuff and Sunset's gentle urging led Adagio to attempt a problem or two herself. Sunset had thought it was obvious that, Adagio having been here as they went over the material, she'd figure it out just fine, but she found herself the only one not surprised when Adagio correctly answered three problems in a row. Then again, she knew a few things the others didn't.

"So," Adagio cooed at Aria with a smug smirk as she worked out the solution to a fourth, "what was that you were saying about me being 'the dumb one' before long?"

Face flushed, arms crossed, and teeth clenched, Aria grumbled under her breath. "Whatever, ya damn freak."

Adagio playfully made flexing motions as the other three giggled, Sonata in particular.

Ohh, Ria, picking fights you're not ready for is why you'll never be leader for long.

When the next problem was done, Adagio set down her pencil, waiting for Twilight's verdict.

"That one iiiiis... correct!"

Smiling, Adagio looked up at the ceiling. After a moment's pause, her smile slipped away as a century-old nostalgia came and went. Getting up, she sighed. "I'll get more chips."

Taking the bowl, she headed for the kitchen, leaving Twilight to find herself as the only one who didn't seem to understand what just happened.

"Um... why did she look up?"

Getting back to work, Aria rolled her eyes. "Because that was how they used to feed her."


Thinking about her current problem as she lightly thumped a pencil against her chin, Sonata answered for her. "Dagi's a test-tube baby, lab-grown to be like, the best kelpie ever, and a big, magic thingy on the roof was like her hamster bottle."


At that moment, Adagio called from the kitchen. "We're getting low on the standard variety, does anyone have a problem with ones dusted with cheese?"

Glancing around and not seeing any objections, Sunset called back. "I think we're okay, thanks!" Twilight still looked like she just heard that the school lunches were soylent green, so she tried to clarify with an apologetic smile. "It's kind of a long story, but yea, Adagio wasn't born like a normal member of her species, which is part of where her strength and smarts come from."

Aria raised an eyebrow. "How'd you know about that?"

Memories of that day in the music room and the important promise she'd made slammed into each other in Sunset's head, but luckily, there was a simple, trust-keeping answer. "We talked, she told me a few things."

Aria nodded as Adagio came back with a bowl full of cheesy, triangular chips and five sets of disposable chopsticks (liberated from a Chinese place on the far side of town). This time, Sunset and Twilight were confused.

"The cheesiness gets all over your hands," Sonata explained with a smile while taking a pair, "so we use these if we wanna eat and do other stuff at the same time." She demonstrated with surprisingly skillful form, the other two neatly doing the same. Twilight smiled.

"That's clever! Does it work with powdered donuts?"

"Yea," Aria answered after swallowing a mouthful, "but it's easier to just stab through a few and eat 'em like it's a shish kabab."

"Neat!" She turned to ask Sunset if she had any similar study-dining tips, but found her struggling with the chopsticks. When the attention was on her, she blushed.

"Uhh... getting used to human hands was hard for me as it was, so-" She was startled by yellow hands very gently seizing her own.

"Like this," Adagio breathed, moving Sunset's fingers around the chopsticks as though tuning delicate machinery, "focus on moving the top stick without clenching too hard. Got it?"

"Yep," Sunset quickly replied as the heat crawled up her neck, "thanks!"

It still took her a moment, but no one else said anything as she slowy, but successfully gripped a cheesy chip and brought it to her lips. The size of the chip and angle at which she did so left a big corner poking out of the side of her mouth, which she hastily chomped down on like a piece of long, crunchy hay, which drew light chuckles from the rest of the study group.

"You'll get the hang of it," Twilight told her with friendly smile, "it just takes a little practice."

Still lightly flushed, she managed a grin. "Heh-ha, thanks. Sooo," she asked the others, "any questions on this section?"

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

It was difficult to say how much progress was made that evening, but the results of Aria and Sonata's schoolwork would tell them in due time. Until then, Sonata walked their guests to the door as Adagio tidied up the living room.

"I'd say 'seeya soon' or something, but we don't go to the same school."

"That's okay," giggled Sunset, "we can come around to do this regularly. Or, even just hang out if you guys are down." She turned to Twilight. "Are you good with either?"

"Ehm," she automatically stalled for a few extra seconds to think before her mouth answered for her, "sure, I'd love to!"

This was probably going to backfire on her, but the same would be true of refusing. The first, most likely, and most horrible scenario that came to mind was Sunset either having other plans or not being able to make it one night, which would leave her alone. With three very pretty, easily-angered girls, who already had abundant reason to be short with her. It was as she was trying to work out an excuse of her own should such an evening come to be that she realized she was missing conversation between Sonata and Sunset.

"-prised she wears the new collar at home."

Sonata blinked, confused. "Collar?"

"Yea, the spiky one she's been wearing every day since our mall outing? You didn't notice?"

Slowly, a far-away look came over Sonata's widening eyes. One would think she had just been told there was a huge fire and everyone she knew was in the building. "...Where did she get that?"

"Uh... I gave it to her? I kinda had to, because it was the only way we could get her to take off the thing Rarity dressed her in when they were clothes-shopping together."

"Rarity... dressed... Adagio...?"

A concerned frown on her face, Sunset raised an eyebrow. "Are you okay, Sonata? You sound sorta-"

"Yep," she quickly answered, showing most of her teeth in a tightly-clenched smile, "peeeeachy. See you guys around!"

And she quickly closed the door.

Twilight waited until they were on the sidewalk before voicing her thoughts.

"S-so, ordinarily, I would have extreme reservations about saying a thing like this, having been an out-of-control maniac myself at least once, but, um-"

"I'm sure she's fine," Sunset preemptively answered with a placating smile, "it's like... everyone's got their quirks, y'know? I think I know what's going on, and this might actually be a good thing. Rarity told us that Adagio told her that picking out their outfits is normally Sonata's thing, so she might be jealous that someone else did it for her when she wasn't around. This means Sonata'll realize that being at Crystal Prep means she isn't around one of her oldest friends as much, she'll wanna get closer, and they'll all have a day out or something, their friendship getting stronger than ever."

"You really think so?"

"Trust me!"

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

Meanwhile, just inside the sirens' house, Sonata hadn't moved. Taking out her phone, she thumbed over to that group pic they took when they were fixing the statue thing together, pointedly staring at the one with shiny, purple curls.

Rarity? I don't know how. I don't know when. But as soon as I'm not busy with all this taking-over-the-better-school stuff? I will end you.

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

Twilight lived relatively close to the sirens, so it wasn't long before their paths split. This left Sunset alone with her thoughts as she walked the remaining distance home.

It's crazy how long a habit can stick with us. Or at least, something we're conditioned to do. Adagio was taught to look up at... some kind of magic device on the ceiling of her cell when she performed well, and a hundred years, a different dimension, and a different body later, she still does it.

The thought of what they did to her in The Hadal Zone still made Sunset angry, but now it made her angry and sad. Adagio had scars that, if they were still visible today, were probably just never going to heal on their own, which meant she was going to need more than just a soul-beary friend-therapy session. There had to be something she could do, some kind of reward she could offer Adagio to completely replace negative energy in her mind, but what?

Not like I can feed her ordinary magic, and the Friendship type comes from just doing normal friend stuff together. Candy? She's not a little kid. Or Pinkie Pie. Fancy candy?

...Am I seriously just going down the list of stuff my oldest friends might like? Think harder, Sunset.

Well, given Adagio's own idea of how to do something nice for someone (granted, that was meant as an apology), maybe whenever she did well, all Sunset had to do was remove an article of clothing?

She slapped herself, startling two passing teenagers (that she dearly hoped didn't go to CHS) on the sidewalk. Blood rushing to her face for two reasons now, she quickened her pace.

Whatever, I'll think of something. How hard can it be to replace being shot with 80,000 volts of pure pain, anyway?