"Fix what? I don't..." Sunburst shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
"The spell, the--the Independent Construct Kinesis Equation! It's gone wrong!"
The stallion looked up at the mare, who was patting herself down quickly. "Wait, hold on, how do you know about that? Because I swear I did nothing wrong," he added quickly as she turned to look at him. "I only got the spell for, uh, theoretical study--"
"No, nonono. No, you can't remember that!" She pointed at herself. "I remember that! I remember casting the spell!"
"You have? Oh, good. Maybe you can tell me how you dealt with this headache... wait." Sunburst adjusted his glasses. "What do you mean I can't remember that?"
"I mean you shouldn't be able to remember that! According to the text the intellectual capacity of the construct is limited by the magical potential of the component framework and I know that my magical potential isn't that great so the ability to remember things I remember is outside the framework of the simple mind of the construct--"
"Wait, wait, hold on. Who are you?"
The stallion's jaw dropped. "That's impossible! I'm Sunburst!"
"No, that's impossible! You're a construct, only you were supposed to be female and somehow I got turned into a mare--!"
"Well, maybe you're the construct! I mean, I remember casting the spell--"
They stared at each other, wide-eyed.
"...you shouldn't be cognizant yet," Sunburst whispered in shock.
"Yes! Exactly! I'm cognizant so I can't be a construct--"
"Unless something went wrong with the spell! I--" Sunburst stood, turning to the desk. "Notes. Got to get my notes--"
"They're my notes!" the mare cried in protest. "You're the construct!"
Sunburst sighed. "Okay, look, we both think of ourself as Sunburst, right? So, until we can figure out exactly what happened, they're both of our notes."
"...I can agree to that...."
The stallion nodded, looking at through the spell. "Hmm, got the magic component, reduced the variables to casting level, took a mane hair from... well, from the mare's bathing house..."
"Yes, yes, it was very embarrassing and terrifying and it doesn't explain why I got turned into a mare--wait, do you think one of the female students put a curse on the bathhouse to transform intruding stallions?"
"...it might be simpler then that," Sunburst mused. "After all, we got the hair to purposefully alter the baseline spell; without it we'd just get a direct copy of ourself, but incorporating the residual magic into the formula was supposed to, you know, make a female construct." He turned around, gesturing. "And, look! You're a mare. You don't have my white spots, and your mane is longer, and you've got a yellow streak in it. We went in knowing that the construct wasn't going to be a direct copy, maybe the residual magic magnified the spell to the point where you were created with the direct knowledge base of the caster?"
"Oh come on!" the mare protested. "The only pony that would have residual magic that high on a hair of all things would be Princess Celestia! Do you really think Princess Celestia would visit a communal bathhouse?"
"...well," Sunburst pointed out delicately, "there is the matter of your cutie mark..."
"What are you talking aboSWEET CELESTIA WHAT IS THAT ON MY FLANK." The mare started chasing after her own hips. "This isn't my cutie mark! This is--this is a giant fire balance symbol in the shape of the sun! How could my cutie mark change, that--that's a feat of magic beyond recognition!"
"It... could have been created as an amalgam between my mark and that of the other magical donor," Sunburst suggested. "Assuming that you were, in fact, the construct that was intended to be made."
She stopped chasing after herself, staring at him.
"...oh sweet Celestia. You're right."
After a moment, she sunk to the floor. "I... I really am a construct, aren't I?"
"Well... yes?" Sunburst shrugged awkwardly. "I mean, you're a very pretty construct..."
She glared at him.
"...and that was probably a stupid thing for me to say." The stallion folded his ears back. "Geez. I guess I really am terrible at talking to mares, even when the mare is me..."
"Yeah, I guess..." The construct took a breath, and slowly let it out. "I mean... I just... I don't know how, but I do have all my--well, all of your memories, I guess. It's just... I'm still sort of thinking of myself as, you know, a stallion, and even though I know I'm not I just... I don't even exist in anybody's memories. Everything I know is... I'm not.... I'm this... thing, now. And I don't even know what that means."
Sunburst nodded vaguely. "I guess I can see where you're coming from..."
There was some awkward silence.
"...would you like a name?"
"A name." Sunburst adjusted his glasses. "I mean, I was going to make one up anyway, but I figured--"
"I think," the construct interrupted, "that I'll make my own name up, thank you." She shook her head. "If I'm going to... exist... I don't want to be Minty Fresh for the rest of my life."
"Hey!" Sunburst protested jokingly. "Minty Fresh is a good name!"
"For a one-off date, maybe--"
The construct's breath hitched.
"Sweet Celestia, the date!" She stood up suddenly. "The gala's in three hours!"
"Uh, are you sure you want to--?"
"Look, I was literally made to be a date, and I--I guess I owe you that much." The construct flipped her mane. "It's going to be weird as Tartarus, don't get me wrong, since I'm basically dating myself--at least you have a new face to look at--but there was too much planning going into this to just drop it. Where's that dress we ordered...?"
"What? I'm cool. I'm super cool. I'm sub-zero cool."
"Then stop fidgeting like that!"
"What are you talking about?"
"You keep rubbing at your chin and looking around!"
"It just... it feels weird." The construct folded her ears back. "I mean--I'm missing Spicy and I've got this... you know, between my--and it's not just that! It's the muscles, and how I walk and... and more then that, it's how other ponies look at me!" She flicked her horn across the yard. "I mean before, Jet Set just ignored me, and now he's smiling at me!"
"...you are a very pretty mare," Sunburst pointed out.
"I'm used to being a nerdy stallion," the construct countered. "Also, stop... calling me pretty, okay?"
"Well what am I supposed to say?"
"Something that isn't about how I look!"
"I thought that was how stallions were supposed to talk to mares!"
"So did I! But I'm more than just how I... look..." Her eyes widened. "Sweet Celestia, I think I just figured out why we were always so awkward around mares."
"I mean, mares are people too, right?"
"So, just... talk to them like stallions!"
Sunburst blinked. "I... tried that once. It didn't... work."
"Oh. Right. That."
There was an awkward moment.
"In your defense," the construct pointed out, "she thought Saddle Rager was the best power pony. Obviously she was crazy."
"Oh, yeah. Radiance all the way."
"...I'm thinking a toss-up between Radiance and Matter-Horn."
Sunburst blinked. "Wait, what?"
"Well, I mean they both have their powers from science--"
"No, I mean--" Sunburst gestured at her. "You, you have my memories right? Like, three hours ago you were me, so I kind of thought you would agree with everything I think--"
"Yes, but now I'm in a dress at the gala and ponies are looking at me and everything is weird and... and I kind of want to see if I can be somepony different from you. I mean, I want to be... me, you know?"
Sunburst adjusted his glasses. "I'm not sure I understand--"
"I mean, am I just Sunburst but as a mare? Or am I, like.... can I be somepony that... it's not that I think you're terrible," she explained quickly, "it's just that I think I should be... something."
"Oh. Well, I guess that kind of makes sense--" Sunburst's eyes flicked to the side and he let out a small groan. "Oh no."
"What? What is... oooooh no." The construct folded hear ears back as she caught sight of the approaching pony. "Not her..."
"We could always just walk away," Sunburst suggested. "Quick, giggle!"
"So we can pretend I made a joke and then we decided to--"
"My, my my! Sunburst, you are just full of surprises aren't you?" The yellow unicorn swirled her glass as she approached. "First selected to be Celestia's student, and now you come to the gala with a mystery mare."
"Uh, just... lucky I guess."
"Oh, don't sell yourself short, Sunburst," the mare insisted, fluttering her eyes. "I've always said you had potential."
"I don't actually remember you ever--"
"Where are my manners!" The mare held out a hoof to the construct. "I'm Upper Crust, fourth heiress of the Baker line. And you are...?"
"Sun-- ...set. Sunset Shimmer."
Upper Crust continued holding out her hoof for a moment, her smile slipping just a bit, before returning it to the ground. "I see. I'll admit I haven't seen you around Canterlot before."
"Oh, I travel a lot for my research." The construct flipped her mane. "Ancient runes here, some new mark trick there--it's a little difficult to keep a grasp of all the spells I record, but keeping the master magic manuscript up to date is quite important, you know?"
"You're a cataloger?" Upper Crust's smile returned, smugger then before. "No wonder you and Sunburst know each other!"
Sunset's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, your work is very important of course. Those who can't cast, catalog." The yellow unicorn sipped her drink. "Agreeing to escort a pony as... intellectual as Sunburst is really only a minor sacrifice."
"I don't think it's a sacrifice at all," Sunset replied. "Quite frankly, miss Crust, I find he's one of the few ponies here that's worthy of my attention."
Upper Crust frowned. "Really now."
"Oh, yes. I don't know if you've noticed, but so many ponies in this city drift by on the accomplishments of their ancestors or just submit to the daily grind. Sunburst here, he's devoted himself to something that will improve bout himself and others by researching magic in all its myriad forms."
Sunburst flinched at the scowl darkening Upper Crust's face. "Sunset," he whispered fervently, "what are you doing?"
"Now of course I don't want to lay judgment," Sunset continued unabated, "but your ancestor--Hotcakes, I think it was? He was granted his title for his efforts to feed the starving ponies of Vanhoover during the nuckelavee crisis. He was noble in every sense of the word." She leaned in with a broad, smug smile. "I do hope you're living up to his legacy, miss Crust."
"Hmph." Upper Crust tossed her nose up and turned away. "It's a shame you've been limited in your education, miss Shimmer. I do think you would have turned out much better with proper mentoring."
"How strange. I was just thinking the same thing about you."
"OOOOOOOOOOKAY!" Sunburst manuvered between them, grinning broadly. "Great chat! Hey, Sunset, you want some punch? Let's get some punch. Or horse devours, it's a high class party, don't get those all the time, haha!"
He placed a polite hoof on Sunset's shoulders and led her firmly away from the now openly growling Upper Crust. As soon as they were out of earshot, Sunburst turned to her. "What was that all about?!"
"Well, she's always being such a self-absorbed brat. I figured I should just take her down a peg or two."
"Yes but--she's a big name noble!" Sunburst hissed. "Snarking off at her like that could get me in trouble! And you're me!"
Sunset smirked. "Well, you know that, and I know that, but she doesn't know that does she?"
"Well, no, but--"
"I think I could get used to this."
Sunburst blinked. "What?"
"This." Sunset gestured at herself. "A new slate. No need to worry about my reputation anymore. I can go up to all the self-absorbed jerks that tried to use me as a pawn in their games and tell them what I really think. I don't have to live up to stupid high standards. I can be free!"
Sunset let loose a giggle, which morphed into a chuckle, and devolved into an outright cackle.
"...I'm pretty sure that's the 'losing your mind' laugh," Sunburst pointed out.
"Free! Free! And all it cost was my stallionhood and my beard and any sense of being me, and, and basically everything! I'm nothing and I can be anything!" Sunset's laughter trailed into choking sobs. "I'm nothing but a twisted reflection of my own loneliness! I exist to help me be seen as normal, but you're not normal am I?"
The stallion flinched as the construct's piercing gaze locked onto his face. "I... don't do philosophy very well, you know that--"
"I and you, you and I, what is it? What is the point of deviation?" Sunset pounded her hoof against his chest. "Three hours ago, there was no divide. Now, I... who am I? What do I want? And... how do you factor in?"
"I think," Sunburst said as he gently pushed her hoof down, "that you need to calm down and put off all these questions until we're out of sight of all the other ponies in the gala."
Sunset tilted her head. "...Right. That's probably a good idea." She blinked, looking past him. "Especially since Celestia is standing right behind you."
"I expected many things, but this is a complete surprise."
Celestia looked over the shivering mare, raising a single prim eyebrow. "You appear very much alive to me. Which, at the moment, is the crux of the problem."
The construct blinked, looking up at her. "Wait... was that a joke?"
"Sunburst," the alicorn continued, "are you aware that self-directed construct spells are generally considered dark magic?"
"Well, I mean, technically speaking those spells are reliant on infusion of essence from the soul of the caster--"
"Or another source."
Sunburst gulped. "Y-Yes. Um. I know how this looks, but---"
"A brief glance at your thaumic field shows no sign of essence deprivation," Celestia stated gravely. "So, tell me Sunburst, exactly who did you rip life force from to create this mare?"
"N-nopony, I swear!" the stallion insisted. "I didn't even expect her to be self-directed!"
"Really? So the existential outburst I witnessed was the result of pre-ordained instructions?"
"I--actually, I didn't even get a chance to instill instructions," Sunburst murmured. "She was freaking out when she thought something went wrong with the Equation--"
Celestia frowned. "So you created a free-minded construct without any thought to her future--"
"Hey!" Sunset interjected. "The Independent Construct Kinesis Equation isn't supposed to create free-minded constructs!"
"The Indep--" The alicorn turned to her. "That spell? Do you really expect me to believe that a purely theoretical spell could produce a full-blown construct of any form?"
"Theoretical? It's written in practically every Platinum-level guidebook on Constructs!"
"The ICKE has never been successfully cast--"
"What are you talking about? It's just a matter of plugging in the numbers and doing the math!"
"Sunset, why are you arguing with Princess Celestia?!" Sunburst hissed desperately.
"Because what she's saying doesn't make any sense!" Sunset waved a hoof. "I mean really, she's acting like it's impossible or something, but I'm right here! I mean, yes, I'm independent-minded--still freaking out about that, a little bit, to be honest--but that's only because miss Sunshine and Rainbows here decided to sneak into the mare's bathing house for some reason!"
"Wait, how--I mean, what makes you think that?" Celestia asked.
"Well, gosh, let me think. Maybe it's because of this?!" With a flourish, Sunset Shimmer pulled off the skirt of her dress and pointed at the red-and-yellow sun on her flank.
Celestia stared at it for a moment. Sunbust slowly sat down and began to rub his forehead with his hooves.
"...Okay. I get it now." The princess nodded. "This is all some elaborate prank. Well done, Sunburst, I was completely fooled."
"What," said Sunset.
"You had me going there for a bit," the alicorn admitted. "Acting like a self-directed construct. But incomplete essence precludes the formation of a cutie mark." She clapped, a gentle smile on her face. "I'm quite impressed at your acting--"
"Okay, you know what? No. I'm not going to be dismissed like that."
Celestia blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"What part of this are you not getting?" Sunset demanded. "Sunburst found the ICKE, modified the matrix to integrate a mare's magic, snuck into the communal bathhouse to get some mane strands, and for some reason what he got was your mane. And boom, I'm here. Stop pretending this is impossible!"
"I'm perfectly fine with pretending this is impossible," Sunburst murmured.
"Well I'm not! Even if the ICKE has never been successfully cast before--which I don't believe for a second--all that means is that you accomplished something extraordinary and deserve some recognition!"
Celestia frowned. "The operative matrix always outgrows the developmental format, the amniomorphic constant clearly states--"
"Wait, seriously? People have been casting this with the amniomorphic constant?! Of course that wouldn't work!" Sunset Shimmer lit up her horn, projecting a series of numbers. "The operative matrix is designed to grow exponentially, the developmental format only grows linearly! You have to use Meadowbrook's enchantment operation, that's obvious."
"Meadowbrook's..." Celestia stared at the equation. "But Meadowbrook only used it on enchanted artifacts, not constructs!"
"Well, sure, but it's not like nopony ever mixed magical classes." Sunset flashed the numbers out of existence. "Are you seriously going to tell me that nopony ever thought to apply the operation to the ICKE?"
Celestia opened her mouth. Then she paused. "Well... I suppose that there was that one hedge-witch seven hundred or so years ago, if her ramblings about a 'mirror pool' were correct--but that still wouldn't explain you being self-directed."
"Yeah, that's your fault." Sunset rubbed her chest. "With the residue of an ordinary mare's magic the matrix would only have room for limited operations. But if the hairs Sunburst stole actually belonged to a centuries-old alicorn, the raw thaumatic power would allow expansion of the format to a point where--where my operative matrix is actually still growing!" she gasped. "That's why I had that existential crisis! The operative matrix has extended past the pre-planned protocols to an unprecedented degree!"
Sunburst flinched. "Oh. That's... good to know, I guess?"
"You've been awfully quiet during this," Celestia observed.
"Mostly I'm just trying not to escalate the situation," the stallion replied. "Also, I'm a little bit completely terrified."
"You're terrified?" Sunset rolled her eyes. "Celestia spent most of this conversation thinking I was made with dark magic! I thought she'd vaporize me!"
"Actually, I'd probably keep you hidden away and watched for a few weeks to ensure you weren't going to become pure evil, whilst also giving you remedial education so you could become your own pony." Celestia coughed. "Also, I don't vaporize ponies."
"Oh, what, do you turn them to stone instead?"
"....not ponies," Celestia hedged.
"Why are you still arguing with Celestia?" Sunburst whined.
"I don't know! I'm scared and insulted and weirded out that she apparently snuck into the mare's bath-house--I mean, if you're gay or something," she added, turning to Celestia, "I don't think that would be wrong, but it's still kind of creepy--you're ancient, and they're not... ancient--"
"I put on a disguise so I can socialize without being a 'princess,'" Celestia explained deadpan.
"What? But--you have a wealth of knowledge and power and, and wealth!"
"I'm also surrounded by self-absorbed idiots and nopony respects me for myself."
Sunset Shimmer considered that. Then she turned to Sunburst. "Congrats, you're a princess."
"Ooooooookay. I'm just..." Sunburst sighed. "Can... can we all agree that no dark magic was involved in this, and I'm not going to be thrown in a cell?"
"I'm going to put you in an informal house arrest while I examine your notes," Celestia replied. "And no matter what I find, you're going to be responsible for... I'm terribly sorry, I never got your name."
"For Sunset Shimmer's cost of living."
"I... guess that's fair."
"And what about me?" Sunset demanded. "What are you going to do with me?"
"At the moment... I don't know. I need to think on this. But..." Celestia tilted her head. "If you really are the product of the ICKE, you would have at least a portion of Sunburst's memories, yes?"
"More then a portion."
"Then it might be possible for you to join him as one of my students." The alicorn took a breath and let it out. "For now, I think we should all return to the gala. As far as anybody else is concerned, I took you two aside to ask Sunset what her intentions were toward Sunburst."
Sunburst blinked. "I... I'm not sure that I--"
"Works for me," Sunset said.
"But-but-but it's--I mean, you--she, I just--"
"Can you think of any better cover story?"
Sunburst rose a hoof... and sighed. "No."
Celestia nodded. "Well, that's settled then. If you'll excuse me, I have to go out and deal with the nobles again..."
She walked out to the ballroom, leaving the two ponies sitting together.
"...Still, I mean. She wants me to be her student."
"Weren't you... we... already her student?"
"Kind of? I mean, you were, and I was you, and.... this is confusing."
Sunset stared at her hooves for a moment.
"...Actually. What if... what if I became the best student?"
Sunburst looked at her. "What?"
"I mean, what if... I proved I was the best. Even though I'm a construct. Somehow."
"I... well... I mean..." Sunburst adjusted his glasses. "I mean, that wouldn't be bad, I guess. I mean, it wouldn't be what I expected--"
"I think... I might. I might do that."
They sat, staring at the door to the ballroom.
"...This is supposed to be a date, right?" Sunset asked suddenly.
"Uh--kind of. You know. It's supposed to look like a date."
"Yeah." The mare coughed. "So..."
"I mean... if I hadn't been free-minded... would we... you know...?"
"Would we what?"
"...would we have kissed and stuff?"
"I..." Sunburst blushed. "I, uh... I mean... maybe?"
"Huh." Sunset flushed. "...we should."
"We should kiss. For science. At least once." She coughed. "Since I'm a female version of you."
"O-Oh." Sunburst nodded. "Yes, I... I can see that... yes."
After a moment, they managed to look at each other.
Nervously, they leaned in.
Their lips locked. For about four seconds.
They leaned back.
"...Okay." Sunset nodded. "That was weird as Tartarus."
"Agreed," Sunburst replied. "Let's never do it again."