• 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 Six - A Night With My Friends

“Steady Benjamin, steady, I’m almost done.” A few more gentle wipes of the washcloth, and Sunset Shimmer pulled back and smiled gently at her subject, his eyes and nose cleaned of dirt and mucus. “There you go. How does that feel?” Benjamin sighed and nuzzled the girl before him, pleased with his grooming thus far. Sunset laughed, glad that the horse before her was taking so well to her efforts. Even if he and the other horses being raised at Sweet Apple Acres weren’t quite at her level, they obviously enjoyed being properly groomed as much as she did. “Well, I’m no beautician, but I’m glad I remembered how to groom myself at least. Now let me get that mane of yours taken care of.” A low whistle caught her attention as well as that of the horse, and she turned to the stables’ entrance. “Something wrong?”

Big McIntosh smiled and shook his head. “Nuthin’ wrong at all. Just not often Ah see ‘em take to a stranger so quick.”

Sunset grinned. “I think I can relate to them a little better than most.”

Since her arrival at Sweet Apple Acres, Sunset had taken to farm work well enough, making the odd mistake here and there but generally doing well with a given task once she’d received proper instruction. Her first day had been spent cleaning the house under Big Mac’s watchful eye, and while it hadn’t been pleasant, she’d left a number of clean hallways and bathrooms in her wake, which made her thankful that human technology was equal to magic in many ways that counted.

It was her second day that led her to being in the stables, grooming the horses, cleaning up after them and, as warned, making conversation with them. The horses themselves didn’t seem to mind, and generally seemed pleased at how she’d treated them. And despite them not talking back, and the general feeling of absurdity to it all, Sunset had enjoyed it as well. There she stood, dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans and boots borrowed from Applejack, her hair braided and a scarf to keep the bangs from her eyes, one hand on Benjamin’s back while the other gently ran through his mane.

“I noticed that none of the horses are shod.” Big Mac took a second to fetch the needed comb and handed it off to her as she finished going through the horse’s mane. “Please tell me that isn’t being done just because you can’t afford to hire a farrier.”

“Nope. Still get a certified one out here if’n we think there’s a problem, but we figure none of the horses need shoein’. You got trouble with horseshoes?”

“The actual objects? No. The game? None. But would you enjoy having something hammered into your foot?” Sunset kept up her work as she explained, “The only things I ever wore over my hooves were things I could get off in a hurry, like boots or slippers. Getting shod was, in Equestria, like foot-binding or wearing a corset in this world. It was only done by the rich or wealthy, and it led to health problems even when it was done properly. I can get why it’d be done in some cases, but it’s practically unheard of nowadays back home.” She leaned in and whispered to Benjamin, “I definitely don’t think they should do it to you or anypony here, though. It’d hurt.”

Benjamin snorted in agreement, the rest of the horses in the stable following.

Sunset moved from the mane to the tail, the comb pocketed and her hand gently running through her subject’s tail as Big Mac produced an apple and fed the horse. “So, no trouble cleanin’ up round here?”

“It was a mess, I’ll admit.” Sunset doubted the smell would ever really leave her, especially with her eidetic memory. “Kinda saddening, too.” She gently ran the comb through Benjamin’s tail, the whole of it held in her other hand, as her eyes went over the assorted horses, their coats varying in color but sticking to black and various grays, browns and tans. Here it was natural and normal, but back in Equestria, a pony living like this would be the equivalent of a human with severe mental handicaps. She shuddered, suddenly finding herself feeling a little more revolted with her old self than before; she’d have treated a pony who was like one of these horses a lot better than she treated a normal human being. And the latter were the closest things she’d met to any of the beings back in Equestria. Before last weekend, she’d been able to ignore it, but now? “At least I know they enjoy it.”

Big Mac looked at her, one eyebrow arched and looking concerned. “You feelin’ okay?”

Sunset shook her head. “Guilt getting to me again. It’s easy to be cruel when you don’t see your victims as anything worth thinking about, or when the only one who specifically reminds you of home is somepony you’d rather forget. I might have been forgiven by those I’ve hurt the most, but it doesn’t change what I did. It’s a part of me.”

“But it don’t define ya.” Big Mac smiled and offered, “Anyway, yer right, they are enjoyin’ it. Don’t know how much that helps yer conscience, but yer doin’ good now.”

Benjamin nickered, which prompted a smile from Sunset. “Yeah, I am.”

“An’ Ah doubt any of ‘em will complain if’n ya visit again.” At Sunset’s surprised expression, he explained, “Jus’ got a call from the school; when Vice Principal Luna comes and drops Granny off, she’s pickin’ ya up.”

“What for?”

“Can’t tell ya, but Ah’d get cleaned up ‘fore they get here. And given the time, you’d best be gettin’ to that.”

Sunset sighed and nodded, then gently ran a hand along Benjamin’s back before putting away the hairbrush. “Well, nothing lasts forever. Thanks for making me feel welcome.” She felt a nudge against her back, and turned to find the horse giving her a gentle nuzzle. She gently petted him on the nose and smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll come back soon enough.”

Big Mac smiled as he watched her depart, and then turned his attention back to the horse as he led Benjamin to his stable. If she only knew what was coming.

-

It hadn’t taken long at all for Sunset to get cleaned up and redressed in her own clothing, Applejack’s spare work clothes set aside to be washed. As she straightened out her shirt one more time, she took a quick glance at herself in the mirror. A smile formed on her lips as she looked at her reflection, no sign of the monster she’d turned into a week prior. She laughed as she realized, it really had been a week since the Fall Formal. It felt like so much longer since then, after the week she’d had, and an eternity since she’d first come to this world.

Her gaze turned from the mirror to the guest room, her things packed and ready to go, and her expression turned elsewhere. Despite Apple Bloom’s obvious anxiety around her, Sweet Apple Acres felt more like a home than anywhere else had since she’d come to this world, maybe even more than anyplace back in Equestria beyond her parents’ house and maybe the castle. She was going to miss it.

She walked back over to the bed and sat down, feeling just like she had the day she’d found out her parents had died, anxiety gnawing at her insides. She dared not look at the mirror, worried that she’d see the demon she’d turned into staring back at her thanks to her unease, and she couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.

She groaned and rubbed her forehead. “Get a hold of yourself, Sunset. You aren’t being thrown out onto the streets. You aren’t being abandoned. You aren’t being forgotten. You never were, and you never will be.”

“Sunset! Ride’s here!”

“Just a second, Big Mac!” She got to her feet, slung her backpack over her shoulders and retrieved her luggage and sleeping bag, then made her way out, trying her best to remember her own words of self-encouragement. As she made her way down the stairs, she smiled as she caught sight of her hosts, the Apple family matriarch standing at the door beside her grandson. “Hello Granny. No ride home for Applejack and Apple Bloom?”

“Don’t you be worryin’ ‘bout them, darlin’.” Granny Smith accepted a warm hug from her guest and added, “Now I want’cha to know somethin’; these last couple days, you’ve been a big help ‘round here. Never seen a bathroom so clean, fer starters. Bein’ willin’ to put in hard work ain’t somethin’ to be ashamed of, and if’n you ever need to come by again fer a spell, the door’s always open.”

“Thank you, Granny. I won’t ever forget that.” Her embrace with one Apple ended, she gave Big Mac a quick hug before stepping out the door. She looked out to the drive to find, beside the familiar red pickup, a deep blue sedan, its driver standing beside it and its cargo hatch open. “Hello, Vice Principal Luna.”

The older woman’s cyan eyes twinkled like starlight as a pleased smile crossed her face. “Good afternoon, Sunset Shimmer. Do you need help with your things?”

“No, this is it.” Sunset deposited her belongings into the trunk and closed it, then followed Luna’s direction towards the front passenger side door and climbed into the vehicle, buckling in as Luna herself climbed into the vehicle. “So, what’s going on?”

“It’s a surprise. I’ll promise you right now, however, you aren’t being dumped in a foster home or orphanage. We didn’t do that after you arrived, and we aren’t about to do so now.” Luna started up her car and carefully pulled out of the drive. “You can turn on the radio, if you like.”

“Thank you, but I’m okay with or without music.”

“Very well.” Now out on the road, Luna gave the girl beside her the odd glance, finally managing a gentle and reassuring smile. “It’s alright if you’re nervous, Sunset. I’m somewhat nervous myself, considering everything that’s happened.”

“Nice to know that.” Sunset took a breath and explained, “I’m sorry. When I first came here, your counterpart was practically a legend, an all-but-forgotten story. My Celestia never even mentioned having a sister. I can’t blame her now that I know the facts, but when I saw you, it took a while to make the connection.”

“And no doubt you weren’t too impressed, given Princess Luna’s fearsome reputation.”

“No, but I wasn’t too impressed with anyone around here, especially once I figured it out.” She glanced to the car radio and its built-in CD player. “I get the feeling you weren’t too thrilled learning about what happened to her.”

“I can’t say that I was pleased, or surprised.” A sad look crossed her face as she added, “I’m not sure how much you’ve come to notice the similarities between your world and mine, but they are alike in more ways than they differ. Just because I don’t manipulate a stellar object doesn’t mean I didn’t have some issues with my sister when I was younger. It never went as far as it did in your world, of course, but still, things happened.” She shook her head and added, “Of course, you don’t want to be bored by my life story.”

“No, go on, I don’t mind.” Sunset smiled encouragingly. “I’ve spent the last week answering questions from the girls, it’d be nice to have a few of my own answered.”

Luna smiled. “Very well. As you know by now, I and Celestia attended Canterlot High School ourselves when we were young. By the time I started, however, my sister had already taken a place of prominence there. It often felt, between the attention she was showered with by our parents and that of our teachers, that I was considered the lesser of the two of us. I wasn’t, of course, but it took me some time to realize that. How I did so opened my eyes to so much.”

“You found the bridge portal.”

A nod. “And my life was forever changed.”

-

She couldn’t take it anymore, not for another minute. Every day at home, every day at school, it felt the same. And she hated it.

“I’m sure you’ll be just as good as your sister.”

“Just as pretty as her sister, she is.”

“Oh my gosh, you’re her sister?! Celestia’s so amazing!”

She had to get away. She had to escape. There had to be somewhere in the school where she wouldn’t run into someone who held her sister up like she was the second coming. Running into the teacher’s lounge was her first instinct, and after she heard footsteps approaching, as she scrambled to find somewhere to hide, her arm seeming to disappear through the mirror as if it were magic seemed a godsend. Without thinking about it, she jumped through.

What met her on the other side was an empty space, cavernous and vast, the only things present being a pair of mirrors. That there was light shining down from above was only a small comfort. She was alone, utterly and completely. A part of her wanted to go back, but go back to what? Being in her sister’s shadow? The constant comparisons? How was that better than being alone?

She didn’t know what to do. She was scared, so terribly scared, and she did the only thing she could think of. She sank to the floor, curled up and hugged her legs tight against herself, trying her best not to cry. Her attempts at holding back her sobs were only so useful. She needed something to ease her mind.

The soft clip-clop of hooves striking the cold ground caught her attention, and she looked up to find herself looking at a very strange…horse? Pony? It looked like both, but it had wings and a horn and a mane and tail that seemed to flow freely without any wind and sparkle, both colored in soft pastels. The crown on her head and the strange horseshoes and the strange thing around her neck, combined with her mane and tail, made her look amazingly regal. Something about her looked eerily familiar, especially when she looked in the creature’s eyes.

She barely jumped up in shock before the pony – yes, definitely a pony despite being so big – surprised her again and spoke. “Don’t be afraid, little one, I won’t hurt you.” Her voice was soothing, her tone calm and peaceful, not unlike Luna’s mother. She approached slowly and knelt down before her. “What are you doing here all alone?”

Luna relaxed and quietly bowed her head into her knees. “Trying to get away.”

“From whom?”

“Everyone. My teachers. My mom and dad. My sister.”

“Why?”

“Because they all like her better than me.” She looked up at the pony and cried, “They’re always talking about her like she’s the best thing ever! Like she’s so special! I’m special too! I matter!”

“I don’t think they ever said you didn’t.” The pony gently nuzzled her. “But it can’t be any fun at all for a little girl like you. Being compared to someone else, being told how they’re always amazing even when you do amazing things of your own. It’s disheartening, feeling like you don’t matter. That you’re not special. But you do, and you are.”

Luna reached up and gently ran a hand along the pony’s neck, smiling at the soft fur. “You’re real.”

“Of course I am, dear.”

“But we don’t have ponies like you in my world. Do you live here?”

A small laugh as the pony pulled back. “No. Why would I live here? I come from another world, where ponies like me live. They aren’t all my size, of course, and not all of them have wings or horns or wear such fancy jewelry. That all comes with being a princess.” She smiled, and the crown upon her head sparkled with strange light and floated up. “Would you like to wear my crown? I understand if you think you’re a little old for it.”

Luna managed an embarrassed smile. “Please?”

“Very well, Princess.” The pony placed the crown upon her head, and Luna laughed, amazed that it even fit. “How does it feel?”

“Nice, but a little weird.” Her spirits brightened considerably, Luna beamed and gently touched the crown with one hand. “Were you compared to someone else too? Another pony?”

The pony frowned sadly. “No. I was the one they were compared to.” She suddenly seemed much older as she explained, “I rule over a kingdom, but I am a princess rather than a queen. That’s because I ruled alongside another princess, my younger sister. We did everything together, and I loved her dearly. I still do, and always will. But as time passed, our subjects showered more affection upon me than her. And I was a fool not to see it, or its effect upon her.”

“What happened?”

“She fell. She fell into madness and I couldn’t stop her as she turned into something horrible, and threatened to destroy our very world. And I was forced to do something terrible in order to protect our subjects; I banished her, far away and for a very long time.”

Luna reached up and gently stroked the pony’s face. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It’s easy to say things like that, little one, but hard to believe them. I keep on thinking to myself, that if I had simply done something, said something, I could have avoided losing her. She was the only family I had left, and I’ve been without her for so very long.”

“But she’ll come back someday, right?”

“Yes and no. I cannot free her from the madness that grips her; I failed to do so long ago. The most I can do is hope that others can succeed where I failed, and even that is a slim hope. She’s still gone to me, and will be for a long time. And I miss her so very much. It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.”

Luna turned away. “Do you think my sister would miss me?”

“Is she mean to you?”

“No, of course not! I love Celie! She’s smart and sweet and funny and…” She sighed. “And I’m never gonna be like her.”

“Then don’t be like your sister Celie.” She looked up to find an encouraging, loving smile upon the pony’s face. “Be you. And be proud of who you are, Luna, because in all the world, there’s only one of you.”

The little girl couldn’t help but smile back, feeling warmth from the pony before her just as she had with… “Wait, how did you…?”

“Luna?”

Distracted, Luna turned away to find her sister standing before the mirror behind her, her face a mix of emotions but very obviously concerned. “Celie?”

That one word was enough for Celestia to rush to her sister, collapsing to her knees at Luna’s side and wrapping her arms around her as if afraid she’d lose her if she let go. “What are you doing here?! Half the school’s worried sick about you! The principal called Mom and Dad! What happened?! Did Sapphire say something…?”

“No, Celie, no, she didn’t say anything. Nothing bad. I just…” Luna wrapped an arm around her sister. “Celie, I’m sorry. I needed to get away. They were all talking about how great you were and…”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Big deal. If I’m so great, then why does Melvin like you better?”

“Melvin?”

Luna giggled and explained, “My cat.” Noticing the awestruck look on her sister’s face, she added, “Celie, this is…I’m sorry, I don’t know her name, but she knows mine. Don’t know how.”

“I knew your name because it was my sister’s name as well.” The pony retrieved her crown and put it back upon her head. “And I know your sister’s name, because it’s my name too.” She smiled as she looked upon the magenta-eyed girl hugging her sister, her pink hair already starting to show streaks of blues and turquoise from the roots. “Hello Celestia. I didn’t expect either of you to be so young.”

-

“Wow. You two must have freaked out.”

Luna chuckled as she admitted, “We did, yes, and it took a little while to accept. A world of magical ponies, where my sister’s counterpart was not only their ruler, but over a millennium old? It sounded like something out of a children’s cartoon. I was glad to be told upfront about what happened to Princess Luna, mind, but the thought of something like that happening to me was frightening.” She made a small glance at her passenger. “I suspect you know it better than I would.”

“Maybe.” Sunset frowned as she reasoned, “Princess Luna’s actions came from jealousy. Everything that happened to me came from loss. We might’ve gone down similar roads, but we started from different places.”

“You could have similar destinations.”

A smile crossed the young girl’s face. “That would be nice.” Brightened at that thought, she pressed, “So, I guess you and Principal Celestia kept in touch with the princess?”

“Yes, whenever we could. It was wonderful; the two of us had a secret all to ourselves, a glimpse at a world of magic that we’d never see or know. We found out a great deal, even about the portals, but we were warned not to use the one in front of the school to come to Equestria. Princess Celestia wanted to spare her people the confusion of dealing with two of herself, among other reasons.”

“Small wonder the two of you kept it between yourselves.”

“Only we didn’t.” Luna smiled at Sunset’s surprise and explained, “Celestia and I had mutual friends, younger than her but older than me, and they grew suspicious of us. They found us out shortly before Celestia graduated. Thankfully, the secret didn’t spread past them.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. But given I was lucky enough to eventually meet my counterpart, you might end up meeting them yourself one day.”

“Speaking of, how did that go? It must’ve been, what, sometime around last Christmas?”

“Shortly before, and it was quite the surprise finally seeing her. She was so much smaller than I thought she would be. Princess Celestia explained that it was the result of her transformation being undone and her magic being weakened, and that she’d recover in time. And she was right. Within a few months, Princess Luna looked far more like how I’d expected her to look.” A softer smile formed on Luna’s face as she continued, “And it was obvious to both of us that Princess Celestia seemed so much happier with her, as if a weight was lifted from her shoulders. We could tell it was there even as children. One just as bad came when, well…”

“When I left.” Sunset turned somber as she looked down at her hands, curling them up just a little bit more in her lap. “I feel like I owe the two of you a lot of thanks for looking after me. You never needed to do that.”

“We didn’t go into education for the money, Sunset Shimmer. Besides, Princess Celestia helped us to bridge a divide before it grew as deep as the one she and Princess Luna had, and helping you was the least we could do in return. I often think we could, and should, have done more.”

Sunset shook her head. “You did what you could. I was beyond help for a long time. I just wish it hadn’t taken getting blown into a crater to realize I needed help.”

“That certainly would have been less expensive.”

The two laughed, and Sunset found herself realizing aloud, “So, you two obviously figured out what was going on with Twilight and the crown.”

“Not all of the details, but most of them. Fluttershy suddenly finding the Fall Formal crown on the ground near the statue, one that you’d had a hand in designing, certainly raised some red flags, and given you had keys to get into and out of the school at night, you certainly could have stolen the local crown. That a swap had occurred was a possibility, but we had no proof. If Twilight had come to us with the duplicate, we would have simply swapped them back and called it a day. But then, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“No, we wouldn’t.” Sunset sighed. “I’m still amazed she forgave me over everything that happened. That video? Framing her? Almost killing her?”

“That video, while cruel, isn’t much different from what a politician would do, and it was tame compared to the mudslinging that was done in the past. As for the incident with the gym, well, I think we both know how obvious the real culprits were in retrospect. Why do something yourself when you can get someone to do it for you? I’m simply hoping that your minions have learned their lesson as well as you have.”

“They probably have. Snips and Snails aren’t bad kids, just easily manipulated.”

“Especially by an attractive teenage girl.”

Sunset laughed. “If they only knew what I really looked like. Oh, would they scream.”

“Or faint. I’d prefer the fainting, to be honest. Screaming on school grounds isn’t something I encourage. And the fainting would be slightly funnier.” The two laughed, and Luna admitted, “This last week has done you a great deal of good, Sunset Shimmer. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this side of you in school.”

“Thanks. Hopefully, others will see it too.” A sad sigh. “It’s a long road to travel.”

“But you’ve already taken the first steps. Where things go from here are up to you, but I think that’s a fine start.” She smiled and added, “And it looks like our trip is almost over.”

Sunset turned her attention back to their surroundings. The buildings around her were starting to look familiar, from the odd café and fast food joint on the streets to the tall apartment buildings that reminded her of Rainbow Dash’s home, even if they weren’t quite as impressively sized. “This isn’t too far from the school.”

“A very short walk, with Sugarcube Corner on the way. Do try to not be late for class if you stop in for a muffin or smoothie or something.” They made a turn into a parking garage, and Luna stopped at the gates to present a badge and allow them entrance. “We aren’t about to put you out on the streets, but I get the feeling you’d find it just a bit too awkward to move in with myself or Celestia. This seems like a workable compromise.”

“You two are getting me my own place?” The car pulled into a parking spot, and the two disembarked. Sunset retrieved her things from the trunk as she continued, “You don’t need to do this, really. I’ve been looking for a place since Sunday.”

“All of which will cost money that you can’t afford with the meager allowance you get from my sister.” Luna gave her a stern look that made clear there was to be no argument. “Sunset, the apartment is unoccupied, and you’ve been our responsibility since you arrived in this world. Allowing you to stay in the bridge realm was one solution, but we both know the limitations for it. This is better for you and for I and my sister, I assure you.”

“It sorta feels like charity, though.” Sunset sighed and admitted, “Then again, stubborn pride got me into all of this, and I’ve been accepting charity all week. How’s this any different?”

The older woman smiled back. “You’re older and wiser, for one thing.” The two made their way through the parking garage as Luna added, “Besides, this won’t be so bad. The previous tenant took very good care of the place before she moved out.”

“This previous tenant anyone I know?” At Luna’s enigmatic grin, Sunset sighed. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out on my own.” The two reached a set of elevators, entering one after the press of a button, and the unicorn-turned-human set to work at guessing. “Hmm. Might’ve been you or Principal Celestia.”

“No, though my sister does own the apartment.”

Sunset smirked, pleased at what little she had learned. “Alright, she owns it, but neither of you live there. And you wouldn’t let someone else live there unless you knew them and trusted them.” She arched an eyebrow and offered, “Cadance?” No response. “You’re gonna make me work for this, aren’t you?”

“Does it really matter that much?”

“Well, I’d hate to think the previous tenant was some kind of jerk or spoiled brat…” Horror struck her face as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. “Oh no. You and Celestia don’t have a nephew named Blueblood, do you?”

The enigmatic grin became one worthy of a Cheshire cat as Luna led her to the apartment’s door. “We might. But give the apartment a chance, hmm?” She reached into her purse and pulled out a key for Sunset to take. “It may surprise you.”

Sunset gulped uneasily and took the offered key with her free hand. She slid it into the lock and unlocked the door, then gently pushed it inwards, hoping that she wasn’t taking up something left behind by Blueblood. If this world’s version of him was anything like his counterpart in Equestria, then…

“SURPRISE!”

“Surprise! Shoot, came in too late!”

Sunset blinked, her mind not quite comprehending what was in front of her, and as it came to her, she laughed. “This isn’t…!”

“It most certainly is, darling!” Rarity approached her and ushered her inside. “It’s your surprise apartment-warming party!” She paused and admitted, “Well, I suppose loft-warming party would be more accurate. Either way, this is a marvelous place.”

The fashionista wasn’t wrong, the apartment was a nice place, and easily bigger than Rainbow Dash’s home. Directly in front of her was an expansive living room, a sofa and two chairs forming a rough square around a glass table, lamps and other chairs scattered throughout the room. The floor was dark-colored hard wood, a white plush carpet in place underneath the sofa, chairs and table. The wall opposite had three tall windows with thin drapes covering them, a table in place in front of the middle window. To her right was a set of shelves built into the wall, all bare and thus allowing her to look into a smaller room on the other side. On her left was a kitchen and dining area, fully stocked with appliances and giving an open, friendly feeling to the place. And this was only what she could see; the odd door suggested closets and additional rooms, a staircase a second floor.

But this wasn’t a major concern as Sunset warmly greeted her friends, her luggage put aside as she took the girls in a warm hug. A soft laugh, and she quickly found Principal Celestia rising from a chair in one corner. “I take it you’re pleased with your new accommodations?”

“I am, yes, but you didn’t need to go this far.” Sunset nervously smiled and noted, “It’s a bit big for just me.”

“Yeah, but you could put on a great party here sometime.” Rainbow Dash grinned and added, “Got the space for one, anyway.”

“I guess.” She doubted that anyone would come to a party that she put on, but perhaps with time, it could happen. Another glance around, and Sunset turned to Celestia and smiled. “Thanks, for all of this. It beats the bridge world by a wide margin, even if I don’t quite feel like I deserve it.”

“Whether you deserve it or not, I still need to provide you a space to live. I’d be remiss as a legal guardian otherwise.” Celestia produced a folder and handed it to her, Sunset promptly opening it to find several very legitimate-looking documents inside, from health records to ID. “Princess Celestia asked me to look after you shortly after you arrived. I admit, I haven’t been perfect at it, but I’ve done the best I could.”

“As well as she did, at least.” Sunset glanced at the Social Security documentation and asked, “None of this is going to make trouble for the Sunset Shimmer of this world, will it?”

“It shouldn’t, assuming you don’t cause any trouble outside of school.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a smartphone as she added, “And I’m confident that you won’t cause trouble in school either. Though we both know that trust is something that takes time to build.”

“And can easily be lost.” Sunset understood the message perfectly; Celestia was giving her a second chance, but that still meant she and Luna would keep an eye on her. She closed the folder and took the phone, using what little she knew of them to check about password settings, and sure enough, they’d been disabled. “I’m just going to have to make sure I don’t lose it.”

“Well, if you want a fresh start with someone, I can help with that as well. I’m told you mentioned something about getting a job? I know someone in the area who’s hiring. The information’s in that folder with the rest of your documentation.” Celestia smiled gently. “Only a suggestion.”

“It’s not a bad one.” Sunset glanced at the small kitchen and noted, “Right now, I just need to get used to this place. I don’t know how soon those bookshelves will get filled, but I definitely need to deal with the pantries, and the closets.”

“Don’t worry none about the food, Sunset; we got that taken care of for ya.” Applejack approached one of the pantries and opened it to reveal that it was fully stocked. “Principal Celestia let us in on this little plan ‘a hers on Monday. The eight ‘a us’ve been gettin’ the place ready every night since. Not all at once, mind.”

“I was hoping to bring in a few decorative touches, but the girls suggested I limit myself to helping with your wardrobe and bedsheets instead. Perhaps we can address that before Monday.” Rarity smiled hopefully as she produced a large box. “Speaking of which, I believe I had a promise to keep?”

Sunset handed off the documents and phone to Celestia, then slipped off her backpack and took the box. She opened it and smiled as she looked upon its contents. “My jacket!”

“Good as new, or at least, as close to new as I could manage.”

Sunset pulled the jacket from the box and examined it, the damage over the years and especially from the night of the Fall Formal all but gone. With a smile, she slipped it on and found it fit perfectly. “It’s perfect. Thanks Rarity.” She paused and realized aloud, “Wait, the eight of you?”

Footsteps heralded the arrival of the last of the party guests, a familiar pair of plain boots giving Sunset pause as Maud reached the main floor of the loft. “Sorry I missed your arrival. I had to excuse myself for a second. Do you like the new place?”

Sunset nodded and nervously answered, “Yes, it’s nice.”

“Good. We’ve ordered pizza to celebrate; it should arrive soon.”

“And that would be the cue for my sister and I to leave.” As Luna handed Sunset back her key, Celestia smiled reassuringly. “You don’t need us old folks around to spoil your fun. Enjoy yourself and get settled in, Sunset. If you need me for anything, my number’s first on your phone’s speed dial, cell and land line.”

Sunset smiled back. “I will. Thanks.” As the two adults left, Sunset looked to her friends and asked, “Hey, could someone point me to where my new bedroom is? I want to get my stuff there before the pizza gets here.”

Maud directed her to an open red door near the office. “It’s right over there.”

“Thanks.” Probably a little faster than she’d intended, Sunset retrieved her things and followed Maud’s direction, finding herself in a fair-sized bedroom. Aside from the door she used to get in, there were two others, one to her right leading to a small bathroom and another on her left leading to the office. A doorway without a door opposite her led to what she assumed was a closet, or close enough to it given the set of drawers waiting for her. The walls were bare, but Rarity had already offered some decorating suggestions.

A knock at the door shook her from her thoughts, and Sunset turned to find Maud standing in the doorway, her normal, blank-looking expression on her face. “If you’re open to suggestions, I think this place could use a Zen garden. Just a thought.”

“Thanks. I’ll make a note.” She set her luggage down on the bed and turned back to Maud, steeling herself. “Listen, Maud, I’m sorry about…well, what happened on Monday morning. I shouldn’t have freaked out like that, I…”

“You were afraid that I’d try to hurt you after you turned into a raging she-demon after putting on a crown with a magical artifact embedded into it and almost incinerated Pinkie and her friends. A scheme you launched out of petty jealousy over someone else getting the power and prestige that you thought you deserved in the first place. That ignores you breaking them apart for petty reasons just to hold onto a generally meaningless title that you were adamant about keeping mostly because you were trying to spite your former mentor.” At Sunset’s stunned expression, she explained, “Pinkie told me everything after she got home from the Fall Formal.”

“So, you know…?”

“That you’re really a pony, yes.” Maud approached but nonetheless kept a polite distance as she added, “She also told me that you felt guilty about what had happened.”

“And you believed her?”

“She’s my sister. The only times she keeps secrets from me is when she’s promised to do so, and she has never once lied to me. That you regret what you’ve done isn’t beyond belief. That she’s willing to forgive you isn’t something I question. Seeing you at home afterwards didn’t change that.” Then Sunset saw something that, for the first time since meeting her, made clear the familial connection between Maud Pie and Pinkie Pie; a smile, so very gentle and slight but nonetheless clear as the sun on a cloudless day. “It’s part of why I love her.”

Sunset smiled back. “Me too. Thank you, Maud, for believing Pinkie, and for giving me another chance.”

The smile faded as a knock sounded from the loft door. “I’ll get that. I agreed to pay. Make sure you get your share; both Applejack and Pinkie have hearty appetites.”

Sunset laughed. “Must be genetic.” She followed Maud out and asked, “Hey, I’ve got soda here, right? Can’t have pizza without soda.”

-

“Celie, I can’t help but think we’re overdoing things a little.” At her sister’s curious expression, Luna explained, “Having Sunset Shimmer move into the loft? Granted, Cadance doesn’t need it anymore, moving in with that boyfriend of hers. I’m still surprised it wasn’t the other way around.”

“Our niece has her own life, Luna. I won’t begrudge her for it.” The elevator reached the parking garage and the two exited as the elder sister continued, “I’ll admit, you do have a point. I do feel guilty for not looking after her more closely than I have. She has caused no end of trouble. Granted, we couldn’t force her to accept help, but still…” She sighed. “How does the other me do it, Luna? I’d think living so long would only make the burden of mistakes heavier than lighter.”

“Well, ponies can carry more weight than humans can.” The two moved to their respective cars, parked next to one another in the lot, as Luna continued, “This mistake, at least, isn’t ours to bear alone. We both know that Sunset regrets what she’s done, even if she hasn’t come out and said so to us. And I think all three of us are fully aware that we have our eyes on her should she backslide.”

“I doubt she will, given what happened last week. Once burned, twice shy and all that.” Celestia barely restrained her amusement at that, despite knowing it was cruel humor. “Besides, she’s not only gained friends, but she’s opened up to them. I think that’s good progress. And in some cases, a secret can help strengthen a friendship.”

“Depending upon the secret, of course.” Luna grinned and asked, “So, will you tell her exactly how we arranged for her potential employment, or will we let her figure that out on her own?”

“The second option. Sunset’s a very smart girl, after all, and give her enough pieces, and she’ll put things together. She wouldn’t have survived the last thirty moons otherwise, even with our help. Now we can just be a little more obvious about it.”

The two sisters laughed and climbed into their cars, satisfied that they’d met their goals. Things would be difficult for their charge, certainly, but burdens were always easier to carry when they weren’t carried alone.

-

Much to Sunset’s relief, she did indeed have several varieties of soda, more than enough for each of the girls to indulge themselves with their preferred drink to go with their preferred toppings. An extra chair had been pulled to her dinner table, and the seven of them were happily enjoying their meal. As warned, however, Applejack and Pinkie were demonstrating very hearty appetites, though the former was dining at a slower pace than the latter. There was plenty of pizza to be had, however, though between them and Rainbow Dash, there probably wouldn’t be much in the way of leftovers.

“Honestly Rainbow, pepperoni? Think of your complexion darling.”

“Hey, I ordered it, I’m eating it.”

“Oh very well, but if you break out, it’s on your own head.” Rarity turned her attention from one friend to another and ventured, “Sunset? You seem rather pensive, dear.”

“Just trying to think about how to say this without sounding too cheesy.” She laughed and amended, “Then again, magic unicorn.” Sunset’s remark was answered by a laughing snort from Rainbow Dash, and she quickly continued, “This last week’s been one of the best in my life, and I have you to thank for it. All of you.” Pinkie beamed and wrapped an arm around Maud in response to that. “I just wish all my friends were here for this. If it hadn’t been for Twilight and Spike, well, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Ah get the feelin’ we’ll have us another chance at somethin’ like this ‘fore too long.” Applejack beamed encouragingly and continued, “Anywho, ah’m just glad all that stuff’s behind us. It’s nice to have the band back together.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Rainbow refilled her cup of soda and asked, “So, not feeling so guilty anymore?”

“Not as much, but something tells me that guilty feeling’s never really going to go away. You guys and Celestia aren’t the only ones I’ve hurt.” Sunset smiled as she admitted, “But having you all in my corner’s helped, especially after all I’ve done. In a weird way, I’ve learned more about all of you in the last week than I have since coming to this world. It’s about time I returned the favor.”

Fluttershy’s eyes lit up with curiosity. “You mean, you want to tell us about your life in Equestria?”

“If you’re all open to it. I promise, I’ll try my best not to bore you all.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like that’ll happen. You wanna spill, then go on.”

Sunset chuckled with a smile. “Alright. Well, I’d better start from the beginning. Like I told Rarity, I was born in my world’s version of Canterlot, Equestria’s capitol. It’s a beautiful city; if any of you saw it, you’d think of something out of a fantasy novel. It was, and probably still is, the hub of culture and travel and history for all of Equestria, and I was a little filly living a happy upper-middle class existence right in the middle of it.” She closed her eyes as she thought of her parents. “My mom and dad were both unicorns, like me. Their names were Sunrise Glint and Midday Gleam, and they were the best mom and dad a child could ask for. Mom was a great cook. Her spaghetti was the best thing in the world, the sauce mixed just right with spices and some bits of mushroom mixed in. And Dad? He was amazing.” She turned somber as she admitted, “I don’t think I ever really recovered from losing them.”

Applejack laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Ya don’t havta tell us if you’re not up for it, darlin’.”

“No, I can do this.” She took a breath and continued, “Both my mom and dad were researchers, experimenting in magic. In this world, they’d be scientists. It took asking Twilight about them to get any information; my aunt never told me anything about it. They were working on a project for the crown, experiments in creating small-scale solar fusion.”

“Tiny little suns?” Heads turned in surprise at Rainbow Dash, who protested, “What? I’m not stupid, I can figure things out.”

“Dash is right though. Trouble with every experimental science is that stuff can still go wrong. Tiny little suns, tiny little solar flares. Don’t contain them right, and bad things happen.” Sunset sighed. “I found out by getting led to my principal’s office at my magic kindergarten by my teacher. That’s where things went wrong for me.”

Pinkie pouted sadly, most of the others looking similarly mournful. Maud, however, maintained her stoic expression, though she at least noted, “What happened to your parents was tragic. You still had family, however.”

“Family I didn’t really know. I’ll probably never find out why my mother and my aunt had their falling out. Whatever it was, we never talked about my parents after they passed, and I didn’t find out about her or her family until I met her that day. Don’t get me wrong, Solar Flare wasn’t a bad mare, and she didn’t treat me any different from her own daughter, but at the time, it felt like she just wanted to forget about my mom and dad, and that she expected me to do the same.”

“I suspect what happened was as painful for her as it was for you, dear. She simply didn’t know how to address it.” Rarity shrugged and admitted, “At least, that’s what I’m hoping happened.”

“You’re probably right, but I wanted so much to get away from them and get back to Canterlot. In a lot of ways, that’s where things started going wrong for me.” Sunset sighed and admitted, “I didn’t feel like I belonged there. Aunt Flare, Uncle Blue Streak and my cousin? They were all pegasi, like I told you. We might’ve all been ponies, but a unicorn in a pegasus family’s going to be left out no matter what. And at the time, I found my uncle and cousin kinda annoying. Uncle Streak was always trying to ramble on about some old story or another, from Snowdrop to the Order of Gallopfrey to whatever. As for my cousin, well…” A sad smile crossed her face. “She took one look at me and accepted me immediately. I wasn’t a cousin, I was a big sister.”

“Sounds just like how Apple Bloom reacted to findin’ out Pinkie was kin.” Applejack gave an encouraging smile as she asked, “What was her name, darlin’?”

“Sunrunner. But she always wanted me to call her ‘Runnie’.” At the perplexed looks from the other girls, Sunset explained, “She wanted us to have nicknames. We couldn’t call each other ‘Sunny’; according to her, it’d just get confusing. I’d call her Runnie, and she’d call me ‘Shims’. I never did, though. I avoided her like the plague, spent all my free time cooped up in our bedroom studying magic. I thought if I could do something amazing with it, I’d be able to go back to Canterlot.”

Pinkie’s sad pouting at this point in the story was interrupted by Fluttershy asking, “Did you?”

“I did.” She gestured to the bisected yellow and red sun on her shirt and explained, “A pony earns their cutie mark when they realize where their talents lie and what they want most out of life. In my case, I wanted to not be forgotten, to shine above the rest. I managed a magical feat that few fillies my age could do when I earned mine, and not long afterwards, I ended up going back to Canterlot to take the entrance exam for Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. I was probably the only applicant there who already had their mark.”

“And you got accepted.”

“Yeah, but you knew that already. How I got there was the interesting part. There were two parts to the entrance exam, a written test and a practical one. I didn’t even take the written part thanks to what happened on my practical exam.” She straightened up in her chair and elaborated, “They had me try to hatch a dragon egg in two minutes or less. I pulled out the best spell I knew for the job, the Dragonfire Spell, and I honestly thought I’d manage it, but I didn’t.”

“Must’ve been furious.”

“I was. I fumed to myself about it. Mostly it was because I wasn’t good enough to do it; I promised myself afterwards that I had to be better and stronger with my magic. A tiny little part of it was because I felt sorry for the dragon, though.” Sunset glanced over the girls as she explained, “Dragons aren’t a part of Equestrian society. They have their own lands separated from Equestria by the sea, and as far as I know, any that live in Equestria are solitary. The only times they come through pony lands are during their migrations. I figured that was the only way a dragon egg could end up at the school; it was left behind, maybe even on purpose, and found by ponies.”

“And you related to that, having felt like you’d been abandoned yourself.” Sunset nodded, and Rarity gave a mournful sound. “Oh darling. You still became Princess Celestia’s student, however.”

“Yes, but I wasn’t the one to hatch that egg. Twilight ended up doing it years later. Another point in the jealousy column for me, though looking at it now, I think it worked out okay for Spike.” She sighed sadly as she continued, “But you all know what came after that. In the years that passed between then and me coming here, I studied hard, got better and better with my magic, but I let it all go to my head. When I saw the mirror for the first time, saw myself as an alicorn, I got obsessed with it, and here we are.”

The fashionista managed an encouraging smile. “Well, all’s well that ends well, dear. Had you never come here, we’d have never met you, or Twilight or Spike. Granted, some bad happened along the way, but it ultimately led to some good.”

Sunset shrugged. “Maybe. You’ve all forgiven me, and I’m glad for that, but what are the chances others will do the same? All my time as Celestia’s student, Runnie sent me letters. I never read them, much less answered them, just threw them all away. And that’s ignoring all I’ve done here. Flash wasn’t wrong to dump me, and after what happened last week, it’s no surprise Sweetie Belle tried to melt me, or Scootaloo was so freaked out, or Apple Bloom so scared.”

“How they treat you is their problem, Sunset. We know you’re on the up-and-up, and with time enough, they’ll figure out the same.”

“Indeed.” Picking up where Applejack left off, Rarity added, “And for now, you have us, and we’ve all forgiven you your past… well, your past boo-boos.”

“Just like Twilight said, you just gotta be patient.” Pinkie beamed and elaborated, “It’s like waiting for your gifts on Christmas! If you’re a good little girl and wait, you’ll be guaranteed to get something nice under the tree!”

Sunset laughed. “That’s one way to look at it.” Her gaze swept over the table at the girls, and she smiled. It felt good having them as a part of her life, and she was glad for it. Only time would tell if her family missed her, or if she’d see them again. “I wonder if Twilight and her friends can find Runnie and my aunt and uncle.”

“Might help some if they knew who they were lookin’ for.” Applejack shrugged. “Just a thought.”

“True enough.” Sunset briefly turned to look out one window, the moon starting to rise into the night’s sky above, and she quietly wondered what her cousin was up to back in Equestria, and if she missed her.

-

It was a calm, clear evening in Canterlot, slightly chilly due to it being early in the spring but not unpleasant, the moon clear in the night sky. Nights like this made Beacon Light wish his wings had feathers instead of a light bit of fur; every little bit helped on night patrol, and the cold was hardly pleasant for thestrals like him. He kept his leathery wings tucked close to his sides, looking forward to the end of his patrol and the chance to swing inside and get something hot to drink. The hot cocoa in the break room tasted terrible, but at least it was…

He stopped and caught sight of a mare in golden armor, possibly one of his counterparts in the Day Guard, standing in one of the castle courtyards. “Excuse me!” He trotted over. “Excuse me, but…!”

The mare turned to face him, her rank insignia coming into view. She caught sight of his rank and asked, “Something wrong, Sergeant?”

He halted and stood up. “No Lieutenant, apologies. I just wanted to know what you were doing out here.”

She smiled sadly and explained, “I’m looking at the moon. No problems with that, I hope?”

“Of course not, ma’am, I just usually don’t see anypony out here this time of night.” He narrowed his golden, cat-like eyes warily and asked, “Princess Celestia’s favorite aerial formation is…?”

“The Icaranian Sun Salutation.” The mare raised an eyebrow and asked a question in return. “What did Scorpan say to Star Swirl on the eve of his departure?”

Beacon Light paused, uncertain of how to answer. “I don’t know…”

The mare grinned. “Good news then. Neither of us is a changeling.” She sighed. “I don’t mind your caution, soldier. I’d check too if I found an unfamiliar pony on my rounds.” She turned back to the moon and explained, “Princess Celestia isn’t the only pony to lose a relative. She’s just the one with the longest confirmed time to wait to see them again. I’m just out here thinking of all the ponies that haven’t come home, for one reason or another.”

The Night Guard nodded in understanding. “I’ll leave you to it, ma’am. Good night.” He went back to his rounds, his mind starting to turn elsewhere as he went back to his duties. Very shortly, however, he found his attention caught by something else.

“Shims?”

He turned back to find the officer had removed her helmet, her short-cut crimson and yellow mane revealed as she looked up into the night sky. He was just close enough to see some tears form in her eyes as she softly sang.

“Please, I know you’re out there,

I still wonder where you’ve gone.

You’ll come back someday, I hear;

I know it’s true,

I’m waiting here for you,

With every dawn.

Wanted us to be together.

I wish I could see.

Whatever did I do?

Do you want to build a snowmare?”

She closed her eyes and softly sobbed, “I still want to build that snowmare…”

-

A soft moan escaped her lips as Sunset opened her eyes, dim light starting to cascade into her bedroom through the drapes. Her eyes went to the alarm clock on her nightstand – seven thirty AM. She sat up in bed and smiled, almost wanting to pinch herself to make certain this wasn’t a dream.

But she didn’t have to. It wasn’t. She’d had a great night… no, a great week with her friends, minor issues aside. She smiled; two weeks ago, she’d have never even imagined wanting to have friends, let alone with the girls that she’d torn apart. Then again, she had expected a very different outcome to what had happened last week. But all things considered, things had worked out better this way. She still had fences to mend, issues to fix, ponies to reconnect with, but those were issues for another time. Today, she had something else to deal with. She’d moved into her apartment, had furniture and assorted things to entertain her in her off-time, but as Rarity had said, there was decorating to be done.

First things first, however; she needed a shower.

She climbed out of bed, went over to her pseudo-closet and combed through the drawers, picking out something to wear. Rarity and Fluttershy would be by around ten to take her out shopping, which gave her plenty of time, but there was no sense in not being organized. Clothes laid out and ready on the bed, she stepped into her small bathroom and got the hot water running in her shower. Her gaze swept over the room as she found a small radio, safely out of the path of any water, and turned it on, a song from the eighties streaming out loud and clear.

Sunset smiled sadly, suddenly wishing she still had that guitar Flash had given her. It would’ve been great to learn a few songs on it. She sighed; that was another reunion she wasn’t looking forward to. One more bridge to be crossed, she supposed.

She stripped off her nightclothes and undies, the former tossed onto her bed and the latter in a laundry hamper, and stepped into the shower, warm water meeting her skin as she gave herself an initial rinse. The radio was just loud enough that she could hear it over the water, one song dying down as another started up. Her eyes widened in surprise as she recognized it as a tune she’d heard on the radio once, back when she and Flash were still dating. A small bit of body wash in one hand, she lathered up and started cleaning herself, the lyrics coming back to her crystal clear.

“Livin’ with my eyes closed

Goin’ day to day

I never knew the difference

I never cared either way

Lookin’ for a reason

Searchin’ for a sign

Reachin’ out with both hands

Gotta feel the kick inside…”

As she went into the chorus, Sunset’s head started bobbing with the rhythm, genuine joy overtaking her for the first time in a very long time. Yes, she would have trials to face ahead of her, but she’d work through it. Right now, she was free, a warm feeling building up inside her for the first time since…

She screamed and pushed her arms in front of her by instinct, heavy breathing replacing the singing. Was that what she’d thought it was? She hadn’t felt it since the week before, when she’d put on Twilight’s crown, and the only time she’d felt that before that since coming to this world had been…

…Had been her brief trip back to Equestria.

She looked up, her hands still their normal five-digited selves rather than the four-clawed talons of a demon. Her skin was still light amber, and a tentative inspection showed that her ears were still rounded and close to her head rather than pointed sharply away. She pushed herself against a wall, confirming the lack of tattered bat-like wings. She ran her tongue along her teeth; no fangs. But what relief she felt was practically nonexistent, and she spent the rest of the shower in silence as she washed herself off and rinsed out her hair. Turning on the radio probably wasn’t the smartest idea.

After several minutes, she turned the shower off and pulled a towel out from a waiting rack, running it through her hair before gently drying herself and finishing by wrapping it around her torso. A deep breath, and she stepped out of her shower, closing the door behind her and looking into the bathroom mirror…

Another brief scream as she saw not her reflection, but the demon she’d become grinning back at her, laughing maniacally as she closed her eyes tight. “It isn’t real! It isn’t real!” A deep breath, and she opened and looked again, seeing herself again, traces of fear still on her face. She stepped forward and put a hand to the mirror. If what she’d felt was what she genuinely thought it was, then maybe that monster was still inside her, waiting to come out.

“I’m better off not knowing.”

Author's Note:

Whew. So very glad to have this out. Apologies for rehashing previous information, but that's just how I ended up writing this one.

For those curious, Sunset's loft apartment is inspired by that of Richard Castle. I'm very glad to say there's a lot of reference materials for said loft online, from set photos to blueprints. I've made some small modifications, as there's no clearly marked bathroom on there and nothing about the second floor. Room to explore later, eh?

Sunrunner's riddle to Beacon Light is inspired by one from Norse myth involving Odin, which inspired a similar riddle in the "Gargoyles" fandom. I don't recall the former, but the latter goes, "What did Titanya whisper into Fox's ear on the night of the Gathering?" - it does have an answer, but she doesn't know it. The answer's between Star Swirl and Scorpan.

The song Sunset listens to in the shower is, of course, "All Fired Up", written by Kerryn Tolhurst and made famous by Pat Benatar. It's a personal favorite song and I wanted an excuse to include it somewhere. Was going to use it for a later story, but then Hasbro gave her an official song along similar lines, and well, there you are. That particular song will make it into a future story, assuming I find the time to write it.