The seconds were hours: long enough for Sunset’s nerve to leave her, take a lap around Canterlot, and come back again with her lunch. Her stomach churned from the mixed vegetable plate she had snacked on and briefly contemplated on returning it to the garden.
Sunset swallowed hard. That would be the poorest way to greet her mother.
The knob on the door turned, and Sunset froze—a deer in the headlights as the humans said.
The door opened, revealing a thinning pegasus mare with a dull yellow coat that Sunset knew used to be much brighter, and an orange mane with grey roots. Her blue eyes were wide with disbelief as she held Sunset in her gaze.
Sunset gave her a guilty smile. “H-hi, Mom. I—”
“Sunset!” Twilight cried.
“Changeling!” Dawn Glider screeched.
“What? Mom, it’s—ow!” Sunset threw her hooves over her face to block the relentless broom her mom was brandishing.
“How dare you! How dare you impersonate my daughter! Take that, and that!” She hovered in the doorway, swinging the broom repeatedly at any part of Sunset she could get to. “Help! Changeling!”
“No! No, she not a changeling!” Twilight yelled, flying up and taking the broom away with her magic. “Everything’s fine, I swear.” She looked over her shoulder to an elderly mare who had been trimming her rosebush. “There are no changelings!”
Sunset lay pressed against the floorboards of the porch, keeping her face guarded. When the broom failed to hit her again, she chanced a peek up; her mother stared down at her with shock and longing.
Dawn looked up at Twilight. “P-princess?” She looked down at Sunset again. “So… then, you’re really…?”
Sunset climbed to her hooves. “Yes, I’m—oof!”
Dawn threw her entire weight onto Sunset and almost sent them both to the ground. “S-Sunset Shimmer!” she sobbed. “My baby girl! You’re alive! You’re here! I-I-I didn’t think—but you’re here—I missed you—I love you so much!”
She broke from her hug with a watery gasp. “And I hit you with the broom!” She rained kisses down on Sunset’s head. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Mmmf! Ack! Mom, agh! Stop, I get it! Mommy, stop it!” Sunset flailed her hooves in a weak attempt to repel Dawn from kissing her face. Eventually, she stopped fighting and let her mom continue her nurturing onslaught.
Once she had kissed Sunset all over, Dawn pulled her into a hug again. She stroked Sunset’s hair and whispered, “I love you,” again and again into Sunset ear.
Sunset’s dam broke and she wept into her mother’s greying mane. “I know,” she said. “I kn-know. I lo-love you too. I’m s-so s-sorry.”
They stayed wrapped in each other’s forelegs until a loud trumpeting scared them apart. Mother and daughter turned to see Twilight with a handkerchief over her nose.
“Oh, sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I’ll just… I’ll be going now.”
“Nonsense,” Dawn said. “Princess Twilight, you brought my daughter back to me. There has to be something I can do to repay you.”
Twilight shook her head furiously. “No, really. I just wanted to help Sunset find her family again.”
“Well, I insist you at least come inside. Come, come, I’ll put some tea on.” She grabbed Twilight by the hoof and pulled her through the doorway.
Sunset followed, feeling a wave of nostalgia wash over her as she stepped across the threshold. The scent of cinnamon and flowers filled the hall, reminding Sunset of evenings spent studying in the kitchen. Family pictures were lined up on both sides of the hall.
She stopped at one: a family photograph in front of Neighagra Falls. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but her and Spitfire’s smiles looked a little forced. Had we already started fighting by then?
She continued into the square kitchen where Twilight was already seated at the table. Dawn busied herself putting a pot of water on the stove and rummaging the cupboards for herbs and tea leaves.
Before Sunset could take a seat, a familiar color scheme caught her eye. She walked over to the back door and looked through the glass into the backyard. Outside grew a collection of tall, bright, yellow-and-orange flowers with long, pointed petals that turned red at the tips.
“Firebird dahlias,” Sunset whispered.
“Hmm?” Dawn looked over from the boiling water. “Oh, yes! I… well, I still grow them every once in a while. I know they were yours and Spitfire’s favorites.”
“Yeah…” Sunset slid the door open and stepped outside like she was in a trance. She took a whiff of the sweet aroma and couldn’t help but smile.
“Hey, what’s this thing?” Sunset brushed her nose against the bright flower growing in the sunlight.
Spitfire fluttered over and examined it. “I dunno. Looks cool though.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty.”
“Dare you to eat it,” Spitfire said with a wide smirk.
Sunset sniffed the flower again. It smelled really good, but… “What if it’s poisonous?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. “It’s not poisonous. Why would they grow poisonous plants in the park?”
“Then eat it. Unless you’re chicken.”
Sunset puffed her cheeks out. “I am not a chicken.”
“Bawk, bawk, bawk!” Spitfire ruffled her feathers and walked in circles around Sunset. “Sunny’s a chicken!”
“Says the one with wings,” Sunset muttered. She bent down and ripped off a mouthful of petals. She chewed them quickly, then her eyes bulged and she spat them out onto the ground. “Gaaaaahh!” She ran her hooves over her tongue.
“They taste horrible!”
Spitfire gave the pretty plant a dubious look before nibbling a single petal. After a second of chewing, she quickly joined her little sister in trying to scrub the taste out of her mouth.
Sunset levitated a petal off and held it before her. Perhaps her taste buds had matured from the last time she had eaten a firebird dahlia. She placed the petal on her tongue and rolled it into her mouth.
She puckered her face and spat it into the dirt. “Nope. Fun to look at, not to eat.”
After blowing a few raspberries, Sunset moved back inside and sat across the table from Twilight. Dawn came over balancing three cups of tea on her wings. She slid them to their respective owners, then took a seat next to Sunset.
“Thanks, Mom,” Sunset said, smiling over her cup.
The three of them drank in silence for a time. Sunset savored the rich aroma of her mom’s tea, having a hard time drinking it with the wide smile plastered on her face.
There was the clang of a saucer on the table; before she could react, Sunset found herself in her mother’s death grip again.
“My baby! Oh, my sweet, sweet, Sunset! I missed you so much! Where have you been! You never wrote—you never told anypony where you went!”
The grip around Sunset tightened and a wing beat against her the back of her head.
“Where—have—you—been—young—lady!” Dawn screeched with every wing slap. “I—have—been—worried—sick! Ten years! I haven’t seen your face in a decade! You could have been killed for all I knew! Tartarus! I thought you were dead so many nights! Your father and I cried ourselves to sleep! Sweet Celestia, your father—and your sister!”
Dawn was hyperventilating now, sobbing while her hold on Sunset weakened and her attacks slowed.
Sunset just held on to her and let her cry. Her throat was dry and empty of any words that could console her mother. How could Sunset explain that she had run off to another world out of petty dreams of power and glory? How did she tell her mom that she had barely given her family a second thought when she jumped through the portal?
There are no words good enough, Sunset concluded. There wasn’t anything in the world that could justify her actions.
Through the desert in her throat, she managed to choke out, “I’m sorry.”
Dawn sniffled and unwrapped herself from Sunset. She looked at her with puffy, red eyes. “Where did you go? P-Princess Celestia j-just said you went on some p-personal journey.”
“Yeah… something like that.” Sunset rubbed the side of her face. “I… well…” She turned to Twilight, silently pleading for help.
Twilight gave her a confused shrug.
Thanks for the help! Sunset looked back at her mom. “I’m… not sure I can tell you where I went right now. And in the end… I guess it doesn’t really matter. The point is, I left for all the wrong reasons. I was a selfish, self-entitled brat.”
“No, Mom—” Her mother tried to talk her down, but Sunset held a hoof up “—it’s true. And it isn’t your fault—it’s mine. I was trying too hard to become perfect. I was greedy and ambitious and… a whole lot of other things.” Sunset paused and exhaled heavily. “I… messed up. A lot. And, I did go on a journey of self-discovery.” Sunset chuckled bitterly. “It was a long journey, and I learned a lot of things about myself that I didn’t like.
“But, it was after confronting those things—after reflecting about who I was—did I realize that I needed to come home and see all of you.” Sunset scrunched her face up, unable to hold back a fresh wave of tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being a terrible daughter. I’m sorry for running away. I’m sorry—”
Dawn placed a wing-tip on Sunset’s lips. “You are not a terrible daughter, Sunset. You’re my daughter. And the fact that you came home is the only apology I need,” she said in a croaky whisper before hugging Sunset again.
Sunset thought they probably should have drowned in their combined tears by now, but decided to get it all out of her system. Her mother was the only pony she wasn’t afraid to cry in front of. Both her dad and Spitfire would have told her to suck it up.
When the two mares let go of each other, Sunset found Twilight had excused herself from the table and was admiring the flowers in the backyard. Sunset thought to call her, but knew Twilight would refuse, encouraging more mother-daughter time.
Sunset sipped more of her tea, now lukewarm. She glanced about the kitchen, finding very little had changed while she had been away. There was the same white tile along the floors, and the same brown cabinets. Along the ceiling, little clouds were painted on the molding.
“So,” Dawn spoke up, sitting her mug down. “Have you… spoken to anypony else yet?”
The image of Spitfire retreating into the sky danced behind her eyes. “No. You and Dad were the first ones I wanted to see.” She looked back down the hall, wondering at the absence of hoofball reports on the den radio. “Speaking of which, where is Dad?”
Dawn nibbled on her lip and looked down at her hooves. “Sunset… sweetie…”
Sunset’s heart froze. No… but the record said… she was still… he can’t be. She tried to take in breath, but nothing passed into her lungs. The cup of tea wobbled in her magic then crashed to the floor, spilling its dregs across the tile.
Twilight leaned into the kitchen from the back door. “Is everything all right?”
Sunset barely heard her; her attention was focused solely on whatever her mother was about to say next. “Mom… please tell me Daddy isn’t…?”
Dawn looked up with her with confusion and surprise. “What? No! No, no, no, no! He’s not dead!”
Air rushed back into Sunset’s lungs and she slumped in her chair with a hoof on her chest. Thank you, Celestia.
“No, he’s fine,” Dawn continued. “We just… don’t live together anymore.”
Sunset’s stomach flipped and her body jolted upright. “You… you got a divorce?” she shouted.
Dawn wrung her hooves. “Well, not really. There was never any official paper work. We just decided to… live apart for a while and… we never got back together.”
“Oh.” Sunset shifted in her seat. “But why? Why’d you break up?”
Dawn looked at one of the family pictures hanging on the wall. Spitfire and Sunset were playing with their dad in the front lawn with the hose. She took a deep breath and sighed.
“We just… kept arguing over the smallest things. After you… after we became empty-nesters, we just kind of… lost the spark we had for each other. We agreed it might be better if we went our separate ways. We still send letters sometimes, but, well… not every love lasts.”
Twilight took her seat again. “I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. Glider.”
Dawn waved her hoof but had a distant look in her eye. “It’s fine. We’re both doing all right now. I’m here with my flowers and he has an apartment in Cloudsdale. We’re both fine.”
Guilt continuously punched Sunset in the gut. She knew her mother was anything but fine, and knew she was also too sweet to tell the whole story.
She stood up and collect the pieces of her broken cup in her magic, then dumped them in the trash can.
“Mom, is it all right if I… I mean, I can sleep here tonight, right?”
“Sunset Shimmer,” her mother said with a cross look. “What kind of question is that?” It softened into a smile. “Of course you can stay here. I haven’t touched your room save to dust it occasionally.”
“Right.” Sunset rubbed the back of her head. “Dumb question. Twilight, do you want to see my room?”
“Sure,” Twilight said as she stood up.
“I’ll start dinner,” Dawn called after them as they headed back into the hall and up the stairs.
Sunset led Twilight down the upstairs hall, past a door with the Wonderbolt’s insignia taped to it. Sunset’s room door had a sign that read: ‘Warning! Magic at work!’
She rolled her eyes as Twilight gave a light snicker. “What?”
“Oh, nothing,” Twilight replied, her hoof over her mouth. “I just had the same plaque on my door at my parent’s house.”
The knob turned with a flick of her magic, and Sunset stepped inside her room for the first time in a decade.
The carpet was a rich shade of red that matched her mane. A bookshelf took up an entire wall, crammed to the brim with thick texts. Across from the door was a desk with beakers and test tubes on the surface. To Sunset’s left was her bed, a blue blanket with Starswirl’s cutie mark folded neatly over the sheets.
Sunset jumped onto her soft bed, bouncing a few times and letting out a warm sigh. She then crawled up to her pillows and buried her face, letting out a muffled groan.
“Why? Why? I’m such an idiot!”
Twilight walked towards the window over the desk and opened it so the evening vespers could shine through. “Sunset, I know what you’re thinking—”
“It’s my fault! They broke up because I left and they blamed each other!”
“Yep, I was afraid that’s where that was going.” Twilight blew her bangs out of her face. “Sunset, you can’t necessarily blame yourself for your parents’ separation. There could have been a number of contributing factors.”
Sunset rolled over and stared at the stars painted on her ceiling. “Sure. And one major factor was the fact that I ran out on them!”
Twilight's silence gave Sunset the proof she needed. Perhaps her departure hadn't been the only domino, but it was certainly the one that started the chain.
Sunset put her hooves over her face. I can't believe this. My sister still hates me and my parents barely speak to each other. Her insides squirmed with fresh guilt.
She pulled down on her eyelids and groaned again. Stupid. Most of this could have been avoided if you hadn't turned into a megalomaniac.
"Sunset, it's going to be okay," Twilight said in a gentle tone.
Sunset sat up in her bed. "You're right! Because I'm going to fix it! My relationship with my sister and my parent’s relationship!"
"Are you sure trying to get your parents back together is a good idea?"
Sunset gave a fierce nod. "I broke this family, and I'm going to put it back together again! One way or another!"
The sun began to melt into the horizon when Rainbow arrived at Wonderbolt Headquarters. The plateau rose above the orange seafoam clouds, like an island in a coral sea. Rainbow sailed down the black runway in an easy glide. She hit the asphalt and cantered to a stop, listening to the wind whistling around her.
The silence made Rainbow question if anypony was even there. She headed for the office building, hoping Spitfire was inside.
Would it be too weird if I showed up at her house? Rainbow wanted to help Sunset but wasn’t sure if getting fired for being a stalker was worth it.
“Hey, Rainbow Dash!”
Rainbow whipped her head around and looked up. Coming down for a landing with only his goggles on his forehead was Soarin. He grinned goofily at Rainbow as he touched down.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said.
“Hey, Soarin.” Rainbow gave him a high-wing. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you—trying to see if Spitfire has cooled off yet.”
Rainbow looked at the office door. “Yeah. Really didn’t expect her to fly off the handle like that. We thought she’d be thrilled to see her sister.”
Soarin shook his head solemnly. “You just found out Wonderbolt secret number one: never mention Spit’s sister. Was pretty easy since she never even told us her name.” He walked forward and pushed the door open for Rainbow. “But yeah, I’ve never seen Spitfire so mad.”
Rainbow walked into the dimly lit hall, briefly admiring the collection of medals and trophies in the case across from her. “So, I’m guessing you don’t know what happened between them?”
“Nope. Wasn’t dumb enough to ask.”
“Well…” Rainbow raised her head and marched down the corridor. “They haven’t spoken in over ten years. It’s time for them to make up!”
Soarin trotted to catch up. “Hey, I’m all for it, but let’s remember who our boss is.”
Rainbow tried to ignore him, and the jolt of fear that shot through her.
They arrived at the furthest door with a brass plaque that read, ‘Captain Spitfire.’ Rainbow knocked and waited on bated breath.
Rainbow pushed the door open and approached the oak desk. The chair behind it was turned towards the window, but Rainbow could see the orange tips of Spitfire’s mane sticking over the top.
“Evening, Captain.” Rainbow cleared her throat. “Listen, I—”
“If you even say her name, Miss Dash, I will demote you so hard, you won’t become a Wonderbolt even in your next lifetime,” Spitfire said in a quiet and dangerous tone.
Soarin spoke up. “Spitfire, that’s not—”
“That goes for you too!”
Rainbow and Soarin shared a hesitant look.
“Okay,” Rainbow said slowly, “we won’t say her name. But, Boss, don’t you think you’ve held a grudge long enough? I mean, she’s family, right? I had a falling out with my parents once—”
“Did I ask you for your life story, Private?”
Rainbow swallowed. “Uhh, no, ma’am.”
The tips of Spitfire’s mane swished. “Didn’t think so. My life was perfectly fine without her in it, and I want to keep it that way.”
“Aw come on, Spitfire,” Soarin urged. “She looked like she was ready to make up for whatever happened. Don’t you think you could at least meet her halfway?”
Spitfire’s chair creaked as she spun it around. There was a shadow across her face that would have made Nightmare Moon flinch. “The last time I tried to ‘meet her halfway’ she nearly killed me.”
Soarin took a step back. “Don’t you think you might be… exaggerating just a little bit?”
The next look Spitfire gave him would have sent Tirek back to Tartarus in tears.
“Or… you know, not. I don’t know, I wasn’t there…” Soarin dissolved into quiet babble while he slipped his goggles over his eyes.
Rainbow took a deep breath, knowing she was on her last rope, both to help Sunset and possibly remain a Wonderbolt recruit. “Listen, Boss, I know you’re mad—and maybe you have every reason to be. But I came on behalf of Princess Twilight, who was there when S-S—you-know-who turned over a new leaf. She was out there cheering her heart out for you today. She just wants a chance to talk,” Rainbow said desperately. “Can’t you at least give her that?”
Spitfire turned her unholy gaze on Rainbow. She placed her forehooves in front of her face and burned her eyes into Rainbow’s.
Rainbow took a step back to Soarin but didn’t look away. Don’t back down, don’t back down. Get ready to beg if she fires you, but don’t back down!
Spitfire stood up and pushed passed the two of them. “Fine. I’ll go talk to her.”
Soarin and Rainbow broke into wide grins.
“So I can tell her to go fall off a cliff and die.” Spitfire marched down the hall, leaving her subordinates alone in the room.
Rainbow placed a hoof over her eye. “This can’t end well.”