• Published 15th Nov 2018
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The Girl Who Orbited the Sun - Dee Pad



When a newly-crowned Twilight Sparkle finds an old book hidden away in the royal archives, she discovers a piece of her mentor's past she had never been told about. And the more she read, the more questions arose. Just who was Sunset Shimmer?

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Chapter 15 - Blood Moon

The Girl Who Orbited the Sun
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 15: Blood Moon

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To Sunset, everything went quiet. It was as though not another soul was present at that moment. She could only stare at her father blankly, wondering if she had misheard him.

"My... mother?"

Starswirl nodded slowly with a sigh. "Scarlet Nettle. The woman who left you at my doorstep eighteen years ago."

Sunset blinked. She wasn't sure how she was supposed to react. Her father told her about Scarlet when she was still a filly, but ever since then, Sunset had spent perhaps no more than a few hours of her life thinking about the mare. Scarlet's name was not one that had come to mind since she'd first heard about her, so to find out that she was at the Gala was more than a little shocking and unexpected.

"Wh-... What's she doing here?" Sunset asked, unable to bring her voice any higher than a murmur.

"No doubt she came here because of you," Starswirl surmised.

Again, Sunset was unsure as to what she was supposed to do with this knowledge. "Should... Should I talk to her?"

Starswirl looked over his shoulder. Scarlet was nowhere to be seen. He pulled Sunset aside, away from the crowd to give he and his daughter some privacy. "Absolutely not."

Sunset was a little surprised by the answer. "Why not? You said she came here to see me, right?"

"I said she came here because of you. Remember, Sunset: this is the mare who abandoned you when you were just a newborn. She may put on an inviting smile and polite demeanor, but beneath that mask is a manipulative, self-important succubus; a mare who takes advantage of her feminine wiles to coast her way through life. I have little doubt that she has an ulterior motive for being here."

Sunset was slightly taken aback by the venom in her father's voice. He'd never heard him speak with such passionate disdain before. But despite his warnings, there was a curiosity that compelled her. "But... it's been eighteen years, right? What if she's changed?"

Starswirl gave his daughter a stern stare. "I very much doubt that. But I suppose I can't stop you from meeting her. She'll likely wish to speak with you, as well, so it'll probably be unavoidable. But! I warn you, Sunset, take everything she says to you with a hefty grain of salt."

"Uh, o-okay..."

Starswirl placed a hoof on Sunset's shoulder, looking into her eyes compassionately. "Sunset, I know you had your own intentions tonight, so try not to let her distract you from what's important, alright?"

Sunset nodded.

"I'm going to try and find her. I've already made my suspicions quite clear to her, and I'm going to see if I can convince her to leave."

Sunset watched her father wander into the crowd again in search of Scarlet. But she just stood there, trying to comprehend what all this meant and what she was supposed to do about it. Out of everything that could have happened on this night, this was the last thing Sunset expected to have to deal with.

Sunset wandered back into the castle in somewhat of a daze, unsure where she was even going. She absentmindedly looked around the ballroom. A part of her wondered if she was subconsciously looking for Scarlet, but even if she was, she didn't spot her anywhere—she must have still been outside. However, Sunset's eyes locked onto the person who did stand out most. Princess Celestia was at the snack table, chatting with a couple of guests. Sunset contemplated whether this was something she should discuss with the princess. What would she suggest? Would she tell her the same thing that her father had, or would she recommend that Sunset actually seek her mother out? For some reason, Sunset was reluctant to ask for her teacher's advice, as though she expected that her answer would have a profound effect on her, but for better or worse she wasn't sure, and that's what worried her.

"Hey, you okay?"

Sunset felt like she had just woken up from a dream, the sound of Halberd's voice snapping her back to reality. "Huh?"

"You looked kind of spaced out there," Halberd commented with a touch of concern. "Everything alright?"

She hesitated. "Uh... Y-Yeah..."

Halberd raised a doubtful eyebrow, her demeanor not exactly convincing. "Really?"

Sunset let out a sigh. "No... I, uh... I just found out my mother's here."

"What?! Seriously?!"

She nodded.

"Well, uh... Wh-What are you going to do?" Halberd asked, just as unsure of how to process this as she was.

"I don't know. To be honest, I'm a little stunned right now. It's kinda hard to think straight."

That was understandable, Halberd thought. He'd heard a little about Sunset's mother a long time ago, but didn't know any details outside of the fact she abandoned Sunset as a baby. "Maybe it's a coincidence. She might have heard about the Gala and just came on a whim."

"Coincidence or not, I'm in the same spot regardless. Dad doesn't want me to have anything to do with her, but it's a little hard to not be curious about what she'd have to say."

"Tell me about it," Halberd said in slight disbelief, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. "The idea of meeting the mother who just abandoned you is probably making you feel pretty conflicted, huh?"

"Yeah... But the weird part is that I don't know if I should feel conflicted. By all rights, I should just hate her by default, you know? Dad seems to think she came here with a goal in mind."

"I guess he'd know her better than you."

"But it's not like he's seen her since then. In fact, he said the last time he saw her was around the time she must've found out she was pregnant—so, long before I was even born. How exactly do we know she's the same mare she was back then?"

"That's... a fair point, I suppose."

Sunset ran a hoof through her mane, forgetting briefly that her usual waves of fiery hair were pulled back to make her ponytail. "Maybe Dad's right. Maybe I should lay low for a bit and just let this blow over. Things are already complicated enough for me right now without having this occupying my mind, too." She let out a deep sigh. "I just wanted to spend some time with the princess tonight... Why'd this have to happen now?"

"Hello there."

A voice behind Sunset caused her heart rate to jump up. It was an unfamiliar, feminine voice that sounded of compassion and apology, but despite that, it sent a chill down Sunset's spine. Even though she didn't recognize the voice, she already knew who it was.

Sunset swallowed nervously, unsure if she was ready for this moment. She started with a cautious glance over her shoulder, and sure enough, it was the same mare to whom her father had been talking: Scarlet Nettle. As Sunset turned around to face her, her gaze was locked onto Scarlet's right eye, vivid green like an emerald and accented by deep purple eye shadow, while the left was obscured behind her voluminous, silky, golden hair. The smile on her crimson lips matched the tone of her voice: soft and gentle. So, then, why was Sunset frozen as though crippled by fear?

"Uh... H-Hi..." was all Sunset could manage in the face of this woman.

Scarlet let out a quiet, sophisticated giggle. "Judging by your reaction, I assume your father already told you who I am."

"You're... Scarlet Nettle, right?"

Halberd stood by quietly. It didn't take a genius to piece this together and see how serious this was, so he took the opportunity to slip away unnoticed and give the two of them some privacy.

Scarlet stared quietly into Sunset's teal eyes. The amber mare's gaze was chock full with disbelief and uncertainty, but Scarlet continued to smile. "This is a surreal experience, isn't it?"

"Uh, y-yeah..." Sunset responded, shifting uncomfortably.

"Sunset Shimmer..." Scarlet said, more to herself rather than to address Sunset. "I have to admit, he picked a lovely name for you."

"Oh, um, thanks."

Scarlet looked her daughter over thoroughly with a thoughtful hum and a satisfied grin. "And you've grown into such a beautiful young mare. Though, that isn't surprising; no daughter of mine could possibly be anything short of ravishing," she boasted with a giggle.

Honestly, Sunset was starting to tire of these pleasantries, so she just decided to swallow her apprehension and speak her mind. "What are you doing here?" she asked tersely.

The smile finally lifted from Scarlet's face, and the older mare breathed a disheartened sigh at the tone of Sunset's voice. "I suppose Starswirl has told you all about me and the things I did to both him and you."

Sunset simply nodded, making sure her expression was as judgmental as possible.

"Then it should be obvious that I came here to see you, Sunset."

"Why? You abandoned me. You can't say that you suddenly care about me just like that," Sunset told her in an accusatory tone.

Scarlet turned away for a moment, a look of shame on her face, before looking back into Sunset's eyes pleadingly. "You've only heard his side of the story, so his view might be a little biased. After all, he hadn't seen me at all after I got pregnant. May I share my point of view?"

Sunset gave her a skeptical glower, but didn't deny her. "Okay."

"I'm sure when you hear that a newborn foal was left on somepony's doorstep, you immediately think that they were abandoned—that the mother did not want the child. But you have to understand what I was going through at the time. I was still a teenager, fresh out of high school and no real idea of where my life was heading from there. So when I discovered that I was pregnant, that just threw another wrench into my already uncertain life. I was terrified. How would my parents react? Would I be able to properly care for a baby? I'll be the first to admit that I was not exactly a mature individual back then, and I may have treated the people in my life unfairly."

Sunset continued to grimace at that woeful understatement.

"So would it have been fair for somepony like me to raise a child? I moved out of my parents' house before my pregnancy became noticeable, and kept it secret for the whole eleven months. By that time, I had already decided what I was going to do. Maybe it wasn't the mature thing to do, maybe it was just me being selfish, but at the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. I managed to track down Starswirl's whereabouts, and brought you there. I had intended to talk to him about it, but I was too afraid to face him after the way I treated him; afraid that his ire towards me would lead him to turn me away—turn you away."

While Sunset didn't believe for a second that her father would be so cold-hearted as to not accept his own daughter in a situation like that, she had to admit that Scarlet wouldn't know that, and given the emotionally distraught state she had been in, she couldn't blame her for thinking that way. Still, though, that didn't magically explain away all of Sunset's questions.

"So, why wait so long to come see me?" Sunset asked.

Scarlet brushed her mane out of her face with a remorseful sigh. "I was afraid of how your father would react, and based on my conversation with him earlier, my fears were warranted. To be honest, there were so many times where I thought about seeking you out, but Starswirl had since moved, and I had no idea where to look for him. And I would always lose my nerve when I started looking into it."

As hard as it was to believe for Sunset, she was actually starting to feel something, but whether it was sympathy or pity she couldn't tell just yet.

Scarlet stared into her daughter's still doubtful eyes, her smile returning for a moment. "Sunset, dear..." She raised a crimson hoof to gently place under her daughter's chin. However, Sunset pulled away, and Scarlet reluctantly retracted with a regretful frown. "I... understand if you don't forgive me right away. Changing one's outlook on things like this can take time. Trust me, I know that very well. But I swear that I'm not the same mare I was back then. After I left you, I was wracked with guilt for years to follow. And when I saw the advertisements for the Grand Galloping Gala, I took it as a sign: to come here and make amends."

"So, that's it? You just came to apologize?" Sunset inferred.

Scarlet smiled again. "More than that. I want to make up for all the time that we lost. I want to atone for what I did to you and your father. I can show you that I'm a changed mare, more than willing to be your mother again."

Sunset's eyes widened and her chest tightened. "Wait... Y-You want to..."

The crimson unicorn flashed a caring and assuring smile. "I want us to be a family."

Those were perhaps the last words that Sunset was expecting.

Scarlet cleared her throat awkwardly. "I... won't say that I have strong feelings for Starswirl one way or the other, but I still want to make it up to him. Mostly, I want to do this for you, Sunset. And I'm sure your father wouldn't deny what's best for his daughter."

"'What's... best'?"

"Having a mother, of course. If there's anything that's pained me more over the years, it's the knowledge that my daughter has had to grow up without a mother. I took that away from you, but I intend to pay it back in full. But even so, you can't say I didn't make the right choice in the end. I mean, just look at you! Look where you are! Student to the most important pony in all Equestria. Who would have thought leaving you with a nerdy little bookworm like Starswirl would put you on the path to brushing shoulders with royalty? Why, you're practically a princess yourself!"

Sunset wasn't sure how to respond. This was a lot for her to take in. Her mother popping up out of the blue and suggesting that they can be a family again was an unexpected turn for this night. But the weird thing was, for some reason, Sunset was actually thinking about it.

***** ***** *****

It didn't take long for people to start gravitating toward Princess Celestia once the Gala had gotten properly underway. All eyes were on her from the moment she walked into the ballroom, and the people had questions. Many questions.

Currently, Princess Celestia was having a drink of punch, with Lance standing by diligently, though allowing his eyes to discreetly wander over the guests—particularly those of the female persuasion, though he would likely argue to be keeping an eye out for troublemakers.

A couple approached the princess with respectful smiles, the well-dressed stallion addressing the alicorn. "Good evening, Your Majesty."

"Good evening," the princess returned with a friendly grin.

"I must say, it is an absolute honor to meet you, Your Highness," the mare expressed graciously. "I never thought I'd get an opportunity like this in my lifetime."

"Well, the Gala was arranged with the purpose of easing the minds of my subjects, so affording you the chance to do something like this is the least I can do," Celestia told them.

"And it appears to have turned out splendidly," the stallion complimented. "Good music, good food, good company." He punctuated that last item with a courteous bow to the princess.

"And the new castle is positively stunning!" the mare exclaimed, looking around at the elegant ballroom in awe. "Is there any chance we could get a tour of the rest of the castle?"

Celestia offered an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, but the castle is still undergoing some final touches. The public is not allowed access quite yet, with tonight being a special exception."

"A shame. Oh, well, we'll just have to visit some other time after the finishing touches are made," the stallion asserted.

"Please, do," Celestia invited with a welcoming grin.

"But it is such a shame that your sister could not be here to see the completed castle," the mare commented.

Celestia's smile vanished.

"Yes, after we heard about what happened at the... What was it called? Summer Sun Celebration? Why, everypony was abuzz with worry."

"We heard that you'd been injured, Your Highness," said the mare. "Are you feeling well tonight?"

For a moment, Celestia hesitated to answer. "Er, yes." She extended her left wing, which no longer needed its sling. "My wing was fractured, but it's healed enough to be manageable, though still not enough to allow flight just yet."

"What exactly happened to Princess Luna?" the stallion asked, eyeing the princess inquisitively. "We've heard the name 'Nightmare Moon' going about. Can you explain?"

Celestia narrowed her eyes at the two ponies in suspicion. This was the sort of thing she had been afraid of regarding this night. She figured early on that many people from outside Canterlot would accept the invitations to the Gala for the sole purpose of finding out more about the Nightmare Moon incident. The princess had made specific requests to deny entry to certain types of people, but she suspected that some sneakier individuals would slip through the cracks.

The alicorn stared down at the pair with stern authority. "Excuse me, but the two of you wouldn't happen to be members of the press by any chance, would you?"

The two ponies exchanged nervous glances. It seemed she'd hit the nail on the head.

"Apologies, but I will not be discussing my sister or the events of that day tonight," Celestia stated firmly, but kept her voice quiet to avoid drawing attention. "Now, if you both would not like to be escorted out of the castle, I'd suggest you change the subject. Otherwise, enjoy the rest of the evening."

The pair of incognito reporters offered apologetic bows before leaving the princess's company and disappearing into the crowd. Celestia let out a sigh, running a hoof through her flowing mane.

"Guess there's just no avoiding it, huh?" Lance commented. "Sorry, we shouldn't have let busybodies like them get past us."

"It's alright, Lance. It was bound to happen. And I suspect this won't be the last time tonight that I have to discourage somepony from talking about Luna."

"Well, just remember that if anypony oversteps their bounds, I can always show 'em the door."

"I shouldn't think that'd be necessary. In fact, you needn't stick to my side all night, Lance. You can enjoy yourself if you wish. Get something to eat, strike up conversation. This night is meant to be enjoyed by everypony."

Lance glanced out over the crowd once more with an interested smirk. "Well, I can spot a few people here that I wouldn't mind getting to know better." As he said that, he spotted Starswirl headed their way. "Not him, though. I think I know him well enough by now."

Starswirl simply sauntered over as though he didn't even notice Lance and the princess standing there, pouring himself up a glass of punch and grumbling to himself.

"Why the long face, Chuckles?" Lance quipped.

Starswirl was already too distraught to bother correcting Lance and telling him he was supposed to be a royal mage, not a court jester. He downed his punch in a couple of quick gulps, mumbling into his beard as he refilled the glass.

"Is something wrong, Starswirl?" Celestia inquired. "You don't seem to be enjoying yourself."

He let out a long, disgruntled groan, grumbling under his breath. "Scarlet's here..."

Lance raised an eyebrow. "Scarlet? Who's that?"

Contrary to Lance's confused reaction, Celestia's eyes widened suddenly. She'd only heard Starswirl mention the name once many years ago, but she managed to instantly recognize it. "Wait, you don't mean... Sunset's mother, do you?"

Starswirl only nodded in response.

Lance inhaled sharply through his teeth. "Really? Yikes. Talk about a big wrench to throw into an otherwise nice evening."

"I'm guessing you've spoken to her already," Celestia inferred, a touch of worry in her voice.

"I did," Starswirl responded in a begrudging tone.

"Do you know why she's here?"

"I haven't been able to get a straight answer from her thus far, which is why I'm trying to track her down again right now. But I'm certain that she does not have anypony's best interests in mind other than her own."

"Sorry, Starswirl," Lance apologized. "I guess we should've been a little more thorough with our background checks. If we'd known exactly who she was, we would've turned her away."

"It's not like she's a criminal or anything. Just a bad person. No doubt she did whatever she could during the screening process to ensure she could get here tonight."

Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. For some reason, she wasn't sure if she wanted to say what she was about to say. However, for the sake of covering all possible bases, she willed herself to speak anyway. "Are... Are you sure you're not being too harsh? It's been a while, hasn't it? Perhaps she came to apologize."

"If that was the case, she could've done so when we spoke earlier," Starswirl argued with certainty. "No, she's up to something, I can sense it. She was purposely vague and dismissive."

Lance stepped forward with a steadfast expression. "If her presence is making you and Sunset uncomfortable, I can always tell her to leave. Just say the word and she's gone."

Starswirl shook his head. "As much as I appreciate you taking my side, Lance, doing so without justification would only cause a fuss. Ideally we would keep Sunset away from her for the entire night, but that would be next to impossible without removing Sunset from the Gala entirely, and I don't want to do that to her."

"So, what do you intend to do?" asked Celestia.

Starswirl stroked his beard slowly. "I'd like to see if I can get her to leave without causing a scene. If not, then I'd at least like to find out what her intentions are, though I have a feeling I already know what her goal is here tonight."

Lance was about to inquire about that, but stopped short when he noticed his brother coming toward them. He grimaced slightly. "Well, if you need my help, just ask," he told Starswirl, though his tone was hurried. "For now, do you mind if I do my own thing for a while, Your Majesty?"

"Hm? Oh, of course," Celestia answered with a nod. "Please, enjoy yourself, Lance."

Lance gave a quick bow before taking his leave of their company, making sure to disappear into the crowd before his brother could get a word in.

Halberd took notice of Lance's quick exit, the two managing to exchange glares briefly before Lance vanished. But Halberd ignored his older brother, focusing instead on Starswirl and Princess Celestia.

"Halberd, I thought you'd be with Sunset," Celestia commented. "Are you having difficulty finding her?"

"Uh, no, she's, um..." Halberd briefly glanced at Starswirl. "She's talking to her mother."

Starswirl's eyes widened, aghast. "What?! Why would you let her—" He took a breath, collecting himself. "Nevermind. Where are they?"

Halberd hesitated, taken slightly aback by Starswirl's urgent tone. "Uh, over there," he answered, pointing over his shoulder toward the entrance of the ballroom.

Starswirl nodded. "Thank you. Your Highness, I—"

"Do what you must," Celestia instructed.

By the princess's leave, Starswirl hurried away across the ballroom.

Halberd stared up at the princess. It was clear she was trying to remain stoic and indifferent to this news, but there was a blatant look of unease and uncertainty in her normally warming eyes. "You okay, Your Highness?"

"Huh?" Celestia glanced down, having briefly forgotten Halberd was there. "Oh, y-yes. I was just... thinking..."

"About what?" he asked somewhat worriedly, both for the princess's sake, and potentially Sunset's, if his guess was right.

"It... just occurred to me that I haven't been given much of a chance to speak with Sunset yet tonight, like I promised," Celestia answered quietly, still sounding as though she wasn't entirely there mentally. "I wonder if maybe..."

Halberd stayed silent, watching as the princess trailed off and her eyes drifted to the floor, lost in her own thoughts once more. There was a distinct look of dejection in her eyes.

***** ***** *****

Starswirl weaved his way through the crowd at a brisk pace, not bothering to take the time to apologize to the people he bumped along the way. The sight of seeing Scarlet talking to Sunset boiled his blood, and he feared the lies she was trying to plant in her head. He couldn't exactly be sure what they were talking about, but whatever it was, it couldn't be good for Sunset or him, so he abruptly interrupted their conversation. "Sunset."

A slight grimace wrinkled Scarlet's face upon seeing him, but she quickly hid it behind a polite smile. "Well, isn't this nice. Funny to think that this is the first time the three of us have been in the same place at the same time, isn't it?"

Starswirl ignored her attempt at sounding endearing, instead shooting a brief, contemptuous glower at her before speaking to his daughter. "I need to talk to you." He gave Scarlet another glare. "Alone."

Scarlet held a hoof to her chest, acting hurt and remorseful. "Oh, dear. I never thought you could turn out to be so cold, Starswirl. I certainly hope it wasn't my actions that made you this way."

Again, Starswirl ignored her comment, brusquely leading Sunset away from her so that they could have some privacy. Once he felt they were safe from being overheard, he looked Sunset dead in the eye with the utmost seriousness. "What did she say to you?"

Sunset mulled over everything that Scarlet had said. She knew her father had told her to take everything she said with a grain of salt, but knowing what she did now, it was hard not to feel sorry for her. "She gave me her side of the story. She said she's felt guilty about what she did, but was afraid to see us again."

"Of course she would say that, she's trying to garner sympathy," Starswirl insisted. "Do you have any inkling of what her objective is here tonight?" he asked, though it came across as rhetorical.

"She said she... wants us to be a family again."

Starswirl scoffed. "A family my flank. As if I'd allow that temptress to weasel her way back into our lives."

"Dad, don't you think it would be a good idea to give her the benefit of the doubt?" Sunset argued, not exactly feeling comfortable with the way her father was behaving tonight; it wasn't like him to be so hateful and distrusting. "She made a good point: you don't even know what she was going through after she left you because you never saw her again after that. You've got no proof that she hasn't changed."

Starswirl gave Sunset a serious and authoritative, yet concerned stare. "Sunset, I know that mare, and I know the kind of person she is. I can tell by her mannerisms here tonight that she's still the same vile woman I knew back then."

"Then why do you think she's here?"

Starswirl let out a long sigh, the displeasure of this whole situation evident in his eyes. "There is only one thing that Scarlet values above all else: her social standing. Everything she does, every person she chooses to associate with, is all to place herself in advantageous positions. She coasted through her teenage years, barely lifting a hoof, because gullible people like myself fell under the spell of her feminine wiles. In retrospect, she didn't do much to mask the fact that she was nothing but a self-important brat, but because she was attractive, nopony cared. But now that she's an adult, she knows she can't get by on her looks alone. Hormonal teenagers are easily manipulated, but most adults are smarter than that. So now she's putting on this act, pretending to be classy and sophisticated and remorseful because the 'benefit of the doubt' is exactly what she's looking for—that's all she needs to worm her way back into our lives. She didn't come here tonight because you're her daughter. She came here because you're Princess Celestia's student."

"You think she's using me to get closer to the princess?"

"Precisely. Because there is no rung higher on the social ladder than being associated with royalty. She's using her relation to you to earn favor with Princess Celestia and assert herself at the top of the social food chain."

Sunset furrowed her brow in doubt. "Dad, do you even realize how paranoid you sound right now?"

"It's not paranoia, it's logical deduction!"

"It's conjecture. Everything you just said is all based on your own personal bias. You still don't have any solid proof that that's why she's here. What's so unbelievable about the idea that somepony like her can change after all these years?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

Sunset raised an eyebrow, vexed by his counterattack. "What?"

Starswirl hesitated for a moment. Perhaps he hadn't meant to say that, but he'd said it now, so it was just as well to continue the thought. "As much as I hate to admit it, there is one thing that you have in common with Scarlet: you refuse to grow up."

"Excuse me?" Sunset balked, vexed and insulted by the accusation.

"While I certainly enjoyed watching you grow with the same amount of wonderment and energy you had as a filly, at the same time, it's worrying. You're still impulsive, immature, and only focused on what's directly ahead of you."

"What's wrong with focusing on what's ahead?!" Sunset snapped back. "Isn't that what 'adults' do? Set their sights on a goal and strive for it?"

"But you're single-mindedness is distracting you from the world around you! You don't take the time to see the world for what it really is! That's why you're even entertaining the idea of trusting that woman, because your childish fantasies are obscuring your view of reality! You're an adult now, Sunset! It's time to take the blinders off!"

Sunset grit her teeth behind her lips, letting out a low, angry growl.

"You don't know how painful it is to see any similarity to her in you. But where Scarlet made use of her good looks and charm to manipulate men, you're so single-minded that you can't even notice when somepony fancies you."

"What are you talking about?!"

Starswirl looked down his nose at his daughter, the anger and confusion on her face almost painful to look at. "Case and point. I know you've been feeling neglected lately, but that's exactly why you should be avoiding Scarlet. Somepony like you is a prime target for her, so if you seriously think that she has your best interests in mind, then I would urge you to remember who it was that raised you."

"If this is how you're trying to get me to take your side on this, you're not doing a very good job!" Sunset spat before stomping off in a huff.

Starswirl sighed deeply, shaking his head. She was only furthering his point, but he felt confident that she'd see things his way eventually.

It was only now that he was alone that Starswirl noticed the number of people staring in his direction, not the least of which was Scarlet, who was cantering over to him and forcing back a triumphant smirk.

"Excellent parenting," she quipped sarcastically. "With a father like you, who needs me, right?"

Starswirl continued to glare harshly at her. "If you were a real parent, you'd know that sometimes your child needs to hear the truth, regardless of how harsh it may be. But I suppose you wouldn't know anything about being honest and forthcoming, would you, Scarlet?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she responded dismissively. "I came here to see my daughter. And just as she said, you have no proof to the contrary. All you've accomplished just now is making yourself look like a tool in front of all these people and pushing Sunset closer to my corner. So, thank you." She flashed him a haughty grin before wandering away again.

Starswirl glared disdainfully, but was able to keep his temper in check. He didn't want to make anymore of a scene than he already had.

***** ***** *****

Lance had been wandering rather aimlessly around the ballroom for a few minutes now, but had yet to actually talk to anypony as per the princess's suggestion. For as many good-looking and eligible mares as there were at the Gala, he couldn't work up the will to talk to any of them. It wasn't that he'd lost his confidence, it was just that he had other things on his mind distracting him from any romantic endeavors.

Lance peered through the crowd. He could see Halberd talking to Princess Celestia. As upset as he was with his brother right now, he couldn't help but feel a little guilty. Halberd had always looked up to him; he was his little brother's hero. But now the two of them were at odds. Lance didn't like it, but at the same time, he didn't feel he was wrong about the things he said to his brother.

The distracted guard shook his head. This really wasn't the time or place for thinking about this. Whether he wanted to make up with Halberd or not was something that was going to have to wait until after the Gala. Lance had a job to do, and right now, that job was to mingle; Princess Celestia had given him permission, so he was going to take advantage of it.

And right now, a particularly gorgeous mare was perusing the snacks on the buffet table. A long, golden mane; a tight-fitting dress; tall and slender. Just his type.

Lance ran a hoof over his mane, making sure the hair sticking up through the slot of his helmet was looking sharp and attractive. He put on a confident and playful smile as he sauntered casually over to the table beside the mare. She was even more beautiful up close, her makeup accentuating her lovely, green eyes. Discreetly clearing his throat, Lance made his move. "Are you enjoying the evening, Madam?" he asked coolly.

She briefly glanced at him, the smile she'd been wearing disappearing once she laid her eyes on him. However, she said nothing in response and went back to looking over the food on the table, using her violet magic to pick up a metal skewer with a piece of cheese on it, dipping it into the chocolate fountain.

Lance was a touch caught off guard by her dismissiveness, but he always did enjoy a challenge. He put on his best game face, readying himself for the tête-à-tête. "So, have you been to Canterlot before?"

The mare looked at him again with a grimace, actually responding this time, but not in the way he expected. "What do you think you're doing?"

Lance blinked in confusion at her disapproving tone. "Pardon?"

She looked him up and down, though not in the same way that he had done for her. She looked him over with an expression of disgust. "Do you think I came here to fraternize with the help? Know your station," she chided, pointing her skewer at him and flecking a couple of globs of chocolate onto his armor. "People of your standing shouldn't speak to somepony like me as though we're equals. You're here to serve us, which puts you beneath us. You get paid to stand there quietly, not flirt with those who are more important than you. I'd keep that in mind if I were you, unless you want me to report this harassment to the princess and have that armor stripped from you."

Lance only stood there, mouth agape and a little too flabbergasted to respond.

The mare glanced out into the crowd, spotting a disgruntled Sunset Shimmer standing near the doors leading outside. She grinned briefly before casting another reprimanding glower at Lance. She didn't say anything more, only sticking her nose up with superiority, popping the piece of chocolate covered cheese in her mouth, and walking away.

Lance just stared blankly. "The hay just happened?"

***** ***** *****

Sunset's face was hot with anger. A part of her wanted to rip her dress off and storm out of the Gala, but she was mad at her father, and doing so would only serve to hurt Princess Celestia. She couldn't believe the things he'd said. Why did he think now was an appropriate time to bring up something like that? If anything, it reminded her of the argument she'd had with Celestia. Did nopony have any faith in her? Exactly how much did she need to do to prove that she was as mature as everypony expected her to be?

She needed to cool off, so Sunset headed over to the doorway leading out to the gardens. Perhaps the night air would help her think a little more clearly. However, before she made it there, Halberd called out to her.

"Sunset." He hurried over to her side. "What was that all about?"

Sunset frowned guiltily. "Oh, you heard that, huh?"

"I think everypony heard it. Are you okay?"

"I..." She ran a hoof over her styled mane. "I've got a lot on my mind right now. I feel like Dad should know better than to pile on like that."

"Must be rough," Halberd sympathized. "Meeting your mother and getting into an argument with your dad... Everything's going a little topsy-turvy."

"Tell me about it..." Sunset uttered with exasperation.

Halberd gave her a reassuring smile. "Well, hey, if nothing else, I've got your back. You need my support, or advice, or anything, I'm right here."

Sunset smiled back weakly. "Thanks, Hal. But, I don't know. Maybe I need to be alone right now."

Halberd stared at her with deep concern. "Come on, Sunset. Whatever's going through your mind, you should probably talk about it. I'm all ears."

A long sigh escaped her amber lips. "It's just..." Her eyes drifted over to where Princess Celestia was standing, engaged in yet another conversation with the guests. "Princess Celestia has a lot on her plate right now, you know? I wanted to help out with the Gala because I thought if everything went smoothly, it could help things between me and the princess get back on track. But even now, even though she promised to spend some time with me tonight, she's too busy dealing with guests to get any time to herself. I guess I've been feeling... left out."

"I'm sure she's not doing it on purpose."

"I know, but... maybe she needs me to give her some space to deal with this. But I still want to have somepony there to guide me forward, you know? But she's too busy coping and trying to keep the kingdom in order, and Dad's busy with his research and teaching at the school. I'd just like to have somepony who's... there..."

Halberd watched as her eyes filled with what he could only describe as reluctant hopefulness. "And you think your mother can be that person?"

Sunset looked away with uncertainty. "I-I don't know, maybe."

"Why are you looking so down, dear?"

The two ponies looked to see Scarlet approaching them.

"Poor thing," she said sympathetically. "For a father to speak to his daughter like that is deplorable. A face as pretty as yours should never be blemished by a frown."

Sunset's ears drooped, and she looked to Scarlet with apologetic eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Oh? Whatever for, dear?"

"I know it must be hard to be seen as the bad guy, for people to treat you like you're incapable of change. Look what happened to Princess Luna. Sometimes, it felt like I was the only person in the world willing to give her the time of day. I don't want you to have to go through the same thing just because I don't know you. If all you want is a second chance, then I'm at least willing to hear you out."

Scarlet held a hoof to her chest with an affectionate grin. "Oh, Sunset, how touching. I see being in the company of the princess taught you how to be a proper young lady. You certainly didn't get that from your father, from what I've seen."

"So..." Sunset hesitated, though not so much with apprehension; it was more like cautious optimism. "You really want us to be a family?"

Scarlet stared into Sunset's eyes compassionately. "I do. If you would have me."

Sunset took a deep breath through her nose, closing her eyes in contemplation. "I'd like a little time to think about it, if that's alright."

Scarlet waved her request off with a chuckle. "Of course, darling. This is a big decision to make. I don't expect you to rush into it. But I, for one, can't stop thinking about it. Just imagine waking up inside the royal palace everyday. Oh, of course, you don't have to—my, it really is like my daughter is a princess, isn't it? I've always considered myself somewhat of a high society pony, but to rub shoulders with royalty on a regular basis is going to be like a dream come true!"

Sunset wasn't sure why, but she suddenly found herself smiling. The enthusiasm in her mother's voice was infectious, and for what felt like the first time in her life, she was actually imagining what her life would be like with her mother by her side. "I'll be sure to make a decision before the end of the night, okay?" Sunset told her with a grin.

"Take your time. But I can assure you that with me around, I'll—er, we'll be the talk of all Equestria. There won't be a single person who doesn't know the names Scarlet Nettle and Sunset Shimmer."

"And Starswirl," Sunset reminded her.

Scarlet rolled her eyes with a dismissive wave of her hoof. "Yes, yes, I suppose he'll be there, too."

With that, Sunset stepped outside to get some air and think things over.

Scarlet smiled with self-satisfaction, completely pleased with how the conversation had gone. But it was only now that she took notice of the silver stallion that had been standing alongside Sunset, listening quietly to the whole conversation. "Can I help you?" she asked in slight annoyance as he continued to stare at her.

Halberd looked around, as though she may have been talking to somepony else. "Huh?"

"I was having a private conversation with my daughter," Scarlet chastised. "I don't appreciate eavesdroppers."

"Oh, uh, sorry. M-My name's Halberd." He extended a hoof in greeting, but Scarlet only stared at it with a disgusted grimace.

"Should I care?" she asked, her voice oozing with displeasure.

Halberd retracted his hoof slowly, unsure what it was he'd done to upset her, if anything. "W-Well, if Sunset does ask you to come back into her life, then we may as well get to know each other, too, since I'm a guard here and all."

"A guard?" Scarlet echoed, her voice dripping with disgust. She looked him over with scrutiny. "Why aren't you in uniform? Are you shirking your duties to mingle? Are all the soldiers here so lax about their jobs?"

"Um, actually, I-I'm off duty due to injury," Halberd explained, pointing to the gauze patch on his flank.

Scarlet scoffed. "Tch, and not even a very good soldier from the looks of it. And what business do you have listening in on a conversation between me and Sunset?"

Halberd wasn't entirely sure where this sudden shift in attitude came from, but he figured if he explained his relationship with Sunset, that would ease any suspicions. "Sunset's my friend, that's all. I was just talking to her before you came over."

Scarlet curled her nose as though the word caused her physical anguish. "'Friend'? Sunset associates with you? She's practically royalty. She doesn't have to lower herself to cavorting with the servants. A pony of her esteem should seek out higher class company. If you know what's good for you, you'll keep your social connections strictly within your league. I'll have to have a talk with her about this in the future. Clearly there are some things the princess has yet to teach her."

And that was all she said before turning her back to him, leaving Halberd behind and at a loss for words.

Scarlet already felt as though she had Sunset in her pocket. Now, there was still one more person to whom she needed to talk.

***** ***** *****

Princess Celestia had barely moved since she'd arrived at the Gala, lingering by the buffet table the whole time. This night wasn't going entirely as planned. While the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves well enough, Celestia found herself distracted. Many a pony had approached her throughout the night to chat, but she was somewhat distant with her responses. She likely wasn't doing a good job of ensuring her people that everything was okay after losing her sister, but it didn't help that that seemed to be what everypony wanted to ask about. Celestia was admittedly getting a tad frustrated, but the topic of her sister wasn't the only thing weighing her down.

Sunset's mother was there. That was a hitch that she couldn't have possibly planned for. Celestia had promised to dedicate some time to her student on this night, but that was going to be hard to do when she likely had more pressing concerns on her mind. The worst part was, Celestia couldn't decide whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. And to make matters worse still, it sounded as though Sunset and her father had had an argument; pretty much everypony in the ballroom heard it.

Speaking of which, Starswirl happened to be wandering over at that very moment, a conflicted look of aggravation and worry in his eyes. "I suppose you heard all that," he said to the princess as he poured himself another glass of punch.

"Some of it, yes," Celestia answered regretfully.

Starswirl groaned, running a hoof over his beard. "I honestly thought she'd heed my advice. I never believed for a second that Sunset would sympathize with that she-devil. I suppose that just goes to show how good she is at what she does. Sunset is around the same age I was when Scarlet did this to me."

"Starswirl..." Celestia paused when his eyes met hers, unsure if she wanted to continue her thought. "Would it... be so wrong to give her a chance?"

The stallion pressed his hoof to the bridge of his nose with a disappointed sigh. "Not you, too, Princess..."

"Maybe this is what Sunset has needed all along. Somepony to call her mother. And who better than her actual mother?"

"I can think of one person better," Starswirl said, staring seriously into Celestia's pink eyes. "Allowing that mare into our lives would be a mistake. While I don't think she'd be able to keep up her little act forever, I'm mostly worried about how it'll affect Sunset when she's eventually seen for the mare she really is. I'm confident that she doesn't care about Sunset in the least, but if my daughter actually starts seeing Scarlet as a role model, then I'll have failed her as a father. Princess, I know you've always cared about Sunset deeply. She doesn't need Scarlet. She needs a mother. She needs you."

Celestia remained quiet. Again, Starswirl insisted on this parental bond between her and Sunset, but still, Celestia had her doubts. If Sunset really saw her that way, why was she considering giving Scarlet another chance? Celestia did want what was best for Sunset, but if what Sunset wanted was to have her mother back, then perhaps it was time for her to step aside.

Starswirl downed his glass of punch and turned back toward the crowd. "Perhaps I should find Sunset again. After our little argument, I'm afraid she may make some rash decisions." Before he left, he looked up at the princess one more time, a pleading look in his eyes. "I mean it when I say that she needs you, Princess. And I know how much you care about her. Don't let her do this to herself."

Celestia watched silently as Starswirl left, letting out a long, indecisive sigh.

Once Starswirl was gone, another pony slipped her way through the crowd, cantering casually up to the buffet table. This attractive mare repeatedly glanced up at the princess with an unrestrained grin, and it didn't take long for Celestia to take notice.

The mare's crimson cheeks somehow flushed redder with embarrassment. "My apologies for staring, Your Majesty. It's just such an honor to meet you."

Under normal circumstances, Celestia would have forced an amicable smile, mentally preparing herself for another repeat of the same conversation she'd had several times that night already. However, as the princess stared at this mare, a thought came to mind. She had a hunch, and gulped nervously as she addressed the stranger. "Beg your pardon, but your name wouldn't happen to be... Scarlet Nettle... would it?"

Scarlet sighed, but managed a somewhat awkward smile. "I see my reputation proceeds me, unfortunately."

Celestia suddenly felt a tightness in her chest. This was it. She was face to face with Sunset's mother. Now she was faced with a conundrum: who's side did she take? Starswirl's or Sunset's? As Sunset's father, Celestia trusted that he knew what was best for his daughter. Yet he was right when he said that she cared about Sunset as much as he did, so wouldn't it make more sense to do what Sunset wanted, which would mean accepting this mare as her student's mother?

Scarlet tilted her head slightly at the distant expression on the princess's face. "Are you alright, Your Highness? You look distracted."

Celestia blinked a few times to make sure this was real. "Yes. Apologies. I'm perhaps not as... present as I'd like to be tonight."

Scarlet waved a hoof dismissively. "Well, I'm confident that whatever problems you're dealing with will be sorted out without issue. You are Princess Celestia after all."

The alicorn continued to stare at the mare, and as she did, she noticed something. Not about Scarlet, but about herself. When she was talking to Starswirl, she'd suggested that she was willing to give Scarlet a chance as Sunset was. But now being in the presence of the mare, doubt bubbled up in her mind. Celestia wasn't fond of the idea of judging somepony she didn't know, so it may have been in her best interest to formulate an opinion of her own, separate from those of Starswirl and Sunset.

"Miss Nettle," Celestia began, her tone somewhat serious, yet deeply compassionate, "it is my understanding that you wish to reenter Sunset's life and reclaim your mantle as her mother. Is that correct?"

Scarlet hesitated a moment, knowing full well the things that Starswirl must have told her about her. "That's right. I've been overcome with guilt since the day I left Sunset at Starswirl's door. I merely want to make up for lost time and atone for my sins."

Celestia analyzed the expression on her face. She certainly seemed genuine. "That's very noble of you. However, I would like to make something very clear."

Scarlet's smile fell momentarily, feeling uneasy about where the princess was going with this.

The alicorn leaned down slightly, holding a hoof to her chest and looking pleadingly into Scarlet's eyes. "Sunset is a very special pony. You understand that, don't you?"

Scarlet let her breath out through her nose, her smile returning. "Of course I do. From what I hear, she's smart, talented, and has quite a bit of potential. No doubt all thanks to your teachings, Your Highness. She's going to do great things for this kingdom someday."

Celestia straightened up again, mulling over Scarlet's choice of words. She wasn't wrong, but that wasn't exactly what Celestia meant by "special." The princess spoke again, her tone exuding a similar professionalism one would expect at a job interview. "Hypothetically speaking, were you to once again assume the role of Sunset's mother, what would be your goal?"

"Goal? Why, to care and love for my daughter so that she can one day be as majestic and well respected as you, Your Majesty. What else?"

Celestia raised an eyebrow slightly. "I see. Miss Nettle, I understand that it must have been a terrifying thought to finally see the daughter you abandoned so long ago, and the unsuspecting father you forced her upon..."

Scarlet gulped nervously, Celestia's rather reprimanding tone not boding well for her odds.

"But I'm more than a little concerned that you put it off for so long," the princess continued. "If you truly wish to make up for what you did to my student—my friend—then I sincerely hope you are willing to devote yourself wholly to the cause of making her happy."

Scarlet breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment there it sounded as though she was being rejected, but if anything, it was merely a warning. "Of course, Your Highness. You needn't worry about that. Sunset herself seems quite taken with the notion."

The princess felt something in her chest. Pain? "I-Is that right?"

"Indeed. She's mulling it over as we speak, but I'm confident she'll make the right choice."

The right choice. But what was the right choice, Celestia wondered. Would this mare's opinion of what the right choice is line up with her own? Would Sunset's even?

"I'm sure she will," Celestia said quietly. "But I just want you to know that I've dedicated a lot of my time to Sunset. I don't want to see her get hurt."

"You've done more than enough," Scarlet assured her. "Sunset has grown into a fine, upstanding young mare."

Celestia nodded, letting out a sigh. For as authoritative as she was being, the princess was actually quite nervous. She hid it well, but this entire conversation had her on edge. She almost felt as though she were preparing to retire and let somepony else take her place. Her hooves were quivering slightly and her throat was becoming dry. She turned away from Scarlet for a moment to take a drink of punch to rehydrate herself.

"It was always my understanding that, under your expert guidance, Sunset's future was assured," Scarlet continued with a confident grin. "But after hearing about what happened to your sister, no doubt you're facing some rather trying times."

Celestia's ear twitched.

"Balancing teaching a student, running a kingdom, and dealing with the loss of your sister is most certainly an arduous task. You need to focus on your kingdom, of course, but there's no sense dwelling on Princess Luna's fate, is there? After all, from what I've gathered, that's what this entire event is about, isn't it? I, for one, have no doubt in your ability to lead us onward into a golden age by yourself. I mean, what did Princess Luna even do? Raise the moon? You've proven you can do that just as well as she can, if not better. And, let's face it, you basically ran this kingdom on your own anyway, so there should be little doubt in your mind that you can continue to do so without your sister. You're the best thing that's ever happened to this kingdom, Your Majesty, and I don't think anypony would disagree. Honestly, who's even going to notice that Luna is gone? Give it another week and everypony will have forgotten she even existed. Really, we're all probably better off without her."

The thumping of Celestia's heart was practically audible, even over the ambiance of the ballroom. The glass of punch being held in her golden aura trembled in her grip, a crack snaking up its side. Celestia turned her eyes down at Scarlet, casting the darkest, iciest glare in her direction. Scarlet winced under the cold stare, as though she'd been physically struck. The comforting, pink eyes of the princess were gone. Scarlet felt like she was now gazing into the eyes of a furious demon.

"How dare you?!"

Celestia's voice reverberated throughout the ballroom, the windows practically shuddering from the intensity. All eyes turned to the princess, and it was at that time that Sunset Shimmer happened to reenter the room from outside. But the alicorn's own ire remained fixated on the offending mare in front of her.

"Did you honestly believe that speaking ill of my sister would earn you my favor?! I don't know what you thought my relationship with Luna was like, but I loved her with every ounce of my heart and soul!"

Scarlet trembled in fright beneath the verbal onslaught, but managed to attempt to explain her reasoning. "B-But I thought this night was about—"

"About what?! Forgetting Luna?! This night was about assuring my people that we could strive and persevere despite the hardships—that I could persevere! Every day since I had to banish my own sister has been torment for me! And yet everypony insists on bringing it up! You didn't know Luna! None of you did!" Celestia's voice bellowed over the ballroom, her anger turning onto everypony present. "What right do you have to judge her?! She built this kingdom alongside me! She's just as important to Equestria as I am! Yet how do you repay her?! By ignoring her, shunning her, ostracizing her, just because she's not me!"

The entire population of the ballroom was frozen stiff. It was like being dragged into some sort of nightmare. Celestia had hit the breaking point of her sadness, guilt, and frustration and was taking it out on everypony. And nopony, not even Sunset, had the courage to try and stop her.

"She was left out of the limelight simply because her duty was to the night, so you all lavished me with your praise in her absence. All Luna ever wanted was your respect!" Celestia continued, her vicious tone not letting up in the slightest. "Perhaps her reasons for it were a little misguided and selfish, but at least she made an effort, unlike all of you! She wanted to be a better person! She wanted people to love her the way they love me! She extended her hoof to you and you slapped it away! Of course she was different, because she's not me! I barely had to work for your admiration because I was always in the public eye! She didn't know how to go about it! She needed somepony to help her! But you all just stood by and let her sink into self-loathing misery! None of you helped her!"

Celestia's rage suddenly faltered, her posture weakening. She clenched her eyes shut and tears began to flow down her ivory cheeks as the hard truth finally sunk in.

"I... never helped her..." Celestia tried to fight back her sobs, but was failing. All of a sudden, it felt to her as though everypony had disappeared, and she was all alone. "Luna... I'm sorry! It's all my fault! We were supposed to be there for each other always, and I failed you... I'm no better... Please, forgive me!"

Quiet murmurs started up amongst the crowd as they watched their princess break down. Scarlet, for once, was at a loss for words. Only one pony decided to step up and do anything, and that was Lance. He walked up alongside Celestia, casting a serious and disdainful glower at Scarlet, who gulped worriedly when she recognized the armored pegasus.

"Your Highness, should I escort this mare off the premises?" Lance asked, deeply hoping for a yes as he glared at the offending mare.

Celestia wiped her tears away with her hoof. She sniffled, her emotions still not entirely under control, but she managed an irate glare at Scarlet through her guilt-induced weeping. "No. She can leave when she's good and ready."

Lance was a bit disappointed by the answer, but gave Scarlet a warning anyway. "I'd back off if I were you, lady. Wouldn't want to have to lock up a 'delicate flower' like you in the dungeon."

Despite the tirade that her words had elicited from the princess, there didn't seem to be a lick of remorse in Scarlet's eyes. She gave Lance a haughty huff before walking away from the situation.

Lance looked up at the princess with concern. "You need to step out for a minute?"

Celestia sniffled again. "N-No, I... I'll be alright. I just need a moment to recoup."

He gave her a comforting nod, turning to the bewildered crowd of onlookers. He stood firmly at the princess's side, his posture and expression relaying to the guests to keep their distance from the princess for the time being.

Sunset Shimmer had watched the entire thing unfold in stunned silence. She had known that Celestia was having difficulty coping with the loss of her sister, but she had no idea that the emotions she'd been trying to suppress would eventually explode so violently. The scary part was it wasn't dissimilar to what happened before Princess Luna became Nightmare Moon.

"I've never seen Princess Celestia like that before," came Halberd's voice as he walked up alongside Sunset. He kept his tone hushed, as the ballroom was still rather quiet.

"I've seen her upset, but... that was something else entirely," Sunset breathed, still reeling.

While it was unlikely that everypony at the Gala was going to just forget that had happened, none of them wanted to upset the princess further, so they at least tried to get back to what they were doing, though most of the conversations were certainly going to shift subjects.

As the crowd that had gathered to witness Celestia's outburst dispersed, Scarlet managed her way over to where Sunset and Halberd were, carrying a rather displeased scowl on her face. "Well, that was certainly uncalled for," she huffed. "I do nothing but pay her compliments and she just snaps at me. Can you believe that?"

Sunset didn't waste any time confronting her. "What did you say to her? Were you actually saying bad things about Princess Luna?"

"I said nothing that everypony wasn't thinking," Scarlet defended. "Princess Luna had a reputation for being cold-hearted and aggressive."

"What are you talking about? I knew Luna, and she was nothing like that," Sunset told her. "She was a bit antisocial and kinda awkward sometimes, but not hateful or anything."

"Well, obviously you only knew one side of her."

"I knew her better than most people could claim! All you had to go on were rumors about how she acted when she happened to go out into public! Why would you think saying things like that to her sister would be a good idea?!"

"She was trying to play to Princess Celestia's ego."

Scarlet grimaced as Starswirl showed up to join in on the conversation.

"I wouldn't exactly describe the princess as having an ego," Halberd commented.

"But she doesn't realize that," Starswirl claimed, pointing an accusatory hoof at the crimson mare. "To her, the princess is just that: a princess; a figure of authority and power. Even if her entire ploy here tonight was to get close to Princess Celestia, that doesn't mean she has any respect for her. Just like Sunset, the princess was just a means to an end for her. The only part of Princess Celestia's name she cares about is 'Princess,' nothing more. She doesn't care about her any more than she cares about her own daughter."

"I do not appreciate this slander, Starswirl," Scarlet hissed.

"Tough. Because now you've backed yourself into a corner with this little slip-up."

"I don't know if you noticed, but it was not just I that the princess was mad at," Scarlet pointed out. "She called out everypony here."

"And yet you were the catalyst, the one that went too far."

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anypony could have set her off. Honestly, I didn't realize that she was such an ill-tempered individual."

"Are you kidding me?!" Sunset spat in disgust at Scarlet's ignorance. "Did you not absorb anything she just said? Do you even realize what she's been going through? How can you be so insensitive? Princess Celestia is the most kind-hearted, caring, and compassionate person in Equestria! And if you can't see that, then what does that say about you?!"

Scarlet lifted her nose to Sunset to assert her authority over her daughter. "Sunset, do not take that tone with me. How can you speak so disrespectfully to your own mother?"

"Respect is something that has to be earned," Sunset growled. "If Princess Luna had realized that sooner, she'd still be here. What have you done tonight to earn anypony's respect?"

"Treating us castle staff like we're just tools to be stepped over isn't doing you any favors," Halberd chimed in with a glower.

Scarlet narrowed her eyes at the stallion, then turned back to Sunset. Halberd's words seemed to add fuel to Sunset's fire, the amber unicorn knitting her brow tighter.

"You stay out of this," Scarlet commanded. "You have no business butting into our affairs."

"Hey! Don't talk to him like that," Sunset snapped. "What made you think you could just show up here out of the blue, treat my friends and my family so poorly, and expect me to welcome you back into my life?"

Scarlet glared at Sunset, speaking in a low, icy tone. "Watch what you say, Sunset. I didn't have to come here tonight."

"And who asked you to?! I was just fine without you! I don't need you here! Especially if you're going to just talk down to everypony like they're worthless!"

Scarlet balked at Sunset's belligerence, but was starting to realize that her plans were falling apart. "You... You watch your tongue. I came here so that we can be a family again. Are you willing to compromise that? Do you really want to go the rest of your life without a mother?"

"I already have a mother! And she's a thousand times the parent you'll ever be!"

From across the ballroom, Celestia's eyes widened and her chest tightened, staring in disbelief at what she'd just heard. Her mind was suddenly a whirlwind of confusion, her emotions swirling like a storm, and suddenly she felt her eyes starting to well up again. She turned for the stairs, with only enough cognizance to say a quick, "Excuse me," to Lance before taking her leave of the ballroom.

Scarlet scowled indignantly, her facade unraveled. "You... ungrateful little brat! How can you speak to me that way?! Well, you know what? Fine! I'm beginning to think I dodged a bullet. Who wants an ill-mannered, insufferable, disrespectful child like you anyway?!"

Sunset ground her teeth in anger at this woman. Her horn flickered in her rage, glowing blood red.

At that moment, Halberd stepped in between the two mares, glaring authoritatively at Scarlet. "Ma'am, you're going to have to leave."

Sunset's anger suddenly subsided as she witnessed Halberd come to her aid, once again stopping her before she could do something she might regret.

Scarlet scoffed at the order. "Who do you think you are? You might be a guard here, but you're off duty, remember? You don't have any authority here."

"I'm not ordering you as a member of the royal guard. I'm ordering you as Sunset's friend."

Sunset suddenly felt her face become flush, her heart skipping a beat.

"Leave. Now."

Scarlet growled behind her pursed lips. She glanced around. The crowd had shifted their attention to this new argument, distracting from the princess's previous outburst. She was expecting the other soldiers to reprimand the stallion for speaking out of turn, but to her surprise and frustration, they were all glaring at her, not him. The other soldiers all seemed ready and willing to remove her by force if necessary. It seemed that being the centerpiece of two debacles in a short span of time had made everypony else realize just the kind of person she really was. She didn't have a choice. She was done.

She turned toward the exit with a huff, stopping only briefly to scowl at Starswirl, her eyes quickly shifting up at his hat. "You look ridiculous." And that was all she said before stomping furiously out of the castle.

Halberd's commanding gaze persisted, even after Scarlet had left. His heart was beating like a snare drum, threatening to break free of his rib cage. But there was one more thing he had to do. Maybe now wasn't the most appropriate time, but it was going to have to be now. He turned around, facing Sunset with all the confidence in the world.

"Sunset, do wanna go on a date with me tomorrow night?"

Sunset simply stared, bewildered, confused, stunned. Her face was hot and her heart, too, was beating like crazy, but she wasn't entirely sure why. But even though the question caught her off guard, and even though she hesitated after being asked, she didn't really have to think about her response before her lips just said it.

"Uh... S-Sure."

A smile spread across Halberd's lips. He almost couldn't believe it, and judging by the look on Sunset's face, neither could she.

But given everything that just transpired, Halberd knew that Sunset had something more important she needed to do than discuss date plans. "Hey, you should probably go talk to the princess."

"Huh?" Sunset started glancing around as though she'd just snapped out of a trance, the mention of the princess bringing her back down to solid ground. Celestia was nowhere to be seen, and in the heat of the moment Sunset hadn't noticed her leave. But given the conversation she knew the princess had had with Scarlet, she probably needed some time to recompose herself. "Oh, right."

Sunset started towards the stairs, but paused. She glanced back at Halberd for a moment, hesitating as her amber cheeks tinged red. She quickly spun around, giving Halberd a brief, grateful hug before hurrying off to find the princess.

Halberd couldn't keep the blood from his face, though wasn't sure if it was from the rush of telling off that self-serving woman, or the fact that Sunset had said yes. Either way, he couldn't stop smiling.

That is, until his brother started walking over.

Halberd and Lance shared a tense moment, neither of them saying anything. By now, the Gala's guests were abuzz with gossip over the evening's events thus far, but the two brothers tuned them out.

Lance was the first to speak, breaking eye contact with a remorseful sigh. "Guess I owe you an apology, huh?"

Halberd looked back at him with just as much emotion. "I should be the one apologizing. You were right the whole time. I was just being a coward. Honestly, I think the only reason I had the courage to ask her out just now was because of the adrenaline. I've never talked to anypony like that before."

"Except me," Lance pointed out with a smirk.

Halberd smirked back. "Yeah, well, I'm not afraid of you."

The older brother draped a hoof over his little brother's shoulder, pulling him in for a proud embrace. Lance chanced a glance at Starswirl, giving the bearded stallion a sympathetic look. "Sorry you had to go through all this tonight, Starswirl. I know it mustn't've been easy for you."

Starswirl released a quiet breath through his nose, but managed a grin. "I certainly wasn't ready to deal with something like this tonight, but I think some good came out of it." He gazed toward where Sunset had run off, Lance and Halberd following suit. "I feel sorry for them both, but the more strain a relationship has to endure, the stronger it will become in the end."

The brothers shared a fond look, knowing full well how that feels.

***** ***** *****

Sunset made a brisk pace through the halls of the castle. Celestia wasn't in the throne room, so there was only one other place she could be. Sunset headed up the stairs of Celestia's tower, and it seemed her suspicions were confirmed. The princess's door was slightly ajar, and Sunset could hear quiet sobbing coming from within. The unicorn hesitated, but gently rapped on the door as she poked her head in.

As opposed to her old tower, the princess's new living quarters did not only consist of a bedroom. Much like Sunset's, the bedroom was separate, and the rest was designed as a rather cozy study, with a tea table, a fireplace that was currently unlit, a few bookshelves, and a fancy rug emblazoned with Celestia's cutie mark upon which the princess currently lay. She'd already disrobed, her Gala dress and even her tiara and shoes cast aside on the floor in a heap, leaving her body bare; vulnerable.

"Princess?"

Celestia was caught by surprise when she heard Sunset's voice, quickly wiping away the tears on her face so her student wouldn't have to see her cry. "Sunset? What are you doing here?" the princess sniffled, unable to fully hide her emotions.

Sunset finally stepped inside, shutting the door quietly behind her. "I came to see if you're alright."

Celestia let out a long, dejected sigh. There was no use trying to play it off. "It's all my fault..." Her voice was so quiet, Sunset could barely hear her. "Having such long-lasting lives meant that any relationships we forged were fleeting, and any friends we made along the way, we had to come to terms with the fact that we would one day have to attend their funerals. The only constant that we had was each other. Our parents told us when we were young to always be there for each other. To protect each other and love each other with every fiber of our beings." She clenched her eyes shut, her tears flowing anew. "How much have I forgotten over the millennia? How many other things that our parents taught us have I cast by the wayside in my complacency? What sort of big sister am I that I couldn't recognize her cries for help? I was supposed to be there for her, but all I did was treat her like a child and ignore her, just as everypony else did."

Sunset didn't know what to say, didn't know what she could do to cheer her up, or if anything could.

"I was supposed to be there for her..." Celestia sobbed, clenching her teeth in self-loathing. "But I failed her... And now she's gone..."

Sunset chanced a step toward the princess. "But... it's not like she's gone forever, right? She'll come back, and you'll find a way save her."

Celestia didn't even look at Sunset, too depressed to even lift her head. "Do you know what she said to me before she became Nightmare Moon?"

Sunset remained quiet, curious of the answer, though a little worried.

"'There's only room in Equestria for one princess.' Had I really pushed her so far away with my own negligence and self-indulgence that she would believe that our people only have enough love for one of us? There's no guarantee that even if I were to find a way to return her to her old self that she wouldn't still feel the same way." Celestia lowered her head onto the plush rug beneath her. "This entire night was a waste of effort. How can I claim to be able to protect an entire kingdom by myself when I can't even protect my own sister?"

Sunset's ears flattened against her head. Admittedly, she didn't have an answer for that, but she felt like she had to say something. "I... can't say I know what to say or do to make you feel any better, but... what I can say is that I have faith in you. I always have, and I always will, even if I haven't always acted like it," she said, looking away in shame.

Celestia lifted her head again, wiping away the tears once more as she finally looked her pupil in the eye. For a moment, Sunset seemed like her mind had drifted somewhere else, falling silent for a few moments as she appeared to be thinking something over.

Eventually, Sunset looked back at the princess, a regretful expression in her teal eyes. "Everypony makes mistakes. And I made a big one when I thought I didn't need your help anymore. It's actually the exact opposite: I need you more than anypony."

Celestia gave her student a remorseful and sympathetic frown. "Look at me... Even after everything I just said, I'm still being selfish. You went through quite an emotional ordeal tonight, as well, didn't you? I'm sorry you had to go through that. It must have been tough for you."

Sunset shook her head, more in disappointment in herself than anything. "I can't believe I even considered letting her into my life. I should have trusted Dad's judgment from the beginning. Nopony who talks to you, or about Princess Luna like that deserves my respect."

"Are you really okay with this? You just chased your own mother out of your life."

Sunset furrowed her brow. "That woman may have given birth to me, but she is not my mother. Moms are supposed to be kind and caring and supportive and nurturing. Scarlet Nettle is about as nurturing as a briar patch."

Celestia stared with concern. "Even so, I know it must have been hard for you to turn away a chance at having a complete family."

Sunset only smiled. She walked up to the princess, laying down next to her and looking up into her pink eyes with more respect and care than Celestia had seen from her in a while. "You know, Dad said something to me tonight that I should've been thinking about this whole time. If I had, maybe we could've avoided all this."

Celestia listened intently. A smile graced Sunset's lips, an undying fondness in her eyes as they gazed at one another.

"He told me to remember who it was that raised me." Sunset nuzzled into Celestia's long, graceful neck. "And I do."

Celestia felt her heart pounding, a warmth spreading throughout her body. It took every ounce of her willpower to not start crying again. Despite how depressed she was, and despite how she still and would always blame herself for what happened to her sister, she still managed a smile. Celestia may have been the one who spread the rays of the sun across Equestria, but it was Sunset that brought light to her life. The realization finally dawned on her. What her parents had told her still stuck in her mind. Her relationships were fleeting, so she had to make sure she made the most of them while she still had time. From now on, Celestia was going to do things the right way.

As content as the two were to remain there for the rest of the night, Sunset reluctantly stood up. "Do you want to head back down? I'm sure your guests are wondering what happened to you."

Celestia's smiled faded. "You're probably right. And I certainly owe them all an apology after what I said." She grinned again softly, but didn't rise from her spot on the floor. "You go on ahead. I'll be down shortly. I think I'd just like a few more moments alone, please."

Sunset scrutinized the expression on her teacher's face for a moment, trying to find any hint of sadness or depression. She didn't want to go back down only for Celestia to start beating herself up over her sister again after she left.

However, while moisture still glistened in the corners of Celestia's eyes, her smile was pure and genuine. Sunset smiled back, giving the princess her privacy as she once more descended the tower.

As Sunset headed back toward the Gala, trotting down the hall toward the throne room, she heard Celestia's voice calling out to her.

"Sunset!"

Turning back, it seemed the princess had run after her, though she didn't appear to be coming to rejoin the Gala, as she was still without her dress and regalia. What was more, the expression on her face appeared to be one of disbelief, staring at Sunset as though she had seen a ghost.

"What's up?" asked Sunset. "Something wrong?"

The princess's expression suddenly shifted, looking more resolute and determined. She hurried over to Sunset's side, kneeling down to see eye to eye with her.

Sunset was a little concerned by her odd behavior. Celestia still seemed to be fighting back tears.

"There's just... I-I need to say this while I still have the chance," Celestia began, her voice shaky and catching in her throat. She gazed for a moment into Sunset's eyes. While she managed a smile, Sunset couldn't help but notice the pain hidden in her eyes. "I've always been proud of you, Sunset, and I always will be. And I want you to know that I... I love you."

Sunset smiled right back, wrapping her forelegs around Celestia's neck and hugging her tightly. "I love you, too, Princess."

The unicorn heard a quiet sniffle as Celestia rested her head against Sunset's in their embrace. However, the moment was short lived as the alicorn stood up again, doing her best to conceal her emotions, but failing to hide the smile and tears on her face.

"Alright, hurry along. I'll catch up," Celestia told her once more.

Sunset gave the princess a nod as she hurried off back down the hall. That entire exchange, while heartfelt, was strangely brief. Despite the genuine emotion in Celestia's voice and expression, she sounded somewhat rushed. Sunset simply shrugged. She was probably overthinking it.

Returning to the ballroom, Sunset peeked through the door at the top of the stairway. There still appeared to be some commotion amongst the guests, though she expected as much; everypony certainly remembered what happened the last time a princess had an outburst like that. They might all be worried the same thing may happen to Celestia.

Sunset descended the stairs and was quickly met by her father, as well as Lance, Halberd, and Quill, all looking quite concerned.

"Sunset, is the princess alright?" Quill asked with deep worry.

She hesitated as she tried to devise the best way to put it. "Um... 'Alright' might not be entirely accurate. She's just in a pretty emotional place right now. I think I was able to help at least a little. She said she'll be back down shortly to give everypony an apology."

Quill breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, that's better than nothing. Thank you."

"And what about you, dear?" Starswirl asked his daughter with quiet compassion.

Sunset just gave him a big smile, then wrapped her hooves around him lovingly, surprising the stallion. "I'm perfectly fine." She pulled away, an ashamed blush filling her cheeks. "And I'm sorry I didn't trust you, Dad. You were right about Scarlet."

Starswirl stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I understand you've been going through the emotional wringer tonight. I suppose just the prospect of having somepony around when nopony else was available sent your mind into an uncertain tizzy."

Sunset shook her head with a grin. "I don't need her. I've had everything..." She glanced at Halberd for a moment, both of them blushing with goofy smiles the moment their eyes met. "And everypony I need right here my whole life."

The crowd of ponies in the ballroom went silent for a moment when they heard the door atop the stairs open once more. Princess Celestia had returned, donning her formal attire again. It didn't take long for the guests to start getting a little rowdy again as they all began to huddle toward the base of the stairs in an effort to speak with the princess about what had happened.

Lance and several other guards were quick to set up a formation in front of the steps, blocking access. "Alright, everypony back up!" Lance ordered. "Give the princess some room! I don't want to have to throw anypony else out tonight!"

They all did as commanded, but kept their eyes on the princess in earnest. Celestia visibly let out a sigh as she descended the stairs, knowing that their concerns and anger and whatever else they may be feeling was well warranted.

The alicorn looked out over the crowd as they eyed her up impatiently, staring back at them with deep regret. "I would like to offer my humblest apologies for my behavior tonight, everypony. I let the stress of recent events get the better of me and I took it out on all of you. I am truly, deeply sorry. I understand if my actions this evening have affected your opinion of me as your leader, but I will do everything in my power to make it up to all of you. I intend to lead Equestria into an age of peace and prosperity. Doing so without my sister will be a... difficult task emotionally, but, for the sake of myself and my people, I will soldier on. Again, my deepest apologies. I do hope you can enjoy the rest of the Gala in spite of everything."

Unlike her speech at the Gala's opening, Celestia received no applause. There were only uncertain and uncomfortable murmurs. However, the crowd still dispersed, though it was unlikely that they would be talking about anything else other than the princess for the rest of the night.

Celestia sighed remorsefully. "It's going to take some doing to fix all of this..."

"Well, if anypony can do it, it's you, Your Highness," Starswirl assured her with a confident grin.

"Should we perhaps end the event early?" Quill suggested, though with no lack of disappointment in his voice. "You no doubt could use some peace and quiet after all of this hubbub."

Celestia shook her head with a small smile. "No. In fact, I'd like to extend the Gala as a way of apologizing. Speaking of which, I owe you an apology as well, Quill. You put so much effort into planning this, and I went and muddied it for you. I'm sorry," she apologized ashamedly.

Quill waved off her guilty apology. "Never you mind, Your Majesty. We'll just have to make it up next year."

Celestia blinked, confused. "Next year?"

He gave the alicorn a coy smirk. "Well, you said you wanted to make it up to everypony, so why not invite them back each year? One of these days we'll host an event that doesn't end with some sort of drama."

Starswirl, Sunset, Lance, and Halberd all glanced up at the princess with concern, feeling a little uncomfortable with how bluntly Quill had said that. But, contrary to what they expected, Celestia smiled back.

"You're right. If we just abandoned the Gala again, it would just make me look bitter. How would that prove anything? If anything, throwing another Gala next year—assuming it goes according to plan this time—will only reignite the people's confidence."

Quill grinned proudly at the princess's declaration.

Celestia then glanced down to Sunset, the unicorn gazing back up at her fondly. "And on the topic of reigniting things: Sunset, I'm done wallowing in my self-pity."

Sunset stared, puzzled, but with a hopefulness in her teal eyes. "Huh?"

"And I'm done treating you like a child. You're not a child any longer, and I'm ashamed I haven't been treating you as such. You've been growing not just in power and skill, but as a person, while I've just been too busy feeling sorry for myself to help you continue your growth. Starting tomorrow, we'll get your training back on track. How's that sound?"

Sunset's eyes widened with glee. How long she'd been waiting to hear that. All the pent up emotions, the regrettable outbursts and arguments, and now, finally, things could get back to normal. Though she still wished the whole ordeal with Scarlet Nettle had never had to happen, if it meant that this was the result, Sunset wasn't going to argue. She couldn't have been happier.

Although...

The amber mare suddenly remembered something, and she cast an apologetic and bashful look up at the princess. "Um, actually, tomorrow's not great for me."

Celestia was caught off guard by that response. It was her understanding that Sunset was looking forward greatly to spending more time with her. "What? Why not?"

Sunset glanced with a blush at the silver pegasus standing beside her. "I, uh... have a date tomorrow." She punctuated that with a rather awkward grin, like a teenager gushing over her high school sweetheart.

Celestia glanced between the two young ponies, having a bit of difficulty believing what she'd just heard. But she giggled in amusement, giving both of them a well-wishing smile. "Well, then, in that case, I suppose we can postpone it another day."