“Why are you bothering with a scarf?” Spike asked as he watched his best friend and surrogate sister levitate the dark blue knitted thing off its hook and wrap it around her neck, only struggling a little bit at the end.
“Because it's almost winter, Spike!” Twilight answered, still fiddling with the scarf in her wall mirror. “It won't be long before the pegasi deliver the first snow of the season, and since they've already rerouted the air currents in preparation it's pretty chilly outside.”
“It's not that cold,” Spike countered with a light eyeroll, setting down the feather duster he'd been using on the shelf of the newly-cleaned bookcase. “Besides-” he started walking down the stairs- “we're only gonna be outdoors for, like, five minutes!”
“Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds to be precise,” Twilight told him, smiling at her reflection once she finally got her scarf adjusted exactly how she wanted it. She turned and gave him a look that said she knew exactly what she was talking about but wasn't going to hold his ignorance against him, and said “That's more than enough time to warrant the extra protection. Princess Celestia asked me to meet her outside her chambers before she lowered the sun this evening, and the last thing I want is to be distracted from whatever important lesson she wants to teach because I'm chilly.”
Spike sighed, accepting the loss. “Fine,” he said before hopping onto her back. “But I still don't think it's that cold out.”
The pair headed down the stairs and out the tower door at a gentle trot, the Canterlot air greeting them as briskly as Twilight had anticipated. She gave her companion a knowing smile as they traversed the lawn that surrounded her home and passed by more than one pony shivering in the wind, but the dragonling stubbornly looked away. Four minutes and thirty-six seconds later they reached the gates of the castle proper, and Twilight used the extra second to spare a glance at the sky - the sun lingered at the horizon, bathing the sky in reds and oranges and yellows as it awaited one final push of magic to send it away. Twilight looked forward to watching it go.
But first, she had a meeting to get to. “Ohhh, I wonder what it's about,” she said, brimming with excitement as she navigated a familiar path through the castle halls. “Maybe she wants to teach me a new spell! Or, or, or maybe she's decided it's time for me to try delving into experimental transfiguration again!”
“You really think so?” Spike asked, a brow raised skeptically. “Last time you tried that you turned Professor Polish into an armchair and couldn't figure out how to reverse it for an hour.”
“W-well, true,” Twilight admitted, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, “but I know what I did wrong now! The chances of something like that happening again are practically astronomical!” Swelling with renewed confidence, she looked back at Spike. “Besides, it doesn't have to be experimental transfiguration. Princess Celestia has been teaching me for years now and I've barely scratched the surface of what she knows, her next lesson could be about any number of subjects! Haycartes' Theorem, Starswirl's second treatise, the underlying principles of elemental conjuration, maybe even the enchanting techniques used in ancient relics!” She was now bouncing quite giddily and audibly down the vaulted marble hallway, utterly oblivious to the annoyed looks cast her way by passing nobles and servants.
“Or maybe she just wants to show you something and have you work out what it was on your own,” Spike said brightly, caught up in Twilight's enthusiasm even as he struggled to keep himself steady on her back. “Like when she used that door-opening spell on a flower bed!”
“Also good!” Twilight declared, raising a hoof dramatically as she came to an abrupt halt. “Oooooh, I can't wait to see what she wants!” She clapped her hooves together eagerly, then took off running just as abruptly as she'd stopped – and with enough speed that Spike could only just hang on to the tail of her scarf.
Soon enough she was turning the final corner before her destination and sliding to a quick and frantic stop in front of her mentor. Princess Celestia stood by the closed doorway to her personal quarters with a patient and amused smile, and she was not alone.
With her was a unicorn mare of around Twilight's age, amber-coated with a brilliant red mane that was streaked with yellow. She was glowering at her from just outside the Princess' line of sight.
Twilight only spared her a moment's glance, an awkward moment though it was, before turning a bright and beaming smile to her beloved teacher. “Good evening Princess Celestia,” she greeted. “I'm sorry if I made you wait.”
“Worry not, Twilight, you're right on time,” the Princess answered, the warmth in her voice sweeping away the last of the autumn chill around the new arrivals. “But I bet you're wondering why I called you here.”
“That's right!” Twilight said happily.
“She wouldn't stop talking about it on the way here,” Spike commented, once again firmly on her back. Twilight flushed, Celestia laughed, and the other mare just kept glaring.
“So Princess Celestia, what lesson do you have for me this time?” Twilight asked, her eagerness returning in full force.
“Well, I wouldn't exactly call her a lesson,” came the answer with more than a hint of playfulness, “but I do hope that you'll be able to learn from each other. Twilight, I'd like you to meet my other student, Sunset Shimmer.” She looked down at the other mare, who suddenly wore a smile that didn't even dream of reaching her eyes.
“Hello,” she said curtly, not moving an inch from her spot beside the Princess.
“Ummm...hi,” Twilight replied, smiling nervously under Sunset's gaze.
If Princess Celestia noticed the tension between the two, she gave no sign of it. Smiling warmly, she continued. “And of course, Sunset, I'd like you to meet Twilight Sparkle and her friend Spike,” she said, motioning to her purple pupil and the baby dragon on her back. “She became my student only a year after you did.”
“I know,” Sunset said without taking her cyan eyes off Twilight, her junior raising a brow in surprise.
“You do?” Twilight said, voicing that surprise.
“Well, Sunset,” Celestia said just as her older student sniffed in contempt, “as always I'm happy to see you've done your research.”
This caused Sunset's smile to turn smug, though only until she looked up at her mentor. “Thank you, Princess. But it's only natural that I stay on top of who's who around here,” she said, superiority glinting in her eyes as she glanced briefly back at Twilight. “I am your number one student, after all.”
Twilight looked down in shame at the remark, her ears folding flat against her head. Spike looked at her with concern, but said nothing.
“Now Sunset,” Celestia lightly chided, “this isn't a competition. Not only do you have a full year of study on Twilight, but you're also different ponies with different priorities and interests. And you are both very special to me,” she said as she stepped between the two and knelt down, spreading her wings and using them to pull her students close to her. “I don't want either of you to ever forget that.”
“We won't, Princess Celestia,” Twilight said, blushing happily as she leaned into her mentor.
“I'll make sure of it,” Spike added, poking his head out from under the great white wing.
“Yeah...,” Sunset said dully, averting her gaze but unable to stop her own blush.
Celestia let out a happy breath, retracting her wings as she drew herself back up to her full height. “It makes me happy to hear that. Now, in celebration of the start of what I'm sure will be a wonderful friendship,” she said as she stepped forward, missing the slightly uncomfortable look that formed on Twilight's face and the definitively annoyed look that formed on Sunset's, “how about a front-row seat as I lower the sun?”
Both of her students, and Spike as well, perked up at the prospect of a rare chance to see the Princess do her sacred duty up close. There were no objections to be had as Celestia led them across the hall to a tall casement door leading out onto a balcony that faced the setting sun; she threw it open with her magic, and walked out onto it. Twilight, Spike, and Sunset followed her in silent awe, all three squinting and averting their eyes from a light that seemed far brighter than it had inside.
Celestia looked straight at it without hesitation. Slowly she took in her breath, and as she did so a brilliant aura of light gold enveloped her horn. She closed her eyes, let out her breath, and her magic flared.
The sun began to set. Inch by inch, foot by foot, mile by mile, the light disappeared below the horizon as the sky above them was slowly painted the reds and oranges and pinks of twilight. The Princess finished her breath and opened her eyes, looking down at her students as they drank in those precious few moments between sunset and moonrise when the sky looked unreal and the stars came out to play.
She allowed herself to bask in it with them; it raised her spirits just as much as the act that caused it had rejuvenated her magic. And then she decided it was time, and she closed her eyes and drew in her breath and summoned her magic and called out to the moon. It answered her call as it had for nearly a thousand years, and her students watched its rise with just as much rapture as they'd had for the setting sun. Celestia looked up at the Mare in the Moon and pulled the three, confused, under her wings once more.
It was all over in a matter of minutes. “Good night, my faithful students,” she said as she lifted her wings and turned around. “And you as well, Spike,” she added, giving the baby dragon a playful smile that he returned in kind. She walked slowly back to the casement door, pausing just before it to look back at the three. “I'll see you all in the morning. I hope you'll use this time before you retire for the night to get to know one another.”
“I'm sure we will, Princess,” Twilight said immediately, Spike nodding along while Sunset struggled to maintain her smile. “Good night.” The three bowed their heads, and Celestia returned the gesture before turning and heading towards her room.
Once the doors to her quarters were shut, Twilight and Sunset turned to each other. “Wow, I never knew Princess Celestia had another student!” she said with rising, unthinking, excitement. “I mean,” she giggled, “obviously she's free to teach whoever she wants, but it's just that I've never heard of you.”
“Wow, I'm flattered,” Sunset said dryly, any vestige of awe or happiness left over from watching her namesake now completely drained away. She made a beeline for the door at a slow walk, deliberately flicking Twilight in the side with her tail as she passed. The younger unicorn flinched, but seemed more confused by the gesture than anything else.
“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, Twilight can barely even remember the names of her classmates at school,” Spike said with a jovial smile, still sitting on Twilight's back as she hastily moved to catch up with her senior.
“Still flattered,” Sunset said, taking hold of the glass doors with her magic and swinging them closed behind her. Twilight caught them in her own magic just before she and Spike were shut out, looking puzzled as she reopened them enough to get back inside. She closed the doors behind her, then caught up with Sunset.
The senior student determinedly did not look at Twilight as she fell in step beside her. “So,” the young asked with a hesitant smile, “do you think that Princess Celestia will have us work together from now on?”
Sunset snorted. “Knowing her,” she grumbled, “I doubt I'll be allowed to do anything by myself ever again.”
Twilight's smile faltered, and in her shock she stopped walking. “I'm sorry,” she said, eyebrow raised in confusion as she trotted back up alongside Sunset, “is there something going on that I don't know about?”
Another snort. “Yeah. A lot of things.” She stopped in her tracks and looked back at Twilight with the same irritated glower she'd had when they'd first met less than half an hour before. “But the most relevant one is the fact that I'm being forced to foalsit a naïve little filly who couldn't even be bothered to find out who I was before we met.”
“Well, I mean, they are just a little filly,” Twilight said, taken aback and more bewildered than ever as Sunset resumed walking. “You can't expect them to know everything.”
“Uhh, Twilight,” Spike whispered into her ear, “I think she's talking about you.”
Twilight's eyes widened with shock as she stopped in her tracks again, but her brow quickly furrowed with anger and she rushed to catch up with Sunset again. “Hey! I'm not some naïve little filly, I'm barely any younger than you!”
“You're fourteen months younger than me,” Sunset said, her tone sharp. “Which only makes how little you seem to know about anything even more of a disgrace. How could you possibly have missed the fact that the Princess had another personal student besides you? Were you too star-struck by being around your idol that you forgot anypony else even existed? Or are you just so full of yourself that you never considered the possibility that someone else got the honor of being her protege first?”
“I...I'm...,” Twilight spluttered for a moment before her emotions settled on righteous indignation. “H-hey! I'll have you know I'm neither of those things!”
“Oh yeah?” Sunset said, wheeling around on her suddenly. “Then what are you, Sparkle?”
Twilight spluttered again as she struggled to think of an answer, and it was Spike who spoke next. “Whoa, hey, hold on!” he said, dismounting Twilight and rushing between her and Sunset. “Princess Celestia wants you to be friends, remember?”
“Hmph,” Twilight sniffed, turning her nose up at him and Sunset. “I have enough friends, thank you very much.”
Sunset let out a cold, dark laugh. “Please. Don't act like you're rejecting me when I never wanted anything to do with you to begin with.” Her words cut through Twilight's indignation, leaving only raw hurt on the younger unicorn's face. “Drill this into your thick skull, Sparkle,” Sunset said, her eyes narrow and her tone icy. “I don't like you. I don't respect you. I don't want you in my life. All you are is the latest in a long line of ponies the Princess has forced on me in a pointless attempt to get me to make friends. As far as I'm concerned you don't even deserve to be here, the only reason Princess Celestia took you on as a student is because of a freak accident.”
Twilight took a step back as Sunset advanced past Spike, mind too overloaded by Sunset's hatred to defend herself. “Unlike you I earned my place by her side,” Sunset continued. “I am better than you, Twilight Sparkle. The sooner you understand that, the easier your life will be.”
She held her glare for a moment, then turned around, flicked her tail in contempt, and walked away.
Spike watched her leave for only a few seconds before he turned, more worried than he'd ever felt, to look back at Twilight. She was gaping in shock and horror, and after a second her hind legs gave out. A second after that her lips began to tremble, and soon tears were falling on her scarf. She curled up and held it tight as she cried; the air in the hallway was far colder than any late autumn wind.