Firebird Dahlia

by The Albinocorn


Walking on Sunshine

 
“Girls, we’re home!” a deep voice boomed through the hall.

Sunset watched her mother get up from the couch and hurry to the front door. After taking an extra minute to brace herself for what was to come, Sunset dragged herself after her mom.

Rounding the corner, Sunset saw not one, not two, but three medals around Spitfire’s neck—all of them gold.

Seeing Sunset walk in, Spitfire gave her a haughty and superior look, and she tipped her nose up a few inches.

“Oh my goodness!” Dawn gushed. “I can’t believe you got first place in all your races! I’m so proud of you, sweetie!” She gave Spitfire a peck on the cheek.

“You should have seen her,” Zephyr said, ruffling Spitfire’s mane. “Speed demon here left them in the dust all three times. One of the fillies chucked her silver medal off the cloud, she was so mad.”

Spitfire gave a quick giggle like it was no big deal, but Sunset knew she was soaking up every drop of praise. Look at me, I’m Spitfire, and I can go to Cloudsdale and fly really fast. Sunset bit down on her tongue to keep it in her mouth.

Her dad and Spitfire continued to go on about the race in Cloudsdale while Sunset excused herself to her room. She would have slammed her door if not for the fear of punishment later.

“It’s not fair! There has to be a spell that can let me go to Cloudsdale.” Sunset ran a hoof across her bookcase, scanning the titles. Her parents rotated taking Spitfire to her competitions, while each and every time, Sunset was forced to stay home.

Just because she hadn’t been born a pegasus.

She faced the full-body mirror and examined the horn protruding from her forehead, then looked at the lack of wings on her back, or cutie mark on her flank.

“She’s got everything. And what do I have?” A few sparks jumped out of Sunset’s horn, but quickly faded. “Just some dumb magic tricks.” She could feel the tears coming on again.

“Sunset?”

******

“Huh? Wah?” Sunset snapped her head up and looked around.

“We’re almost there,” Twilight said, pointing the floating mass in the distance. “You okay? You zoned out again.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Sunset waved a hoof. “I’m fine.” She looked over the side of the chariot to the sprawling world below. “I just hope I cast the cloudwalking spell properly.”

“Want me to put one on you just in case?”

“Pfft.” Sunset felt her pride swell like a balloon. “I’m perfectly capable of producing a cloudwalking spell on my own.” She looked over the side again and felt the balloon pop. “But… I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup.”

Twilight’s spell settled over her like a blanket just as the chariot descended into Cloudsdale. Sunset remembered the first time she had visited the city in the sky, after she had first mastered the cloudwalking spell. She finally got to see Spitfire race in the Cloudiseum. At the time, she had been aloof, playing off the sheer amazement that had gripped her. She was in the sky! She was walking on clouds!

Those feelings of awe and wonder returned to Sunset as she took her first step onto the soft, plushy clouds. A slight feeling of vertigo quickly followed, but she shook it off and gazed at the ancient architecture rising before her. Apart from Canterlot, Cloudsdale had always fascinated Sunset: its design, its history, everything.

Perhaps it’s the pegasus blood in me.

She and Twilight set off across the open cloud they had landed on and crossed the bridge into the main city. Finely crafted nimbus columns held up decorated abacuses and archways. Open pavilions bustled with shopping pegasi.

The jovial and easygoing atmosphere of the city eased some of the tension Sunset had been carrying since she woke up. Having to face her parents on two separate occasions was not something she had foreseen. She could barely handle the idea of making three different apologies; now she was making four—five if Spitfire would even talk to her again.

Sunset sucked in a breath and stuck her chest out. She could do this. It would be just like apologizing to her mom, only with way less crying. The last thing she wanted to do was cry in front of her dad.

‘Pegasi are tough. Pegasi don’t cry. You’ve still got pegasus blood in you, so you’re tough, just like the rest of us.’ Yeah, Dad, I’m tough! I’m a fighter!

She ignored the urge to turn and run the other way.

Sunset and Twilight left the market district and entered the suburbs. It was like Canterlot’s in many ways: well-organized with rows of houses that steadily grew larger and more lavish the further one went in. Foals buzzed around the nimbus streets, racing or playing hoofball. Their cheers and shrieks of laughter loosened Sunset’s tight chest.

******

Spitfire’s voice cracked. “Blue, forty-two!”

Sunset set the ball in between her legs, and placed her tongue between her teeth. She glared at the muscular stallion crouched in front of her.

Her father crossed his eyes and puffed his cheeks out.

Sunset bit down on her lip to stop herself from laughing. She wouldn’t let him distract her this time.

Spitfire tapped the ground. “Set, hike!”

Sunset hiked the ball then ran around her father, towards the traffic cones set up across the park field. She waved a hoof. “Now, Spits, now!”

Spitfire jumped into the air and lobbed the hoofball as hard as she could. It sailed a good ten yards before Zephyr Spark plucked it from the air.

“Intercepted!” he yelled, flying low to the ground. “He could go all the way!”

Sunset skidded to a stop and reversed direction, sprinting as hard as she could to the other endzone. Spitfire had already tried to tackle their dad, and was now hanging on to his side, trying to close his wing.

If there was one thing Sunset prided herself on, it was her sprinting. It came in handy whenever Spitfire was trying to give her a noogie. Sunset had already closed the distance between her and her father, with only ten yards before the endzone. She jumped and clutched his back leg, dragging him down to the grass.

Zephyr hit the ground; the ball popped out of his hoof, flying into the air. Sunset watched it rise in slow motion, and tiny sparks popped out of her horn. A teal aura flickered around the hoofball, stabilizing itself just before it touched the ground.

“The ball’s still in play!” Spitfire yelled. “Go, Sunny, go!”

Sunset tore down the field, the hoofball hovering just over her head. Behind her, she could hear a pair of wings flapping, but dared not turn around.

The wingbeats got closer, and a distant voice screamed, “Dive, Sunset!”

With five yards to go, Sunset threw herself across the goal line, the grass scratching against her stomach. “T-touchdown,” she panted.

Zephyr landed next to her and patted her head. “I’m sure that was an illegal use of magic, but I’ll give it to you because that was an amazing sprint. We’ll make an athlete out of you yet.”

Just as Sunset got to her hooves, Spitfire tackled her back to the ground. “Way to go, runt!” She dug her hoof into Sunset’s mane.

“Aaaaah! Spitfire stop it!” Sunset flailed, trying to dislodge her. Her father just laughed.

******

The Cloudy Condos sat a little too close to the edge of Cloudsdale for Sunset’s liking. It overlooked the Smokey Mountain, and if one tried hard enough on a clear day, they would see the ocean as well.

It was an open-gate community, so Twilight and Sunset showed themselves in. They passed through the courtyard and climbed the stairs up to the third floor. Zephyr Sparks’ room was at the end of the corridor.

Sunset stopped at the door. The same trepidation she experienced before reuniting with her mother was eating her alive again. Her sister had flown away and rebuked her. Her mother had welcomed her home with open hooves. On which end of the spectrum would her father fall?

Sunset raised a hoof to knock, but paused. She looked over her shoulder to Twilight. “Stay close, in case he thinks I’m a changeling.”

They shared a weak laugh, then Sunset knocked against the door, a deep bassy thump echoing throughout the apartment.

She could hear a shuffle of movement inside. The lock clicked, and the door opened, revealing a beige pegasus with a mane that had once been as red as Sunset’s. It was now flecked with grey hairs and thinning near the top. He was still quite muscular, though Sunset could see where it was starting to turn to flab.

Zephyr Spark cleared his throat. “C-can I help you?”

Sunset could see the recognition in his eyes, along with the disbelief. She could only imagine how many times he had dreamed this moment. “Daddy, it’s me. It’s Sunset.”

Her dad continued to stare at her, his lips quivering. He reached a hoof out and gently rubbed her cheek. “You’re real.”

Sunset pressed into his hoof and nodded. “Yeah. I’m really back.”

Zephyr blinked furiously. He scrunched his face and took a deep breath. “It’s been so long. I… I was starting to think… but here you are. Alive and healthy.” His voice broke and he flung his hooves around Sunset.

Sunset could feel him shaking; his tears slid onto her back. Her eyes welled up and she said in a quivering voice, “Please don’t cry, Daddy. Because if you cry then, dammit, I’m going to start crying again.”

Zephyr sniffled loudly and said in a stern voice, “What did I tell you about cursing?”

“Sorry, Daddy.” She smiled in spite of the scolding and squeezed him tighter.

They broke apart, and Zephyr placed his hooves on Sunset’s shoulders. “I… I just can’t believe I’m seeing you again.” His water smile slowly melted away until there was only an angry scowl on his face. “Where in Celestia’s name have you been, young lady?” he yelled.

Sunset pinned her ears back. “I, uhh—”

“You get into the house right now! You are in so much trouble!”

“Yes, sir!” Sunset ran into the building, eager to get out from under her father’s harsh glare, even if it was only for a second.

Zephyr turned his glare to Twilight. “You too, Princess. I know you’re a part of this somehow.”

“Eeep!” Twilight jumped at the sudden address and snapped to attention. “Yes, sir!” She hurried after Sunset, the door slamming shut behind her.

******

Spitfire’s disdainful glare at her silver medal sadly wasn’t enough to turn it into gold. She narrowed her eyes, wondering if she could melt it instead. Much to her disappointment, it just sat in her hoof unchanged.

It wasn’t the first time Spitfire had come in something other than first, but it burned her all the same. “Half a second,” she grumbled. “Half a second my hoof—we tied!”

Zephyr patted her on the head. “They can’t all be gold, Spits.”

“I know that!” Spitfire whined. “But we tied! We should have both gotten gold!”

“Well, it’ll give you motivation to go even faster next time. Now, quit pouting or we’ll go straight home instead of going for ice cream.”

Spitfire sighed and dropped the medal against her chest. Her dad was right—it would give her motivation. She wasn’t going to lose to anypony. In fact, she was going to be the youngest and fastest Wonderbolt of all time!

They lazily made their way through the streets of Cloudsdale. The sun fell behind them, basking the clouds in a soft orange glow. A pleasant breeze blew through the city, drying the last beads of sweat clinging to Spitfire’s forehead.

As they rounded corner to the ice cream parlor, a loud voice rang out, “Hey, Zephyr Spark!”

Spitfire followed her dad’s gaze to a blue stallion with a short rainbow mane and tail. He was still wearing his Weather Factory coat, stained with splotches of rainbows.

Zephyr grinned. “Hey, Rainbow Blaze. Just getting off work?”

Rainbow Blaze landed in front of them and gave a tired sigh. “Yeah. They had me pull a double shift at the rainbow pools today.”

Spitfire tuned the stallions out, her attention falling on the menu in the parlor window. A sky blueberry with caramel sounded heavenly. She licked her lips and fidgeted towards the door.

A hoof gently thumped her shoulder. “Spitfire,” Zephyr said curtly, “say hi to Mr. Blaze.”

Spitfire gave a halfhearted wave. “Hi.”

Zephyr smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Forgive her, she’s a little out of it right now. Took second in her race today.”

“It was a tie!” Spitfire said through clenched teeth.

Rainbow Blaze just nodded. “I remember races like that. Defeat always stings, but you’ll bounce back soon.”

Spitfire bit her tongue to stop herself from snapping.

“So, Zephyr,” Blaze continued, “how’s your other daughter, the unicorn… Sunset, right?”

Spitfire’s stomach turned while her dad’s face lit up. Oh boy, here we go again.

“You’re not going to believe this, Blaze. Not only did she get into Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, she’s the princess’ personal student!”

“No way!”

“I’m serious, it’s incredible!”

And like that, Zephyr was off, praising Sunset’s magical abilities and intelligence. Spitfire bit harder on her tongue to make sure she didn’t make a face. But that was all her parents talked about now to anypony who would listen.

‘Oh look, our special unicorn daughter is Princess Celestia’s protégé. She got an A on her Intermediate Spellcasting test.’ So what? I got a B on my Equestrian History test, but nopony seems to care about that!

Spitfire took a seat, catching bits of whatever accomplishment Zephyr was praising about Sunset. Spitfire’s own elation had worn out a month ago. She had honestly been happy for her sister, and she might still be if her parents didn’t bring it up every two seconds!

I win dozens of races, and they treat them as just passing events. She gets to be friends with the princess, and that’s all they can talk about!

Spitfire shook her head. This wasn’t a competition; she should be happy Sunset found something she was good at. It made up for all the years Spitfire had outshined her.

She shook her head again. It’s not a competition!

The silver medal hanging around her neck said otherwise.

******

Spitfire soared over Canterlot, free from her suit and goggles. Sometimes she forgot what the wind felt like against her bare fur.

She yawned, long and loud, while rubbing at her eyes. She had spent all night tossing and turning in bed, memories and thoughts chasing after one another. The more she thought about her coming talk with Sunset, the more she remembered their shared past; and the more she remembered, the angrier she got.

The only reason I’m going to enjoy this is so I can finally get this off my chest.

She circled lower over the familiar suburban houses, coming in for a landing on the paved walkway of her childhood home. She stepped onto the front porch and glanced at the swing, remembering the stories her mother read to her and Sunset. Spitfire smiled, then quickly frowned and knitted her brow.

Facing the door, she took a deep breath, holding it for five seconds before she rang the doorbell.

The door creaked open and Dawn Glider stuck her head out before gasping and leaping out to hug Spitfire.

“Oh, sweetie, it’s so good to see you!”

“Hey, Mom,” Spitfire said with a sheepish grin. “How are you?”

Dawn kissed her on the cheek and stepped back, tears lining her eyes. “I-I’m fine. I-I… yesterday… oh, Spitfire, you won’t believe it! It’s the most amazing thing!”

“Sunset came back.”

Dawn hesitated at Spitfire’s deadpan answer. “Y-yes.” She sniffled, head cocked to the side. “How did you know?”

Spitfire opened her mouth, then decided against her first answer. She shrugged and said, “Sisterly instinct.” She craned her neck over her mother’s head and looked inside. “Is she here?”

“No. She left this morning to go see your father.”

Spitfire grunted. “Of course.” She raised a hoof and yawned.

Dawn held a hoof to Spitfire’s face and scrutinized the bags under her eyes. “Dear, are you getting enough rest? You look exhausted.”

“I’m fine, Mom.” Spitfire gently lowered her mother’s hoof. “Listen, I have to go—”

“What? But, sweetie, you just got here.” Dawn gestured into the house with a wing. “Come inside, please, I’ll make tea. We haven’t sat down and talked in a while.”

“I know, and that sounds great but…” Spitfire bit her lip, detesting what she was about to do. “I just remembered I… have new recruits I need to go inspect. But I promise, I’ll come back and visit real soon.”

Dawn gave her a scrutinizing look. “Spitfire.”

She kissed Dawn on the cheek. “I promise.” With one more forced smile, she turned to go, but a hoof tightly gripped her shoulder.

“Spitfire… please. I think it’s time you two made up.”

Spitfire stopped herself from pointing out the hypocrisy in that statement and said simply, “I’ll think about it.” Dawn’s hoof stayed firmly in place, however.

“It’s been ten years, Spitfire—longer than that since you two have spoken to each other. I know what you’re going to do, and I’m begging you not to do it.”

“I can’t forget what she did to me, Mom—what she did to us.” Something warm ran down Spitfire’s face. “She left us.”

“She came back.”

Spitfire felt the hoof leave her shoulder. She stood on the porch a moment longer, then spread her wings and took off.

******

“Never a note—didn’t say goodbye—could have been killed for all we knew—your mother cried for days—did we do something wrong—we’d never know!”

Sunset sat on the couch, making herself as small as possible. Twilight sat next to her, shifting uncomfortably, eyes flickering to the door every few seconds. Zephyr paced the carpet in front of them, ranting in short sentences, occasionally throwing his hooves into the air.

Whenever he took a breath, Sunset would squeak out a quiet, “I’m sorry,” that went unnoticed.

Zephyr halted his pacing and pushed a hoof against his temple. He then thrust it in Sunset’s direction. “Start explaining, young filly!”

“I ran away to a very faraway place because I was selfish and greedy and power-hungry and a spoiled brat, and I couldn’t contact any of you, but I learned my lesson and I’m really, really, really, really sorry!”

Zephyr’s expression softened while Sunset gasped for air. “Sweetie, we—”

“It wasn’t anything you did,” Sunset interjected, seeing the self-blame in his eye. “It was all me. You were the best parents I could ask for, but I… just wanted something more.” She stared down at the couch, but a hoof raised her head back up.

“Sunset,” Zephyr said, “I’m so glad you’re home, but I’m just trying to understand why you left in the first place.”

Sunset grimaced. “Yeah, so am I.”

“Did I put too much pressure on you?”

“What? No!” Sunset shook her head.

“Did you never feel included enough?”

Sunset’s heart hammered in her chest. “No, Dad, that’s not—”

“Because we tried our best—”

“I know you did—”

“You’re our daughter, no matter what you are—”

“Dad—”

“We treated you and Spitfire the same as much as we could—”

“I was born a unicorn in a family of pegasi! No matter what, I’m still on the outside!” Sunset took a shuddering breath and turned her head away. She tried to say something else, but no words came to mind.

Zephyr stepped back. He worked his mouth to say something, but like Sunset, came up short. He ran a hoof through his short mane and said quietly, “I’ll… go make some coffee.” He floated off into the kitchen, leaving Sunset and Twilight alone in the vacuum.

Somewhere, a clock ticked off the seconds at an increasingly slow rate. Twilight shifted on the other side of the couch, and Sunset felt bad she had dragged her into this. Still, Sunset didn’t say anything. She had already said enough. She flinched, not at the words but at the memories they brought.

******

Sunset levitated her tray in front of her, licking her lips in anticipation. She looked around the cafeteria for a place to sit, and spotted an empty table near the back.

She was halfway there, in between two of the larger tables when something caught her leg and she fell to the floor. Her tray crashed in front of her, sending her mouth-watering honeysuckle sandwich, apple and milk in separate directions. Laughter rang throughout the room.

“Watch out, featherbrain. Next time, why don’t you use your wings and fly?”

Sunset turned over and glared at the unicorn looming over her. “You’re a jerk, Jet Set.”

“And you aren’t a real unicorn, just some half-blood posing as one.” Jet Set shoved Sunset as she tried to get up. “What I want to know is how you got into this school in the first place.”

Sunset’s blood turned to magma, and her horn erupted. “Why don’t I show you!”

She lunged.

Twenty minutes later, she sat alone in the principal’s office, head bowed in shame. She had given Jet Set what for, but at what cost? She didn’t know what her parents would be angrier at: her fighting, or her getting kicked out of the most prestigious school in Equestria in her first week.

She dragged her hooves down her face. “My life is over.”

“Yes, she’s right through here,” said a voice from the other side of the door.

Sunset quivered in her chair. This was it. If it was her mother, she could expect the ‘I’m-very-disappointed-in-you’ stare. If it was her father, she could expect lots of yelling. If it was both… she hoped Tartarus was nice this time of year.

But when the door opened, it was not her parents that stepped inside. It was the last pony Sunset thought she’d ever be face-to-face with.

Long, slender legs, perfectly preened wings, glowing alabaster coat, and flowing rainbow mane. Princess Celestia was the most beautiful creature Sunset had ever laid eyes on.

The princess smiled and said, “You must be Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset could only nod.

Celestia closed the door and pulled up a chair. “Well, Miss Shimmer, I think we need to talk…”

******

Sunset heard the clinking of glass coming from the kitchen, and the smell of fresh coffee greeted her nose. She rolled her shoulder blades, pretending she was flexing her wings.

“I didn’t leave because I felt excluded,” she said softly. She knew Twilight’s attention was back on her. “But… maybe it was a factor. They treated me perfectly. I was their daughter—horn, wings or nothing at all. But I still knew, deep down… there was a separation.”

She looked up at the ceiling. “That’s why I loved spending so much time with Celestia. She was everything. She had wings and a horn, and I just felt… this closeness to her. If I followed in her hoofsteps, then maybe I could have both. Then maybe I wouldn’t feel so…”

“Left out?” Twilight finished.

A knock on the door grabbed their attention. Sunset stood up to answer it, but her father hurried from the kitchen and beat her there. He pulled the door open.

Spitfire.

Sunset’s heart stopped, and nausea gripped her. Zephyr gave Spitfire a warm hug—which she returned—but her eyes were on Sunset the entire time.

“Sweetie, come in, come in! You’re not going to believe this!”

Spitfire held a hoof up. “I know, Dad. That’s why I’m here,” she said in a tightly controlled voice. She pointed at Sunset. “We need to talk. Outside. Alone.”