They had talked for nearly an hour afterward, reliving some of their times at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns together. It had helped. A lot. The voice wasn’t quite so loud in her head anymore, though she knew it wouldn’t go away after one conversation on a fall afternoon.
Sunset had the feeling she had a long road ahead of her. She already had friends who had forgiven her. She had a mentor who had forgiven her.
But the road to forgiving herself was a lot darker and a lot narrower.
When the two o’clock bell started chiming across the city, Sunset confessed she needed to head to the Archives to find The Application of Unified Harmony Magics. Minuette had a job lined up for the afternoon, so she had to say farewell at the Berry Café after a particularly tight hug. Moon Dancer herself needed to head back to the Canterlot Cosmopolitan Library for her shift but offered to walk Sunset to the Royal Canterlot Archives first.
“You know,” Moon Dancer said as they approached the sprawling structure of the Archives. “I just found out that one of our old classmates got promoted last week to Assistant Lead Archivist here.”
“You mean your old classmates,” Sunset corrected. “I was just an aide a few years ahead of you lot.”
“Details, details.” Moon Dancer shrugged. “I don’t know if you remember her. She was pretty quiet back in school, kept to herself mostly.”
“Sounds a bit familiar. I vaguely remember Minuette saying the same thing about you.”
“Well, this brash magical protégée had to come in and ruin my wonderful little sequestered life." Moon Dancer sighed. “It’s an imperfect world.”
Sunset laughed and rolled her eyes. “So who is it?”
“Her name is… hmm… Twilight Twinkle?” Moon Dancer shook her head. “No, Twilight Sparkle.”
“Twilight Sparkle?” Sunset blinked. “Sometimes, I swear that every parent who had foals in our age group used the same thesaurus. I was subbing for Polish’s new aide, and I met a new student named Sunburst who mentioned he had a friend named Starlight Glimmer.”
Moon Dancer laughed. “Seems to be a theme, eh?”
“Maybe I should keep an eye on them. One of them could turn out to be my evil nemesis in the future!”
Moon Dancer stopped and stared at her.
“No offense, Sunny, but even though you’re the Princess’s personal student, I don’t think you really rate a nemesis.”
“But it would make a great narrative symmetry!”
“You’ve been reading too much Saddleson,” Moon Dancer quipped.
“I’ll have you know that Saddleson never uses narrative symmetry for names.”
They came up to the great fountain in the courtyard of the Royal Canterlot Archives. The golden bells on Starswirl the Bearded’s statue glittered in the afternoon sun as the water cast delicate rainbows on the hard lines of his face. There were plenty of ponies around, most of them sitting alone or in small groups, enjoying the cool autumn air and the afternoon sunlight. The courtyard was a popular reading spot, even if one did not have access to the Archive themselves.
“Anyway, she’s really good with books,” Moon Dancer continued. “Almost as good as me.”
“Now that’s saying something.”
Moon Dancer swatted at Sunset, who managed to prance just out of range of the swipe.
“If you’re hunting for a lost volume, she’d be the pony you’d want to see.”
“I usually just see Scrollwork. He’s always been great at finding tomes.”
“I know. I’ve worked with Scrollwork, remember? But Twilight Sparkle would leave him in the dust. I saw her at the Librarian’s Guild Conference last week. Rumor is that she’s pegged to take over the archives after Head Archivist Ink Method retires in a few years.”
“That can’t be right. If she graduated with your class, she wouldn’t have enough tenure for that.”
“She’s that good. After all, Ink Method herself recruited her right out of school for the Archives. I know ponies in the Cosmo that have been after just a junior position there for years and she got it out of the gate.”
Sunset raised an eyebrow. Straight from Celestia’s School to the Royal Canterlot Archives? That was impressive.
“Okay, I’ll look her up. What’s she look like?”
“Oh, she’s gorgeous. You’ll love her. After all, she looks a lot like me.”
“Seriously?” Sunset rolled her eyes. “This again?”
Moon Dancer gave her a grin that would have made Minuette proud. “One of these days, you’ll need to come to terms with the fact you’re head over hooves in love with me.”
“Except for the fact I happen to know you have eyes only for the stallions.”
“There’s no harm in pining over perfection.”
It was finally Sunset’s turn to whack Moon Dancer over the head, which elicited a long laugh from the librarian. She adjusted her glasses with a flick of magic.
“Well, I need to get going, Sunny.” Moon Dancer smiled and gave her friend a tight hug. “Listen, I know you have an evening session with the Princess, but why don’t we go out for doughnuts afterward? I’ll see if Rara and Coco are free. After what we talked about at lunch, I think you need a bit more proof that you have friends.”
“That would be great.” Sunset returned the smile. “I’ll fire you off a message after we’re done for the evening.”
“Then it’s a date.” Moon Dancer’s eyes sparkled. “You know, because—”
“Get going before I whack you even harder, you little brat.”
The grin reappeared and Moon Dancer sauntered off, but not before giving Sunset a come-hither look over her shoulder.
“I mean it!” Sunset warned, trying—and failing—to hide the smirk on her face.
Moon Dancer laughed and without another word, headed back toward Canterlot proper and toward her own library. Sunset found herself watching her best friend for a few seconds longer than was strictly necessary. She muttered something to herself, but the smirk remained.
The lobby of the Archives never ceased to impress Sunset Shimmer, even though she’d been through it countless times. Statues of the greatest scholars in the history of Equestria stood in alcoves along the perimeter of the immense space, each nearly three stories tall. Starswirl the Bearded stood in his classic pose, his eyes half-narrowed at some great danger to Equestria and his body tensed to throw some fireball or something equally dramatic. Beside him was the small hooded figure of his student, Clover the Clever. The graceful Meadowbrook was a bit further down, right after Hayscartes and his obnoxiously bushy hair. Feeling the statues’ gazes upon her always gave Sunset a bit of a thrill. She hoped one day that she might be deemed worthy enough to be remembered here.
An immense horseshoe circulation desk dominated the lobby. Half a dozen ponies stood behind it, most of them speaking to other graduate students, a few seniors from Celestia’s School and a couple of professors. Enormous vaulted corridors led deeper into the Archives, branching out in all directions.
Well, let’s see if we can find this Twilight Sparkle, Sunset mused as she looked over the circulation desk.
She didn’t see anypony matching Twilight’s description—though Moon Dancer didn’t actually elaborate on what the pony really looked like beyond a resemblance to herself—but she did see Scrollwork. Surrounded by a fort of books, the stallion looked much as he always did: frazzled and harried with his large glasses askew. She trotted up and gave the old gray earth pony a friendly wave, making sure to pitch her voice at an ‘acceptable’ level for the Archives. After all, the last thing she wanted to do was get on Ink Method’s bad side.
“Sunset!” Scrollwork said with a slightly crazed smile. “Delighted to see you again, my dear. What mad quest brings you here today?”
Sunset chuckled. “No mad quest today, Scrollwork. Just looking for a little lost book.”
“Little lost book, now?” He cocked his head, making his glasses nearly fall of his muzzle. “Those are not words of which I am fond, Sunset Shimmer.”
“Princess Celestia said it had been misplaced when she put in the request for my latest study.”
“Ah.” Scrollwork frowned. “Yes. The Application of Unified Harmony Magics by Nightsong. I’d love to help you find it today, Sunset, but as you can see, I’m simply buried in books! A new shipment just came in from the Manehattan Vaults. I swear they wouldn’t know a card catalog if it accosted them in broad daylight. Sadly, I simply don’t have the time to spare.”
“That’s okay,” Sunset replied. “Moon Dancer actually recommended somepony specific to help me find it. I believe her name was Twilight Sparkle? She was supposed to be recently promoted to Assistant Lead Archivist.”
“Ah yes, the prodigy." Scrollwork smiled wanly. “She’ll be running this place within fifty moons, mark my words. Never seen anypony who can make books dance like that. They simply leap into her magical embrace like long-lost friends.”
“Think she might be willing to help me out?”
The wizened earth pony shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I believe she should be coming back from break any moment now. And I am still the most tenured Assistant Lead Archivist, so supposedly that means I have some measure of authority around this place, at least until Twilight’s little coup is complete.”
Sunset laughed. Scrollwork was always bemoaning the ‘young hotshots’ that were after his position, but she knew better. He loved the idea of eager young librarians pushing their way up the ranks and Canterlot had a great many of them. After all, an appointment to the Royal Canterlot Archives was a mark of distinction. Anypony who had spent their time in the trenches of the massive archive could easily run her own library after five years. Moon Dancer’s route had been a bit different, as she had felt called to work in the public Cosmopolitan Library, but she could still run circles around almost any of these ponies in the art of library management.
“Oh yes, here she comes!” Scrollwork said, looking behind her toward the front doors.
Sunset turned to see this mysterious Twilight Sparkle and her jaw nearly hit the floor. She was almost the spitting image of Moon Dancer, but if Moon Dancer had a lavender coat instead of her yellowish gray one. Even the streaks in her hair were identical in pattern if not in shade. Thankfully, Twilight didn’t wear her mane in a topknot of which Moon Dancer was so very fond. Instead, it was in a slightly frazzled curling mane with two hanging bangs framing her violet eyes. She even wore glasses too, though hers were a refined pair of thick black-rimmed spectacles without the padding Moon Dancer preferred.
But the biggest difference between Moon Dancer and Twilight Sparkle was the way Twilight walked.
Moon Dancer had been almost a recluse when Sunset first started tutoring her, but since then the pale unicorn had shattered that shell. She wasn’t on par with an extrovert like Minuette, of course, but she was more than happy to be involved in social events. She’d even thrown a few parties, though they always had something to do with books. Not that Sunset minded. She liked books, after all.
Twilight on the other hand, practically radiated distraction. The mare screamed librarian from halfway across the room in a way Sunset found oddly refreshing. It looked like she was juggling three dozen things in her head at the same time. In fact, she was barely watching where she was going, yet somehow managed to slide through the throng of ponies wandering about the lobby.
Even from this distance, Sunset knew this mare might actually be able to run a few circles around even her.
Then Sunset got it.
Damn it. Moon Dancer had known.
She promised herself that she would strangle Moon Dancer the first chance she got… probably.
“Oh, Twilight!” Scrollwork called. “Could you come here a moment?”
The lavender unicorn had been taking quick nervous peeks around the lobby, causing her bangs to flit around her face. They smacked her in the muzzle when Scrollwork called for her. After blinking a moment, she trotted forward to come to a stop beside Sunset. She looked for all the world like an attentive young student, not an up-and-coming Royal Archivist.
“Twilight Sparkle, I’d like you to meet Sunset Shimmer. She’s Princess Celestia’s personal student.”
Twilight glanced at her, making eye contact for just a moment before digging at the marble floor with a hoof. “Oh, I know.”
“You do?” Sunset blinked in surprise.
Twilight still wouldn’t meet Sunset’s gaze. “Oh, yes. You were Professor Apple Polish’s aide for a few years. You… um… well… you weren’t exactly a very nice pony.”
I can’t get a break today, can I?
Sunset swallowed. “Um… yeah. I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t really—”
“You’re also the one who made friends with Moon Dancer and Minuette.”
This one caught Sunset totally off guard. “Yeah? Is that… okay?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Twilight shrugged but still didn’t meet Sunset’s eyes.
Sunset knew she was missing something, but she would be damned if she knew what.
“Ahem.” Scrollwork had obviously seen the awkwardness, but it sounded like he didn’t have any more idea what was going on than Sunset did. “Sunset’s in need of your unique skillset, Twilight. Apparently, we’ve mislaid our only copy of The Application of Unified Harmony Magics. Princess Celestia had requested it recently, but it seems it was sent into the Stack Vaults by accident. However, it appears that finding its location is imperative. I’d like to ask you to help Sunset locate the book.”
“Oh, there’s no need to trouble somepony like Miss Shimmer,” Twilight said quickly. “I’m sure I can locate the volume in question within the day.”
“No, please. I’d actually like to help.”
“I’m sure you have much more important things to do.”
“Actually, I really enjoy this sort of thing.”
The archivist still wasn’t meeting her eyes. Sunset wracked her brain, trying to remember what in Equestria she might have done to this mare back at Celestia’s School.
Scrollwork looked between the two mares as Twilight began to protest once more. He held up a hoof, silencing the young unicorn.
“Miss Shimmer seems to be determined to be of assistance, Twilight. You wouldn’t want to disappoint the prized student of Princess Celestia now, would you?”
Sunset shot Scrollwork a glare. He knew she hated using her status like that.
Okay, there had been the thing with Coloratura, but that had been a special case!
The last thing she wanted was to guilt somepony into spending time with her. Whatever she had done to this mare, that would simply make things worse. But before she could bow out of the conversation and allow Twilight to find the book on her own, Twilight sighed, her muzzle twisted in a frown. Finally, she nodded.
“Look,” Sunset said quickly. “You don’t need to worry about disappointing the Princess if you’d rather find the book on your own. Moon Dancer said you were amazing. I’d probably just slow you down. It’s just been a while since I’ve got to really scour the stacks of the Archives. I kind of missed doing it.”
For the first time since that awkward glance, Twilight met her eyes. There was something vaguely approaching warmth in them. It was just a flicker, so faint that Sunset couldn’t really identify it, but it was there.
“Well, if that’s the real reason you want to go book hunting, that’s something I can respect.”
“Then it’s settled,” Scrollwork said, startling both mares. “I’d recommend starting in the Advanced Arcane Theorems Stacks. The shipping manifest said it had been placed back there for storage. It’s been a while since anypony inquired after Nightsong’s works.”
Twilight nodded. “I’ll take her there immediately. If you’ll follow me, Miss Shimmer?”
The archivist immediately headed off toward the leftmost corridor into the Archives. Sunset gave Scrollwork a single searching look. For his part, his expression appeared completely innocent, an act Sunset wasn’t buying for a second.
Is everypony out to get me today? At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Celestia was in on this.
Sunset was forced to trot and weave around other patrons to catch up to the retreating Twilight Sparkle. When she reached her, Twilight was staring straight ahead, her body posture tense and formal, as if she was escorting some member of the nobility. Sunset’s lunch twisted in her stomach at the thought that anypony might think of her like that.
“You don’t have to call me Miss Shimmer. You can just call me Sunset.”
“It wouldn’t be proper to address somepony of your status in such a way,” Twilight replied, not deigning to look in her direction. “As a member of the Royal Canterlot Archives, it is my responsibility to show the correct decorum to those who deserve it.”
Sunset wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a faint stress on the last two words.
“Please,” Sunset tried again. “I… I really don’t mind. In fact, I hate it when people call me Miss Shimmer. That’s my mom’s name.”
The younger unicorn let out a sigh. “As you wish… Sunset.”
The next several minutes were spent in awkward silence as Sunset continued to dig through her memories regarding Twilight Sparkle. Twilight, on the other hoof, simply led her through the immensity of the Royal Canterlot Archives. Each chamber was enormous, the ceilings at least eight stories high. All around them stood the massive oak bookshelves, filled with a vast number of volumes, compendiums, scrolls and manuscripts in every conceivable size and shape. The shelves stood like giant sentinels of knowledge, awaiting those who had proven worthy in uncovering their mysteries. The reverent murmurs of whispered conversation hung about them as they walked. Scattered throughout were inviting-looking reading nooks illuminated by tiny pools of light from the faux fireflies in delicate crystalline lamps.
Even at her worst, there was always something about this place that gave her a sense of peace and serenity that was rivaled only by studying with the Princess.
But now, that harmony had been broken inside of her. She wrestled with her memory, demanding that it give her the answer to what she had done to make Twilight Sparkle act like this around her. After everything she’d gone through today, the idea that her mistakes were still bothering somepony ate at her mind, fueling the fire that was the angry little pony in the back of her head. She wanted nothing more than to shut that angry little pony up. She’d made an important step in finally confessing the end result of the mirror fiasco to Minuette and Moon Dancer, but the battle wasn’t over.
Would it ever be over? Or am I stuck doubting myself forever?
Finally, Twilight’s horn glowed as they approached a thick wooden door etched with archaic runes that predated even Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. These were the legendary Archive Stacks, the home to one copy of nearly every written work produced in Equestria in the last millennium. It had been a long time since she had been in here, the last time accompanying Princess Celestia herself to find the original copy of Predictions and Prophecies.
“One moment as I unlock the wards,” Twilight said formally.
Sunset nodded, not wanting to interrupt the archivist. While the wards around the Archive Stacks weren’t nearly as extensive as the ones in the Restricted Section of the Castle Archives, they were still immensely powerful. After all, there were still vaults of scrolls in the deepest depths of the Stacks that had yet to be cataloged. Nopony knew what might lay within those works.
Each of the runes glowed with a soft light, matching the raspberry-colored aura from Twilight’s horn as she undid the magical locks. After a few seconds, all the runes were lit. They flashed white for just a moment then faded and the sound of a soft click echoed in the quiet space around them. Twilight used her magic to pull open the door and gestured for Sunset to go first.
Sunset’s horn flared with a light spell as she stepped over the threshold. The air on the other side was cool, adjusted through magical devices scattered throughout the depths of the Archive Stacks to keep the manuscripts in perfect condition. Twilight’s own horn ignited with light as she followed Sunset and closed the door behind them. There was another click, this time sounding much louder as the door sealed itself once more.
They were standing in a narrow stone corridor that led to a T junction. A few signs in both archaic Equestrian and modern Equestrian were hammered into the cold stone at the intersection. But before Twilight could move forward, Sunset stopped her.
“Twilight,” Sunset began. “Since I saw you, I’ve been trying to remember what I might have done to you in the past. I’m… I’m ashamed to say I can’t think of anything. If I remember correctly, while you were in Professor Polish’s class, you and I barely exchanged more than ten words. You never needed my help, you aced everything he threw at you. You were the best student in the class, in your entire year. By Celestia, you were probably the best since—”
She stopped herself before her ego ran away with her, but Twilight was quick on the uptake.
“Since you?” She regarded her coolly. “Was that what you were going to say, Sunset Shimmer?”
Sunset winced at the use of her full name. It wasn’t as bad as ‘Miss Shimmer,’ but it still stung. As for Twilight’s question, she couldn’t bring herself to answer. Nevertheless, Twilight seemed to take her silence as the answer she was looking for and stalked off down the hallway, turning right at the fork.
Sunset could do nothing but follow.
Once more, silence fell as they descended into the Stacks. While each section of the Archives had its own dedicated series of stacks located beneath the wing, they were interconnected by interlocking security gates. They had to pass through at least three before they arrived in the Advanced Arcane Theorems section. Sunset wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought they were under the Starswirl the Bearded wing now, though they had descended from the Clover the Clever wing.
At long last, they reached the Stack Vault itself, an immense room that seemed to be a shadow version of the great chambers of the Archives above ground. With no light other than their horns—Sunset knew this was again to protect the precious manuscripts from potential fading—it was nearly impossible to see the full scope of the Vault. It reminded Sunset of the time Moon Dancer and she had gone spelunking in the forgotten gem mines beneath Canterlot—something that Celestia had not been happy about when they were found by the Royal Guard.
In truth, it likely would have taken hours to search the entire Stack Vault if not for Twilight. As soon as they entered the vast room, Twilight’s horn flashed with a brilliant violet light. When the spots were gone from Sunset’s vision, thin snaking lines of shimmering blue energy wandered through the room, crisscrossing and twisting like a game of cat’s cradle gone mad.
“What… what is this?” Sunset asked as she reached out a hoof to one of the luminous strings. It passed straight through, but there was a faint buzz on her skin, reminding her a bit of the vibration of Sunset’s journal whenever Celestia wrote her a new letter.
“Life trace spell,” Twilight said with a hint of smugness. “What you’re seeing is the residual life-force of everypony who’s walked through this chamber in the last week.”
“But… but…” Sunset sputtered. “I’ve never even heard of a spell like that.”
Twilight smirked just a bit. “I found it while searching this very room for a volume by Clover the Clever.”
Sunset’s eyes hadn’t moved from the web of light before her. She just kept passing her hoof through a strand over and over again.
“What was the book?”
“The Melding of Harmonies. Her ultimate work on what she believed caused the ‘Fire of Friendship.’”
Sunset’s head jerked up. “That’s impossible. All copies were lost when the Castle of the Two Sisters was abandoned.”
“That’s what I had been told.” The smirk grew just a bit more. “Apparently, not the case.”
“I’d love to see it,” Sunset breathed. “This… this is beautiful.”
Twilight nodded. “Yeah. It is.”
Sunset just stood there in the gloomy dark, lit only by the glow of the unicorns’ horns and the wisps of fine light snaking through the room. Each thread started at the doorway they had just entered and spread out through the vast chamber, ending at various bookshelves or threading into the deeper recesses of the Vault.
It was Twilight who broke the silence, telling Sunset they should probably get to finding the book Sunset sought.
Sunset started but nodded quickly.
“Just follow the paths. Hopefully, it was placed down here in the last week or so. Otherwise, we’ll need to search by hoof. It’s not my preferred method for a quick retrieval.”
Twilight marched off, following one of the paths deeper into the Vault, while Sunset started with the tomes closest to her. Scrollwork had said that the book had been accidentally sent here instead of the reserved section. She wished he had been more specific.
Even though this had been something she’d been looking forward to since she had first discovered the subject in a spellwork compendium last Hearth’s Warming Eve, she couldn’t really focus. At each terminus of Twilight’s spell, she glanced at the books, looking for Nightsong’s work, but not really seeing the titles or authors of the various tomes. Instead, her mind was wrapped up in the mystery of Twilight Sparkle.
She had one additional piece of information.
Twilight resented her. And she seriously resented the comparison between herself and Sunset.
Why are you bothering with this obnoxious mare? the angry little pony demanded. She’s a librarian. You’re the personal student of the Princess of the Sun. She’s nothing to you.
Because I did something, Sunset shot back. And because unlike what I used to be—you—I’m trying to care about ponies other than myself!
Oh yes, since you’ve seen such an amazing influx of power since then. If you had stayed your course, you could have become who you were meant to be. Somepony who could be great, powerful… somepony that could rule Equestria. Now your vision shows that you’re weak. You have to have others to help you in your so-called ‘potential.’
So what? Maybe that’s what I want now. Maybe friendship is a better way than simple selfish ambition.
You are a fool, through and through. One day, you’ll admit I’m right and—
“Gah!” Sunset yelped and toppled backward when Twilight suddenly appeared out of nowhere in front of her. She landed with a hard thud, banging her horn against the cool stone below, sending a massive jolt of pain through her skull.
“Ow…” she murmured, rubbing her horn. “That… ow… that really hurt…”
“I’m sorry,” Twilight said. “You were just staring into space… and you looked… angry.”
Sunset sat up and immediately regretted it as the room spun around her. Her light spell imploded and she collapsed back to the ground, clutching her head.
“What’s wrong?” Twilight knelt next to her.
“Banged my horn when I fell,” Sunset groaned. “Oh, I forgot just how much it hurts to do that.”
“Do you need me to find you a doctor?” Twilight actually sounded concerned. “I’m sure I can get one to you quickly—”
“No,” Sunset interrupted. “No, I’ll be okay. I just need a few minutes. Do you mind if I just lie here for a bit?”
“Well, as long as the Head Archivist doesn’t catch you and think you’re sleeping, I suppose you’ll be okay.”
“Thank you, Twilight.”
“It’s… it’s nothing,” the archivist muttered. “If you don’t mind me asking… why did you look so angry? It seemed like the light from your horn was becoming… I don’t know, darker somehow.”
Oh, well that’s not good.
Sunset had no reason to tell her the truth. After all, Twilight had been nothing but cold to her since they had met in the lobby an hour ago. But Sunset knew if she left this place with Twilight still upset or angry or bitter or whatever she was, it would eat at Sunset and she’d lose any progress Sunset had made toward forgiving herself.
No, Sunset snapped at herself. What matters isn’t me forgiving myself. It’s about what I did to her and finding out how to fix it.
“I was… thinking about you,” Sunset murmured. “Trying to figure out why you seem so cold toward me. What I had done to upset you back in school.”
Twilight cocked her head. “Why do you care so much? So what if I resent you? Why should that matter?”
“For the old me, it wouldn’t have.” Sunset looked into the archivist’s eyes. “But I’ve changed a lot since then. At least, I like to think I have. It was a hard road, figuring out other ponies actually mattered more than me. I still slip up all the time and come across as this egomaniacal harpy.”
She rubbed her head again and winced at the sharp jab of pain in her skull.
“I… I just wish I knew what I did.”
There was a thick silence as the two mares watched each other. Twilight’s face was as inscrutable as Celestia’s, even as Sunset felt her heart seize up. She didn’t want to lose the idea that others could forgive her for her past mistakes. She didn’t want Twilight to hate her, especially for reasons Sunset didn’t understand. Despite the fact that she barely knew this pony, it mattered.
The evil, angry little pony in the back of her head was nattering away, systematically tearing her apart with words, emotions, thoughts and memories as they sat in the cool darkness of the Stack Vault. The silent tormentor, always ready to pounce on her when she was weak.
Sunset eventually pushed herself to a sitting position, ignoring the swimming room around her by focusing on the unicorn standing in front of her.
Finally, Twilight let out an explosive sigh, so loud that Sunset jumped and immediately regretted it when her head swam. Twilight sat on the ground with a thud and unleashed a glare that would have probably made the griffon ambassador nervous.
“You stole my friends.”
“You stole my friends,” Twilight repeated and stared at the stone beneath their hooves. “You strode into the class with the prestige and power of Princess Celestia on you. You’re one of the most important ponies in all of Equestria. I can’t imagine the sort of things she’s had you involved in. But for some reason, you were an aide for Professor Apple Polish that year.”
“It’s not like that—”
“If you want an answer, let me finish,” Twilight snapped.
Sunset shut up.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to make connections with other ponies? I’m not exactly what you would call an extrovert. But over the few years before you showed up, I was finally making some connections. I… I didn’t think it was all that important at the time, really. But then you came around. You started tutoring Moon Dancer and she spent time with you. Then Moon Dancer brought in Minuette. Even Lemon Hearts and Twinkleshine spent time with you. The wonderful, amazing, perfect student of the Princess of the Sun!”
Twilight took a deep breath and tried to wrangle her voice. Sunset could see Twilight fighting herself as the last few words had actually echoed in the dark Vault. She was trembling all over as if suppressing the desire to start physically attacking Sunset.
“And then… I was alone again. And it hurt. More than I imagined. I was left with little else than my books and my test scores. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have believed it… but after they just stopped hanging out with me… it hurt. A lot.”
“Why didn’t you join us?” Sunset blurted. “I know Moon Dancer. I know Minuette. I know they would have invited you!”
Twilight sniffled. “It’s a stupid reason.”
Sunset tentatively reached out a hoof toward Twilight. Twilight shied away, but she didn’t completely recoil, allowing the gentle touch.
“I want to know, please.”
“Weren’t you paying attention?” Twilight groaned and threw her an exasperated glare. “You’re Sunset Shimmer. The pride and joy of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. The most powerful unicorn in the last two hundred years. Aced every test. Beloved by every teacher. There are professors who think of you with the same reverence they do of Princess Celestia! And I’m… just me. A regular, boring old unicorn who’s good with books, completely incompetent when it comes to anything resembling friends and only realized that something mattered to me once it was gone.”
Twilight jerked away from Sunset and stood, staring into the darkness so her tail was facing Sunset. Despite that, Sunset could hear the tears in Twilight’s voice as she continued to speak.
“The day I went to my first Summer Sun Celebration and saw Celestia raising the sun… I wanted to be just like her. I would have given anything to have what you have. Personal time with the Princess of the Sun? An immortal alicorn with enough magical power to control the heavens themselves? For pony’s sake, she’s a bucking goddess in all but name! And you… you were hers. Seeing you there, in that class with the ponies I had once thought of as friends… just reminded me how small I was and how little I mattered.”
Twilight let out a muted laugh. There was no mirth in it. It was a laugh of a broken pony, one who had been bottling something up until it had soured. A low and simmering bitterness, tempered by a crushing lack of self-confidence.
Sunset swallowed and thought back to the mirror. But instead of herself, Sunset saw Twilight in the mirror’s reflection.
She’s me. She’s what I could have been if I hadn’t made the choices that brought me here today. If anything, I could have been worse. If Celestia hadn’t forced me to be a teacher’s aide or if I had continued to obsess over that mirror… it wouldn’t be bitterness eating away at me. It would have been anger.
Because at a certain point, even Celestia’s patience has its limits. They’re hard to find, but they’re there. I should know. I pushed them hard enough.
Celestia might have decided I wasn’t worth the trouble after all. If I had pushed her too far… there would have been only one outcome. Only one outcome I can think of. I can only imagine my reaction to that.
There but for the grace of Harmony…
Sunset stood to her hooves. The darkness wobbled around her, but she ignored it. If there was one thing she was well-versed in, it was determination and right now she needed every iota of it. With a burst from her horn, she sent a small ball of light into the air, shining down on them with a soft sun-like glow. Twilight started at the sudden increase in light, illuminating the ancient stacks of scrolls and manuscripts that surrounded them. She turned back to Sunset, her eyes red and her cheeks wet.
“Happy now?” Twilight demanded, her face hard.
Twilight’s horn flared with magic and she tossed a book Sunset hadn’t noticed before at the older unicorn. Instinctively, she caught it with her own magic and an old cracked tome labeled The Applications of Unified Harmony Magic floated in a teal aura before her. She looked at the book and then to Twilight.
She made her choice.
Nightsong’s seminal piece on unified spellwork dropped to the floor with a thud. Sunset didn’t even glance at it. She just stepped over the book.
Twilight looked shocked, nearly horrified. Sunset didn’t care at the moment. She walked right up to the other unicorn, ignoring the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her.
“I’m sorry,” Sunset said. “I didn’t know. It was all happening right in front of me and I didn’t see it. All those things you think I am? Some amazing gifted prodigy? I’m not that pony. I was arrogant, selfish… I thought I was the greatest thing on four legs. Because of that attitude, I nearly ruined my entire life. I almost alienated Princess Celestia. I didn’t realize until later just how close I came. And it wasn’t even me who got me to change. It was Moon Dancer and Minuette. Then Cheerilee, Crystal Clear’s aide. Eventually, Rara and Coco Pommel helped too. They’re the ones who bucked some sense into me… got me to look outside myself. And to take a good look inside too. I didn’t like what I found. I still don’t.
“Twilight, there’s a lot of things I know I’m good at. But being a friend isn’t one of them. Neither is forgiveness. Every day, I have a little voice in my head telling me one of two things: that Celestia is secretly holding me back and preventing me from becoming what I should be or that I’m a terrible pony who doesn’t deserve friendship, kindness or forgiveness for how I’ve treated others in the past.”
Twilight gaped at her, her mouth moving, but no words coming out.
“I know all too well what it’s like to have a voice in your head always tearing you down or ripping you apart. There are mornings I can’t stand to look at the pony in the mirror. The only reason there are days when I can do it is because my friends have managed to buck some more sense into my thick skull.” Sunset laughed. “As you can imagine, that takes a lot of work.”
The other unicorn giggled, a faint trace of a smile passing over her muzzle.
“I meant what I said earlier. The professors loved you. They loved you a lot more than me, actually. Because you didn’t have the ego I did. You were humble. You didn’t see it as a big deal. Now, in my eyes, that makes you twice the unicorn I am. Yeah, I got lucky. On the day of my entrance exam, I had a magic surge so powerful that it caught Celestia’s attention. Probably helped that I had drawn on the power of the sun to do it.”
“Lucky you.” Twilight’s ears went flat. “On the day of my exam, I couldn’t even finish the third test.”
Sunset blinked. “Wait… nopony ever told you?”
“Tell me what?”
“I can’t believe nopony ever told you.” Sunset laughed again, this time in shock. “Twilight, I know what happened during your entrance exam. I overheard Professors Polish and Clear talking about it one day. You got a perfect score on the written examination. You went through all of the standard exercises in the first exam. You went through all of the reserve tests halfway through the second level exam! That last test with the dragon egg was a desperate attempt by the faculty to come up with something, anything for you to do. Nopony expected you to do it. By Celestia, Twilight, none of the professors could do it. Seriously, how many dragons have you seen in Canterlot? If popping baby dragons out of eggs was a normal exam, everypony in the school would have one!”
Once again, Twilight was struck speechless.
“Twilight, you are anything but worthless. You’re probably one of the brightest minds to come out of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns ever. I meant what I said earlier. You never needed my help. If anything, I vaguely remember feeling threatened by you when I saw your first test scores. I’m just glad… I’m glad I changed before I could try to tear you down.”
Twilight stared at her as if Sunset had just announced she was a Diamond Dog in a clever disguise. “You… felt threatened by me?”
Sunset nodded with a silly little smile. “So, I guess we were both terrified of each other.”
Twilight’s look of shock cracked, broke and dissolved into a goofy grin that Sunset couldn’t help but find cute.
“Yeah… I guess we were. Sounds like it was for pretty stupid reasons too.”
“Twilight, I’m not perfect. I’m so far from perfect I couldn’t see it using the Royal Observatory. I’m a unicorn who’s made a lot of mistakes and who’s desperately trying to make up for them. I’m a unicorn who’s terrified of going back to the way I was because I worry what I might become if I walk down that road. If I was alone… I don’t know where I’d be. But I’m not alone. You don’t have to be alone either.”
“It’s been too long—” Twilight began, but Sunset cut her off.
“No. It’s never been too long. They were your friends back then, Twilight. I know they’d be happy to be your friends now too. I know them. I’m sure.”
Twilight was quiet for a long time. “Really?”
She dug at the floor in an almost exact copy of what she had done upstairs, but her entire manner was different now. This wasn’t fear. This was simply being nervous.
“I… I don’t know.”
“I’m getting together with them tonight at Pony Joe’s after my evening classes with the Princess. I think you should join us.”
Twilight backed away, looking everywhere but at Sunset. She looked so flustered, so lost and so small that Sunset’s heart nearly broke. She wanted to help the younger unicorn. It took her only a moment to remember one of Twilight’s confessions.
“Tell you what, Twilight,” Sunset said, a little bit of a smirk on her face. “If you’ll come with me tonight to see your—our—friends, I’ll bring you to meet Princess Celestia tomorrow afternoon.”
Twilight froze as if she had been blasted by a cockatrice’s glare.
“P-P-Princess… Celestia?” Twilight eventually stammered. “You’d… introduce… I couldn’t. I’m not ready for anything like that. It’s impossible. That’s a terrible idea. I’ll make a complete idiot out of myself sort of like I’m doing right now howcouldyouevenask—”
Sunset shoved a forehoof into Twilight’s stammering muzzle. “Please. Without knowing it, I stole your friends and left you alone. Let me make it up to you. You said you wanted to be just like her. Well, that’s another thing we share. I just said that this afternoon.”
Sunset licked her lips. She had to do this. Somehow, she just knew she had to. Gently, she removed her forehoof.
“No,” Sunset cut her off again, this time, just verbally. “No what ifs. Please. If not for yourself… do it for me. Let me have a little closure here… and maybe make a new friend.”
“A new friend…” Twilight mumbled. Her violet eyes stared over Sunset’s shoulder as if Celestia herself were standing right behind her. She adjusted her glasses with a flick of magic and then managed to meet Sunset’s gaze once more. “And a chance… to meet… Princess Celestia herself…”
“Oh, I’m going to regret this so much,” Twilight moaned. “Okay. But don’t leave me alone. I can’t handle this alone.”
Sunset’s heart nearly burst as a desperate tension faded from her body. Sunset nodded, giving Twilight a smile that might have impressed Minuette.
“I’ll come by tonight after my class. When does your shift end?”
“Nine.” Twilight nearly whispered the word. “I’m off at nine.”
“Perfect. I should be done around eight-thirty. It’s a date then.”
Twilight instantly went bright red and a split-second later, Sunset knew she did the same.
“Yeah, can we just pretend I didn’t just say that last part?” Sunset said hopefully.
Twilight nodded emphatically.
“Okay,” Sunset said. “Never happened.”
The blush remained. On Twilight. And on herself.
“Thank you, Twilight. I promise this will be worth it. I’ll make sure of it.”
Twilight stared at her. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I just… never really had anypony been so concerned about me like that, well, aside from my brother.”
“Well, that’s what friends do. They look out for each other.”
“You know, you aren’t nearly as scary as I thought you were.” Twilight laughed nervously.
“I used to be,” Sunset admitted. “I’m trying to do better now.”
“I think you’re doing great.”
Sunset wasn’t sure how to answer that. Instead, she just felt her face grow a bit warmer.
Once more, silence descended upon the Vault. But this time, it was a much more comfortable silence. The confusion in the air had dissipated and while it wasn’t completely gone, Sunset felt like she could finally breathe again.
“Well, this… turned out differently than I expected.”
“Yeah,” Twilight replied. “Not exactly what I was planning for the day.”
“We should probably get going. I’m sure you have plenty to do and I need to prepare for my class tonight.” She made to move toward the door, only to have Twilight call out to her.
“Sunset, you forgot something.”
Wrapped in Twilight’s raspberry aura, The Applications of Unified Harmony Magics by Nightsong floated up beside her. Sunset reached out with her own magic to take it and for the briefest of moments, the magic of the two unicorns flowed into one another. The book lit up like a beacon, glowing in a shimmering rainbow of colors.
Through the magic, Sunset felt something strange flow through her, like a cool shower on a hot day. Then images flashed through her mind, faster than lightning. She gasped in time with Twilight.
It was just the briefest of glimpses, but in that glimpse, she saw the true Twilight Sparkle. A pony with the same dreams as her, just as lost and confused as Sunset often felt. The same reverence and love of Princess Celestia, though in a different texture and a different manner. The same obsession with learning and magic. The same raw magical talent and power. That and a thousand more tiny details Sunset simply couldn’t process.
It was almost like looking into a reflection of herself if she had walked down a slightly different path.
And then, the moment was gone.
Sunset managed to hold onto the levitation field as the magical aura shifted back to the familiar teal. She looked up into Twilight’s eyes and knew without a doubt that Twilight had received the same glimpse into Sunset as Sunset had seen of Twilight.
Twilight’s face was twisted, her brow furrowed, her eyes locked onto something Sunset couldn’t see. Her ears flicked up and down. Twilight blinked a few times and her mouth moved silently.
What had she seen? Would she react with revulsion? With pity? Hatred? Would she end up despising me for what she saw? Celestia, I was doing so well… I was trying so hard…
Instead, Twilight looked at her with something that could only be described as wonder.
“I… I saw you as an alicorn,” she whispered in a voice so quiet it was barely heard even in the still silence of the Vault. “With five friends behind you… and one other.”
Sunset didn’t know what to say. How could she explain her greatest failure and her greatest success to a pony she barely knew? But that wasn’t true anymore. She understood Twilight. Just as she knew that Twilight understood her.
Moon Dancer’s explanation of unified spellwork to Minuette came back to her.
“When proper harmony is found between the two ponies, the result of said spell connects them on a deeply fundamental level.”
Could harmony be based on regret? Or a need for forgiveness? Maybe a need for acceptance? Validation? Or something else that wasn’t as easily defined?
“Hey Twilight,” Sunset blurted out. “Maybe after class tomorrow… you want to go to Pony Joe’s? Just the two of us?”
Twilight blinked for a few seconds and then nodded slowly. “I think I’d like that.”
Sunset smiled warmly, slipped the book into one of her saddlebags. While she followed Twilight back through the maze of passages up into the Royal Canterlot Archives proper, every corridor seemed a bit brighter. It felt like Celestia’s smile… or smirk.
She said her farewells to Twilight at the reception desk, renewing her promise to come and get her to meet their friends tonight after her session with Celestia. Sunset wasn’t ready for the sudden hug that Twilight gave her, but she welcomed it and found herself hugging back, tighter than she would have expected from herself.
Sunset made sure not to notice Twilight’s blush as Twilight pulled away. She was sure that Twilight wasn’t noticing Sunset’s own blush either.
Scrollwork, on the other hoof, was grinning like an idiot the entire time. Sunset ignored him.
Sunset waved goodbye one more time and stepped back out into the crisp autumn air just as the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon. She knew the lesson plan for tonight but suspected that Celestia would likely have little interest in the planned curriculum.
No, Sunset knew Princess Celestia well enough to know that would be the last thing on her mind.
This was going to make one heck of an interesting report to the Princess.