A Shimmering New Year

by EchoWing


Chapter Five - Divided and Fallen

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

“Heh. Yeah, sorry ‘bout that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, Rarity…”

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

“Rarity…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop! Hold zat pose!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No you…oooh…”

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

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

-

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

“Rainbow Dash?”

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

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

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

“Damn right you did.”

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

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

“But it wasn’t their fault –!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

A saddened sigh. “I wish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparkler groaned. “Seriously Dad, eavesdropping again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still talked with them.”

A shrug. “What else can I do?”

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think that could happen?”

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

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

“Because you don’t know who it is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it seems, but how…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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