A blinding ray of sunlight blazed through the huge window that covered most of Sunset's wall and found its mark on her cheek. This was her standard wake up call, being roused by the persistent prodding of the morning sun. It was immune to protest and always got her up eventually. After a long stretch of her arms, she slipped out of bed and stretched her legs. Her night had been more restful than expected, something she attributed to the decidedly eventful day. The next few attempts at sleep would likely be worse; much worse if the crushing weight that had already started to descend upon her shoulders was any indication. Sighing softly, she stepped out of her room and made the trip downstairs to check on Starlight. Admittedly, part of her wanted to bear witness to whatever crazy, pseudo equestrian sleeping position the pony had adopted. It would give her a dose of merriment she direly needed.
She found her fellow unicorn still asleep and though her position was more subdued than she had expected, Sunset found herself blinking rapidly. The lilac skinned girl was sitting with her head tilted onto her shoulder, arms resting on a large, familiar book. A feebly blinking torch had tumbled to the floor at her feet and a pen nestled snugly in one of her hands. Gently, Sunset pried the journal away from her grasp. Cradling the book in one arm, she slowly pulled it open. The subject was obvious to her before she read the first word, what struck her was the volume. Over twenty pages had been filled throughout the night, passing between two different hands. One she recognised as Twilight's hornwriting, the other was obviously Starlight's attempt at writing without her magic.
A light whimper drew her attention, drawing Sunset's eye downwards. Before her pyjamas were laced with the rambles of a dreaming equestrian, Sunset carefully teased the pen from Starlight's dancing fingers.
“You're both crazy, you know that?” she whispered to the sleeping unicorn. Sunset then rose back to her full height, clutching the new journal to her chest. Taking great care not to wake her guest, she retreated back upstairs to her sanctum.
After tossing the journal onto her bed, she began her morning routine of washing and dressing. It took her far longer than was necessary. All the while she stole periodic glances at the now closed journal, trying to muster the courage to reopen it for more than a quick skim. Eventually, she groaned and forcefully swiped it off her bed. “I am not going to be scared of my own journal!” Fuelled by her irritation, she swung the front cover to the side and laid the contents bare. Her eyes darted back and forth at first, only to slow as she moved further along.
When her journey through the planning and ramblings of her two friends reached its conclusion, Sunset closed the pages and roughly wiped her eyes. “Wow...that was, a lot to read...” she muttered, forcing the words through her constricted throat. “Maybe...maybe I should have just, talked about this earlier. I had no idea it meant that much to Twilight...” She sighed and shook her head. “I guess there's a lot I still don't know...”
She stayed motionless on her bed, lost in her own thoughts, until her empty stomach drove her down to the kitchen. Butterflies were hardly filling, though they did limit her options. In the end she settled on toast, it was easiest to digest and the smell would hopefully entice her feeble appetite.
Not willing to risk turning on the TV, she ate in silence and let her eyes wander. Eventually, they fell on Starlight's sleeping form and stayed there. The equestrian's eyelashes fluttered slightly and her limbs twitched constantly. Without the pen in her grip, her subconscious had reverted to wielding her appendages as hooves.
“Wonder if that's how I look sometimes...” Sunset asked noone, musing over the thought for a moment before trying to go back to her toast. She was interrupted by another soft whimper, followed by a selection of murmurings that buzzed around in her ears. For a long time, she tried to keep to herself but the disturbances only worsened. Curious, and a little concerned, she cautiously made her way over to Starlight. Only when she was right next to Starlight did the ramblings begin to unravel.
“Can't fail... need to...not ready for this.” Starlight's eyelashes fluttered rapidly as her eyes rolled behind their lids. “Need to...try...Can't fail...”
The ramblings continued, disjointed yet with clear meaning. Kneeling down, Sunset carefully took Starlight's hands in her own. She cupped them firmly to try and ease the ceaseless twitching. As Starlight's body once again went limp, Sunset found herself glad she had yet to don her geode. Her own dreams were agonising enough, bearing the burden of another's was something she never wanted to experience. Especially a nightmare she had inflicted upon someone. Eventually, Starlight's face returned to peaceful repose, though Sunset did not immediately remove her hands.
Midday was fast approaching when Starlight's eyelashes started to flutter. A low moan passed across her lips as she started to push into the waking world. With leaden limbs she wiped the sleep from her eyes and forced them open. Her surroundings took a moment to come into focus; her memories of last night followed soon after. Wakefulness shot through her suddenly and she leapt to her feet.
Two steady hands caught her while she wobbled perilously on a smaller number of limbs than she was used to waking up to. “T-thanks,” she chortled, regaining her balance with a final wobble. “I'm guessing you already found the journal?”
“Yeah, I did.” Sunset replied from behind her. Once she was sure Starlight was steady, she pulled away and scratched at her neck awkwardly. “It was...an enlightening read...once I got past your handwriting.” The last part she said with an obvious smirk.
A snort escaped Starlight and she folded her arms. “I'd like to see some of your first attempts.” Grumbling, she sat back down on the sofa, maintaining her grumpy air. It lasted merely seconds before the scowl turned into a serious expression. “Do you agree with my suggestion?”
“To do it today?” Sunset asked quickly, already knowing the answer. Starlight nodded anyway, prompting a shudder of foreboding to rattle Sunset's spine. She was silent for a moment, then dipped her head. “Yeah... It'll save me any sleepless nights I guess.”
“Better to do it before the nerves really start to settle in.” She felt her own spine tremble as she thought back to her own nightmares. “Do you want to write to Twilight or will I?” Starlight inclined her head up to Sunset's bedroom, where she assumed the journal was now.
“Uh...I'll do it,” Sunset replied, though she did not follow Starlight's gaze. Instead, she kept her eyes firmly on Starlight, examining her for any hints that the nightmare was creeping into her waking world.
“You've got that... I heard something face.” Starlight's voice shattered Sunset's thoughts before she could get a proper hold on them. “I'm guessing I was dreaming?” she asked, feigning innocence. Her face was completely impassive, deflecting Sunset's attempts at probing. “What'd I say?”
Taken aback, Sunset answered before she had really constructed what she wanted to say. “Uh...something about not wanting to fail.” Her expression softened and was just about to release Starlight from her obligation when she was once again cut off.
An imperceptible tightening of her jaw was the only clue Starlight gave of her discomfort before she masked it with a laugh. “Oh...that one...Yeah, I really did not like failing tests when I was younger. My...” her face adopted an all too genuine frown. “-mother had this annoying habit of dropping mock quizzes on me at every opportunity. To the point where I still have nightmares about it... It's nothing, honest.”
Feeling a little slack, Sunset just nodded. She was far too done for any of this and instead went up to get the journal. Starlight watched her go, a twinge of regret colouring her already sour mood. It was for Sunset's own good that she focus on herself for now but lying so blatantly felt disconcerting after all the honesty of last night. Resigning herself to the fact that she was still reliant on her old ways, Starlight cast a scathing look at the pile of clothing she had discarded last night. Now, she had to remember where everything had been...
Staring at her reflection in the portal, Sunset's resolve wavered briefly. Even with her friends surrounding her and Starlight at her shoulder, she could feel her knees shaking. Any more and they wouldn't be able to support her weight. Just as she was contemplating turning back and never looking at the portal again, she felt a gentle pressure on the small of her back. It did nothing to actually move her physically but the message was clear. Taking a deep breath to ease herself, and provoke a bit of luck, Sunset stepped forwards.
After being whirled around and twisted inside what felt like a spatial tumble dryer, both ponies were spat out into a familiar library. Sunset landed in another pile of books, something Spike would lament later, while Starlight crashed headlong into a table. Head still spinning, Sunset got to her hooves, all four of them this time and tried to look around. She could just about make out two of the purple alicorn standing in front of her.
“Okay...this time it's Princess Twilight...” she groaned out, rubbing her aching head as the alicorn smiled softly at her.
“Yeah...because I'm over here...” she heard Starlight grumble from somewhere off to her left. “Twilight, why does your mirror use ponies as cannonballs, and only on this side?”
Twilight blinked, looking back and forth between two very disorientated unicorns “Umm...well I guess it's because the stabiliser is getting a little loose. I'll have a look at it soon.” Then, she turned her full attention to Sunset. They met each other's gazes a little awkwardly, with Twilight crossing her front hooves. “Uh...hey,” she tried, not sure how to approach their impromptu meeting.
“Hi Princess Twilight,” Sunset greeted, squirming slightly to try and alleviate the knot in her stomach. The alicorn's journal messages flashed behind her eyes. “Nice to see you again. It's been a while.”
“Too long,” Twilight agreed, smiling warmly as she moved forward to hug the unicorn. “And you know it's just Twilight. Between me and my friends it's always just Twilight.”
Sunset's lips played into a subtle smirk as she wrapped a hoof around Twilight's shoulder. “Yeah, but when there's two Twilight Sparkles I have to think of some way to differentiate you both.”
Twilight's mouth formed an almost perfect circle. She pulled back from the hug, visibly digesting a phrase she certainly did not hear every day. “Huh, I never thought of that to be honest. Having two of me running around is still a little weird.”
“That's what I said,” Starlight interjected, nimbly alighting from the table. Biting her lip, she tried to discern the best time to hurry things along. After all, Spike had allowed her to delay at least a little bit, albeit through a splattering of self indulgence. In truth, she herself was hesitant to continue. Everything was still churning around inside her, like a jigsaw puzzle she had yet to solve. If she screwed this up then Twilight would not have the time to kick her out before she walked herself. Nevertheless, her previous words still rung true. Holding things off would only make everything worse.
She stepped forward and swallowed down the iron ball that had formed in her throat so she could speak. She kept her tone gentle and compassionate but left absolutely no room for manoeuvrer. “Okay, well I think we should get going, there's a lot to do.” Her old skills were good for something at least, as both Sunset and Twilight snapped to attention. Maybe a little too quickly, it was eerily similar to...she pushed the comparison aside. That was not who she was, not any more. “Sooner it gets done, the less time you spend tearing yourself to pieces...and yes I'm speaking from experience here.”
The knot in Sunset's stomach returned full force but still she nodded determinedly. This was the best chance she was going to get, if she backed out now then she would never ever come back to Equestria, whether she was able to or not.
Neither unicorn noticed Twilight taking several steps back, until the alicorn spoke up. “The train leaves pretty soon. You should get going.”
“You aren't coming?” Sunset asked, eyes widening with surprise. She had expected Twilight to insist and had found herself less adverse to that idea than before. Despite that, the sudden development was welcoming. A knot loosened in her stomach. As much as she respected Twilight, that same respect sowed the seeds for a field of pressure whenever the alicorn was around. Particularly,when she actually looked like an alicorn.
With a peaceful shake of her head, Twilight explained, “I think this is just something you both have to do yourselves. You have the new journal if anything goes awry but...” she paused and smiled knowingly, making sure to catch Starlight's eye. The unicorn blinked back in response, keeping her expression neutral. “I'm sure it'll be fine. Good luck.”
It was tempting for Starlight to point out that wishing one luck after assuring them all would be fine was basically pointless. She held her tongue, not wanting to waste her energy. She needed everything if she was going to succeed here. Twilight knew something that neither of them was privy to but was electing not to share it. If Starlight were to guess why, it was for Sunset's benefit, to prevent an even more crushing outcome on even the slight chance that she was wrong. Whether Twilight knew what she was doing or not, it made Starlight no less uneasy because basically, she was still running blind.
Pushing aside her doubts, only to find them cemented in place, she cleared her throat. “C'mon then Sunset. Let's do this.” She hoped that her attempt at confidence worked.
“Yeah, let's. We'll see you later Twilight...I hope.” Markedly less interested in hiding her distress, she started hesitantly towards the door.
Starlight watched her leave, her breathing starting to quicken. She, really...really had to fix this. Turning to Twilight, she opened her mouth. Before she could get a single sound out, Twilight's hoof pressed against her muzzle and silenced her. “Shh...you can do this. I know you can.”
It helped, only marginally but it helped. Exhaling, Starlight nodded and quietly left the room. When the door shut behind her, Twilight turned to the portal. “I think I should get a start on making any return trips a lot easier from now on,” Humming a merry tune, she got to work.
The only train cart that had enough space for two was still relatively crowded, forcing them to sit uncomfortably close together. Sunset spent the entire journey staring at the floor, making herself as small as possible. Starlight took the window seat, letting dread fill her as she watched Canterlot draw ever nearer. It was a stupid thing to do but her eyes were glued to the impending doom. Even with Twilight's bolstering confidence, by the time they stepped onto the platform she thought her legs would fail her. “Well...we're here,” she said uselessly, unable to bear the heavy silence any longer.
Finally raising her head, Sunset flicked her eyes back and forth. Almost immediately, she dipped her gaze downwards, not wanting to look at the castle, now that it was looming above her. “Yeah, hasn't changed much...” She swallowed and turned towards her companion. “So...we getting this over with?”
“That's the best course of action, yes,” Starlight answered, projecting an assured air. Whatever panic she was currently going through was certainly a trickle compared to Sunset's river of boiling dread.
Pressing her shoulder against Sunset's, she quietly began to steer them out of the hustle and bustle of the train station and towards the quieter, more organised streets. Sunset, for the most part, was lost in her thoughts, playing out every scenario she could think of. Canterlot had remained mostly stale but there was no telling how much Celestia herself had changed. Whether she had or had not, Sunset did not know which held more favourable outcomes.
She was broken from her musings when Starlight halted abruptly beside her. Without even realising it, she had walked all the way to the huge front gates. Swallowing, she took several steps backwards, eyes widening as she stared up at the intimidating structures. They made her feel even smaller, taunted her to run and hide. She was too weak to do this, she still had not changed enough.
Piercing through the veil of her doubt, she heard Starlight's call. “Sunset.” The voice was accompanied by a soft shaking of her shoulders.
“H-Huh...” Sunset whimpered, pulling away and giving her head a shake. The cobwebs cleared and Starlight came into clarity. She was concerned, yet it was painfully obvious she was still out of her element. Sheepishly, Sunset averted her eyes. “Sorry...I just, got a little overwhelmed. I still...can't believe I'm back here, after all this time.”
Nodding, Starlight walked forward. Carefully cupping Sunset's chin with her hoof, she forced their eyes to meet. “It's fine. I know it can suck right at the precipice when you know it's the point of no return.” Her ears folded back against her head and her tail twitched nervously. She knew what she was about to do was risky but could not in good conscience not do it. “Twilight, and Spike, sorta forced me into it. I never really felt like I had a choice in the matter.” The memory left a bitter taste in her mouth, filling her with tired disdain. “Like I said, it worked out better in the end but I've always felt...violated. As if, it should have been my decision, my mistake to fix.”
Sunset gulped, not sure she liked where the conversation was going. The smile Starlight gave her helped allay her fears slightly. “I'm not gonna make you do this alone...but I am gonna ask. Are you absolutely sure you want to do this? This is the last time I'm going to ask. If you say yes now then I'll drag you back again and again if I have to.” Raising a hoof, she crossed it across her chest. “But...if you say no now, then we'll turn back and I'll never bring it up again. If you want my help or Twilight's in the future, then yeah, we'll give it...but neither of us will ever be the first to bring it up.” A dark look flashed across her face briefly and Sunset saw, for that moment, the mare that would bend time to achieve her dreams. “I'll make sure of it.”
Deep within herself, Sunset knew that if Twilight had been the one standing there, she would have taken the offer. She would have backed down, gone back to the other world and lived her life outside of Equestria. With Starlight it felt...different. The determination of a mare who was trying to hold herself together for her sake pushed Sunset to keep up her end of the fight. Though her own doubts still dragged behind her like great chains, Starlight had pushed them both to this point. Sunset let her mouth twitch into the beginning of a smile, the best she could muster. “Nope, I'm fine. You're right. If I don't do it now then I'll never do it. You know it, and so do I. Still, I appreciate the gesture.”
Visibly sagging with relief, Starlight momentarily broke her calm facade and let her weakness break through the cracks. She was sure Sunset noticed, the golden mare nuzzled her softly, yet no comment came forth. Collecting herself, Starlight jabbed her hoof towards the castle. “Okay, well, like I said. Now that you've said yes that's it. I hope you know what you're getting yourself into.”
“I do,” Sunset replied, setting a determined stare onto her features. “Let's do this.” With a noticeably straighter posture, she strode through the massive gates. It ended today. For better or worse, it ended today.
Finding the throne room was easy enough, thanks to Sunset's prior knowledge of the castle. Finding Celestia herself was a different matter. They both stared at the empty throne room, silently wondering why they had thought it would ever be that easy. Starlight slammed her head against the wall with a worrying thunk, an action which had Sunset wincing for her. “That...really can't be good for you.”
“Probably not,” Starlight admitted, rubbing her forehead as the beginnings of a dull ache began to build up under her skin. “In the long run at least. In the short term it works fine. Ugh, I hate to ask but do you have any idea where Celestia would be at this time?”
The question moulded Sunset's face into the epitome of discomfort as she cast her mind back to before her turnaround. Several times she had tried to memorise Celestia's schedule, in a selfish bid to maximise the coveted time when the princess' attention was focused solely on her. In her desperation she had often tried to manipulate the accursed writings, demanding more than she was given. Without fail, Celestia had caught on to her scheming. Then she would try to deter Sunset from any more trickery with a lecture in compassion.
“Every pony in Equestria is just as important as the other, whether it seems like it at the time or not. Just because a problem may seem small to you or I, does not mean that it is small to the one who brings it to my attention.” she would often say, while Sunset was glaring at the wall, as if it had done her a great offense.
The next part was the worst. Rather than be angry, or even disappointed, Celestia would simply point out the hypocrisy in Sunset's anger, turning it quickly into bitter embarrassment. “To another pony, the time you fell into the fountain during the picnic with dignitaries of Saddle Arabia would be trivial, even something to laugh at. Yet to you it was important, so important that it gave you nightmares for several weeks afterwards. Is that not true?”
“Y-yes...” Sunset would murmur, knowing without the use of a mirror that her cheeks had turned the same colour of her mane.“It was horrible! I was a total laughing stock! But what does that have to do with who gets to name the new boat? It's just a boat.”
The lecture would continue, despite falling on deaf ears. “And a quick fall would mean nothing to the ponies who spent several years constructing what you call, “just a boat”. They have as much passion for it as you do for magic, or keeping up your appearance. The first voyage, and subsequent naming is their crowning moment, just as learning a new spell is for you. Neither is important to the other, but that makes them no less important overall. As a princess, I must take everypony's problems and suggestions into account. In a way, I must speak for them all equally, making important to me what is important to them. Do you understand?”
Sunset never did. Celestia's words had been as fruitless as Sunset's schemes. At least until her life at Canterlot High had changed her for the better. Finally, she had been able to see exactly what Celestia's words meant in practise. Every girl was different, with their own fears and dreams. However, when it came to the group as a whole, no one was treated as more important and no opinions were disregarded. There were slip ups, as there always were, and Sunset had spent time both as mediator and instigator. Throughout those experiences she had reflected on her old ways and finally come to appreciate Celestia's position. As a princess, she was allowed no slip ups, as a friend and mentor...she should have been.
Aware that she had been silent for some time, she focused back into the world and regretfully shook her head. “No...sorry, I don't have any idea. Her schedule changes day to day, and it's been years. Luna's return only makes things harder to predict.”
“Hmm...yeah...fair enough,” Starlight hummed, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. The long run was upon her quicker than she would have liked, her head now throbbed as if Pinkie was using it as a drumkit. “Well, we'll just have to search the whole castle, and...hope she's here.”
That proved much more difficult than Starlight hoped it would. The guards left them alone for the most part after Starlight had managed to convince them she was here on Twilight's behalf. It was technically not a lie, she managed to convince herself. Unfortunately, none of those that they spoke to was able to help them find Celestia. Sweat started to form on Starlight's brow and her mouth dried rapidly. Walking the endless corridors for what felt like hours had yielded no results, even with Sunset's expert guidance. Frustrated with her lack of progress, Starlight felt her tether begin to fray. The way things were going, she was perilously close to doing something reckless.
“This is hopeless,” Starlight hissed under her breath. Igniting her horn, she tossed her head backwards. As if commanded by a great wind, every door in the corridor swung open. Predictably, and perhaps thankfully, every room was completely empty. Feeling a little sheepish, Starlight turned back to Sunset. “Sorry I just got a little carried awa-...Sunset?”
The golden mare was oblivious to Starlight's words, staring into one room in particular. Starlight watched as Sunset slowly walked through the now open door. “Oh what have I done now?” she groaned, clenching her eyes closed and tearing her face away. “What was Twilight thinking? What was I thinking? I'm going to blow this if I'm not careful...” Growling at her own inadequacy, she slammed her hoof into the ground. A sharp echoing clack thrummed in her ears and the stinging pain lanced up her foreleg. Both sensations helped reign in her emotions and brought her back to the task at hoof. “That's not helping anypony. I'd...better go see what's wrong, rather than staying here and talking to myself.”
She poked her head into the room, seeing Sunset had wandered into the middle of it. To Starlight it looked like a stereotypical castle room, though with far more dust than she was used to. Sunset was completely entranced though, oblivious to Starlight's approach. Quietly, so as to avoid startling the emotional unicorn, Starlight whispered,“You okay?”
As if her trance was the only thing still keeping her up, Sunset folded like a house of cards and slumped to her knees. “Y-yeah...” she murmured wearily, practically melting into the thick, luxurious carpet. “I-I just need a minute.”
Since more fruitless searching did not appeal to her, and dragging Sunset through it would be cruel, Starlight settled down next to her. “Well we weren't getting anywhere anyway... We can rest a minute.”
“Thanks...” Sunset whispered gratefully, slowly turning her head to survey the room they were in. Even through the thick layer of dust that had settled in every single corner, she could remember it well. After all these years, it lay completely untouched. “This...This is my old room. Y'know, when I lived at the castle.”
Eyes widening to resemble full moons, Starlight immediately began to survey her surroundings. Was life really that coincidental? Now that she really looked the motifs tying the chambers to Sunset were obvious. From the faded bedspread emblazoned with her fiery cutie mark, to the huge window taking up most of one wall. There was even a huge bookshelf full of arcane texts on the wall opposite the window. Almost instinctively, Starlight knew that the window faced west, where the sun would eventually set.
“Wow...Okay I admit that is a bit of a coincidence...” Starlight muttered, leaning to the side and pressing against Sunset's flank. Though her breaths were slow and methodical, Starlight could feel the mare's frantic heartbeat through their connecting sides. “Sorry, I guess it isn't really helping to be here is it?”
Roughly drawing a hoof across her eyes, Sunset swallowed to try and clear the lump that her memories were forcing painfully against her larynx. “I-I...don't know. I guess...it's nice to see it again, even if it is covered in dust...” Sighing heavily, she stood up and placed her hooves onto the massive bed. Even now, it felt far too big, swallowing her hooves into its soft, inviting mass. That was just the way she liked it. “I...I wonder why it was never re-used.”
Unable to think of a suitable response, Starlight could only offer a meek shrug. Sunset chuckled weakly, her shoulders shaking from the effort. “Must not be hurting for rooms huh?” In one painfully slow movement she clambered onto the bed and sank into it. Ignoring the cloud of dust she raised in her wake, she laid her head on her hooves. “C-can you, leave me alone for a bit. I need to just...remember.”
The suggestion took Starlight off guard but she knew better than to question it. She felt helpless watching Sunset drink in her memories, it tore at her heartstrings. If Sunset had wanted her to stay she would have, but every fibre of her being rejoiced at the request. “Yeah, sure. I'll be outside.” With that, she started to leave. The quiet, heart wrenching sobs were only audible for a moment before the door closed Sunset off from the outside world.
For a moment Starlight stood stock still, then everything left her. Her whole body felt light, as if it were made of air. Then, the entirety of her mass seemed to return to her at once and almost drove her to the ground. One indisputable fact had knocked the spirit of her body, she was causing this. It had been her pushing that had driven Sunset to come here. Whether it was necessary or not, did it really have to hurt this much? Did it have to drag on for so long? Were Starlight's misdeeds forcing their unfathomable cost on Sunset?
“No...” she whispered in a voice as stable as steel. “I'm not waiting any longer. I'm not being denied any longer.”