Chapter 9: The Art of Avoiding Awkward Conversations
Sunset Shimmer narrowed her eyes as she scanned a crowd of mostly crystal ponies gathered in front of a stage set at the base of the Crystal Castle. She had seen this scene enough times to recognize the tell-tale sign of a crowd dispersing from a gathering, meaning somepony had likely finished a performance or giving a speech. She suspected the latter and with Celestia quite possibly not in the mood after their little… er big tiff, that left Princess Luna and Cadance.
While it was possible Luna took it on herself to address everypony, given the Crystal Empire was already gone before she went a tad nutso and was banished and back after her return, they likely wouldn’t have any real hang-ups with her appearing in front of everypony. However, Sunset still suspected that Cadance was still the one to deliver the speech at Celestia’s earlier behest.
Sunset shook her head. She’d get her adopted cousin to get some shuteye even if she had to beat her unconscious… Or maybe a simple sleep spell would be a better idea. She focused on the stage as she came in for a—
“Oh, crap baskets…” Sunset uttered to herself. The stage was coming at her a bit faster than what was probably safe for a landing. No worries, Sunset. You can do this… Just… just flap your wings hard to stop your descent. There! Now let out a frightened cry as that utterly fails to help. Good job! And a bubble shield to make sure you don’t die and… GREAT! You’re now tumbling like an orange bouncy ball of screaming shame!
Encased in what was essentially a magic hamster ball, Sunset bounded down a small flight of stairs and into a salmon-colored curtain, which fell around her and stopped her impromptu bouncy journey of terror.
She dropped her barrier and sighed. Maybe she got lucky and aside from a few confused members of the crowd, no pony had saw that. With a turquoise glow of her horn she removed the curtain from around her so she could stare back at the collection of ponies around her. Rarity, Applejack and Fluttershy looked at her in concern, while Rainbow Dash was busy rolling on the floor while having a laughing fit. Shining Armor still looked exhausted and now slightly panicked at Sunset’s sudden appearance and a half-dozen purple pegasus stallions in silver armor.
Greeeeaaat. Sunset took some solace in the fact that Twilight wasn’t in the immediate vicinity to get on her case.
“Are you aright, Sunset Shimmer?” Fluttershy asked as she trotted over and helped Sunset to her hooves.
“It’s fine,” Sunset said. “My pride is already completely dead and buried after everything that’s happened today, anyway.”
“That was quite the nasty looking spill,” Rarity chimed in.
“Yeah,” Applejack added. “Ya fell outta the sky faster than a pig desperate to win a bet.”
Rarity and Fluttershy shot Applejack confused looks from her odd turn of phrase.
“Thanks,” Sunset said in an annoyed tone as she dusted herself off with her forelegs and gave her wings a few good flaps. “I was there for it. I know how bad it was.”
Laughter continued to pour out from Rainbow Dash as she still rolled around on the ground. “Oh man! That was actually worse than any of TWILIGHT’S landings! Ahahahahaha!”
Sunset let out an annoyed groan and looked over the ponies. “I’ve only had wings for like a day! Look forget the stupid landing, I’m looking for—”
Shining Armor quickly galloped up to Sunset. “Sunset Shimmer! Thank Celestia you’re here!”
Sunset scrunched her lips to the left side of her face. “Well, she is part of the reason I’m here at this moment.” She suddenly smiled. “Also, I’d be happy to let you put a baby inside me!”
Shining seemed to lose all control over his eyebrows and eyelids for a moment as they seemed to spasm uncontrollably. “What?”
“What?” Sunset parroted. “What did you need?” she asked.
“You’ve apparently spent some time as royalty!” Shining said. He pointed to the purple pegasi ponies in a neat line behind him. “Help me pick two ponies to be the honor guard for the Crystalling.”
Sunset’s forehead tightened as she looked down the lines of armored ponies. Each one nearly identical except for the fact half the stallions had a close-cropped, mohawk style light red mane, and the others had light green but the same style. Sunset noted that they even had the same eye coloring.
“Christ, did you all roll off a Crystal Empire assembly line or something?!” Sunset asked.
The one furthest to the left spoke up, “We’re sextuplets.”
Sunset blinked a few times and looked over the line of ponies again. “Wow! Well, I hope you all put on that muscle after birth, because I think I know another mom who’s earned a trophy.”
The six stallions all let out a collective sigh.
“Believe us,” one of the green-maned ponies said, “our mom would agree with you and never gets tired of reminding us all of how much work it was to carry us and give birth.”
The green-maned pony on to the far right’s eyes went distant for a second. “She hired a courtroom sketch artist for the event… The sketches are not pretty.”
“Okay well… That’s just… weird…” Sunset trailed off as she looked the line up and down again. She turned to Shining as Rainbow Dash flew up with a couple silver helmets, one with a large light-green plume, and the other with a light red plume. “Sorry, but I haven’t spent a lot of time being a pony lately,” Sunset said. “Plus they all look identical to me… Really, if I’ve learned anything it’s that it’s sort of impossible to under-think these things and you should just pick a couple at random and be done with it.”
Shining took the two helmets in a magenta glow and shoved them backwards onto the faces of the second and third guards who awkwardly backed away. The guard to the far left puffed out his lower lip in a pout as the other three exchanged looks of disappointment.
“Oh, suck it up,” Sunset said. “At least this way you four are less likely to get baby disintegrated.”
“WHAT?!” the guard exclaimed.
“Nothing!” Sunset said sweetly. She turned towards Shining. “Okay, that was easy. What’s next?”
Rarity cleared her throat and approached with a small black box with golden borders and a matching clasp. “Now, I know choosing the crystal of purity is a very important decision.” Rarity opened the box revealing five translucent crystal shards. “So I have gone through the trouble of arranging them in order from incredibly pure to outrageously pure.”
Fluttershy trotted up and looked into the box. “Um, Rarity, don't they all sort of look the same?”
Sunset nodded in agreement. “Yeah! You even managed to find shards that are identical in color AND shape! How is that even possible?”
Rarity let out a scoff. “Perhaps they look the same to the untrained eye.” She looked over at Shining. “What do you think, Shining Armor?”
Shining’s already shrunken pupils retreated further into his eyes as he began to bite at his lip and stammer. He suddenly reared onto his back hooves and pressed his hooves against the side of his head. “I DON’T KNOW!” he screamed before he collapsed to the ground and covered his face with his hooves.
“Oh my God!” Sunset cried out. “No one cares! Just pick at random!” Sunset shook her head. “Sorry girls and terrified new-dad, I didn’t come here to help with the Crystalling. I need to find Cadance and yell at her until she’s asleep.”
The four mares exchanged confused glances.
“Er, she went to get some rest after talkin’ to everypony,” Applejack informed. “She thought if you saw her up and about you’d be madder than a Junebug in November.”
Sunset’s right eye twitched. “What does that EVEN mean-Imean Good!” she replied. “The less screaming I can do to her the better.” Sunset looked around. “Twilight is watching the baby I take it?”
“Yep!” Rainbow Dash said. “She and Pinkie totally got it covered and are probably not going to die at all!”
“Lucky!” Sunset exclaimed.
The sound of a distant explosion rumbled through the castle and up to the mares who all paused and turned in its direction, most with looks of concern.
Rarity and Fluttershy worriedly looked down the hall into the castle.
Rainbow Dash shrugged. “They’re probably fine.”
Applejack rubbed her chin. “Though, Pinkie might need some therapy after this.”
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but how would anypony be able to tell?!”
Applejack glanced up at her hat briefly. “Point taken.”
“Well, I stand by my previous statement,” Sunset said. She trotted up to Shining and leaned down. “NOW, tired dad,” she barked, “where’s the kitchen?”
Shining removed the forelegs from around his eyes. “Oh… it’s uh…” He pointed off with a forehoof. “Down the main hall and then take a right when it splits.”
Sunset nodded. “Thanks!” she said as she did an about face and began to trot off. She turned and fluttered her eyelashes. “See you soon!~” she purred out.
Shining Armor watched Sunset leave with a confused expression as the mare practically sashayed away and swung her tail from side to side.
“Goodness,” Fluttershy uttered, “what was that about, I wonder?”
Applejack shrugged. “I reckon she’s hungry after all the hootin’ and hollerin’ she’s done.”
Rainbow Dash snickered. “I don’t think that’s what Fluttershy was getting at, AJ.”
Rarity tittered. “Looks like somepony is looking to expand the royal family a little more.”
Shining Armor’s eyes shot open wide and he let out a blood-curdling scream.
Starlight Glimmer sat on a wooden stool at a small, wooden table across from Sunburst. On the table was a single empty teacup and a teakettle, both a dingy grey color with light blue lining. She let her eyes wander over the room full of crystals, scrolls, and books in shelves and piles. Heck, books where almost anywhere there was space for them. She suddenly focused her attention on Sunburst, wondering why he had only put out one teacup when there were clearly two ponies, and… Oh my gosh! He just had so many books in here and probably crazy magical components she didn’t even understand and just… Why did this have to be so awkward?! She screamed internally as she looked up into her mane.
“Sooooo…” Sunburst began, “the Princess of Friendship wants… you and I to be friends again?” he asked.
Starlight’s vision snapped back to Sunburst. “Heh! I know!” she said with an eye roll. “Weird right?” Starlight said as she put on a wide, perhaps a tad too symmetrical, smile.
“Uh, I don’t understand,” Sunburst said as he rubbed the side of his head with a forehoof. He placed his hoof on the table. “Did something happen to you after I left for magic school?”
Starlight’s eyes shot open wide as she stared at the far wall. “What? NO!” she cried as she quickly took booth cup and teakettle up with her magic and began pouring herself a cup of tea. “I-I don’t see what that has to do with anything! Why would you even ask that?!” she replied as her tea cup began to overflow. Seriously?! Why WOULD he ask that specifically?!
Sunburst wordlessly looked down at the overflowing cup then back up to Starlight.
“Uh… I mean! Let’s not talk about my boring life!” Starlight quickly interjected.
Sunburst couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Yes, best friends with the hero of the Crystal Empire and one of Celestia’s personal pupils, and personal pupil to the Princess of Friendship. I’m sure there’s nothing to talk about there.”
Starlight’s grin turned nervous as she returned the kettle to the table. “Well… I mean… I’m sure it’s not nearly as interesting as all the important wizarding… stuff you did once you left for magic school!”
“What?” Sunburst replied. He looked around his home. “OH! Well… I mean… There’s not much to tell per se… I mean… I just spend my time uh… wizard… Wizarding it up!”
Starlight strained her mouth muscles until her smile appeared genuine. “Riveting! Tell me more!”
Sunburst looked at Starlight in a near panic. “I JUST SAID THERE’S NOT MUCH TO TELL!”
From behind a huge stack of books, Spike glanced at the pair then down at the list in his claws. “I'm sure there's something on Twilight's list that can help here,” he said as he rapidly scanned it and went through it line by line. He suddenly dashed out from behind the book stack holding the list. “Sunburst! I need to use the table for a bit!”
Starlight and Sunburst peered at the young dragon quizzically.
“Uh, sure!” Sunburst said as he got off his stool. “Be my guest!”
Starlight also got up, lifting her cup, the teakettle and even the excess tea she had spilled with magic before floating everything over to Sunburst’s book-crammed kitchen and dumping the tea into the sink.
Sunburst looked at the display of magic and let out a little sigh. “Well, I can see why you have so many friends in high places,” he said as he walked out of the room and into his study.
Starlight looked at Sunburst in surprise as she followed, Spike bolting past her with the list as he placed it on the table and rapidly went through it.
“Erm, why’s that?” Starlight asked.
Sunburst shook his head. “You were so good at magic even before you got your cutie mark. It’s no wonder you got noticed.”
Starlight’s surprised look only increased. “What? Me?! You were the one who knew like… every magical spell ever!” She looked around the house. “And if you didn’t then, you must now!” she remarked as she motioned to all the books.
“Sure…” Sunburst said sadly. “For all the good that it’s done me.”
“… What?” Starlight replied as her forehead tightened.
“Nothing…” Sunburst said as he got on top of a wooden stool in front of an open book on a slanted desk and sat down. “I know Princess Twilight is keen on the two of us rekindling our friendship, but... it's been so long. I don't see how anything on that list is going to help.”
Starlight couldn’t help but chuckle. “Sunset’s been saying the same thing… Well… She hasn’t been as polite about it as you just were.”
Sunburst also let out a small laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like her. She certainly had no problem speaking her mind no matter what was on it.”
“Hehe… I bet…” Starlight replied. “But yeah. That list is probably useless.” Starlight waved a forehoof about dismissively. “It's not like there's some spell that would magically compel us to pick up where we left off.”
Sunburst’s face lit up. “Actually there’s several,” he said as he leaned forward, his glasses sliding down his face before he adjusted them back up his muzzle. He trotted over to a nearby shelf of scrolls and books and began removing books in a yellow glow. He began opening the books he held aloft to specific pages. “Mist Mane's Material Amity, Rockhoof's Rapport—”
Starlight raised an eyebrow.
“Flash Prance's Fellow... ship...” Sunburst caught the look and closed one of the books. He cleared his throat. “But I-I get the feeling the princess isn't looking for a spell,” he said with a smile.
Starlight let out a small laugh and waved a dismissive forehoof. “Definitely not.”
“Got it!” Spike said excitedly. He had managed to wrap himself almost completely in the list as he examined an item near the bottom of it. He began to read from the list, “And if all else fails, ask them to share an embarrassing moment from their past, maybe even something they regret!" He finished with a grin as he looked over at the two ponies.
Starlight and Sunburst exchanged almost panicked looks as they shared a beat of awkward silence.
“Uh, I don't see how that would help,” Sunburst said as beads of sweat appeared on his face.
“Uh…” Starlight trailed off and closed her eyes. She suddenly imagined Sunset’s judgmental stare as the imaginary mare pointed an accusatory forehoof in Starlight’s direction then raised a foreleg up to her mouth and made a rude sound. Starlight opened her eyes and looked directly at the awkwardly smiling stallion in front of her. “I-kinda-went-crazy-after-you-left-and-swore-revenge-on-cutie-marks-then-took-over-a-town,” she blurted out in rapid fire.
“… What?” Sunburst replied, tilting his head forward as his glasses nearly slipped off his muzzle.
Spike smiled at Starlight and gave her a thumbs up.
Starlight sighed heavily and looked away as she continued, “Yeah… And then Twilight showed up and sort of stopped all that.”
“O-oh…” Sunburst replied as he adjusted his glasses. “So uh… that’s when you became her pupil?”
Starlight let out a long, continuous groan and let herself sink to the floor. “Not exactly… I…” Starlight sighed and looked up. “Look, it’s a long story, and I’m sure you don’t want anything to do with me at this point.” Starlight stood up and turned towards the door. “This was a mistake. I’m sorry… You must have important wizard work to take care of and I’m just… Just a deranged screw up from your past that you barely remember and who’s probably distracting you from your important work.” Starlight’s horn glowed azure as the door opened. “Come on, Spike.”
Spike frowned heavily. “But… but…”
“I’m not really a wizard,” Sunburst said.
Spike motioned to Sunburst. “But, that!”
Starlight’s ears fell down around her head as she closed the door. “Ex-excuse me?” she stammered out as she turned to look at Sunburst.
It was Sunburst’s turn to look away. “After… after magic school I didn’t become a wizard.” A small, sad smile crept onto his face. “I didn’t become much of anything, really.”
For a moment, neither pony said or did anything. Starlight simply continued to stare at Sunburst blankly as Sunburst continued to stare at nothing in particular.
Starlight turned to Spike. “Uh… Spike? Do you mind… erm… giving us some time alone?”
Spike looked down at the list. “Wow! I didn’t think things were going that well, but Twilight has a number of suggestions and even positions listed here you might find—”
Sunburst’s face turned beet red.
“WHAT?!” Starlight exclaimed. “NO! I mean… I just think Sunburst and I need some time to catch up… privately.”
Spike pointed to the list he was wrapped up in. “Should I leave the list?”
Starlight’s face turned a slightly lighter shade of purple. “Oh, please no. We just need to talk is all.”
“Well alright,” Spike said with a smile as he walked over to the door and began unwrapping the list from around himself. “So you think you’ve got this friendship stuff figured out?”
Starlight smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know, but I think I can get by without any of Twilight's…advice.” Starlight winced slightly. “Skeevy or otherwise.”
Spike nodded. “Well, catch you back at the castle then, Starlight!” he said with a wave as he opened the door and stepped out.
Starlight smiled and waved back. “Yeah! See you there. If you see Sunset tell her ‘thanks’ for me, Twilight too… I guess one part of her list sorta helped.”
“You got it!” Spike said with a salute. “Go get ‘em, tiger!” he added with a wry grin.
Starlight’s cheeks flushed slightly as she closed the door and turned to Sunburst. “Well that was embarrassing.”
Sunburst just sighed and shook his head. “Not as embarrassing as me.” Sunburst suddenly found himself being yanked back towards the table as Starlight hooked a foreleg around one of his.
“Hah!” Starlight exclaimed. “I bet I can beat you there by miles,” she said with a grin. “Do you have any more tea?” her smile turned slightly sheepish. “Or maybe something stronger?”
“Well…”Sunburst thought for a moment. “I think I have a bottle of wine or two stashed behind a scroll somewhere.”
“That!” Starlight said. “Find that.” Although worry had made its way onto her face, Starlight still smiled. “Because with everything I have to tell you, I think we’ll both need it…”