• Published 2nd Jan 2020
  • 673 Views, 47 Comments

Music Box Blues - PrincessColumbia

Principal Celestia gets help from a completely unexpected source when trying to find a gift for Sunset Shimmer

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But all these things are now long gone, and not to be wished upon again

Author's Note:

Many much thanks to WanderD for letting me borrow the isekai. I promise it will be returned with a minimum number of dings and scrapes. :pinkiehappy:

Celestia wasn’t sure what woke her, but what kept her awake was a glowing from somewhere on the other side of her bedroom door. Through the gap between the jam and the door (she had taken to keeping the door open when she slept in case Sunset called out to her in the girl’s sleep) an aquamarine light glimmered and shimmered. She couldn’t quite place what the corruscating light made her think of, but considering that it might be something to do with the journal, she got up to investigate.

Upon entering the living room, she found a woman. She was old appearing, but given the presence of pointed ears just a shade of lighter green than the rest of her skin and her entire person being the source of the glow, Celestia was willing to bet that she could be any age. Magic...damnit.

Celestia allowed herself a brief moment to boggle on how she had already become jaded to the supernatural before saying, “Hello, I’m sorry, is it common in Equestria to enter people’s homes uninvited?”

The elfin woman chuckled as she eyed Celestia, “My, my, it’s as though I’m looking at Celestia when she was just a wee filly. My little...well, human,” the being emphasized the species name with a chuckle, “I came at your request.”

Celestia blinked, “I’m sorry, I asked the Princess…”

“You asked about a gift for someone close to your heart. Celestia is a matchless leader, but when it comes to gifts, my sisters and I have no peer.”

Celestia’s eyebrows scrunched together, What is it with people today? I don’t have that kind of relationship with Sunset, she’s my student not my dau… she stopped her line of thinking before it could resolve itself and instead spoke to the newcomer, “I wrote to see if there was anything in Sunset Shimmer’s past that might explain her depression, not necessarily about a gift.”

“Ah, but you see, the two are one and the same. For Sunset’s broken heart is about her Unfulfilled Gift. And this holiday season, young Celestia, you are the one that can give her the gift that will heal her heart.”

Celestia chose not to pursue the oddly emphasized words and addressed something more pressing, “So can you tell me what gift she never got that led to this? I need to know to help my...student.”

“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” said the woman, “But I can show you. We just need to borrow some magic from a friend, then we’ll be off. Between my sisters and I, we will give you what you need to give Sunset her greatest gift ever.”

“‘Borrow’ some magic? And just who are you and your sisters?”

The woman smiled even more deeply, like a favorite aunt who was just asked the right question in a brain-teaser game, “My name is Aurora, and I will show you the gifts that Sunset has received before. You’ll meet my sister Bori after we’re done, and she’ll show you the gifts Sunset is enjoying now...or perhaps not even aware that she has and so is suffering from the lack of them. And then Alice will show you about the gifts of Sunset’s future, and perhaps yours if you let her fully into your heart.”

Celestia thought about this statement, parsing it out before pinching the bridge of her nose, as if to clear up a sudden headache. “Alright, give me a top-hat and call me Snowfall Frost. At least this won’t be about me needing to learn about the true spirit of Hearth’s Warming or something.” She tugged her pajama top straighter on her frame, “Can I at least change into something suitable for leaving the house?”

As the clock in the living room struck midnight, Aurora giggled, and with a wave of her hand Celestia now stood wearing her usual business casual attire that she wore to school. She then stood aside to reveal a doorway. Being that they were in a house didn’t make the presence of doors particularly unusual, but doors that would normally be seen on the outside of buildings was. Giving the appearance of solid oak with a stone arch and Sunset’s symbol on the door (the princesses had called it a “cutie mark”) and a blank chalk sign next to the door itself. She wasn’t sure why the chalkboard being blank should strike her as odd considering she was looking at a major architectural overhaul suddenly appearing in her living room, but it was an oddity on an oddity that just jangled her nerves.

“Am I actually dreaming?” she inquired of the otherworldly being, “Is this just my overworked brain trying to clear out the cobwebs?”

Aurora chuckled, “Whether ‘tis a dream or magic, would you really be able to tell the difference?”

Celestia’s mouth quirked into an inquisitive frown, “...point. OK, let’s get this over with.” She advanced to the door.

The elfin woman gently clasped Celestia’s wrist as she passed, then turned to walk with her. Abruptly, Celestia felt a surge up her arm and flood into her entire body. It was somewhat akin to having liquid bees poured into her, but the feeling passed fairly quickly. As she looked down to see what had happened, she realized she was partially transparent...and also glowing just a little.

Before she could really take in the change to her being, Aurora gently but persistently continued pulling her by her wrist straight through the heavy wooden door. This would have been less jarring to Celestia if Aurora had first opened the door, but such apparently normal niceties didn’t seem to be a concern for the Equestrian being. Celestia had just enough time to register that they were in a bar of some sort before she was shoved back through the door again.

Sunset, crouched down behind the bar next to a case of new stock, nearly jumped out of her skin as the bell over the door jangled oddly. It was so disturbingly discordant from it’s usual happy jingle that had she not known better, she’d have thought that the bell were offended by something. Carefully, she put the twinned bottles of a binary liquor Rarity had dropped off earlier in their spot below the counter and stood to face the door.

“Hello, welcome to Suns...huh?”

The bar was empty of anyone else. Thinking back, Sunset realized she hadn’t heard the sound of the door open when the bell rang. She padded around the bar and over to the small hallway, studying the bell and closed door for a moment, then shrugged and returned to unpacking her latest acquisitions.

As if being impossibly passed through a closed door weren’t enough, there was a disorienting not-dizzy feeling, as though she had just been forcibly made completely still for the briefest of moments, all the way down to her autonomic functions and the thoughts in her brain. How she could even process the sense that her brain stopped working for a moment jarred with everything she knew, causing the feeling of wrongness to amplify all the more.

When her senses stopped reeling, she found herself facing a horse.

A bark of surprise caused her to jump up and take a step back and through another wall. Once again, she passed right through the solid matter and into a building. This particular building must have been a sweets shop, as she could see the confections set up on counters and in displays as another horse...no, a pony, as it was much, much shorter than her...used the horn on its head to generate a magical field to shuffle a pile of the bon bons into a small bag, which was then passed over to a much smaller pony waiting eagerly. She realized it had to be a filly, as she had her hair in pigtails and her tail shifted just enough to see...yup, filly...and TMI! thought Celestia. The little filly caught the floating bag with her mouth (Celestia noted a lack of horn) and then casually tossed it overhead onto her back, then bounded out of the candy shop...right through Celestia’s transparent legs.

Appropriately freaked out, Celestia staggered back, arms windmilling as her brain tried to process the instinctual reaction to avoid collisions as she passed through the wall again out onto the street and was caught by Aurora’s arms. “Easy, young Celestia. Just breath.” With something solid besides the ground that Celestia’s senses could confirm with touch and sight, she realized Aurora was providing an anchor that she latched onto like a drowning woman. Grabbing the woman’s arm and holding on, she closed her eyes to allow her panic to ebb.

Several deep breaths later, she opened her eyes and saw a holiday wonderland.

She blinked a few times, the wonderland didn’t go away.

Gregorian and Regency architecture writ small stretched for miles around. It was like looking at an amalgamation of old world cities mixed with the finest high fantasy. If her home of Canterlot City was like a post-modern art-deco project, this version of Canterlot was lifted straight from a snowglobe. What first looked like gothic mansions dressed up in confectioners fondant turned out to be administration buildings upon closer examination. A squat structure that looked like a tiered three layer cake with Hearth’s Warming decorations turned out to be a post office. The buildings around her were one- or two-story and looked like they came from a children’s Hearth’s Warming toy set, but as her gaze across the sloping city drifted, the streets and all the buildings were focussed on a single architectural artifact, a castle that even Malt Dizzy would weep with envy over. There was no equivalent from her world for this edifice which could easily double as a cake topper for a little girl’s birthday. Arches and spires blended with walls and security checkpoints so perfectly that no seams could be seen where concrete, stone, or metal would have them to mar the edifice. Colors ranged from white to pastel tones across the entire city. There was not a hint of smog to be seen or smelled, and as she traced the skyline with her eyes she realized that it was actually night out. The city was so well lit with lights overall, which was then supplemented by the holiday lighting, that it seemed as bright as day unless one looked up to the sky. There was, unfortunately, so much light pollution that stars couldn’t be seen, but there was a moon, practically dominating the sky with it’s solitude, the craters and shadows on its face looking so very similar to the profile of a unicorn’s head in silhouette that Celestia would have sworn it had to be a created artifact. If this moon was anything near the size of her own, she couldn’t imagine how that large a project would have been done...but then this world had the kind of magic that apparently allowed the ignoring of silly things like ‘gravity’ and ‘relativity,’ so she supposed it may be possible to simply cast a spell to put someone’s face on the moon.

Pegasus ponies flew in and out, all of them clearly on official business and carefully watched by guards-ponies strategically placed around the perimeter. Celestia’s eyes tracked one as it left what looked like a glorified service entrance, bypassed a security checkpoint with a wave to the soldiers, and made its way in her direction through the city. She tracked the stallion, it’s clay colored coat highlighted by a bright yellow cutiemark whose details she couldn’t make out, as it breezed by much smaller turrets and towers on the surrounding mansions and shops, until it made it’s way passed what looked like a former city wall that had long ago been repurposed into a decorative series of columns, each bearing some form of holiday decorations that looked very much like what she would expect of Hearth’s Warming celebrations in her own world. Blinking as she realized she lost track of the pegasus, she glanced around to see a pair of (What, normal? Non-special? What did Equestrians call ponies without horns or wings?) ponies that were walking very close to each other, slowly and casually strolling down the lane and enjoying an intimate moment.

Feeling like an intruder in that tender scene, Celestia whipped around and found Aurora standing nearby. When did I let go of her? She looked down at her own body and let out a relieved breath when she realized she had not undergone any metamorphosis upon entering Equestria. She looked up at the elfin woman, also still humanoid, and inquired, “I thought going from one universe to the other made our forms change, that’s what the girls told me happened to Twilight when she came to our world…?”

Aurora nodded, “This isn’t my true form, but as I have the wisdom and experience to deal with the changes and you have but the night in my world, and we have much to do, so I used the borrowed magic to bring you across the bridge between worlds. I’d rather you not have to learn to use four legs, wings, a horn, or any combination of the three when your time would be better served learning of what you must while we’re here.”

Celestia stepped aside as a delivery-pony pulled a cart down the street through the spot she’d been standing in. Sure, it would have passed right through her, but she was just creeped out by the idea. “And that is what?”

Aurora smiled and nodded past Celestia, “‘That’ is coming down the street now.”

Celestia turned to see a procession, led by a unicorn in guard armor, flanked by four ‘normal’ ponies and accompanied by a small flight of six pegasii above what looked to be a chariot-style carriage. While the Roaman-esque armor on the ponies and the gold and gem encrusted carriage were fascinating and beautiful in their own way, what was in the carriage blew them all away.

A mare, and even without being a good judge of equine physiology Celestia could tell this specimen was female, sat in the carriage and allowed herself to be pulled. Even with the clear layer of fatty tissue, she still had the well defined musculature of a well trained race horse. She easily would have stood at double the height of the ponies around her at the shoulder, then add to that her long neck and seemingly longer horn coming from her head and Celestia would bet the being in front of her could easily be nine feet tall from hoof to horntip. A gleaming white coat that almost seemed to iridesce as she watched the procession only caused the glowing and waving pastel mane that was probably as long as Celestia was tall to stand out even more than it already did. With every minor jostle of the carriage over otherwise unseen and ignored pebbles and grooves in the road, the mare’s wings shivered and twitched, quite instinctively, but also bringing attention to the rainbow shimmering that seemed to be just buried beneath the pristine white of the feathers and fur. The tail that seemed to flow like a river in the same style as her mane seemed like a logical conclusion to the statement that this creature made with her very presence. As though attempting to enhance the divine nature of the being they were put on, a crown and peytrel made of gold and jewels were draped on her, and while she wore them as familiarly as a pair of old shoes, the mare gave the impression that she’d been alive for longer than the metal and stones had even been in existence, so they seemed more tacked on rather than assign any sense of regality or beauty.

Celestia knew who this was...and hated her on sight.

It was totally irrational, she had never had dealings with this alternate version of herself, at least face to face, but a small, petty part of her not only blamed this pony for Sunset’s plight but also recognized that plain-and-simple-human Celestia would never, ever hold a candle to the power and majesty of this creature.

The human woman had to close her eyes and count to ten in her head before she could look at the mare again. A few deep breathing exercises helped.

She was so going to need a spa trip soon.

And maybe a tequila bender.

Her attempts at flash-meditation were interrupted by Aurora’s motherly voice, “A philosopher once said, ‘Hell is when you meet the person you could have been.’ Don’t let this version of Celestia distract you from what you’re here for, remember that she has reason to be jealous of you, too.” Aurora had to step aside for the carriage to pull up to the door of the candy shop. Apparently even otherworldly mystics didn’t like literally cohabitating spacetime with other objects.

She was just about to ask her guide what Princess Celestia could possibly have to be jealous of a high school principal, when she heard a familiar, if very young voice from inside the carriage. “Umwhu? Pr’cess?”

The princess looked down and lit her horn, a light hum and a glow coming from inside as she pulled up in her magic a little filly with a familiar gold-orange coat and yellow and red main and tail. Her cutiemark was the now familiar sunburst with yin-yang symbolism, and she was letting loose a jaw-cracking yawn and blinking her eyes that just seemed far too large for her head and oh-my-Goddess look at those tiny little hoovesies and I just wanna snuggle her all up and that was Sunset and OMG she’s just so adorable!

Principal Celestia was immediately smitten with the unicorn filly.

“Come, Sunset,” coaxed the princess, “I managed to squeeze in just a tiny bit of free time for us to spend tonight. I brought you to someplace I think you’ll love.”

Tiny little Sunset looked around, and as soon as she clapped eyes on the sweet shop she lost all indications that she’d just been napping in a carriage.

Several minutes later, the filly was bouncing about between the displays as the shopkeeper was practically falling over his hooves in some sort of attempt at obeisance while also retrieving the confections Sunset selected. By all appearances, it looked like it was going to be a marvelous Hearth’s Warming outing. Celestia knew, however, that the magical being that violated causality, space, and time to bring her here would have wasted the trip on a happy but discardable memory, and sure enough after a few minutes of Sunset gushing about the different candies, a pegasus in royal guard armor burst into the shop.

“Your Majesty,” announced the newcomer, the situation that you told us to watch for...it’s happening! Code: Meringue!”

Princess Celestia went from happily watching over Sunset’s antics to alarmed attention in less than a second. “What!? They got past Kibitz?!”

“Yes, ma’am!” replied the soldier.

The equine Celestia rose to her hooves, “Is there time to form a cordon?”

The guard shook his head, “No, ma’am. We don’t have enough specialists to handle all points of ingress. Our scouts lost track of him a little over ten minutes ago.”

Now Princess Celestia looked positively panicked, “Ten minutes!? He could be here any minute…”

The door to the shop opened, and the bell connected to the door rang like a portent of doom...or at least extreme annoyance. Standing in the door was a stallion with a white coat and blue mane. Whatever cutiemark he may have had was covered by a blue and silver coat that had a collar that went up nearly to the stallion’s ears. He had a scowl on his face that could have curdled milk still in the cow.

Princess Celestia,” began the pony in what had to be the most snooty, most haughty High Canterlot accent the principal had ever heard, even outshining those she heard on the rare times she was exposed to the Crystal Prep steering committee, “I have been trying to meet with you for some time now…”

The pony’s attitude seemed to have popped at least one cork for the princess, “Duke Blueblood,” she interrupted, “We just met six hours ago and I made my positions on every matter you have brought before me since I put my hoof down with you yesterday.” The words came out in a huff that the principal didn’t think the princess would even be capable of.

Duke Blueblood sniffed, “Indeed, and I find those positions just as inexcusable now as I did then. If you would just listen to reason like a good mare…”

Whatever magical force caused the princess’s mane and tail to wave like they had their own dramatic breeze started to billow like a storm was brewing. “Blueblood, if you finish that sentence I will find a way to strip your house of it’s titles and lands and ensure you are only capable of being hired as a maid in the palace, where I shall personally keep an eye on you and ensure you only enjoy the rights and privileges that you deem worthy of ‘a good mare.’”

Okay, that earned the princess at least a few points in the “like” column for Principal Celestia.

At that point the squabbling began in earnest, if quietly. Or at least the princess tried to keep it quiet, Duke Blueblood had no qualms about raising his voice to make his stance known.

Principal Celestia realized that, like the Princess, she had let her attention drift away from Sunset. She looked back to the filly and her heart broke. Sunset was looking up at the princess with pleading eyes, but ones that were obviously far too accustomed to seeing this very scene. With a sigh, the filly turned back to the confectioner, who himself was showing just as much discomfort at the scene and giving Sunset a sympathetic expression. “Just...that’s all I want, I guess,” said Sunset, “Thank you.”

The human woman lost her cool at that point, she whipped around and took the three steps that separated her from her counterpart and shouted, “PAY ATTENTION TO HER, YOU FAT COW!” in the princess’ face. To her frustration, the other Celestia didn’t react.

The slightly amused tone of an elder observing a temperamental child laced through Aurora’s words as she said, “None of them can see or hear you, my dear. And while the multiverse is large and full of different possibilities, this past is the immutable history that brought Sunset to you. It cannot be changed, only learned from.”

Celestia didn’t respond to the woman directly, just bunched her fists. The other woman gently laid a hand on her shoulder. “Come,” she said with a gentle squeeze, “We have more presents to see before we’re done in this world.”

With a sigh, Celestia turned one last time to see Sunset retrieving the bag of candy from the store owner, turning a hurt look to the still bickering princess, then left the store for the carriage.

An older Sunset was serving herself some punch from a bowl at a long table near one of the balconies on the palace. It was obvious that she was upset, if Celestia had become any judge of magical control in the last few weeks. While the motions of the ladle were precise and fluid, there was just a bit too much force as it moved, causing some of the red beverage to splash out onto the white tablecloth. While Sunset’s eyes were on the cup, her ears were swivelled back to listen to the conversation of three other fillies. Three fillies that, Celestia had observed, were talking in the far-too-loud volumes of those pretending to have a private conversation that’s very clearly intended to be overheard. This was a particularly favorite tactic of at least one clique of mean girls in every class year at the high school, so while the contents of the conversation held some useful information to the principal, it didn’t lessen the emotional pain it was dealing on the past version of her student.

“...so daddy is getting me one of the new Lady Solaris saddles for the Hearth’s Warming ball next week, you know, the one our families are hosting out in the country?”

The other two fillies gasped, “A saddle? How daring!” said one in a sycophantic voice, “And scandalous! I’ve only ever seen a saddle that wasn’t in a store in the ‘grown ups’ section once, and that was when I snuck into mummy’s closet! I know mummy and daddy use it, because they’ve been dropping hints about me being a big sister…” the three giggled, “To think your daddy’s going to let you wear one in public!”

Sunset sighed and dropped the ladle into the punch bowl with a clatter. She levitated the freshly poured cup to her mouth, but didn’t actually bring it in contact with her lips as here eyes took on a distant gaze, clearly looking at nothing, but her muzzle started drifting down as she listened to the trio, her head drooping.

“I know, right? It’s so wonderful to have such a great father, and mum’s excited to see me in it, too, especially since they were able to make my cutecinera the event for all the families with foals in Celestia’s school.”

Hearing her name applied to an entire institution was still a little jarring, even though she’d been hearing it all night since Aurora had brought them here. It was, after all, a “junior gala” held for the students of said school before they all left for the holidays. It was thanks to one of those quirks of the calendar that left the last day of the school session on the Friday before the holiday, and the staff had taken advantage of Hearth’s Warming Eve happening before their charges left for vacation.

One of the filly’s conspirators lept on the conversational opportunity they’d apparently been waiting for, “Do you think Sunset Shimmer has any home to go to? I mean, wasn’t she an orphan when the Princess found her?”

The leader of the trio smiled wickedly, “Oh, of course she doesn’t. Daddy’s servants reported that she hangs on to Celestia’s tail whenever school isn’t in. It’s like she thinks Princess Celestia is her mother!” the other two cackled wickedly as Principal Celestia watched Sunset’s ears droop. She had a feeling that the group of mean fillies were probably more on the mark than they suspected. The girl was continuing, “As if the Princess would stoop to adopting an orphan when she has so many responsibilities.”

The plastic cup in Sunset’s magical grip collapsed in on itself. Before a mess could be made, Sunset’s magic caught the liquid and held it in a spherical blob. The filly muttered an, “Excuse me,” under her breath to nobody in particular and quickly trotted to the door, dumping the floating punch in a potted plant and depositing the shards of the shattered cup on the tray of a convenient waiter as she moved.

As Sunset fled out a door, Celestia realized she was holding a hand up, as though to call out to Sunset and summon her back.

A commotion at the main entrance caught her attention, however. She realized that her counterpart had arrived. As the princess entered the room and began greetings to the students and staff in attendance, the principal watched Princess Celestia as the equine’s eyes flitted around the room. Tall she may have been, her gaze couldn’t take in everything at once, and her attempts at polite greetings of all those who sought her attention meant that she had to repeatedly look at the same areas of the ballroom to ensure she had seen everything. The principal could almost see the moment when the light of hope and true interest in the party faded to disappointment and indifference. The smiling mask that was the rest of the princess’ face remained the same cheerful countenance as before, but she clearly was just going through the motions.

Looking for Sunset, huh? Thought Principal Celestia, Why couldn’t you have come in five minutes earlier, you...you...nag? You might have been able to show Sunset she wasn’t alone!

She felt Aurora’s hand on her elbow, and she breathed a few times to settle her heart. Celestia swiped a hand under an eye and was somewhat surprised to see a hint of wetness. “The past is hard to watch, especially when one sees the mistakes in another that you’ve already learned from. Princess Celestia would always come to every Hearth’s Warming gala and ball the school held, not realizing that this was the last one Sunset attended. And Sunset would never hear that she had missed the princess at the party, because Celestia was always too quick to decide that it would be best to remain quiet than to say something that might antagonize someone.”

Principal Celestia walked out into the hallway outside the ballroom, almost absently looking for Sunset and not being surprised when she didn’t see the filly. “Educators that deal every day with kids don’t have the luxury of being diplomatic sometimes. Especially with cases of bullying or neglect.” She hung her head and clasped her hands in front of her chest, lost in a memory.

Aurora let her have a moment, then said, “We have much more to see; come young Celestia.”

This Hearth’s Warming was apparently several years after the previous, with Sunset now showing the long, lanky legs of an adolescent pony in the throes of a growth spurt. Probably getting pretty close to graduation… thought the Principal. The filly who would one day be a girl was dressed in holiday-themed formal wear and attending a ball. This one was obviously diplomatic in nature. She was scowling into a cup of some form of mulled cider while at Celestia’s side. The princess, meanwhile, was enjoying a stiff debate with a stag, the deer king vigorously arguing some point of Equestrian politics with a smile on his face and standing just a bit too close to the princess for propriety’s sake. The king’s wife, smiling and seemingly flirting with Celestia as well, was occasionally bouncing a small bundled form on her back, a faun fast asleep and also decked out in an adorable deer-fitted onesie that had bunny ears popping up from the hood.

It was the presence of the faun that gave one of the few indications that this was supposed to be some form of informal gathering. The palace staff had apparently taken what was supposed to be a friendly gathering of some of the continent’s national leaders of allied countries and turned it into a very stiff, formal affair.

This was the first time that Principal Celestia saw anything like the rebellious streak that she kept under wraps around her students in her counterpart. As the party started nearly a half hour previous, Princess Celestia saw the trimmings all around her of fussy hors d'oeuvres and century-old glassware and immediately teleported her royal regalia off her person and just as quickly zapped in her faded pink bathrobe (with a pocket obviously missing on the right breast) and four ridiculously oversized bunny slippers. Principal Celestia giggled where her counterpart simply smiled serenely as the wait staff suffered varying degrees of shock. She thought she actually saw a monocle pop on one of the waiters near the back of the room.

Sunset, for her part, simply frowned at the display and trotted along side her mentor as the grandiose entrance wore on, conversation only slowly returning to normal after that.

And so it was that half an hour later, Sunset was growing more and more frustrated with the princess’ obvious flirtation with the other two national leaders.

Principal Celestia was blushing rather fiercely. “...please tell me that we’re not going to follow them after the party!” she squeaked.

Her guide uttered a matronly chuckle, “Oh, no. They’re not the focus.”

As if to underscore the otherworldly woman’s statement, Sunset chose that moment to slurp, very loudly, the last of her cider. “Well, princess, if I’m not needed any longer, I’m going to my room to study. Thesis on teleportation matrices don’t write themselves, after all.”

The conversation between the heads of state lurched to a halt as the three stared at Sunset. The teen took that as her cue to leave and turned abruptly. She got about three strides, depositing her empty mug on the tray of a passing waiter as she walked, before the princess muttered an apology to the two deer and hastened after Sunset.

As the two humanoids followed, the equine Celestia said in a quiet voice, “Sunset, that was rude. Come back and enjoy the party. We hardly see each other enough as it is without a book or one of your assignments between us.”

A nickering snort erupted from Sunset as she marched on, not looking at the princess, “And? These parties aren’t about us spending time together. They’re about you spending time with everyone else. Just once I…” Principal Celestia recognized the rapid blinking the filly was doing, it usually preceded a fresh bout of tears from the teenager she took into her home.

“‘Just once,’ what? Sunset?” asked the princess. Finally… groused the principal mentally. “What do you want?”

Sunset ground her teeth, an unshed tears threatening to fall as she sniffed, “No, don’t worry about it. Just have Kibitz deliver my customary gift under the tree. I’ll be there tomorrow morning to open it. You’ll be there just like every year after one of these; you’re going to finally condescend to drink enough to get just a little tipsy, because of course getting drunk wouldn’t be ‘lady-like’ or ‘proper,’” Sunset was building up a head of steam now, “And you’ll take someone back to your quarters and do things you think I don’t know about with them and then sometimes forget to shower before meeting me for opening presents,” this time both Celestia’s blushed hard enough to turn them nearly completely pink, “And we’ll spend all of fifteen minutes together PRETENDING to be normal, then one of the staff, probably Kibitz because everyone knows you never bitch at him for interrupting anything that doesn’t resemble ‘princessly duty,’” said stallion was actually approaching the two from behind, coincidentally parallel to the two spectral visitors. When Sunset made her observation, he flinched and had the decency to back away. Sunset, oblivious to this, continued her rant, “And that’ll be that. So let’s just pretend that everything before and after doesn’t have anything to do with that tiny little piece of the year that you seem to think makes up for the rest of the year...just like you ALWAYS DO!” The last two words drew the attention of numerous party-goers, but the two mares didn’t even notice.

Princess Celestia stumbled to a halt in shock. Whatever she thought the conversation would involve obviously hadn’t been that. Attempting to muster something resembling her usual royal bearing, she drew herself up. “Young lady, get back here!” she snapped at her protege.

Sunset still wasn’t looking anywhere except straight ahead, “You’re not my mother!” she snapped back.

The look on Princess Celestia’s face was one of pure devastation. Principal Celestia could tell the mare was fighting tears as she simply stood stock-still looking to the place where Sunset had been. Moments later, a blinding flash filled the room, and when she blinked her vision back to normal, the principal could see no sign of the princess in the room.

Things were really interesting when a new pink alicorn showed up.

I AM NOT SPENDING MY HEARTH’S WARMING WITH HER!!!” the young orange mare bellowed right in the face of an exasperated pony version of Cadance.

Principal Celestia, for her part, was giggling fit to burst. While clearly a far more statuesque pony than the average (not to mention larger than nearly all others besides Celestia herself), this version of Cadance was just as cute and cuddly and adorable as all the other ponies in this odd mirror-image world. If she could ever find a way to tell her friend about pony-world, she was so going to spread the grief she’d been ‘suffering’ by being referred to as royalty since Princess Sparkle visited.

Princess Celestia was giving Sunset her best Stern Glaretm and sighing heavily, “Sunset! That is no way to speak to…”

Sunset stomped with both front hooves in a purely pony expression of frustration, “No! You wanna drag in some country bumpkin who barely knows what indoor plumbing is?! Fine! I can’t stop you, you’re the princess! You wanna make her…” and she openly seethed for a moment, “A princess, well, she’s a bucking alicorn, so WHY NOT?! THEN you adopt her into your family!” Sunset’s voice gained a very hard edge with that sentence, “Something we don’t even have RECORDS of because you predate the end of the Discordian Era, so sure, let’s just stick her name in with some krazy glue! Forget the FACT that PRINCESS CELESTIA doesn’t...adopt...anypony!”

Sunset’s rib cage was heaving by this point, and not with anger. Principal Celestia was no longer giggling. Cadance was slowly backing away, her own eyes threatening to brim with tears and her ears flat back, and Princess Celestia appearing about fifteen forms of miserable.

Sunset swallowed three times before finally being able to speak, “So no, I’m refusing now to be part of your pretend family. Go...go play house with your new playmate somewhere else, just so long as it’s not anywhere near me!” So saying, she stomped out of the room, which the spectral principal noted was Sunset’s own room.

Several heavy moments of silence passed before the pink mare hesitantly spoke, “...auntie…”

“No, Cadance,” the sun princess interrupted, “This is not your fault...it’s mine. I’ll...see if I can fix things with her when she’s cooled down some. For now, let’s go...somewhere else.” So saying, she stood and left the room, Cadance trotting after.

They visited other Hearth’s Warmings Eves, of course, but they were often more of the same. Sunset would enter the day in an increasingly foul temper as the years wore on, an event would be offered or gifts to be exchanged would be presented, bickering would ensue (often turning into full-blown arguments, especially as Sunset grew closer to being an adult), and the night would end in harsh words or tears.

And then, suddenly, they were back in Principal Celestia’s world, and in the old abandoned factory, and Sunset was a very young human woman, physically appearing to be no more than fourteen or fifteen years old.

Whatever Sunset had done after passing through the portal, she’d made herself a small place of her own. While not homey, per se, the office room in the factory had a cot with a worn out camping mattress and sleeping bag that had seen better days. A camp stove was set up and warming a small saucepan of vegetable stew, filling the air with a hint of scents that merely suggested at the possibility of a memory of a more homely environment. A trashbag had been duct-taped to the window to act as blackout curtains, and a flashlight that could be used as a table lantern sat on a small, scratched up coffee table. Young Sunset had pulled the table over to the cot, using the bed as a seat as she waited with an empty bowl and spoon for what must be her Hearth’s Warming dinner.

The scene broke Celestia’s heart all over again, making her think of the night she and her sister had followed the girl back here, suddenly wishing with all her heart that she could swoop in and collect this younger version of her student, take her back to her home, and show her how a proper family

She stopped her train of thought before it could go any further.

To distract her thoughts, she paid more attention to the radio, “...and on our Hearth’s Warming special tonight, we’re going to talk about the greatest and truest form of love, the love you have for your family. I may be your ‘princess of love,’ my Canterlot sweeties, but love isn’t just about the flutter of your heart as you gaze at your paramour...it’s also about the most wonderful part that comes next. This is going out to all you mothers and fathers out there, and in honor of all you do for your kids all year round…” the voice was silenced with a ‘click’ as Sunset shut off the small battery powered unit.

Darn it, Cadance, thought Celestia, Of all the topics for Sunset’s first Hearth’s Warming in the human world… but then she couldn’t blame her friend. She really had loved her job as a radio D.J., but after she had completed her teaching certificate she couldn’t stay away from her true love of teaching. If Celestia guessed the year right, this had been Cadance’s final Hearth’s Warming performance before quitting the radio business the next summer to start teaching at Crystal Prep.

Sunset sat in the otherwise empty, silent room, waiting for her food. After long enough that Celestia was about to ask Aurora why they were still watching the scene, Sunset finally moved. She turned her head to the corner, where a shelf held a few books. Mostly textbooks, but Celestia recognized the communication journal. For a moment, Sunset had a wistful expression on her face, and as though she were afraid that if she thought any longer on it she’d change her mind, she rushed over to the journal, grabbed a pen from her backpack, then sat down on the cot again, this time with the journal open on her lap and getting ready to write. She put the tip of the pen down...and paused. Principal Celestia knew that Sunset wasn’t going to write anything in this moment, as this happened in the past and she had seen the journal, and there was nothing there, but that didn’t stop her from holding her breath, hoping against hope that Sunset would reach out to the princess.

Of course, nearly a minute later, Sunset lifted the pen, gently closed the book, then set them aside on the coffee table.

The ache in Celestia’s chest was completely irrational, but she supposed the heart didn’t understand time travel.

There was only a couple more Hearth’s Warmings spent in the factory, both were similar, lonely affairs. Neither time did Sunset even touch the journal, and the last year before the Fall Formal the journal wasn’t even present in the office. She must have taken it to the school and left it in her locker by this point, thought Celestia.

Abruptly, she was back in her living room, the decorated tree glittering cozily in the corner as she struggled to re-orient herself in space and time. Curious, she glanced wordlessly at Aurora.

“Your time with me is nearly up, young Celestia. But fret not, the story isn’t over, and your Hearth’s Warming gift will outshine any that she has ever received before. You just need to find it. For that, my sisters will help better than I can, as my realm is only the gifts already given.”

Celestia glanced at the clock, a positively ancient time piece that had once belonged to her parents that Luna had insisted on restoring once she got out of juvenile hall. She saw that they still had a little over a minute until they had left at midnight.

“The princess...did she really care for Sunset?”

Aurora’s motherly gaze softened considerably, “More than you might ever know, she was merely faced with a foe that she had never experienced, and therefore was unable to marshal defences or even define the battle plan...motherhood.”

Celestia started in shock at the statement the very moment the clock struck midnight...again. Before her eyes, Aurora seemed to shimmer and fade, the sparks flying swiftly off her form briefly taking the form of a floating, pony-sized reindeer that still held that enigmatic smile until it faded, cheshire cat-like, completely away.

“Wait!” blurted Celestia, “What do you mean, ‘motherhood?’” Realizing she had spoken too late to even think about getting a response, she sighed and lowered her hands, which she only belatedly realized were outstretched as though to grab the ethereal being. She must have meant that Princess Celestia needed to raise Sunset like a daughter...surely she’s not just saying ‘motherhood’ to tweak my nose because everyone seems to be pushing me to make Sunset my daughter…

Her train of thought was interrupted by some scolding tutting that had a humorous undertone, “Tsk, tsk, Celestia, you got your sister the FS4 version of Grogar Might Weep? She’s told you dozens of times she has a HexBox.”

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