In Their Town
Starlight Glimmer's legs began to quiver beneath her as she stood on the barren hilltop which overlooked the small village below. Two perfect rows of buildings, with a single building at the end of the road between them sat in the rocky valley below. She looked nervously to her right, where Princess Twilight Sparkle stood next to her.
"I... I can't believe they stayed." Starlight mused, noting that the village had not fallen into disrepair in the year that she was gone, and was still occupied.
"They came to you because they felt something missing. When you escaped, they all decided to stay and get to know each other all over again." Twilight replied.
"What... What do I say? Where do I even begin? What if they don't want me down there?"
"That's why I'm here. I didn't think it would have been a great idea for you to do this on your own, it wouldn't be safe. But when they see me with you, I think they'll hear you out."
The unicorn turned her gaze back down into the valley, finding herself unable to move just yet. Twilight took a step to the left and put a hoof on her shoulder.
"This is a big step for you. Are you sure you're ready for this?"
"We've come all this way... The last half mile isn't going to stop me now. If I turn back now, I'll never do it."
Starlight took a deep breath, and began putting one hoof in front of the other, with Princess Twilight right by her side. She never increased her gait beyond a slow trot; she wasn't exactly eager to get down to what would most likely be outrage and protest at her return. Twilight recalled Pinkie stealthily leading their descent down the mountain the first time they were here; when the new Cutie Map had sent the six of them here, which over the course of two days, ousted Starlight from her utopia of equality.
No matter how she wanted to hold it off, minutes later they arrived at the main road into town, and they weren't even at the first pair of buildings before she saw her first four residents a quarter down the road.
The cobalt pegasus mare was the first to notice, and she alerted the other three with a pointed hoof. Night Glider, Party Favor, Sugar Belle, and Double Diamond looked at the approaching pair with varying levels of uncertainty. Sugar Belle wore a look of worry, Night Glider and Party Favor looked a bit irked, while Double Diamond stood there, without much being revealed from his expression.
Both Twilight and Starlight stopped in their tracks, a dozen feet or so from the first set of buildings. As a group, the four villagers slowly approached them, stopping at the last set of buildings, nothing but the border of the town separating them.
The tension in the air hung like moss. Neither group moved. If not for the gentle breeze through their manes and tails, time might as well have been standing still.
Party Favor cleared his throat.
"Princess Twilight, a pleasure to see you again... And... And..."
His sentence trailed off, the conclusion lost to the breeze.
"What are you doing here?"
Night Glider's voice pierced through the tension, and her accusative tone hit Starlight like needles. She couldn't bring herself to say anything, and even her gaze fell to the dirt road in front of her.
"Well, Starlight? What are you doing here?"
The question came again, this time from Double Diamond. The accusing tone wasn't there, but the need for an answer was still evident.
Twilight took a step forward.
"I'm sorry if our visit seems abrupt, but we thought it would be a good idea if-"
"I came to apologize." Starlight interrupted, stepping forward. She placed her right hoof on Twilight's chest, letting her know it was alright, and continued her small steps towards the four residents.
"I-I know I'm probably the last pony you want to see. That's why Princess Twilight came with me. She's helped me see the grave error of my ways. I just needed to come here, and try to make amends. I'm... I'm glad you're all okay." Starlight said, managing to meet their gaze. "Is there anything... Anything at all I can do?" She asked, closing her eyes, and lowering her neck and head, nearly bowing before the four of them, about ten feet away.
Night Glider descended to the ground, and the four of them turned away and huddled, occasionally glancing at her and Princess Twilight, who had come up to join Starlight after a few moments, and waited silently.
The four townsponies deliberated for nearly two minutes, after which they came out of their huddle, and closed the gap between the two groups to just five feet.
"We'd like to show you something, Starlight." Double Diamond said to her. The white earth pony didn't seem to be smiling or frowning, as if he hadn't made up his mind of what to think of her presence yet.
Starlight nodded softly, not uttering a word. Double Diamond nodded in kind, and turned. He ushered the group of six towards the first building on the left.
The Equalization Cottage. Painful memories throbbed in Starlight's mind and heart, as she remembered locking new residents in the one room dwelling for days on end until they succumbed to her misguided philosophies. She had twisted so many lives here...
Double Diamond opened the door, and when Starlight hesitated ever so briefly, he stepped in himself to show no foul play was present, and waved her and Twilight inside. Starlight gulped, and stepped through the door.
What greeted her wasn't what she remembered. It was a display of sorts, almost like a museum. Gone were the books, papers, and tapestries covered with the equals symbol. The hay and water troughs had also been removed. The first thing to catch her eye was the equality banner draped across the back wall. She had last seen this during the march the town performed for Twilight and her friends. It had changed drastically. The black equals sign was still there, front and center, but on the left and right of the symbol, the population had drawn their individual cutie marks, giving the rather plain banner a flare of uniqueness. Finally, on top of, in between, and below the equals symbol, had been painted the words:
IN SERVING ONE ANOTHER
"Our vision of equality." Party Favor began, when he noticed that the banner was the first thing to capture Starlight's attention. "Not only do we see how we're the same, but we also embrace our differences, and use them to help and serve each other."
Tears pricked Starlight's eyes.
"It's... Fitting..." Starlight replied remorsefully. "...And absolutely correct. I see that now."
She saw her piece of wood, her 'Staff of Sameness', set on the bench below the banner.
"The cave? The vault?" She asked, more aching memories bubbling to the surface.
"It caved in barely a day after you left. We never gave it another thought." Sugar Belle informed her.
Double Diamond stepped up, and drew her attention to the center pedestal that wasn't there before.
"We had this done six months ago." He informed her.
Starlight stepped up, and looked at the item that rested on it.
It was a polished oak and gold plaque, with a laminated piece of parchment mounted in the center. Her cutie mark had been stamped in the top center, before the writing:
We, Princesses Celestia and Luna of Equestria,
hereby officially and formally recognize
as an incorporated civil township
of our great nation.
Originally founded by the unicorn Starlight Glimmer
in the 998th year of the Celestial Era, as a bastion of equality,
ponies of all backgrounds came from far and wide
in search of something, and found the greatest treasure of all; each other.
Starlight couldn't believe her eyes.
"You... You put my cutie mark on the town charter...? After everything I've done?"
"You are the founder, so we thought it was appropriate, because regardless of what your intentions were, we came here willingly. You brought us all together. In spite of everything, we guess we have to thank you for that."
Starlight sniffled and turned her back momentarily, while she wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Your cottage is the only one we haven't maintained. You're free to go in, if there are any personal items you'd like to recover."
Starlight wasn't sure how to react. She thought for sure they'd have ransacked or burned anything that had to do with her... But to leave it untouched? And even more, let her go inside to retrieve personal effects?
"Actually, yeah, there are a few things I'd like to grab if you don't mind." Starlight said softly, trying her best to keep herself from breaking apart.
Double Diamond ushered them out of the Equalization Cottage, and back out onto the main road, as they walked deeper into town towards the rear, where Starlight's old cottage sat.
Starlight glanced to the left and right at both rows as they made their way through town. They passed several other residents on their way, all of whom, upon seeing Starlight, either gave looks of concern, astonishment, or quietly retreated into their homes. The buildings themselves had changed too. Several ponies had opted to paint their cutie marks on their front doors. Equestrian flags hung from the roofs of several more.
An epiphany hit Starlight. Just a few days ago, this would have been abhorrent to her. But now... She could not deny that it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. Not necessarily in how it looked currently, but in how drastically it had changed in the year she had been gone. Nowhere else was this more apparent than when they were standing in front of her plain, dilapidated cottage, facing down the main road of town.
"Would you like to go in alone?" Twilight asked her.
"If you don't mind... Yes, please." Starlight replied.
The four residents stepped aside, and let Starlight ascend the stairs to her front doorway. The front door had been knocked into the house during the revolt, and that's where it had stayed til this day. Starlight stepped through, stepped around the door on the floor, and went up the stairs to her room.
The attention of the four residents turned to Twilight.
"So, tell us, Princess. How did all of this happen?"
Starlight felt like she was standing in a grave. Hers.
A thick layer of dust covered nearly everything. The bed frame was still tipped against the back left corner, and the mattress was slumped against the table on the left side of the room. In her haste to escape the revolt, she had left what little personal belongings she had behind. She felt a pang of sorrow when she saw the equals symbol stencil on the table, barely visible through the dust, along with the spray can of make-up.
She forced herself to look away, and instead moved towards the night stand beside the hole in the floor, that led to the crawlspace and then to the network of caves that led out of town. She picked up the small saddlebag sitting beside the nightstand, and strapped it on, before steeling herself, taking a deep breath, and opening the bottom drawer of the night stand.
The drawer had remained closed nearly all the time, and thus the contents had been mostly protected from the dust covering everything else in the room. Starlight lit her horn, and a single photo was levitated out of the drawer. It was her as a filly, playing a game with an orange unicorn colt with an orange coat, with an even richer orange mane and tail.
She couldn't stop the tears as she looked at the picture longingly, then tucked it securely inside the pouch of her saddlebag. She took several deep breaths to get her tears under control. It wouldn't be right to overextend what very little welcome she had here by taking too long up here. She turned, and exited her room, shutting the door and descending the stairs. She had what she wanted in here. The rest of it was theirs to do what they pleased with. It was their town. She was nearly to the front door when she was heard by the ponies outside. She came out into daylight again, and saw Twilight finishing a conversation with Party Favor, Double Diamond, Night Glider, and Sugar Belle, who turned to her with a noticeably different demeanor.
"I'm ready to go, Twilight." She told her teacher, struggling to keep her voice even again. Twilight nodded, and turned to head out of town. Starlight stopped after she descended the stairs, turning towards the first four residents of her town.
"I'm so very sorry... I... I know that's nowhere near enough for what I did to all of you... But it's all I've got."
With that, Starlight continued walking towards Twilight, who was standing waiting for her ten feet away.
"Starlight?" Double Diamond called after her. She turned to him as he walked up to her again.
"I think you need this." He said, bringing his forelegs up.
Starlight wasn't sure what she was expecting. A shove, a punch or kick maybe, but... A hug?
Night Glider, Party Favor, and Sugar Belle saw Double Diamond embrace his former leader, and watched as her eyes widened, and her expression was one of shock for barely a moment, before she bit her lip so hard they were surprised it didn't start to bleed.
She tried to stop it. She had never tried so hard to turn the tide back, but it was inevitable. Starlight took one wheezing, shuddering breath before the dam broke, and she burst into an uncontrollable wail.
Her agonizing howling and sobbing echoed throughout the village, as she returned the embrace and clung to her former resident for dear life, burying her face in his neck. Her back legs gave out and she fell to a sitting position, and still she held onto him. The two unicorns and pegasus needed no ushering, and they surrounded her on all sides, and threw their lingering feelings aside as they wrapped their hooves around the grieving Glimmer.
They held her for one minute. Then two. Only once she began to quiet down did Double Diamond begin to whisper to her.
"Twilight told us about Sunburst. You're gonna be alright, Starlight. You're in good hooves with her. She's gonna help you. You hear me? You're gonna be alright."
The distraught unicorn continued to cry, letting the last of it out. Whatever animosity there was between them, Double Diamond had swept it all aside with his hug and reassuring words. She had not felt like this since...
The five ponies parted from the group hug. The four residents were a bit misty-eyed as they looked at Starlight, her eyes red and her face matted with her drying tears, her shuddering breaths beginning to calm. There were no words for what was just shared, and what was just mutually thrown away. This feeling... It wasn't necessarily friendship, yet... But it was forgiveness. She knew that. It had just shattered her to her core.
Her final tears falling from her face, she silently nodded at the four of them, then turned to Twilight, who had also clearly been moved by the ordeal. Together, they left Our Town... Their town.
As they approached the platform for the imminent Friendship Express, Starlight took another deep breath and wiped her eyes again.
"Thanks, Twilight. I really, really needed to do that."
"And I'm glad you did. It means you're ready for your next assignment when we return to Ponyville." Twilight said, the sound of the approaching train increasing.
"What do you want me to do?"
"What you just did with those four, that needs to happen again, but it needs to be even farther back..."
The Friendship Express came to a halt, and the brakes let out a steaming hiss.
"I want you to write a letter to Sunburst."