The comforting babble of chirping birds and the screaming of delighted foals reached Sunny’s ears as she trotted out onto the dirt path outside the common hall. The sun hung above the mare and warmed her coat quite pleasantly as she trotted down the path. She was quickly overtaken by the stampeding herd of foals that stopped just long enough to wave at Sunny before resuming their mad dash past the buildings that lined the village square.
The ponies of the village and the birds weren’t the only ones who had benefitted from the warmer weather. For the first time that Sunny could recall since being accepted by the hidden community, the trees and uncultivated fields showed far more vibrant green than brown. The temperatures had even improved to the point that torch duty on the fields had been disbanded, and the unicorns that had participated in it were able to pursue the careers of their choosing.
Clover had led the charge, taking to carpentry and woodworking like a stallion possessed. Over the past several weeks, he and several other unicorns had built several homes on the outskirts of the town. One of them had even been offered to Sunny, but she had politely declined for the time being.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Starswirl’s role had remained largely the same from what Sunny knew. The majority of his time was spent with his research, followed closely by the time spent with Lulu and (preventing) her ‘adventures’. On occasion, Sunny had seen the elderly stallion speaking with Clover in hushed tones and with serious looks. Their conversations would end abruptly whenever she approached, and she didn’t feel it would be appropriate to pry.
“Ah, good morning Sunny!” an earth pony mare named Needlepoint greeted as Sunny stepped into her tailoring shop. She was an older pony with a fading blue coat and a sewing needle flank mark, and her smile was warm as she asked, “How can I help you today?”
“I am afraid I must impose upon you again,” Sunny explained as she looked over the various tools and materials lining the shelves. “I will require the use of your tools and some fabric, if you can spare it.”
“Oh, are you sure you want to try again? I know you really want to make something yourself, and I’m not the only one who’s glad that someone as young as you is so driven, but…” Needlepoint put a hoof over her mouth in some approximation of a filly trying to smother a giggle. “Are you certain that I can’t help you at all? You certainly put in a lot of effort with your magic, but the results might be less… embarrassing.”
The only sign of Sunny’s annoyance was a clenched jaw and a twitch of one eyebrow. Neither did anything to dim the good humor of the seamstress as she retrieved the necessary materials and tools before pushing them over the counter towards the unicorn. “There you go, dear. Try not to let your creations get out of control this time, okay?”
“Thank you for your advice, Needlepoint. I shall keep it in mind at all times,” Sunny said stiffly. She turned and departed from the tailor’s shop, and she pointedly didn’t look back as Needlepoint broke down into a fit of giggles.
When Sunny had first expressed an interest in creating an article of clothing, she had watched over the seamstress mare’s shoulders as she had worked on another article of clothing. After a single hour of observation, she was confident she could replicate the earth pony’s skills to create what she needed. The movements of thread and needle were automated into a spell that took the barest fraction of her concentration, which allowed her to continue planning the later stages of her project.
Because of this lapse of concentration on the task at hand, the needle and thread that was binding the fabric together had somehow migrated to her forehooves and tied them together. By the time Sunny had realised what was happening, the animated threads had already made it past her fetlocks. By the time she had stopped the spell, it had already crawled several more inches up her forelegs. Rather than potentially ruin the precious thread, Sunny had called out for Starswirl to help untangle herself. The elder stallion did help free the mare from her unintentional bindings… after taking several minutes to stop laughing. Starswirl had sworn an oath of secrecy about the events that had occurred, and the two parted ways.
Naturally, the entire town had learned about the mishap in less than a week.
I will not have my reputation besmirched without retribution, Starswirl! One day I’ll— Sunny grumbled to herself, but halted just as quickly. I burned his family to death and scarred the last of his line for the rest of her life. What punishment could I threaten that would surpass that?
Sunny’s short walk stopped in the shade of a tree that had apparently survived the long winter and was even now filling out with vibrant green leaves. She sat down abruptly and squeezed her eyes shut before giving her head a quick shake. Solaria would have thought of ways to punish Starswirl, but I will not make the same mistakes again. I spend ages as Solaria trying to create a perfect system of order… and for what? I don’t even remember why I was trying to create the system, or what that system was meant to accomplish. I don’t even remember who instructed me to do those things…
The mare slowly opened her eyes and arrayed the tailoring supplies neatly around her. The simple actions filled Sunny with a small but noticeable sense of purpose and enjoyment, two things that had been completely missing from the life that Solaria had led. Solaria would have scoffed at such things. She wouldn’t have seen the purpose of learning how to do this… she probably wouldn’t have even acknowledged the need for the result of this process. ‘It does not serve the system,’ she would think. Sunny’s self-deprecating thought process gave rise to a startling conclusion. I had always punished ponies who had strayed from the purpose of the system, to try and force them into being good little cogs in the machine. Did I ever take a moment and consider that I might have been a cog in somepony else’s machine?
She let out a sigh and pushed those thoughts aside. Solaria and her system failed. All she could do was destroy things that she didn’t like. As Sunny Sky, I can try and make things better. Any doubt that the mare felt was pushed aside as she found resolve in her task. I’m going to make Lulu the best cloak ever, no matter the cost!
The fabrics and other materials might have been considered crude, but that didn’t concern Sunny. Given the amount of abuse Lulu puts her current cloak through, ruggedness takes priority, she thought as she pulled the materials together with her magic. Once the basic garment is completed, I can see about adding some enhancements to it. If she’s going to be wearing this all the time, then temperature regulation will be a necessity. It shouldn’t be too hard to make it resistant to the rain and other environmental concerns. Perhaps I should-- FOCUS! Sunny gave herself a mental kick as her wandering thoughts had very nearly caused a repeat of her earlier embarrassment. She needed…
“She needed to keep all of her attention on the task before her. Though she had no proof of it, Sunny secretly suspected that the mundane needles and thread could smell her fear…”
“Good day, Lulu,” Sunny greeted while pointedly ignoring the narration that the filly had supplied. “Am I to assume that you’ve completed your penance and were released, or did you escape your jailor again?”
The scarred unicorn harrumphed dramatically. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I was just using one of Starswirl’s boring research books to play paddle ball! It’s not like a few hard whacks are going to hurt it or anything.” When Lulu grew silent, Solaria spared a moment to glance and saw her annoyance had been replaced with a thoughtful expression beneath her tattered hood. “Sunny, is reading fun?” she asked.
“Fun? I don’t know if I would consider it fun…” Sunny answered as she thought back to all of the texts that she had borrowed from Starswirl over the past few weeks. It’s the accumulation of knowledge that another pony has catalogued. I don’t think that--
“Really?” Lulu interrupted, and a large hardcover book landed with a heavy thump on Sunny’s tailoring supplies. She bounced from hoof to hoof as excitement apparently overpowered her capacity to stand still. “Double Check just finished writing this a week ago, and he was reading it to the other foals. They all seemed to have a lot of fun!”
Sunny arched an eyebrow as she shifted her attention from her now buried project to the book that had been dumped in front of her. The covers were newly crafted and crisp, as were the pages contained within them. She pulled open the cover and asked, “Did you have fun then, Lulu?”
The filly stopped bouncing, and she shrank back into the shadows of her cloak. “The others weren’t having much fun while I was there. So… I thought it might be fun if you read it to me!”
I don’t understand why my inclusion in the activity would increase the ‘fun’, but there are many things that this foal has taught me since arriving here, Sunny thought as she let out a sigh in surrender. Perhaps I will divine the underlying formula of ‘fun’ that she grasps so easily some day. “Very well then, Lulu. Why don’t--”
“You will? Yes!” the filly cheered as she bounced from hoof to hoof again as her previous excitement returned. She quickly settled down when the elder mare cleared her throat, though she continued to quiver from the apparently monumental effort necessary to sit still.
What followed was possibly the strangest book that Sunny had ever been exposed to. It followed the journeys of a young earth pony that lived an apparently mundane life in a world very much like their own, were it not for a series of unfortunate events that strained what might be considered believable. Disaster and tragedy struck, followed by renewed hope in the form of friends and family, and a journey across the width of the world to stop an unspeakable evil. Hours passed between the two as Sunny became just as enraptured in the story as the foal she was reading to, until the inevitable occurred.
“...where’s the rest of the story?” Sunny asked as she stared down at the blank last page of the book. She flipped the page to reveal the equally blank back cover, then back again. “Lulu, I demand that you take me to the pony who wrote this at once! I will not tolerate not knowing the ultimate fate of Somber Sea, or how the wendigo managed to slay her brother with impunity and escape!”
Lulu tilted her head and raised a hoof to scratch one of her ears. “That’s the end of this book, Sunny. I think Double Check plans on writing more, but that takes time--”
“Nonsense!” Sunny declared. “Come, Lulu! We will go to this Double Check and he will tell us what we wish to know or suffer the consequences!” She rose and began to trot in the direction of the town square, but stopped when Lulu’s giggling reached her ears. It was a sound she had learned to dread. “What is it, Lulu?” she asked as she turned to face the filly.
The scarred filly was grinning widely as she put a hoof on the book. “Silly Sunny! Half of the fun is the suspense and wondering what happens next. The other half is talking about it with friends!” Lulu explained quickly before drawing in a quick breath. “So what do you think? How do you think that the wendigo got away with it, or maybe her brother survived? Or maybe her brother was the wendigo! Remember, we didn’t see the body at the end!”
Sunny attempted to parse the flood of questions as they were launched by the filly, but she found herself hung up by what Lulu had explained at the start. She said it wasn’t as fun listening to the book with the other fillies, but it would be fun with me. She said that talking with a friend about the book was half the fun. She had told me months ago that the other foals don’t like her because of her scars and lack of sight. She wants to talk about the book with a friend… and she comes to me. She wouldn’t have to come to me if I hadn’t done this to her.
The conclusion was built on circumstantial evidence and off-the-hoof comments from conversations with the filly, but it all led up to the same dull ache in her heart that wouldn’t go away. Starswirl had called it ‘sympathy’, but the term didn’t seem to encompass the feeling that ate at her to varying degrees every waking moment that she spent with the filly. There was only one thing that Sunny could do to ease that ache, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment as she swept Lulu into a tight hug… or she tried to, at least.
The sound of teleportation snapped Sunny out of her thoughts, and her eyes settled on the sour-faced Lulu who now sat a half-dozen body lengths away. “No no no, none of that! If you try that again I’ll just teleport to my secret hiding spot!” the filly protested as she looked away in protest. The defiant pose didn’t last long, and concern began to enter Lulu’s expression. “Why are you so grabby lately, Sunny? Right now, you’re worse than Starswirl and Cookie when I was younger.”
“I… I did something very mean to somepony, Lulu,” Sunny explained, and an inexplicable urge to tell her everything rose within her. “I didn’t know just how mean it was until just recently, and I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t know if I can make it better.”
“Have you tried apologizing? Starswirl makes me apologize whenever I do something wrong,” Lulu explained as she tapped her chin with a hoof. “I know you have some trouble warming up to ponies you’ve just met, so maybe somepony just got the wrong idea about you? I know you’re a nice pony, Sunny. You always make time to play with me! I’m sure if you apologize and tell whoever it is that you’ll do better, they’ll forgive you.”
The simple wisdom of the filly’s advice fought for supremacy with the dull pain in her heart that Lulu’s faith inspired. Just apologize and say you’ll do better? Is it really as simple as that? Is a simple apology enough to make up for what I did to her… to her family and to Starswirl? I want to do better… I will do better. The resolve to do just what the filly had advised made itself apparent, but her voice began to falter. “Lulu, I’m… I’m so so--”
“I figured I would find you two together,” a voice said from behind Sunny, which caused the mare to jump in surprise. A look over her shoulder confirmed that it belonged to Starswirl, who gave Sunny an amused look from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Don’t glare at me like that, child. I snuck up behind you with all the stealth of a gutshot dragon.”
“Swirly! Swirly! I can teleport!” Lulu declared triumphantly, and promptly suited words to action. Her little horn flared with energy and she appeared in front of Starswirl. “I was going to show you later, but I had to use it just now to escape Sunny! She was trying to molest me!”
“I wasn’t trying--” Sunny started to protest, indignance at the accusation apparent in her voice. A raised hoof from Starswirl gave her pause.
“Lulu, I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” the elderly stallion said as he brought his raised hoof up to cover his face.
“I know exactly what it means!” Lulu declared. “The word shows up in Double Check’s book! When I asked him about it, he said it was a hug that I should tell adults about if it happens!” Her expression scrunched up in confusion. “Come to think of it, Clover and Cookie molest each other all the time! Did they tell you about it yet?”
Midway through the explanation, Starswirl had begun to shake his head in apparent exasperation. Rather than tackle that powder keg, he chose to change the subject. “Lulu, I just came from Double Check’s home. Did you borrow his one-of-a-kind first draft of his book without asking?”
“Yes! But I’ll bring it back right now since we’re done! I’ll talk to you later, Sunny!” Lulu said, and both she and the book vanished in a flash of magic.
Starswirl let out a sigh and turned to Sunny. “Thank you for spending so much time with her. She certainly benefits from having somepony to look up to… so to speak.” He let out a small chuckle at his poor choice of words before giving Sunny a serious look. “I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Sunny. Even with spells, I’m afraid this place is far too public. If you would follow me, please…”
Sunny nodded and fell into step behind the elder stallion. The pair was greeted at nearly every storefront by the business owner or one of the younger helpers that had been drafted to help with the work, but Starswirl didn’t tarry more than a moment at each. Sunny followed the stallion’s example by exchanging pleasantries with everypony. A small flicker of warmth had taken root in her after every conversation, and it took her a moment to realise that it had nothing to do with the sun.
This never happened to Solaria. Ponies cowered in fear at my approach. Now they seem happy when they see Sunny… when they see me, Sunny realised. I was a truly wretched creature… to have wanted to inspire such terror in my subjects. This… this is far better. She held onto the gentle warmth that the realisation had brought her, and Lulu’s kind words earlier added a bittersweet quality to it.
The sound of a door latch shook Sunny out of her thoughts, and she followed Starswirl into the common hall. Clover was already present and sitting by one of the far tables, and Smart Cookie closed and latched the lock behind the two new arrivals as soon as they passed through the door. The hall itself had developed something of a comforting quality to Sunny when filled with ponies making merry and talking. With just the four, though, it seemed ominous. The feeling only increased as the blinds were drawn and Starswirl cast spells to prevent any sound from leaving the room as well as block any scrying attempt.
“Sunny, I suspect you might have questions regarding this little meeting, and there will be plenty of time for those in just a bit. For now, though, I’m afraid I must apologize,” Starswirl said as he took his seat next to Clover. He took a deep breath and raised his head just enough for Sunny to lock eyes with the elder stallion.
“I know who and what you used to be, Sunny.”