“Alright, Spike, I'm leaving,” Twilight said, adjusting her scarf in the mirror for what she dearly hoped would be the last time this season. Everything about her was haggard, from her voice to her muzzle to her mane, but nevertheless she'd gotten herself dressed for the late-winter weather and packed all the appropriate materials and references in her saddlebags. She looked to her right, and saw her friend walking over with a mug of hot chocolate.
“Good luck,” he told her as he sat down against the wall between a stack of comic books taller than he was and a small bag of mixed gemstones. “I still don't really get why you're bothering to actually meet with Sunset for this.”
Twilight let out a put-upon sigh. It had only been a few months since her rather... disheartening first meeting with Sunset Shimmer, and the mare hadn't exactly gotten easier to live with. Not any harder either, thankfully, but from what Twilight could tell Sunset's attitude towards her ranged between 'colder than the weather outside' and 'smugly looking down at a silly little filly' depending on the day. Begrudgingly she could admit that Sunset's constant disrespect for her and her achievements had spurred her on in her studies and her research just so she could wipe that annoying look off her annoying face, but she wasn't sure it was worth it. Spike certainly didn't.
What kept her going the most was her individual sessions with Princess Celestia, rarer these days though they were. She wanted to make the Princess proud, to see that most special of smiles on her muzzle, and 'making friends' with Sunset Shimmer would do that.
No matter how hard it was. “The Princess doesn't want us to just do separate halves of our group projects individually anymore,” Twilight finally answered. “We have to meet up and do them together.”
“You could just do your own halves in the same room,” Spike pointed out with a helpful smile.
“We already tried that,” Twilight said, lowering her head out of irritation. “It didn't work. Princess Celestia saw through it in an instant.”
“Oh,” Spike said, his face blank. “Well... good luck getting Sunset to listen to what you have to say, I guess.”
Twilight let out a forced, irritated laugh. “Oh, I don't think that'll be a problem this time, Spike. I've come up with no less than five great ideas for our project. I've done all the necessary research to be sure of their effectiveness,” she said with puffed-up pride, “and I've already run them by Professor Polish and Professor Quill and gotten both their assurances that my ideas are both well-thought-out and creative. I'll impress Sunset Shimmer this time for sure!”
“Why do you even want Sunset Shimmer's approval?” Spike asked, pulling the first comic off his stack and opening it up. “You've never really cared about what other ponies thought of you before. Plus, I mean, she's a jerk.”
“True,” Twilight admitted with some reluctance. “But she's also Princess Celestia's student. And I want to know what the Princess saw in her that made her take Sunset on.” She looked back at her reflection, and put a hoof to it. “She's just so different from me. I don't understand it. Why does she only want to learn to be more powerful when learning itself is it's own reward? Why does she like getting other ponies to do stuff for her all the time? Why does she always have to be better than everypony else?”
“Because she's a jerk, like I said?” Spike said.
Twilight face-hoofed. “There's gotta be more to her than that, Spike. There has to be. And I aim to find out what.”
Spike looked at her, then shrugged. “Hey, like I said, good luck. And if you need anything, I'm always happy to help.” He promptly turned his attention back to his comic, tossing a small ruby into his mouth and chasing it with a swig of cocoa.
Twilight looked at him for a good long moment, and smiled. “Thanks, Spike.”
The walk to Advanced Thaumaturgy Lab 6, located in the basement of the School for Gifted Unicorns, had been thankfully uneventful. The weather, though still cold, was pleasant and sunny in preparation for the coming spring, and already many of the younger students were hard at work practicing their magic by clearing away the snow and ice around campus. Her boots aside, Twilight was proud to have not gotten wet once!
It was a far cry from mere days ago when she could barely take two steps before she was pelted with snowballs from ponies wanting some 'friendly fun'. She'd be grateful when it was all gone.
She dutifully made sure to wipe her boots dry on the mat inside the main building, took a breath to steel her nerves, then headed down to the lab. As she'd expected, Sunset was already waiting for her.
“Took you long enough, Sparkle,” she greeted with her usual 'I'm so much better than you' smirk, the one that made Twilight's eye twitch. Sunset looked her over quickly, then added “Congratulations on not being a popsicle this time, though. It wasn't really your look.”
“Thanks,” Twilight said without a speck of gratitude as she made a beeline for her spot across from Sunset, and levitated her bags from her back to the countertop.
Lab 6 was fairly small, housing only a single long workbench in the middle of the room, but was stocked with all the most cutting-edge devices for recording, measuring, interpreting, and otherwise quantifying magic. Or all the ones that didn't require special environments or entire buildings to themselves, anyway. But for Princess Celestia's two personal students it was exactly what they needed - a private little workspace away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the school.
“So,” Sunset asked, still smirking, “do you need me to go over the basics of thaumaturgic resonance frequencies again, or do you have it this time?”
Twilight glared at her. “I have it, thanks. In fact,” she cracked a dark little smile of her own as she opened one of her bags, “not only have I done all my research, I've come up with several ideas for our study of resonance modulation that even you will find interesting.” She pulled several notebooks out with her magic, and nodded proudly.
Sunset raised a brow, then snorted and took the notebooks in her own magic. “If it's to use a crystal array as a stage-2 amplifier, then I'm afraid you're a little late to that party,” she said dismissively, not even bothering to look at Twilight's reaction.
Several tense minutes passed as she read through each notebook in turn, often holding more than one up at the same time so she could cross-reference between them. As she hemmed and hawed and raised her brow a few times Twilight became more and more nervous, even leaning forward in anticipation of Sunset's response.
“Hmm. Not bad, Sparkle,” she finally said. “I'm actually impressed.” She looked up to see Twilight grinning excitedly, then smirked and added “At least, I would be if I hadn't already heard about your ideas from Quill and Polish earlier.”
Her smirk widened into a grin as fell utterly off Twilight's muzzle, replaced by a look of shock and just a little bit of despair. “You... you already knew?” she asked, her voice small and upset. “But it was supposed to be a surprise!”
Sunset shrugged. “Hey, not my fault you didn't keep it secret. They told me willingly.”
“But... but how did you even know to ask them?” Twilight stammered.
She was answered by a disbelieving look. “Because I know how you think?” Sunset told her. “I mean, with how much I've been hounding you to get better it was only a matter of time before you thought to run your bad ideas by somepony else first. Those two were just the most obvious choices since our project is in their fields. Seriously, Sparkle,” she gave her a critical look, “you should know how I operate by now.”
Twilight sighed, drooping in disappointment from her ears to her tail. “You're right,” she said. “I should have seen this coming.”
Sunset rolled her eyes, setting down the notebooks. “Would you stop moping? I meant it when I said I was impressed.” Twilight lifted her head, hope returning to her eyes. “This is the first genuinely good work I've seen from you. You actually managed to come up with a few things before I did for once.”
“Yes!” Twilight cheered, jumping into the air in excitement. She began to bounce around the room, ignoring the irritated eye-roll it provoked from Sunset. “Yes! Yes! Yes! I knew it would finally impress you!”
“Well,” Sunset smirked, “it was only a matter of time before my genius rubbed off on you. You should feel honored!”
Twilight froze in mid-air as a record scratched to a halt in her mind. “Excuse me?” she said as she landed back on her hooves, affronted.
“You heard me, Sparkle,” Sunset told her, matching Twilight's level stare with her own. “You should be happy the Princess forced me to work with you. You never would've gotten this far without my help.”
“Um,” Twilight began before letting out a bitter laugh, “I totally would have. I'll admit that you might have pushed my development along a little,” she added sharply, “but only by a month, at best. I'm not too proud to say that you're talented, Sunset, but despite what you keep telling me I know I have talent too. In fact,” she drew herself up to her full height and raised her head proudly, “I'd say that I'm just as talented as you are.”
It was Sunset's turn to be affronted, her brow shooting up as she drew herself back. “Oh, is that so?” she asked, her horn lighting up with light blue magic. “Care to prove it?”
Twilight laughed again. “I'm not the same pony you left crying in a hallway three months ago, Sunset Shimmer. I'm not scared of your threats.”
Her horn lit up with raspberry-colored magic as the two mares locked narrowed eyes.
It was shaping up to be a good day for Princess Celestia. No monster attacks, no diplomatic crises, no political turmoil, and thanks to a last-minute cancellation no major public appearances, either. It was a rare day that her schedule was so open, and she intended on savoring every minute of it. Currently she was walking through the campus of her school, smiling and conversing with staff and student alike, answering questions and giving out pointers to those who needed it. It truly, truly warmed her heart to be doing it all.
Just before she re-entered the main building she picked up a sizable pile of snow off the ground, taking care to keep it at just the right temperature with her magic. She didn't want it melting before she got to her two prized pupils, after all.
From the start, she'd known that making Sunset and Twilight work together was risky. Despite her lessons neither had truly come to appreciate and value friendship like she'd hoped, and Sunset could be so abrasive and proud that Celestia too often worried about the scars she could inflict on the younger mare. But even so, she could see the changes in both of them already – Sunset, even if she didn't realize it yet, was coming to accept Twilight as an equal; while Twilight was growing more confident and willing to understand other ponies her own age even if it wasn't for entirely the right reasons.
Still, they had a long way to go before she could call them friends, and it wasn't hard for her to imagine one wrong move from either leading to tragedy. That was why she was going out of her way to pay them a surprise visit today – she knew they were going to be working together on their latest joint project, and from what she'd heard from Professor Polish and Professor Quill there was a good chance of a major breakthrough between the two. She just needed to make sure things didn't get too out of hoof before it happened.
So she wasn't too surprised when, upon reaching the basement corridor leading to Advanced Thaumaturgy Lab 6, she saw the door to it fly off in a burst of magic. She let out a heavy sigh, and taking care not to lose control of her levitated snow (or make it too obvious that it was there) she set off for her students at a brisk trot.
The lab wasn't completely destroyed, she noted in the back of her head as she forced the smoke to clear so she could get a better look at the two who had destroyed it. As suspected Twilight had been the victim of the last spell, covered in soot with her mane and tail all a-frazzle and her ears enlarged and flapping like wings. But Sunset was far from unscathed herself, her hooves having seemingly lost all grip as she stumbled and slid on tiled floor, and her entire body changing colors quickly and randomly.
“Why won't you just admit that I'm just as good as you are!” Twilight shouted, unaware of Celestia's presence behind her.
“Why won't you just admit that you needed me!” Sunset countered, equally ignorant. Both girls began to charge their magic again.
“Why don't both of you just cool your heads,” Celestia interrupted, her voice strong and smooth, cutting clear through the tension in the room. Her students had just enough time to turned shocked and guilty looks her way before she dropped the snow on them.
She put a hoof to her mouth and giggled when their heads popped out of it, their eyes wide. “So, I think you two have some explaining to do,” she said, raising a brow expectantly. They both launched into frantic explanations immediately, and while it was at times somewhat difficult to hear them over each other Celestia was pleased to hear them both take responsibility for the damage they'd caused.
“I see,” she told them, her smile returning. “Well then, I suppose cleaning up this mess will be another valuable bonding exercise for you two.”
“Y-you're not mad at us?” Twilight hesitantly asked, looking as though her entire world was about to end.
“Yeah, we wrecked the lab!” Sunset chimed in, more shocked than anything else.
“While I'm certainly disappointed,” Celestia answered them, “I wouldn't say that I'm mad. Equipment, no matter how valuable, can be replaced. You, my faithful students, cannot.” She pleasantly noted the look of surprise they shared with one another. “Now,” she said with a mirthful smile, stepping further into the room, “why don't the two of you tell me what you learned from this? About each other.” Their eyes widened in surprise again, and she looked at the older of the two. “Sunset? You first.”
“Uhh, well,” she said, shaking the snow from her coat and rubbing the back of her head. “I guess...I learned that Twilight's closer to my level than I realized.” Even though Sunset sheepishly and stubbornly refused to make eye contact, Twilight was still visibly surprised by what she said.
“And?” Celestia asked, raising a brow. “Is there anything you'd like to say to her?”
Sunset sighed. “And...I'm sorry for looking down on you so much,” she added, reluctantly but sincerely. “You clearly didn't deserve it.” She looked at Twilight, and offered her a small smile. After a moment, Twilight returned it.
“And you, Twilight?” the Princess continued, turning her gaze.
“Oh, um,” Twilight said with a start, taken off-guard by the question. “I guess I learned that even Sunset's not completely mean, and that I care more about what she thinks than I realized. I... don't really know what I should apologize for, though,” she said, giving Sunset a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”
Sunset quickly glanced at Celestia, who merely smiled at her. So she sighed, and said “It's... okay. I guess I was the one in the wrong here anyway.”
Celestia beamed down at both of them “I hope this is a sign that the two of you have settled your differences,” she told the pair as she stepped between them. “It just goes to show that even a frigid start-” she gathered up all the melting snow with her magic- “can lead to a happy ending-” she vanished the whole of it in an instant, and drew them close to her with her wings.
Sunset and Twilight looked at each other hesitantly, and smiled.