A series of sharp cracks and pops filled every inch of Canterlot Castle, some bleeding into the grounds. The noise was accompanied by bright flashes of teal light, as the magical discharges carried a frantic unicorn throughout every corner of the castle. One maid and a guard were startled from their extra curricular activities, though before they could utter any stuttered explanations the intruder was already long gone. Eventually, ragged panting filled one hallway, as that unicorn was forced to take a breather. “Ugh...and ponies wonder why unicorns still walk. Why are these castles so big? Why do princesses need so many rooms?”
A calm, musical voice that she had only heard on few occasions yet would recognise immediately answered her. “There is a rather interesting answer to that question."
Starlight whirled around. Drenched in sweat and suffering from a bad hair day that would give Rarity nightmares for years, she turned to face the princess of the day. Celestia's unmistakable form was flanked by three others, none of whom Starlight recognised, though they seemed to regard her with disdain. She snapped her eyes back upwards when the solar alicorn spoke again. “I admit I did not expect to see you here, Starlight Glimmer. Is something amiss?”
Unable to believe her luck, Starlight shoved her bang out of her eyes. It did nothing for her dishevelled appearance, which only seemed to worsen in the presence of the immaculate princess. “Actually, I've been looking for you. There's uh...” she stalled her tongue and mulled over the best way to explain. If she let slip that Sunset was involved, then the meeting may never take place. A meeting that everything was riding on.“...Something you need to see.”
Before Celestia was able to respond, a scoff came from her right. A large brown stallion, with well kept dark brown hair and a magnificent goatee, stepped out in front of Celestia. His clothing was easily more expensive than the entirety of Starlight's worldly possessions and the way he looked down his muzzle at her illustrated that he knew that fact well. “Young ma'am I'm afraid that you cannot simply barge in on this meeting. There are more important things than what you think the Princess has to see. Perhaps you should run along back to class.”
“Class?” Starlight snapped, visibly beginning to bristle as a violent flame surged through her veins. This was the wrong time for anyone to be messing with her. “I'm not part of the school! I just-” As sparks threatened to leap from her overused horn, she forced herself to take a deep breath and quench the dangerously rising flame. “P-please Princess,” she pleaded quietly, her bottom lip beginning to tremble. “This is important...Really important.” Her exhausted, stress riddled body hoped that would be enough.
Celestia saw the signs before even Starlight herself did. She barely had enough time to excuse herself before the sensation of being wrenched through space overtook her. A brilliant flash of teal burned into her eyes. The discomfort ended after a moment and Celestia opened them once again. Those same eyes widened slightly as her surroundings revealed themselves to her. She dared not hope...
Thrown off balance by her haphazard teleport, Starlight staggered around until she found her centre again. It took several extra seconds for her innards to settle into their correct positions. Moving her mouth as little as possible to avoid being sick, she apologised nervously. “Sorry about that. I guess my magic did all the thinking for me there.”
Dipping her head slowly, Celestia offered a small smile for Starlight's benefit. The expression was difficult to pull off but she had centuries of practice. Keeping up appearances under sudden duress was essential for keeping the ponies under her rule calm, even when she herself was anything but. Only in her most private of moments was the smile allowed to slip. “It's quite alright. The meeting was drawing to a close anyway and you seem to have gone to great lengths to find me.”
“Y-yeah I have.” Starlight agreed, massaging her poor abused head briefly. It was somehow managing to hurt and yet feel numb all at once. Her thoughts were only kept sharp through sheer willpower and necessity. “Umm...can you wait here for a moment. I need to um...get everything ready.”
Another nod, so Starlight took her leave and ducked back into the room. Meanwhile, Celestia released a long slow breath and braced herself. Now, she was almost certain she knew what was about to transpire...
The faint creaking of the opening door caused Sunset to slowly raise her head out of her hooves. She opened her mouth to murmur a weary greeting, assuming that Starlight had simply gotten restless. When the sight of such a bedraggled, fatigued pony met her eyes, she leapt to her feet and ran towards her. “Starlight! What happened? Are you okay!”
Accepting the hug Sunset threw her way, Starlight whispered quietly into the mare's ear. “I found her, she's outside.”
The words were like a thrown brick, causing Sunset to visible stumble in their wake. “O-oh...” she stammered, trying fruitlessly to hide behind her mane. “You're...efficient.”
“I've been told...” Starlight murmured, craning her neck forwards and gently nuzzling under Sunset's chin. “You ready?”
With more effort than she'd had to muster previously that day, Sunset sighed, “As I'll ever be. You're going to stay in here right?” Her voice trembled as she stumbled over even the simple sentence.
“Of course!” Starlight assured her, nodding her head forcefully. Even though it worsened the churning in her stomach, she had to make sure Sunset knew she was serious. “No matter what happens, I'm staying. I promised I wouldn't make you do it alone.
“Thanks...” Sunset murmured, backing away and squaring her shoulders. After everything that Starlight had done to bring her this far, the least she could do was give it her level best shot. “I-I'm ready.”
Starlight dipped her head in understanding then turned back to the door. “You can come in now Princess.” With bated breath, the lilac unicorn waited as the air around her thickened uncomfortably. This was the moment of truth.
Summoning every ounce of her strength, Celestia walked into the room. Despite having not entered it in years, she knew it well enough to navigate it blindfolded. Many a night had been spent in that large bed, with a small golden filly snuggling against her side. Even now, as she stared at the dusty covers, her right wing twitched as a phantom warmth spread through the fur beneath it. She turned to Starlight, only to look straight past her, at a pony that, before today, she thought she would never see again.
Sunset was cowering behind Starlight, struck down by the solar alicorn's imposing presence. When Celestia took a step forward, her heart threatened to break when her former pupil scurried backwards. Composing herself, the princess sat down on the unused carpet, still towering over the two unicorns. “I think, that you have some explaining to do, Starlight Glimmer.” Her voice was soft, yet held every ounce of authority available to her. For the next few moments at least, she was a princess and had to keep herself in check.
“Y-yeah. I guess I do.” Starlight said softly, unable to stop herself from wincing at the regal tone. “I...don't really know where to begin. All, that's really important right now is that Sunset really needs to talk to you. She's not the pony she was back when you banished her. She's changed. I know I can't ask you to believe me, or her for that matter...but please...just hear her out...Please.” By the end, she was begging, baring her soul to Celestia's compassion.
Celestia only nodded silently. It wrenched at her soul to see them both so skittish. Neither knew what to expect from her, both fearing the absolute worst. If only they knew what was within her, how she had pained all these years. She held her own counsel, for now, exercising unfathomable restraint. Despite the torment, it put her through, she knew that Sunset had to first be allowed to forgive herself. Only then would she be ready for what Celestia had kept locked away all these years.
Starlight breathed out slowly, wincing when the air caught in her chest. Turning to Sunset, she offered a supportive smile. Her body felt as solid as water but she refused to let her conviction waver. “Floor is yours I guess...”
The golden unicorn nodded, moving out from behind Starlight and sitting down across from Celestia. Despite the time that had passed, she still could not look directly into those ancient eyes. Picking a feather on Celestia's wing, she used that as a focal point instead. “I-I... I-...” Her voice faltered and it felt like she would shake herself apart at any moment. The beginnings of tears burned in her eyes. She could not do this, she was going to fail. She clenched her jaw to stop her teeth chattering, which only increased the quivering in her core. She felt like a rumbling volcano, ready to blow until a lilac hoof looped around her shoulder.
Instantly going still, Sunset turned to see Starlight wink at her. Their closeness allowed Sunset to truly see every ounce of effort Starlight poured into getting her here. “Live in the moment and take what it's giving you. You're here now, just gotta do this. Good luck.”
“Heh...thanks, Starlight,” Sunset murmured, then she raised her head slightly. “I...I'm just here, to say I'm sorry...” She trailed off, expecting that to be it. Her tongue had other plans. Now that she had started, once again she helpless against the raging torrent that followed. “I'm sorry for being arrogant, I'm sorry for being selfish and I'm sorry for everything I put you through. I'm sorry for everything I said that day...and everything I said before. You were right. You didn't have to take me as your student, whatever I believed, and instead of being grateful I ended up taking advantage of it. I never really listened to you.” Tears now streamed in a cascade down her cheeks, falling onto the dusty floor. Setting her jaw, she raised her head and finally, met Celestia's eyes. Despite her crying, the alicorn's image was crystal clear. “I know that I have no right to just come back and say this, you banished me from the castle. I just...had to say this. I'm sorry... I'm so so sorry.”
Finished, Sunset slowly lowered her head, waiting with growing dread for the coming response. For several long, agonising seconds, there was silence. Then, she heard Celestia rise and start to walk towards her. Unable to keep herself contained, she flinched backwards, curling up into a shaking ball. Starlight immediately moved forwards, trying to shield the golden unicorn. Before she could take more than a step, a warm golden glow rooted her to the spot. Celestia's deep magenta eyes met hers and Starlight felt the urge to resist flee from her, even when Celestia gently pulled her apart from Sunset.
In the absence of Starlight's warmth, Sunset's shoulder suddenly felt empty. Though she could not see it, she could feel Celestia's shadow filling the void. She expected the oncoming voice to be cold, to demand that she leave. The same angry tone that had reverberated within her since her banishment filled her ears. It was deafening and yet when the real Celestia finally spoke, was cast aside as easily as smoke in the wind.
“Oh, Sunset...” she murmured, slowly wrapping her soft wing around Sunset and pulling the quivering mare into a warm embrace, just as she had all those years ago. “It has been too long. I should never have sent you away that day.”
Gradually recovering from the shock of her warm reception, Sunset peeked her head up above Celestia's feathers. “Why are you apologising? I'm the one who was completely reprehensible. I...don't understand.” She let out a bitter snort, feebly trying to push Celestia away. It was like trying to move a mountain. “If this is just some way to make me feel better then please, don't. I'm not a little filly anymore.”
Sunset's scowl faded and she blinked once at the sound of Celestia's bell like laughter. She could feel the alicorn's sides move up and down against her. It was a sound she had not heard in far too long. Slowly, the alicorn's sides settled back into a steady rhythm as Celestia collected herself. “No, that you are not. You have grown in many many ways. My apology is sincere Sunset. There are many things I could have done, many words I could have said, that could have changed the outcome of our time together.”
Closing her eyes, the solar princess pulled Sunset a little closer. “Like you, I have made mistakes. Considerably more of them as it happens. And yet...with many more years than either you or Starlight-,” she inclined her head in the lilac mare's direction. “-have had, I still made the same mistake with you as I did with Luna.”
Sunset raised her head sharply, unable to believe her ears. “What?” she asked on impulse, a little more sharply than she intended. Outside of the embrace, Starlight jumped slightly as well.
Celestia sighed and turned away from them both, staring out through the large window into the garden below. Her loyal subjects milled around in it peacefully, able to enjoy its many exotic wonders. Their happiness was a testament to her success, which had been built on a foundation of many regrets.“Rather than simply explain why I did not want you pursuing the mirror, I foolishly avoided the topic, citing that you were not ready. Naturally, that only increased your desire and fuelled your curiosity. I saw this and yet I did nothing.” She lowered her head in shame as the weight of such regrets tugged at her. “Just as I did with Luna. I saw the pain that she felt when others shunned and neglected her night, yet I did nothing. In both cases, I was in a position to help and yet did nothing. Instead, I placed the burden of responsibility on you both until it was too late.”
An almost imperceptible waver burrowed its way into Celestia's voice. It went unnoticed by Starlight but Sunset picked up on the subtle change immediately. “It is a mistake I have taken far too long to correct. With Luna, I was younger, more naive to the inner workings of ponies. It is no excuse for my actions, merely a reason. But with you Sunset, I had all the necessary knowledge to prevent what happened I just...did not. It was easier to simply distance myself from you and expect you to learn the answer on your own.”
Unwilling to hear more, Sunset leapt to her feet and glared angrily at Celestia.“I should have found the answer on my own! I shouldn't have been what I was! I should have just listened!”
“Sunset...” Celestia whispered folding her still outstretched wing back against her side.
“I should have just done what I was told and none of this would have had to happen!” Sunset's rant continued until her lungs were begging her to ease the force of her screaming. “I could've stayed in Equestria! I could have continued my studies! Maybe I would have become a Princess maybe I wouldn't have! It doesn't matter anymore! I ruined everything! You can't just sit there and tell me it was your fault too! It wasn't! I'm the one who was at fault! Me! It was all me! It...It was me that needed to change...And...and I did...I-I did...”
Spent, she sagged to her haunches, throat sore from the sudden abuse. Her fiery mane fell over her face, obscuring her sea green eyes from view. No one moved, maintaining the still silence. Then, Sunset's shoulders heaved upwards and sagged as she took a long breath. Raising her head, the golden unicorn pushed her mane away from her eyes and smiled weakly. “That...actually does feel better.”
“Told you it would,” Starlight said with a light-hearted giggle.
Sunset nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you did...” She turned to Celestia, swallowing nervously but no longer slave to the crippling fear she had felt minutes ago. “Thank you for listening Princess... You, you didn't have to do that.”
“Oh but I did Sunset,” Princess Celestia stated softly. “As I said, it was as much my fault as it was yours.”
“I guess none of us are perfect huh?” Sunset pushed herself to her feet. No longer anchored to her past mistakes, she felt her strength returning to her. “Still, not all of us have to try for...well, for as long as you have.” She exhaled, taking slow tentative steps towards the princess. “I...I don't know if this helps, but well... I...I forgive you too.”
Her steps halted quickly, Sunset hung back at the very edge of Celestia's reach. She waited silently, unable to bring herself to move closer. Starlight stood at her shoulder, unable to even begin to predict what was about to happen next. Celestia was completely silent, letting the words pour through her again and again. With each pass, they chipped away at the massive weight she had been carrying for years. Raising her head, she smiled widely. “Thank you Sunset. It does help. More than you know.”
Sunset then pulled the easiest smile she had all day. “I'm glad.” She hesitated, trying to summon up all of her courage. She felt a sudden, hard shove from behind her which threw her right into Celestia's chest. Rather than whirling around and confronting the obvious culprit, she simply looped her hooves around the alicorn. Pressing her cheek into the warm, soft, fur, she let her eyes drift closed. A heavy weight rested on her shoulder and a blanket of white feathers enveloped her. Sunset was fully convinced that she could have fallen asleep right there. She felt lighter now, as her final regret melted from her shoulders, unwelcome in the loving embrace.
They stayed like that, time quickly becoming irrelevant. Having been apart for so long, neither wanted to break the bond again. Eventually, the pair pulled apart, though Celestia kept one wing wrapped around Sunset's shoulder. The sight pressed an unintentional but very welcome smile onto Starlight's face. Satisfied that her work was done, she made to back away. Her plans were thoroughly ruined by the firm magically grip that took hold of her tail. Bewildered, she turned back around. What had she missed?
Coming face to face with Sunset, she had barely any time to even raise a questioning eyebrow before the golden unicorn tackled her to the ground. Flat on the ground, Starlight was utterly powerless to protest the smothering hug. Not that she would have.
“I'm...assuming this is a thank you?” Starlight asked, chuckling softly as she gave Sunset an awkward one hooved hug. Her other limb had ended up trapped between her chest and Sunset.
Pulling away, Sunset looked Starlight right in the eye. The shadow of her past sins was no longer hidden behind the sea green irises, allowing the happy glint to shimmer away with all its might. “Yup.”
“Like I said, anytime.” Giggling with both relief and genuine happiness, Starlight got to her feet. The two unicorns stood shoulder to shoulder, glad that the ordeal was over. Looking between Celestia and Sunset, Starlight once again started to step away. “Anyway, I should really leave you to catch up.”
“That...may have to wait until later...” Sunset started, deflating rapidly. “I'm pretty sure Princess Celestia has a full schedule...” she trailed off, a very uncomfortable thought beginning to play jump rope with her gut. She looked up at Princess Celestia, dreading what she was about to hear. “Umm... when Starlight said she found you, were you...in the middle of something?”
“I was just wrapping up a tour of the castle for the Duke and Duchess of Maretonia” Celestia answered casually, a subtle mischievous glint coming to her eye. She watched with quiet amusement as Sunset slowly turned towards the other unicorn. If a pin had been dropped at that exact moment, it would have been deafening.
Eyes narrowing to almost slits, Sunset levelled a glare at her friend. “How exactly did you manage to get Princess Celestia here?”
Wilting slightly under the sea-green gaze, Starlight chewed on her lip. “Um...uh... it...might have involved some...” she twirled her hoof, trying to act aloof. When Sunset's eyes somehow managed to narrow even further said hoof started to play with her mane.“I might have...teleported her here...without much warning...”
Panic settled in Sunset's chest and her jaw plummeted towards the floor. Her eyelids opened to their fullest extent in an instant and her whole body felt numb and useless. The deepest recesses of her mind began to tweak her senses, turning every shadow into a guard waiting to pounce. A quick shake of her head cast aside those idiotic over-exaggerations, allowing her to focus her incoming eruption on the source of their new problem. “Are you crazy? You do realise that you've probably caused a massive panic around the castle?”
“What was I supposed to do?” Starlight cried, thrusting her hooves into the air. Though she could sympathise with Sunset's distress, she could not find it within her to condemn her own actions. “You needed her here, right now. I wasn't about to just wait for the meeting to finish! Who knows how long it could have been.” The beginnings of a crimson blush rose into her cheeks as she admitted the next part of the story. “Also...I might have sort of, exhausted myself looking for her which let my magic slip out of my direct control and tap directly into my desires...” The self-mocking chuckle she added at the end did nothing to improve Sunset's mood.
“You're gonna get us both arrested! You basically stole a princess of Equestria, Princess Celestia herself, from a meeting in front of several dignitaries and goodness knows how many guards! We've got to fix this! We've got to...” Her entire body went rigid as the situation dawned on her. Despite her time away, she really should have seen this coming. In a much more subdued tone, she sighed and shook her head, “Do absolutely nothing because Princess Celestia already handled it.” Without turning, she addressed the now laughing ruler of Equestria. “I'm right, aren't I?”
To reign in her merriment, Celestia quietly coughed behind a hoof. Her smile remained perfectly in place. “Yes, indeed you are Sunset. Quickly surmised as usual.”
Always the sceptic, Starlight raised an eyebrow. This did not quite add up. Stalking forward, she gave Celestia a taste of the full force of her intense, scrutinizing stare. To her credit, the ancient alicorn bore it with unflinching ease. “Wait...How did you manage to deal with it?” She idly tapped her jaw, trying to analyse the memory. “I didn't even give myself more than four seconds warning.”
“Kibitz was present, as he always is,” Celestia explained, her smile twitching into a grin momentarily as she saw Sunset gag in disgust at the name. “I was able to relay a message to him. Four seconds was a challenge but I am sure that I managed. He will be able to handle the situation in my absence.”
“Yeah, I guess he's useful for something...” Sunset grumbled under her breath. She knew the old stallion meant well but her past exploits, particularly those involving Celestia's schedule, had put the two at constant odds. With her thoughts turned to the reality of being a princess, a cloying sadness overwhelmed her previous elation. As much as she had accepted it, her tongue was having difficulty forming her farewell. “C'mon. We should go...” she said suddenly, already moving mechanically towards the door.
Surprised at such a hasty exit, Starlight hurried to get in front of her, walking backwards to keep herself between Sunset and the door. “Aren't you gonna stay and catch up? You aren't gonna just leave now are you?”
Raising her head, Sunset shook it listlessly. Starlight's heart skipped a beat and she too crashed back to reality. Even with everything behind them, life would still sometimes feel the need to remind them they had once been reprehensible. “Maybe in a few days. I'd love to stay and talk right now but I don't think Princess Celestia's schedule will allow it.” She offered up a half smile, though her lips felt as if they were made of lead, and tried to set everyone's mind at ease. “I...I can wait.”
A swelling of pride blossomed within Celestia, as she beheld Sunset's reaction. More times than she wished to count she had mourned the trappings of being a princess. She was as bound to her duty as she would be to a ball and chain. It had taken Sunset a long time to realise that. Instead of only thinking of herself, she was now thinking of the bigger picture and of those around her. Though, she was not quite seeing everything just yet.
“Actually, that's not quite true Sunset,” she said softly, giggling as she watched the golden ears prick up. Even though it was turned away from her, she could practically see the hopeful look that was spreading across Sunset's face. She gestured towards the position of her sun. “By my reckoning, we are exactly in time for dinner. Would you like to join me?”
Unable to believe her luck, Sunset was only able to respond by nodding her head furiously. She only stopped when the laughter of both Starlight and Celestia caused her cheeks to redden with embarrassment. In a vain attempt to correct herself she cleared her throat. “Um, yeah...I'd like that... a lot actually.”
Silently thanking whatever forces had allowed this coincidence, Starlight took a gracious step back. “You two go ahead. I think I'm a little too beat for food right now.” She mimed a yawn, which was truthfully only partially a farce. She really was about ready to collapse, on the floor if necessary. She could probably still make it to the nearby bed...maybe.
Understanding immediately, Sunset flashed her a grateful smile. The pair quickly bumped hooves, putting the final seal on their task. “I'll be back later,” Sunset promised. “There's still a lot of the human world I've got to show you. If you're up for it that is.”
“Ppft!” Starlight snorted, waving her hoof dismissively. “I'm up for anything!”
A smirk danced across Sunset's features. She would make Starlight regret those words. “We'll see about that...”
Before she could see anything else, a teal magic enveloped her. She was then unceremoniously shoved forwards, towards the door. Celestia smiled and walked forward, draping her wing over Sunset's shoulder. She looked down at her grown pupil fondly, glad for the little moment of closeness they were finally able to enjoy. The doors had finally closed on their time apart, locking away years of regret. The only way to go now was forward.
Suddenly feeling like a filly again, Sunset wriggled her way out of Celestia's wing. She took a few tentative steps forward, letting herself get just ahead of Celestia. She was overtaken, by a happiness that she had not felt in years. In an excited, slightly high-pitched squeal, she yelled, “Last one to the dining hall gets last dibs at pudding!”
Putting on a spur of speed, she dashed off down the corridor. Left behind, Celestia allowed herself a moment to watch fondly as her student galloped through the halls she belonged in. Then, throwing decorum to the wings, she spurred her own legs into action and sprinted after Sunset. Their laughter echoed throughout the entire castle. There would be more sadness later, as their time apart had changed much. Some damage that had been caused would unfortunately never truly heal. Yet it did not matter, for a bond they had both thought severed for ever was now repaired and could now continue to grow.