Once upon a time, when he was small and naïve, Sunburst had grown—in a way so quiet, so solitary—with the barest, vaguest idea of what friendship and companionship were meant to look like.
He is no longer small, he thinks, but he’s still inexperienced. But it’s a different, tempered sort of immaturity. He just so recently started living that he feels young, when he thinks of what little he has truly experienced. But he doesn’t feel ancient, no—the weight of living had yet to wear him down.
Sunburst only had Starlight when he was a little colt, along with his mother’s fondness. He had the pleasantries of teachers he got along with. He had the infrequent, warm words from his father and the simpering compliments of his fellow classmates. He had the little nods of acknowledgment from the pony at the book store, and the companionable silence of his massive collection of books and antiquities.
And it had been enough, not knowing any better, and he’d never expected any of it would change.
But then, oh, then, Starlight came back. Starlight, who he hadn’t thought of in years, coming to rub her accomplishments in his face. Starlight, who he misjudged before she had a chance to explain herself. Before he realized just how much he had missed her, before he realized just how empty his life had been without her, and he realized, even as his horizons broaden, that he’d grown to value her companionship above everyone else’s.
It’s an old and cliché story. Two best friends grow apart. They reunited and a shaky companionship grows between them. Sunburst wants to be the best friend he could be. He doesn’t always succeed, but he tries, and he learns.
His clumsiness makes him unsure, and he treated her like a stranger at first—out of respect for what she been through—and, then—
—they somehow got their friendship back. Not only that, it was stronger than ever before, more fulfilling in a hundred tiny, blooming ways. He’s let himself think of their tie to each other as an assurance. A promise. A gaze, held—for she never looked away from him, no, not once.
But maybe, Sunburst thinks, he was never meant to have Starlight. She’s drifting away, and it stings, and it angers him, and he’s lost in the face of this new reality: that it’s his turn to be the one left behind.
Sunburst wakes in the middle of the night. He thrashes, gasping for breath. He sits up instantly, ripping the blanket away, his magic clutching the fabric rough enough to tear it. He has always been a restless sleeper.
The books on his lap tumbled and fall to the floor, hitting the carpet underneath with a muffled thud. The sound of his books reminds him to breathe.
Sunburst rubs his eyes. Just a nightmare, already fading.
He exhales heavily, puts on his glasses, and looks at the window, assessing the darkness outside.
He puts on a robe, heading downstairs to the kitchen. He needs a cup of tea, something to calm him down, and he’ll do it as quietly as he can since Starlight’s room is closest to the kitchen.
Starlight, who used to make tea for them both, the winter before. Tea that was always delicious, and warm, and different from the tea Trixie makes, or the ones he makes for himself. Sunburst only makes tea for himself out of a mundane need for a drink. When Starlight made him tea, it had felt like a careful sort of gesture; it tasted like a gift.
Sunburst stops at the landing, getting lost in the memory. He feels the shape and the contours of that familiar, leaden heaviness in him. In the darkness, in the silence of the night, it’s easier to get lost in the melancholy. Sunburst only fights his unhappiness when he must, but it envelops him now, like an old friend.
As he steps to the ground floor, his attention is caught by the light pouring from the kitchen.
This makes him stop, and he stares at the slightly ajar door, listening as a muffled sound reaches his ears.
He walks to the door, his pace fast, and sees her—sitting on the counter, her head resting on her hooves, useless spells appearing and disappearing in erratic motions. A spoon, a fork, and a butter knife spinning in circles, over and over, for no apparent reason.
She looks weary to the bone. She looks miserable.
Something about the sight is too much for Sunburst; anger and hurt and worry brims over, and it burst forth in a loud, “What is the matter with you?”
She lifts her head slowly and stares at him. He doesn’t miss the way she tenses.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “Nothing is the matter.” Her voice is short. Her horn stops glowing, and the utensils fall with a clatter and just lay there, resting on the surface of the counter. She studies them, avoiding his gaze.
“Since when is doing magic at every possible moment the cure for insomnia?”
“It's none of your business.”
“Of course it is!”
She looks up, catches his gaze for a second, and then her eyes shift back down. He sees her swallow. “Why? Why does it matter? It’s just a little magic.”
His voice is brittle. “It matters because you’re hiding something. Why are you lying to me? What is making you like this!?”
She meets his eyes and the expression on her face makes his breath catch—it’s screwed up, guilty, troubled over something clearly very important to her.
“Starlight, please,” he says, softer.
“Don’t,” she answers. She seems to be clashing with herself, warring over what words to tell him, he sees panic and frustration in every line of her face.
“Starlight,” his voice is urgent. “Just tell me what it is.”
She shakes her head, eyes shut tight. “I can’t.”
“Don’t you know I’d do anything for you?” Sunburst says, angrier, but on the verge of falling to his knees just to get her to speak. “Why do you have to—hide away from me, like I’m diseased? We’re friends!”
Something about the last sentence makes her snap, because she reacts, jarred and upset, with a shout. “Maybe we shouldn’t be!”
“Why?” He throws back.
The world has shrunk. Shrunk down to the two of them alone, here, now.
Starlight gets up and starts pacing, back and forth like a caged manticore, shaking her head. Whatever it is she’s trying to hold back—whatever she’s fought with for days, he thinks—it’s winning. As though she is giving up, she slumps. Her expression unnerves him; she looks sickened with herself. And then—
—she speaks up. “Because it makes falling in love with you too easy,” and it sounds like an admission of defeat, of embarrassment.
The world stops. Sunburst stares at her. She looks away. She looks drained, exhausted. And the world is not moving anymore, not spinning; it is tethered to the space between them. All Sunburst can feel is his heartbeat stuttering in the silence.
In the quiet.
In the silence so deafening—
—and then everything picks up again, too fast, too soon, and the shock returns to his body, tuning into something twisting, aching inside him and it makes him stagger.
The world is moving differently, strangely, the ground seems unsteady underneath his hooves. The planet is spinning too fast now. He feels dizzy.
Sunburst breathes in, and breathes out, and speaks. “Don’t run away from it. If you mean it, then don’t hide from it. From me.”
“What do you want me to do?” Her voice is quiet.
“Tell me properly,” he sounds oddly calm—a distanced calm he does not comprehend—and says, “help me understand.”
Starlight gasps, sharply, and the words spill from her mouth in a panic frenzy. “No, no, I can’t! If I do that—if I tell you now, lay my bones for you, I might be sick. If I tell you everything, no, heavens no, just—read the diary you gave me. I can’t talk about this, I—what I feel—this isn’t another curiosity for you to study!”
She runs to the door, and Sunburst scurries out of her way. Then chases after her before the door closes on his face.
“I can’t do this,” she says again, as though to herself. She doesn’t turn to see him as he stands there, rooted in the foyer, and she disappears in a flash of turquoise.
Sunburst stands in the empty castle for a long time, until his eyes get used to the darkness, wondering where she had reappeared, what place she needs to exists in for her to calm down.
And then he turns and marches up the stairs, still mildly in disbelief at his calmness. He finds her diary underneath a slightly dusty kite and sits down on her empty bed, and Sunburst reads everything in it.
Over and over and over.
On Sunburst’s tenth birthday, Princess Celestia gave him a toy soldier. It was wrapped in colorful paper, inside a cardboard gift box, and it was made out of wood, carefully carved and painted, the little details in its armor making it more alive. Sunburst thanked the Princess, but the gift instantly troubled him—made him wonder. The soldier stood at the ready, looking ahead, and was all alone. Most of the time these toys come in a set, sometimes with other soldiers. At times, with a Princess to defend.
Celestia’s smile told Sunburst that she had guessed his thoughts. “Curious why this soldier is alone, are you?”
Sunburst, just ten years old, slightly miffed, his uniform smudged with grass stains from when he’d run into the garden that morning to avoid his bullies, had replied. “What do you mean by it? Are you making fun of me because I can't make friends?”
Celestia’s voice had been so gentle when she said, “It’s not meant to be funny. My dear student, none of us are lucky enough to spend our whole lives without ever feeling lonely. Someday—perhaps for long, perhaps for short—you will be alone. You must understand that you have to be strong when the time comes, be good, and live knowing you honor yourself—so that the right ponies fill that loneliness, someday.”
She petted his messy mane. “This soldier, see him smile? He stands alone, but he is happy. You can find happiness, even in solitude. And when this soldier finds a friend, he will know friendship truly, because he understands himself, first.”
Sunburst picked his words carefully. “You want me to…understand myself?”
“Very good, Sunburst,” was all Princess Celestia said.
In the journal, Starlight writes of her love for Sunburst. Sunburst reads all the words until he has them memorized, his hooves tracing over the messy writing. Starlight writes of never leaving Sunburst’s side. Starlight writes, for all his wisdom, he doesn’t know, doesn’t see, and Sunburst thinks, she’s right.
He is so blind to the world around him, to the obvious, until it turns around and bites him in the face. Even then he has a hard time understanding.
Something inside him asks, that's all well and good, but, do you love her back?
Sunburst tilts his head at the unspoken question.
“I’ve loved her,” he says, into the silence, “my whole life.”
He’s still holding on to Starlight’s diary when she comes home, late that night. The front door to the castle opens and she steps in. She’s calmer, but still very nervous. Her cheeks darken when she sees him, sitting on the bottom of the grand staircase, holding her journal.
There is silence.
Until Sunburst finally breaks it. “Starlight—can we talk?”
“Sure,” she says. She doesn’t seem afraid. Sunburst cannot help thinking, looking at her, that she has never been afraid of anything for too long. He can tell that she’s no longer afraid of her feelings for him.
She sits down next to him on the bottom step, and they face each other. A beat passes before Sunburst asks. “What would the ideal outcome be for you?”
She takes a deep breath and releases it with a sigh. “We move on. You forgive me. You continue to work at the school as nothing happened.”
Sunburst holds the diary tighter until he can’t feel his hoof anymore. “I want something else.”
At this, Starlight's shoulders slump, defeated. “I figured you would.”
At her statement, Sunburst unexpectedly freezes, a wave of nervousness pouring over him. His calm fades. Starlight looks at him and holds his gaze, and it comes to Sunburst’s mind clearly—she’s looking at you, and she won’t look away, not unless you ask her.
He can no longer hold back the truth. “I—I want to stay, too. But I don’t need to forgive you, because there’s nothing to forgive, because, what you want, it’s what I want. What I feel for you is the same way you feel about me. And—my wish, remember when we traded wishes? I wished for you to find peace. I want you to have peace, and I want to be with you. I just hope that our goals align.”
Starlight is looking at him, she never looked away—never broke away from his gaze as he talked. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to. Her smile speaks for her, it tells him everything he needs to know.
“I love you,” he confesses, loudly, more to himself than anything, because he sees that Starlight already knows, they both know.
“I thought,” Starlight says, hesitates, but she continues, “I thought you would leave one day, to become a researcher or something.” She’s still smiling, simple and joyous and wide, and the sight of it makes Sunburst feel more awake, more alive than he ever has been. Nothing feels real. Everything feels too real.
“I’m happy with what I have. I’m happy here, with you. And if I ever have to leave, I’m taking you with me this time. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Starlight says.
She surprises him, as usual, by taking his hoof in hers and holding it gently. “Thank you,” she says.
“Don’t be silly.”
“I have always been silly, you should be used to it by now,” she replies easily.
He’s so caught off guard that he laughs before he can stop himself.
There’s a commotion in the kitchen, and they both recognized Trixie’s shrill voice as she fights with the kitchen utensils. “Oh, it’s Trixie’s turn to make dinner.”
Starlight stands. “I’ll make some tea, then.”
Sunburst beams at her and asks. “Can you make it every evening?”
She raises an eyebrow, but from then on, she does.
A week later, it’s the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville. Musicians play music in the decorated, open square, large tables hold all kinds of foods and drinks. Stands provide games and other entertainment. Colts and fillies play and chase each other, the elderly smile and greet each other as long-time friends, the other creatures that aren’t ponies take in the festivities with a sense of awe and participate in them with eager smiles, and the night air is fragranced with something festive and warm.
When Sunburst asks Starlight to dance, she jokes, “I didn’t know you could dance,” even as she nods and takes his offered hoof.
“I’m no good at ballroom dancing,” he affably agrees. “But this kind of dancing is easier.” He holds her hoof up as she twirls, and every creature around them seems to be smiling at them, but Sunburst only has eyes for her.
“It’s certainly more fun,” she says with a laugh as they spin. The dimples on Sunburst’s cheeks appear as he grins. They dance in the moonlight, comfortably lost in each other’s presence, for long hours into the night.
As they walk home in the early morning, Sunburst looks at her, and Starlight is looking ahead as she hums a song she’s making up as she goes. He thinks, I'm never leaving, there is no place I will rather be than here and watch her do the impossible, she could probably build a ladder to the sun and be crazy enough to climb it.
And he would be right behind her because he loved her that much.
He stops her from stepping up to the castle’s entrance and kisses her. She’s surprised only for a second before she responds just as eagerly, her soft hoof cradling his cheek tenderly.
As they break apart, she smiled at him. He beams back.
They turn when they hear a commotion from the bushes, where Ocellus, Smolder, and Silverstream tumble out of the greenery. Ocellus smiles sheepishly and disappears with a flash, Smolder yells after her and runs away, Silverstream just shakes the dust off her feather and flies away with the biggest grin she could muster.
Sunburst bursts out laughing even as Starlight's cheeks turn as red as a pair of apples.
But that night they fall asleep holding each other, ignoring Trixie’s knowing grin when they come down for breakfast in the morning. Life was complete.
“Show me one of your poems,” he tells her one day, “and I’ll tell you a story.”
Starlight considers this. They’re having dinner, with bowls of steaming vegetable soup between them. “I’ll show you the new one I’m working on,” she agrees. “What kind of story will you tell me?”
“The story,” he grins, “of how I fell in love with you. I’ve never told you my side of it.”
Starlight tilts her head. “You're right, you never told me that story, I’d like to hear it.”
Sunburst, resting his face on his hoof, tells her, “We can keep exchanging stories and poems, and finding more as we go. Sounds like a plan?”
She answers, completely serious. “Sounds perfect.”
When she says it, it sounds like a promise, a promise that Sunburst knows she will keep, and an oath he will fulfill as well.
“A promise, then,” he says. “I look forward to us keeping it.”
And they do.