Disclaimer: I don't own MLP. I'm just a fan.
Chapter 13: Maneuvers Clandestine and Chaotic
The following Monday afternoon found Sunset walking the halls of Canterlot High. The last class of the day had finished, and students were happily making their way from the classrooms to the front entrance. But today, Sunset was making a detour in the opposite direction.
Finally stopping at the door to Principal Celestia's office, she gave a light knock. "Come in," said a voice that was not the principal's.
Opening the door, Sunset saw Vice Principal Luna behind her sister's desk. "Hello, Sunset," greeted the woman. "My sister is taking care of another matter at the moment. But what brings you here?"
Sunset was about to answer when she noticed that the vice principal was not in her usual attire. She'd changed into a much more formal-looking dark blue suit, the jacket decorated with her usual crescent-shaped pin.
Luna followed Sunset's gaze. "Celestia and I are going to a fundraiser for Canterlot High today," she explained. "We'll be leaving quite soon, so it was easier to change here."
"Oh," replied Sunset, feeling just a little bit awkward at being caught staring. "A-Anyway, I just wanted to give you this." Sunset handed the woman a piece of paper. "Figured I should give it to you as soon as possible."
Luna took it, cyan eyes reading the page. "A new address?"
"Sunny's idea," Sunset explained.
The blue-haired woman gave a hum of approval. "Good. The sooner you were out of that apartment, the better."
Sunset's cheeks tinged just a little red. "Oh yeah, I forgot you actually went there." If it weren't for the fact that the woman had accepted that Sunset was from another dimension, that would have been bad. "Beggars can't really be choosers, but trust me, I was glad to get out of there too."
Luna smiled politely. "I hope the move wasn't too difficult."
"It was... memorable." That was probably the lightest word to describe her weekend move. "Anyway, the girls and I were going to hit Sugarcube Corner. See you later."
"Sunset, hold on a moment."
Turning her head, the teen found Luna staring at her with a look of uncertainty. "Yeah? What is it?"
"I..." Luna hesitated for a moment. "Sunset, are you angry with my sister and I?"
"What? No." Sunset shifted her whole body back around, taking a step closer to the desk. "Why would you think that?"
The vice principal's normally tough facade seemed to crack, betraying something vulnerable underneath. "After what happened with Circinus the second time, we... my sister and I... we weren't sure if you perhaps resented us for backing down."
A few little pieces fell into place. That was why the two administrators had been avoiding eye contact with her. They probably felt like they'd failed her. "It's okay, Vice Principal Luna," she said. "You were in a tough spot, I get it." That scorpion witch of a woman had them all over a barrel before Sunny showed up. "It all worked out."
Luna didn't seem satisfied with that answer. "Please, allow me to explain. I... " Her eyes drifted to the wall lined with photos and trophies and Principal Celestia's teaching degree. "Many people have unpleasant memories of high school, and think it a time worth forgetting. But that was not the case for Tia—for my sister and I."
Her eyes stopped at a photo of Principal Celestia standing in the middle of a group of students, holding up a large gold trophy and wearing a T-shirt that read "Canterlot City Science Decathlon 2003". She smiled. "No, our time here as students was a wonderful one, full of ups and downs, but positive nonetheless. This place was, and still is, special for us. When we graduated, the both of us knew, as surely as we knew anything, that we wanted to give back to it.
"So the two of us threw ourselves into our studies, became teachers here, then administrators. Celestia and I wanted to make this place as special for those students that came after us as it had been for us." She looked away, hands tightening into fists.
"When that woman," she continued, spitting the last word, "threatened the school, it was very hard. If we'd fought her, it would have risked this place shutting down, and risked not just our careers, but the jobs of all the teachers, not to mention separating the students and potentially shattering the friendships formed here."
She sighed. "And if we didn't, it meant leaving you, one of our students, at her mercy." She leaned back in her chair, squeezing her eyes shut. "It was like being caught between a knife and a bottle of poison."
She turned to look at Sunset again, her expression both solemn and hurt. "It's not that we didn't care enough to fight. It was simply an impossible decision. I cannot help but think about what would have happened had Sunny not appeared, and I... both I and my sister were rather worried that you held it against us."
For a moment, Sunset stood silent at the vice principal's words, surprised that the woman had opened up like this. It was true that Sunset had been hoping against hope for them to take her in during that horrible meeting, but actual resentment? It had all happened so fast, being railroaded into defeat, Sunny appearing out of nowhere. She hadn't really given much thought to how the two administrators had backed down.
On some level, she supposed that it should have made her angry. But seeing the vice principal so open, so torn up about it, and how much she cared for both the students, herself included, and the school as a whole, it was hard to really work up any kind of resentment.
Besides, they'd still been willing to let her, a teenager who had caused them nothing but trouble for several years, into their home for Sunset's sake. That had to count for something.
"I don't hold it against you," said Sunset. "I get it. It was an impossible choice. Who knows? Maybe I might have been angry somewhere down the line if Sunny hadn't shown up." She paused to note the distress on Luna's face. "But she did, and that's all that matters. I know you two care, and you shouldn't beat yourself up over it, either of you." She gave a little smirk. "I know a little about what guilt is like."
Relief passed over the vice principal's face, and she gave a soft smile. "Thank you, Sunset. I'll tell my sister you said that." She pointed toward the door. "Now go off and catch up to your friends. Celestia and I will have a meeting shortly."
"Sure thing. See you later, Vice Principal Luna."
Luna scoffed. "I should hope not, Sunset. Otherwise something would be wrong."
Laughing, Sunset made her way back out the door to the hall, beginning her trek to Sugarcube Corner.
Breathing another sigh of relief, Luna filed the piece of paper in a drawer so her sister could update the records later. Celestia would be glad to hear that Sunset held no ill will against either of them.
They'd been doing whatever they could to help Sunny with her plan, and Sunset hadn't seemed angry with them. But there had still been that nagging question. After all, she would have been within her rights to be angry for backing down when they did.
Just thinking about Circinus made acid rise in Luna's throat. They'd both dealt with a few social workers during their time as administrators, but never had Luna ever met one that was so cold.
The door opened, snapping Luna from her thoughts. Celestia walked in. "Hello Lulu," she greeted once the door was shut. "Anything happen while I was out?"
"Sunset Shimmer came by to give us a change of address," Luna replied. "It seems Sunny convinced her to move." Her voice turned soft. "She's not angry at us, Tia. I asked. It hadn't even crossed her mind."
Celestia stood there for a moment, before giving a slow smile. "Good," she whispered as a weight seemed to disappear from her shoulders. "So, are you ready?" she asked Luna as she pocketed the piece of paper Sunset had left behind.
Luna frowned, but nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be." She rubbed at one of her arms in discomfort. "I hate these fundraisers. Being in front of a crowd of students is one thing, but potential donors?"
"I know, Lulu," said her sister, putting an arm around her shoulders. "I know."
There was another, sharp knock at the door. "Come in," said Principal Celestia.
The door opened, and in walked the last person Luna had wanted to see today. Or any day.
"Good afternoon, ladies," said Mrs. Circinus with a polite smile.
Luna felt red hot bile rise in her throat, but forced it down. "What are you doing here?" she asked, not bothering to suppress the harshness of her words.
Circinus ignored the jab, instead letting her eyes land on the two womens' attire. "Are you two going somewhere important?"
"There's a fundraiser for the school today," said Celestia. "Now, what do we owe the," she paused, "pleasure of your visit?"
"I was merely looking for Miss Shimmer," explained Circinus. "You wouldn't happen to know where she is, by any chance?"
"Not really," Luna half-lied. She didn't know precisely where the Equestrian teen was, but this poisonous woman didn't need to know that. If it meant Luna could hold her off and give Sunset some warning, she was more than willing to bend the truth a little.
"She probably left the school already," added Celestia, picking up on Luna's intent. "And we wouldn't really know where she would have gone today."
Circinus's expression didn't change. "Then perhaps you can give me her address? I do need to speak to Miss Skies as well, so I might as well visit her at home."
Luna cursed silently. She hadn't thought of that. For a moment, she considered giving the woman the old address as a means to delay her, but her better judgement vetoed it almost immediately. Better not to let someone like Circinus see the living conditions Sunset had just left. With a bitterness on her tongue, she glanced over at her sister and gave a nod.
Celestia cleared her throat. "Actually, Sunset dropped off an envelope this morning," she explained, reluctantly taking the piece of paper out from her desk drawer. "She and her mother just moved into a new apartment, and Sunset left her new address with me this morning."
Circinus glanced at the pristine note. "And you hadn't taken care of it yet?"
"I had," lied Celestia without batting an eye. "I just hadn't discarded the note yet. It's been a busy day."
Circinus didn't question that, simply entering the address into her smartphone. "Thank you, Principal Celestia. Now if you excuse me, I must be getting back to my job." She turned around, looking over her shoulder to give the two sisters a polite smile. "Good luck at your fundraiser."
Once the door finally closed, Celestia's face fell into an uncharacteristic scowl. "I suppose it would have been too much for this to have been a good day."
Luna shared in her sister's sentiment, wearing a scowl of her own. "We need to warn Sunset that she's coming, for whatever good it will do." Luna pressed her lips together. "She said she and her friends were headed to Sugarcube Corner. I'll drive over there right now. You head off to the fundraiser."
"Do you think you'll get back in time?" asked Celestia, making a nervous glance at the clock. "We need to get there early, and it would be better for us to be there together when it starts."
"I may not," admitted Luna. "But one of us needs to, and better the vice principal to be late than the principal. Tell everyone I had business with a student." She smiled. "And if any of them have a problem, win them over the same way you did as senior class president."
That got her sister to smile. "Alright, Lulu, go."
Without another word, Luna was off, heeled shoes clacking on the tile as she practically raced for her car, a dark blue Volvo. Once there, she hopped into the seat and took off like a shot, forcing her way through the ever-growing school traffic.
Sugarcube Corner wasn't too far away. Screeching to a stop out front, Luna hopped out of the car, giving a yelp as her balance wavered. Taking a moment to confirm her ankles weren't injured, she looked through the glass front of the shop and found Sunset and her friends.
Opening the door, she darted for them. Sunset glanced away from whatever animated conversation they'd been in the middle of, eyes widening in surprise. "Vice Principal Luna? I thought you said you had a fundraiser."
"I do, but there was an issue after you left. Mrs. Circinus showed up. My sister had to give her your new address, and she's on her way there right now."
The teen's face went pale as she grabbed for her phone, dialing a number. "Come on, come on..." When nothing happened, she put it back in her pocket. "She must have forgotten to turn her phone on."
Luna raised an eyebrow. "She has a cellphone?"
"My idea," answered Twilight.
Sunset got up from the sofa arm. "I need to go."
Rainbow stood up with her. "I'm going with you," she said, practically growling. "I want to meet this creep."
"I'm rather curious myself," agreed Rarity.
"Why don't we all go?" suggested Applejack.
Twilight nodded as she stood up. "At the very least, it will be good for us to know what she looks like."
"I'm in!" cried Pinkie.
Fluttershy squirmed in her seat. "I hate confrontation, it's so... angry," she muttered. The girl gave a hard gulp, before shakily rising to her feet. "But if everyone else is going, I'll go too."
"Me too," said Spike, hopping down from Fluttershy's lap.
Sunset smiled warmly at the group. "Thanks, girls."
"I can take you in my car, if you'd like. I think you might fit." Though really, she knew that it would be a stretch to say they'd fit in her car. But offering to speed up their trip seemed like the right thing to do.
Heading out as a group, they approached the dark blue vehicle. "I call shotgun!" declared Rainbow, racing for the passenger seat.
"No fair Dashie!" cried Pinkie, "I wanted the front seat!"
Sunset grabbed her shoulder. "We don't have time to waste," she argued.
"She's right," said Luna, unlocking the car. "The rest of you will have to sit in the back."
One by one, the girls slid into the backseat, trying to squeeze themselves in. "It's getting kind of tight in here," muttered Twilight. "We might not even fit. Maybe the rest of us should just walk or—"
"Dogpile!" With a whoop, Pinkie charged through the door and onto her friends, all of whom grunted in response.
"Pinkie! Watch what you're doin'!" complained Applejack.
"But this is fun!" giggled the girl, squeezing in with the rest of her friends. "It's like a clown car back here."
Luna grimaced at the comparison, but chose to simply shake her head and slide into the driver's seat. Considering the relatively short drive, she was unlikely to incur any traffic offenses. And her windows were rather strongly tinted, so it would be harder for anyone to notice how crammed the backseat was.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, she saw Sunset getting on her motorcycle and placing the helmet over her head. Luna put the keys in the ignition and revved the engine.
Sunny hummed to herself as she walked around the kitchenette that Monday afternoon. Finding the box of tea bags, she took two out and set them aside. Sunset would be back soon enough, and Sunny thought it would be nice for them to share a cup of tea together.
It was a pleasant surprise to find this universe had some of her favorite varieties of tea, and she'd picked up a few when she and Sunset had gone for groceries. As she turned up the heat on the stove, memories from her body proper drifted into Sunny's brain like a feather carried by a spring breeze. A tax proposal of some kind, and she was on the last page. Thankfully, something like making tea, even in this world, was so easy that she could practically do it from muscle memory.
Knock knock knock
Sunny looked at her watch. Sunset was running a little early.
The knocking continued, and Sunny wondered for a moment why she didn't just open the door herself. But then she figured Sunset might have forgotten her keys. Shaking her head in mild amusement, she walked over and undid the lock. "Hello—"
"Hello, Miss Skies," answered the voice that wasn't Sunset's. There, standing in the hall, still dressed in her immaculate dark suit, was Mrs. Circinus. She smiled a sort of smile that was meant to be genial, but there was a sharpness to it that belied its owner's intent. "May I come in?"
Sunset cut off the engine of the motorcycle, stopping hard in front of the apartment building at the same time Luna's car came to a screeching halt. Hope that didn't hurt the tires too much. The last thing she wanted was to have to go out and get another new tire after the flat she'd just gotten.
Beside her, the doors of the car opened, and Rainbow got out from the passenger seat. Sunset dismounted quickly and took off her helmet, turning to look at her athletic friend. "You ready to go?"
Rainbow nodded, looking the same way she did right before a game. "Let's do this. Come on everybody." When no response came, she turned around. "Hey, what gives?"
The door to the backseat opened slowly. "There seems to be a slight problem, darling," said Rarity as she tried to move her shoulder. "We appear to be quite, shall we say, stuck."
"Oh come on," said Rainbow. "You got in there just fine. How hard can it be to get out again?"
"This comin' from the one that got the passenger seat all to her lonesome," replied Applejack from somewhere in the middle.
Rainbow groaned in frustration, grabbing Rarity's arm. "Here, let me help."
"OW!" cried Rarity. "Rainbow Dash, you're going to pull my arm out of its socket!"
"Oh, come on," groaned Rainbow, giving Rarity's arm another yank. Finally, Rarity seemed to be pulling free of the tangle of bodies. "Almost there, just a little more and—GAH!"
With a loud crash and a series of shouts, the five other girls and dog were released from the car, and then proceeded to fall as one onto Rainbow.
Somewhere in the mess, Applejack laughed. "Welcome to the pile, Rainbow."
"Not funny, guys. Get off of me!"
"We're trying," complained Twilight.
"I guess the dogpile idea wasn't so good, huh?" said Pinkie with a hint of regret as she rested somewhere on the bottom.
"You think?" said Spike, trying to get some wiggle room.
"Could someone get their arm out of my ribcage?" asked Rarity.
"Um, I think that's my foot," muttered Fluttershy. "I'm sorry Rarity."
Sunset set her helmet onto her bike before moving over to her friends. "Come on, let's get you guys separated."
"That could take forever," argued Rainbow as she tried and failed to get free. "She might be up there already. You go ahead. We'll catch up."
"Rainbow Dash raises a point," said Vice Principal Luna, coming over to the other side of the car. "I'll help them get to their feet. You go ahead."
Sunset glanced back at her friends. "You sure?"
"We'll be fine," assured Rainbow. "Just get moving."
Seeing the matching looks on Rainbow and Luna's faces, Sunset nodded and turned back toward the building, breaking into a run. Spotting the elevator already in use, she made a sharp turn and entered the stairwell. Thankfully their apartment wasn't that high up.
As she made her way up the steps, worry filled her thoughts. Sunny had handled herself well enough the last time, but she was still new to this place, her time measured in weeks against Sunset's years. If Mrs. Circinus had shown up again, she probably had some new angle or trick, and Sunset felt better being there when it happened. And if she was lucky, perhaps she'd be able to give Sunny at least a little warning.
Finally reaching apartment 302, she pulled out her keys. Her fingers shook with the adrenaline of the climb as she twisted the key in the lock. "We've got a problem!" she shouted through the flung open door. "Pr-" Sunset skidded to a stop, words dying on her tongue as she spotted the guest sitting in one of the armchairs.
"Hello, Miss Shimmer," said Circinus with a tiny, sly smile. "Is there something wrong, or do you usually enter that way?"
Horseapples, she beat us. "What are you doing here?"
"I merely stopped by to talk," replied the indigo-haired woman. "Your mother just made me some tea." She gestured to the teapot on the table between her and Sunny, before taking a sip from her cup. "I must say, Miss Skies, you have excellent taste in tea."
"Thank you," said Sunny, offering a polite smile. "Sweetheart, why don't sit down?" The woman's face was a polite mask, but her eyes revealed her own tension.
"S-Sure," Sunset replied, setting down her backpack before taking a seat on the sofa next to her pseudo-mother.
Circinus smiled in her seat. "Good. Now that we're all here, why don't we—"
"Made it!" came Rainbow's raspy voice as she bolted into the room, followed shortly by four other girls and one purple and green dog.
"Rainbow," panted Twilight, sweat dripping from her forehead. "Could... you... not... go so fast. I'm not used to... running up the stairs."
Rainbow's eyes landed on the one unknown face in the room, and instantly narrowed. "Who are you?"
"You can call me Mrs. Circinus," said the woman with an annoyed edge.
Every muscle in Rainbow's body visibly tensed. "So you're the one that's been bad-mouthing us!"
The indigo-haired woman didn't even blink. "You must be Rainbow Dash." She angled her head to look behind her. "And these must be your friends."
The five other girls introduced themselves one by one, but none seemed happy. Rarity lacked her usual pleasant smile, while Pinkie Pie had a deep frown on her face.
When Twilight introduced herself last, Circinus's eyes fell on the dog by her ankle. "Is that your dog, Miss Sparkle?" The woman checked her watch. "You must have just gotten out of school. Don't tell me you took him with you. I'm fairly certain that's against the rules in every public institution."
"O-Of course not," lied Twilight. "He just... followed me today, that's all."
The woman just lifted an eyebrow. "In any case, as nice as it is meet you, I'm afraid you'll have to leave. I have things to discuss with Miss Shimmer and her mother, and you don't need to be present."
"In your dreams!" snapped Rainbow, hands already balled into fists. "You can't just tell us to go away!"
"Mrs. Circinus," interrupted Sunny in her most diplomatic tone, "I don't mind Sunset's friends being here for whatever you wish to discuss."
The other woman scowled as she seemed to consider it, taking a quick glance at the watch. "Alright," she said at last. "I suppose if you don't mind, I can allow it."
Sunny smiled in triumph. "Excellent. Sunset, why don't you help your friends get some snacks to eat? I'm sure you're all still hungry after coming back from school."
"Sure, Mom." Sunset got up from the sofa and joined her friends over at the kitchenette. "I'm pretty sure we have some of those fudge cookies you brought over, Pinkie."
"Double fudge," corrected Pinkie with some slight offense. "Those are my double fudge cookies. I haven't made my fudge cookies since last month."
"Sorry, Pinkie," chuckled Sunset as she opened the fridge and pulled out the plate of cookies.
"So this is the woman that's been tormenting you?" Rarity said, practically hissing in Sunset's ear to avoid being overheard. Her blue eyes scrutinized the unwanted visitor. "I can't say she's a horrible dresser, but her color choice is so dreary."
"Personally," muttered Applejack as she took an apple for herself from the freezer and rubbed it on her shirt, "she reminds me of a snake."
"A really mean snake," added Fluttershy.
"She'd definitely qualify for the cold-blooded part," quipped Sunset. Though she wondered why the woman had looked at her watch. She'd never done that during the other two confrontations.
Back over in the living room proper, Sunny was keeping up the conversation. "Would you like more tea?" she asked cordially.
"No." Circinus set down her cup. "Before we begin, I was wondering, where exactly was this dig of yours?"
Sunset's hand froze as she pulled a set of plates from the cabinet. Ponyfeathers, we didn't get to that. Princess Celestia barely knew anything about human history, let alone the ancient history dealt with by archeologists.
Sunny, however, didn't even blink. She simply took another careful sip of her tea. "It was at the pyramids of the Sudan," she said confidently. For a moment, Circinus seemed like she was going to say something, but Sunny continued to speak. "Ah, I forgot, it's North Sudan now, isn't it?" She laughed merrily. "It's been years and I still forget that at times."
Sunset Shimmer blinked, absently placing the plates on the counter. "How did she know that?" she whispered.
"I told her," said Twilight, moving in close enough to whisper back. "I called her last night to test her new phone, and I ended up giving her some ideas for her dig."
"I don't remember that."
"She said you were in the shower at the time," explained Twilight.
A vague memory passed through her head of a ringing noise when she was taking a shower last night, but it was so mixed together with the noise of the water that she'd written it off. "Thanks, Twi." As she helped her friends gather more food, another thought occurred to her. "Wait, there are pyramids in North Sudan?"
Twilight nodded. "It's actually rather fascinating," she said with some level of enthusiasm. "They're totally different from the ones in Egypt."
"It was quite far away from civilization, deep in the desert in fact," Sunny was saying. "And I had the worst time getting back home. A sandstorm separated me from the rest of the crew."
"How harrowing," replied Circinus dryly, her eyes never leaving Sunny.
"It certainly was." Sunny took another sip, making the entire scene appear to be normal, casual conversation rather than a life-threatening experience. "And you know how inhospitable the desert can be. They say there are more scorpions there than people." Sunny gave a sly smile, glancing at the other woman's necklace before looking directly into her eyes. "But I've never been afraid of scorpions."
Sunset did her best to suppress a smirk at the subtle jab as she and the others returned with their food. From the small twitch in Circinus's right eye, it appeared she got it too.
"Thanks for letting us use your kitchen!" said Pinkie as she pulled up a chair for herself. All of the others followed her example, though Sunset returned to her place on the sofa.
"It was no problem at all, Pinkie Pie," smiled Sunny. She turned back to Circinus. "Now what was it you wanted to speak to me about?"
Circinus cleared her throat. "Sunset, of course."
Sunny raised an eyebrow. "I thought I'd cleared everything up with you last time we spoke."
"Visits like these are perfectly routine," said the social worker airily. "We have to make sure everything is going smoothly, and I'd hate to be lax in my duties. After all, your daughter's wellbeing is my highest priority."
Sunset rolled her eyes. This coming from the woman that practically sold me to the highest bidder?
"As such," continued Circinus, "I would like to extend my assistance in finding Miss Shimmer a good psychologist. I know several that are taking new patients and who would be more than able to help your daughter with her difficulties."
So she was still playing that card, was she? Of course she'd try to use that again. "You're still on that?" asked the teen irritably. "I don't need a psychologist."
"And as I told you before," shot back Circinus, voice dripping with condescension, "many people who say that still require one. And considering the nature of the problem, and that you are still a child, I don't think you're in a position to give an unbiased opinion, nor decide or even know what is best for you. So I would appreciate it if you leave this decision to your mother and I."
Anger clouded Sunset's vision. "Like you would know what's best for me? You almost saddled me with Pearl, for crying out loud!"
"Now, Sunset, calm down," urged Sunny as she set her cup down on the table. "What difficulties would those be, Mrs. Circinus?"
"Miss Skies, I'm not sure if you're aware, but your daughter was the victim of a cyberbullying in December, the work of one 'Anon-a-Miss'."
Sunny's eyes glanced back at her, silently urging her to relax. Sunset took a few deep, cleansing breaths, but the feeling of anger still burned in her stomach. This woman seemed to enjoy manipulating things to her own benefit, not unlike Sunset had for years. Nobody liked the feeling of being manipulated, but it felt even worse for other manipulators, even former ones like herself.
It would have been an experience in empathy, if anger hadn't overpowered her other emotions, that is.
And her feelings were, it seemed, shared, as the rest of her friends seemed just a bit tenser, even meek Fluttershy.
"Yes," answered the pink-haired woman slowly. "My daughter told me all about it."
"So you know all about it?"
"Yes, but I hardly think she needs professional help."
"You don't think so?" challenged Circinus, pulling out her tablet. Her fingers moved across the screen rapidly, before suddenly pausing. The woman stared for a moment, before pulling back her sleeve to fiddle with her watch, and then resumed her electronic search.
"I'd say your daughter suffered quite the trauma, and over the holidays too." Circinus shook her head in disappointment. "It's such a shame when things like that happen over the holidays. It's like someone defiled the spirit of the season. That in and of itself is such a horrible crime."
Her tone certainly sounded convincing, Sunset would give the woman that. To some, Circinus's lamentations would have been believed as honest feelings. But Sunset Shimmer knew this sort of routine. Circinus was just playing it up a bit for effect. What concerned Sunset more was the fact that she was digging into her files again.
That, and the unusual pause. Sure, it looked like she'd just noticed a difference between her tablet clock and the watch, and Sunset was pretty sure that's all it was. But that was still the second time she'd messed with her watch at all. Why was she self-conscious about the time today?
Sunset's mental questions were interrupted when, with one final button, Circinus smiled and gave her tablet over to Sunny. "I don't suppose you've seen these pictures?"
They were the same photos of Sunset crying on the hallway floor. The moment her eyes landed on them, Sunny's face lost much of its color. Her arms fell slack at her sides. The rest of Sunset's friends winced. They'd never seen these photos until now either, missing them during the period when they'd avoided MyStable like the plague.
"N-No," said Sunny, pulling herself together. "I've never seen those before." Her hand reached out to grasp Sunset's in a show of support.
"These girls," she gestured to the group of teens sitting around the two adults, "were in part responsible for what your daughter went through. Their siblings launched the entire scheme, and they abandoned Miss Shimmer in the blink of an eye, left her in the crosshairs of a school that had also turned against her."
Putting her tablet away, she folded her fingers in front of her. "I'm rightfully concerned when she's still spending time with these girls, and even going to Canterlot High. In my opinion, Miss Skies, your daughter should see a psychologist, and preferably transfer schools. Most parents would be well within their rights to transfer their children after an incident like that."
The woman's purple eyes moved over to Twilight. "In fact, you're new to their little group, are you not, Miss Sparkle? Are you sure you want to spend time with these girls, knowing what they did to Miss Shimmer? I'd hate to see you hurt the same way."
"O-Of course I'm sure," stammered Twilight, surprised by the sudden attention. "They've been nothing but great to me."
Circinus gave her a hard, piercing stare. "Are you sure? Appearances can be deceiving, you know."
By this point, Sunset felt it time to step in. "Hey, you're supposed to be talking to me, not Twilight," she interjected. "So back off of her."
The woman snapped her attention back to Sunset. "My apologies for getting off track," she said politely. "I'm merely concerned."
"I think you did more than get off track," said Applejack, speaking up for the first time since the discussion had started in earnest. "In fact, I think you were slingin' nothin' but hooey."
"AJ's right," agreed Rainbow. "You've been doing nothing but trash-talking us since you showed up at Canterlot High, and I've had it." The athlete rose to her feet. "Sure, we may have dropped the ball," she said, her voice containing just a hint of shame, masked as it was by determination and anger. "But we tried again. That's what you're supposed to do."
"Uh huh!" said Pinkie as she hopped to her feet. "We were really sorry for how we acted. I even made a six layer chocolate apology cake with extra frosting, and everyone knows my apology cakes are usually four layers."
"You want an excuse for what happened in December?" said AJ. "Well, truth is, we ain't got one. Not a good one, anyway. We didn't always get along with Sunset, but we still let ourselves get flimflammed." Her green eyes locked onto Circinus's purple ones. "We did the wrong thing. But that don't mean we're the rotten to the core, two-faced varmits you think we are."
"Fluttershy even let her watch her animals for a weekend," added Rainbow. "And she doesn't let just anybody do that."
"It's true," said the shy girl. "I'm always so worried something will happen."
Sunset felt the rising energy in the room, and an idea came to her. Time to push back a little more. "You know what? If they weren't my friends, they wouldn't have helped me and Mom move in here. They," she gestured to her friends, "took time on Friday after school and Saturday morning to help us move everything here and set things up, even when they had other things to do."
"That's the honest truth right there," said Applejack with a nod of her head. "I always have a heap of chores that need doin' on the farm, even after school. But when Sunset said she was movin', I came by and helped. I borrowed my brother's truck too."
"I showed up when I had soccer practice on Friday, and I'm the captain."
"I skipped my usual shift at the shelter."
"I took time off from the boutique."
"I had an experiment I needed to do, but I still came."
"And I had tons of baking to do."
"See?" said Sunset. "If they weren't really my friends, they could have made any number of excuses not to help. But they didn't. Because they care about me."
Beside her, Sunny smiled slyly. "I think my daughter and her friends raise a good point. Mrs. Circinus, while I appreciate your concern, and your offer, I trust my daughter's judgement. If she tells me she's happy at her school, then I believe her. If she says she's doing fine and doesn't need help, then I believe her on that as well. And furthermore, while I understand that your views are based on your reports, I have a certain advantage that you don't."
"And what," asked the woman stiffly, "would that be?"
"Since I've come back to Canterlot City, I've spent time with these girls," answered Sunny matter-of-factly. "It might not be the greatest amount of time, but I have gotten to know them in a way you have not. I hold myself to be a decent judge of character, and in my opinion, these are all wonderful girls that I'm more than happy to let into my home. And on top of that, no matter what may have happened in the past, I am also a firm believer in forgiveness whenever possible."
Her smile grew ever larger, pushing against the boundaries of her face. "Thank you very much for the offer, but I don't think it's required."
The pinched expression on Circinus's face made Sunset want to grin. Without Anon-a-Miss to use as a weapon, the woman was pretty much out of the fight. It seemed Circinus understood that too. She must have seriously thought she could still win with what she had, or that she'd get something more out of this meeting. Either way, she'd lost.
The social worker's eyes moved back and forth, seemingly in search for what to say, when they fell on the wall to her right. Specifically, they landed on a single framed photograph, one showing a much younger Sunset blowing out the candles of a massive chocolate cake, Sunny by her side.
Sunset watched Circinus's expression shift from thoughtfulness to completely dumbstruck. Her entire face twisted up like she was having an aneurysm. She didn't even notice when the tablet slid from her lab and clattered to the carpeted floor.
Sunset glanced to her friends. Most of them were trying to keep their features in check, all except Pinkie Pie, who giggled with delight, and Rainbow, who let a cocky grin spread over her face. Laughter rose in her own throat, but she pushed it back, trying to make it sound like she was clearing her throat before sticking a hand in her pocket and pressing a fingernail into her thigh, letting the pain kill her laughter. Now wasn't the time to laugh at this woman. Even if she wanted to.
"You okay?" she asked, feigning concern even as a small laugh bubbled up in her throat. She pressed her nail harder.
The social worker jolted in her seat, muttering a curse as she picked up her tablet. "Y-Yes, I'm fine."
"That was her tenth birthday," explained Sunny. "If you're really interested, I just sorted through some old photos. I'd love to show them to you."
Somehow, Circinus managed to look even more shocked. "I... that is..." she stammered. "O-Of course."
Sunny looked at the assembled teenagers. "Would you girls like to see them too?"
Sunset hadn't wanted to revisit the embarrassment of the past weekend so soon. But seeing the woman who had tormented her over the past several weeks so stunned, so completely at a loss for words... there was a satisfaction in it that made the revisit well worth it.
Still, it wouldn't do to let any kind of enthusiasm show. No teenager in their right mind would be okay with this sort of thing. So instead, she made her best whining noise. "Mom, do you have to?"
"Now sweetheart, there's nothing to be ashamed of," laughed Sunny, giving her cheek a light pinch. "All your pictures are beautiful. After all, you're so photogenic."
Sunset rubbed her sore cheek. At least she wouldn't need to fake everything. Princess Celestia had gotten so good at portraying the doting parent it was almost frightening.
"Besides, if they're going to be your friends for the long term, they're going to end up seeing these eventually." Getting off the sofa, Sunny went over to a small bookshelf and returned with a white and gold album labeled Memories. Setting it down on the coffee table, she opened it to the first page. "Come closer everyone," she invited, scooting over so the group could pull in close, even lifting Spike onto the sofa and patting his head.
"Sweet ride," said Rainbow with a somehow even cockier grin than before.
Of course you'd think that. It was your bike.
"That was her first bike ride," explained Sunny with pride. "And this was Halloween when she was nine. I helped her make her costume all month," she said, pointing at the dark red cloth and papier-mache dragon outfit.
"Not bad work either," commented Applejack with a teasing smile as she elbowed Sunset in the ribs. "You were cute as a button."
"I was going for ferocious," argued Sunset, doing her best to fake irritation as she elbowed her blonde friend back.
"Well you were certainly close to spitting fire when you ate those red hot candies by accident," Sunny teased.
Sunset's cheeks turned red with irritation as she gave her mentor a glare. "Actually, Mom, the way I remember it, it was you that did that, not me."
It had been a real incident from Sunset's original fillyhood. At thirteen, Sunset had forsaken going out in costume for Nightmare Night. She'd even shirked CSGU's holiday dance in favor of burying herself in study material and experiments.
Celestia had been obligated to go, of course, and she'd returned with a few bags of candy for each of them. As a parting gift for the Nightmare Night Dance, attendants were given blind bags of mixed candy to take home. After all, no matter the age, not many ponies would pass up free candy. Sunset certainly hadn't, especially when it came from her teacher.
They'd been digging into the bags, deep in conversation, when the princess popped a few pieces of "Windigo Ghost Pepper Chewies" into her mouth without looking. The resulting shriek had summoned about two dozen of the royal guards, weapons drawn.
Now it was Sunny's turn to blush. "Ah, did I? I... don't exactly remember that."
"You did," Sunset insisted. "The g-neighbors thought you were dying."
"It's a good thing you weren't around to meet Shining Armor when he went trick-or-treating," said Twilight, breaking up the argument. "Mom said one year he dressed as a knight and tried to slay every dragon he saw."
"Seriously?" said Sunset, eyebrows shooting up. "I can't imagine that went well."
"It didn't. Mom said he got grounded for a week."
"Oh look," cooed Sunny, pointing at a photo of a little girl waving in front of a large, dark-colored building. "This was her first day of school."
"WOW!" cried Pinkie. "You went to Mountaintop too? Aww, I must have missed you. We could have grown up best friends!" She seemed so disappointed, Sunset would have thought it was real. Or perhaps it was yet another instance of Pinkie's strange form of madness.
Sunny looked at Circinus. Much to Sunset's amusement, the woman's mouth had been opening and closing like a fish from the moment the album was brought to the table. "Don't you think she looked just darling in her little uniform?"
"Y-Yes," said Circinus. "She looks very..." she cleared her throat, trying to regain her composure, "smart. Personally, I wish all schools would implement a uniform policy." She glanced at Sunset, mustering up the energy for a sneer. "It would certainly be an improvement to what some students wear."
Sunset stretched her legs, placing her feet up on the edge of the table as she gave the woman a smirk. "I like wearing what I want."
"As someone who just transferred from a school with a uniform policy," interjected Twilight, "I'm happy with it, even if it took some getting used to."
"While some uniforms can be quite sharp and stylish," added Rarity, "I, too, prefer being able to make my own ensembles."
Sunny chuckled. "It seems you've been outvoted." Her eyes went back to the photo, and then to its siblings. "Though it's no real surprise Sunset feels that way. Even back then, I had a horrible time just getting her to wear her uniform."
Feeling a cue to add to the memory, Sunset grimaced. "I didn't want to wear the cardigan, Mom. That stupid thing itched like crazy."
Nearby, Pinkie shared in her grimace. "Oh yeah, I remember now. Those things were super duper itchy." She turned to Sunset with a look of understanding. "No wonder you weren't happy."
"And by that she means not happy wearing it," added Rarity quickly. "Which I can completely understand. An outfit is hardly worth wearing if it itches, no matter how well designed it may be."
"Speaking of outfits," continued Sunny as she turned the page. "Here we are at the park. Sunset, do you remember this day? It seems like only yesterday."
Sunset laughed to herself. More like two days ago. "Yeah, Mom, I remember."
Sunny looked up at Circinus again. The other woman's attempts at composure had slid backwards, and she was back to a state of shock. "I took her to the park after her first week of school. You know that dress was her favorite outfit at that age. Sunset was so upset when she outgrew it. Actually... sweetheart, didn't I see you putting it in your closet when we moved in?"
"Yeah..." she said slowly, trying to make it sound as reluctant as possible. There was a truth to that however. When Rarity had come back late Saturday to collect the articles of clothing, she'd decided against taking that particular one back. On reflection, she'd said, it was a bit too customized to sell, and the fashionista couldn't bring herself to take it apart after the work she put in.
The sight of the little orange dress, wrinkled and tussled from her childish tickle war with Sunny, brought a strange sort of warmth to Sunset's chest, despite its role in a largely humiliating weekend. And because of that feeling, Sunset herself couldn't bring herself to throw it out.
So instead, she just stuffed it in the back of the closet, deciding that it would be fine as another subtle kind of evidence.
"Aww, don't feel bad," comforted Pinkie. "I've kept all sorts of old stuff, like the party hat I made when I was seven."
"I've kept a few old things too," said Fluttershy with the lightest of blushes. "I still have my favorite sweater from elementary school."
"You know," said Sunny to Circinus, "if you're really interested, I also sorted out a few of Sunset's baby pictures."
"No!" Sunset screamed. Sure, seeing the woman's shocked expression was funny, but it wasn't worth bringing up those things, or even letting her friends see them. She didn't even want to see them, dreading far too much what they'd look like. "Mom, please no. Not in front of my friends."
Sunny gave her a look of sympathy. "Alright, my little sun, alright. I'll leave your baby pictures alone." Quietly, she whispered "I'm sorry," in Sunset's ear. "I suppose I took that too far."
"Thanks... Mom. Besides, Mrs. Circinus probably needs to leave soon. I'm sure she's busy and we are done talking after all." From across the width of the coffee table, cyan eyes locked with purple. A triumphant grin spread across Sunset's face. "Unless there was something else you wanted to ask Mom and me?"
"Well, I..." stammered the woman, eyes darting away as she seemed to struggle for an answer. "That is... I was..."
Suddenly, there came a shrill ringing sound. Circinus looked down at her pocket, pulling out her phone. "Pardon me for a moment." Pressing a button on the screen, she pressed the machine to her ear. "Hello?" Her face darkened. "Oh, it's you. You do realize you were supposed to call me earlier, correct? You gave me your assurance on that point." There was the faint sound of a rushed reply, but the woman cut it off. "I don't care for your excuses. Did you do as I asked?" A pause, then an answer from the other side. "And?"
Whatever the caller said, it seemed to be good news, as her whole body seemed to relax. "Thank you. I'll be in touch if I require your assistance again." Hanging up the phone, she turned back to the assembled crowd. Her lips curled into a smile as she looked directly at Sunny. "Pardon me, Miss Skies, but I do have one last question. Do you happen to have a Social Security card?"
Sunset felt her confidence falter. I don't like where this is going. What had that call been about? And what was she going for? She couldn't have some other weapon up her sleeve, could she?
Sunny, for her part, blinked in confusion. "Of course I do."
Circinus leaned back in her chair. "Would you be kind enough to show it to me, please?"
Unsure of what else to do, Sunny got up from the sofa and went to her room, retrieving her forged card. For the brief minute or two that she was gone, Sunset felt a bead of sweat roll down her back.
The minute Sunny came back, she handed the card to Circinus. "Here it is. And as you can see, it's quite real."
The other woman took it in her hands, fingers and eyes moving across the paper surface in tandem. "Yes, it is quite real," she muttered, looking up from the card. "A quite real forgery, in any case."
"W-Why would you think it's a forgery?" asked Sunset, her voice almost cracking. "You seriously can't still think my mom is a fake!"
"I can and I do," insisted Circinus, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. "You see, while I prefer evidence, I do have an intuition about these things, and I've learned to trust that intuition. I wasn't entirely convinced when I met your 'mother', and I hardly wanted to risk a minor such as yourself pulling a trick on the federal government. So I decided to call the local Social Security office."
Her gaze turned to Sunny, a dark, challenging glare. "That call just now was the agent I'd be speaking with. He just double checked his original findings. And, Miss Skies, he had some very interesting things to say about you. Such as the fact that as far as they are concerned, you don't exist. Their computers have no record of a Sunny Skies from Canterlot City, or anywhere for that matter."
Sweat was forming on Sunset's face now as pieces fell into place. It made sense now. That's why she was looking at the time. She'd been waiting for that call to confirm what she'd already found. The entire conversation had been part continuation of the last discussion, part fishing for information, and part waiting game.
"Now of course," continued Circinus, eying the now equally nervous Sunny, "this raises two possibilities. One is that the name you've provided is fake, and so is this card." She waved the card at its owner. "If that were true, you would be guilty of forgery and deceiving a government agent."
The indigo-haired woman grinned like a shark. "The other possibility is that the name you gave me is your real name, and you have entered this country illegally. You'd be guilty of the same crimes if this were true. And if it were, I've made a few contacts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the course of my work. It would only take one call for them to be brought in to investigate you, Miss Skies. So tell me, what's the truth?"
"T-That card is real," insisted Sunny. "I have other forms of ID if you want to see them.
"And besides," added Sunset, voice shaking, "We have pictures as well. How do you explain that?"
"I'm not quite sure," said Circinus irritably. "But that doesn't solve the problem." She glared at Sunny. "They've checked twice, Miss Skies. Twice. And both times, you weren't there. How do you explain that?"
Sunny floundered. "Well... I..."
Sunset's heart raced in her chest. How could Sunny answer that? She didn't have a knowledge of computers beyond the basics. There was no way she could explain the workings of the massive database owned by Social Security. But if they didn't come up with an answer, the two of them were toast. "It's a glitch!" she blurted out.
Circinus raised an eyebrow. "Really, Miss Shimmer? You think all of this is as simple as a computer glitch?"
"Why not?" asked Sunset, trying to steady her nerves. "Every computer has glitches. It just happens, no matter the hardware or software. You can't tell me that their computers don't glitch out from time to time."
The other woman looked skeptical. "Twice in a row?"
Sunset shrugged. "Sometimes glitches can be weird. Right, Twilight?"
Twilight jumped in her seat. "Uh, yes!" She stopped, fixing her glasses. "I've built a lot of computers, and some pretty powerful ones, and I've seen a lot of weird glitches."
"See?" Sunset crossed her arms over her chest, trying her best to keep the fear off her face. "How can you say it's not a glitch?"
Circinus seemed to consider that, then smirked. "Fine. I'll have them check one more time. In fact, I'll go there myself." Her eyes landed on Sunny. "And you will accompany me."
"Yes. If you are indeed legitimate, then I'm sure you're as interested in resolving this problem as I am. It only seems reasonable then, that we go together. And if you're a fake..." she looked down at the card in her hands, "then I'm sure we'll get some interesting information when we enter this number into their system."
The woman held her head high in a look of triumph. "I suggest we leave right now." She took a step towards the door, stopped, and turned around. "Actually, your daughter should come as well. It strikes me as unwise to leave her unattended."
Before anyone could protest anything, Circinus's phone rang again. She turned her glare on the defiant machine, angrily pressing the button. "Hello?! Yes, I'm the owner of the house. Yes, I placed the furniture order. Now tell me what you want." She glanced at the two Equestrians. "I'm quite busy."
Confusion spread over her face. "You're what? That wasn't scheduled until tomorrow. No, I don't want it delivered a day early! You were supposed to deliver it on the scheduled day you fool! I want you to stop the truck right—oh, alright!"
Hand shaking in fury, she hung up the call. "It seems," she said stiffly, "that I will have to delay that trip temporarily. It appears there was some kind of problem at my home." She straightened her jacket, slipping her tablet back into her bag before getting to her feet. "I would like you two to meet me at the local Social Security office in two hours. Be prompt. Now if you excuse me, I have a matter to deal with."
Two hours. That wasn't much time. Stress pulsed through Sunset's body. Maybe there was a way to extend it. "Let me get the door for you!" Rushing forward as quickly as she could, her feet tangled together, and the teen found herself crashing into Circinus and knocking both of them to the floor.
"Politeness is not an excuse for clumsiness," reprimanded Circinus as she got to her feet again.
"Sorry," she apologized. "Let me help you." Gathering the woman's things, Sunset opened the apartment door. The moment the door was shut, Sunset pressed her back against it, breathing heavily.
"Well this is just great," complained Rainbow. "Now what are you going to do?"
"For one, get rid of this," reaching into her pockets, Sunset pulled a pair of keys, tossing them to Sunny. "Can you teleport those into the bushes outside? I don't want them on me." Sunny nodded, and in a flash they were gone.
"What were those?" asked Applejack.
"Her car keys," explained Sunset. "Pulled them from her pocket when I crashed into her."
"Nice!" complimented Rainbow. "I didn't know you could do that."
Sunset shrugged, offering no explanation. Now was the time to think. That would buy them a little more time, but not much. "We need a plan." She looked at Sunny. "Do you think you can use an illusion spell on her again?"
Sunny shook her head. "With multiple people in the room, it would run the risk of being discovered."
"What else can we do?" Sunset screamed. "Those computer records aren't going to change."
"And it's not like we could hack into Social Security," said Twilight. "Even I couldn't do that, not to mention the laws we'd be breaking if we got caught."
Sunset began to pace. "Well it's not like we know anyone who can just magically make computer records appear out of thin air!"
Sunny turned thoughtful. "Actually... there may be someone..."
Sunset paced around the apartment. It was 3:45 PM. Roughly an hour had passed since Mrs. Circinus had left. Spike had gone down himself and saw her get into a taxi not long after she'd left the apartment. Her car, meanwhile, had been attached to a tow truck, and Spike had picked up something about "towing it home to get spare keys."
"Sugarcube, you keep doin' that and you'll wear a hole in the floor," commented Applejack as she and the others teens, plus one dog, sat in a circle, hands filled with playing cards. "There's nothin' to do until whoever the princess called gets here, so why don't you sit down a spell?"
Sunset shook her head, doing another circuit. "Sorry AJ, but I just don't feel like I can sit still right now."
"I know the feeling," said Rainbow, the only one not part of the game of Go Fish the others had started. Instead, she kicked a soccer ball with various parts of her body, moving in a pattern. "You just feel like you need to do something."
AJ shrugged. "Suit yourself. Hey Rare, got any queens?"
"Go fish, darling."
Sunset turned around to do another circle. Her eyes landed on Sunny. "Can't you just tell me who's coming?"
Sunny hesitated. "I think it would be much easier to explain to everyone when they arrive. Don't worry, Sunset. They'll be here soon."
As comforting as the princess was trying to be, Sunset still couldn't bring herself to completely relax. Her brain was circling around questions the same way her body was circling the room.
Just who was coming? Celestia undoubtedly had formed many allies and contacts as both a ruler of a nation and as an immortal alicorn. Sunset could easily envision a list that stretched from the dais of the throne room to the castle gates and beyond, with names in dialects that she wouldn't even know how to pronounce. Even still, Sunset couldn't imagine a being that would be able to do what they needed.
Knock knock knock
The fire-haired teen jumped, rushing to the door, swinging it open wide. "Hello?!"
A man stood before her. He was exceedingly tall, with a thin, almost gaunt frame and grayish skin. His hair was mostly black, with patches of white, matched by bushy white eyebrows and a white goatee. Despite that, he didn't seem old. The face lacked wrinkles of any kind, and his beady red eyes flashed with energy and guile.
At first glance, his clothing spoke of sophistication. A white button-down shirt, brown suit jacket and red tie, as well as a pair of dress pants and black shoes. But the well-dressed image was shattered when one saw the pants. Dress pants they might have been, but the legs were mismatched in color, one yellow, and the other green.
His hands were covered by equally mismatched gloves, one yellow and one golden brown. The right hand grasped a walking stick with a silver handle in the shape of an animal head. Was that a wolf? Or was it a coyote?
"Ah, Sunset Shimmer!" He tipped an imaginary hat at her. "I haven't seen you in years, my dear. My, my, how you've grown. I still remember you as a toddler bouncing in her stroller."
He bellowed with laughter. "Tell me, is your mother in? I brought these chocolates just for her." From a small coat pocket, he pulled out a large, heart-shaped box overflowing with little chocolate candies.
When Sunset continued to stare in blank confusion, the man chuckled at her. "Come now, my dear, you can't tell me this is the first time you've greeted a gentleman caller for your mother." The man waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Looking past her, he spotted his quarry. "Sunny!"
Slipping around Sunset, he made his way inside. "Dear Sunny. Still as radiant as ever." He tapped the stick on the floor, twirling it in his hand before a full bouquet of red roses burst from the tip. "For you," he said, presenting them to the pink-haired woman.
Finally, Sunset's brain started up again. "Who are you?"
The man turned back to face her. "I suppose you wouldn't remember me. I am Low Key. Sunny and I are quite old friends. At one point I thought she fancied me." He gave another wag of his eyebrows before sweeping his hand through the air dramatically. "But alas, her heart belonged to another!"
Sunny looked somewhere between amused and disturbed, leaning more toward the latter than the former. "Discord... I think that's enough."
He turned back to her. "Not the time for roleplay, hmm? Oh well, I suppose there are more important things."
His clothes morphed into a darker, more somber suit, complete with a pair of sunglasses. "I heard you had a job for me," he said, voice turning to a deep baritone.
"DISCORD?!" Sunset's eyes shot open so wide, she felt they were ready to pop free of their sockets. Though if the man before her was who she thought he was, that could happen anyway. "The spirit of disharmony and chaos?!"
"The one and only," he replied with a dramatic bow. "The Lord of Chaos at your service." He smirked at her. "We really have met before, you know. Though at the time I was busy being a stone statue."
It took a moment for her to process that sentence, and the minute she did, the color drained from Sunset's face, visions of her nightmares from weeks back replaying in her mind, mingling with foalhood fears. Her eyes darted frantically to Sunny. "You promised me they were statues!"
"And they are," soothed her mentor. "Discord was the sole exception." When Sunset's face didn't change, she went on. "It was a secret to almost everypony. If I had told you at the time, you never would have slept through the night again."
"Personally, I don't recommend being a statue," said Discord as he examined his gloved hands. "It's unbelievably boring, not to mention the awful number it did on my back." He stretched his spine as if for emphasis. "I could barely move when I got free. Thankfully, I managed to get the kinks worked out before Twilight and her friends arrived, or that would have just been embarrassing."
"Uh," interrupted Applejack. "Can someone start explainin' what's going on to us non-ponyfolk in the room?"
"It's really quite simple," said the man, twirling his cane playfully. "I am Discord, the spirit of chaos and disharmony, and two time conqueror of Equestria. Oh but don't worry." He waved a dismissive hand at their worried faces. "I'm quite reformed these days."
"So you're an equine as well?" asked Twilight.
Discord bellowed with laughter. "Oh chaos above, no. I'm a draconequus."
The bibliophile's face contorted. "A what?"
With a tap of his cane, a miniature creature appeared in Discord's hand, the same anatomical jigsaw puzzle Sunset remembered from the statue garden, only full of color and life.
"That's insane," commented Twilight, staring at the image in complete puzzlement.
Discord grinned. "Thank you. I do my best."
Sunset moved to her mentor's side. "You let him loose?" she hissed. She'd read enough about Discord and chaos magic in general to know exactly how unpredictable and dangerous he could be. As much as they needed help, she couldn't help but think this was like cleaning with gasoline around an open flame.
Sunny smiled wryly. "I did say I'm a firm believer in forgiveness where I think possible."
"Now, now, don't be like that," said Discord, wrapping an arm around Sunset's shoulders. "We're both reformed villains here. After all, I heard you tried to invade Equestria with an army of mind controlled teenagers." He tutted at her. "Not the best army to launch an invasion with in my opinion, but you're young, so I'll give it a pass."
Sunset flinched at both the words and the contact. That was a fair point. If he said he was reformed, and Celestia was vouching for him, then she owed him that chance. Even still, the tension wouldn't leave her body. If they didn't get this right, she'd be back in hot water, and Sunny too. "We need you to mess with Social Security's computer records. Can your magic affect machines here?"
Discord scoffed. "Oh please." He pointed the handle of his cane at her, and Sunset's phone began belting out an opera ballad.
Sunset fumbled with the machine, unable to make it stop no matter what she did. "Okay, okay," she conceded, wincing as the singer began an ear-splitting aria. "You can't blame me for asking!"
A tap of the cane, and the phone went silent. "It's not as hard as you would think, not for me," explained Discord with some smug satisfaction.
"That's exactly what I was hoping," said Sunny, her expression shifting into something serious, the face of a princess taking charge. "We're short on time, so let's get to the point." She handed Discord the forged card. "As Sunset told you, we need you to go the local Social Security office and add this number to their records before Mrs. Circinus arrives. As it stands, we have less than forty five minutes."
"Luna mentioned something about that woman," said Discord as he studied the card through an oversized monocle. "She gave a most unflattering description."
"Trust me," said Sunset flatly. "Whatever she said, I'm pretty sure it's accurate."
"Um, Mr. Discord," asked Fluttershy nervously. "Are you sure you won't get caught? I wouldn't want you to get in trouble too."
The man turned in the girl's direction, and to Sunset's surprise, his expression softened. "Don't worry about me, my dear," he offered reassuringly. "I've got quite a few tricks up my sleeve." An idea seemed to strike him, and he pointed to the shy girl's butterfly hair clip. "May I borrow that for a moment?"
With confusion and reluctance, Fluttershy slipped it free of her hair. Discord held it in one hand, gripping the cane handle in another. "Watch," he said gently. The cane gave off a glow, and Discord blew on the clip like a birthday candle. The plastic butterfly sprung to life, floating happily around it's owner's head and nuzzling her hair.
Fluttershy's face lit up in wonder, blue eyes sparkling as the little butterfly landed gracefully on her outstretched finger. "It's beautiful! It's almost like it's real." Her fingers traced its small plastic spine, and the creature only nudged closer to her in response. "Can I keep it this way?" she asked with barely controlled eagerness. "Um, I mean, until you're done here, if that's okay with you."
Discord just smiled. There was a warmth in his eyes that Sunset would have never imagined seeing in the infamous trickster. "Of course, my dear."
Turning back to the group, he clapped his gloved hands together. "Now, I do believe it is time for me to be off."
"Wait," interrupted Sunset as an idea formed in her head. "We're all coming with you."
Discord raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"She already wants the two of us there," the former unicorn explained, pointing at Sunny. "But if we all go, then everyone else can all act as lookouts in case she's early." Better to be safe than sorry in this case. Sunset turned to her friends. "How about it?"
"I'm game," said Applejack in agreement.
"Oh yeah, totally," added Rainbow.
"Yipee, we get to be lookouts!"
"Oh my, being a lookout sounds stressful... but I'll go."
"I'd be delighted, darling."
"It sounds like a good strategy to me. We can split up and station ourselves at all the incoming roads."
"I can try to smell her coming."
Sunny's expression brightened at the collective enthusiasm. "This looks like it's turning into quite the fieldtrip. But not a bad idea, wouldn't you say?"
"No, I suppose not," said Discord as he stroked his goatee, losing himself in a memory. "I don't think I've gone anywhere with a group like this since that time with Fluttershy and the Cutie Mark Crusaders."
Snapping back to attention, he twirled his cane. "Well then, since we're all in a hurry, let's go my way." He tapped his cane against the floor, and a swirling multicolored vortex appeared beneath it. It looked very much to Sunset like the one inside the mirror, but with more plaid.
"A wormhole," said Twilight in awe. "We're going through a wormhole?"
"I'd call it more of a rabbit hole myself," said Discord with a grin. "Now down we go. Geronimo!" With a wild leap, he jumped into the hole.
As his shouts disappeared into the void, Sunset walked up next, eying the plaid and now polka-dotted vortex. With a deep breath, she jumped in after him.
The trip might have lacked the pain of transformation that the other portal had, but it was nonetheless strange. It felt like something was dancing across her insides as she bounced this way and that, accompanied by metallic dings. When it finally stopped, the portal made a loud belch, and Sunset felt her behind hit concrete. "Oww," she groaned.
There was another loud belch, accompanied by a series of screams and a thud, and suddenly the majority of her friends were thrown to the ground in a heap.
"Dagnabbit, not again!" cried Applejack. "This is turnin' into a bad habit."
"As the comedy aficionado," said Pinkie with some authority as she tried to pull herself from the bottom of the pile, "I'd say it's becoming a running gag."
"Can we just get untangled?!" screamed Spike. "I can hardly breathe!"
When Fluttershy was thrown from the portal, a hand reached out to grab her. "There you go, my dear," said Discord, helping her to the ground gently. "I hope the trip wasn't too bumpy."
"Oh no," said the shy girl. "It was actually kind of fun."
"Can't say it was the same for me," muttered Sunset irritably. "If you could catch her, why didn't you do it for the rest of us?"
Discord chose not to answer, and before Sunset could ask again, Sunny came falling out of the portal with a yelp, right as the portal zipped itself shut. "You okay?" Sunset asked.
"I'm fine," reassured Sunny. She looked around. "Where are we, exactly?"
Sunset examined their surroundings. They appeared to be in a narrow, dirty-looking alley. The air around them was tinged with the smell of garbage, motor oil, and car exhaust. Behind them was a large, rusty dumpster filled with black bags. Further down the alley was a high chain link fence. Turning back around to face the alley entrance, she saw the Social Security office standing across the road. "We're right on target."
"Of course we are," said Discord. "I have a superb sense of navigation, I'll have you know."
Walking to the alley entrance, Sunset looked around. The alley entrance faced north, opening up on an intersection, the road diverging around the side of the Social Security office, separating it from the small dental office to the right. The alley itself was formed by the garage of a used car lot on her left, and a bank on her right. With the alley closed off, Circinus could arrive from any of those other directions, either driving in or on foot if she parked a distance away.
Sunset turned to the others, finally back on their feet. "We've got three directions to cover, and there are eight of us—"
"Nine!" corrected Spike.
"Sorry, sorry, nine. So we split into groups of three. Who's going with who?"
After a brief discussion, they broke into their groups. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack would go down the road to the west, Rarity, Sunny, and Fluttershy would head north, while Sunset, Twilight, and Spike would head east.
"Remember y'all," said Applejack, "if you spot her comin', send the rest of us a message."
"Right." Sunset turned to Discord, a thought popping into her head. "How are we going to tell you?"
"A very good question. But an easy fix." With a smile and a tap of his cane, eight phones began to glow. "There."
Twilight pulled out her phone. "It says 555-5555."
Discord smirked. "Appropriate, don't you think?" He turned to the rest of the group. "Not that you'll need it. This will be easy as pie." Whirling around, he sauntered off toward the office.
Sunset stared at his retreating back before she and everyone else broke off in their chosen directions. "I hope so," she muttered.
The Canterlot City branch of the Social Security Administration was like every other, with a plain, if well-kept exterior and a simply furnished interior. The spacious waiting room contained rows of basic plastic chairs that were already filled almost to capacity. A large TV sat against a wall running on a loop of various benefits available, speaking in multiple languages. Against a far wall was a computer, ready to help people get in queue to be seen.
A now much older looking Low Key strode inside, frowning as he took it all in. Everything was so ordinary. He shook his head in disapproval. If it were up to him, there would be chocolate milk, cotton candy, orange elephants doing the can-can on the ceiling, and maybe some mariachis.
Sadly, he knew no one was going to ask him for his decorating advice. Such was life.
"Please take a seat," said the burly security guard seated at the table by the door, sounding incredibly languid, perhaps by the blandness of the surroundings. Or perhaps it had something to do with his bloodshot eyes. Lack of sleep didn't exactly stimulate the brain either.
"Of course, my good man," Discord said courteously. His eyes flickered over to the door that led to the inner office. Discord would need to cross the expanse of the room to get there. But even in his sleep-deprived state, the guard surely wouldn't allow Discord to just waltz in, or break dance in, for that matter. "Pardon me, but which way is the bathroom?"
The guard yawned, pouring some extremely dark coffee from a thermos into a waiting mug. He stretched out his arm to point at a nearby hallway. "That way."
"Thank you." Ignoring the curious stares of those he passed, Discord made his way down the hall before slipping into the vacant men's room. It too, was rather bland, but that didn't bother him as much as the rest of the place. Restrooms were the sorts of spaces where Discord avoided throwing too much magic around.
Toilet humor had never quite appealed to the draconequus all that much, and letting loose his chaotic magic in a place like this totally untempered (as opposed to five-thirty sevenths tempered) just had the potential to go from chaotic fun to disgusting and unsanitary.
"Time to create a shortcut," he said, tapping his cane against a wall. Where it made contact, a tiny door appeared, growing more and more until it was large enough to fit him. Grabbing the handle, Discord whistled, making his way into a swirling multicolored void.
Inside the inner office, another door swirled into existence, and Discord strolled through, the door vanishing behind him. He took a few steps, only to press himself against a wall as a woman passed down a perpendicular hallway.
"Let's see, what did I need him to get again?" she muttered as she scribbled on a notepad. "Eggs, milk, a box of cookies, some cereal..."
Discord shrunk down, blending into the wall like some kind of mutant chameleon. Carefully, he crept behind her like a shadow, keeping himself pressed against the wall. When he reached the end of the hall, the draconequus let out a horrified gasp.
The woman he'd been following turned around, eying the wall carefully.
"You okay?" asked one of her nearby coworkers.
"I'm fine," replied the woman. "Just thought I heard something."
As she walked away, Discord stared on in muted horror. The room was filled with cubicles, each occupied with an agent, many already in the middle of discussion on the phone or in person. Cubicles!
He shuddered. Cubicles always gave him the willies. So much repetition, so much blandness, day in, day out. An endless sea of white cubicles.
"Better not stay here too long. A place like this could give me bland-germs or something." He took a step, then stopped. "But first, I'd better check in with HQ." Poor Sunset must have been getting quite nervous at this point, and Fluttershy was always reminding him to work his sense of consideration.
The miniaturized man stuck a finger in his ear, pulling out a camouflaged phone booth and stepping inside. He twirled his finger against the square dial pad, making it turn like a rotary phone.
"Hello?" came Sunset's confused greeting.
"It's me, my dear," he replied.
"Why does my caller ID have the numbers printed backwards?"
"Just the nature of chaos magic, my little pony. Oh, but you're not a pony right now, are you?" He tapped his chin. "My little human, then? Hmm, doesn't sound quite right..."
"Why are you calling? Did you fix everything?"
"Not quite yet." He twirled his cane between his fingers. "I just wanted to let you know that I have indeed gotten inside. Don't worry my dear, your little problem is completely in the bag."
Sunny stretched her legs. Not too far down the road, she, Rarity, and Fluttershy had found a small outdoor cafe, the perfect place to sit and wait.
Currently, the two younger girls were getting drinks for themselves. The sun was out and shining, the warm rays kissing the parts of her skin not under the umbrella, and streets were relatively quiet. Were they not acting as scouts, she would have loved to stay here for a while, just enjoying the atmosphere.
It was funny, thinking of herself as a scout. With the power at her command, it was not usually a task she had to perform. Though she doubted the ponies that did this sort of work always had these kinds of pleasant conditions.
The bell on the cafe door jingled, and the two teens returned. "Are you sure you didn't want anything, Your Majesty?" asked Rarity as she set down her drink.
"Please, Rarity, call me Sunny. And no, thank you. This body doesn't require food." It wasn't like she could get anything either. She'd forgotten to refill her purse before they left. But Sunny didn't want Rarity wasting her own money either. "I'm just content to be in the sunshine."
Rarity gave a little frown, but nodded. "If you insist, Your... Sunny." Taking another sip, the teen checked her phone for incoming messages. "It looks like the others found places to wait as well," she said. "Applejack said they found a hardware store. She's picking up tools for her brother."
"All the better, I suppose," commented Sunny as a light breeze ruffled her hair. "If one has to be a lookout in plain sight, better not to stand out."
"I always try not to stand out too much," said Fluttershy, taking a sip of tea. "I don't like it when people stare at me." From inside her pocket, the plastic butterfly emerged, floating around before settling on her arm. The shy girl petted its head. "I really hope she doesn't come this way," she said. From its resting place, the butterfly flapped its wings nervously. "I hate it when she looks at me."
Glancing at the road, Rarity's eyes widened. "I'm afraid, darling, that you may have spoken too soon." She pointed at a black Porsche coming toward them. "I saw that car outside when Vice Principal Luna parked."
As if on cue, the car came to a stop, and Mrs. Circinus stepped out. Her eyes homed in on Sunny. "Miss Skies. How unexpected to find you here," she said with no amount of real surprise. "You're quite early for our appointment."
Sunny forced her body to relax. "I could say the same. I thought you had a delivery to deal with."
Circinus huffed in annoyance. "I put them in line." Her purple eyes tuned to spy the other teens. Fluttershy hastily put the butterfly back in her pocket, slipping her own face behind her protective curtain of hair.
"I see you have company," said Circinus. "But where is your daughter?"
"She's down the road," explained Rarity quickly. "She and Twilight came with us and Twilight said there was this delightful bookstore she wanted to see, so Sunset went with her." Sunny glanced inquiringly at Rarity, and the fashionista simply slid a finger over her phone.
"Is that so?" asked Circinus. "Well, seeing as we're both here early, I suggest we go ahead and get this done. I assume you two," she looked at the teens, "have the money to pay for your drinks?"
"Y-Yes ma'am," said Fluttershy.
"Good, Then we can leave." She glanced back at Sunny. "We can pick up Sunset in my car."
Sunny glanced at the teens, before getting up and following the other woman to her car. As they drove away, she saw Rarity typing furiously on her phone.
Sunset leaned against the wall of Dog Ear's Rare and Antique Book Emporium, letting out a sigh of relief as she hung up with Discord. He was inside. Just a little bit longer, and the danger would pass.
"Everything okay?" asked Spike, small body pressed close to her ankles.
"Yeah. Discord's inside."
Spike turned his green eyes back to the road. "You know, your world is seriously weird. I mean, dragons, unicorns, and spirits of chaos?"
"I thought the same thing about this place when I got here. Still do sometimes." Sunset smirked. "And you do remember you're saying this as a talking dog, right?"
"Hey, that only happened because of magic from your world." The puppy shifted on his paws. "Though I guess talking isn't so bad. Wish I didn't have to keep quiet in front of most people though."
"Yeah, that must be a pain sometimes." She could imagine it being difficult, being forced to stay quiet when you could say so much. "Can't be helped, though. I don't think this world is ready for a real talking dog."
"Hey," said Spike. "Does Equestria have talking dogs?"
"No. Most dogs like you don't talk. Though there are Diamond Dogs. They're larger and more... human-like, I guess you could say. They're not very nice, though. Obsessed with finding gems."
At that moment, Twilight walked out of the store, a small bundle of books in hand. "How's it going?" she asked.
"Not bad. Discord's inside. Rarity and AJ sent texts about where they are." Sunset eyed the merchandise. "Find anything good?"
Twilight nodded. "This is a great place. I need to remember to come here more often." She lifted up a small paperback, an old detective novel judging by the magnifying glass on the cover. "I got something for my mom, too."
"How's she doing, anyway?" Twilight hadn't said too much regarding the plagiarism mess over the last couple weeks.
Twilight sighed. "Not so great. Mom's been staying away from the media."
"They've been pounding at the door sometimes," added Spike.
"Her lawyers are still trying to sort it all out. If it were a single claim, that would be one thing. But there were over half a dozen, and the plaintiffs have been hard to get ahold of."
"If that doesn't scream suspicious," said Sunset, crossing her leather-clad arms over her chest, "I don't know what does."
Twilight nodded. "I'm sure they're lying. But they're hard to pin down, and the media coverage has just added to the pressure. Mom won't tell me much directly, but I know that after it started, we got a lot of spam calls, and that some belonged to them. Things have gotten better, but every now and then, we still get calls demanding money. Spike told me Dad got a call like that a couple days ago. All I heard was Dad yelling."
She clutched the book tighter against her chest, as if its presence would soothe her. "Even if things have quieted down, Mom's still pretty shaken up."
"She's starting to do that frizzy hair thing Twilight does when she gets stressed," said Spike.
Sunset put a hand on her shoulder. "It'll get better, Twi. And if you need me to do anything, just ask."
Twilight smiled. "Thanks." She relaxed for a moment, leaning against the concrete exterior of the store, before her face turned thoughtful.
"What's the matter, Twi?" asked Sunset.
"It's nothing really," said the bespectacled girl. "It's just that... when we met Mrs. Circinus, I had this little nagging feeling like she was familiar."
"You mean you've met her before?" Sunset asked. The woman had certainly known about Twilight, but only by reputation, or so she said, anyway.
"No, I don't think so," admitted Twilight. "I don't think I'd forget her if I'd really met her before." She shook her head, ponytail swinging to and fro. "It's probably just my imagination. I mean it's not like I've ever had the chance to meet an agent of Child Protective Services before."
"Or maybe she just reminds you of somebody else you've seen and you just can't place it," suggested Spike. "Happens to me with dogs in the park sometimes. Well, with smells anyway."
"That could be it," Sunset pondered. She'd had similar experiences herself, meeting certain people in this world who were vaguely familiar, but she could never place them. The fact that they could have reminded her of somepony from Equestria she'd seen or passed by just muddled things even more.
As she continued to ponder these thoughts, her phone buzzed. She pulled it out. "Rarity sent a text." Her eyes scanned the message, and she let out a curse. "Oh Tartarus, Circinus just got here, and she's coming over to pick me up."
Sunset's head snapped up to Twilight. "You need to call Discord and tell him to hurry and get that number in, and..." her brain stopped as an idea popped into her mind. She typed rapidly. "Pass him this, too."
Twilight looked at her phone. "What's this?"
"The number on my forged card," Sunset explained. "Tell him to add that in the system if he has time. I don't want to risk my number being looked up." Putting her phone away, she turned in the direction Circinus would be coming from. "I'll go meet them part way. You call and tell him what's going on!"
Sunset ran off before Twilight could reply. It wasn't long before she met the black car. It stopped, the window rolling down to reveal Circinus's smug face. "Hello, Miss Shimmer. I hope you're ready to go."
Sunset locked eyes with her. "Yeah."
She could only hope that Discord could delay things somehow.
Discord's whole body vibrated as the call came in. Surprised, he pulled out his phone booth. "I told you I had it all in claw."
"It's me," said the voice Twilight. "We have a problem."
Discord grew increasingly sour as the human girl related the news. "Well, that's quite the problem," he said as he jotted down the number on a lime green notepad. "But don't worry your frantic little head, Twilight. I'll find a way to deal with it."
Hanging up, Discord scowled. An early bird, was she? This was going to be harder than he thought. Pulling a periscope from his pocket, he looked into it, the other end stretching to the waiting room outside. The two Equestrians were already here, being escorted by who he presumed was this Circinus woman. "Well that's just dandy, isn't it?"
He took just a moment to study the woman, the way she carried herself, the way she announced that she was here to see one of the agents before taking a seat. Discord decided he definitely didn't like her.
Not that he had reason to before, but there was a distinct lack of joy and restriction to her attitude that didn't appeal to him. Most definitely a control freak.
Still, this was bad. He needed a distraction, and fast. Something to keep whichever of these poor, boring, cubicle-shackled saps that woman wanted to see busy. Or better yet, something to keep all of them busy. Looking around, he searched for a potential source of chaos amongst the boredom.
His red eyes landed on one of the agents sitting in a cubicle at the back. He was an older man, wide in build with large, black-framed glasses, totally gray hair, a rather pasty complexion, and a pin on the collar of his button-down shirt in the shape of an atom symbol. He simply screamed the quiet, nerdy type. But more importantly, there was a distracted nature to the way he worked. Something was on his mind.
Discord smiled. Always beware the quiet ones.
With a tap of his cane, he popped out of existence, popping back in the chair in front of the man's desk. "Hello there," greeted Discord cheerily.
The man jumped in his seat. "H-Hello," he replied, taking a moment to straighten his tie. "W-When did you get here?"
"Oh, just now, my good sir." Discord held out his hand. "My name is Mr. Low Key. I believe we had an appointment, Mr..." he eyed the nameplate on the man's desk, "Nuclear Family."
The bespectacled man looked confused. "Did we?"
"Would I be here if we didn't?"
"I suppose not," conceded Nuclear Family, still looking just a little bit confused. He shook his head. "It must have slipped my mind. I'm so sorry."
"No problem at all," assured Discord, before his eyes caught something else. There on the desk was a framed picture of a young woman in her twenties, with long brown hair adorned with a lily, and blue eyes. And beside that was a little card that proclaimed in large letters "It's A Boy!"
"Oh my, is that your daughter?" he asked conversationally as he gestured to the photo. "She's quite lovely."
The man, in turn, looked at the picture before giving one of the warmest, proudest smiles Discord had ever seen. "That's my Waterlily. She had a baby a few days ago, a boy."
"You don't say. I never would've guessed," replied Discord, keeping his deadpan to a minimum. "You must be so proud."
"I am," said the man, puffing out his chest a little. Then, his expression dimmed. "I wish I could spend more time with them. But I've been so busy." He sighed, lifting his glasses to massage his nose, and revealing the beginning of eye bags. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be going on."
"It's quite alright. I completely understand," soothed Discord. "A father deserves to be proud when his daughter has a baby. Why, doesn't it just make you want to get up and celebrate?"
The man looked embarrassed. "I suppose so, yes."
Discord smiled. The fish was on the hook, now all he had to do was reel it in. "It's the sort of occasion that puts a song in your heart, and you feel like you just have to let it out." He tapped his cane lightly on the floor, and small tendrils of magic reached out to the unwitting man.
Not exactly the mental manipulation he'd used on Twilight and her friends oh so long ago. Just a little something to loosen his inhibitions and make him more susceptible to suggestion. Fluttershy would be proud of his restraint.
"Yes..." For a moment, Nuclear Family's face went blank. "I should celebrate. I... want to..." As if struck by lightning, he shot to his feet. "I know just what I want to do!"
"Good man," complimented Discord, gesturing out to the aisle. "Go and do what you want."
With a nod of thanks, Nuclear Family marched out of his cubicle. His expression was grim, eyes blazing with determination, giving him all the look of a zealous knight embarking on a holy quest. Reaching the center of the aisle, in full view of the whole room, he planted his feet firmly on the tiled floor.
"My grandson was just born last week!" he declared, shouting up at the ceiling. "So I'm going to sing!" He took a deep breath, filling every inch of his lungs with air, and then...
All activity came to a dead stop. Every eye turned to stare in disbelief at the man belting out the words at the top of his lungs. Some of the faces bore unspoken questions, questions no doubt related to sanity, or lack thereof, or the possibilities of a stroke. One coworker shook her head while muttering "He's finally snapped. I knew he was going to snap."
"DAY-O!" Nuclear Family sang again, undaunted as his voice carried loud and clear over the whole room. "Daylight come and me wanna go home. Day me say day me say day Me say day me say day-o."
For his part, the Lord of Chaos too, stood there dumbfounded. "The... Banana Boat Song?" He scratched his head. That wasn't exactly what Discord would've chosen for a celebratory musical number. "Why would he think of—" Discord shook his head. He had even more important chaos to wreak, and that song would buy him only a few minutes of extra time.
In which case, it seemed best for him to ensure no one would end the song prematurely. "Let's get everyone else in the mood, shall we?" More magic poured out from his cane, reaching out for every person in the room.
With a start, everyone, client or coworker, began to sway to the music, enraptured by the sound of the singer's voice and lost in the rhythm. As for Nuclear Family, the older man began to dance, swinging his arms and torso as he recounted the song of the tired banana boat worker before his captivated audience.
With any luck, they'd demand an encore or two. A brilliant bit of chaos if he said so himself, and he did. But there was yet more for him to accomplish, so for now, he had to leave the festivities.
A shame, really, because Discord had to admit, Nuclear Family had a truly amazing singing voice. He really should have taken a career on stage rather than one as an office worker.
Shrinking back down, Discord popped across the room, turning into another hall where there stood a door labeled "Server Room". Grinning wickedly, he slipped inside. The walls of machines beeped and blinked, processing tons of information every second. Restoring himself to his proper size, Discord walked up to one.
"Human technology really is quite fascinating." He ran a finger over the metal. "Such a simple, ordered machine at the base, but capable of so much creativity in the right claws." Funny how things like that worked out.
Tapping his cane against the machine, chaotic magic reached out, connecting with the system. A jolt went down his spine as he felt the current of the computer. "Ooh, that feels good. Now let's see, numbers, numbers... ah, here we go."
First was Sunny Skies. Magically connected to the machine as he was, it felt just like writing on a blank page, but far more interesting since his pen was electricity, and every stroke came with a delightful tingle.
Adding in the last flourish to Sunny's record, Discord moved onto Sunset. Now, what was that number of hers again? There were so many numbers in this thing, so many now swimming inside his head, like countless digital fish.
The bulk of them appeared random, but upon a closer look were actually formed on a pattern. How very disappointing. But then there were others, young, fresh ones that were truly the offspring of randomness.
As Discord waded in the pool of truly random numbers and electric charges, a single string floated to the surface of his thoughts, catching his attention before it sank back into the machinery, transcribed by current. Had that been Sunset Shimmer's number he'd just added?
Quickly retrieving the number and checking it against his notepad, he shook his head. No, this number was definitely wrong. "Silly me," he admonished, guiding the circuits to correct the error. Filling his brain with all these random numbers and combinations was a bit too enjoyable. He'd almost put the wrong number in.
Having completed his mission, he disconnected himself from the machines and strode back outside, shrinking his body down once again to avoid being seen. Back with Nuclear Family's musical party, he was indeed doing an encore.
In fact, things were in full swing. The swaying and bobbing from before had erupted into wild dancing. Many had joined together to form a chorus for the song, while another woman was counting the stacks of bananas with the singer by typing on her keyboard, as if she were the tallyman, or tallywoman, in this case, from the song.
There were even a few couples dancing in the aisle like it was a ballroom, one an older man who seemed more like a client, and a young woman in a business skirt and jacket who was definitely an employee, both twirling around each other in frankly graceful movements considering the man's age.
The whole boring cubicle farm had been transformed into a joyous party. It made Discord feel especially proud and accomplished, bringing such chaos to a place as dull as this cubicle wasteland.
But just then, the door to the main office burst open, and Mrs. Circinus stormed in, Sunny, Sunset Shimmer, and the sleep-deprived guard following behind.
"What is the meaning of this?!" snapped the social worker as she beheld the sight before her. "I could hear that racket all the way from the waiting room! What do you think you're doing? Get back to work at once!"
"Ma'am," said the guard carefully. "I appreciate you getting me, but you really shouldn't barge in here ahead of me—"
"I am an agent of the federal government as much as these people are!" she yelled back, making the guard cow before her. "Except it seems I take my job much more seriously."
Like the crack of a whip, the shouted commands brought everyone to attention, and the chaotic spell was broken. Everyone returned to their seats red-faced and confused, but none more so than Nuclear Family, though there was just a hint of satisfaction as well.
The young woman who had been twirling in the aisles stopped dead, giving a sideways glance to her elderly dancing partner. He wiggled his eyebrows, and the woman turned the color of a beet, slinking away to her cubicle, while the man walked back to his with a little whistle.
Discord frowned. Circinus was a wet blanket too, it seemed, though with a deliciously chaotic temper he could almost smell, like traces of a sweet perfume. Well, if she liked spoiling his fun, then perhaps he'd stay to see her fun be spoiled. As they say, what goes around comes around.
He produced a small bag of popcorn. Time to watch the fireworks.
"What do you mean you found it?!" screeched Circinus, face turning pure crimson. The eyes of everyone else in the office turned in her direction, but quickly turned back when she shot them all a glare that would have been right at home on the face of a full grown dragon.
From her seat nearby, Sunset winced at the volume while also trying to keep the smirk from her lips. Thank you, Discord. Never thought I'd say that.
She could have done without the punch to the eardrums, though. It reminded her of the time Celestia demonstrated what the Royal Canterlot Voice was like.
The poor agent was a young man, probably late twenties or early thirties if Sunset had to guess, wearing a very new-looking suit and a loose tie, and a pin in the shape of a number two pencil. He was also cowering behind his desk like a scared rabbit. It seemed that despite being a government employee himself, the raw force of Circinus's personality had him firmly trapped under her thumb.
"T-That's what I said, ma'am." He pointed an unsteady finger at the screen. "Sunny Skies, resident of Canterlot City, date of birth July 26, 1981."
Circinus narrowed her eyes, and her next words came out like the deadly hiss of a venomous snake. "Explain yourself at once, Mr. Pencil Pusher. You checked twice before this and found nothing. Are you telling me you couldn't figure out how to search for a name in your own database?"
"I-I did search, and I did it correctly. I d-don't know what happened," said Pencil, slinking down in his seat like he desperately wanted to disappear. "Please don't yell at me again, ma'am. I'm just doing my job."
"Doing your job would mean you wouldn't have made a mistake twice, and it would have also meant contacting me within the original window you gave me instead of being late. And doing your job certainly wouldn't entail throwing a party with all the other employees during work hours," snapped Circinus, purple eyes flashing with barely contained fury.
She took a few deep, heavy breaths in order to relax, leaning back in her seat. "I have every mind to contact your superior and tell them just what kind of employee you are," she said, glaring icily at Pencil Pusher. "Perhaps they'll rethink their decision about hiring you."
"No, please!" begged the man, wringing his hands together. "I need this job! I swear, I did the same thing before that I did now! Please don't tell my supervisor!"
"I don't see why I shouldn't," said Circinus, completely unmoved by his emotional outburst. "An office hardly needs employees that are so incompetent that they can't properly look up one person in their database. You've only been employed for a month, but even you should have been able to accomplish that. Since you did not, give me one good reason why I shouldn't recommend you be fired immediately for what I've seen here today."
"How did you know that?" asked Pencil Pusher in surprise. "I didn't tell you—"
"Your scheduler," Circinus snapped with frustration, pointing at the little book on his desk as if it were obvious. "It's relatively new, and when you opened it last time we met, I saw that you had written a note to report to this office on a date one month ago. You also seem to do everything in your power to advertise that status other than using a neon sign. I presumed, however, that you could still use the database effectively. Now stop stalling and answer my question!"
"I-I..." the man stammered, unable to find any sort of explanation. "I don't..."
Sunset's mirth vanished. The poor guy didn't deserve to be this woman's verbal and emotional punching bag, especially not for things they were responsible for. "He says he did the same thing. Besides, I told you it was probably a glitch." She turned to the frightened agent. "Right?" She let the question hang in the air, a lifeline of encouragement.
"Y-Yeah," he said, getting just a sliver of confidence back. "It must have been some sort of technical error." He straightened his shirt, rumpled by his earlier panic. "I can alert the maintenance people and have them look into it," he said, sounding every bit like a calm, composed professional.
His confidence vanished, however, when his eyes met Circinus's angry glare again. He sank back in his seat, seeming within an inch of shielding himself with his arms. "Don't hurt me," he muttered.
"There, there, Mr. Pencil Pusher," soothed Sunny, taking his hands gently in hers. "It's alright. We all know it wasn't really your fault. It was just a computer error, that's all." She smiled at him, the practiced smile of a graceful princess. "I would like to thank you for your assistance. I was quite worried when I heard my name wasn't showing up. I'm so glad you were able to find me in your records."
"I... thank you, ma'am," he said, smiling back at her as a blush rose on his cheeks. "I'm glad I could help you."
"And thank you," said Sunny, turning to Circinus. Her white, toothy grin practically sparkled in the fluorescent lighting, "for bringing this to my attention. I'd hate to have had this happen if I was doing something important."
Circinus scowled, fists tightening at her sides. "You're... welcome," she said, spitting out the last word like a rotten fruit.
"Mom, can we go now?" asked Sunset, feigning just a bit of impatience. "I have homework I need to do." Her cyan eyes glanced over at Circinus, who, despite her efforts to be calm, still looked ready to blow a blood vessel. "I mean, we're done here, right?"
"Yes, sweetheart," answered Sunny, looking down at her indulgently. "Yes we are." She let go of the agent's hands. "I'm sorry, but we need to go. My daughter has homework." She smiled. "She in the top of her class, you know."
"That's, uh, wonderful," said the man, pulling back his hands with a touch of disappointment.
Sunny turned to the social worker. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Circinus."
The woman glared darkly at the pair for a moment before finally managing to school her features, fixing them in a calm mask. "I'll... be in touch, Miss Skies," she said weakly. It seemed to Sunset that the woman's efforts at control had spent most of her energy.
"I don't see what for," answered Sunny as she slipped her hand around Sunset's. "But I'm sure if there are any issues, you'll let me know."
With that, Sunset followed her mentor out of the office, leaving the woman behind. The glare of the sun outside made the teenager squint. But when the spots disappeared from her vision, she was greeted by the sight of her friends, plus Discord, standing deep in the alley across the road.
"I take it y'all got her off your back?" asked Applejack, moving behind the dumpster to stay out of sight.
Sunset grinned. "Yup." She turned to Discord. "Thanks. That was definitely an interesting distraction."
Discord waved a hand. "Thank you, my dear. It was nothing. Though I will admit, the choice of music wasn't mine."
The fire-haired teen raised an eyebrow. "Wait, so you're saying they picked The Banana Boat Song all by themselves?"
Discord shrugged. "Only one of them. I just nudged the others so they'd follow along."
Sunset smiled teasingly. "So the master of surprise was surprised himself?"
"Well, it does happen every once in a while." Then, Discord's face scrunched up in thought. "But I get the feeling it was some kind of reference."
Applejack stretched her arms. "As great as it was to knock that snake in the grass down a peg, I have chores I need to get back to on the farm."
"I have some dresses that need sewing," said Rarity.
"Yeah," added Rainbow. "And I still need to change the bulb for Tank's heat lamp." The athlete turned to Discord. "Hey, could you drop me off at my place?"
"Ooh, could you drop me off too?" shouted Pinkie with a bounce. "I want to go through that super fun portal again."
"Oh wait," groaned Rainbow Dash softly. "I left my bag at Sunset's place. Could you take me there first?"
"I left some of my things there too," said Twilight.
"I left one of my bags there as well," said Rarity. "My second best hairbrush was in there."
Discord crossed his arms at the teens. "I'm not a taxi service, you know."
"Oh my, I left my things there too, and Angel will be waiting for his late afternoon snack. Discord," asked Fluttershy softly as the plastic butterfly hovered around her head. "Could you please take me back to Sunset's apartment too?"
Discord looked down at Fluttershy and her big, blue eyes and his resolve crumbled. "Oh, alright." With a tap of his cane, a portal opened in the alley again. "Come along everyone, in you go."
"Everybody try not to land on top of me this time!" said Spike as he hopped in, Twilight chasing after him.
Sunny went ahead of Sunset while the teen hung back, taking a moment to ponder Discord's reaction. He'd certainly broken down quickly. Not that it was easy resisting Fluttershy when she looked at you like that, but he seemed to have a strange soft spot for her shy friend. Did he know her Equestrian counterpart? Sunset made a mental note to send Princess Twilight a message tonight to ask.
"Aren't you going in?" asked the man, moving beside her and shaking the former unicorn from her thoughts.
"Yeah, just lost in thought. I... thanks, Discord. You were a real lifesaver."
Discord smiled wryly. "Well, I don't get to hear that too often. But you're quite welcome. Besides, it's not often Celestia asks me for favors. And personally, I find this dimension quite interesting. I heard of this intriguing thing called the internet, and other things called memes. I may have to come visit more often."
A small part of the teen filled with dread. Discord plus the internet could lead to trouble. Looks like I'll have to add a warning to that message to Twilight.
As she pondered the possibility of Discord bringing potential internet nonsense back to Equestria, there was a flash of movement in the corner of her eye. Turning around, she spotted Mrs. Circinus almost stomping back to her car. Remembering how she'd torn into that poor agent, an idea formed in her head. "Hey, Discord, can you do one last thing?"
Sunset gestured for the man to lean down, and whispered in his ear, pointing at a particular car. When she finished, Discord looked down at her with a wide, mischievous grin.
"Ooh, I like the way you think!" he said, rubbing his hands together eagerly. Twirling his cane like a baton, he pointed it at the car just as Circinus was getting into the driver's seat.
Just as she turned the key to the ignition, there was a series of loud hissing noises as all four of the tires deflated, wailing as the rubber was magically punctured. At the same time, the hood of the car popped open like a spring, just as plumes of smoke billowed from the engine, and both the front and rear bumpers fell off.
"Reformed you may be," laughed Discord as he watched the proceedings, "but there's still a little evil streak in you."
The words made her shift uncomfortably. She liked to think she'd gotten away from her raging she-demon days. "I wouldn't call it evil. I just didn't like how she treated that guy."
"Oh don't worry so much," said Discord, poking her in the arm with a gloved finger. "Take it from me, without a little chaos, life would be boring." Stepping up to the portal, he twirled his cane around. "Now come along. I have teenagers to transport." Stepping into the portal. he disappeared.
Looking back across the street, Sunset saw Circinus standing by her car, screaming and cursing like a veteran sailor. She kicked a flattened tire, only for the hubcap to fall to the ground, followed by the other three.
Laughing, Sunset jumped into the portal.
Pages turned in the grip of yellow magic, crimson eyes drifting silently over the words. The moon was out, and the nightbirds had begun their chorus. The lone unicorn grabbed at another page, ready to turn it, when the faint sound of wheels made her ears perk up. They were finally back.
Setting the book down, she made her way outside to the back of the house. The front boasted a long stone driveway, but the back had more cover, lines of sight blocked by collections of trees and bushes. It was a certainty that they'd be there.
A dark-colored cab was coming toward the house, pulled by a stout earth pony whose thick face bore an equally heavy five o'clock shadow. She ducked back inside the doorway. An unknown. Grabbing a blue cloak from the nearby rack, she wrapped it around herself, pulling up the hood. Better to play it safe.
The ropes of the driver's harness went slack as the wheels finally stopped. "Here at last," he sighed happily. "Good thing too, my hooves are killing me. No offense, you two, but that stuff you got is heavy."
The cab doors swung open, and two ponies stepped out, a dark blue unicorn stallion with a single earring, and a lemon yellow unicorn mare with a gleaming metal choker. "None taken," said the stallion.
The earth pony examined the dark, towering exterior of the house for a moment. "Say... this looks like the back of this house to me. How come you wanted to go in the back way at this time of night?" His eyes narrowed as he peered harder. "Is there somepony over there?"
From her hiding place, she cursed under her breath. The driver had good eyes, too good for her liking. Well, there was nothing for it. Better she smooth things over now than let his suspicions grow. Stepping out from the doorway, she trotted towards the group.
"W-Who are you?" asked the cabbie shakily as he took a small step backwards. Clearly he was intelligent enough to be wary of cloaked ponies in the dead of night.
"I'm the new owner of this house," she said, pointing a hoof behind her at the imposing structure. "No need to be afraid. My friends here just went to get some of my luggage. I had to have it sent separately, you see. Thank you so much for helping them get here."
"Uh.. you're welcome, I guess." The earth pony relaxed a little, but the look of wariness didn't leave his eyes. "But why'd you want them coming in the back? And what's with the cloak?"
Under her cloak, her crimson eyes twitched in annoyance. It seemed he possessed both intelligence, and inquisitiveness. She looked to her stallion friend, signaling for him to say something.
"She's something of a celebrity," answered the stallion smoothly, catching her unspoken cue as he moved to stand beside the cabbie. He pointed a hoof at the rows of grand houses. "I mean, wouldn't you expect that in this neighborhood?"
"I guess so," agreed the cabbie slowly.
"She just got into town," piped up the short-maned mare. "She wants her arrival to be a big surprise, especially to the neighbors. So we're helping her stay incognito."
The suspicion in the earth pony's eyes continued to waver, and the cloaked mare seized her opportunity to push him over the edge of doubt. "I'm so sorry, I must really be spooking you, aren't I?" she said with a merry laugh. "But I can't make ponies too curious. You must understand, gossip spreads so fast in this town."
She moved in closer, letting the soft material of her cloak brush against his fur. Close enough for him to feel the heat of her breath as she whispered in his ear, voice soft and syrupy. "You do understand, don't you?"
The earth pony's cheeks flushed tomato red. "U-Uh, y-yes ma'am," he stammered, pulling away a few inches in surprise. "I guess a surprise ain't much of a surprise if somepony finds out."
Under the hood of her cloak, the mare smiled, more for herself than for the inquisitive cabbie. She had him hook, line, and sinker, as the griffons would say. "Exactly! And you wouldn't want to spoil my big surprise, would you?"
The cabbie shook his head, face still red. "No, ma'am."
"Here," interrupted the stallion, pulling the cabbie away with a hoof. "Let me sort out your fare."
The cabbie looked at him in surprise. "Shouldn't I help you get the luggage out?"
"I'll handle it," said the yellow mare, lighting her horn and removing the first of several cases and trunks.
As the cloaked mare watched her friend unload the cab, one case caught her eye. It was made of strong, sturdy wood and painted forest green, several feet long and two feet wide, and was notable among all the other cases for boasting a heavy padlock.
The sight of it made her smile. "Give him this too," she told her stallion friend, magically producing a small bag of bits before tossing it over. "A little extra for all his help."
The earth pony looked inside, eyes widening. "Twelve bits? That's a bit much for a tip, ma'am."
"I insist," said the cloaked mare. "You have no idea how valuable some of these things are."
With a grateful nod, the cabbie turned back to the other stallion, and in a few minutes, the earth pony was off again, his cab lighter, but his purse heavier. The moment he vanished from sight, the mare under the cloak scowled a little. "I was hoping not to have to explain ourselves to anypony," she said, annoyance returning.
She turned to the dark blue stallion. "You're going to deal with him, right? Even if he bought what we told him, we can't have any potential loose ends if we can afford it."
The stallion scoffed. "Don't worry. I talked him into meeting me tomorrow night for a game of poker all the way in town. Trust me, I'll make sure he won't say anything."
"Good." Setting down the cloak, she shook out the wild, voluminous curls of her mane before surveying the pile of boxes. "You took a lot longer than expected."
"Sorry about that," apologized the yellow mare. "We had to leave the train early, and then we had to pick up a midnight snack."
The unicorn nodded. "I felt it." She'd known the moment it happened, felt the sensation run through her entire body, lighting up every nerve and waking her from a sound slumber. What they were now, what they were doing, it had bound them closer than ever before. All because they'd gone to that place, because they'd met...
Her crimson eyes moved back to the lone stallion of the trio. "How did it go in Fillydelphia?"
He grinned. "It was easy. I got us in the door like that," he said, clapping his hooves together.
"Uh huh," added the yellow mare. "Decepticolt got us in, and I took her down. It was one of my weaker spells, but she was down for the count in two shots. Couldn't even put up a shield, just wham!" She gesticulated wildly, bouncing on her hooves like a filly as she let loose a round of mocking, high pitched laughter. "Pretty pathetic for a unicorn if you ask me."
The cloaked mare's mouth twisted into a smirk. "Soon, Zappityhoof, they'll all be pathetic to us." Her expression sobered, brain turning back to the business at hoof. "What about her neighbors?"
"Totally won't be a problem," replied Zappityhoof. "The old nag was right. She was the quiet type, kept pretty much to herself. Most of the tenants didn't even know she lived there."
"I convinced the landlord that she was moving," added Decepticolt. "Nopony will question her up and leaving like that."
"Perfect." She looked down at the box that had caught her eye before. "Take her upstairs. I set up a room for her while you were gone. It's just like the other one, with a barrier spell and security charm." She pulled a key from her saddlebags, handing it to the stallion. "I'll come up there soon."
The two nodded, Decepticolt taking the lead while Zappityhoof lifted the box. The lemon yellow mare took a step, then looked back at her friend. "Uh, one thing, Goldcap. You might not be too happy when you get a look at her."
"What's that supposed to mean, Zap?" the mare snapped. She shook her head. "Nevermind. Just get her secure."
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you."
She trotted back to the room where she'd left her book. She only wanted a moment to relax, a moment more before they undertook the next big step in their plan.
Her eyes were drawn to the large set of bay front style windows. Outside stood rows of elegant mansions just like this one, a neighborhood for those wealthy enough in Manehattan to afford it. Beyond this place, there was the city proper, a bustling metropolis. And to the west, beyond what she could see, she knew was mainland Equestria, with Canterlot standing high above all the other cities, and little Ponyville below.
Red eyes narrowed at the thought of both, bitter memories rising up. But now things were different, they were different. Now, they would succeed where their previous efforts had failed.
Turning away from the window, she headed towards the stairs to inspect their new guest. "Soon," she muttered to herself, images of the tall, royal mountain flashing in her mind. "Soon we'll be high above them all. Every single one of them."
Author's Note: Sorry about how long this one is. As I've mentioned before, normally I stay away from chapters this long, but I just couldn't bring myself to split this one. I hope you all enjoyed it.
And also, can anyone tell me what the reference Discord was talking was? Go head, try.