• Published 15th Mar 2015
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Six Nights (and a Day) With Sunset - EchoWing



Sunset Shimmer adjusts to her new life after the Fall Formal and gets to know her new friends better, while reflecting on her old one.

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Chapter Five - A Night With Applejack

“Well, sounds like y’all had a right pleasant evenin’.”

“We did, yes.” Fluttershy hoped that the embarrassed blush on her face wasn’t too obvious, given she’d woken up cuddling Sunset that morning as if she were a giant, warm teddy bear. “I do feel bad that she couldn’t stay with us longer, but we have so little room.”

“Good thing that won’t be a problem out at the farm.” Applejack followed her friend into the town’s animal shelter, taking a second as she entered the brightly-lit lobby to kneel down and greet a cat that looked up at her with a friendly scratch behind its ears. “Don’t quite get why she’s here though.”

“Well, Sunset mentioned wanting to do something useful during the day, and Mom suggested that she help out here at the shelter. I just hope she didn’t have too much trouble. Some of the animals can be quite a handful, especially with strangers.”

“Yeah, ‘bout that.” Applejack got back to her full height and followed Fluttershy towards the kennels. “Fluttershy, Ah think it was a good thing, you havin’ her help out ‘round here. If nothin’ else, gave the girl somethin’ to do, but ain’t’cha a little worried ‘bout how the critters would react to her? Ah ain’t sayin’ she ain’t on the up-and-up, but you and Ah both know animals don’t react good to the unusual.”

“Well, I’ll admit, that was something I was worried about, but I called my mother to check on her, and everything seemed to be…” The two girls entered the kennels, and Fluttershy’s eyes lit up. “Oh my goodness!”

The two were greeted to the sight of Sunset kneeling down on the ground, laughing heartily as a large black dog gleefully licked at her face. She turned away and laughed, “Hi girls! Give me a second, I’ve got an oversized puppy here who isn’t quite done with me!” She turned back to the dog and gently pushed the canine away. “Come on, Ellie, come on, play time’s done.”

Her eyes shone with a little regret, but her smile was joyful as Fluttershy took up the dog’s leash and led her back into a kennel, latching it closed behind her. Laughing, Applejack approached Sunset and helped her back to her feet. “Look at you, makin’ a friend. Here Ah was worried you’d be havin’ trouble.”

“I was too.” Sunset examined herself and noted, “Still, no bites or claw marks. That’s always a good sign, right?” She nervously gestured towards a nearby sink and added, “Give me a second to clean up and grab my stuff, okay?”

As Sunset busied herself with the sink, Fluttershy approached with an impressed look in her eyes. “Sunset, did you clean all of the kennels?”

“And put out fresh food and water for the dogs, and played with some of them.” She quickly dried her hands and added, “I wanted to do the same with the cats, but your mother said the dogs would be more than enough. She wasn’t wrong; Ellie especially’s a bundle of energy.”

“Well, I don’t think they’d mind seeing you again.” Fluttershy quickly amended, “I mean, I’m not asking you to volunteer, and I wouldn’t dream of forcing you to come if you didn’t want to, I’m just suggesting…”

“Can I think about it?”

“Oh yes, of course you can.”

Applejack chuckled. “Well, unless you’re plannin’ on adoptin’, we’d best skedaddle.” She led Sunset out, pausing as the girl made her way to an office to retrieve her backpack. “Look at you, bein’ a model citizen and lookin’ after little doggies. If the folks at school could see this, they’d really think you were turnin’ things ‘round.”

“Maybe.” Sunset slung the bag over her shoulders as Applejack led her out, her expression turning somber. “But we both know that won’t be so easy. And staying with you won’t be a picnic either, considering…”

“Don’t count your chickens ‘fore they hatch, sugarcube. Life’s got a way of surprisin’ folks.” The two finally exited the animal shelter to find an aged pickup truck waiting for them, painted deep red and with an apple on its grill in place of a manufacturer’s logo. Applejack waved to the truck’s driver and called, “Open ‘er up, Big Mac, we got us a passenger!”

Sunset eyed Applejack’s siblings uneasily as the door was opened to the truck’s cab and she climbed into the back, Apple Bloom seated beside her and pointedly trying not to look at her. Big McIntosh’s expression was unreadable while Applejack climbed inside and took the front passenger seat. Once the two were buckled in and Sunset steadied her backpack in her lap, the truck started. Staying at Sweet Apple Acres was not going to be easy, given what had happened last week, but she’d expected that. Compared to what she thought was coming, any tests she had to deal with in Equestria were easy.

-

She was back. That was the only thing Sunset could think about on her way from the train station to the campus of the School for Gifted Unicorns – she was back in Canterlot! Back where she belonged! The air smelled right, the buildings looked right, the world felt right again! And soon enough, she’d settle things so that she was back here for good!

It took everything she had to not rush ahead of her aunt and charge into the building where the entrance exam was taking place. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get away from her – she did, but unfortunately, she was stuck with her – it was that she knew full well that if she ran off, she’d get lost and probably miss something important. Still, she wished that she could get away. Every other filly and colt she saw was accompanied by at least one adult unicorn, and she couldn’t help but feel like she stuck out like a sore hoof. Some looks were surprised, such as the one from the blue filly slightly younger than her with the white mane who’d passed by, though others were clearly of disdain, such as the one from the pale white unicorn filly with the fancifully-curled deep red mane. Either way, they spoke volumes.

“It’s alright if you’re nervous Sunset, or worried. I’ve had to deal with that so many times. Just do your best.” Sunset rolled her eyes at her aunt’s encouragement as they sat waiting, but kept her gaze firmly on the door to the hall where she was to be tested. “Just a practical test, and then a written exam. Nothing to worry about.”

It felt like it was taking forever for her turn to come until the doors opened and a grey earth pony stallion with a nearly-white mane and blue eyes behind a pair of glasses looked out among those waiting. “Sunset Shimmer?”

“That’s me!” Sunset hopped to her feet, her aunt following her from the bench into the examination hall. The stallion made his way to a door opposite him, while four more adult unicorns were seated above them and to their right. She looked up at them and quickly noticed their dour, unimpressed expressions were briefly broken by odd quirks of surprise. It took everything she had to not smile at that – she was the only applicant she’d seen with a cutie mark. “I’m ready! Test me!”

The doors opposite opened, and the stallion produced a cart with a purple, spotted egg upon it. He approached her and asked, “Do you know what this is?”

Sunset looked at the egg, scowled, and gently lifted it in her magic to get a better look at it. As the examiners scribbled notes, she reasoned, “It’s a dragon egg.”

“Correct. Now…”

“How’d a dragon egg get here?” The stallion looked at her as she set it back down in the cart and she asked further, “I mean, dragons aren’t common in Equestria. I know their migration paths go past Canterlot, but…”

“Ahem.” He gently smiled, one hoof raised to quiet her. “That isn’t something for you to worry about, dear. This test isn’t about the egg’s past, but its future.” He gestured to the egg and explained, “We want you to hatch it.”

“You have two minutes.” Sunset looked back to the examiners to find that one of them had produced a stopwatch. “Impress us, Miss Shimmer.”

Sunset smiled confidently and turned her attention to the egg. They wanted to be impressed and have her hatch a dragon egg, huh? She knew just the trick. “Stand back. I’ve got this.” Her horn lit up, a ball of fire forming at its tip, slowly growing from the size of a small grape to the size of a tennis ball, until the ball became a stream of fire, not unlike a dragon’s own fire breath and pointed right at the egg.

The earth pony watched with alarm, the same expressions no doubt on the faces of the examiners and her aunt, but the egg wasn’t hurt in the slightest, the fire wrapping and curling around it like a blanket as it was gently lifted out of the basket by the heat. Sunset kept her eyes on the egg, not taking them off for an instant as the seconds ticked by. “Come on, little guy, you can do this. Come on. Wake up. It’s almost…”

“Time! End your spell, Miss Shimmer!”

Sunset didn’t take her eyes off the egg as she protested, “What?! No, I can hatch it!”

“Your time is up!” She felt something hit her, and her magic was nullified, the heat around the egg fading within seconds only to be replaced by a magic aura that gently lowered it back into the cart. “Thank you, Miss Shimmer! That will be all.”

Sunset fumed, but followed the earth pony’s directions as she and her aunt made their way out of the exam room through the opposite door. So much for an entrance exam. What kind of test didn’t even give you time to finish?

-

“Are we there yet?”

Sunset was roused from her memories as Applejack chided, “Apple Bloom, don’t you start actin’ like that. We’ll get home soon enough.” The farmgirl’s head turned the other way as she asked, “You enjoyin’ the ride, Sunset?”

“Yeah, just letting my mind wander.” She glanced out at the countryside beside her and took in the pastures stretched out towards the mountains that bordered the town. A smile crossed her face as she observed, “I’ve never been out this far before. It’s beautiful.”

“We went a little out of our way to get’cha, but that ain’t a bad thing, considerin’.” The pastures gave way to farmland and apple orchards, white fences lining the road as they closed in on their destination. “Just a warnin’ for ya, life out on a farm’s a little different from the city. Not too different, mind, but don’t be too shocked if ya hear somethin’ durin’ the night.”

“I think I’ll be okay.” She made a quick glance towards Apple Bloom and Big McIntosh and reflected that it wasn’t anything outside of a farmhouse that she was worried about. She noticed a wide gate in the distance, a mailbox mounted on one side, and asked, “Is this it?”

Big McIntosh nodded with affirmation as they turned into the gate, and Sunset got her first good look at Applejack’s home proper. What she saw was more than she expected, the drive leading towards a large farmhouse with a barn, stables and several equipment sheds nearby. Arrayed behind the house were apple orchards stretching as far as the eye could see, with further fields and pastures in the distance. The truck slowed to a halt in front of the barn, and Sunset climbed out and took a deep breath of fresh air, almost distracted from Apple Bloom jumping out faster than she had. Despite the ill feelings she had lingering, with the clean air around her, she almost felt like she was home.

Applejack seemed to catch her aura of wonder and grinned as she slapped a hand to her shoulder. “Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres, Sunset.” As Sunset returned the grin, her friend retrieved her sleeping bag and luggage from the truck bed. “Ah’ll get the guest room ready for ya.”

“You don’t need to do that, Applejack. Just show me where it is and…”

Big McIntosh loudly cleared his throat to catch her attention, and Applejack added, “Sorry darlin’, but Granny Smith wants a word with ya first. Don’t worry, though, I’ll take good care a’ yer stuff.”

“Oh. Alright, but can I at least keep my backpack on me?”

“Sure.” Applejack turned her attention to her younger sibling and called, “Apple Bloom! If’n you got homework to do, you’d best be doin’ it…!”

“…Doin’ it ‘fore supper, ah know!” The youngest of the three siblings was already at the door to the house, holding the door open for the others as they entered. She gave Sunset an uneasy glance as she walked past, which the fiery-haired girl could only respond to with a nervous but thankful smile before being led to the living room, and then scampered up the stairs once everyone was inside and the door secured.

Slight creaks greeted her as Sunset entered the living room. Under normal circumstances, it would probably look very inviting, with its high ceiling and impressive fireplace and cozy-looking furniture. Granny Smith’s presence in her rocking chair, however, led her to think otherwise. Applejack’s grandmother was someone she’d seen every day since she’d started attending Canterlot High, between that one home economics class she’d taken and every day in the cafeteria, but she’d barely paid her any mind. Now, however, the old woman before her seemed more intimidating than Princess Celestia did the first time they’d met. Well aware that she’d have to do this eventually, she took a deep breath and asked, “You wanted to…?”

“Take a seat.”

She immediately did as she was told and found a seat on the sofa, her eyes fixed upon the Apple family matriarch, her backpack at her feet and her hands folded in her lap. “Yes ma’am.”

Granny Smith regarded her silently, her aged orange eyes betraying no emotion. “Never thought Ah’d see this day, you lookin’ more nervous than a cat at a dog show. Wasn’t there t’see what happened last Friday, but my grandkids done told me all the important stuff. Didn’t believe it ‘till I talked with Celestia and Luna come Monday mornin’.”

Sunset would’ve wished to still have her magic right then, but she quickly reminded herself that if there was a shrinking spell, she’d never learned it.

“Not sure how I feel ‘bout you stayin’ with us after all that. Somethin’ Ah’ve told my grandkids; if’n an apple’s gone bad, then it’s gonna stay bad, and there ain’t no goin’ good again. So imagine mah surprise when Applejack tells me you need yerself a place to stay a while, that you’ve done tried with the rest of her friends and left fer one reason or other.”

Sunset opted against bringing up her cover story; something told her that someone who prided themselves on honesty as much as Applejack did had to have gotten it from somewhere.

“Didn’t even compare to the surprise Ah got when Ah saw where you had been stayin’. Between that and the talkin’ horse with a horn and wings, Ah’m countin’ mah blessin’s my heart’s as healthy as it is.”

Her eyes went wide in surprise, and Sunset couldn’t restrain herself. “You met Princess Celestia?”

A solemn nod. “Got the whole story ‘tween her an Applejack. Got a reminder, too.” Her face broke out in a warm smile that seemed to take a decade off her face even as it lifted Sunset’s spirits. “People ain’t apples. Apples don’t get a choice ‘bout goin’ bad, after all. And if’n Applejack says you’ve done turned over a new leaf, then Ah’d best be believin’ her. You wouldn’t be sittin’ there if’n Ah didn’t.”

Sunset felt a warm hand on her shoulder, and looked up to find Big McIntosh standing at her side, a welcoming smile on his face as well. She sighed in relief and laughed as she brought her hands up to her face, hoping that she wasn’t tearing up. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that.” She recovered herself and smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Granny Smith.”

The older woman laughed. “Don’t be thankin’ me yet, missy. As long as you’re stayin’ here, you’re workin’. This ain’t some fancy hotel, after all.”

“I didn’t think so, and I’m fine with that, really. Whatever you need, it’s done.” Realizing what she just said, she deadpanned, “And by saying that, I just volunteered to do something really nasty, didn’t I?”

Both Apples laughed at that, with the youngest answering, “Nope. Not tonight.”

“Course not; you’ve done yer work fer the day.” A few eager barks interrupted Granny Smith as she turned her gaze towards the stairs. “Speakin’ of, the dogs ain’t quite done with ya.”

Sunset turned as a border collie charged in, barking excitedly as she sniffed and prodded at the newcomer. Rather than be alarmed, Sunset smiled and reached to pet the dog on her head. “She must smell all the other dogs I spent time with today.” The dog accepted her hand and sat down. “Hey girl. Glad you don’t mind the extra company.”

“Winona’s never been one to complain ‘bout makin’ new friends, darlin’.” Her peace said, Granny Smith slowly got to her feet. “Well, Ah’d best be gettin’ supper ready. Big Mac’ll lead ya to the guest room.”

“Um, before that.” Sunset got to her feet. “Do you need any help with the food?”

Granny Smith laughed and shook her head. “Nah, but thanks fer the offer, darlin’. Go on now, git already.”

Sunset nodded and retrieved her backpack, then turned to the eldest of the Apple siblings. “I guess you know everything too, huh?”

“Eeyup. Got a hard time not believin’ it after last Friday, too.” Big McIntosh gave her a somber expression as he added, “Apple Bloom don’t know though. Figured she wasn’t ready for it all yet. It’ll be a while, but give her time. She’ll see you ain’t the same girl you was ‘fore that night.”

“I hope so.” Sunset slung her bag over her shoulders. “Thanks, Big McIntosh.”

“Big Mac. Call me ‘Big Mac’.”

A small chuckle. “Okay, Big Mac.” She followed him up the stairs with relief and Winona following close behind, feeling like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. “So, which room is your guest room?”

“Right here!” She saw Applejack’s arm waving to her from one open door, and Sunset followed it to find the guest room waiting for her. While Rarity’s guest room gave off a feeling of simple elegance, this one presented more rustic charm, the furniture old but well cared for and the bed dressed with fresh sheets colored a warm orange, her luggage waiting at its foot. Standing at the foot of the bed was Applejack, a pleased look on her face. “Yer lookin’ better. Not worried ‘bout a lousy reception no more?”

Sunset smiled as she set her backpack at the side of the bed and scratched Winona behind her ears. “Nope. I think I can do this.”

-

The first words to come out of Sunset’s mouth came as she entered the reception area for prospective applicants. Few were present yet, for whatever reason, though food and drink was already laid out. “I could’ve done it.”

Solar Flare led her niece to a snack table that was filled with assorted foods, from pies to cake to fruit to donuts, and gently assured her as she gathered some food for the two of them. “Sunset, no one’s saying you couldn’t…”

“Then why didn’t they let me finish?” A plate was held out for her with one wing, some fruit and a donut upon it, and she took it with her magic before a few apple slices started hovering in front of her face. “What kind of test doesn’t give you enough time to finish? It’s like they made me fail on purpose!”

“That would be a very cruel thing to do, wouldn’t it?”

“It is!” Sunset turned to her new addressor and continued, “It’s cruel and mean and…!” It took her a second to take note of the fact that the mare who was speaking to her was the one she least expected to see, who towered over both her and her aunt. The very long horn emerging from her head and very large pair of wings only made her look more impressive. “And…”

The mare looked upon her with a motherly twinkle in her pale magenta eyes, her multicolored mane flowing freely beside her like a twinkling aurora. She managed a regal giggle as she observed, “And it seems you’ve lost your train of thought, my little pony. Maybe your guardian and I can help you find it somewhere more private?” Her gaze turned to Sunset’s aunt as she asked, “Solar Flare, I assume? Could you and your niece please join me?”

Sunset nodded as her aunt bowed gently and answered, “Of course, Princess Celestia, we’d be honored.”

The princess smiled and, a plate with a piece of cake upon it held in her magic, she led the two to a smaller, private dining room and the three sat down at a table together, Sunset perched between her aunt and her sovereign. Realizing that her apple slice was still floating off her plate, she hastily ate it, which prompted a small laugh from the alicorn.

“Sunset Shimmer. I’ve been hearing quite a bit about you, young lady.” She held her gaze upon the filly and asked, “Tell me, why do you think it’s wrong that you weren’t allowed to continue? And be honest please.”

Sunset briefly looked down. Was this a test, or was the princess genuinely curious? She didn’t know, but it would’ve been wrong to not answer. She looked up and kept her eyes on the princess’ own. “Because I could’ve hatched the egg! And I would’ve if I had a little more time!”

The princess made a small nod. “Perhaps you would have. A shame that you didn’t, given the entrance exam doesn’t allow retakes.”

Sunset remembered that, and her determined face softened. “Princess, that egg. It was found in the path of a dragon migration, wasn’t it? Ponies leave dragons alone, and no pony would steal a dragon’s egg for something like this, so it had to have been lost, or left behind.”

A soft nod. “That’s very likely, yes.”

That’s when Sunset broke eye contact and turned away. “That poor dragon. He’s never gonna hatch. Even if he does, he’s never gonna know his mommy or his daddy. He lost them before he could ever know them. He’s never gonna be loved.”

Sunset felt a wingtip under her chin, and she looked up to find the princess’ gaze still locked on her. “Sunset Shimmer, how would you react if I told you that the test wasn’t meant to be passed?” At the filly’s shocked expression, she explained, “The test’s purpose isn’t to hatch the egg, though I wouldn’t complain at all if that happened. Its purpose is to tell us something about those who make the attempt. If a student gives up immediately, or demands an easier challenge, it’s an automatic fail for the entire exam. If they at least try something, then they have the written test to fall back on. You not only made the attempt, but I can tell you were doing it for more than simply passing the test.” The princess smiled and added, “And it’s not every day I see a filly attempt something as advanced as the Dragonfire Spell. You have a great deal of potential, Sunset Shimmer.”

“Does that mean I can try to hatch the dragon again?”

A chuckle. “No, I don’t think that task is meant for you. I’ve something else in mind, something far more challenging. If you’re willing, I’d like to have you as my own personal student.”

Sunset’s eyes went wide at this thought. “Me? Really?”

“Really and truly. It will mean that you’ll have to live in the castle, of course, but…”

“Yes! Yes, of course! Thank you so much!” She heard a small laugh to her side, and Sunset turned to find her aunt covering her eyes with one wing. “What?”

“Nothing, Sunset.” Solar Flare smiled, but her eyes were shut tight and her speech was broken. She regained some composure and looked to her niece, barely making out, “I wish your mother was here to see this.”

“I do too.” Sunset turned back to the princess and asked, “When do I start?”

“There will be plenty of time for that later. Right now, finish your food. And don’t forget the donut. They’re delicious.”

Sunset eyed the confection on her plate as she took it up with her magic. She’d never had one before, but it did look good, and she bit down upon it and chewed. As soon as her taste buds made contact with it, however, she felt even better than she already did. She swallowed and declared before continuing, “It is delicious!”

-

More than two years of attending Canterlot High had given Sunset a good idea of Granny Smith’s skills in the kitchen. Despite the popular reputation of school food being lousy in comparison to a proper home-cooked meal, what she’d served in the cafeteria was of good quality. The spread lay out before her and the Apple family, from a very large pork loin to assorted vegetables to dinner rolls to a noodle dish that she couldn’t easily identify, gave off an aura that outright said that it had been made with love. The smell alone, however, was delicious, and made Sunset feel at home as she took a place at the table.

“Apple Bloom, Ah think it’s yer turn.”

Sunset quietly followed along as the gathered Apples brought their hands together in prayer, closing her eyes and bowing her head. She’d never considered herself to be religious, but she was a guest, and there wasn’t any sense in not being respectful.

“Dear Lord, we thank you for the food we’re about to eat, for the safety of our home and hearth, and for the friends and family that we hold dear. Please look after them where we cannot. Amen.”

With prayers said, everyone turned their attention to the meal. Sunset happily accepted her portions and started with a small piece of pork, a smile curling on her lips with the taste. “This is delicious, Granny Smith. Thanks for cooking.”

“No need to be thankin’ me, darlin’. Yer a guest in mah home, after all, and Ah ain’t about to deny a guest a proper home-cooked meal. Besides, you could probably use one, considerin’ everythin’ that’s happened.”

Sunset somberly looked down at her plate for a second before she smiled in response. “I still appreciate it.” With some hesitation, she looked up and asked, “So, how are things at the school?”

“Ah’d say they’re pretty good, even if they’re a little louder’n normal.” Applejack managed a nervous grin and explained, “Work crews fixin’ up the front entrance an’ all. Should be all patched up by next week, though; you gave ‘em a good head start.”

“That’s one point in my favor, I guess.” The two shared a nervous chuckle. “The good weather we’ve had since then probably hasn’t hurt either.”

“Nope. Not one…”

“Can Ah be excused for a second?”

Granny Smith looked to her youngest grandchild with surprise. “Sure you can, Apple Bloom, but…”

“Thanks.” The young girl pushed her chair back from the table and quickly made her way out of the kitchen, four pairs of eyes following her out.

Sunset sighed and turned back to her meal. “Sorry, that’s my fault.”

“No, it ain’t. Let me talk to her.” Applejack got to her feet and followed, the remainder turning back to their meal.

The silence was broken as Sunset noted quietly, “So, it’s just the four of you out here? I thought you had more family in town.”

“You mean Sunflower and Babs? Their family’s out on the other side ‘a town. We get on okay enough with ‘em, but we don’t need ‘em ‘round all the time.”

“Not that we don’t try, though.” Big Mac took a second to refill his glass and added, “Had some trouble after Applejack started at CHS, mind.”

“Yeah, I heard about that.” Sunset prodded at her food uneasily. “Sunflower was me before I was me. Only I was worse.”

“Didn’t stop either of ya from figurin’ out where you’d done wrong, though. That’s the important thing, learnin’ from yer mistakes.”

-

“Why’s she even here, Applejack?” Apple Bloom gave her sister a pleading look, even as she did all she could to keep from shouting her frustration. The living room wasn’t that far away from the farmhouse’s kitchen/dining room, after all. “What’s that demon…?!”

“Apple Bloom! Now you shush with that language!” The elder sister gently guided the younger to the sofa and sat her down, taking a place beside her. “Ah remember that night as clear as you do, darlin’.”

“But you didn’t get hexed like Ah did!” Apple Bloom hugged herself, as if trying to protect herself from the memories of the Fall Formal. “You an’ the girls went rushin’ out after Twilight, and me an’ Scootaloo an’ Sweetie Belle followed and we saw her change, and then she smashed up the entrance with magic and took us over an’…” She shuddered. “Ah couldn’t control mahself, Applejack! It was like mah body was movin’ on its own! Ah still don’t get how you an’ Twilight an’ the others stopped her, but what if she tries again an’…?!”

Applejack gently wrapped her arms around her younger sister and held her close. “She won’t, sugarcube. Ah promise ya, she won’t. Sunset ain’t a monster no more. She knows what she did was wrong, an’ she’s sorry fer it. All of it, from breakin’ me and mah friends up to shortin’ Rarity outta her crown to everythin’ last week. Now she’s tryin’ to make up fer it all, and Ah wanna be there to help her.”

“But how do we know she ain’t lyin’?”

“You know your big sister can spot a liar from a mile away, right?” A nod. “Good. If’n she ever hurt anyone Ah cared about again, you especially, Ah wouldn’t need magic to make her regret it.”

Apple Bloom relaxed at that thought, fully aware her big sister would always be there for her if she was needed. She nonetheless looked up at Applejack and asked, “But how do we know she can do good after doin’ all that bad?”

“Yer a little young to be rememberin’, but me and our cousins didn’t get on so good after Ah started at CHS. Sunflower wasn’t exactly accomodatin’ back then, and Babs was more interested in stickin’ to her big sister’s good graces and fittin’ in than doin’ the right thing.” At her sister’s shocked look, Applejack affirmed, “Yes, yer favorite cousin was mean to me. But both of ‘em realized what they were doin’ was wrong, an’ Ah believed ‘em and gave ‘em a chance to be better. Just like Ah’m doin’ for Sunset now.” She hugged her sibling close and offered, “Now, Ah ain’t askin’ ya to embrace her like a new sister. Just be polite, huh?”

“An’ don’t try to melt her or nuthin’ like that?”

“Durn right.” She nodded back towards the kitchen and offered, “Now come on, grub’s gettin’ cold.”

Apple Bloom got back to her feet, and she and her sister returned to the dinner table as Sunset continued, “I can’t believe you guys are related to Pinkie. Heck, I’m still trying to wrap my head around her and Maud being sisters, come to think of it.” She noticed them, turned and asked, “Are you two okay?”

“Should be. Apple Bloom just needed a second is all.”

While Applejack turned her attention back to her meal, Sunset and Apple Bloom regarded one another uneasily, the former flashing a small, hopeful smile before turning back to her own meal. “Anyway, I can’t say it enough. Thanks for letting me stay with you, even if it’s only for a little while.”

“Ain’t a problem, darlin’. We all need us a little love now an’ again.”

-

“Oh, I do love this!” Rarity clapped her hooves together gleefully as she and her friends found themselves enjoying their own dinner in the Crystal Castle. She paused as she realized her company, and turned sheepishly towards the royals. “My apologies for the outburst, your Highnesses.”

Princess Celestia smiled. “No need to apologize, Rarity. You aren’t the only one enjoying themselves this evening, after all.”

Indeed, Pinkie Pie had helped herself to a healthy helping of everything offered, and was eagerly enjoying her meal with her usual enthusiasm. “This is delicious, Cadence! You’ve got some really good chefs here! And really nice wait-staff and plumbers and guards and…!”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Oh come now, Pinkie, you’ve said that every night we’ve been here for the summit.”

“Doesn’t make it any less true!”

The gathered ponies (and dragon) laughed, and Applejack turned discussion elsewhere as she looked to Twilight. “Speakin’ a’ nice things, how’s things goin’ fer our newest friend, Twilight?”

The youngest royal present smiled happily and reported, “Sunset’s doing fine, Applejack, but I’ll be sure to mention that you asked about her the next time I send her a message.”

“Yeah, speaking of that journal, why didn’t Twilight ever get one?” Rainbow Dash turned to the Princess of the Sun and asked, “Both of ‘em were your students.”

“Yes, but the spells required to create message journals are very complex and powerful. There’s a great deal of magic in those two books, strong enough to get a message across any distance as you well know by now. In comparison, enchanting dragon fire is far easier to do, and much less taxing, even for alicorns.”

“And if she had given Twilight one of those books, then I’d be out of a job, wouldn’t I?”

Twilight gently nuzzled the baby dragon beside her and assured him, “You’re a lot more than just a quick way to keep in touch with Princess Celestia, Spike.” He gave her a smile in return, and she turned her attention back to the others as she recounted, “I’m just glad she still has hers. Being able to talk with her like this is wonderful, even if we do have the bridge mirrors to fall back on. And it’s been a learning experience too, given what she’s come to learn about your counterparts.”

“Oh? Such as?” Rarity gave her friend an eager look as she added, “Come now dear, you’ve put it out there, don’t leave us dangling.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, apparently, the human world’s Pinkie Pie and Applejack worked together on a genealogy project and…” Noticing the expression of curiosity on Pinkie’s face, as well as the slightly annoyed look on Rainbow’s, she stopped and explained, “Genealogy is the study of family histories and ancestries.”

The rainbow-maned pegasus gave her a disbelieving look. “They actually study stuff like that? For real?”

“Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with knowin’ where you come from, sugarcube.” Applejack proudly smiled as she explained, “Us Apples got roots all across Equestria and beyond, even if the main branch is in Ponyville.”

“And sometimes it can be very fascinating.” Fluttershy gave a small smile as she explained, “I once did some digging into my family tree, and it turns out a number of my ancestors are Earth ponies.” She then bowed her head with a little nervous embarrassment as she added, “I even have a couple thestrals in the family.”

“That is nothing to be ashamed of, fair Fluttershy. They are ponies like any of us, simply adapted for the night rather than the day, and not to be frightened of.” The shy pegasus gave a comforted smile at Luna’s words before the Princess of the Night turned to Twilight. “But I suspect there is more to this story?”

“Yes, I’m just waiting for Pinkie to finish her drink. Rather not risk a spit-take.” General nods of agreement as well as a loud murmur from Rarity showed approval for Twilight’s choice, and she waited for Pinkie to finish her drink and swallow before she dropped her bombshell. “They found out they were cousins!”

And despite Twilight’s efforts, Pinkie’s drink was spat out, Shining Armor only barely managing a shield to prevent the spit from going too far. “Me and Applejack are family?!”

“Fourth cousins twice removed by a fifth cousin. There’s no guarantee it’s the same in our world, though, so we’ll have to research it once we get back. Golden Oak Library has the family records for everypony in Ponyville from its founding in the archives.”

“And if Twilight can’t find anythin’ there, then it won’t be too difficult to check on our end.” Applejack rubbed her chin thoughtfully with a hoof as she realized, “If’n Granny Smith can’t confirm it, then she’ll know somepony who can. Not everypony made it to the reunion, after all; don’t recall seein’ much a’ Babs’ family last time save her. And even if we ain’t blood, we’re still kin.”

Luna managed a small giggle as she reasoned, “I suspect this is one of those details that won’t vary much between worlds. Despite the obvious differences, for example, I and my sister remain consistent.”

“As did we.” Rarity smiled proudly as she added, “Even if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I’d believe it easily given how quickly they all rallied to Twilight’s side. It certainly offers hope for other areas, though I do hope there are some differences.”

“I’m quite certain that my counterpart never attempted to bring about eternal night, if that gives you any comfort.” She looked to the married couple among them and noted, “No concern about your own counterparts, niece and nephew?”

“I’m not gonna say that I’m not curious about it. I’m just hoping all the similarities didn’t stop with everyone else here.”

Cadence leaned over and gave a teasing grin. “Worried that the other you missed out on something amazing?”

“A little.” He grinned right back and amended, “But who’d want to miss out on the greatest mare ever?”

“And if’n that ain’t happenin’, that means Rarity’s counterpart’s got herself a chance at yours.”

Rarity gave a scandalized gasp at her smirking friend’s remark. “Applejack! Please! Neither of us would ever stand in the way of true love!”

“Wouldn’t stop you from swooning though.”

Some rolling laughter came up among them at Rainbow Dash’s remark, Rarity herself joining in with an embarrassed blush on her face. She recovered herself as she added, “In any case, I am glad that my counterpart opened her home to Sunset so readily. If her parents are anything like mine, I doubt they’d turn her out, and she’s most likely had a wonderful stay.” She noticed Twilight’s uneasy expression and realized, “Oh dear, what happened?”

“It’s a long story.” Twilight quickly recounted what she knew of Sunset’s tribulations since the previous Saturday, her stay at each girl’s home and how things had gone, from the incident with Sweetie Belle (“Trying to melt her with a gigantic squirt gun?! Well, I never…!”) to the fears of retribution from Maud Pie (“Aww! Maud wouldn’t hurt her!”) to the all-too-brief stays with Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy and finally her anxiety at staying with Applejack. “I think we all know how hard it is to overcome a bad mistake here and there, given we’ve all made a few of our own, but I think she’s having a harder time than any of us did.”

“Indeed, and even my issues on Nightmare Night were as much my misinterpretations as they were those from the citizenry.” A smile formed on Luna’s muzzle as she assured Twilight, “But her awareness that you are there for her can only be a benefit, Twilight. Do not forget that.”

“I haven’t. I’m just hoping I don’t mess things up. I’m not perfect either.”

Rainbow Dash waved a hoof dismissively. “You’re not still hung up on that mess with our cutie marks, are you? Seriously, Twilight, you goofed. It worked out okay.”

“Actually, I was thinking more about another time I made a mistake when I was trying to help a friend see something important. I didn’t think I did anything wrong at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d hurt someone I cared about.”

“Twilight, you were right about the wedding…”

“Actually, I was thinking more about all the other times I’ve made mistakes and ended up causing more harm than good.” She winced as one such incident came to mind. “Smarty Pants, anypony?”

Her friends briefly frowned before Rarity flashed a sympathetic look. “Twilight, darling, how much of that is on us for failing to take your concerns seriously?”

“And how much of that is on me for failing to notice when my personal student had developed terrible anxieties, with me at the center of them all?” Celestia offered an apologetic smile. “That you learned from my mistake, and made sure that Sunset knew her reports weren’t expected on a tight schedule, is something to be proud of. I’m certainly proud of it.” General murmurs of agreement went out among the group, and she turned discussion back to the original topic. “And speaking of Sunset, you and she both know that it will take time for her to move past her mistakes. Knowing that she’s been forgiven, even if only by a few, is a good first step for her, and one that I’m glad she’s taken.”

Twilight smiled. “It certainly hasn’t hurt.”

-

Twilight,

Please thank Princess Celestia for me. I have a feeling I owe her, and Principal Celestia, for my warm reception here at Sweet Apple Acres. It’s beautiful out here. I’m no country mare, but I think I’ll enjoy it, even if I will be working as a guest until I can find a place of my own. Still, putting in an honest day’s work never hurt anyone, and it might actually help to smooth things over with Apple Bloom and her friends. No trouble like I had with Sweetie Belle so far, thankfully, but she’s still looking at me anxiously. Can’t say I blame her, but at least I’m not getting the same from Big Mac and Granny Smith. They know the facts, Twilight; it makes a world of difference.

All my best to everyone back in Equestria. Your friend, Sunset Shimmer.

The sun had long since set and the moon risen over Sweet Apple Acres as Sunset closed her message journal, a contented smile on her face. A knock sounded, and she looked up with surprise to find Applejack at the door. “Just sent Twilight a message, right?”

“I didn’t say anything bad, I promise.” As her host entered, she raised an eyebrow at her nightwear and brought a hand up to her mouth to try and contain herself.

Applejack rolled her eyes and sat down beside her. “It’s mah PJs, ain’t it?” The country girl was decked out in deep blue button-up footie pajamas with light blue apple markings. “Ah’ll have you know, mah feet get cold.”

“I didn’t say a word.” She put her message journal aside and turned talk elsewhere. “But I am glad to be here, and that your grandmother and brother know the facts. It feels nice not having to hide things behind half-truths.”

“It always does. Ah wish Apple Bloom knew, but Ah don’t think she’s quite ready for the important details yet.”

“Or that she’d believe them.” The mirth she’d felt at Applejack’s nighttime attire faded as she realized aloud, “She’s scared of me, isn’t she?”

“‘Fraid so, darlin’. Doubt she’ll ever forget what happened that night.”

“At least she has a chance at it. I couldn’t forget that night if I tried.” A sad sigh escaped her lips. “I’m never going to live the Fall Formal down, am I?”

“Too soon to tell, Sunset, but so far as Ah’m concerned, the important thing is you movin’ on from it. Got all’a us here t’help, though, and yer showin’ there’s more to ya then the bully you were.” A smile crept upon her lips as Applejack added, “Doubt the old you’d join anyone in prayer like that.”

“Hey, your house, your rules. Just because I don’t follow your faith doesn’t mean I shouldn’t respect it.”

“If you don’t mind mah askin’, do y’follow a faith? Ah mean, Ah got nuthin’ against ya if’n ya don’t…”

“You’re just curious.” At Applejack’s nod, Sunset smiled and explained, “I think it’s required for sapient life to have some sort of religion, some belief in a higher power. We’ve got quite a few in my world, just like yours. I wasn’t reared in any of them, but I’m at least aware of the main one in Equestria. We’ve got a God, even if we don’t call Them that; They tend to just be the Maker of All Things. I’m the last to ask about all the details of our church or doctrines, but we do have a Heaven, same as you.” She closed her eyes, remembering the depictions she’d seen as a filly in one way or another. “The Eternal Fields. Rolling, gently-sloping hills of green as far as the eye can see, the skies above the bluest blue you could imagine with the odd cloud floating lazily overhead. Mountains, rivers and cities in the distance, and the ones we’ve lost waiting for us.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“It is.” The smile broke as she opened her eyes. “There’s a tiny little part of me that likes to think my parents are waiting for me there. Trouble is, I don’t think I’ll get there. It’s not faith that guarantees getting there, but being good and doing good. I haven’t exactly done a lot of good since I lost them.”

“Ya feel horrible over the bad that you did, though. That says plenty right there.”

“Doesn’t change what I did in the slightest. Doesn’t change the fact that doing things like what I did can get you sent elsewhere.”

“Plenty of bad ya didn’t do though. Never said anythin’ ‘bout my mom and dad, didn’t hurt Spike, never physically hurt someone. Those are mighty important lines ya didn’t cross, and that makes a difference. Fer one thing, if’n ya had physically hurt someone, say Apple Bloom?”

“You would’ve put me in the hospital.”

“Without one shred ‘a remorse. Glad Ah never did, though, an’ glad Ah’ll never havta.” Applejack gently laid a hand on Sunset’s shoulder and added, “Anyway, ownin’ up ta yer mistakes makes a world ‘a difference. You and Rainbow Dash were talkin’ Milton a couple days back?” At Sunset’s nod, she continued, “Well, the Almighty ain’t afraid ta forgive Old Scratch himself if’n he repented. The fella downstairs is just too proud ta do it. That’s somethin’ Ah’ve tried to keep in mind.” She grew nervous as she admitted, “Not always done a good job of it, though. You ain’t the only one who’s made mistakes, Sunset. Yours’ll just take a little longer’n most ta forgive and forget by an’ large, is all. Don’t mean ya shouldn’t try. Like mah daddy always said, ‘Fall…’”

Sunset recognized the uncomfortable pause, and finished the old proverb for her. “‘Fall off the horse, get right back on again.’” She smiled and admitted, “I don’t mind.”

“Good.” Applejack leaned in conspiratorially and added, “Just to warn ya, we raise horses out here. Don’t know how uncomfortable that’d make ya, but ya might end up cleanin’ up after ‘em.”

“I can live with that. I might end up talking with them, though.”

Applejack laughed. “Nuthin’ wrong with that, just so long as they don’t talk back, or get too frisky.”

“Oof. That’s a scary thought. They’d have been a bit much for me even as a pony.”

“Ah can believe that.” Applejack got to her feet and started on her way out. “Anyway, we’d best get some shut-eye. Big day ahead tomorrow.”

Just as she reached the door, Sunset stopped her. “Applejack?” She turned back as her friend asked, “If the chance ever comes up, I’d like to hear more about your parents. If that’s alright. They sound like great people.”

A smile. “Wouldn’t mind tellin’ ya ‘bout ‘em at all, darlin’. And when yer ready, Ah wouldn’t mind hearin’ ‘bout your parents neither. Ah know they was good folks, the way you miss ‘em.” She winked and added, “Pinkie ain’t the only one with a sense fer stuff.”

Applejack waved off and went on to bed, and Sunset turned off her bedside light and pulled herself underneath her sheets, the sleeping bag Pinkie Pie had given her used as a makeshift comforter, and smiled. “They were, AJ.” The smile turned sad, and she crossed her arms behind her head and looked up at the ceiling, moonlight streaming in through the windows. She took a breath, readied herself, and said a few words she hadn’t said in a very long time. “Hi Mommy. Hi Daddy. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“I don’t know if you can hear me. I’m not sure I want to know if you’re watching over me, if you can see me from the other side. I’ve done a lot of things you wouldn’t be happy about, hurt a lot of people, ponies and otherwise. I don’t have a good reason for it, just a bunch of lousy excuses. I can’t change what I did, can’t undo the past, no matter how much I wish I could. But that’d just be running away, wouldn’t it?” Her smile turned a little happier as she added, “I’ve made friends. Good friends. You’d be happy about that. They’ve seen the worst of me, still giving me a chance. Maybe they can see what you saw someday. Maybe I can too.” She uncrossed her arms from beneath her head, pulled up the sheets and closed her eyes. “Love you so much. Miss you so much. You two and Aunt Flare and Uncle Streak and… and Runnie too. The sister I could’ve had, if I just let her in.”

It was a mistake she wouldn’t make again.

Author's Note:

This chapter was a lot of fun to write, mostly because I'd been looking forward to showing my version of Sunset's attempt at getting into Princess Celestia's school for a long time. For those curious, yes, that was a young Trixie Lulamoon making a cameo! The other mare isn't anyone in canon; her identity will come with time, hopefully. And for another deviation from canon, well, suffice it to say that the events of "Pinkie Apple Pie" are going to happen a little earlier in this 'verse than they did in the official stuff.

Some of Granny Smith's dialogue in this story is a reference to Pen Stroke's "Nightmare or Nyx?" - I asked about making the nod and no objections were raised. The religious elements were a mix of influence from both ConningOfficer and Reality Check; I'm not religious myself, but I've got nothing against the characters I write taking part in prayers or hoping their loved ones are in heaven. The general elements of Sweet Apple Acres are adapted from what we've seen in canon; I glanced over both Equestria Girls annuals while working on this chapter as reference material.

And yes, the bookend effect was intentional. I like the idea of going full circle, and I feel like Sunset needed to do so in order to move forward. There's still a little ways left to go for her, mind, but the foundation's almost finished. It's downhill from here, folks.

EDIT 5/19/2015 - Imperator Knoedel prompted a brief edit to this chapter in regards to religious stuff. If the next chapter gets delayed as a result of this and other edits, they're (partially) to blame.

EDIT 1/23/2019 - Minor tweaks, partly to fix a couple continuity errors and partly to fix a spelling mistake.