The Application of Unified Harmony Magics

by Novel-Idea

First published

Celestia’s prized student, Sunset Shimmer, must deal with an unexpected remnant of her past while seeking a lost book in the Royal Canterlot Archives. Right after lunch and some meddling from her friends.

  In an Equestria where the Sonic Rainboom never happened, Sunset Shimmer is the prized pupil of the Princess of the Sun. As Sunset struggles to make up for her past misdeeds and come to terms with the pony she wants to be, Celestia sends her to find the classic work The Application of Unified Harmony Magic from the Royal Canterlot Archives.
  Right after lunch, some meddling by her friends and meeting somepony with firsthoof experience of the Sunset she used to be.

Featured on Equestria Daily on August 18, 2016!
Appeared in the FimFiction Featured Box!
Custom EPUB can be found here.

Cast: Sunset Shimmer, Moon Dancer, Minuette, Twilight Sparkle & Princess Celestia


Wavelengths Timeline Master Guide: Light Version | Dark Version
Stories set in the Wavelengths Timeline in chronological order:

Origins Arc
The Alchemy of Chemistry
Bards of the Badlands
Grading on a Bell Curve
Habits of the Equestrian Phoenix
How Not To Use Your Royal Prerogative

Applications Arc
The Application of Unified Harmony Magics
Princess Celestia: A Brief History
The Cloudsdale Report

Dreamers Arc
Tactics of Snowbound Unicorns
A Study in Chaos Theory
Teahouses of Saddle Arabia


Cover Credits
Cover Design by Novel Idea
Sunset Shimmer Vector by TigerBeetle
Pony SciTwi Vector by Osipush
Canterlot Bookshelves Vector by FavoriteArtMan
Sunset Shimmer Cutie Mark by MillennialDan

Beta Reader Credits
Ebon Quill - Worldbuilding Writer on The Manehattan Project
Quantum State - Technical Director of The Manehattan Project
Painted Heart - Wife of Author :raritywink:
The Albinocorn - Master of Sunset Shimmer Stories

Strongly Recommended Stories:
The Brightest and the Best by Pineta - The events in this story are considered to be completely canon to this timeline and explain Twilight's entrance exam to Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. I cannot recommend this story enough.
MLP Annual 2013 - "The Fall of Sunset Shimmer" - As above, the 8-page short comic in the beginning of the Annual is also considered to be canon, though with some major variations.

Version 3.0 Edit: Extensive grammatical and mechanics changes. Adjustment to timeline of Sunset's second mirror experience.

Studies in the Sunlight

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“So, why I am studying old pony tales again?”

Sunset Shimmer looked up with a faint smile and hoped she would be able to glean just a bit of insight from her mentor.

As usual, Princess Celestia’s face betrayed nothing, save for the tiny sparkle in her eyes. Even here in her lavish private study chambers in the highest tower of Canterlot Castle, she kept her poise. Surrounded by ancient tomes, exquisite works of art and an entire wall of windows looking out over the sun-drenched city of Canterlot, she was still the perfect pony princess.

“You of all ponies, Sunset, should appreciate being well-rounded in every aspect of Equestrian culture and history.”

Sunset glanced down at the book. The colorful illustrations looked like something more out of a filly’s storybook than an actual tome of Equestrian history. Though it was enchanting in a strangely simplistic way. And it obviously meant something to the Princess. Usually, that was good enough for her, but today, her curiosity was more insistent than usual.

“But this isn’t anything like studying Long Wind’s tomes on Equestrian civil law or Hot Air’s documentation of the first-era griffon treatises.”

“Just because it isn’t dusty and dry doesn’t mean it is without value, my faithful student. Even legends can teach us principles of wisdom passed down from previous generations.”

Sunset cocked an eyebrow at the Princess of the Sun.

“Princess, you are the living embodiment of wisdom from previous generations.”

Celestia laughed her faint tinkling laugh that Sunset loved hearing so very much and turned to the open door leading to the balcony overlooking the whole of Canterlot. It was another lovely fall day, and a faint chill ran through the air with the promise of the changing seasons in just a few weeks’ time. Celestia leaned against the doorframe and took another sip of the tea levitating beside her in a golden glow.

There was something off about Celestia today though. It had taken Sunset years to be able to even begin to read the Princess’s body language. Usually, the Princess kept her motivations and emotions in check at all times, the picture and pinnacle of a benevolent monarch. But the way Celestia rustled her great white wings—it meant there was something wrong.

“If I may ask, Princess, is there something bothering you?”

Celestia stiffened ever so slightly and turned back to her student with a different kind of sparkle in her eyes. This particular sparkle she wore whenever Sunset found some insightful answer to a particularly difficult question.

“Sometimes, I wonder if you spend too much time with me. You’ve become quite adept at your observations. You’ve even caught a few things Raven has missed.”

Sunset felt her cheeks flush and her ears flatten. “Princess, I’m not trying to pry or—”

Celestia waved off her protests with a hoof. “No, no. I never said that you were wrong, did I?”

“Well… not as such…” Sunset murmured.

“Then consider this…” Celestia smiled once more. “You do remember even the most fantastic legend has a basis in historical truth?”

“Of course,” Sunset replied. It took her only a moment to take the step Celestia wanted her to take and make the connection. “You’re saying there’s something in this book that ties to a major historical event?”

Celestia beamed at her, but the smile was more reserved than usual. “Precisely.”

“But there’s all sorts of things in this collection! Everything on stories of the gray ponies from Discord’s reign to the legend of the Children of the Night. Dozens of different legends.”

“Indeed there are.” Celestia took another sip of tea.

Sunset sighed. “This is going to be one of those lessons, isn’t it?”

Celestia quirked an eyebrow. “Whatever do you mean, Sunset?”

Sunset couldn’t help but laugh at her mentor’s antics. Celestia knew Sunset wasn’t buying the whole innocent act, but Celestia was still Celestia, after all. One had to play the game her way.

“One of those lessons where you give me nothing but breadcrumbs that eventually lead me to a huge, life-changing revelation that rocks the very foundations of everything I know.”

Celestia snorted in a rather un-princess-like manner.

“I’m not quite sure this particular lesson is that intense, at least at this juncture. Now, if I had tried to teach it to you a few years ago…”

Sunset blanched. “Can we not talk about that, please?”

Celestia’s eyes softened and a faint smile appeared, tempered by a faint hint of melancholy Sunset had come to know all too well.

“Sunset, how many times do I have to tell you? You are an entirely different pony than you were back then.”

“Always seems like one more.” Sunset rubbed the back of her mane with a hoof and didn’t meet Celestia’s eyes.

Celestia sighed. “That’s another lesson for another time. Today’s lesson is a bit more esoteric, shall we say. At least at present.”

“Are you going to at least give me a hint?”

Celestia’s teacup floated to her muzzle yet again. That was answer enough. It was incredible just how much Celestia could communicate with a sip of tea. Sunset laughed again.

“You really do enjoy this, don’t you?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and smirked at the Princess of the Sun just as noon chimed out over the city. She quickly grabbed her cup of tea in her teal magic and swallowed it down to the dregs. The final kick of her Earl Grey brought a smile to her lips and she savored it for just a moment. Then her magic closed the book and slid it into one of her saddlebags near the doors of Celestia’s private study.

“You know, there was once a time when I had to all but physically throw you out of my study.” Celestia chuckled.

Sunset froze awkwardly just as she was standing up. “I’m sorry, was there something else we were supposed to be reviewing today? I had made plans with Moon Dancer for lunch today and—”

“My faithful student…” Celestia actually laughed out loud, the sound echoing off the high vaulted ceiling of the study, muted only by the innumerable pieces of literature lining the shelves. “Oh, no, not at all. Today was all about your new focusing techniques, Legends of Equestria and a general checkup on your most recent field of study.”

Sunset finally managed to get her hooves under her and grinned sheepishly.

“I still don’t know why you pushed me so hard on this, Princess.”

“I have my reasons,” Celestia answered in a cryptic way that was all too familiar to Sunset. “One day, you’ll see them for exactly what they are.”

The perverse enjoyment you get out of seeing me wrangling with a problem only to point out the blatantly obvious solution when I’m three hoofsteps away from a panic attack?

Don’t you ever shut up? Sunset mentally groaned. Even for a day?

The snarky voice in the back of her head was a remnant of that Sunset Shimmer she had left behind years ago. Despite the best attempts of her friends, the Princess and herself, she’d never been able to get that little voice to shut up and go away. It was always there, ready to needle her and pester her. To remind her of what she once had been.

Sunset did what she usually did: mentally bucked it into a closet in the back of her brain and slammed the door closed.

“Please, can you give me some sort of hint about this compendium?”

“I’m afraid not.” Celestia’s smile now bordered on impish. “You’ll just have to discover it for yourself. And I have complete and total faith you will find exactly what you need from it when the time is right.”

A weary sigh escaped from Sunset, despite her best intentions. Celestia’s eyes sparkled again, that mischievous little sparkle she wore most of the time, the one that had earned her the nickname ‘Trollestia’ in some of the more acerbic circles of noble society.

“There is one other matter before you leave,” Celestia said as Sunset lifted her saddlebags and placed them over her back.

“Yes?” She cinched the strap snugly around her middle with a tug of magic. “What do you need?”

“Next week, we’ll be starting a new subject about which I think you will be quite excited. It is something you’ve been asking after for a while.”

Sunset’s ears perked at this and she looked up into the Princess’s eyes. A thousand possibilities entered her mind, including one provided by that thrice-damned voice involving a stupid mirror she’d once obsessed over.

“Unified spellwork.”

Sunset rocked back on her hooves and gaped at the Princess of the Sun.

Really?” She had trouble keeping the squee out of her voice. “You think I’m ready for that?”

“You’ve been ready for it for quite some time, Sunset. Months, really. But after previous events, I wanted to make sure your eagerness didn’t overwhelm your judgment.”

Celestia’s voice was soft and completely without recrimination, but Sunset couldn’t help but feel another twist within her chest.

“No, don’t you let yourself walk down that road in your head,” Celestia chided. “I bring it up because this particular branch of magic requires a very specific mindset. You must be able to find that perfect balance of harmony between the two casters or else anything attempted using the framework will fizzle. That or fail in a most spectacular manner.”

“I know.” Sunset bit her lower lip, unable to meet Celestia’s gaze. “That’s why… well, that’s why I wasn’t really planning on bringing it up again after you said I wasn’t ready. I’m… I’m still not that good at this.”

Celestia’s forehoof lifted Sunset’s chin and forced the young mare to look the Princess in the eye.

“Sunset, I know that finding harmony with other ponies is still a new concept to you, but I think you give yourself far too little credit. For a normal pony to develop the relationships you have in the last few years is impressive. For a pony with your former attitude to do so in such a short time is nothing short of miraculous.”

“I didn’t do it alone.”

Celestia’s smile grew. “I know. At the very least, I have faith that Moon Dancer will be there to knock some sense into you if need be.”

Sunset snorted but laughed nonetheless. “Moon Dancer would probably agree with you, Princess.”

“I’m sure she would.” Celestia beamed. “Your friend aside, I need you to head to the Archives. There are several tomes I had placed on reserve, but I received a note earlier this morning informing me they were unable to locate a critical work by Nightsong.”

The curious pony in Sunset’s head reared once more. “A missing book? In the Archives?

“Considering how many volumes are in that library, I can forgive them mislaying a book once in a while. Nonetheless, The Application of Unified Harmony Magics is considered the seminal piece on the subject. You will need to locate a copy before we can begin.”

Sunset nodded. It had been far too long since she had just gotten to explore the Royal Canterlot Archives, hunting for some obscure scroll or book. She might even get to explore the Stack Vaults, something she hadn’t done in years. The very idea made her hooves tingle in anticipation.

“Don’t worry. I’ll find it for you.”

“Of that, I have little doubt.” Celestia beamed at her again. “Now, off with you. Go have a wonderful lunch. I’ll see you this evening after I’ve raised the moon.”

Sunset nodded, leaned forward to give her mentor a brief nuzzle and trotted out of Celestia’s study. Just as the door closed, she caught Celestia’s words, spoken so quietly Sunset wasn’t even sure she’d heard them.

“How far you’ve come… and how far is still left to go.”

Deep Berried Secrets

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Even as she stepped out into the bright fall sunlight, Celestia’s final words haunted her. There was the possibility Celestia hadn’t intended Sunset to hear her, but Sunset knew better. After all, one did not remain a monarch for a millennium without learning how to control one’s tongue.

So what was Sunset supposed to have gathered from that?

Probably still trying to hammer the idea of forgiving myself into my head. Sunset sighed and felt the familiar wretched knot in her stomach. If it were only that easy.

The angry little pony piped up from the back of her head. If she hadn’t shown you that mirror maybe none of that would have happened. She set you up, Sunset. When will you realize that?

She really, really wished she had the ability to lock that door in the back of her head better. That damn pony kept escaping no matter how hard she bucked her.

I wonder if Celestia has to deal with dissenting voices in her head.

She was very happy to see Moon Dancer sitting under a wide oak tree, glasses perched on her muzzle and a book between her forelegs. The last thing Sunset wanted to consider was that idea that Celestia had anything as… mundane as little voices inside her head. The implications were terrifying.

“Hi, Moony.” Sunset plopped down next to her best friend. The cool grass felt wonderful on her coat. “What’s today’s fare?”

Moon Dancer just rolled her eyes like she always did when Sunset tried to interrupt her whenever she was in the middle of a passage. When Sunset tried to move into position to see what Moon Dancer was studying, her friend shifted so her striped red and purple mane fell over her shoulder. A second movement resulted in the mare snapping her perfectly straight tail at Sunset. With a chuckle, Sunset contented herself with watching her friend read until the pale unicorn came to a break and slipped a bookmark into place. The book closed with a wash of pinkish-gray magic and Sunset caught the name on the cover.

The Life and Times of Morari the Maneless?” Sunset tried to keep the incredulity out of her voice. “You’ve already read that twice this year.”

“Morari the Maneless was one of the greatest librarians to ever walk the face of Equestria,” Moon Dancer replied primly. “Even Dewey Decimal derived half of her catalog techniques from his work. Any librarian who cares one whit about her calling should know Morari inside and out.”

“And reading it front to back three times a year for the last five years isn’t enough to get you to know it ‘inside and out’?”

“I never said that.” Moon Dancer slipped the book into one of her saddlebags and got to her hooves.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Admit it, Moony. At this point, you reading Morari is as bad as Coco reading the Bridle Princess series. It’s comfort food.”

Moon Dancer gasped and clutched her hoof to her chest. “How dare you compare such a brilliant mind as Morari to the romantic trash that Coco is addicted to! I feel compelled to challenge you to a duel for the honor of librarians everywhere for such sacrilege!”

Sunset blinked. Then she kept her face as straight as she could.

Let’s see how long she can hold this one.

It wasn’t very long. Less than a minute had passed before the outraged expression fell apart and revealed the laughing Moon Dancer beneath.

“You are such a brat,” Moon Dancer said, smacking her on the shoulder.

Sunset pouted a little and rubbed the offending spot. “Hey! No beating up the grad student!”

“If I don’t, who will?”

“How about nopony?” Sunset got to her hooves.

“Hmph.” Moon Dancer just shook her head. “That’s just not going to happen, Sunny.”

Time for a change in tactics.

“So what’s for lunch today?” Sunset asked as she peered into the sky. There were a few clouds above, but nothing that promised anything other than a few seconds of shade when they lazily drifted across the sun.

“Berries,” Moon Dancer said with a smirk and sauntered off down the path toward the main gate of Canterlot Castle.

“Oh that’s just not fair,” Sunset protested. “Don’t you remember what happened last time we went to Strawberry Lemonade’s?”

“Hmm… I can’t quite recall,” Moon Dancer said, looking up at one of the ivory towers as they passed under its shadow.

Sunset muttered something under her breath even she didn’t understand.

“So, what do you want?”

“To have lunch.”

“Moony…”

“What?” Moon Dancer protested, adjusting her glasses with a quick snap of her magic while glancing back at Sunset. “I’m allowed to be hungry, Sunny. Us lesser mortals—you know, the ones who aren’t personal protégées of the Princess of the Sun—do have to eat once in a while.”

Sunset stuck out her tongue at her best friend. Moon Dancer just batted her eyelashes in response. Defeated, Sunset let out a sigh and plodded along in the librarian’s wake, knowing that she wouldn’t get a bit out of her until they were seated at the Berry Café.

They passed through the massive gate of Canterlot Castle, and Sunset moved beside Moon Dancer as they struck out into the cobblestone streets of Canterlot proper. As was usual at the lunch hour in Canterlot, ponies were bustling, rushing, hurrying and scampering to and fro across the city. Despite Canterlot being the home to the nobility, the city was more than just fancy homes, concert halls and posh cafés. Office buildings, designed with the same Canterlot aesthetic as the Castle itself, stood on almost every street. They were easy to miss, except during lunch, when all those government officials escaped the confines of their cubicles and rushed out for some fresh food and fresh air.

The entire bureaucracy that formed the foundation of the nation of Equestria existed for the most part in Canterlot. Sunset would know. In the last six months, her studies had expanded far past magic and into the actual operation of Equestria itself. She tried not to think too much about the reason why Celestia had recently broadened her studies. The few times she did, it brought up memories she’d rather leave buried in the back of her mind with that obnoxious voice.

The Berry Café was a new face in the Canterlot eatery scene. Run by the perky and insanely talented Strawberry Lemonade, it served up every conceivable construction of berry-based delight. Unfortunately for Sunset, Moon Dancer had learned of her weakness for strawberries a few years ago. Now Moon Dancer had the perfect weapon to use against Sunset whenever she wanted something. She used it with a surgeon’s precision, too.

Why Sunset allowed Moon Dancer to actually get away with it… well, her willpower could only take so much.

Come on, she rationalized. They’re strawberries. As long as Moon Dancer doesn’t ever learn about the thing with peaches, I’ll survive.

One of Sunset’s favorite things about Strawberry Lemonade was the simple fact the proprietress treated her absolutely no different from anypony else. As Soft Treat—Sunset’s favorite waiter—seated the two friends at one of the patio tables, Strawberry waved to Sunset in that same friendly way Strawberry used with everypony else. Sunset waved back with a genuine smile at the blonde-maned light pink pony whose coat matched her namesake.

“You like her,” Moon Dancer suddenly announced.

Sunset stiffened and swiveled her gaze to stare at her friend. “Who?”

“Strawberry Lemonade.”

Sunset blinked a few times as her brain tried to process just what Moon Dancer was implying. But as the impish smile grew underneath those thick black glasses, there was no escaping that Moon Dancer wasn’t implying anything: she was stating it as a fact.

It didn’t mean Sunset had to rise to the bait, though.

“Of course I like Strawberry Lemonade,” Sunset replied. “She’s a nice pony and an amazing chef.”

“Oh knock it off, Sunny,” Moon Dancer said. “You know exactly what I mean.”

Sunset’s ears flattened against her head as she felt the blush creeping up her cheeks. “I do not. Anyway, she’s engaged.”

“What?” Moon Dancer looked shocked. “Since when?”

“Smoked Oat asked her last week.”

“Ah, shoot.” Moon Dancer wilted. “I thought they weren’t going to last.”

Sunset’s eyes went wide as she put two and two together—well, in this case, one and one. She forced herself not to stammer.

“You were going to try and set me up with her, weren’t you? That’s what this was about? You were actually going to use my… um… handicap for strawberries to get me to date her?”

It was Moon Dancer’s turn to blush. “Um… maybe?”

“Moony!” Sunset practically wailed. “What is wrong with you? I don’t need you playing matchmaker!”

“Let me take a wild guess!” Minuette chirped as she plopped down in the empty third seat with her usual perfect timing. “Moon Dancer once again plotted to set you up with some cute mare, didn’t she?”

“Don’t tell me you knew about it, Minuette.” Sunset stabbed a hoof at her. “I swear if I find out you and the rest have been trying to set me up with somepony…”

Minuette held up her hooves in defense. “You know me, Sunny. I always believe in doing things the right way at the right time. Moon Dancer and I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on that particular agenda.”

“What kept you?” Moon Dancer asked, ignoring the pointed comment in her direction. “You were supposed to meet me at the castle gates.”

“Emergency call. Seems a student in Celestia’s School managed to cast a come-to-life spell on one of the gear trains in the main clocktower.” Minuette shrugged and gave her trademark pearly-white grin. “Not sure if it was a prank or an accident, but it took thirteen minutes and thirty-four seconds longer than I had originally anticipated. It happens when the gear train actually starts running away from you.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. She’d long stopped calling Minuette out on her obsessive timekeeping. After all, it was part of her special talent. There was a reason she was the best clockmaker in Canterlot. But she never got used to the way Minuette could sidle into a conversation at precisely the right time.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Sunset pointed out. “Were you in on this?”

Minuette rolled her eyes and giggled. “Of course not, silly. Don’t get me wrong, Strawberry Lemonade’s an amazing mare, but she’s not what you need right now.”

Moon Dancer tilted her head to one side. “What, you’re prophetic now?”

The blue unicorn lifted a hoof and wiggled it from side to side. “Maybe only a little.”

Sunset laughed. She couldn’t help it. Finally, she reached over and gave Minuette a hug.

“I’m glad you could join us.”

“Coco and Rara say hello,” Minuette said. “But they’re caught up in preparation for Rara’s show in a few days at the Wonderbolt Exhibition.”

“Oh, the curse of being a world-famous pop star,” Moon Dancer said with a swoon. “Whatever will she do?”

“Get along just fine, I think." Sunset grinned. “As long as Rara got us our tickets.”

“What, don’t feel like using your ‘royal prerogative’ again?” Minuette giggled at Sunset’s suddenly burning cheeks. “Oh Sunny, I will never let you live that moment down.”

“Yes, I know!” Sunset groused as she hid behind a menu. She didn’t need to, she’d already known exactly what she was going to order the moment Moon Dancer had mentioned the place. Still, it was convenient, despite the fact that she knew it wouldn’t save her.

“What was it that she said to the bouncer?” Moon Dancer asked Minuette, her chin on her hoof.

Minuette coughed and did her best impersonation of Sunset’s voice. “‘You know exactly who I am. I would like to speak to Miss Coloratura. Please let her know. Unless you want to explain to your manager why you decided that the personal protégée of Princess Celestia was barred from seeing her?’”

Moon Dancer cracked up, laughing so hard she nearly fell out of her chair. She had to adjust her glasses twice before they would sit right on her muzzle again. Minuette joined in while Sunset continued to use the flimsy protection offered by the menu. She was intensely grateful when Soft Treat dropped by to take their orders.

After the laughter had finally died down and the teasing session was over—for now—Minuette smiled at Sunset.

“So what’s the Princess got you working on today?”

Sunset immediately brightened, not only for the change in topic but the opportunity to gush just a little about something she’d been looking forward to for months.

“Unified spellwork!” Sunset said, trying and mostly failing to keep the squeal out of her voice. “She thinks I’m finally ready for it!”

Okay, maybe more than just a little gushing.

“Unified spellwork?” Minuette asked. “Sorry, but I just do clocks. That’s a bit above my pay grade.”

“Seriously, she thinks you’re ready for that?” Moon Dancer all but squeed. “That’s some seriously advanced material, even for a graduate student.”

“I know!” Sunset clopped her hooves together in glee. “I know! And the best part is… I’ll be doing it with Celestia herself!

“Um, mind cluing me into what you two are rambling on about?”

Moon Dancer breathed out a great sigh at Minuette. “You’ve never heard of unified spellwork? Maybe unified harmony magic? Augmented magical frameworks? Harmony constructs?”

“No, no and no,” Minuette replied. “But wasn’t the last one something from last month’s issue of the Power Ponies?”

Moon Dancer snorted and Sunset hid a smirk. To the librarian, comic books were only one step above Coco’s romance novels. She didn’t bother hiding the smirk when she saw her friend shift into lecture mode, something she could do even better than Cheerilee—and Cheerilee was a teacher, for pony’s sake. She tweaked her glasses with a flare of magic and she brought herself up. At that point, Sunset almost broke down laughing. She just barely managed to keep it in with little more than a snort Moon Dancer ignored.

“Unified spellwork, or more appropriately called unified harmony magics,” Moon Dancer began. “Is an extremely difficult area of study as it relates to the underlying innate magic of Equestria itself, better known as Harmony. It requires a singular purpose and focused will that is beyond the reach of most unicorns. Unified spellwork is when two unicorns—or a unicorn and an alicorn—combine their magical talents on a single spell. When proper harmony is found between the two ponies, the result of said spell connects them on a deeply fundamental level. Unexpected and very impressive—and beneficial—side effects can and often do occur. Not only that but the effects are magnified by a factor of ten at minimum. Getting beyond that threshold entirely depends on the level of connection between the two ponies.”

“So basically, some magic user and you just make a spell supercharged?” Minuette asked. “Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to me.”

Moon Dancer’s eyes bulged. “Seriously, have you ever read anything by Clover, Meadowbrook or Starswirl?”

Minuette rubbed her mane awkwardly. “Um… a little…”

“You mean you’ve read them for homework back in school.”

“…Yeah.”

“That’s enough, Moony,” Sunset interrupted before Moon Dancer could get up enough steam.

“But Sunny!” Her best friend was practically wailing at this point. “She’s missing one of the greatest potential applications of unicorn magic! At least a third of the most significant spells in history have been cast using this method! By Celestia, the events of Hearth’s Warming Eve are based on a variant of this theory!”

“And beating her over the head with the textbook is going to help how?” Sunset raised an eyebrow.

Moon Dancer sputtered for a few seconds before throwing up her hooves and slumping to the table. She could do a great job at pouting when she put her mind to it and she was putting her mind to it now.

“Come on, Moony,” Minuette said, reaching out a hoof and nudging her friend. “You know my area. If you need to fix a clock, I’m your pony. But if you want advanced magical theory, everypony knows that’s not me!”

She smiled in her widest, most cheerful smile, the one she brought out only when she was actually concerned for somepony’s happiness. Sunset was a bit curious why she was bringing it out now. After all, she could tell Moon Dancer was just demanding attention as a bit of a trade for Minuette’s ignorance of an extremely specialized field of magical study. At least, that’s what she thought Moon Dancer was doing.

“That’s why I’m friends with you two,” Minuette chirped. “After all, Canterlot can barely handle having two unicorns with your skills and knowledge. It would probably explode if it had three.”

“And you wouldn’t want to be responsible for the complete destruction of Canterlot, would you, Moon Dancer?” Sunset inquired.

Moon Dancer made a face, but there wasn’t any real sullenness in it. Thankfully, she was saved from responding directly by the arrival of their lunch. Sunset was grateful for the interruption. There had been a few times where she’d practically had to yank Moon Dancer and Minuette apart, and while she didn’t think this could become one of them, she wasn’t eager to see them get into anything beyond playful banter.

Minuette, as usual, finished first. Her blueberry kebabs—each the size of a small apple—always went fast.

“I almost forgot to mention!” Minuette grinned. “I ran into Lyra yesterday!”

Sunset’s ears perked as she took another bite of a criminally delicious strawberry biscuit.

“Oh?” Sunset asked. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s great! She seems really happy in Ponyville. She’s roommates with an earth pony who just moved there from Canterlot too. Runs a nice little candy shop. Lyra’s already got a few small concerts planned and she’s been hired to do the dinner music for one of the nicer cafés in town.”

Sunset smiled. She’d been a little worried about Lyra since she had decided to escape the bustle of Canterlot and head to the rural town of Ponyville. The place couldn’t be that bad, since Cheerilee had been living there for a few years now. Still, Sunset had been a bit sad to see Lyra leave.

“You ever think about us back then, Sunset?” Minuette asked. “I’ll admit when I first met you, the last thing I ever expected was for you to become one of our best friends.”

Sunset rubbed the back of her mane, wishing she could hide behind it as she grimaced.

“She’s got a point,” Moon Dancer added. “If memory serves, you were pretty much forced to spend time with me.”

“I wasn’t that bad…”

No, you were far, far worse.

Sunset managed to keep the growl internal.

Minuette looked awkward for a moment. She didn’t need to say the words. They were written on her face.

It was Sunset’s turn to slump to the table which had the added benefit of actually allowing her to hide behind her mane.

“Look, I really don’t want to get into this,” she mumbled through the hopefully impenetrable social shield of her mane. “First Celestia and now you two…”

“The Princess brought it up?” Minuette asked.

She groaned. One of these days she’d need to find a way to get that filter installed between her brain and her muzzle. “Yes, she brought it up in passing.”

“And what did she say about it?”

Another sigh. “Same thing as always. Mainly about forgiveness.”

“And here I thought you never ignored a lesson.” Minuette was obnoxiously insightful sometimes, especially when it came to her friends and twice over when it was something that was bothering one of them. Sunset could feel Minuette’s concerned eyes on her even through the shield of her mane. “Sunny…”

“Look!” Sunset snapped her head up. “I know, you’ve been telling me this forever. And one day, hopefully, I will be able to do that. But… you don’t… you don’t know…”

She knew she didn’t want to finish that sentence. She also knew her friends would make her.

Moon Dancer leaned forward and placed a hoof on Sunset’s shoulder. “What’s really going on here? We can both tell this is eating at you, even more than usual. You’re our friend. We want to help.”

“Even friends can’t make the voice go away,” Sunset murmured. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it, but it’s a little pony who loves to point out every mistake you’ve ever made. This morning, the Princess wanted me to study Legends of Equestria, of all things. There’s a lot of stories in there, stories about a lot of ponies who made some pretty big mistakes. I guess, well, I guess my own mistakes have been coming back to haunt me since then.”

“Sunset.” Moon Dancer’s voice was firm. “I know for a fact that it wasn’t Princess Celestia who ordered you to start tutoring me in advanced telekinetic field manipulation. She may have pushed you to spend more time with me afterward, but you were the one who started things off.”

“Girls… you don’t get it!” Sunset almost screamed, but she forced herself to use that breathing exercise Celestia had taught her. It didn’t do much good. “You know how I was during the beginning of that year… even worse than I was the year before! I was awful to the entire class and I was supposed to be Professor Apple Polish’s aide. I was insulting, rude… you hated me.”

“Hate is such a strong word…” Minuette wheedled. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

Sunset stared at her and Minuette’s trademark smile wilted.

“Honestly, Moon Dancer,” Sunset continued. “I don’t even remember why I offered to tutor you. And what I said to you the day of midterms… I don’t know why you even accepted my help. I think… I think the only reason I offered was I thought you were the only pony who might be able to keep up with the insane expectations I had of a student at Celestia’s School. Expectations that even graduate students would have a hard time living up to.”

“But you still did it.” Moon Dancer smiled at her and ran a hoof over her little top knot she kept insisting on wearing, though never when Coco was around for some reason. “That’s what matters. You did it. And you weren’t mean about it… well, you stopped being mean about it really quick, especially after... well, you know. In fact, the next year, you started volunteering to help just about anypony!”

“It wasn’t me.” Sunset’s eyes dropped again. “That was the Princess.”

“What do you mean?” Minuette asked. “I didn’t think the Princess got involved until later… aside from making you the professor’s aide, I mean.”

Sunset took a deep shuddering breath. Did she really want to go through with this? Did she really want to tell them?

Of course you don’t! They won’t understand. They’ll just reject you and abandon you like—

The simple fact the angry little pony in her head said no was enough reason for Sunset to get the words out. She looked up into the accepting faces of her friends and forced herself to speak.

“She finally let me see the mirror again.”

“The mirror?” Minuette blinked a few times. “Oh, you mean the thing she showed you after midterms the year before?”

Sunset nodded. “She… well… I…” She stopped and took a breath. “I had pestered her for weeks about that mirror. After my little speech about what I had seen… Princess Celestia didn’t really seem inclined to talk to me about it. She refused again and again. I think it was halfway through summer, right after your class’s entrance exams, when she announced I would be the new aide for Professor Apple Polish at her school. I wasn’t happy about it. At all.”

Sunset poked at the last half of her biscuit and grabbed the strawberry lemonade on the table. She took a gulp, more to give her a second to get the next part of the story together than any real thirst. It did help that Strawberry Lemonade lived up to her namesake in spades.

“I thought she was trying to get rid of me,” Sunset confessed. “But she wasn’t going to just come right out and do it. Now, well, the whole aide thing… it was a test. A multiple part test, actually. The first part was to see if I would actually go through with it. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was still her personal student. I was angry at her, but I didn’t want to directly defy her. So I did the job. And found out… I kinda liked it.”

Moon Dancer and Minuette smiled at her, giving her enough encouragement to push forward.

“You both know I’ve always been a bit on the… um… ambitious side.” She chuckled nervously. “And with the Princess practically like a mother to me, I wanted to be just like her. In almost… every way. I thought fear was the best way to do it. Looking back, I know that Celestia rarely used fear, but fear… was easier. But after a few weeks as Polish’s aide, I started to get comfortable. I let my angry mask down a bit. It was just a bit though. And I found out that despite what I’d done, I was still respected in a way. Then came the alchemy final. I don't need to remind you what happened then. After that, it… well… it finally clicked. I didn’t need to use fear. I didn’t need to force it. There was a better way. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the only way I can think to describe it.”

“Sunny, for somepony as brilliant as you, you can be incredibly thick sometimes.” Moon Dancer rolled her eyes.

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Sunset stuck out her tongue. “Anyway, it was about a month after Hearth’s Warming Vacation in my second year as an aide and I had just gotten back from class. It was one of your potion lessons, I think. I remember being a little annoyed Lemon Hearts had managed to splatter a beaker of color-shifting glue onto my favorite saddlebags.”

Minuette snorted and giggled at the same time, a Minuette specialty. “Lemon Hearts was terrible with anything alchemical.” She turned to Moon Dancer. “Do you remember when one of her spells went off wrong, and she somehow got her head stuck in a beaker?”

“First-year science lab!” Moon Dancer cackled. “Great times.”

Sunset smirked at that. “Professor Crystal Clear told me that one. Anyway, after class, I went to my lesson with the Princess. She asked why my saddlebags were suddenly a blinding shade of neon pink. I only told her what had happened. She just stood there. She looked at me with this strange, unreadable expression, as if she’d never seen me before.” Sunset frowned. “No, that’s not right. It was like… she was looking into me, looking for something specific, something special. I was worried I’d screwed up somehow, but I didn’t have a clue how.”

And then she fed you the lies—

Buck off, Sunset snapped.

“Then she had me follow her and led me back to the chamber where that mirror was kept. She asked me to look again and to tell her what I saw.”

“What did you see?” Minuette asked. She was literally on the edge of her seat, balanced at a nearly inequine angle as only the maddeningly precise Minuette could do.

Sunset licked her lips. “I saw… myself… as an alicorn, again. But… I was different this time. Like I told you before, the first time I looked, I had this fiery, arrogant stare in my eyes, well, the eyes of my reflection. And behind my reflection had been nothing but darkness. But when I looked this time, just a few months later… I didn’t have the same expression. I was smiling and there were… ponies behind me. Six of them. They were really vague, like brightly colored shadows.”

Minuette’s smile looked like it was ready to burst off from her muzzle and do a little jig all on its own. Even Moon Dancer’s grin was huge.

Sunset flushed. “After I told the Princess everything I saw, she knelt down and wrapped me in the tightest hug I’d ever gotten from her, wings and all. She said, ‘That’s what I was hoping you’d see. I am so very proud of you, Sunset.’” Her voice cracked and she fought back a few tears. “And somehow… that was enough. The mirror just didn’t bother me so much after that. She told me later that day, aside from some effects that are only available for very specific times every few years, the mirror shows ‘potential.’ Though I remember she was curious about the number of shadows, as if the number had been unexpected.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell us about this?” Minuette asked.

“You only ever told us about what you saw the first time around,” Moon Dancer added.

“Because… because… I didn’t think I deserved to tell you I got any closure on it,” Sunset finally admitted after another long gulp of strawberry lemonade. “I was ashamed. I didn’t deserve forgiveness, especially considering how I had treated you. Don’t you remember what I said to you right after that midterm? I told all of you that you were nothing! I heard what Lemon Hearts said… and after the way I acted when you invited me to lunch after complimenting me on my midterm…”

The tears were unwanted, but she couldn’t seem to keep them back.

“…I didn’t deserve to have you as friends.”

Minuette was going to say something, but it was Moon Dancer who managed to react first by thwacking Sunset solidly on the back of the head.

“Sunny, you’re a bucking idiot. The Princess is—shockingly—right. You need to forgive yourself.”

“Sunset, we’ve been friends for years now,” Minuette said with a heartfelt smile. “You need to let this go. It’s not healthy to hold onto this.”

And if you ever manage to forgive yourself, you’ll only make the same mistakes. You’ll just go back to the way you were, a disappointment to Celestia for not being her perfect little clone and be completely alone. But when will you figure out that doesn’t matter? You don’t need their approval. You’re Sunset Shimmer, the most powerful unicorn of your age. You could—

“What if… what if I start making the same mistakes again?” Sunset murmured, rubbing the tears out of her eyes, though they only reappeared seconds later. “I can’t… I can’t bear to think about what my life would be like alone with nothing but books and magic.”

Why is that so bad?

She pressed her forehooves to her forehead and groaned.

“Then Moon Dancer here will buck some sense into you,” Minuette said in an obnoxiously chirpy voice.

“It’s part of the job as your best friend, you know.”

“Really?” Sunset asked.

Moon Dancer grinned. “Sunny, I promise. I’ll always be there to buck you in the head when you need me to.”

Sunset couldn’t help but laugh. “Who would have thought that hearing you say that of all things makes me feel just a bit better?”

“You always were stubborn,” Minuette said with a shrug. “Maybe you just need somepony as stubborn as you. And maybe somepony who’s loyal enough to tell you when you’re being just silly.”

Sunset smiled. “Maybe.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure I used the term ‘idiot.’” Moon Dancer pointed out. “Just to make sure we got that straight.”

“Ah, yes." Sunset couldn’t stop the laugh from escaping her. “Thank you ever so much for the clarification, Moony.”

On the Matter of Harmony

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They had talked for nearly an hour afterward, reliving some of their times at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns together. It had helped. A lot. The voice wasn’t quite so loud in her head anymore, though she knew it wouldn’t go away after one conversation on a fall afternoon.

Sunset had the feeling she had a long road ahead of her. She already had friends who had forgiven her. She had a mentor who had forgiven her.

But the road to forgiving herself was a lot darker and a lot narrower.

When the two o’clock bell started chiming across the city, Sunset confessed she needed to head to the Archives to find The Application of Unified Harmony Magics. Minuette had a job lined up for the afternoon, so she had to say farewell at the Berry Café after a particularly tight hug. Moon Dancer herself needed to head back to the Canterlot Cosmopolitan Library for her shift but offered to walk Sunset to the Royal Canterlot Archives first.

“You know,” Moon Dancer said as they approached the sprawling structure of the Archives. “I just found out that one of our old classmates got promoted last week to Assistant Lead Archivist here.”

“You mean your old classmates,” Sunset corrected. “I was just an aide a few years ahead of you lot.”

“Details, details.” Moon Dancer shrugged. “I don’t know if you remember her. She was pretty quiet back in school, kept to herself mostly.”

“Sounds a bit familiar. I vaguely remember Minuette saying the same thing about you.”

“Well, this brash magical protégée had to come in and ruin my wonderful little sequestered life." Moon Dancer sighed. “It’s an imperfect world.”

Sunset laughed and rolled her eyes. “So who is it?”

“Her name is… hmm… Twilight Twinkle?” Moon Dancer shook her head. “No, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Twilight Sparkle?” Sunset blinked. “Sometimes, I swear that every parent who had foals in our age group used the same thesaurus. I was subbing for Polish’s new aide, and I met a new student named Sunburst who mentioned he had a friend named Starlight Glimmer.”

Moon Dancer laughed. “Seems to be a theme, eh?”

“Maybe I should keep an eye on them. One of them could turn out to be my evil nemesis in the future!”

Moon Dancer stopped and stared at her.

“No offense, Sunny, but even though you’re the Princess’s personal student, I don’t think you really rate a nemesis.”

“But it would make a great narrative symmetry!”

“You’ve been reading too much Saddleson,” Moon Dancer quipped.

“I’ll have you know that Saddleson never uses narrative symmetry for names.”

“Noted.”

They came up to the great fountain in the courtyard of the Royal Canterlot Archives. The golden bells on Starswirl the Bearded’s statue glittered in the afternoon sun as the water cast delicate rainbows on the hard lines of his face. There were plenty of ponies around, most of them sitting alone or in small groups, enjoying the cool autumn air and the afternoon sunlight. The courtyard was a popular reading spot, even if one did not have access to the Archive themselves.

“Anyway, she’s really good with books,” Moon Dancer continued. “Almost as good as me.”

“Now that’s saying something.”

Moon Dancer swatted at Sunset, who managed to prance just out of range of the swipe.

“If you’re hunting for a lost volume, she’d be the pony you’d want to see.”

“I usually just see Scrollwork. He’s always been great at finding tomes.”

“I know. I’ve worked with Scrollwork, remember? But Twilight Sparkle would leave him in the dust. I saw her at the Librarian’s Guild Conference last week. Rumor is that she’s pegged to take over the archives after Head Archivist Ink Method retires in a few years.”

“That can’t be right. If she graduated with your class, she wouldn’t have enough tenure for that.”

“She’s that good. After all, Ink Method herself recruited her right out of school for the Archives. I know ponies in the Cosmo that have been after just a junior position there for years and she got it out of the gate.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. Straight from Celestia’s School to the Royal Canterlot Archives? That was impressive.

“Okay, I’ll look her up. What’s she look like?”

“Oh, she’s gorgeous. You’ll love her. After all, she looks a lot like me.”

“Seriously?” Sunset rolled her eyes. “This again?”

Moon Dancer gave her a grin that would have made Minuette proud. “One of these days, you’ll need to come to terms with the fact you’re head over hooves in love with me.”

“Except for the fact I happen to know you have eyes only for the stallions.”

“There’s no harm in pining over perfection.”

It was finally Sunset’s turn to whack Moon Dancer over the head, which elicited a long laugh from the librarian. She adjusted her glasses with a flick of magic.

“Well, I need to get going, Sunny.” Moon Dancer smiled and gave her friend a tight hug. “Listen, I know you have an evening session with the Princess, but why don’t we go out for doughnuts afterward? I’ll see if Rara and Coco are free. After what we talked about at lunch, I think you need a bit more proof that you have friends.”

“That would be great.” Sunset returned the smile. “I’ll fire you off a message after we’re done for the evening.”

“Then it’s a date.” Moon Dancer’s eyes sparkled. “You know, because—”

“Get going before I whack you even harder, you little brat.”

The grin reappeared and Moon Dancer sauntered off, but not before giving Sunset a come-hither look over her shoulder.

“I mean it!” Sunset warned, trying—and failing—to hide the smirk on her face.

Moon Dancer laughed and without another word, headed back toward Canterlot proper and toward her own library. Sunset found herself watching her best friend for a few seconds longer than was strictly necessary. She muttered something to herself, but the smirk remained.

The lobby of the Archives never ceased to impress Sunset Shimmer, even though she’d been through it countless times. Statues of the greatest scholars in the history of Equestria stood in alcoves along the perimeter of the immense space, each nearly three stories tall. Starswirl the Bearded stood in his classic pose, his eyes half-narrowed at some great danger to Equestria and his body tensed to throw some fireball or something equally dramatic. Beside him was the small hooded figure of his student, Clover the Clever. The graceful Meadowbrook was a bit further down, right after Hayscartes and his obnoxiously bushy hair. Feeling the statues’ gazes upon her always gave Sunset a bit of a thrill. She hoped one day that she might be deemed worthy enough to be remembered here.

An immense horseshoe circulation desk dominated the lobby. Half a dozen ponies stood behind it, most of them speaking to other graduate students, a few seniors from Celestia’s School and a couple of professors. Enormous vaulted corridors led deeper into the Archives, branching out in all directions.

Well, let’s see if we can find this Twilight Sparkle, Sunset mused as she looked over the circulation desk.

She didn’t see anypony matching Twilight’s description—though Moon Dancer didn’t actually elaborate on what the pony really looked like beyond a resemblance to herself—but she did see Scrollwork. Surrounded by a fort of books, the stallion looked much as he always did: frazzled and harried with his large glasses askew. She trotted up and gave the old gray earth pony a friendly wave, making sure to pitch her voice at an ‘acceptable’ level for the Archives. After all, the last thing she wanted to do was get on Ink Method’s bad side.

“Sunset!” Scrollwork said with a slightly crazed smile. “Delighted to see you again, my dear. What mad quest brings you here today?”

Sunset chuckled. “No mad quest today, Scrollwork. Just looking for a little lost book.”

“Little lost book, now?” He cocked his head, making his glasses nearly fall of his muzzle. “Those are not words of which I am fond, Sunset Shimmer.”

“Princess Celestia said it had been misplaced when she put in the request for my latest study.”

“Ah.” Scrollwork frowned. “Yes. The Application of Unified Harmony Magics by Nightsong. I’d love to help you find it today, Sunset, but as you can see, I’m simply buried in books! A new shipment just came in from the Manehattan Vaults. I swear they wouldn’t know a card catalog if it accosted them in broad daylight. Sadly, I simply don’t have the time to spare.”

“That’s okay,” Sunset replied. “Moon Dancer actually recommended somepony specific to help me find it. I believe her name was Twilight Sparkle? She was supposed to be recently promoted to Assistant Lead Archivist.”

“Ah yes, the prodigy." Scrollwork smiled wanly. “She’ll be running this place within fifty moons, mark my words. Never seen anypony who can make books dance like that. They simply leap into her magical embrace like long-lost friends.”

“Think she might be willing to help me out?”

The wizened earth pony shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I believe she should be coming back from break any moment now. And I am still the most tenured Assistant Lead Archivist, so supposedly that means I have some measure of authority around this place, at least until Twilight’s little coup is complete.”

Sunset laughed. Scrollwork was always bemoaning the ‘young hotshots’ that were after his position, but she knew better. He loved the idea of eager young librarians pushing their way up the ranks and Canterlot had a great many of them. After all, an appointment to the Royal Canterlot Archives was a mark of distinction. Anypony who had spent their time in the trenches of the massive archive could easily run her own library after five years. Moon Dancer’s route had been a bit different, as she had felt called to work in the public Cosmopolitan Library, but she could still run circles around almost any of these ponies in the art of library management.

“Oh yes, here she comes!” Scrollwork said, looking behind her toward the front doors.

Sunset turned to see this mysterious Twilight Sparkle and her jaw nearly hit the floor. She was almost the spitting image of Moon Dancer, but if Moon Dancer had a lavender coat instead of her yellowish gray one. Even the streaks in her hair were identical in pattern if not in shade. Thankfully, Twilight didn’t wear her mane in a topknot of which Moon Dancer was so very fond. Instead, it was in a slightly frazzled curling mane with two hanging bangs framing her violet eyes. She even wore glasses too, though hers were a refined pair of thick black-rimmed spectacles without the padding Moon Dancer preferred.

But the biggest difference between Moon Dancer and Twilight Sparkle was the way Twilight walked.

Moon Dancer had been almost a recluse when Sunset first started tutoring her, but since then the pale unicorn had shattered that shell. She wasn’t on par with an extrovert like Minuette, of course, but she was more than happy to be involved in social events. She’d even thrown a few parties, though they always had something to do with books. Not that Sunset minded. She liked books, after all.

Twilight on the other hand, practically radiated distraction. The mare screamed librarian from halfway across the room in a way Sunset found oddly refreshing. It looked like she was juggling three dozen things in her head at the same time. In fact, she was barely watching where she was going, yet somehow managed to slide through the throng of ponies wandering about the lobby.

Even from this distance, Sunset knew this mare might actually be able to run a few circles around even her.

Then Sunset got it.

Damn it. Moon Dancer had known.

She promised herself that she would strangle Moon Dancer the first chance she got… probably.

“Oh, Twilight!” Scrollwork called. “Could you come here a moment?”

The lavender unicorn had been taking quick nervous peeks around the lobby, causing her bangs to flit around her face. They smacked her in the muzzle when Scrollwork called for her. After blinking a moment, she trotted forward to come to a stop beside Sunset. She looked for all the world like an attentive young student, not an up-and-coming Royal Archivist.

“Twilight Sparkle, I’d like you to meet Sunset Shimmer. She’s Princess Celestia’s personal student.”

Twilight glanced at her, making eye contact for just a moment before digging at the marble floor with a hoof. “Oh, I know.”

“You do?” Sunset blinked in surprise.

Twilight still wouldn’t meet Sunset’s gaze. “Oh, yes. You were Professor Apple Polish’s aide for a few years. You… um… well… you weren’t exactly a very nice pony.”

I can’t get a break today, can I?

Sunset swallowed. “Um… yeah. I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t really—”

“You’re also the one who made friends with Moon Dancer and Minuette.”

This one caught Sunset totally off guard. “Yeah? Is that… okay?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Twilight shrugged but still didn’t meet Sunset’s eyes.

Sunset knew she was missing something, but she would be damned if she knew what.

“Ahem.” Scrollwork had obviously seen the awkwardness, but it sounded like he didn’t have any more idea what was going on than Sunset did. “Sunset’s in need of your unique skillset, Twilight. Apparently, we’ve mislaid our only copy of The Application of Unified Harmony Magics. Princess Celestia had requested it recently, but it seems it was sent into the Stack Vaults by accident. However, it appears that finding its location is imperative. I’d like to ask you to help Sunset locate the book.”

“Oh, there’s no need to trouble somepony like Miss Shimmer,” Twilight said quickly. “I’m sure I can locate the volume in question within the day.”

“No, please. I’d actually like to help.”

“I’m sure you have much more important things to do.”

“Actually, I really enjoy this sort of thing.”

The archivist still wasn’t meeting her eyes. Sunset wracked her brain, trying to remember what in Equestria she might have done to this mare back at Celestia’s School.

Scrollwork looked between the two mares as Twilight began to protest once more. He held up a hoof, silencing the young unicorn.

“Miss Shimmer seems to be determined to be of assistance, Twilight. You wouldn’t want to disappoint the prized student of Princess Celestia now, would you?”

Sunset shot Scrollwork a glare. He knew she hated using her status like that.

Okay, there had been the thing with Coloratura, but that had been a special case!

The last thing she wanted was to guilt somepony into spending time with her. Whatever she had done to this mare, that would simply make things worse. But before she could bow out of the conversation and allow Twilight to find the book on her own, Twilight sighed, her muzzle twisted in a frown. Finally, she nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

“Look,” Sunset said quickly. “You don’t need to worry about disappointing the Princess if you’d rather find the book on your own. Moon Dancer said you were amazing. I’d probably just slow you down. It’s just been a while since I’ve got to really scour the stacks of the Archives. I kind of missed doing it.”

For the first time since that awkward glance, Twilight met her eyes. There was something vaguely approaching warmth in them. It was just a flicker, so faint that Sunset couldn’t really identify it, but it was there.

“Well, if that’s the real reason you want to go book hunting, that’s something I can respect.”

“Then it’s settled,” Scrollwork said, startling both mares. “I’d recommend starting in the Advanced Arcane Theorems Stacks. The shipping manifest said it had been placed back there for storage. It’s been a while since anypony inquired after Nightsong’s works.”

Twilight nodded. “I’ll take her there immediately. If you’ll follow me, Miss Shimmer?”

The archivist immediately headed off toward the leftmost corridor into the Archives. Sunset gave Scrollwork a single searching look. For his part, his expression appeared completely innocent, an act Sunset wasn’t buying for a second.

Is everypony out to get me today? At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Celestia was in on this.

Sunset was forced to trot and weave around other patrons to catch up to the retreating Twilight Sparkle. When she reached her, Twilight was staring straight ahead, her body posture tense and formal, as if she was escorting some member of the nobility. Sunset’s lunch twisted in her stomach at the thought that anypony might think of her like that.

“You don’t have to call me Miss Shimmer. You can just call me Sunset.”

“It wouldn’t be proper to address somepony of your status in such a way,” Twilight replied, not deigning to look in her direction. “As a member of the Royal Canterlot Archives, it is my responsibility to show the correct decorum to those who deserve it.”

Sunset wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a faint stress on the last two words.

“Please,” Sunset tried again. “I… I really don’t mind. In fact, I hate it when people call me Miss Shimmer. That’s my mom’s name.”

The younger unicorn let out a sigh. “As you wish… Sunset.”

The next several minutes were spent in awkward silence as Sunset continued to dig through her memories regarding Twilight Sparkle. Twilight, on the other hoof, simply led her through the immensity of the Royal Canterlot Archives. Each chamber was enormous, the ceilings at least eight stories high. All around them stood the massive oak bookshelves, filled with a vast number of volumes, compendiums, scrolls and manuscripts in every conceivable size and shape. The shelves stood like giant sentinels of knowledge, awaiting those who had proven worthy in uncovering their mysteries. The reverent murmurs of whispered conversation hung about them as they walked. Scattered throughout were inviting-looking reading nooks illuminated by tiny pools of light from the faux fireflies in delicate crystalline lamps.

Even at her worst, there was always something about this place that gave her a sense of peace and serenity that was rivaled only by studying with the Princess.

But now, that harmony had been broken inside of her. She wrestled with her memory, demanding that it give her the answer to what she had done to make Twilight Sparkle act like this around her. After everything she’d gone through today, the idea that her mistakes were still bothering somepony ate at her mind, fueling the fire that was the angry little pony in the back of her head. She wanted nothing more than to shut that angry little pony up. She’d made an important step in finally confessing the end result of the mirror fiasco to Minuette and Moon Dancer, but the battle wasn’t over.

Would it ever be over? Or am I stuck doubting myself forever?

Finally, Twilight’s horn glowed as they approached a thick wooden door etched with archaic runes that predated even Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. These were the legendary Archive Stacks, the home to one copy of nearly every written work produced in Equestria in the last millennium. It had been a long time since she had been in here, the last time accompanying Princess Celestia herself to find the original copy of Predictions and Prophecies.

“One moment as I unlock the wards,” Twilight said formally.

Sunset nodded, not wanting to interrupt the archivist. While the wards around the Archive Stacks weren’t nearly as extensive as the ones in the Restricted Section of the Castle Archives, they were still immensely powerful. After all, there were still vaults of scrolls in the deepest depths of the Stacks that had yet to be cataloged. Nopony knew what might lay within those works.

Each of the runes glowed with a soft light, matching the raspberry-colored aura from Twilight’s horn as she undid the magical locks. After a few seconds, all the runes were lit. They flashed white for just a moment then faded and the sound of a soft click echoed in the quiet space around them. Twilight used her magic to pull open the door and gestured for Sunset to go first.

Sunset’s horn flared with a light spell as she stepped over the threshold. The air on the other side was cool, adjusted through magical devices scattered throughout the depths of the Archive Stacks to keep the manuscripts in perfect condition. Twilight’s own horn ignited with light as she followed Sunset and closed the door behind them. There was another click, this time sounding much louder as the door sealed itself once more.

They were standing in a narrow stone corridor that led to a T junction. A few signs in both archaic Equestrian and modern Equestrian were hammered into the cold stone at the intersection. But before Twilight could move forward, Sunset stopped her.

“Twilight,” Sunset began. “Since I saw you, I’ve been trying to remember what I might have done to you in the past. I’m… I’m ashamed to say I can’t think of anything. If I remember correctly, while you were in Professor Polish’s class, you and I barely exchanged more than ten words. You never needed my help, you aced everything he threw at you. You were the best student in the class, in your entire year. By Celestia, you were probably the best since—”

She stopped herself before her ego ran away with her, but Twilight was quick on the uptake.

“Since you?” She regarded her coolly. “Was that what you were going to say, Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset winced at the use of her full name. It wasn’t as bad as ‘Miss Shimmer,’ but it still stung. As for Twilight’s question, she couldn’t bring herself to answer. Nevertheless, Twilight seemed to take her silence as the answer she was looking for and stalked off down the hallway, turning right at the fork.

Sunset could do nothing but follow.

Once more, silence fell as they descended into the Stacks. While each section of the Archives had its own dedicated series of stacks located beneath the wing, they were interconnected by interlocking security gates. They had to pass through at least three before they arrived in the Advanced Arcane Theorems section. Sunset wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought they were under the Starswirl the Bearded wing now, though they had descended from the Clover the Clever wing.

At long last, they reached the Stack Vault itself, an immense room that seemed to be a shadow version of the great chambers of the Archives above ground. With no light other than their horns—Sunset knew this was again to protect the precious manuscripts from potential fading—it was nearly impossible to see the full scope of the Vault. It reminded Sunset of the time Moon Dancer and she had gone spelunking in the forgotten gem mines beneath Canterlot—something that Celestia had not been happy about when they were found by the Royal Guard.

In truth, it likely would have taken hours to search the entire Stack Vault if not for Twilight. As soon as they entered the vast room, Twilight’s horn flashed with a brilliant violet light. When the spots were gone from Sunset’s vision, thin snaking lines of shimmering blue energy wandered through the room, crisscrossing and twisting like a game of cat’s cradle gone mad.

“What… what is this?” Sunset asked as she reached out a hoof to one of the luminous strings. It passed straight through, but there was a faint buzz on her skin, reminding her a bit of the vibration of Sunset’s journal whenever Celestia wrote her a new letter.

“Life trace spell,” Twilight said with a hint of smugness. “What you’re seeing is the residual life-force of everypony who’s walked through this chamber in the last week.”

“But… but…” Sunset sputtered. “I’ve never even heard of a spell like that.”

Twilight smirked just a bit. “I found it while searching this very room for a volume by Clover the Clever.”

Sunset’s eyes hadn’t moved from the web of light before her. She just kept passing her hoof through a strand over and over again.

“What was the book?”

The Melding of Harmonies. Her ultimate work on what she believed caused the ‘Fire of Friendship.’”

Sunset’s head jerked up. “That’s impossible. All copies were lost when the Castle of the Two Sisters was abandoned.”

“That’s what I had been told.” The smirk grew just a bit more. “Apparently, not the case.”

“I’d love to see it,” Sunset breathed. “This… this is beautiful.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. It is.”

Sunset just stood there in the gloomy dark, lit only by the glow of the unicorns’ horns and the wisps of fine light snaking through the room. Each thread started at the doorway they had just entered and spread out through the vast chamber, ending at various bookshelves or threading into the deeper recesses of the Vault.

It was Twilight who broke the silence, telling Sunset they should probably get to finding the book Sunset sought.

Sunset started but nodded quickly.

“Just follow the paths. Hopefully, it was placed down here in the last week or so. Otherwise, we’ll need to search by hoof. It’s not my preferred method for a quick retrieval.”

Twilight marched off, following one of the paths deeper into the Vault, while Sunset started with the tomes closest to her. Scrollwork had said that the book had been accidentally sent here instead of the reserved section. She wished he had been more specific.

Even though this had been something she’d been looking forward to since she had first discovered the subject in a spellwork compendium last Hearth’s Warming Eve, she couldn’t really focus. At each terminus of Twilight’s spell, she glanced at the books, looking for Nightsong’s work, but not really seeing the titles or authors of the various tomes. Instead, her mind was wrapped up in the mystery of Twilight Sparkle.

She had one additional piece of information.

Twilight resented her. And she seriously resented the comparison between herself and Sunset.

Why are you bothering with this obnoxious mare? the angry little pony demanded. She’s a librarian. You’re the personal student of the Princess of the Sun. She’s nothing to you.

Because I did something, Sunset shot back. And because unlike what I used to be—you—I’m trying to care about ponies other than myself!

Oh yes, since you’ve seen such an amazing influx of power since then. If you had stayed your course, you could have become who you were meant to be. Somepony who could be great, powerful… somepony that could rule Equestria. Now your vision shows that you’re weak. You have to have others to help you in your so-called ‘potential.’

So what? Maybe that’s what I want now. Maybe friendship is a better way than simple selfish ambition.

You are a fool, through and through. One day, you’ll admit I’m right and—

“Sunset?”

“Gah!” Sunset yelped and toppled backward when Twilight suddenly appeared out of nowhere in front of her. She landed with a hard thud, banging her horn against the cool stone below, sending a massive jolt of pain through her skull.

“Ow…” she murmured, rubbing her horn. “That… ow… that really hurt…”

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said. “You were just staring into space… and you looked… angry.”

Sunset sat up and immediately regretted it as the room spun around her. Her light spell imploded and she collapsed back to the ground, clutching her head.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight knelt next to her.

“Banged my horn when I fell,” Sunset groaned. “Oh, I forgot just how much it hurts to do that.”

“Do you need me to find you a doctor?” Twilight actually sounded concerned. “I’m sure I can get one to you quickly—”

“No,” Sunset interrupted. “No, I’ll be okay. I just need a few minutes. Do you mind if I just lie here for a bit?”

“Well, as long as the Head Archivist doesn’t catch you and think you’re sleeping, I suppose you’ll be okay.”

“Thank you, Twilight.”

“It’s… it’s nothing,” the archivist muttered. “If you don’t mind me asking… why did you look so angry? It seemed like the light from your horn was becoming… I don’t know, darker somehow.”

Oh, well that’s not good.

“Um.”

Sunset had no reason to tell her the truth. After all, Twilight had been nothing but cold to her since they had met in the lobby an hour ago. But Sunset knew if she left this place with Twilight still upset or angry or bitter or whatever she was, it would eat at Sunset and she’d lose any progress Sunset had made toward forgiving herself.

No, Sunset snapped at herself. What matters isn’t me forgiving myself. It’s about what I did to her and finding out how to fix it.

“I was… thinking about you,” Sunset murmured. “Trying to figure out why you seem so cold toward me. What I had done to upset you back in school.”

Twilight cocked her head. “Why do you care so much? So what if I resent you? Why should that matter?”

“For the old me, it wouldn’t have.” Sunset looked into the archivist’s eyes. “But I’ve changed a lot since then. At least, I like to think I have. It was a hard road, figuring out other ponies actually mattered more than me. I still slip up all the time and come across as this egomaniacal harpy.”

She rubbed her head again and winced at the sharp jab of pain in her skull.

“I… I just wish I knew what I did.”

There was a thick silence as the two mares watched each other. Twilight’s face was as inscrutable as Celestia’s, even as Sunset felt her heart seize up. She didn’t want to lose the idea that others could forgive her for her past mistakes. She didn’t want Twilight to hate her, especially for reasons Sunset didn’t understand. Despite the fact that she barely knew this pony, it mattered.

The evil, angry little pony in the back of her head was nattering away, systematically tearing her apart with words, emotions, thoughts and memories as they sat in the cool darkness of the Stack Vault. The silent tormentor, always ready to pounce on her when she was weak.

Sunset eventually pushed herself to a sitting position, ignoring the swimming room around her by focusing on the unicorn standing in front of her.

Finally, Twilight let out an explosive sigh, so loud that Sunset jumped and immediately regretted it when her head swam. Twilight sat on the ground with a thud and unleashed a glare that would have probably made the griffon ambassador nervous.

“You stole my friends.”

“Wait… what?”

“You stole my friends,” Twilight repeated and stared at the stone beneath their hooves. “You strode into the class with the prestige and power of Princess Celestia on you. You’re one of the most important ponies in all of Equestria. I can’t imagine the sort of things she’s had you involved in. But for some reason, you were an aide for Professor Apple Polish that year.”

“It’s not like that—”

“If you want an answer, let me finish,” Twilight snapped.

Sunset shut up.

“Do you know how hard it is for me to make connections with other ponies? I’m not exactly what you would call an extrovert. But over the few years before you showed up, I was finally making some connections. I… I didn’t think it was all that important at the time, really. But then you came around. You started tutoring Moon Dancer and she spent time with you. Then Moon Dancer brought in Minuette. Even Lemon Hearts and Twinkleshine spent time with you. The wonderful, amazing, perfect student of the Princess of the Sun!”

Twilight took a deep breath and tried to wrangle her voice. Sunset could see Twilight fighting herself as the last few words had actually echoed in the dark Vault. She was trembling all over as if suppressing the desire to start physically attacking Sunset.

“And then… I was alone again. And it hurt. More than I imagined. I was left with little else than my books and my test scores. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have believed it… but after they just stopped hanging out with me… it hurt. A lot.”

“Why didn’t you join us?” Sunset blurted. “I know Moon Dancer. I know Minuette. I know they would have invited you!”

Twilight sniffled. “It’s a stupid reason.”

Sunset tentatively reached out a hoof toward Twilight. Twilight shied away, but she didn’t completely recoil, allowing the gentle touch.

“I want to know, please.”

“Weren’t you paying attention?” Twilight groaned and threw her an exasperated glare. “You’re Sunset Shimmer. The pride and joy of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. The most powerful unicorn in the last two hundred years. Aced every test. Beloved by every teacher. There are professors who think of you with the same reverence they do of Princess Celestia! And I’m… just me. A regular, boring old unicorn who’s good with books, completely incompetent when it comes to anything resembling friends and only realized that something mattered to me once it was gone.”

Twilight jerked away from Sunset and stood, staring into the darkness so her tail was facing Sunset. Despite that, Sunset could hear the tears in Twilight’s voice as she continued to speak.

“The day I went to my first Summer Sun Celebration and saw Celestia raising the sun… I wanted to be just like her. I would have given anything to have what you have. Personal time with the Princess of the Sun? An immortal alicorn with enough magical power to control the heavens themselves? For pony’s sake, she’s a bucking goddess in all but name! And you… you were hers. Seeing you there, in that class with the ponies I had once thought of as friends… just reminded me how small I was and how little I mattered.”

Twilight let out a muted laugh. There was no mirth in it. It was a laugh of a broken pony, one who had been bottling something up until it had soured. A low and simmering bitterness, tempered by a crushing lack of self-confidence.

Sunset swallowed and thought back to the mirror. But instead of herself, Sunset saw Twilight in the mirror’s reflection.

She’s me. She’s what I could have been if I hadn’t made the choices that brought me here today. If anything, I could have been worse. If Celestia hadn’t forced me to be a teacher’s aide or if I had continued to obsess over that mirror… it wouldn’t be bitterness eating away at me. It would have been anger.

Because at a certain point, even Celestia’s patience has its limits. They’re hard to find, but they’re there. I should know. I pushed them hard enough.

Celestia might have decided I wasn’t worth the trouble after all. If I had pushed her too far… there would have been only one outcome. Only one outcome I can think of. I can only imagine my reaction to that.

There but for the grace of Harmony…

Sunset stood to her hooves. The darkness wobbled around her, but she ignored it. If there was one thing she was well-versed in, it was determination and right now she needed every iota of it. With a burst from her horn, she sent a small ball of light into the air, shining down on them with a soft sun-like glow. Twilight started at the sudden increase in light, illuminating the ancient stacks of scrolls and manuscripts that surrounded them. She turned back to Sunset, her eyes red and her cheeks wet.

Happy now?” Twilight demanded, her face hard.

Twilight’s horn flared with magic and she tossed a book Sunset hadn’t noticed before at the older unicorn. Instinctively, she caught it with her own magic and an old cracked tome labeled The Applications of Unified Harmony Magic floated in a teal aura before her. She looked at the book and then to Twilight.

She made her choice.

Nightsong’s seminal piece on unified spellwork dropped to the floor with a thud. Sunset didn’t even glance at it. She just stepped over the book.

Twilight looked shocked, nearly horrified. Sunset didn’t care at the moment. She walked right up to the other unicorn, ignoring the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her.

“I’m sorry,” Sunset said. “I didn’t know. It was all happening right in front of me and I didn’t see it. All those things you think I am? Some amazing gifted prodigy? I’m not that pony. I was arrogant, selfish… I thought I was the greatest thing on four legs. Because of that attitude, I nearly ruined my entire life. I almost alienated Princess Celestia. I didn’t realize until later just how close I came. And it wasn’t even me who got me to change. It was Moon Dancer and Minuette. Then Cheerilee, Crystal Clear’s aide. Eventually, Rara and Coco Pommel helped too. They’re the ones who bucked some sense into me… got me to look outside myself. And to take a good look inside too. I didn’t like what I found. I still don’t.

“Twilight, there’s a lot of things I know I’m good at. But being a friend isn’t one of them. Neither is forgiveness. Every day, I have a little voice in my head telling me one of two things: that Celestia is secretly holding me back and preventing me from becoming what I should be or that I’m a terrible pony who doesn’t deserve friendship, kindness or forgiveness for how I’ve treated others in the past.”

Twilight gaped at her, her mouth moving, but no words coming out.

“I know all too well what it’s like to have a voice in your head always tearing you down or ripping you apart. There are mornings I can’t stand to look at the pony in the mirror. The only reason there are days when I can do it is because my friends have managed to buck some more sense into my thick skull.” Sunset laughed. “As you can imagine, that takes a lot of work.”

The other unicorn giggled, a faint trace of a smile passing over her muzzle.

“I meant what I said earlier. The professors loved you. They loved you a lot more than me, actually. Because you didn’t have the ego I did. You were humble. You didn’t see it as a big deal. Now, in my eyes, that makes you twice the unicorn I am. Yeah, I got lucky. On the day of my entrance exam, I had a magic surge so powerful that it caught Celestia’s attention. Probably helped that I had drawn on the power of the sun to do it.”

“Lucky you.” Twilight’s ears went flat. “On the day of my exam, I couldn’t even finish the third test.”

Sunset blinked. “Wait… nopony ever told you?”

“Tell me what?”

“I can’t believe nopony ever told you.” Sunset laughed again, this time in shock. “Twilight, I know what happened during your entrance exam. I overheard Professors Polish and Clear talking about it one day. You got a perfect score on the written examination. You went through all of the standard exercises in the first exam. You went through all of the reserve tests halfway through the second level exam! That last test with the dragon egg was a desperate attempt by the faculty to come up with something, anything for you to do. Nopony expected you to do it. By Celestia, Twilight, none of the professors could do it. Seriously, how many dragons have you seen in Canterlot? If popping baby dragons out of eggs was a normal exam, everypony in the school would have one!”

Once again, Twilight was struck speechless.

“Twilight, you are anything but worthless. You’re probably one of the brightest minds to come out of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns ever. I meant what I said earlier. You never needed my help. If anything, I vaguely remember feeling threatened by you when I saw your first test scores. I’m just glad… I’m glad I changed before I could try to tear you down.”

Twilight stared at her as if Sunset had just announced she was a Diamond Dog in a clever disguise. “You… felt threatened by me?

Sunset nodded with a silly little smile. “So, I guess we were both terrified of each other.”

Twilight’s look of shock cracked, broke and dissolved into a goofy grin that Sunset couldn’t help but find cute.

“Yeah… I guess we were. Sounds like it was for pretty stupid reasons too.”

“Twilight, I’m not perfect. I’m so far from perfect I couldn’t see it using the Royal Observatory. I’m a unicorn who’s made a lot of mistakes and who’s desperately trying to make up for them. I’m a unicorn who’s terrified of going back to the way I was because I worry what I might become if I walk down that road. If I was alone… I don’t know where I’d be. But I’m not alone. You don’t have to be alone either.”

“It’s been too long—” Twilight began, but Sunset cut her off.

“No. It’s never been too long. They were your friends back then, Twilight. I know they’d be happy to be your friends now too. I know them. I’m sure.”

Twilight was quiet for a long time. “Really?”

“Really.”

She dug at the floor in an almost exact copy of what she had done upstairs, but her entire manner was different now. This wasn’t fear. This was simply being nervous.

“I… I don’t know.”

“I’m getting together with them tonight at Pony Joe’s after my evening classes with the Princess. I think you should join us.”

Twilight backed away, looking everywhere but at Sunset. She looked so flustered, so lost and so small that Sunset’s heart nearly broke. She wanted to help the younger unicorn. It took her only a moment to remember one of Twilight’s confessions.

“Tell you what, Twilight,” Sunset said, a little bit of a smirk on her face. “If you’ll come with me tonight to see your—our—friends, I’ll bring you to meet Princess Celestia tomorrow afternoon.”

Twilight froze as if she had been blasted by a cockatrice’s glare.

“P-P-Princess… Celestia?” Twilight eventually stammered. “You’d… introduce… I couldn’t. I’m not ready for anything like that. It’s impossible. That’s a terrible idea. I’ll make a complete idiot out of myself sort of like I’m doing right now howcouldyouevenask—”

Sunset shoved a forehoof into Twilight’s stammering muzzle. “Please. Without knowing it, I stole your friends and left you alone. Let me make it up to you. You said you wanted to be just like her. Well, that’s another thing we share. I just said that this afternoon.”

Sunset licked her lips. She had to do this. Somehow, she just knew she had to. Gently, she removed her forehoof.

“What if—”

“No,” Sunset cut her off again, this time, just verbally. “No what ifs. Please. If not for yourself… do it for me. Let me have a little closure here… and maybe make a new friend.”

“A new friend…” Twilight mumbled. Her violet eyes stared over Sunset’s shoulder as if Celestia herself were standing right behind her. She adjusted her glasses with a flick of magic and then managed to meet Sunset’s gaze once more. “And a chance… to meet… Princess Celestia herself…”

Sunset nodded.

“Oh, I’m going to regret this so much,” Twilight moaned. “Okay. But don’t leave me alone. I can’t handle this alone.”

Sunset’s heart nearly burst as a desperate tension faded from her body. Sunset nodded, giving Twilight a smile that might have impressed Minuette.

“I’ll come by tonight after my class. When does your shift end?”

“Nine.” Twilight nearly whispered the word. “I’m off at nine.”

“Perfect. I should be done around eight-thirty. It’s a date then.”

Twilight instantly went bright red and a split-second later, Sunset knew she did the same.

“Yeah, can we just pretend I didn’t just say that last part?” Sunset said hopefully.

Twilight nodded emphatically.

“Okay,” Sunset said. “Never happened.”

The blush remained. On Twilight. And on herself.

“Thank you, Twilight. I promise this will be worth it. I’ll make sure of it.”

Twilight stared at her. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just… never really had anypony been so concerned about me like that, well, aside from my brother.”

“Well, that’s what friends do. They look out for each other.”

Another pause.

“You know, you aren’t nearly as scary as I thought you were.” Twilight laughed nervously.

“I used to be,” Sunset admitted. “I’m trying to do better now.”

“I think you’re doing great.”

Sunset wasn’t sure how to answer that. Instead, she just felt her face grow a bit warmer.

Once more, silence descended upon the Vault. But this time, it was a much more comfortable silence. The confusion in the air had dissipated and while it wasn’t completely gone, Sunset felt like she could finally breathe again.

“Well, this… turned out differently than I expected.”

“Yeah,” Twilight replied. “Not exactly what I was planning for the day.”

“We should probably get going. I’m sure you have plenty to do and I need to prepare for my class tonight.” She made to move toward the door, only to have Twilight call out to her.

“Sunset, you forgot something.”

Wrapped in Twilight’s raspberry aura, The Applications of Unified Harmony Magics by Nightsong floated up beside her. Sunset reached out with her own magic to take it and for the briefest of moments, the magic of the two unicorns flowed into one another. The book lit up like a beacon, glowing in a shimmering rainbow of colors.

Through the magic, Sunset felt something strange flow through her, like a cool shower on a hot day. Then images flashed through her mind, faster than lightning. She gasped in time with Twilight.

It was just the briefest of glimpses, but in that glimpse, she saw the true Twilight Sparkle. A pony with the same dreams as her, just as lost and confused as Sunset often felt. The same reverence and love of Princess Celestia, though in a different texture and a different manner. The same obsession with learning and magic. The same raw magical talent and power. That and a thousand more tiny details Sunset simply couldn’t process.

It was almost like looking into a reflection of herself if she had walked down a slightly different path.

And then, the moment was gone.

Sunset managed to hold onto the levitation field as the magical aura shifted back to the familiar teal. She looked up into Twilight’s eyes and knew without a doubt that Twilight had received the same glimpse into Sunset as Sunset had seen of Twilight.

Twilight’s face was twisted, her brow furrowed, her eyes locked onto something Sunset couldn’t see. Her ears flicked up and down. Twilight blinked a few times and her mouth moved silently.

What had she seen? Would she react with revulsion? With pity? Hatred? Would she end up despising me for what she saw? Celestia, I was doing so well… I was trying so hard…

Instead, Twilight looked at her with something that could only be described as wonder.

“I… I saw you as an alicorn,” she whispered in a voice so quiet it was barely heard even in the still silence of the Vault. “With five friends behind you… and one other.”

Sunset didn’t know what to say. How could she explain her greatest failure and her greatest success to a pony she barely knew? But that wasn’t true anymore. She understood Twilight. Just as she knew that Twilight understood her.

Moon Dancer’s explanation of unified spellwork to Minuette came back to her.

“When proper harmony is found between the two ponies, the result of said spell connects them on a deeply fundamental level.”

Could harmony be based on regret? Or a need for forgiveness? Maybe a need for acceptance? Validation? Or something else that wasn’t as easily defined?

“Hey Twilight,” Sunset blurted out. “Maybe after class tomorrow… you want to go to Pony Joe’s? Just the two of us?”

Twilight blinked for a few seconds and then nodded slowly. “I think I’d like that.”

Sunset smiled warmly, slipped the book into one of her saddlebags. While she followed Twilight back through the maze of passages up into the Royal Canterlot Archives proper, every corridor seemed a bit brighter. It felt like Celestia’s smile… or smirk.

She said her farewells to Twilight at the reception desk, renewing her promise to come and get her to meet their friends tonight after her session with Celestia. Sunset wasn’t ready for the sudden hug that Twilight gave her, but she welcomed it and found herself hugging back, tighter than she would have expected from herself.

Sunset made sure not to notice Twilight’s blush as Twilight pulled away. She was sure that Twilight wasn’t noticing Sunset’s own blush either.

Scrollwork, on the other hoof, was grinning like an idiot the entire time. Sunset ignored him.

Sunset waved goodbye one more time and stepped back out into the crisp autumn air just as the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon. She knew the lesson plan for tonight but suspected that Celestia would likely have little interest in the planned curriculum.

No, Sunset knew Princess Celestia well enough to know that would be the last thing on her mind.

This was going to make one heck of an interesting report to the Princess.