I was awake when Celestia started to raise the sun. I had been for a while. Too many thoughts whirling through my head for sleep.
Twilight had heard the commotion in the street yesterday when a young colt had started lobbing tomatoes at me when I went to the market to pick up something to go with dinner since Twilight was busy. Instead of throwing up a shield or teleporting away, I had just borne the assault.
"Why are you letting them do this?" she asked through the door of the washroom. "You could have stopped them in any number of ways."
"And it wouldn't have gotten out of their system," I replied. "It's just tomato pulp, it's not like it's permanent."
But those words and some very similar to them had stayed in my head. Why was I letting them do it? Did I still feel some bit of guilt over my crimes?
No, that wasn't it. Twilight had pardoned me long before the official pardon from Celestia and my time at CHS since had helped me get over that. There was something else at work here.
I turned and saw the blanket on my bed. That was likely part of it.
I sighed and headed out of my room for the door, only a hooffull of bits with me.
The early train would be leaving soon.
The snow bit into me as I left the comfort of the passenger car behind. I shivered and pushed my way forward until I passed through a mana shield and the harsh cold of the wintery north fled to be replaced with a cool late summer breeze. I looked around at the glittering brilliance of the Crystal Empire's capital. Rising like a spire of ice in the center was the castle, and I slowly made my way to it.
In a dome just before the gates, a large heart made of pure crystal spun gently between two spires. I could feel the magic radiating off of it. I just watched it's spin, my mind rewinding the last few months.
"I could always go back," I said to myself. "I'm sure AJ would let me stay in the spare room till I got a place. Re-ernoll in CHS for the final year."
"Sunset Shimmer," a voice called behind me. I closed my eyes and sighed. I had hoped no pony would recognize me here. I turned around and found myself face to face with a white-coated unicorn stallion. His blue mane ruffled in the breeze and instead of anger or curiosity, his face held surprised amusement.
"Do I," I hesitated. Something about him was familiar. "Do I know you?"
"You probably at least know of me," he said with a good natured laugh. "We were in the same year at Celestia's school. You were picked to be a private student before I left to join the guard. I'm Shining Armor, Twilight's older brother."
That explained it. I didn't really remember him from my time at the school - or anypony, really - but I had seen pictures of Twilight's family, including the adorable little niece she had.
"Nice to meet you," I said conversationally, turning back to look at the heart. "What can I do for you?"
"Actually," he said, coming to stand beside me. "I was going to ask that of you. Twily contacted us to ask to let her know if you wound up here."
"Of course she did," I muttered. "How did she even know I'd be headed here?"
"I figure she sent letters to Canterlot as well as any place you were fond of," he said. "You know how she can be."
"So," he said, gesturing towards the entrance. "What brings you to the Empire this time?"
I winced. My last visit was to steal a crown. "I needed to get out of Ponyville, clear my head," I said.
"And a certain newspaper article had nothing to do with it?"
"How long are Twilight's letters to you?"
"I have to clear a morning some days," he said. I wasn't sure if he was joking or not.
"That's not the entirety of it," I admitted. "I'm also having trouble sorting out some feelings. Things I thought I had already dealt with."
He nodded at some guards that snapped to attention. Apparently, he had tightened security recently, and I couldn't blame him, considering how easily I had infiltrated this place last time. There was a magic portal mirror involved at the time as well, but that's beside the point.
"I'm not sure why I still feel like I have atonement to do even with everything I've done and having been pardoned officially," I whispered. "It's almost like I want to be punished more, like I haven't been punished enough."
"You seem to have a handle on the feeling," he said as we passed into what looked like a sitting room.
I smiled ruefully. "Two days is a long train ride," I said. "You really need to get an express line built."
He smiled, and I saw the family resemblance instantly. "We'll look into it," he laughed.
I settled onto one of the plush couches. "And on top of all this, I keep thinking about this one pony and I'm not sure why."
Shining Armor smiled and nodded. "Ah," he said. "The plot thickens."
"Oh, stop it, Shiny," a softer voice said from the other side of the door on the far side of the room. "She's nervous and confused enough as it is."
I froze, not realizing I had been in the presence of the Empress of the Crystal Empire. I also dimly remembered that I had been talking to her husband, the crown prince.
Cadence walked gently into the room, a warm smile on her face and I immediately bowed my head.
"Stop that," she said. "We're in private and you're one of Twilight's friends. Now, who is this pony?"
I fiddled with my hooves, suddenly afraid to speak the name in front of the Princess of Love. I wasn't sure how her special talent worked or how she had gained the title.
"I can't force anything, if that is your worry," she whispered.
I swallowed. "It's just a silly infatuation," I said, and began telling them the story of hearing Rainbow, running out and crying in the grove, waking up covered by a blanket, and the eventual admission of Fluttershy to the act.
Cadence tutted softly with a smile. "I have an idea of what's going on," she said.
"Oh?" I said, a little exhaustedly. "At least somepony does."
She opened her mouth to continue when a gurgling laugh came from the other room followed by a magical surge and a loud pop.
"Oh dear," the princess muttered. "Shiny, do you think you could go find her this time? Let us girls talk."
The stallion rose and left, horn already lighting to trace the teleportation spell their foal had used.
"That's quite the power for a foal," I commented.
"And that's with a forbearance spell in place," she muttered, rubbing her temples. "But about Fluttershy, I think I know what it is."
"And that is?"
I blinked. "Come again?"
"You're afraid of everything it could mean to actually open your heart to another pony in that way. Especially one that resembles someone that you've hurt in the past."
"That's silly," I said. "If that was the case, wouldn't I have felt the same around the other Fluttershy?"
"Well, you did avoid her rather actively when you could, by your own admissions," Cadence said. "But tell me this; did you find any of the people of that world attractive?"
I thought for a moment. "Not really," I said, thinking back. Even after I had gotten a handle on the aesthetics of the world, I hadn't seen a single person at the school that appealed to me. Flash had been the closest but even he had been a tool for power. I had started feeling a bit of fondness for him near the end, but there was no spark when I thought of him - which wasn't often. "They were just too different from what I was used to. And I was still getting used to the various differences in my own body, like the lack of magic, no hooves, that kind of thing. I never really felt any attraction like what you're suggesting while I was there."
"But since you've been back? Anything you've noticed?"
"Your sister-in-law has a big mouth," I snickered.
"She's concerned for you," the princess said, letting the remark slide. "When you came here, she says a lot of the confidence she admired in you slipped away."
"Hard to be confident when you get pelted with tomatoes," I muttered. I saw the sun start to set. "Hard to feel worth it."
"Maybe that's the problem," she said, rising. "If anypony wishes to have something to do with another, it's because they feel it's worth it.
"Twilight considers it worth it to be your friend. So do the others, by her estimation. And I suspect that Fluttershy may find you worth the effort as well."
I thought on that for a moment. It seemed plausible. It wouldn't be the first time I got in my own way.
"We'll prepare a room for you while you're here," she said as she left. "It would be a shame for you to come all this way only to turn around. And a few days to clear your head may help."
I nodded in acceptance. It would be a shame to leave so soon.