Looking Glass

by Krickis


32 – Like a Phoenix from the Ashes

Chapter Thirty-Two

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes

It was all so quiet.

There had been lots of noise from the gym during the dance, both from the music and from the teenagers inside, but that was all. Just noise from the world around her, which felt disturbingly unfamiliar after so long. For the first time in years, it was quiet in her head. And now that the dance was over, that feeling only intensified.

Sunset was hiding behind the broken wall at the front of the school. She had done that. Her actions had left a horrible mark on the school, and the damage done to the wall was far lesser than the damage she might’ve done to the students. And when it really came down to it? Sunset wasn’t even sure why. She had wanted power, but for what? Taking over Equestria had never been her goal, at least not until after she put on the crown. And still, she spent years fueling herself with vague thoughts of revenge and making sure she was the best, letting herself become so blind that she never saw there was another way.

Sunset tried to remember what she had been thinking at the time, but it was all a blur. She remembered every detail of what happened, but trying to remember what had been in her own head proved much more challenging. The moment she had placed the crown on her head, she had lost herself.

No, that wasn’t fair, and she knew it. Sunset wished she could blame the demon for her actions, but she was the one responsible for herself. There had been no malevolent spirit controlling her; the demon was her, pure and simple. The worst parts of her, but still her. It got so strong because there was so much bad stuff in Sunset, and she had ignored anything good in favor of feeding the bad. Even if the magic from the crown had pushed that side of her forward, it had always been there.

But there was nothing now. Sunset was left with more self-doubt than ever, but it was different now. As soon as she crawled out of the crater, she expected to hear or see some sort of manifestation of her darkness, but it never came. Was it something the Elements did? Or because she faced down the demon in the other place? Was that something the Elements did?

There was no answer. There was nothing at all except for Sunset herself, and that terrified her.

Despite all the excitement, the Fall Formal somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Sunset knew she should have just left while everyone else was preoccupied. There was no reason left for her to stay at Canterlot High School; she had already ruined everything.

But she stayed, even if she wasn’t exactly sure why. Maybe it was just better than going back to her empty house. It wasn’t like she had ever really felt at home there, and she doubted it would start to feel like one now. There was no home for someone like Sunset. Not on Earth, and certainly not in Equestria.

Equestria. Sunset wasn’t sure if she could ever bring herself to go back there. It had been all she wanted for years, but somehow, it felt further now than it ever had. Even when she didn’t know how to get back to it, she had always felt like she belonged there. And now? There was nowhere for her.

At least Twilight got to go back. Sunset was surprised to find she was happy about that. She had fucked up so many things, but she hadn’t quite managed to fuck things up so bad that somepony else would have to suffer her fate. After the dance, Sunset watched Twilight say goodbye to her friends, and she finally had the chance to think about how wrong she’d been.

She had realized it while she was in the other place, and then had it reaffirmed in the most real way she could imagine when Twilight took her hand and helped her out of the crater. But watching her go back through the portal was when it really sunk in. It was the first time Sunset had seen her as Twilight, a real pony who had a real life, and not just as an ideal. Twilight had only ever been her replacement to Sunset, a perfect version of herself that she hated for being more than she could have been. Sunset had read a considerable amount about Twilight’s life, but she knew nothing at all about the pony Twilight really was.

On the Crystal path, Sunset had met a Twilight who had become her student. There was nothing in common between that pony and the one that Sunset had been hating for years. And while she was not necessarily the same as the Twilight that Sunset had met face to face, the real thing was probably much closer to her than to the effigy that Sunset’s imagination had created.

Of course, she still had no idea how much of what she saw in the other place was real. At the time, it had felt like she had lived each of the lives – the one in Equestria with her family, and the one on Earth with her friends. But now that it was over, it all seemed to her as if it had been a movie that she watched. The memories remained, but the feeling was gone, and it made it hard to treat it as fact.

It didn’t matter. Maybe those had been possible lives she could have lived, but they were both long gone now. It was just Sunset, alone once again.

She sat down on the ground and leaned against the broken wall. Twilight had left, but her friends were still there. They were talking about going out to celebrate, and Sunset just hoped they would forget she was there.

Forgetting about her completely seemed to be out of the question, though. “So, uhm… what should we do about Sunset Shimmer?” Fluttershy asked before they left.

“Let’s bring her with us!” Pinkie said. “We can make it a welcome-to-being-friends party!”

“I’m not so sure,” Rarity said. Of course, Rarity was the sensible one. That was good, although Sunset felt torn as she listened. “Believe me, I would love nothing more than to put everything behind us, but I’m not so sure that’s possible quite so soon.”

“Yeah, maybe we can deal with her on Monday?” Rainbow suggested. “I know we told Twilight we’d look out for her, but come on. Do you really think Sunset Shimmer is just gonna buddy up with us after we just blasted her sorry butt?”

“But we did tell Twilight we’d watch out for her,” Pinkie said. “We can’t just leave her by herself after that!”

“I, uhm, er…”

“What is it, Fluttershy?” Rarity asked.

“Well… I’m not so sure that I’m… ready to be friends with Sunset yet…”

“Look, I don’t want to let Twilight down more than any of you do,” Rainbow said. “But, well… Sunset’s done some pretty rotten things to all of us.”

“Perhaps it would be best to wait to see if she comes to us?” Rarity suggested. “I for one would like a sincere apology without having to force it out of her.”

“That ain’t gonna happen.”

Sunset clenched her eyes shut upon hearing Applejack’s tone. When Twilight first led Sunset out of the crater, Applejack had seemed willing to accept her, but her tone now suggested otherwise.

It didn’t get better as Applejack continued. “We could try to force our way to bein’ her friends, but that’s not gonna end well for anyone. And I know how she is, she’s not just gonna change on her own.”

“So what do you think we should do?” Fluttershy asked.

There was a pause before Applejack answered. “I guess I’m with Rainbow. Let’s wait until Monday and see what happens. In any event, I don’t think she’ll be able to get away with bullying anyone from now on.”

There were murmurs of agreement, then the sound of footsteps as they walked away.

This was good. Sunset had hurt all of them, and no matter what Twilight wanted, they didn’t owe her anything. They would be better off without her, and Sunset would be better off on her own.

So why did she hate to hear them go so much? Was it because she had seen for herself that they could be friends? Was it just because she didn’t want to be alone?

The only thing that Sunset knew was that she couldn’t stand to keep sitting where she was, so she stood up and walked into the courtyard. The school was empty; even if it was a Friday night, it was still getting late for the high schoolers. And besides, who wanted to stay at school once the dance was over? No one who had anywhere else to go. No one but Sunset.

Even though she knew the portal was no longer active, Sunset was still hesitant as she walked up to the statue. She wasn’t sure what she was afraid of. Maybe Twilight would find some way to open the portal again and come back to issue a real punishment for her actions, or maybe her reflection would start yelling at her for being a failure.

But the only thing that happened as Sunset approached the statue was that her heart pounded against her chest. The only thing that she saw in her reflection was that she looked a mess. Her face was covered in dirt and tear stains, her hair stuck out all over the place, and her clothes were ripped.

Sunset stopped just before reaching the statue. Very slowly, she lifted her hand and placed it against the marble. Her hand stopped where her reflection’s raised to meet it, and it felt cold and solid.

Sunset leaned her forehead against the statue. There was no more portal, not for another thirty moons. All there was to do was make the most of the life she had created for herself, and Sunset knew that didn’t amount to much.

“Figured you’d still be here.”

Sunset wrapped her arms around herself and turned away from Applejack, but remained leaning against the statue. “Why’d you come back?”

Applejack walked closer to her and leaned against the statue as well. “Want to take a guess?”

“You should’ve just left with your friends.”

“Guess ya heard us talkin’ then.”

“Yeah.”

They were quiet for a moment. Sunset kept her back to Applejack. She wasn’t sure of Applejack’s motives, but she didn’t feel like she had the right to press for more. “You should… go back to your friends.”

“Do ya want me to leave?”

Sunset hesitated. It wasn’t so much that she was torn in her answer, more so that she just didn’t know. She knew Applejack should leave, but was that what she wanted? “It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Course it does.” Applejack’s voice was straight and to the point; she neither sugarcoated her tone nor spoke with any malice. “If ya want me to leave, I’ll leave. If ya want me to stay, I’ll stay. It’s your choice, Sunset.”

Sunset turned so her back was against the statue, but she still didn’t look at Applejack. “Why? Why do I even get a choice after everything I’ve done?”

“Because, well… Look at it this way. What do you think would happen if I said, ‘Alright, you’re coming to Sugarcube Corner with us, and we’re all gonna be friends now’?”

“I… I don’t know.” The thought made her chest tighten. They all had the right to hate her. And even if somehow they didn’t, was that even something she wanted? She didn’t know, but she knew that she didn’t deserve it.

“Well I think that it’ll be no different than when we were in middle school. Maybe you’ll come and maybe you’ll even have fun, but then in a few weeks you’ll start resenting us for pushing it on you, and you’ll push yourself away again.”

Was that true? It made sense, but Sunset didn’t want to be that person anymore.

“But if we just leave you alone, you’re never gonna be the one to make the first move.”

That was definitely true. “You’re right. I’m hopeless.”

Or maybe you need to just be the one who decides if you even want to be friends with us. We can’t force ya into it, and ya won’t do anything on your own, which is why I’m tryin’ to give you a choice. So… what do you want to do?”

What did Sunset want to do? She had the chance to shape her own future however she wanted, all that was left to do was to decide how to do it. “I don’t know.” Sunset slid down the statue so that she was sitting against it. “I’m not… I can’t face everyone… Not after everything I did to them.”

“Okay, so we won’t meet up with the others. But what about me then? Do ya want me to stick around with you for a while, or do ya just want to be alone for now?”

“I don’t…” Sunset shook her head. She knew what the old Sunset would do, and that was reason enough to do something different. “No, I don’t want to be alone.”

“Well, alright then.” Applejack took a seat beside Sunset.

Sunset turned to look at Applejack for the first time and was surprised to see she was smiling. “But… why? You should go be with your friends, not stuck here with me…”

Applejack sighed. “No one’s forcing me to be here, Sunset. I was gonna just go out with them, but then I changed my mind and came back. It was my decision, so I’m not stuck here.”

“Yeah, but… I’m not worth it.”

“Ya did do a lot of bad things,” Applejack relented. “But, well... this is a second chance. If you’re willing to try and be better now, then maybe you can be someone who is worth it after all.”

Sunset closed her eyes and felt herself sinking. How could she ever hope to do that when she didn’t even know how? “Everything seemed so simple before. I just had to keep pushing my way to the top, no matter what, and it felt like there was no other way to go. I know that was wrong now, but I also know how easily I could screw this up…”

“But you do want to, right?” Applejack asked. “You actually want to be a better person now?”

“I do.” Sunset felt a little of her resolve again. If there was only one thing Sunset was sure of, that was it. “I want to be better. But… I don’t even know where to start. It feels like I’m already wasting this chance…”

Applejack nudged her, and Sunset felt a pull on her heart at the friendly gesture. “Nah, you’re just overthinkin’ things. I mean, yeah, ya gotta make some choices ‘bout how ya can do better from here, but ya ain’t gotta do anything tonight!”

“So then when?” Sunset turned to Applejack hopefully. “What am I supposed to do now? How do I fix things?”

Applejack glanced away before answering. “Wish I had an easy answer for you, but it ain’t really like that. There’s nothing you need to do, exactly, ya just gotta be a good person from here on out. Simple as that.”

There was no way it would be as simple as Applejack made it sound. Sunset had caused too much damage for that.

But Sunset wanted to believe Applejack, so she didn’t argue. Instead, she just sat in silence and wondered how much longer this could last for. Surely Applejack would go back to her friends soon, and then Sunset would be alone.

“So why didn’t ya go through it?” Applejack gestured toward the statue. “Ya had to realize how easy it would be to get back to Equestria while we were at the dance.”

The thought had definitely crossed Sunset’s mind, but Sunset had immediately decided against it. “There’s a lot of reasons.”

“Ya know, I’d still like to hear your side of all this, if ya feel like telling me about it.”

That was also easier said than done. It was hard to believe that it had only been a few hours since Applejack had tried to get Sunset to tell her about that. “It wouldn’t make me out to be any better. I was wrong, and Twilight was right.”

“So is that it then? You just didn’t want to go back ‘cause Twilight would be there?”

Sunset turned to Applejack and considered what to say for a moment. Everything to do with Equestria had been such a closely guarded secret for so long that even talking about it felt wrong. “It wasn’t really Twilight I was afraid to see…”

“I thought as much…” Applejack nervously adjusted her hat. “You, uh, you did something bad back in Equestria too, didn’t you?”

Sunset nodded. “I’ve done so many things wrong…”

“Do ya think you’ll get in trouble if ya did go back?”

“Maybe.” Sunset winced as she thought about the fire in the library. “Definitely… But I think I could be okay with that. I’ll be in trouble here for the damage to the school, but… there’s someone I really let down back in Equestria, and I’m scared of seeing her again.”

Applejack placed a hand on her shoulder. “Well… ain’t that just one more reason to be better by the time you do?”

Between the touch and Applejack’s positivity, Sunset somehow found it in herself to show a small smile. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

“And I know ya got a lot to figure out, but so long as you’re actually tryin’, ya won’t have to do it alone.”

Sunset pulled her knees up to her chest. “Thank you. I wish I would’ve accepted your help sooner. Maybe we’d all be a lot better off right now.”

“Maybe.” Applejack shrugged. “But we can’t do anything about that now.”

Sunset tried to remember what it felt like when she was watching the path where the Apples had adopted her. But the feeling was gone, and there was nothing Sunset could do about it, even if she could remember.

“It’s so quiet,” Sunset said. “For years, there’s just been so much going through my head. So many thoughts and negative emotions and… other things. It was like… I couldn’t ever think about anything besides what my next move was, even though I always thought I was so damn analytical. But now, it’s quiet. Ever since the Elements hit me, there’s been nothing there, and I just feel so empty.”

Applejack just watched her without replying, and Sunset realized she wasn’t making any sense. “Sorry, I’m just thinking out loud.”

“No, don’t be sorry,” Applejack said. “I just don’t really know what to say. I don’t really know anything about what your life has been like, so I can’t really understand what it’s like to be you. And I can tell ya don’t really want to get into all that now. But whenever ya do feel like talkin’ about it, I’m all ears.”

“I…” Sunset turned to Applejack. “I’ll keep that in mind. Maybe it would be good to talk about it… Er, someday.”

Applejack smiled and nodded. “Of course.”

Sunset leaned her head back so that she could see the night sky. “Do you… really think I can be a good person?”

“I do,” Applejack said with no hesitation. “It’s gonna be up to you to stick with it, but yeah, I have no doubt you can do it.”

“And…” Sunset shook her head.

“What’s up?”

Sunset looked at Applejack and barely managed to get the words out. “And you’ll be there?”

Applejack grinned. “Aww, come on now. You should know by now how stubborn I am! I said I’d stick by ya, and that’s just what I mean to do.”

Sunset inhaled sharply, but kept herself from letting any other emotions out. “Thank you. I know it’s a lot more than I deserve…”

“None of that now.” Applejack placed an arm around Sunset’s shoulder and roughly pulled her into a hug. Sunset lost her balance and wound up closer than Applejack likely intended for them to be, but she didn’t seem to mind. “No friend of mine oughta be puttin’ herself down like that!”

Friend. Applejack called Sunset her friend. How long had Sunset wanted that? She had always held herself back from it before, but now she saw how stupid she had been. “I just… Thanks, Applejack.”

“Hey, no problem.”

Applejack let go of her, and Sunset sat up properly. She wished the moment could have lasted longer, but even if they were friends – and Sunset wasn’t entirely convinced that saying it made it true – they were still nowhere near close enough for Sunset to shoot for anything more comforting.

“You should head back to the others,” Sunset said. Once she saw the look Applejack was giving her, she added, “I think I’ll be okay now. I have plenty to feel guilty for without keeping you from your friends.”

At least there was no doubting Applejack’s stubbornness. “There ain’t no reason to feel guilty! The others won’t mind me bein’ gone, don’t worry none about that.”

Sunset decided on a different approach. “Maybe, but I don’t think it’ll help us get off to a great start if they think I’m beating you up or something because you’re taking too long to get back to them.”

Applejack chuckled nervously. “I, uh, I guess you might have a point there.” She stood up and dusted herself off, then held out her hand to help Sunset up.

There was, of course, nothing to the gesture besides a nice yet unneeded courtesy, and it only lasted for a moment. Still, when Sunset took Applejack’s hand in hers, it somehow erased just a little of her doubt.

“So… I guess I’ll see you on Monday,” Sunset said, not entirely sure where to go with their shaky friendship.

“Yeah, you will.” Applejack grinned. “Course, you could also come with me to get to know the others a bit.”

Sunset looked away. “I’m… not so sure that’s a good idea…”

Applejack brushed her skirt off. “I know ya said you’re not ready, and I can understand that. I said I won’t push ya into anything, and I stand by that.” Satisfied that she’d brushed most of the dirt off, Applejack left her skirt alone and smiled at Sunset instead. “But at least consider it. No one’s gonna be too hard on you, and ya might just enjoy yourself.”

Talking to Applejack was hard, but at least Sunset knew what to expect from her. But the others… “I don’t know, they didn’t exactly sound thrilled with the idea before. Well, except for Pinkie.”

“I talked about it with them more after we left, so they already know ya might come.” Applejack glanced down. “They’re just concerned that, uh…”

“That I might still be a total bitch?”

Applejack smirked. “Yeah, that about sums it up. They’re all ready to meet the new you, so long as it is the new you that they’ll be meetin’.”

Despite all her attempts at figuring out what she should do, or even what she wanted to do, Sunset was just as confused as before. In the end, it was just easier to go along with someone else, at least for the rest of the night. “I guess… if you’re sure it won’t be a problem.”

“Positive.”

Sunset followed Applejack as they made their way towards the parking lot. “What made you decide to come back for me?”

Applejack shot her an uncertain look before answering. “I got to thinking… what if you weren’t at school on Monday? Wouldn’t blame ya for playin’ sick and stayin’ home, but then what if ya didn’t show up after that?”

That was reasonable, and Applejack probably didn’t even know how feasible it would be for Sunset to leave school completely. She had a job and a house, and it probably wouldn’t be too hard to transfer to another school. Hell, there was no one to stop her even if she decided to drop out.

“Guess I thought that if I didn’t do somethin’ now, there might not be another chance.”

Maybe there was another path where Applejack had decided to wait until Monday to try talking to Sunset, but she was fine with never finding out what was on it. “I’m glad you came back.”

“Yeah, I think I made the right call.” They reached a red pickup truck, and Applejack opened the driver’s door. “You want to ride with me or follow behind?”

It would’ve been nice to just ride with Applejack, but Sunset didn’t want to leave her motorcycle unattended. It seemed she’d have to make it last after all, along with everything else that had been intended to be temporary. “I’ll follow you. Sugarcube Corner, right?”

“Yup. But uh, before we go…” Applejack climbed into the truck and handed Sunset a hairbrush. “Probably wouldn’t hurt to use that. And uh, ya might wanna make a beeline to the bathroom when we get there, so you can wash up a bit.”

Over the course of their conversation, Sunset had actually forgotten how much of a mess she was. She found herself giving a small laugh as she started untangling her hair. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”

“I got this if ya wanna change out of that jacket.” Applejack held up a blue sweater. “Can’t do much ‘bout the rest, but it’s something.”

Sunset took the sweater and held it up to see the front. She smirked at the familiar gold horseshoe. “I can’t say I’ve been much of a Wondercolt.”

Applejack started the truck. “Ya never know, it might suit ya.”

Since Sunset didn’t have anywhere to put it while on her bike, she quickly fixed her hair then returned the brush to Applejack. She also took up her offer on the sweater, leaving her jacket in Applejack’s truck as well.

Although Sunset assured her she knew where Sugarcube Corner was, Applejack still pulled to the edge of the parking lot and waited for her. Truthfully, Sunset felt too uneasy to want to drive, but she’d already agreed to go and she wasn’t going to leave her bike.

The ride did manage to clear her head a lot more than she expected, though. Leaving the school certainly helped, as did the normalcy of the drive itself. And even though the sweater did little to stop the wind, Sunset found the chill to be invigorating. It pulled her out of a haze that she hadn’t realized she was still in, and she couldn’t recall ever being so aware of the world around her.

The last time she had even bothered to look at the world around her had been three days ago, when she thought she’d never see it again. At the time, all she had been able to think about was how she was finally free from a world of entrapments. Now, it was almost as if she had never seen it before. The world around her seemed so new, and she was no longer sure if it was good or bad.

As with everything else, Sunset wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about the bike ride by the time they arrived at Sugarcube Corner. It had been overstimulating, but part of her had enjoyed the rush and sense of life that she had felt on her bike, which had vanished the moment she dismounted it.

There was no doubt about the meeting, though. The thought of everone inside filled her with unease, and if not for Applejack, she wouldn’t have even gotten off the bike. But Applejack was there, and that was all it took. She had stayed just in front of Sunset the whole way, so that they’d arrive together. It wouldn’t be easy to face the others, but it would be a little easier with Applejack beside her.

Sunset locked up her bike, then walked slowly to where Applejack was waiting. “I guess this is it…”

“You nervous?” Applejack asked.

Sunset looked up at the building. “I’m terrified.”

“Hey, it’ll be alright.” Applejack smiled warmly. “If it gets to be too much, just let me know and we can go somewhere else.”

Sunset tore her eyes off the building so she could look at Applejack. “But I don’t want to pull you away from your friends.”

Applejack shrugged. “Sure, it’d be nice to spend the evening with them, but it ain’t like I won’t be seeing them soon. Meanwhile, I don’t want to leave you alone while you’re still getting used to everything, least not unless ya want me to.” She patted Sunset’s back. “Maybe you’re not so used to this whole friend thing, but looking out for one another is part of it.”

Once again, Applejack called her a friend. How could it be that simple? “I’m sorry I’m making things so complicated. I really am pathetic…”

Applejack’s hand found Sunset’s. “I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

The autumn wind was chilly, but Applejack’s hand was still warm. And when she looked into Applejack’s face, Sunset felt that warmth inside her as well. There was a lot for her to learn, and she knew she had a long way to go before she would earn forgiveness, but that was okay. Applejack was with her, and as if that wasn’t enough already, she trusted the other girls to stand beside Sunset as well.

It was still daunting, but Sunset took a step. She had been consumed by her own fire, but now she had a chance to rise from the ashes. She didn’t know who she’d be when she did, but she was ready to find out.