Looking Glass

by Krickis

First published

When Sunset sees herself as an alicorn in a magical mirror, she goes looking for answers, eventually going through the mirror into another world. Some things are better left alone though, as she finds herself trapped in the other world as a child.

Sunset always knew that she was destined for greatness, but she never dreamed of how great she could become. Not until she had seen it – the mirror had shown her as an alicorn. Ignoring Celestia’s warnings, Sunset goes looking for answers.

When she learns that the mirror is also a portal to another world, well, what else was she supposed to do? But it seems that she hadn’t considered every possibility. She hadn’t, for example, considered that she might get herself trapped on the other side. Nor did she think she’d find herself transformed into a child again.

(Also available in print and as an audiobook)


A story set in the Who We Become series (earliest story, so a great starting point :raritywink:)


Who We Become is a realistic romantic drama series focussing on queer characters. People sensitive to queer issues should take caution before reading.


Many muches of thanks go out to ArchAngelsWings, Dessert, Mind Jack, Pasu-Chan,
CharCharChan, w_brown7, and eton975 for proofreading.
Additionally, thanks to Pasu-Chan for providing the glorious cover art :scootangel:

Prologue

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It wasn’t like Celestia had really left her with much of a choice. Sunset knew what she had seen in the mirror; she had been an alicorn princess. Naturally, Sunset had more than a few questions concerning that, and yet Celestia had continuously refused to answer any of them. She was supposed to be Sunset’s teacher, and she had the nerve to withhold the most important information of Sunset’s life. Celestia had been the one who decided to show her the mirror in the first place!

And so, Sunset found herself breaking into the dark magic section of the Canterlot Archives. Really, what else was she supposed to do?

A pile of books sat beside her, all useless. She set aside the one she was reading – a nameless spellbook with a face on it – and picked up ‘Canterlot Castle: A History, Vol. 2’. Sunset had almost passed it up, given that she was intimately familiar with the history of Canterlot Castle, but she was running low on promising books. She flipped through idly, debating if she should look elsewhere when something caught her eye.

“Here we go!” she said aloud as she finally found something promising. It was a description of the Crystal Mirror, an artifact which had supposedly once resided in the fabled Crystal Empire. While nopony was positive if the Crystal Empire ever actually existed, the description of the mirror was a perfect match.

“The Crystal Mirror…” Sunset quickly skimmed the pages and found what she was looking for. The mirror seemed to show possible worlds – things that weren’t, but could still be. That meant that Sunset could become an alicorn princess after all! But how? She continued to read. “Every thirty moons a portal will open to… another world?”

“That’s not really for you to know, now is it?” Celestia spoke up from behind her, causing Sunset to drop the book in surprise.

Her shock didn’t hold out for long, as it was soon replaced by a much more prominent emotion. She wheeled around and glared angrily at Celestia, who was flanked by two of her royal guards. “How dare you keep this kind of magic from me!? You know that I’m ready for this, that I can be great!”

Celestia held none of her usual patience, meeting Sunset’s glare at full force. “You could be great. I thought I saw compassion and sincerity in you, but it was nothing but ambition. You’re being selfish, you need to step back and reflect –”

I’m selfish!?” Sunset smacked the book towards Celestia, who effortlessly deflected it away. Stout Shield, one of the guards, moved to approach Sunset but was stopped by Celestia. “That book right there says I could become as powerful as an alicorn princess. I could rule here. It’s selfish of you to keep me from my rightful place!”

Sunset stepped closer, replacing some of her anger with cold determination. “I deserve to stand beside you and be your equal.” But that wasn’t quite right. Sunset would never prevent somepony from achieving the glory that they rightfully deserved. “If not your better,” she corrected. “Make me a princess.”

“No,” Celestia said definitively. “Being a princess must be earned. I have been trying to teach you everything you need to know, but you’ve turned from it. Every time you say you ‘deserve’ to get something without the effort just proves to me that you are not ready.”

Celestia stood upright and adopted the tone she used when issuing royal proclamations. “Sunset Shimmer, I am removing you from the position of my pupil. If we cannot get past this, your studies end here. You are welcome to stay in Canterlot, But you are no longer welcome in the castle.”

How dare she!? Sunset had worked harder than any of her peers and was beyond all doubt the most talented unicorn of her age. How could Celestia possibly reject that? Reject her? “We’ll never get past this because you aren’t seeing how great I deserve to be. Is that really all you have to say to me?”

“No. The guards will escort you out.”

And that was it. For seven years Sunset had dedicated herself to studying under Celestia, and that was all the ‘benevolent’ ruler could manage to say to her. As the guards approached to escort her, Sunset began walking out on her own accord. Nevertheless, they flanked her as she walked out of the door. “This is the biggest mistake you’ll make in your entire life.”

The guards didn’t speak as they walked, and neither did Sunset. She was far too preoccupied with thoughts of what had just happened, and thoughts of what to do next. They reached her room, and she haphazardly tossed a few possessions into a saddlebag, slung it onto her back, and walked back out. If the guards thought it was odd that she wasn’t sentimental, they never said so.

‘Celestia doesn’t want me anymore,’ Sunset thought to herself as they walked. What would she do then? Go back to living with her parents? Buck that. It seemed Equestria no longer held anything she wanted.

But somewhere else might, and it just so happened that they were passing by the room with the mirror. Without giving any warning, Sunset teleported through the door and found herself staring at the mirror.

She paused, reflecting on what she was considering. She would be leaving behind everything she ever knew and cared about, just to have a chance at something better. And that was only if it even worked, of course.

Then the guards charged into the room, wings flared out defensively and wearing matching scowls, and Sunset realized she was being foalish; she’d already lost the only thing she cared about when Celestia dismissed her from her tutelage.

Sunset grinned. It really wasn’t even fair. The guards approached her confidently, no doubt expecting that as it was two against one they’d have the upper hoof. She could strike them both at once, but what would be the fun in that? Instead, she grabbed Stout Shield with her magic, while the other guard prepared to charge. Sunset never gave him the chance, however, throwing Stout Shield into him. There was the sound of metal on metal, and both stallions grunting.

Smirking at how easy it was, Sunset flung Stout Shield to the other side of the room and turned back to the mirror. The reflection no longer showed her as an alicorn, but that was okay. In the other world, Sunset would realize her full potential. And then every mirror would show her as an alicorn.

Without ever looking back, Sunset stepped through the mirror.

1 – Down the Rabbit Hole

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Act I

Wonderland

Chapter One

Down the Rabbit Hole

Something felt wrong. Sunset was lying on the ground with her eyes closed, and she had a dull ache all over her body. Could have been an effect of going through the mirror, could have been from falling face first as soon as she was through it. But there was more to it than just the pain. She couldn’t exactly identify what it was, just that something felt wrong – Sunset felt wrong.

She pushed herself up to a sitting position, and the feeling persisted. The ground felt strange beneath her hooves; in fact, her hooves themselves felt like nothing she could explain. Slowly, she opened her eyes and winced at the light. She closed them again, and moved a hoof to wipe her eyes.

As soon as her hoof touched her face, she stopped. It was soft. Her hoof was soft. Her eyes immediately shot open, and she stared as the blurriness faded. Something was definitely wrong, her hoof looked more like a griffin's talons. It was split at the ends, with five protruding digits. That wasn’t all that seemed strange either; her foreleg seemed smaller, both in length and width.

Terrified of what she might see, she took a deep breath and looked down at her body. She was… clothed? She hadn’t been wearing clothes on the way through the mirror, but now she was. Everything seemed to be the wrong proportions, but it was hard to figure out what she was looking at.

Sunset tried to control her heart. Why was she freaking out so much? She needed to take control of the situation, but she couldn’t make herself move. She closed her eyes and found her breathing was beyond her control. Still, she didn’t have to look at that freakish thing attached to her foreleg.

Coming through the mirror had been a mistake. She was going to go back through, back to the Equestria she knew and understood. She would just have to tell Celestia –

All she could see were Celestia’s eyes. ‘You are no longer welcome in the castle.’ The words echoed through Sunset’s head, bouncing around until the only things she could focus on were the words and Celestia’s gaze as she said them. It was worse than having her eyes open.

Steeling herself as best she could, Sunset once again opened her eyes. As she did, she became aware of more of the world around her. She was facing what seemed to be some sort of huge building, which wrapped around where she was sitting. She needed time to collect herself before she could even consider going into a building, so she decided to move away from it.

As she tried to rise, she found her forelegs seemed to be much shorter than her hindlegs. The discovery redoubled her panic, as she wondered what exactly had happened to her body. Without knowing where she was going, she found herself running away from the building – or trying to, although she was doing a poor job of coordinating her legs to move efficiently.

All the while as she ran, she tried to refocus her mind. She knew she wasn’t acting rationally, that she needed to stop and think about what to do, not run blindly with no idea where she was going.

Eventually, she did stop, but not so that she could think. There was a… a thing. It looked vaguely mechanical, but unlike anything she had seen before. It was huge, far bigger than even Celestia, it was loud, and it was fast. It sped past her, and she lost all control of her body, running as fast as she could, and dimly aware that the machine had slowed down.

Not wanting to figure out what it was, but with no hope of outrunning it, Sunset did the only sensible thing she could do – she dove headfirst into a bush. The machine’s noise had died down, and she heard hoofsteps instead. They sounded strange, and she couldn’t figure out how fast they were coming.

“Little girl? Hello?” a voice called out. Calling for her? She couldn’t tell. “You, uh, you know you shouldn’t be playing in the road, right?”

It was all Sunset could do to keep from screaming. She couldn’t get a good look at the creature that was walking around her hiding spot, but she could see some of it from in between the branches. It stood upright, like a diamond dog, and was very tall. That was why the hoofsteps had sounded strange, she realized; she had been expecting four hooves.

It was getting too close. There was no telling how dangerous these creatures were. If it came down to a fight, nopony could handle herself better than Sunset, but she didn’t want to test that. Teleporting would be a challenge since she didn’t know the area, but she could at least teleport back to the portal. That ought to give her enough time to figure out what to do next.

“You’re not… hurt, are you?” it said again, far too close to the bush she was in. It was time to go.

Sunset concentrated, but couldn’t feel the magic welling up in her horn. Considering her head wasn’t in searing agony, she couldn’t have damaged it on the way in. Hoping that the increased adrenaline was just causing her to not notice the sensation, Sunset tried casting the spell anyway.

Nothing happened.

‘No, no, no, no, no…’ Sunset immediately reached a hoof to her horn to try and figure out what was going on, only to find it wasn’t there. She groped around her head and found nothing but her hair. She covered her head with her forelegs and focused on keeping herself as quiet as possible.

“Well, you know, if you can hear me, just remember to stay out of the road, okay?” the creature said. She could hear its hoofsteps moving away towards the machine again, though she didn’t dare move from her spot.

Eventually, the noise from the machine began again, and she waited where she was as it grew fainter. Even long after it had left, she stayed in the bush. She wiped her eyes with her freakish hoof and chastised herself. Sunset didn’t cry. Not since she was a filly. But the tears wouldn’t stop.

What was she doing? What would she do next? What could she do next? She had been chased into a stupid bush in the middle of a world she didn’t understand, and she couldn’t teleport. There was no telling what would happen if she went back to Equestria; besides whatever Celestia would say, was she even guaranteed to turn back into a regular unicorn?

Still, she had to try. It was the only thing that made sense. She would check to see if there were any lingering creatures around her, then she would make a run for the portal.

She didn’t do that. She couldn’t. Her mind willed her to move, but her body refused. Instead, she curled into a tight ball, and she cried.


How long had she been hiding? Sunset didn’t know. Once the initial shock wore off she found she was better able to view her situation, but she didn’t dare leave the bush.

Her body seemed to be identical to the creature that had been looking for her. She suspected that had something to do with how difficult running had been – her body was now bipedal. Likewise, her muzzle was gone, replaced by a much smaller nose, practically flush against her face. The only hair she seemed to have was her mane, as both her tail and coat were gone. She’d removed the shoes that she’d been wearing since stepping through the portal, and found that she didn’t have any kind of hooves at all.

The realization hit hard, but it was impossible to ignore – Sunset was no longer a pony. It caused another panic attack, prolonging how long she stayed in the bush for.

Eventually, she reached a point where she was ready to leave her hiding spot, but before she could a whole swarm of the creatures had arrived. They seemed to be pouring out of the building, and there were more than she could count. They were all talking amongst themselves, and Sunset noticed they definitely seemed to have distinctly male and female voices, although she couldn’t get a good enough look at their body types to say if they also were distinct.

Not that it really mattered, she wasn’t planning on conducting a full study of them. She only needed to wait until they were gone, then she could run back to the portal.

“Well, hello there,” a female voice said from beside her. “Are you okay, sweetie?”

Sunset couldn’t decide between freezing in place and hoping the creature wasn’t talking to her, or running away and hoping she could get to the portal before being caught. In the end, she compromised by throwing her arms over her head, rustling the branches and forgoing all hope that she might be unnoticed.

“Aww, it’s okay, we just want to help you,” the voice said in a reassuring tone. Sunset wasn’t buying it.

“Here, hold the branches and I’ll try and get her out,” a second voice said, this one sounding male.

As the female pulled the branches away, light flooded through the gap, illuminating Sunset’s view of her feet. She pulled herself into a tight ball, which of course did nothing to help her. She felt two appendages wrap around either side of her, and she was pulled out of her hiding place.

“Easy now, I got you,” the male said. He set her down outside of the bush, but kept hold of her shoulder.

“You poor dear,” the female said. “Just look at her, she’s terrified.”

Sunset didn’t want to be terrified. This wasn’t like her; even without her magic, she was resourceful enough to not let fear paralyze her. She forced herself to look up at the creatures and realized they were huge. Even kneeling down they were taller than her, probably twice her size if they were standing upright.

“What were you doing in there?” the female asked. She was light brown with a darker brown mane, and was smiling warmly. They seemed friendly enough, at least.

“Let’s start with your name,” the male said, much more gruffly. He was a more greyish brown, with a black mane. Although his expression was dour, he didn’t seem hostile.

“S-Sunset Shimmer.” It was the first thing that Sunset had said since exiting the portal, and her breath stopped at the sound. She didn’t even sound like herself. Why was her voice so high pitched?

“My, that’s a pretty name,” the female said. “Sunset, are your parents around somewhere?”

Her parents? Why the buck would her parents be anywhere nearby, and why would these two even care? “No,” she said before she could think about whether it was the right answer or not.

“Is there somebody else with you?” The female kept smiling but was looking increasingly concerned. Meanwhile, the male had stood upright, confirming Sunset’s suspicions of their full height, and was looking around for someone who might know Sunset.

“No,” she said again, although this time she was sure it was a mistake. They were trying to figure out if Sunset was alone, and she did not want to give them that information.

“You poor thing, you’re lost aren’t you? Do you know where you live?”

Sunset gestured towards where the portal was. “J-just over there.”

‘I’m not lost. I know where I am. I’m just waiting for a friend. I should get going.’ Sunset’s brain formed the sentences, but her mouth wouldn’t speak any of them. It seemed all she could will herself to do was answer direct questions.

“Sweetie, that’s a school.” The female and the male exchanged worried looks. He nodded, although Sunset wasn’t sure why. He reached into a pocket on his jacket and pulled out a rectangular object. He pulled on the top of it and a small rod came out. He pressed a few buttons on it, held the thing up to his ear, and took a few steps away.

“Everything will be alright, don’t you worry about a thing.”

Sunset couldn’t take her eyes off the male. He was talking, but not to either of them, and there was no one else around them. His voice was too low for Sunset to make it out.

Noticing where she was looking, the female tried to draw her attention away. “Can you tell me how old are you, dearie?”

“Seventeen,” Sunset said absent-mindedly.

The female laughed, causing Sunset to turn to her in confusion. “Kids say the darndest things, they say. Really though, Sunset, how old are you?”

Sunset frowned. “I’m seventeen,” she tried again.

“Oh. I… see.” The female tried to keep smiling, but Sunset could tell she didn’t believe it.

Everything clicked into place in an instant. Sunset was half the size of these two. Earlier she had been called ‘little girl’. Her voice was far more high-pitched than usual. This lady wasn’t just a condescending bitch, she literally thought she was talking to a child.

She was still talking, but Sunset wasn’t listening. All thoughts of escaping were gone, as were any other thoughts she might have had. Instead, she collapsed on the ground, and she cried. The female seemed to be trying to comfort her, but Sunset couldn’t bring herself to care. The last time she had allowed herself to cry so openly had been, well, the last time she was a child.

At some point they were approached by two other creatures, wearing identical blue uniforms. They talked with the male first, then approached Sunset and the female.

“Hey there,” one of the newcomers said. He was clearly elevating his voice; exactly like someone might do when talking with a distraught child. “I’m officer Blue Stripe, and your name’s Sunset Shimmer, right?”

Sunset didn’t answer.

“That’s what she said earlier,” the female said, “although I think she may be a bit… confused. She hasn’t said anything for a while.”

“Can you step over here a moment, ma’am?” the other blue-clad creature said. “We need to take your statement.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, then turned back to Sunset. “Alright, Sunset. These nice officers are going to take care of you.”

Sunset didn’t answer.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Blue Stripe said, “do you know where you live?”

Did she know…? No, she didn’t. If she didn’t live in the castle then where did she live?

“You’re not in trouble, we just want to get you to your home.”

Home. Sunset just wanted to go home.

“Is there some reason you don’t want to say anything? It’s okay, you can tell us anything at all. We’re here to help you, Sunset.”

A reason she couldn’t say? She didn’t know anything about this place, there was no way she could give a reasonable answer.

“What about your parents’ names? Can you tell me that?”

Her parents were the last thing she needed.

Sunset didn’t answer. Question after question, Sunset didn’t answer.

“Any luck?” the other officer asked once he was done talking to the female.

“No.” It was strange the way adults talked. Like if they dropped their voice a little bit and turned their head, suddenly kids couldn’t hear them anymore. And it seemed that included Sunset now. “She doesn’t look hurt, but it could be anything. Hopefully she’s just lost and confused.” He turned back to Sunset and managed a friendly smile. “Okay, just come with us now, Sunset. We’ll get you home in no time, okay?”

Sunset didn’t answer, but she did stand up to follow them. Without bothering to look back or spare a single thought to the consequences, Sunset found herself being led to a machine like the one she had seen earlier, although it was much smaller. Blue Stripe opened a door and looked at her expectantly, and she realized it was some sort of mechanical carriage.

She knew it was the single worst mistake in her life, but she was still too afraid to try and escape. Hoping for the best, she climbed into the carriage.

The two officers entered the front of the carriage from opposite sides. “All buckled up back there?” Blue Stripe asked. When she didn’t answer, he looked back and frowned. “Er, right. I’ll get it.” He opened his door, stepped out, then opened hers. From beside her, he pulled out something that resembled a flat rope and pulled it across her torso and waist, then fastened it into another device which held it in place. Sunset didn’t react.

Blue Stripe gave her a concerned look, but didn’t say anything else as he returned to his seat. Once he shut the door, his partner placed a key into a slot, turned it, and the whole carriage came to life and began vibrating. They began moving; slowly at first, though they soon picked up speed.

From out of her window, Sunset could see the building. Out in front of it, she saw a white statue of a pony, albeit a strangely proportioned one. She knew that had to be where the portal was, and she could only watch as it sped past her.

2 – The Girl and Her Reflection

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Chapter Two

The Girl and Her Reflection

Being a child was not without its advantages. No one expected Sunset would know what she was supposed to be doing while they were at the hospital, so they gave her very clear instructions. When she was clearly hesitant to follow them, they interpreted that as basic childlike fear, rather than genuine distrust of their intentions. They patiently explained what every tool did, which helped calm her nerves. At least it seemed that everybody genuinely wanted to help her.

Everybody – that was one of their words. It was amazing that both worlds used the same language, but they did have differences. That was another advantage of her age. She wasn’t expected to participate in conversation outside of answering a few questions, so she could focus on listening to them talk to one another. She hadn’t yet heard them say what they called their species, but she was rapidly learning more about them.

That too helped put her mind to rest, if only by giving her something else to focus on. While they came in just as many colors as ponies, they lacked any other obvious differences. Well, they did come in different sizes, but none of them had wings or horns, to be sure. Of course, there was the possibility that something aside from the obvious was being concealed under the clothes that everyone seemed to wear, but nothing too distinct insofar as Sunset could tell. Initially, she thought that she noticed two distinct variations, based on general form differences and prominent growths on the chests of some of them, but soon enough she realized she was just noticing the differences in adult males and females.

It was good she had so much to focus on, because there were certainly plenty of things that caused her to panic. The devices they used were like nothing Sunset had ever seen. The worst one had been something they called an MRI, where she had to lie down in a tube and remain still, while all the while there was a constant pounding noise. It had triggered another wave of anxiety, but afterwards the doctor showed her a picture the machine had made of her brain. Losing herself for a moment in wonderment, she had called it magic. The doctor laughed and said it was only science, and Sunset kept all her other comments to herself.

In between tests, Blue Stripe and Swift Star, the officers who had brought her to the hospital, took pictures of her to conduct a search for her parents. Then they left, taking her saddlebag with them. Sunset had protested but it didn’t do her any good. They said they’d use it to try and identify her in their search, and promised they’d get her home soon. In the end, she had to let it go. It wasn’t like she actually needed any of the things in it, but it would have been comforting to have something of her own.

Meanwhile, the doctors decided there was nothing physically wrong with her, so she moved on to a psych evaluation. She had planned for that. They brought her into a room with a female doctor, then left the two of them to talk.

“Hello, my name’s Diamond Facet,” the doctor said. She motioned towards a chair across from her desk. “Please, take a seat.”

Sunset did as she was instructed, but remained quiet.

“Everything’s going to be okay, I just need to ask you some questions.”

In truth, Sunset was feeling much calmer than she had since arriving through the portal. Her moments of panic were extreme and made her feel like somepony else entirely, but when she was level headed she felt the same as always.

“Now, can you tell me your full name?”

“Sunset Shimmer,” she answered. It would have been better for her if she had never given her name, but she already had an answer if she was asked why she remembered it.

“That’s a nice name. Is that what everyone calls you, or do you have a nickname?”

Sunset blinked a few times and waited a moment, pretending like she had to think of the answer. “Uhm, no. Just Sunset Shimmer.”

Diamond Facet smiled and nodded. “I see. Sunset Shimmer all the time? Not Sunset, or Sunny?”

“Sunset,” she answered quickly. The last thing she wanted was for someone to start calling her ‘Sunny’.

“And who calls you Sunset?”

It was easy enough to see what Diamond Facet was doing; she wanted to see if Sunset could remember friends or family calling her by name, but didn’t want to draw attention to it. “The officers did.”

Diamond Facet glanced at a sheet of paper on her desk. “The officers who brought you into the hospital earlier?” Sunset nodded. “I see. Are they the only ones?”

“I, uhm…” Sunset frowned and looked at the floor. “The lady did.”

“The lady?”

“The lady from the park. She said Sunset is a pretty name.”

“Sunset,” Diamond Facet began, her tone shifting noticeably towards being more serious, “what about before today? Do you remember anyone calling you Sunset before today?”

“Uhm…” Sunset looked around, pretending to be worried. “I… I don’t know.”

“Okay, let’s talk about something else.” Diamond Facet looked over her notes again, although Sunset doubted she needed to. She knew what question was coming next. “Can you tell me how old you are?”

Saying she was seventeen had been worse than giving her name. “I don’t know.”

“Earlier you told the lady in the park that you’re seventeen. Is that true?”

“I… I…” Sunset shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“When my daughter turned seventeen, we threw her a big birthday party. Do you remember your last birthday?”

Another trick to try to get her to remember something. “No.”

“Do you remember where you were when you woke up this morning?”

Sunset hesitated again. It was so easy once she stopped worrying; she just had to make it look like answering was difficult, keep saying she didn’t know, and eventually they’d write it off as amnesia. Easy out to any and all future questions. “I don’t know.”

Time and again, she didn’t know. Her parents? Didn’t know. Her house? Didn’t know. Friends, family, pets, school, everything. She just didn’t know.

It was apparent that they were at a dead end, so Diamond Facet came back to the one question she’d been trying to avoid asking. “How do you know your name is Sunset Shimmer?”

Great, give a little girl an existential crisis. “It said so on my bag.”

“I see.” Diamond Facet made a note, and moved on to a different sort of question. “So you can read then. Can you read this for me?”

She opened a drawer on her desk and pulled a book out, which she set down so Sunset could see it. Sunset read the title out loud. “The Dog and His Reflection.”

“Very good,” Diamond Facet said. “Will you read me the story?”

Sunset hesitated, but not because she was pretending to be nervous. Diamond Facet hadn’t opened the book. Everything Sunset had seen of the creatures suggested they used their hands for everything, but Sunset hadn’t practiced with them at all yet. She nervously reached out for the book, and bumped it to the side.

Sunset blushed at her incompetence, then tried again. She was sure that Diamond Facet had noticed, but the doctor said nothing. The second time around, Sunset was able to get the cover open. The first page simply had the title again, which Sunset read to stall for time. “The Dog and His Reflection.”

Looking up, she saw Diamond Facet nodding patiently. She was going to force Sunset to read it, no matter how long it took. Best to try and get on with it. Sunset reached out again, and used her whole hand to turn the page. “A dog, to whom the butcher had thrown a bone, was hurrying home with his prize as fast as he could go.”

Why the buck did they have to only have one sentence per page? Without looking up at Diamond Facet, Sunset turned the page again, just as awkwardly as she had before. “As he crossed a narrow footbridge, he happened to look down.” Another page, managed only slightly better. “He saw himself reflected in the quiet water, as if in a mirror.” Again, but this time she tried using her fingers. She did poorly. “But the greedy dog thought he saw a real dog carrying a bone much bigger than his own.”

Every page turn worked a little better than the last, and slowly Sunset got used to grabbing the pages with her fingers. “If he had stopped to think he would have known better. But instead of thinking, he dropped his bone and sprang at the dog in the river. He only found himself swimming for dear life to reach the shore. At last he managed to scramble out. As he stood sadly thinking about the good bone he had lost, he realized what a stupid dog he had been.”

She only looked up as she finished by reading the lesson’s moral. “It is very foolish to be greedy.”

“That was very good, Sunset.” Diamond Facet smiled and took the book back, tucking it away again. From the same drawer she pulled out a blank piece of paper. She passed it towards Sunset, along with a pen. “Can you write your name for me?”

Sunset frowned. “Okay.” She placed her hand on the pen, and closed her fingers around it. It was still horizontal when she lifted it from the table, so she turned her hand. She could tell she was holding it all wrong, and tried to remember how Diamond Facet had held it. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and couldn’t seem to get it right.

Still, she did her best. Her writing had been decent in Equestria, even if it wasn’t something she spent much time perfecting. But writing with magic and writing with her hand proved very different, and the result was an ugly squiggle.

“Good job, Sunset,” Diamond Facet obnoxiously said, although it was of course anything but. She made a note, which Sunset could only assume was related to her apparent lack of fine motor skills.

Diamond Facet continued with some more cognitive tests, which Sunset felt far more competent with. She solved some logic problems quickly and easily, eager to prove herself after the failure that had been the writing exercise. She wasn’t sure why she cared, since she had no plans to stick around this world, but it made her feel better.

Next they talked about her feelings, and Sunset did her best to stick to generic answers. She had no idea what the creatures in this world would expect her to feel, especially at her age. The vague answers would hopefully help her diagnosis, anyway.

“I think we got just about all we need,” Diamond Facet said after a while. She made a few final notes, stood up, then walked around to the other side of the desk. She gently placed her hand on Sunset’s shoulder, which Sunset resented enormously. “Come with me, Sunset. Just a little bit longer, and you’ll be somewhere you can relax, and even play with some other kids.”

That sounded more like a threat than reassurance, but Sunset stood up and followed her out of the room. They walked down a few hallways and into a lobby area, where the same two police officers were waiting. Diamond Facet told her to wait with Swift Star for a few minutes while she talked with Blue Stripe. Although Sunset wanted to find out the official diagnosis, it seemed she wasn’t going to get the chance.

“We’ve already started searching for your parents,” Swift Star said, likely to try and cheer her up. “Don’t worry about a thing, we’ll find them in no time.”

The same reassurance was getting a little old, but of course Sunset didn’t say so. She kept her silence, as usual.

It was a little strange. From what she could gather, the police were basically the royal guard of this world, and yet they were vastly different. The Celestial Guard was known for being stoic. If these two were any indication, that wasn’t the case for police officers. He kept glancing at her, and was clearly trying to find the words that would get Sunset to open up. She hated the feeling and resented him for it. She knew his type; he would prefer if she were crying, just so he could understand her emotions. But Sunset was done crying.

The minutes dragged on, but after a while Diamond Facet and Blue Stripe returned. Diamond Facet kneeled down and smiled. “Now, Sunset, these two are going to take you somewhere you can stay while they’re finding your parents. They’ll take good care of you there, and you’ll be back home before you know it.”

Sunset bit back her reply.

Diamond Facet reached for and squeezed Sunset’s hand. “I know it’s scary, but everything will –”

“Can we go?” Sunset asked. She’d been trying to be reasonable, but they kept prattling on and on about the same things. It didn’t really matter anyway; she wasn’t ever going to see these people again.

Unaffected by Sunset’s comment, Diamond Facet just smiled and stood up. Sunset imagined she was probably waving goodbye, but didn’t look back to check.


“An orphanage?”

The officers exchanged uncertain looks. It was the first thing Sunset had said since leaving the hospital.

“It’s just for a little while,” Blue Stripe said. “New Horizons is a nice place. They’ll take good care of you, and there are other kids your age here.”

New Horizons Home for Children was a medium sized building – smaller than either the hospital or the building near the portal had been, but bigger than most houses they passed when going from place to place. It was a two-story building with a boxy design, painted a pale shade of yellow. All in all, it was pretty underwhelming.

They opened the door for her and undid her harness. She got out, but didn’t follow them as they approached the building.

“It’s okay, Sunset,” Blue Stripe said, misreading her refusal to move, “it’ll probably only be for a few days.”

Sunset folded her arms. “Where’s my stuff?”

The officers looked at one another. “We talked about that at the hospital. We need it to find your family. I promise you’ll get everything back just the way it was.”

“No!” Sunset knew it didn’t really matter, that she wasn’t going to need it while she searched for the portal. Anything she brought could easily be replaced when she got back to Equestria. Still, it would be nice to have something from home while everything around her was so strange. “It’s mine, and I want it back. Now.”

“I know you’re frustrated, but it’ll help us out a lot, and –”

“I want my damn bag, and everything in it!” That wiped those stupid ‘calming’ expressions off their faces. “I never even gave you permission to take it in the first place.”

Blue Stripe took a few steps closer and kneeled down. He spoke calmly, but resolutely. “We don’t have it with us. It’s all back at the station where we’ll make good use of it. I know you want it now, but that’s not an option. But how about this: When I get back to the station, I’ll see what we might need for the search. Anything we don’t need I’ll bring right back to you.”

Sunset wanted to protest, wanted to insist he give her back everything, but couldn’t. She didn’t know their laws, but she did know she probably had no legal ground to argue with. Plus when he was right in front of her, his size still made him kind of intimidating. “Today?”

He looked down for a moment and seemed to be weighing his options. “Okay, deal. I’ll bring you whatever I can sometime today.”

Since she couldn’t argue, Sunset just held her scowl in place. “Fine.”

Blue Stripe smiled again and stood up. “Alright, that’s settled. Now let’s go get you introduced.”

With some reluctance, Sunset followed him into the building. The lobby was more inviting than the hospital lobby had been, but wasn’t exactly homey. Sure, there were pictures on the walls depicting kids of all different ages, softer lighting, and in general a much less sterile feel to the room, but it was still arranged like a business lobby, complete with a row of chairs for people to wait and a large desk with a receptionist at it.

Talking with the receptionist was another lady. Even with Sunset’s limited experience, she could tell that the lady was far from young. The cream-colored skin on her face was lined with wrinkles, while her maroon hair was streaked with silver. She smiled warmly and addressed Sunset when she spoke. “Hello there, little one. I’m Rose Petal, what’s your name?”

“Sunset Shimmer,” she answered, growing a little tired of introducing herself.

“Well, Sunset, how about I show you around a bit, since you’ll be staying with us for a few days?”

Sunset looked back to the police officers, who smiled and nodded. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do, and she had to stick around long enough to get her stuff back.

Rose Petal never asked her about her family, or her home, or any of the other questions she was sick of hearing. They walked around the orphanage, which did feel much more like a regular home once they were out of the lobby. Rose showed her all the rooms she suspected Sunset would care to know about – the kitchen, dining room, bathrooms, lounge room, a small library, and an art room.

Along the way they ran into some kids, all of whom seemed to love Rose Petal dearly. A few introduced themselves to Sunset, who couldn’t care less about pointlessly introducing herself to some kids she’d never see again. Rose seemed to misinterpret her apathy as shyness and made introductions in her place, always ensuring the kids that there would be time for them to get to know each other later.

It seemed the only thing left to show her was her bedroom, but instead Rose led her outside. Behind the building was a small garden area, filled with neatly organized rows of different flowers. Rose brought Sunset to a gazebo, where they each took a seat as the sun was setting. It was hard to believe so much of the day had already gone past.

“It’s always so nice out here,” Rose Petal said. “This is my favorite place to relax.”

That didn’t seem particularly interesting to Sunset. But since she was stuck waiting anyway, she figured she might talk about something. “So what do you do here, anyway?”

Rose smiled. “I live here, and work as a caretaker. There’s quite a few of us, more than you’ll probably meet, but I’ll always be around if you need anything.”

That seemed odd; the building wasn’t that large, and couldn’t possibly house more than thirty kids. How could they need so many caretakers that Sunset wouldn’t even meet them all? “What about the others? Don’t they live here, too?”

Rose chuckled. “No, not anymore. When I was younger, all the workers lived with the children here. We always lived as one big family in those days. But homes like this one have changed a lot since then, and now most of the caretakers live in their own houses. A few of us old biddies do still live at the home, however.”

Sunset smirked. “So is ‘home’ supposed to sound better than ‘orphanage’ or something?”

She expected Rose Petal to be thrown off by the question, but she just laughed. “Yes, actually. When I first started living here, it was called the New Horizons Orphanage. Now they tell us we shouldn’t ever use the ‘O’ word.”

“That’s stupid,” Sunset said. “Using a different word doesn’t change what it is.”

“Well, sometimes words can be hurtful. Some of the kids living here might be sensitive to being called orphans, even if the person saying it doesn’t mean anything bad. And, unfortunately, there are some kids who say it to be mean.”

Person. Sunset made a mental note of the word before continuing. “If someone can’t handle some mean words then that’s their problem. They need to toughen up some.”

“Oh, I think most of the kids here have had enough troubles in their lives. Surely we can show them a bit more compassion than that?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. She didn’t really agree, but she could feel a lecture around the corner if she said so. “I guess.”

Apparently content with the answer, Rose Petal moved on. “I do hope you’ll try and make friends with the other kids while you’re here.”

“Maybe.” Sunset shrugged, but she had no intention at all of wasting time with friendship.

“And I also hope you’re not just saying that to make an old lady happy.”

Sunset opened her mouth to reply, but couldn’t think of what to say.

Rose Petal laughed a little at that. “Well, I won’t try and force you. If you don’t want to be friends with any of the others, then nothing I say is going to change that. But I do think some of them will give you a surprise if you’ll just give them a chance.”

Unless that ‘surprise’ amounted to somehow helping her get home, that didn’t interest Sunset. Since she wasn’t going to agree and lying seemed to be out of the question, Sunset just remained silent.

“You are an interesting girl, I can already tell.” Rose Petal stood up, and Sunset followed suit. “Now then, you’ve had a very busy day. How about we get you something to eat?”

Sunset was very hungry. Hungrier than she had realized, now that food had been brought up. But she didn’t know what these creatures – persons, if she assumed correctly – actually ate. “Okay. What, uh…”

Although she couldn’t figure out how to phrase her question without showing her ignorance, Rose figured it out easily enough. “The other kids have all eaten already, but there’s plenty of food left over. Tonight we had chicken, which I can –”

“Chicken!?” Sunset stopped in place and stared wide eyed and open mouthed at Rose Petal. Every muscle in her body tensed up. “Like… like the bird!?”

Rose Petal blinked a few times. “Well, yes. It was –”

“I’m not eating a chicken!”

It seemed Sunset’s horror was cause for some amusement for Rose Petal, but she tried to keep from showing it too much. “Well, it certainly wouldn’t be a whole chicken.”

Sunset couldn’t form a response. By all accounts, Rose Petal seemed like a sweet old lady, and one of the least obnoxious persons Sunset had met. And yet here she was, casually talking about eating chickens.

“I, uh, I’m guessing you don’t eat meat?”

Eat meat? They ate things other than chickens as well? Well, that actually made sense – if they ate one animal, why not more? – but Sunset’s brain was not working well enough to have realized that. All she could do was shake her head.

“You are an interesting girl, indeed. Very well, how about I show you to your room for now, and while you get settled in I’ll make you something else?”

Sunset remained rooted in place.

“I’ll have to see what we have, but how about some kind of soup? I promise you there will be no meat in it.”

Although the last thing Sunset wanted to do was go into a building with a bunch of carnivores, she didn’t have much choice. Wordlessly, she resumed following Rose Petal.

She didn’t pay much attention to anything while they walked to her room. Rose showed her in, said she’d be back soon, and left. For the first time since being discovered, Sunset was alone with her thoughts. There was a bed in the corner which she collapsed onto, face first.

It took a few minutes for her to calm down and think rationally. If they had non-meat food to offer her, they had to be omnivores, not carnivores. Granted, that didn’t exactly make her feel much better. Diamond dogs and griffins were omnivores, but she had never had any interest in meeting either of them before.

Still, thinking about it in that context, she was forced to remember that not all sapient animals were herbivores, and they almost certainly didn’t eat other sapient animals. And perhaps most important of all, even though she was currently part of a species that was omnivorous she could still stick to eating foods she was comfortable with.

Once she calmed down enough, Sunset took in her surroundings. The room was fairly small, which was to be expected; they did have to house as many kids as possible, after all. The bed, which looked like it would be large enough for a single adult, was tucked neatly into a corner, with a simple bedside table next to it. The table had a clock and fake potted plant on it, and two empty drawers. At the foot of the bed was a bookshelf, which held only a few books. There was a window along the third wall, with its red curtains tied open. The final wall, directly across from the bed, had the door leading to a hallway full of other rooms, and next to that was a dresser.

Sunset got up to check the drawers on the dresser, and found they were all empty. As she closed the last one, her eyes focused on the one thing she’d been avoiding. Hanging on the wall above the dresser was a large mirror.

As soon as she looked at it, she couldn’t have looked away. Her eyes locked with the ones in her reflection, and she couldn’t have said how long she stared. The last mirror she’d looked into had shown her as an alicorn. This one also showed her something she was not.

Of course, she’d already figured out what she looked like. She had seen her reflection in windows, and even if she hadn’t she would have pieced together a mental image easily enough. But seeing her own reflection so clearly was unlike that in every way. She reached her hand up, and stopped when she saw the girl in the mirror do the same. That wasn’t right. This thing that could not be her was mimicking her movements flawlessly.

Sunset Shimmer was a pony. She lived in a castle alongside her mentor Princess Celestia. Sunset Shimmer was a unicorn. She was Celestia’s gifted student, and she could bend the world to her will. Sunset Shimmer was staring at nothing more than a scared little girl whose cyan eyes were tinged red from crying. A girl who was lost, and scared, and just wanted to go home. A girl that didn’t know if she still had a home, and didn’t know how to find it again. Look at her. She’s crying again.


It was the middle of the night, but Sunset walked into the library. She had expected it to be empty, but found it wasn’t.

“Hello, Sunset,” Celestia said. She placed a bookmark in the book she was reading and set it aside. “Trouble sleeping?”

Sunset frowned. Why was Celestia of all ponies here? “I guess.”

Celestia didn’t seem to mind her tone. “Perhaps you would like to sit with me?”

She really wanted to be alone, but there wasn’t any way she would say that. She grabbed a book at random and sat next to her mentor.

They read in silence for a while. The book Sunset had grabbed was called The Heavens Above, and told a thrilling story of a stallion trying to save his city from an astronomical catastrophe. But try as she might, Sunset couldn’t focus on the characters.

“So, uh, what are you reading?” she asked eventually.

“By the River,” Celestia answered. “It’s a love story set in a small town.”

Sunset set her own book down and grinned. “You’re kidding.”

Celestia held up the book as proof. “It’s quite good.”

Little by little, the homesickness that Sunset had been trying to ignore faded away. “You like cheesy romance stories?”

“I do,” Celestia said simply. “It’s always nice to see life through somepony else’s eyes.”

Sunset couldn’t help but smile. Celestia was so weird sometimes. “But why not read something less lame while you do it?”

“I think romance is interesting.” Celestia’s smile never faltered, even as Sunset made fun of her book. “I suppose you might be a little too young to be interested in that sort of thing, though.”

Sunset rolled her eyes and waved a hoof. “I’m fifteen. If I was going to be interested in something as silly as romance, I’m pretty sure I already would be.”

“Oh? So what are you interested in then?”

She didn’t know why Celestia would even need to ask. “Magic.”

Celestia chuckled. “Yes, of course. Ever my gifted student. I suppose that must be the reason for the late night reading?”

Sunset frowned and glanced back at her book. It was clear that it wasn’t a textbook. Why hadn’t she chosen more carefully? “Uh, something like that.”

Celestia looked around the library, which was empty aside from them. “The castle is very large. It’s easy to feel lonely here.”

That was nothing new to Sunset. “There’s more ponies here than there were at my parent’s house.”

Celestia seemed to be staring at the moonlight filtering through one of her stained glass windows, and she lacked her usual smile. “I get lonely too, sometimes.”

The apathetic expression Sunset hadn’t realized she was holding fell away. “You… do?”

“I do,” Celestia said sadly. She turned to Sunset and her smile returned. “Although to tell the truth, I feel a lot better having you around.”

Sunset smiled. She knew exactly what Celestia meant.

3 – Hide-and-Seek

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Chapter Three

Hide-and-Seek

Sunset hated everything. She hated that stupid mirror for ever showing her as an alicorn. She hated Celestia for pushing her away instead of just answering her questions. She hated the cops for driving her around so much that she couldn’t find her way back to the portal. She hated the kids for thinking she’d ever want to be their friend.

Most of all, she hated herself for letting things go the way they did

She tried to fix it. The first night, once she had her saddle bag back – empty of most of its contents, but she couldn’t wait around anymore – she snuck off. It wasn’t hard; the room had a window she could climb out of. So, carrying her saddle bag awkwardly, she snuck off into the night.

That didn’t work too well. She got hopelessly lost, and the dark city streets were unfamiliar. Even she knew it was a miracle when she was picked up by a police officer and brought back to New Horizons. After that, no one would tell her where she was found. They all seemed to think she’d sneak off again, which was, of course, the plan. Days passed her by, and Sunset realized she was stuck in this world for thirty moons. It had only been a week, but that was much too long – the portal had closed without her.

Which was why she found herself sitting across from Crystal Clear, her psychologist. He had bright cerulean skin, and white hair that went down to around his ears. He always dressed in high-quality suits, which immediately brought to mind her parents’ snobbish friends, but he surprised her with his caring nature and charming smile. He didn’t talk down to her like she was a child, unlike most adults. Sunset hated him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said in that obnoxiously casual tone. “I think it’s alright to waste a little time, once in a while.”

Sunset sat with her arms folded. “Maybe for a good book or something like that, but friends? No way.”

“I hear you haven’t been reading the books Ms. Rose has been leaving for you.”

“I don’t want to read children’s books.”

This was normally where people would insist that she was a child. Crystal Clear just smiled and asked plainly, “So what books would you like to read?”

Sunset thought for a minute. “Technology books.” Although she had only spent a week living with humans – the proper word, as she finally had learned – Sunset knew enough to know that she probably had used the wrong term. “You know, about electricity, and televisions, and phones and stuff.”

Crystal Clear seemed amused by her answer. “Okay, I’ll bring you some books like that for our next session.” He grabbed a satchel that was lying near his feet and set it on the table. “I hadn’t quite expected that answer, to be honest,” he said as he rummaged through the bag. “But I did suspect the reason why you didn’t want to read the books Ms. Rose was giving you, so I brought you something else.”

He handed her a book, which did seem to be a step in the right direction. It was at least a few hundred pages, and didn’t have an illustration on every one. Sunset still eyed the cartoonish cover doubtfully. “This is still a kid’s book.”

Crystal Clear smiled patiently. “It’s a juvenile novel. It’s intended for kids twice your age.”

No one knew exactly how old Sunset’s physical age was, of course. Although she was seventeen, her physical age had definitely regressed significantly, and the general assumption was that she was somewhere around five years old. Which meant the book she was holding was intended for ten-year-olds, and thus of no interest to Sunset. “Don’t you have any adult books?”

“Not with me, no.” Crystal Clear set his satchel back on the ground and folded his hands on the desk. “Humor me, Sunset. If you read that book and can show to me that you understood it, I’ll bring you something more advanced.”

And the textbooks,” Sunset stated. Although she was in no position to make demands, she often still did.

“Yes, I’ll bring you both. But –” he leaned across the desk “– I want you to also try getting along with the other kids.”

Sunset set the book back on the table. “Not worth it.”

Crystal Clear sighed. Sunset knew even his patience would wear thin at her refusal to get along with the others, and she was half looking forward to wearing him down. It seemed to be the only thing she could still enjoy. “I understand that you’re frustrated. But there’s no need to lash out at the other kids.”

Sunset frowned, knowing exactly what he was talking about. “That wasn’t my fault.”

“Well, would you like to tell me your side of the story, then?”

He was always doing that. Always trying to get her to talk more about her experiences. Normally, she wouldn’t. There wasn’t a point since she didn’t actually want his sympathy or anything. But there was a reason now. Sunset looked at the book. She had absolutely no interest in reading it, but it was a gateway to the best thing this world could offer her.

She took a deep breath. “Fine,” she relented, “I’ll tell you what happened.”


It was the third day since Sunset had wound up at New Horizons Home for Children. She spent most of her time in her room, or wandering around the places she was permitted to be on her own. All in all, she was exceptionally bored.

Unfortunately, she must have looked it, too. Or maybe they just took pity on her because of her situation, which was even worse. Regardless of why they did, two girls had decided to be Sunset’s friends. At first, they weren’t too bad. They would ask her to play with them, and she would tell them ‘no’, and that was that. But each day they seemed to grow more insistent.

“Sunset, come play dolls with us!” Dew Drop said.

“I don’t like dolls,” Sunset answered.

“Come on, don’t like anything fun?” Sugar Breeze protested.

Sunset glanced up from her book. “Nope. Nothing. So why don’t you two just go play on your own?”

Sugar Breeze tilted her head to the side. “Uh, that’s a dictionary. Dolls are much more fun than dictionaries.”

It was a fair point; Sunset would have a hard time justifying a dictionary as fun. And in truth, she wasn’t actually having any real fun with it. But it just so happened that this dictionary contained tons of words she would be expected to know in this world, and she was determined to learn them. She had made the mistake of saying ‘persons’ out loud, and had been laughed at for it. Sunset hated being laughed at, and wouldn’t allow it to happen again.

Person, noun: A human being regarded as an individual. Plural: people; persons.

This world was bucking stupid.

“Okay, let’s play something else then,” Dew Drop suggested. “What about… hide-and-seek?”

“Not interested.”

“Sunset! Please?”

Sunset sighed and looked back at the girls. She was going to just refuse again, but then she got an idea. There was no telling why they were so hung up on being friends with her, but they were. So she would solve two problems at once. “Okay, fine. You two go and hide, and I’ll come and find you.”

“Okay!” Dew Drop said excitedly.

Sugar Breeze wasn’t convinced, though. “You promise? You’ll really play?” she asked skeptically.

“I promise,” Sunset said with a practiced smile. “How high should I count?”

“A hundred!” Dew Drop said.

“Okay, I’ll count to one hundred.”

It seemed they were both convinced she would stick to her word, so they ran off. Sunset just returned to her book. It was perfect; she’d gotten rid of them, and they would hopefully learn that she wasn’t someone they would actually want to play with anyway.

Sunset flipped to the definition of television. She’d learned what a television was by watching the one in the lounge room, but hoped she could learn a bit more from the dictionary. It was unlikely, but she didn’t have anything else to do. Technology was the one thing Sunset loved about Earth. It was like human magic.

Long enough passed that Sunset found herself idly flipping through the dictionary, just looking at the illustrations. She had honestly forgotten about the game of hide-and-seek by the time Sugar Breeze came back.

“You’re still here!?” she asked incredulously.

Sunset facepalmed. “Oh, right, the game. Sorry about that. What happened was that I was counting, and then I realized that I don’t care.”

Sugar Breeze placed her hands on her hips and did the best menacing look a six-year-old could accomplish. “You promised.”

“You’re right, I did.” Sunset shrugged. “But I’m also a bitch, so you know, there’s that.”

Sugar Breeze’s arms went limp as her jaw fell open. She stared for a second while Sunset wondered if she was intentionally exaggerating her expression, before puffing out her cheeks and pointing accusingly at Sunset. “You swore!”

Of course, why hadn’t she thought of that before? It was such a simple way to keep such oh-so-good little girls away from her. “Yes, yes I did. Because I am a bitch, and I’ll use whatever language I bucking want.”

It seemed Sugar Breeze finally got the message because she quickly ran away. Sunset just smiled at her success.

After doing something that was legitimately fun, Sunset couldn’t bring herself to read any more of the dictionary. She decided to take a walk out to the garden, content in the knowledge that if she ran into any other kids she’d know exactly how to get rid of them.

Perhaps unfortunately, she didn’t run into any kids. None that seemed concerned with her, in any case; most of the kids understood that she was uninterested in them and kept to themselves. And no matter how much fun it had been to watch Sugar Breeze’s reactions, Sunset wasn’t going to go starting problems. She definitely had her limits on what she was willing to put up with, but she was by no means a bully.

Aside from her room and the library, the garden was easily Sunset’s favorite place. Since there wasn’t anything to do in her room and the library’s selection of books left her wanting, deciding where to wander was an easy choice. She strolled leisurely through the flowers, wishing there was a better way to use her time.

Sunset stopped as she heard the flowers rustling. She turned to face the direction of the sound, and saw a poorly hidden child. “Dew Drop?”

With a giggle, Dew Drop emerged from her hiding spot. “You found me!”

Sunset almost wondered why Dew Drop was happy about that, but then she realized she didn’t care. “I can’t believe you really stayed hidden for that long.”

Dew Drop ran up to Sunset, stopping entirely too close to her. “I knew you’d really play. Sugar Breeze said you wouldn’t but you promised, so you did!”

Why did kids have to be so damn cheerful? Sunset hooked her hands in her pockets and turned away. “That’s great and all, but I forgot about the stupid game. I just came out here because I wanted to.”

“Oh.” Dew Drop looked down, genuinely hurt by the statement. It only lasted a moment though, and when she looked up it was with an energetic expression once again. “Well, then we can play something else!”

Sunset arched an eyebrow as she stared at Dew Drop. She was such a bubbly idiot, Sunset almost felt bad for Sugar Breeze. At least she seemed like she might grow up to be someone who wasn’t obnoxious. “I don’t want to play any games.”

“Uhm… maybe later?”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Dew Drop’s head hung low, and Sunset was almost foolish enough to take her silence as an indication that she’d leave her alone. Almost, but she knew better.

“Sunset… why don’t you ever want to play with us?”

Where should see start? Sunset grinned, ready to list the reasons, but then she got a good look at Dew Drop. She looked almost scared, as if the answer might somehow physically harm her.

Dew Drop and Sugar Breeze were obnoxious. Sunset desperately wanted them to leave her alone. But they were also children, and Sunset didn’t want to terrorize the poor idiots. ‘So much for not being a bully…’

Sighing deeply, Sunset pressed her hand against the bridge of her nose. “Look, Dew Drop… I don’t like the things you like. We don’t have a lot in common. I’m not trying to be mean here, but I really don’t want to be your friend.”

It was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Sunset had buried away all her malice, and laid the facts out bare. She had used as calm of a tone as she was capable of, and had controlled her body language enough to not give the wrong idea. None of which mattered at all because Dew Drop was already sniffling as she took shaky breaths.

“Y-you hate me…”

Sunset furrowed her brow and shook her head. “That’s… not what I said. At all.”

The actual tears were starting. “What did I do wrong? I just wanted us to be friends!”

“Wha… what!?” Sunset’s voice started rising. “Did you even listen to me?”

“I’m… I’m sorry, I-I didn’t m-mean to…”

“Are you really that stupid? I said I don’t –”

The rest of Sunset’s sentence was cut off as Dew Drop began wailing loudly. Sunset took a few steps back, completely at a loss for what to do.

“Hey, uh, it’s… okay! I didn’t mean it!” It didn’t help. “Look, I’ll play the stupid game. I mean! It’s not stupid, it’s fun, and…” Dew Drop cried louder. She was just standing there, arms at her side, blubbering about something that wasn’t even Sunset’s fault! “Hey! Stop! Dew Drop, it’s… just… Sweet Celestia, just shut the buck up!”

“Sunset Shimmer!”

Sunset turned wildly to find Rose Petal hobbling over to them, Sugar Breeze right behind her. Finally, someone who could stop… Why was she glaring at Sunset?

Rose Petal stopped before she reached Sunset, kneeling down to hug Dew Drop. “There there, little one. Everything’s okay now.”

‘Because she arrived just in time to see the troubled girl cursing at the sweet little innocent child,’ Sunset noted. It was not the best way that situation could have gone. She just shoved her hands in her pockets and frowned. At least there was one good thing from this: Judging by the glare she was getting from Sugar Breeze, it was unlikely either of them would want to try and be friends with her anymore.


“So I wasn’t really trying to yell at her,” Sunset reiterated.

“I see.” Crystal Clear had listened patiently through Sunset’s story. She supposed that was just part of his job. “I can see how that could have happened, and I believe that you didn’t mean to hurt Dew Drop’s feelings.”

“Exactly!”

“But you did break a promise to play with them, and you should have been nicer to Sugar Breeze.”

“But I told them ‘no’!” Sunset threw her arms out as she spoke, scarcely believing he wasn’t taking her side completely. “I told them ‘no’ every single time they asked, I told them I don’t want to play with them. Why is it okay for them to keep pestering me when I don’t want to play with them?”

Crystal Clear sighed and glanced down at his desk. When he looked up he wasn’t frowning, exactly, but he seemed far from pleased. “Sunset… what do you know about Dew Drop?”

“Not much, but I don’t need a ph.D. in psychology to guess she might be bipolar.”

“Dew Drop was abused before coming to New Horizons. Her parents apparently never wanted a child, and never hid that fact from her. She was in and out of child services for her whole life, until her parents completely lost custody of her a few months ago. No one else stepped in to take care of her, so she wound up at New Horizons Home for Children. She is only four years old and is still learning about complex emotions. She only seems to understand that people will be her friend, or they will hate her. And in her history, people who hate her have not been kind to her.”

Sunset quietly fumed in her chair.

“Do you understand why I’m telling you this?”

“To make me feel like shit for making her cry?”

“To make you realize you are not the only one with problems. There are twenty-six other kids at New Horizons, and none of them chose to be rhere. Most of them wound up there because of some tragedy or other. In the best case scenario, some of the kids have lived there for their whole lives, given up for adoption as babies.”

Sunset rose to her feet and slammed her hand against his desk. “How was I supposed to know any of that!? And what the buck do you want me to do about it!? I didn’t have anything to do with all that!”

Crystal Clear was unfazed by her outburst. “I want you to try being a little more compassionate. You’re are a smart girl, Sunset. Even if you didn’t know the specifics, you could have easily figured out that Dew Drop might have a reason for trying so hard to be friends with everyone, and you certainly could have realized that it was best to proceed with caution.”

“Fine!” Since he wasn’t going to show emotions, Sunset would show enough for both of them. “I’m a self-centered bitch! I know that, okay? And trust me, you do not want me to be friends with someone that bucked up. I made her cry when I decided to try explaining things nicely. So… what? What do you want me to do, exactly? Force a fake friendship with someone I don’t even like? Do you really see me sitting around playing dolls and having bucking tea parties? I’ve said like half a dozen swear words in last five minutes and I’m honestly not even trying to! I’m not kid friendly.”

As always, he remained frustratingly passive. “I want you to apologize to her and Sugar Breeze. I especially want you to make sure Dew Drop understands that you don’t hate her. She will learn that not everyone is going to be her friend, and that’s okay. So no, I don’t think you need to be her friend, but I still want you to try and be nicer to her.”

Sunset huffed. “You think she’ll actually leave me alone after that?”

Finally, a little emotion shone through Crystal Clear’s face, as he smiled sheepishly. “I highly doubt it. But this can be good for both of you. You need to learn to be more patient, and she needs to learn to give people space.”

Realizing it was the best she was going to get, Sunset sank back into her seat. “Fine, whatever. I’ll apologize.”

“Without swearing,” Crystal Clear added.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Without swearing.”

“Good.” He nodded and smiled, which meant either something very good or very bad was coming. Unfortunately, Sunset’s luck hadn’t tended towards ‘very good’ too much over the past week. “You’ll have to be more careful about what you say from now on. I’ve been talking with Mrs. Dusk and Ms. Rose, and we’ve reached a decision.”

That definitely wasn’t good. Violet Dusk was her social worker, so of course they’d have plenty of reason to talk. But the fact that while they were talking they apparently reached some sort of decision about her? Nothing good could come of that.

“And what’s the verdict?” she asked.

“We’ve decided it would be best for you to start school.”

Sunset winced at the words. She’d known it was inevitable, and only had one real hope. “Is homeschooling an option? I could honestly teach myself.”

“Sorry to say it’s not. You’ll take a placement test, but the truth of the matter is that we think you need more exposure to kids your own age.”

Sunset took a deep breath. She had one final out that she wasn’t sure was a great idea, but decided it was worth a shot. “Proportionate dwarfism.”

Immediately catching her meaning, Crystal Clear smiled. “We’ve considered it. But nothing from your medical examination suggested you are anything other than a healthy child, approximately five years old.”

She wasn’t ready to give up that easily. “It would explain a few things. Come on, I had to know the term from somewhere.”

“I’ve heard you’ve been reading the dictionary.”

“Come on, you even talk to me like I’m an adult.”

Crystal Clear shrugged. “A child prodigy, perhaps. There are a few peculiarities that wouldn’t make sense if you were an adult. You are quite possibly genius levels of intelligence in certain subjects, while at the same time you lack a lot of knowledge about the world around you.”

Clutching onto hope, Sunset pushed forward. “I could be some sort of genius shut in, doing nothing but reading books to pass the time.”

“Sunset,” he said gently, in a tone that made it clear he was putting the matter to rest, “your hormone levels are exactly where they should be for a young girl. Furthermore, it is my expert opinion that the same can be said for your emotional maturity.”

Sunset frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I –”

“And I don’t mean the hormone thing,” Sunset added with a smirk. “I’ve read the dictionary.”

That got a chuckle out of him, but the somewhat adult themed joke didn’t seem to convince him of her age. “If I had only ever seen you when you are at your most calm and collected, I might be more apt to believe it was a possibility. But, as it happens, I’ve witnessed some of your emotional outbursts first hand and heard about others. I’ve heard you have a tendency to cry at night.”

Sunset blushed deeply and felt her anger rising. She tried to keep it in check, but could tell some of it seeped into her voice. “Yeah, well, I do have bucking amnesia, in case you forgot. So I’m sorry if my emotions are a little all over the place.”

He smiled reassuringly. “Sunset, I’ve helped adults and children with their problems. I know the different ways that they each handle their emotions. I’m not saying there’s a problem with your emotions at all; by all accounts, you have a perfectly healthy five-year-old brain.”

Sunset’s anger was gone in an instant as she realized the significance of his statement. “And a five-year-old’s id,” she murmured to herself.

“What was that?”

“The id, it’s the – wait, you know what the id is.”

“Yes, of course, but I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

Sunset sighed. The id – the part of the psyche that handled reactions and impulses. She had wondered why she was prone to rapid mood swings and severe panic. She pretty much lost control over herself when extreme situations came up and would often act exactly like a child. Her mind had retained all the experiences and knowledge she had gained from her seventeen years of being a unicorn, but just like the rest of her, her brain was that of a child’s. She had been telling herself all week that she was still seventeen, but it seemed that in some very significant ways, she was not.

“Sunset?”

“Fine,” Sunset said as she allowed herself to sink as far into her chair as she could, “I really am just a screwed up kid.”

4 – One of a Kind

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Chapter Four

One of a Kind

“Okay, class, we have something very fun to do today!”

All of Ivory Pages’ students waited excitedly. All except for one.

“Finger painting!”

Cheers echoed throughout the room as the class gathered around the art table to get started with their messy projects. Again, except for one. One student hung back, letting out a sigh as she dug a hair tie from her pocket. All the others seemed wholly uninterested in keeping themselves clean, but Sunset was not getting paint in her hair. It was bad enough she had to play along with such a dumb activity in the first place.

But she couldn’t do much about it. As much as she hated it, she needed to show her caretakers that she could be passed to the next grade. She was going to be stuck in this world for two and a half years, and she would have no choice but to rely on others for her basic necessities. Two and a half years, and she wasn’t going to spend the whole time in kindergarten.

Kindergarten… why couldn’t they at least put her a few grades up? Her aptitude test certainly wasn’t the reason. Words were largely the same across both worlds, so her reading and comprehension were quite literally off the charts they used to measure her skills. Math had a few differences when it came to the more advanced subjects, but she easily outperformed the standard for high school aged humans. Science was a lot trickier; some principles carried over, but in many ways the world seemed to work differently when it didn’t have an underlying layer of magic. Still, she was easily twice the level they expected her to be at. History was her biggest fault, since she knew absolutely none of it.

All signs pointed to her at least being placed higher in elementary school, since they were determined that she couldn’t be home schooled and had to be around kids close to her age. Maybe fourth or fifth grade, with some after school classes on history. But no, apparently the core values that kindergarten would teach her were just far too important. Even if one of those values was smearing paint around with her fingers.

She waited as all the other kids took their places. Ivory Pages seemed to think she was just shy, but really she was stalling for time. Every few minutes of waiting around was a few minutes she wouldn’t be covered in paint, so she pretended she was just being patient as all the kids got the colors they wanted. Only when she could delay it no longer did she get any paint of her own. Without even pretending to be amused, she poured some paint onto her paper and began moving it around.

It wasn’t fair. This wasn’t what she was supposed to get from the mirror. She was supposed to earn her wings, to become an alicorn. That’s what the mirror showed her, that was what she had been promised. Not this. The mirror hadn’t shown her playing with finger paint, it hadn’t shown her reading juvenile fiction in the hope that she could impress some guy who knew less about his profession than she did, it hadn’t shown her failing to come up with an answer to her teacher asking what she wanted it to be when she grew up.

“I, uh, I like your painting, Sunset,” Dew Drop said quietly. “I like how she has wings and a horn.”

“Thanks,” Sunset said half-heartedly. Dew Drop still seemed to want to be friends with her, even after Sunset had made her cry. And while she would never actually play with the other girl, Sunset did put up with her on occasion. It was slightly easier to partner with the familiar girl for group activities than it was to work with anyone else in her class, and if she ever decided to be honest with herself, Sunset would have to admit that she felt guilty for what had happened.

Sunset looked down at her alicorn painting. It was far from her perfect likeness; the coat was too orange, and she’d only used red for the mane. Still, it didn’t look too bad, and it was just missing one thing. She dipped her finger into another color – yellow, for lack of gold – and she drew a crown atop her princess’s head, forming little points. She was far from an artist, and it was far from a precise medium, so they came out irregularly shaped.

“I drew a flower!”

Sunset looked over haphazardly to see that Dew Drop had, indeed, painted a flower. “Mmm hmm. That’s real nice, Dew Drop.” Although it was said with minimal enthusiasm, Dew Drop still seemed happy at the compliment.

Judging that her simple painting ought to be enough to please her teacher, Sunset got up and carried it over to a drying rack before washing her hands. She returned to her seat, pulled out her book, and ignored the way Ivory Pages watched her with concern. She had finished the task she’d been given, and considering all the free time kindergartners were allowed, she probably wouldn’t have another menial task for a few hours. No one had any reason to complain about her reading.

It wasn’t even that Sunset liked the book, but it was oddly compelling in its own way. She still would have chosen a novel written for adults, but the book occasionally granted her new information about how humans lived. Every word got her full attention, as she wasn’t sure what she’d need to know in order to prove to Crystal Clear that she could fully comprehend anything he gave her.

“Sunset, it’s time for lunch,” Ivory Pages said gently.

As usual, Sunset had been intending to read through lunch. She skipped meals all the time while studying under Celestia, after all. But it seemed her growing body made its own demands, and at the reminder that it was time to eat she realized how hungry she was.

So she relented, sliding her bookmark into place and stowing the book under her desk. The children formed a line and Sunset took her place in it, allowing herself to be herded along to the cafeteria. At first, she’d hated the daily ritual; she was self-sufficient and more than capable of seeing herself to the cafeteria. But soon she was marching along without complaint. Arguing wasn’t going to get her anywhere, and really, there were worse things.

Things like lunch itself. It was far too social, and she didn’t have her book. Apparently five-year-olds weren’t trusted with books around food. Looking at her classmates, Sunset found that hard to argue with. Of course, she wouldn’t have any trouble with it, but there was no telling about the kids she sat between. And therein was her problem: In addition to being the most stimulating thing she had, her silly juvenile fiction also served as a perfect shield from the other kids. They knew not to interrupt her while she was reading, and frankly they weren’t interested in her pictureless book anyway.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad, if only Sugar Breeze wasn’t in first grade.

“Ms. Pages said she really liked my painting!” Dew Drop said excitedly as she took a seat next to Sunset.

‘Of course she did, it’s her job,’ Sunset thought bitterly. She wouldn’t say anything out loud though. Dew Drop was far too sensitive to say anything like that to. “That’s nice.”

As always, Dew Drop ignored her obvious disinterest. “What are your favorite flowers?”

At least it was better than talking about dolls. “Lycoris.”

“Lycoris? What’s that?”

“It’s a kind of flower.”

“Oh…” Dew Drop sounded disappointed.

Sunset knew the explanation would just go over her head, but figured she might as well give it a shot. “Lycoris are a genus of flower, lilies specifically, with a few different variations. Lycoris radiata is my favorite. They’re also called red spider lilies. They’re beautiful, but they’re also poisonous.”

“Okay. My favorites are pink ones!” Dew Drop smiled happily, while Sunset smirked and rolled her eyes. Dew Drop was so predictable.

“One time, Ms. Rose took us to a, uhm, a boat garden, and it was full of pretty flowers.”

“A boat garden…?” Sunset blinked a few times, then facepalmed. “A botanical garden?”

“Yeah! But there weren’t any boats there…” Dew Drop tilted her head to the side as if she were still trying to puzzle out the name. She probably was. “Maybe we’ll go again so you can see it too.”

“I can only hope to be so lucky,” Sunset said flatly. She didn’t really care about flowers too much, but it was easier to just let Dew Drop prattle on then it was to silence her. So she just ate her lunch, gave her occasional disinterested input, and ignored how often Dew Drop talked with her mouth full.

Lunch crawled to a close, and all the kids were again corralled into a line to return to their classrooms. They wouldn’t be staying though – just a quick stop before making their way outside for recess. Kids who brought their lunch would drop off their lunchboxes, and they were allowed to collect any toys or games they brought from home. Like everyone else, it was Sunset’s favorite part of the day. Unlike everyone else, that was because it was the only time she was guaranteed to be left alone. All the other kids had their own friends to play with, and since kindergarteners and first graders shared a recess period, so did Dew Drop. It only lasted half an hour, but they were thirty glorious minutes of solitude.

Sunset collected her book from under her desk and was quickly back at the door. It always amazed her how slowly her classmates managed to do something so simple as getting ready for recess.

“Sunset, why don’t you try playing a game today?” Ivory Pages asked her while they waited for the other kids.

‘Because I’m smarter than you, and yet you want me to play patty cake with bunch of kids who probably still wet the bed.’ But that answer wasn’t likely to get her anywhere, so Sunset just gave an authentic-looking smile. “I’m just really excited to find out what happens next in my book.”

Ivory Pages kneeled down to talk to her better. “I’m very happy you enjoy reading so much, but it’s important that you play and get some exercise, too.”

“I get plenty of exercise at home, though,” Sunset lied. She didn’t think it sounded very convincing, and Ivory Pages didn’t look very convinced.

“Do you know what a compromise is?” she asked in her patronizingly sweet voice.

Sunset had to bite back her initial response, and instead opted for a more passive aggressive one. “A compromise is an arrangement wherein both parties benefit from the outcome, or at least mitigate the loss between themselves. However, given the current context, a ‘compromise’ would hold the connotation of you forcing me to surrender my novel, in spite of the fact that recess is supposedly a free period for us to enjoy ourselves in the manner of our choosing.”

It was almost worth it. Sunset would have still chosen to read her book, but seeing the dumbfounded look on her teacher’s face was almost as good. Sunset grinned and shrugged. “I’ve read the dictionary.”

Recomposing herself, Ivory Pages smiled again. “Well, that is very impressive, Sunset, but why don’t you leave your book with me for now? I think if you just try playing with the other kids you’ll have a lot more fun than you think. And if you still would rather read, you can have your book back halfway through recess.”

Why did fifteen minutes feel a lot less than half as glorious as thirty? “I don’t suppose pointing out how unfair this is will get me anywhere?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun!”

Although that wasn’t really an answer, Sunset just sighed and handed over the book anyway. She pointedly stared ahead and ignored the rest of Ivory Pages’ reassurances that she would enjoy herself.

Resigned to her fate, Sunset could only march along with the others as they left the classroom. Ivory Pages led them out to the playground behind the school, where the kids quickly grouped up with their friends.

Sunset just looked around, trying to figure out how to make the most of her situation. She could go sit quietly in her usual spot underneath a shady oak tree at the edge of the playground, but she wouldn’t have anything to do but watch a bunch of kids playing. Ivory Pages had said the reason she should play was to get exercise. Sunset doubted that was the truth, but if she ran around a bit she could take away one of the teacher’s arguments. Although, she would probably just wind up stating that Sunset needed to spend more time socializing.

“Sunset!”

Or Dew Drop could notice that she didn’t have her book, and Sunset could spend the whole time trying to get out of playing some dumb game.

Sunset turned around to find Dew Drop smiling happily with her hands behind her back while Sugar Breeze stood frowning, arms folded. At least it would be easy to convince one of them that she just wanted to be left alone.

“You two look like you’re having so much fun, I’ll just get out of your way.” Sunset waved and turned to walk away.

“Wait!” Dew Drop said. Sunset knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. “I know a game you’ll want to play. We’re playing with ponies!”

Sunset wheeled around, mouth hanging open, to find Dew Drop extended her hands, each of which held a little pony toy. She quickly closed the distance between them and took one.

Dew Drop laughed. “I knew you’d like this game because of your drawing.”

Sunset looked up at her for a moment before turning back to the toy. She couldn’t find any words to say. There were no words for how she felt. She had thought there were no ponies on Earth, had never even considered the possibility. And yet there it was, right in her hands.

It looked a little strange. The proportions were all off, the coloring seemed dull, and there was no cutie mark. Still, it was no weirder than any of the human dolls she had seen. “I didn’t… I thought…” She turned back to Dew Drop. “Where did you get these?”

Dew Drop was grinning enthusiastically, while Sugar Breeze looked skeptical. “They’re mine,” Sugar Breeze said. “And that one’s my favorite, so give it back.”

Sunset didn’t react immediately, so Sugar Breeze snatched it out of her hands. “Hey! I was just looking, I’m not going to hurt your pony.”

Judging from the look she was giving, Sugar Breeze doubted that very much.

Dew Drop didn’t seem to have any reservations, though. She held out the other one for Sunset. “So you’ll play with us?”

Sunset took the offered toy and looked over that one too. It was completely identical except for the coloring. “Dew Drop, I… What about real ponies?”

“I, uh…” Dew Drop frowned for a minute then smiled again. “We can pretend they’re real ponies!”

Sunset shook her head. “I want… no, I need to see a real pony. Where do they live? Do either of you know any? Why haven’t I seen any? Shouldn’t there be at least a few at the school?”

With every question, Sunset was growing more exasperated. Her mind raced with possibilities – she imagined ponies locked away, second class citizens or worse. She felt her chest tightening as she thought more about it, grasping for some sort of solution that would make sense, something that could explain things without making the creatures she was living with monsters.

Dew Drop took a step back, and Sugar Breeze stepped in between her and Sunset. “You’re being weird again!”

Sunset gritted her teeth and tried to fight her panic. She knew she’d lock up again if she panicked, and she couldn’t. She needed answers. “Sugar Breeze, listen to me, this is important. I really need to know about ponies.”

“Give me my toy back!” Sugar Breeze scowled and held out her hand. “I knew we shouldn’t have tried playing with you, you’re such a freak!”

Is that what humans thought? That ponies were freaks? Sunset gritted her teeth and her fingers tightened around the toy. “I’m not a freak!”

“Give it!” Sugar Breeze reached for the pony, but Sunset pulled it away. With a scream, Sugar Breeze threw her body into Sunset’s, knocking them both to the ground.

Sunset held the pony as far away from Sugar as she could, and used her other arm to try and shove her away.

“Get the buck off!”

“Give me my toy!”

Dew Drop cried loudly.

All of a sudden, Sugar Breeze was lifted off of her as Sunset herself was pulled up. Sugar was being held by a teacher Sunset didn’t recognize, while Ivory Pages kept hold of her arm.

“What is going on here!?” the other teacher asked.

“She has my pony!” Sugar said angrily.

Sunset scowled and looked around. Dew Drop was still crying, frozen in place. Like Sunset, Sugar’s teacher only had a hold of her arm. Ivory Pages was frowning at her. “Sunset, is that her toy?”

Sunset looked down at the pony in her her hand. At some point, it stopped being a toy and had become the symbol for something greater. She didn’t know anything about ponies in this world, and she was afraid of the answer.

She looked back at Sugar, who stared at her angrily. It looked like a challenge. Sunset lifted the pony as if to give it back, but when Ivory Pages went to take it she instead threw it as far as she could.

“Sunset Shimmer!”

It landed beyond the school’s fence, and for a moment Sunset felt elated.

Only for a moment, though. “My mom gave me that!” Sugar Breeze said, before turning to Sunset. Her malice couldn’t last, however, and it soon gave way to tears. She began sobbing, even louder than Dew Drop had been.

Sunset looked down at the ground and shoved her hands in her pockets. Ivory Pages was lecturing her, while the other teacher was promising Sugar Breeze that they could get it back. Sunset didn’t listen to either of them, with only one thought running through her head.

‘What the buck is wrong with me?’

The other teacher must have agreed to watch over both classes because at some point Sunset found herself being led away by Ivory Pages. She didn’t question it, nor did she answer any of the questions that were being asked of her. They walked to a part of the school she had never been before and went through a door labeled ‘Principal Scarlet’.

The principal looked up as they entered, smiling warmly. “Hello, Ms. Pages. What can I do for you?”

“There was a bit of a fight at recess just now,” Ivory Pages said. “Sunset Shimmer and Sugar Breeze, a first grader. One of my other students, Dew Drop, was there as well, and is friends with both of them.”

“I see,” Principal Scarlet frowned as she looked at Sunset, who looked off to the side as if she were ignoring the whole conversation.

“It seems to have been over a toy, but Sunset isn’t answering any questions, and both Sugar Breeze and Dew Drop are really upset.”

Even through her aura of indifference, Sunset couldn’t help but frown at the implication that she wasn’t upset just because she wasn’t crying. It was typical, nobody paid attention to emotions that might lie beneath the surface.

“I see. Sunset Shimmer… she’s the new girl from New Horizons, isn’t she?”

Along with talking about her like she wasn’t there, Sunset noted the unasked question: She’s the headcase, isn’t she?

“Yes, she is,” Ivory answered.

“Alright then. I’ll call New Horizons and we’ll see if Sunset feels like opening up.”

Ivory Pages nodded. “Right. I’ll get back to my class then. Poor dears must be all worked up.”

“Okay,” Principal Scarlet said, entirely too brightly. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

“Will do.” Ivory Pages kneeled down to talk with Sunset before she left. “Alright now, Sunset. Behave yourself for Principal Scarlet, okay? She only wants to help you.”

Sunset didn’t answer, so Ivory Pages eventually just stood up and walked out.

“Please, have a seat, Sunset.” Principal Scarlet gestured to a seat across from herself. Sunset obliged. “Want to talk about what happened?”

“No.”

“You know fighting is bad, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“So why were you fighting?”

Sunset frowned and looked her in the eyes. “Why did you bother to start with a question only to ignore my answer?”

Principal Scarlet was caught off guard and took a moment to reply. When she did it was with a smirk. “Excuse me?”

“You asked if I wanted to talk about the fight. Then I said no. Polite conversation would dictate you would at least try to get me to change my mind, but instead, you decided to just press on the questions.”

Scarlet’s smirk grew into a full grin. “You –”

“– are an interesting child,” Sunset finished. “I’ve been told.”

At least someone seemed to enjoy Sunset’s mannerisms. Scarlet leaned on her desk as she managed to smile without coming off as patronizing. “Well, I’m sorry for coming off as rude. But unfortunately, we do need to talk about what happened whether you want to or not.”

“Why don’t you just ask Sugar Breeze and Dew Drop?”

“We will. But there are two sides to every story, and I’d like to hear yours.”

“There’s really only one side here, it’s the same thing they’ll tell you.” Sunset leaned back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “Dew Drop asked if I wanted to play with her and Sugar Breeze. I told them no, but then I saw the toys they were playing with.”

Sunset frowned to herself as she replayed the memories in her head. Things had gotten way too out of hand way too quickly. It was obvious that Sugar Breeze and Dew Drop had no idea what she had been talking about. She had been so worked up by the time that Sugar Breeze had called her a freak that she didn’t even realize it wasn’t because she was a pony. They had no way of knowing anything about that, and only saw her ranting like a lunatic. No, Sugar Breeze had called Sunset a freak for one reason: she was a freak.

“I didn’t want to play with them, I wanted the toys for myself. So I pushed Dew Drop down and took one. Sugar Breeze told me to leave her friend alone, so I hit her. I tried running off with her toy when Sugar pinned me down. That was when the teachers intervened, and afterwards I was angry so I threw the toy over the fence.”

Well, Principal Scarlet certainly wasn’t amused with that one. “That was a very bad thing to do, Sunset.”

Sunset grinned and shrugged. “Technically, it was several very bad things to do.”

Scarlet didn’t find it funny. “You know I’m going to have to report this to your caretakers, right?”

“Never doubted it.”

Scarlet drummed her fingers on her desk for a moment while she considered the situation. “I have to say, I’m disappointed. You clearly know what you did was wrong, but you don’t seem to regret it at all.”

Regret it? What, making two little girls cry? Getting into a physical fight with someone a third of her age? Throwing away a toy that might be priceless to someone? Becoming the bully she always insisted she wasn’t ever going to be?

What could there possibly be to regret?

“If it’s all the same to you, I have the caretakers at the orphanage, my social worker, and my psychologist who are all going to give me the same lecture. Plus, you know, I live with Dew Drop and Sugar Breeze, so I’m sure someone is going to force me to apologize to them later. So can you just call New Horizons so this can all just get underway?”

It took another moment of silence, but Scarlet sighed and reached for a phone that was sitting on the corner of her desk. She dialed a number, held the phone to her ear as it rang, then greeted Rose Petal when she answered.

‘Of course Rose Petal has to be the one to answer. Because anything else would have been too lucky for me.’ Her initial opinion of Rose Petal hadn’t changed much. She was a bit overbearing, but she was also one of the least obnoxious caretakers at the orphanage.

Once she hung up the phone, Scarlet turned back to Sunset. “Someone’s coming to get you.”

“Fantastic.” Sunset looked off to the side and waited for more, but that seemed to be all there was to it. What else was there to say, after all?

Scarlet went back to her paperwork while Sunset looked around the room in silence. There were numerous posters with motivational messages on them, but otherwise it was a pretty bland room. There wasn’t anything to occupy her time with, which reminded her of something else. She didn’t have her book.

“So… can I get my stuff?”

“I’ll have someone collect it for you,” Scarlet said. Then she returned to her paperwork.

Sunset looked around a bit more, then said, “Okay,” in the hopes that it would motivate Scarlet to send someone to get it. It didn’t.

It came as a huge relief when there was a knock on the door, even if Sunset wasn’t exactly looking forward to talking with Rose Petal about the fight. “Come in,” Scarlet called.

It opened to reveal two people, but neither were Rose Petal. Sunset assumed one was some sort of receptionist or something because she didn’t recognize him. The other was a woman with magenta skin and long hair the color of grape jam, and Sunset was not happy to see her.

“Hello, Principal Scarlet,” she said. “My name’s Violet Dusk, I’m here for Sunset.” Her social worker turned to address her directly. “Hello, Sunset. Are you hurt?”

It was not the question Sunset had been expecting. “No, I’m okay.” It occurred to Sunset that no one else had bothered to ask her that yet.

“I’m glad to hear it. Principal Scarlet and I need to talk, then I’ll be taking you back to New Horizons.”

Sunset followed the receptionist to the front of the building, where she was again asked to wait. She found herself reading a pamphlet on the school, noting they taught kids how to use computers, something that she hadn’t had the chance to use yet.

It was a while before Violet Dusk came to get her, and when she did she brought Sunset’s backpack with her. She stopped for a moment to thank the receptionist, then led Sunset to her car.

“Are you hungry?” Violet asked as they got in.

“No, I ate.” Sunset pulled her seatbelt on and opened her backpack. “How’d you wind up coming to get me? I thought it would be Rose Petal.

“I was with her when Principal Scarlet called. Since I was going to meet with you after school anyway, we figured it just made more sense for me to get you now. Speaking of Ms. Rose, I told her I’d give her a call once we were leaving. Then the two of us can go somewhere to talk.” There it was. She hadn’t mentioned the fight yet, but of course it was coming.

Violet pulled out her cell phone, and dialed a number. “Hello, Rose. It’s Violet. I have Sunset with me, she’s okay. I saw Dew Drop when I was getting her bag, she’s a little shaken up but she’s doing fine. Sugar Breeze was with another administrator, but it sounds like nothing too serious happened.” She paused for a moment. “Yes, of course.” Another pause. “Alright, we’ll see you in a bit then. Bye.” She flipped her phone shut and turned on the car. “All your things are in your bag?” she asked as she began to back out.

Sunset sighed. “Everything but my book.”

The car came to a stop, then pulled back into the parking place. “I’ll be right back, don’t open the doors for anyone but me.” Violet exited the car. She left the engine running, but locked the doors.

Sunset watched her in slight bewilderment. She had expected a comment about how she would have to do without it since she’d been bad.

A few minutes later, and Violet returned. Sunset unlocked the doors so she could get in, and she handed over the book.

“Thanks,” Sunset said, looking at it in disbelief.

“You’re welcome.” Again, Violet backed out of the parking place. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s all.”

Violet nodded, then drove out onto the road. Sunset wanted to ask why she’d gone back for the book since keeping it from her might have just been part of her punishment for misbehaving, but she didn’t want to risk Violet changing her mind.

“So what happened today?” Violet asked. Her tone wasn’t unkind, exactly, but she never sugarcoated things. Violet Dusk was a practical woman who wanted to get to the heart of any matter quickly, and at times came off as curt because of it. Sunset didn’t like anyone, but Violet was easier to tolerate than most others.

“Didn’t Principal Scarlet tell you?”

“I’d rather hear it from you.”

Sunset stared out of the window as she spoke. It was only the second time she told the story, the same version she had given Principal Scarlet, and she was already sick of it. No doubt she’d have to tell it several more times as well.

“That doesn’t sound like you,” Violet said once Sunset was finished.

“You barely know me,” Sunset said bitterly.

“You’re right, I don’t.” Violet pulled into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. “On that note, do you like ice cream?”

Going back for the book was one thing, but offering to get her ice cream? There was only one explanation Sunset could think of. “This is all part of the whole ‘getting me to like you so I open up more’ thing, isn’t it?”

“Good guess, but no. This is part of the ‘I haven’t eaten lunch yet, so we’re stopping here one way or another’ thing.”

“Really?” Sunset asked doubtfully. “Ice cream?”

Violet shrugged. “You said you weren’t hungry, and I’m going to at least offer something if I’m going to be eating.”

It was a good excuse, even if Sunset still suspected Violet had an ulterior motive for her offer. Still, there was no reason not to accept. “Yeah, I like ice cream.”

They put their conversation on hold as they entered the building and waited through the line. Violet ordered a veggie burger meal for herself and an ice cream cone for Sunset. “You’re a vegetarian?” Sunset asked.

“No, I just like veggie burgers.”

Ah. Another attempt to get on Sunset’s good side. It would have been more surprising if she was a vegetarian; Sunset hadn’t met anyone besides herself who didn’t eat meat.

They got their food and took a seat. Violet set her fries in between the two of them so Sunset could have some as well.

“One thing I know about you is that you’re smart,” Violet said, abruptly bringing them back to the matter at hand. “Trying to take someone else’s toy? Not smart.”

Sunset took a bite of her ice cream. “Yeah, I guess that was pretty dumb.”

“You had to know that she would just tell the teacher.”

“I guess I wasn’t thinking.”

“If it had been another girl, you could have argued that it was really your toy. But since you live with Sugar Breeze, you know that Rose Petal would know in the end.”

“Like I said, I didn’t really think it through.”

Violet took a few bites of her burger before continuing, letting the unlikeliness of Sunset’s excuse sink in. “So, are you going to tell me what really happened?”

Sunset rolled her eyes to suggest she couldn’t believe Violet would say she was lying. “It was pretty much just like I said.”

“Pretty much, but not exactly.”

Damn it. People were usually so easy to fool. Even Crystal Clear wasn’t as perceptive as Violet Dusk seemed to be, especially considering this was only Sunset’s third time meeting her. She supposed it came down to a difference in their professions – Crystal Clear’s clients had to want to open up to him for it to help them as much as possible, whereas Violet Dusk just needed answers, and often needed them from people who would lie to her constantly.

“If you’re worried that I’ll get Sugar Breeze or Dew Drop in trouble, you should know that they’re really not my concern. Only you are.”

“Well, aren’t I special.” Sunset ate more of her ice cream as she thought. She didn’t really see what she had to gain from telling the truth, and she didn’t want Violet repeating anything to Rose.

Violet finished her burger but remained seated. “Another thing I know about you is that you haven’t shown any interest in toys before.”

Back to the holes in her story. And judging by the fact they hadn’t moved, she might be coupling it with the ‘we’re not moving from this spot until you give me an honest answer’ approach.

“It, uh… it was because it was a pony.”

Violet looked at her quizzically. “Do you… like ponies?”

Sunset folded her arms and turned away.

“Most girls your age like ponies,” Violet assured her. “I’m just not used to you acting like a girl your own age.”

That only made Sunset less likely to open up to her, really. Still, she could be an invaluable source of information. “Uh, so… what can you tell me about ponies?”

“Not a whole lot, I’m afraid.” Violet shrugged. “All I really know is that they’re like small horses.”

Oh. That explained it. Horses were extinct, and in this world ponies were too. Pony toys were no different than dinosaur toys, and tons of kids liked dinosaurs. No wonder she had come across as a freak.

Somehow, the realization that ponies were extinct made her feel more alone than the belief that they never existed at all.

“Maybe I could get you a book about ponies if you wa–”

“Really?” Sunset wheeled around to look at Violet, but soon blushed at her outburst. She resumed her grumpy expression as she turned away. “I, uh, I guess I might be interested in something like that.”

“I can try.” Violet inclined her head. “But we still need to talk about what really happened today.”

Clever. Dangle something in front of her that she wanted, then use it as a bribe. All without ever expressly stating that’s what was going on. Sunset would have admired it if it wasn’t being used against her.

“I kept asking questions about ponies, and I guess I was being pretty overbearing. I scared Dew Drop or something, so Sugar Breeze called me a freak and I got angry with her. I wouldn’t give her back her toy, but I didn’t really even want it. I… I really wasn’t thinking, actually.”

Violet smiled at her admission. “It’s okay to feel angry, but you need to try and keep your temper. But everyone makes mistakes, and just like she should apologize for what she said, I think you should apologize as well.”

Sunset frowned. “She shouldn’t apologize for anything. That’s why I didn’t want to tell the truth, I knew no one would get it. I was wrong, not her.”

“Sunset, you’re not a freak. You –”

“I was acting like one. She only wanted to protect her friend, and then I…” Sunset folded her hands in her lap and stared down at the table. “Her mom gave her that toy, and… I just threw it away. An apology isn’t changing that.”

“So then, what do you want to do about it? Because hiding in your room isn’t changing anything, either.”

Sunset thought about what she wanted. She wanted everyone to just leave her alone, especially Sugar Breeze and Dew Drop. As things stood now, that was pretty much a given. Why bother to even try making up for it when she clearly couldn’t? Even if she could it wouldn’t help her any.

“Can… we go back to the school?” Sunset asked quietly. “I, uh… I know where it fell, and maybe…”

Violet collected the trash from their lunch and stood up. “Yes, we can.”

5 – Hitting the Bottom

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Chapter Five

Hitting the Bottom

There wasn’t a whole lot that Sunset still looked forward to. She’d been trapped on Earth for over two weeks, and she would be for over two years. She was forced to attend kindergarten and was treated like a child. Worst of all, she was having extreme mood swings brought on by her adult memories and knowledge trying to reconcile with her five-year-old brain.

In every way, Sunset’s life was hell. And yet for once, she was actually excited. She sat waiting on her bed, flipping through the juvenile novel that Crystal Clear had left her with. She had read the whole thing three times, and she was ready to show her understanding of every conceivable aspect of the story. And once she did, she would finally be given something that she could actually enjoy – books about the magic of technology and novels that would actually be suitable for her age!

A knock on the door caused her to jump up. Even if it meant a lecture about the fight with Sugar Breeze, it was worth it. She even smiled as she opened the door and greeted Rose Petal. “Hi, Ms. Rose. I’m ready for my appointment.”

Seeing her happy for a change, Rose Petal couldn’t help but smile. “I see that. There’s been a bit of a change of plans, but don’t worry. It’s a good surprise.”

Sunset’s smile faltered a little. “I’m still seeing Crystal Clear, right?”

“Yes, deary. But don’t bother asking what the surprise is because I’m not telling. You’ll just have to come with me to find out.”

Slightly apprehensive, Sunset followed the caretaker. It wasn’t hard to imagine a surprise she might enjoy – she’d been dying to get her hands on a computer – but if the big surprise wound up being something that would normally appeal to a five-year-old, then Sunset would rather do without.

It wasn’t long at all before they came across the first change from their norm. Previously, Rose Petal had always driven her to Crystal Clear’s office for their appointments. Today, he was sitting in the foyer. Furthermore, he was talking to Violet Dusk, and Sunset wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

Seeing the two of them side by side did prove interesting. They both wore business suits all the time, but Crystal’s were expertly crafted, possibly custom made, and had to be quite expensive. On the other hand, Violet’s were well maintained but looked like they probably came from a discount supplier.

Violet was the first person to notice her. “Hello, Sunset. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Sunset said. She turned her attention to Crystal Clear, who smiled and waved. “I finished the book, and I’m ready to prove I understood it.”

“I see,” he said, taking the book as she handed it to him. “I’m afraid we won’t have as much time to talk about it as I thought we would, but I did remember our arrangement. I’ve already left some new books for you with Ms. Rose, and you can tell me all about the one you read while we’re driving.”

Although she was not entirely comfortable with the fact she wouldn’t get to see the books until after Crystal Clear had left, Sunset supposed there wasn’t a whole lot she could do about it. She decided instead to focus on the day ahead of them. “So what are we doing today?”

“Well, I heard about the incident that happened at school the other day,” Crystal said. Sunset must have looked worried because he smiled reassuringly. “As much as I would love to talk to you about that directly, Mrs. Dusk covered it pretty well from the sound of things, so you’re safe for now. But something else caught my attention. Sunset, why are you so interested in ponies?”

If she looked worried before, she couldn’t even imagine what she must have looked like at that. “I, uh… don’t… don’t lots of girls my age like ponies?” She forced an innocent grin, but knew she probably overdid it.

“Well, yes,” Crystal Clear admitted, “it’s possible that there’s really nothing to it besides general interest. But I have a theory. Since this is the first time you’ve latched onto something so strongly, I think it might be connected to your memories. There could very well be ponies somewhere in your past.”

That was a hell of an understatement. “What do you mean?” Sunset asked, trying hard to cover her nerves.

Crystal Clear shrugged. “It could be anything, maybe your parents had a job that involved ponies. But even if it’s just something small, like maybe a favorite TV show with ponies in it, that could still lead us to some big revelations. Sometimes remembering even a small detail will cause a lot more to follow.”

Sunset internally sighed with relief. They had no idea what was really going on. “I guess that makes sense, but I don’t remember anything like that.”

“We figured as much,” Violet Dusk said. “So we came up with an idea. Sunset, how would you like to go see a pony?”

Sunset’s whole body went slack and she caught herself with her mouth hanging open. “A… a real one? A real live pony?”

“Yes, a real live pony,” Violet assured her. “Dr. Clear thinks it might help you remember your past, so it’s worth a shot.” Normally, she didn’t express emotions in a large way, always maintaining the calm and collected image. But as she saw Sunset’s excitement grow, Violet joined the others with her own enthusiastic smile.

“Can we go now?” Sunset asked.

“Yes, if you’re ready we can get going,” Violet said.

Rose Petal chuckled from behind her. “Now if only I could find the time to visit the pony with you. Too much to do, I’m afraid, so you’ll just have to tell me all about it when you get back.”

Sunset nodded. “Okay.” That seemed like a small enough price to pay for the chance like this. She turned back to the others. “I’m ready, let’s get going!”

Crystal Clear held the door open for them while Rose Petal waved goodbye. They all climbed into Violet’s car, with Sunset sitting in the back. “It won’t be too far of a drive, but we should still make the most of it,” Crystal said once everyone was buckled in. “I suspect we’ll have plenty else to talk about on the way back, so how about you tell me what you thought of that book for now.”

“Oh yeah,” Sunset said. She had forgotten about the book. It suddenly seemed much less important; she didn’t really even care what books he had decided to leave for her anymore. They were on their way to talk to somepony like her, and she wouldn’t be alone anymore.


The houses thinned out as they drove. By the time the car stopped, Sunset could see a forest in the distance, which made her realize for the first time how little she knew of the local geography.

Which was a distant concern, of course, since they had apparently arrived at their destination. It was a large red house with lots of open space and a red wooden barn behind it.

“This is it,” Violet Dusk said as they stepped out. “Sweet Apple Acres. The biggest supplier of apples in the region, and home to several ponies.”

“Several!?” The day only got better. Sunset looked around excitedly, hoping to see a pony at work. While she had never cared to be around ponies doing manual labor in Equestria, she wasn’t about to start getting choosy. She’d be thrilled to meet anypony at all after spending so much time with humans.

Crystal Clear chuckled. “Relax, Sunset. You’ll get the chance to see the ponies soon enough. First, we’ll go meet with the people who live here.”

Sunset followed him without complaint as they approached the house, and fidgeted in place when he knocked on the door.

“Coming,” a man’s voice called from the other side. A moment later the door opened to reveal the biggest person Sunset had ever seen, both in size and build. He was golden yellow, with bright green hair that grew all over his body and covered most of his face. When he spoke, his voice was just as soft as it was deep. “Well, hello there, little lady. I reckon you must be here to meet a pony.”

“Yes,” Sunset said, craning her neck back to see him all the way. “I’m Sunset Shimmer.” Since she wanted to make a good impression on the people that lived with the ponies, she held her hand out to shake his.

He laughed as he shook her hand, and Sunset got the impression that he wasn’t used to little girls who weren’t intimidated by his size. “And I’m Apple Spice. I can already tell that you’ve got a lot of spunk, just like my own baby girl. She’s right around your age, actually.” Well, he probably wasn’t too used to it, anyway.

He stepped out and shut the door, gesturing for them to follow. “Right this way. The missus is ‘round back making sure Chestnut is ready.”

Sunset was equal parts apprehension and excitement. She desperately wanted to get to know another pony, to feel the solidarity that no matter what she looked like, they were the same. But she noticed unsettling undertones to every comment. Why did someone need to make sure Chestnut was ready? Had she been correct when she assumed ponies were enslaved by humans? Was the pony she was about to meet being held captive, forced into manual labor on a human-run farm, with the human masters taking care to make sure Chestnut was presentable to others?

She would only know when they met, so she pushed the thoughts aside. As they approached the barn, Sunset was disappointed to see nopony was in sight yet, only a human woman with a baby. Her husband may have been testosterone given human form, but she certainly seemed like a hearty woman herself. She was fairly tall, although not abnormally so, and her build suggested she did her fair share of work around the farm. Her pale orange skin stood out as being distinctly non-apple colored, while her vibrant red hair brought citrus to mind. The baby in her arms seemed to take equally after both parents, being a lighter shade of yellow than her father, while her hair was a darker red than her mother’s.

“Look, Apple Bloom, we have company!” she said to the little girl, exaggerating her excitement.

Apple Bloom laughed and buried her face into the crook of her mom’s neck.

“You must be Orange Blossom,” Violet said. “My name’s Violet Dusk, we spoke on the phone.” She placed her hand on Sunset’s shoulder. “And this is Sunset Shimmer, who is very interested in meeting Chestnut.”

“Hey there, Sunset,” Orange Blossom said, extending her hand, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise, ma’am,” Sunset said as she shook Orange’s hand, earning herself a smirk for the formal reply.

“Such a polite young girl,” Orange commented. She handed Apple Bloom off to her husband, who looked a little uneasy handling someone so small, before approaching the barn. “Everyone back up from the door some and I’ll bring Chestnut out.”

Obediently, they all huddled together far away enough for the large door to swing open. Sunset tried to get a glimpse inside, but couldn’t from where she was standing. Orange Blossom was talking, and Sunset felt a growing sense of unease. She couldn’t make out the words, but noticed she used a tone similar to how she had spoken to Apple Bloom. Unless Chestnut was a foal – and why would a foal be working on a farm? – it was clear that humans definitely looked down on ponies.

Those concerns became distant as she heard the familiar sound of hoofsteps. She would never have thought she’d miss something so basic as the sound of hooves against a wooden floor. For one glorious moment, she could close her eyes and be back in Equestria.

Then Orange Blossom walked out of the barn, and everything came crashing to the ground.

That was not a pony. It was a poor caricature of a pony. It was nothing but a disturbed artist’s rendition. A creature of nightmares. Its face was a misshapen mess, stretched out to horrible proportions with pitch black eyes. It was staring at her with those soulless, black eyes.

It was a nothing short of a monster.

Unconcerned about the people around her, Sunset ran. She didn’t want to be around that thing, she couldn’t be. Her ears filled with the sounds of screams that she only distantly realized were coming from herself. She couldn’t hear any other sounds.

She didn’t pay any attention to where she was going. Didn’t so much see the world around her as just react to it. Left here. Right there. Go around the tree. Don’t worry about the creek, just go through it. Anything at all that could put more distance between her and that thing.

The ground rose to meet her as her small body couldn’t carry her anymore. She covered her head and screamed, then forced herself back up. She looked around wildly and didn’t see anyone, but that wasn’t good enough. She had to keep going forward, she was never going back.

Step by step, she made her way further to… she didn’t know where it was to. It didn’t matter. She could die out here in these woods, and it wouldn’t matter.

Memories and fractured emotions replaced rational thought. It all came back to one thing, one resounding truth that wouldn’t let her go. There was nothing left worth living for.

She had nothing she cared about. She had been turned away from the only pony she cared for. She’d been forcibly removed from her home, the only place that had ever felt like home. Everything she had worked for, everything she had built for herself, it was all gone.

She had nowhere to go. She didn’t want to live with humans. She couldn’t find the portal. Even if she did, it was closed. Even if it wasn’t, no one wanted her on the other side.

She was nothing. She wasn’t a pony, not anymore. She wasn’t a human, she would never become one of them. She wasn’t a child, she had long since lost that innocence. She wasn’t an adult, she had lost that as well.

She was nothing short of a monster. A grotesque caricature of a thing. What thing? She didn’t even know.

It was an almost automatic response. She saw the ladder, so she climbed it. At the top was a door, so she went through it. There was nowhere else to go, so she fell to the ground. It was fitting, really. A pretend house for the pretend thing.

As the minutes passed, all Sunset could do was try and control her breathing. Controlled breathing would lower her heart rate, which in turn would allow her to relax. She reminded herself of this, but it didn’t matter. Her breaths came rapid and shallow, all the same.

The sound of someone climbing the ladder, and Sunset backed herself into a corner. She wanted to be brave and defend herself, or be smart and sneak out a window. Instead, she closed her eyes and covered her head with her arms.

The door creaked open, and Sunset squeezed her eyes tighter, terrified of what could be in front of her.

“Uh, are you Sunset Shimmer?” a small voice asked.

“No,” Sunset said, hoping that would be enough.

The footsteps against the wood suggested it wouldn’t. “Are you sure about that? ‘Cause ya look a lot like the girl they’re looking for.”

“I’m sure.” If they were looking for her, then Sunset was the last thing she wanted to be.

“Well then, I’m Applejack. What’s your name?”

Sunset peeked through her arms. Applejack was right around Sunset’s age, and there was no doubt whose kid she was. She had her mom’s orange skin, with golden blonde hair that she wore tied back. She was kneeling in front of Sunset, closer than she would have liked.

Seeing the other girl made her feel a bit better about the situation, so she put her arms down. “Sunset Shimmer,” she said with a sigh.

Applejack smiled and crawled on all fours to take a seat next to her. “I knew it! That wasn’t very honest of ya, to lie like that.”

There were worse things to lie about. “I’m not a very honest person.”

“Well, why not?” Applejack asked innocently. “Don’tcha think it’s easier to just tell the truth?”

“Sometimes…” Sunset shook her head and wiped her eyes. “Sometimes there’s things that… that other people just won’t understand.”

“Well, sure,” Applejack said with a shrug. “But nobody will ever understand if you don’t at least try explainin’ yourself.”

“There’s things that you don’t want anyone to know, things that they would think are bad.” Sunset leaned her head back against the wall. “And sometimes… maybe they’re right. Maybe you would be better off without certain things. If you lie about it for long enough and no one ever knows, it’s kinda like a new truth.”

Applejack just stared blankly. “Uh…”

Why was she bothering? Sunset wasn’t even sure she herself knew what she was talking about, there was no way a little kid had any chance of getting it. “Forget it.”

Applejack frowned and looked ahead. “Okay…” She looked around for a moment before turning back to Sunset with a smile. “Ya know, Chestnut really is a nice horse. He’d never hurt nobody.”

Sunset’s head snapped towards Applejack. “They said he was a pony.”

“Well, he is. Lots of people think horses and ponies are different, but ponies are really jus’ small horses.”

“That’s not true!” Sunset insisted.

Applejack didn’t seem to mind her tone, as she just shrugged with a casual grin. “ ‘Fraid it is.”

Sunset wanted to argue, wanted to make her understand that ponies were different, that she was different. She tried, but the words wouldn’t come. She was just too exhausted.

“Whatever,” she said after a while. “I don’t want to talk about ponies, or horses, or anything like that. I hate them.”

“Alright then. So what do you like?”

Sunset wrapped her arms around her knees and pulled herself into a tight ball. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

Applejack contemplated that for a moment. “Are you lyin’ again?”

“No.”

“You sure ‘bout that?”

“No.”

“Well…” Applejack tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I like playing with my friends, and trying new things, and my treehouse, and my family, and playing with the pon– uh, chickens. Do you think you like any of those things?”

“Not really.”

“Come on.” Applejack nudged Sunset, so she glared at her. Applejack seemed indifferent. “Ya gotta like something, at least a little bit.”

“I hate my parents, I don’t have any friends, I’m sick of new things, I’ve never even seen a chicken, and… I guess your treehouse is okay.”

“Oh.” Applejack seemed at a loss for what to say. Sunset supposed it was a lot to lay on a five-year-old, but she also didn’t care.

Neither of them spoke, but Applejack never left. In a way, Sunset resented Applejack’s continued presence. She never liked kids at the best of times, and she certainly wasn’t in the mood to deal with them. But if Applejack wasn’t around, she’d be all alone.

“So how…” Sunset stopped short. Her voice sounded harsh, even to her own ears. But Applejack didn’t notice, or maybe she just didn’t care. She just turned to Sunset expectantly, ready to talk if Sunset was, but also remaining silent in case she wasn’t. Sunset looked away and softened her voice. “How’d you know where to find me, anyway?”

“I didn’t, I just thought I’d get a better view from up here.”

“Huh. That actually makes a lot of sense.”

Applejack smiled proudly, but soon returned to a serious expression. “You, uh, you know they’re lookin’ for ya, right?”

“I don’t care,” Sunset mumbled, telling herself as much as Applejack. “I’m not going back.”

Applejack frowned. “I bet they’re real worried about ya.”

Sunset laughed, which made her feel hollow. “No, they’re not. They want to find me because they’re responsible for me. They care about their jobs, which they could lose if they don’t find me.”

“Well, I’m sure someone would miss you.”

“Who?” Sunset asked, grinning. “I already said I don’t have any friends, and I might as well not have any family. No one would bucking miss me.” Applejack stifled her laughter well, but her amusement was obvious. “What?”

“Oh, uh…”

“What the buck is the problem?”

Although she still tried to hide it, a snicker came out. “Well, it’s just… I never heard anyone say it that way.”

“Say what?”

“Buck.”

Sunset frowned. “Well, what do people usually say?”

Applejack looked around as if someone might be listening in secretly, then dropped her voice to barely above a whisper. “Fuck.”

“Fuck?” Sunset asked, not bothering to lower her voice.

“Uh huh.”

Sunset balled up her hands and squeezed her eyes tight. How many times had no one bothered to correct her on the proper use of human swears? Suddenly, her eyes shot open and she started laughing. It was too ridiculous not to. “I can’t even fucking swear right!”

“Well, uh, my dad says ‘fudge’ sometimes, too,” Applejack offered, which only made Sunset laugh more. Applejack laughed along nervously as well, although she clearly didn’t understand what was so funny.

“I’m pathetic,” Sunset said, abruptly putting an end to their laughter. She stared sadly at her hand, the first thing that had indicated to her that she was no longer a pony. “I used to be important, Applejack… I used to… I had someone I cared about, and I thought she cared about me to, but then… then she…”

Her words trailed into tears. Sunset never cried around others, but she couldn’t help it. Everything was building inside her so much that she couldn’t keep it all together anymore.

Applejack placed a hand on her shoulder. Sunset reached for it to brush it aside, but then just left her hand on Applejack’s. The other girl’s hand felt warm, and Sunset was forced to remember how much softer hands were compared with hooves.

Sunset pulled her hand back without pushing Applejack’s aside, and used it to wipe the tears from her eyes. Applejack also pulled her hand away, and Sunset found she actually wished she hadn’t. Not for long though; a moment later Applejack scooted closer to her and wrapped both arms around her.

At first, Sunset just sat rigid, not entirely sure what to do. No one had ever tried to hug her since she went through the portal, and honestly? She couldn’t remember the last time someone had tried while she was in Equestria, either. Slowly, Sunset moved one arm around Applejack as well.

“I don’t think you’re pathetic,” Applejack said.

It was stupid. They had only known each other for half an hour, maybe. At no point had Sunset said anything that didn’t sound pathetic, she definitely didn’t say anything that sounded impressive. What the hell did Applejack know? She was just a silly girl, who was trying to fix something when she had no idea what was even broken.

A silly girl who, for a moment, made Sunset feel like she wasn’t alone.

Sunset put her other arm around Applejack as well, leaned her head against her shoulder, and cried some more.


When Sunset was ready to go, Applejack took her by the hand. She would have resented it on any other day, but when they reached the bottom of the ladder, it was Sunset who reached for Applejack’s hand.

They didn’t speak as they walked, and Sunset trailed a few steps behind. The entire time, she alternated between looking at the ground and at their hands cupped together. After everything that happened, her mind had finally run out of thoughts, and the only things she could focus on were her footsteps and the warmth of having another hand in hers.

Crystal Clear saw them first, and he shouted for the others. Apple Spice heard him and called out as well, his voice carrying farther. Soon Orange Blossom and Violet Dusk joined in to confirm that they had heard, as well as a crowd of people Sunset didn’t know. Everyone gathered around her and Applejack, all asking questions, all speaking at once. Sunset stepped closer to Applejack and held her hand tighter.

“Watch out, everyone step aside.” As always, Violet Dusk’s voice was direct and slightly forceful. She ignored her own command and approached Sunset and Applejack while everyone else backed off somewhat. She kneeled down in front of Sunset. “Sunset, look at me.” She did as she was asked. “Are you hurt?”

Unable to speak, Sunset just shook her head.

“I’m glad to hear it. In that case, it’s time for us to go.” She stood up and addressed the crowd. “Thank you all very much for helping. It’s good to know that the neighborhood can come together in times of need. But as much as I would love to stay and thank everyone individually, somebody had a very busy day and I think it’s time we get her home.”

There were some murmurs from the crowd, people who thought that perhaps they were owed more of an explanation about where Sunset had gone. Violet Dusk ignored them. “Let’s go, Sunset.”

Applejack flashed her a smile as they let go of each other’s hands. Sunset couldn’t return it, so she just looked at the ground as she followed Violet back to her car.

Once again, she climbed into the seat behind Crystal Clear and pulled on her seatbelt. Although neither of them had asked anything beyond Violet’s immediate concerns, Sunset understood that they were going to talk about it, they just weren’t going to make her do it in front of strangers.

She looked out the window as the engine started. Most of the group was still watching them, but she wasn’t concerned about that. She was watching one little girl, who ran closer and waved as they backed out of the driveway.

Sunset placed her hand against the window. It felt cold against her palm.

6 – Helping Hands

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Chapter Six

Helping Hands

The sun peaked through the window, gently filtering onto Sunset’s face. It was her signal to wake up and ‘rise with the sun’, as Princess Celestia was fond of saying. Sunset wasn’t terribly fond of the tradition – just because her cutie mark was a sun certainly didn’t mean she was a morning pony – but she did it every day, without complaint.

Well, no complaints to anypony else, in any event. She groaned as she pushed herself off the bed, haphazardly rubbing at her eyes with one hoof. Like the princess herself, Sunset was often up late into the night. Unlike the princess, she didn’t have the energy of an alicorn or two thousand years of experience to make the process easier.

She had to drag herself to the mirror, but her mood improved considerably from there. Something about her reflection just seemed better than usual. Not that she could have said what; her mane was nothing short of a mess, and there were bags under her eyes. Still, it just looked right. Good thing, too, since there wasn’t much time to fix any of the imperfections. Princess Celestia would be expecting her soon, and Sunset hated making her wait. A teal light shone from her horn, and a hairbrush levitated itself to her. Practiced as she was, she barely had to focus on the thing for it to do its job.

Several minutes later found Sunset turning from the mirror, with a song almost finding its way out of her smiling lips. That wouldn’t do, so she allowed herself a moment more to properly compose herself. Imagine if Cadance saw her so much as humming merrily. She’d probably blab about it to Princess Celestia, who would give her that cheesy smile she gave whenever she thought Sunset might actually start caring about friendship, or whatever else she chose to prattle on about.

Which… actually didn’t sound so bad. Sunset tried to think about what could possibly have her in such a good mood that she might be willing to suffer from both of Equestria’s princesses praising her for – wait, no, Cadance would still be obnoxious. So at least there was some degree of normality in Sunset’s world.

With a relatively neutral expression in place, Sunset left her room. The hallway outside was wide and richly decorated. Why had she never noticed how beautiful everything was before? There were deeply colored tapestries that hung on the wall beside bright and elaborate stained glass windows. The sun shone through the windows in a full spectrum of color. Here, red and orange. Over there yellow, green, and blue. Indigo and violet shone to the side.

But as she walked on, the hallway grew narrower. Sunset didn’t like it. The carpet faded underhoof, before being replaced by several rugs over hardwood flooring, with red rose petals sprinkled around. The windows had lost their color, although every windowsill had a mismatched flower vase, containing everything from orange marigolds, to yellow sunflowers, to green chrysanthemums. The tapestries were replaced with large photographs in black and white, which depicted the surrounding area in years long since past. The only color came from the flowers that covered everything. Although they had an oddly wild look about them, they seemed to be well cared for. Of course, that was to be expected in Canterlot castle. Flowers even grew out from the hallway itself, with blue hydrangeas dotting the walls and indigo lupines growing from cracks in the ground.

Sunset kept a brisk pace. Princess Celestia was waiting for her, after all. It wasn’t long before she came to the doors. They stretched out as far as she could see, although she knew there was an end. Each door led to a child’s room. Through a red door, a girl was crying. Through an orange one she could hear yelling. Sunset hated the other children, they all wanted to play with her. No one understood her here. The windows were small and didn’t open, and the walls were decorated with crude paintings from the children. Primary and secondary colors were the palette used in everything – yellow, green, and blue abounding wherever she looked.

She came next to the dining room. There were several people already gathered. They had left a spot open for her, so she climbed into it. The chair felt awkward, and she remembered it wasn’t made for somepony like her, but rather somebody like the people around her. She would make the most of it. It was important to eat breakfast, they would be upset with her if she didn’t.

Everything was made for children. Her plate was bright red, her cup orange. Both were plastic, so as not to be broken. Off to the side were her yellow fork and green spoon, also plastic. There was no knife, children didn’t use those.

First she tried to use her magic to lift her utensils, but it didn’t work. That’s right, magic never worked here. She would have to wait until she was with Princess Celestia in the other parts of the castle for that. Meanwhile, people were staring at her. She reached for a fork, but it was not made for hooves.

Rose Petal was looking at her disapprovingly. Sunset didn’t want to let her down, so she decided to make an excuse for herself. I’m not really hungry today, she said. I think I’ll skip breakfast. Do you know where Princess Celestia is?

Her voice seemed to alarm the other children. “You’re always such a freak!” Sugar Breeze yelled at her. Dew Drop was crying again. She was always crying.

I’m not a freak! Sunset claimed. Her words had no effect. Rose Petal stood up and walked over to her. She would help. She always said Sunset could count on her to help.

Before she even realized what was going on, Rose Petal had already pulled off Sunset’s shirt. Although ponies often went without clothes, Sunset felt strange without it. She tried to back away, but tripped. She didn’t remember how many legs to walk with. Rose Petal roughly took hold of her shorts and pulled them off as well. Sunset pushed the elderly caretaker away, not caring what happened as she fell to the ground.

Remembering how to properly move her legs, Sunset ran. She made it through the front door and found she was surrounded by mirrors. On her left she saw herself, a unicorn of red, orange, and yellow. On the right she saw somepony else, an alicorn wearing her colors. That wasn’t her, but it could be so she ran to it. Her reflection wore a sinister grin, but she didn’t care. It was all she ever wanted. She would be an alicorn, a princess. She would be Princess Celestia’s favorite again.

The mirror shattered, the pieces piercing her skin. In the shards on the ground she saw her reflection. It was warped beyond recognition, and it was exactly what she was. She was a freak, a nightmare creature, a thing.

“Come with me,” a voice said.

Sunset saw Violet Dusk beside her, passive as always. Her command was simple, so Sunset followed it. She no longer worried that she wasn’t wearing clothes. Horses never wore clothes.

Where are we going? she asked, but Violet ignored her. Sunset went along with her, but never with the intent of doing what Violet wanted her to. It was simply the path of least resistance.

Violet led her into the back of her car, where Sunset barely fit. As they drove, she noticed her blood. It flowed from the many cuts the glass had given her, soaking red into her orange fur.

They arrived at the one place Sunset never wanted to see again, a farm that felt large enough to be a prison.

Violet let her out, and Sunset ran. She would not be there. She ran, but she was found. Crystal Clear stood in her way, a patronizing smile on his face. But she wouldn’t stop, not for him. She reared back and brought her forelegs down onto him. She didn’t know what would happen to him, but it wasn’t her concern.

She ran back along the road she had come from, and found herself face to face with a little girl. She stopped suddenly, not wanting to accidentally run into Applejack. She held out her hand, and Sunset approached her slowly.

Stay by her side, she will help you.

Run away from her, you’ll both be better off.

“Everything will be okay,” Applejack said.

How do you know? Sunset asked.

“I just do. Trust me, it’s the honest truth.”

Sunset wanted to, but she couldn’t. She ran past Applejack, putting the silly girl behind her.

She didn’t know how long she ran for, but it didn’t matter. All the paths led back to one place. She didn’t need to try more than one, she just knew. She was back at the barn, as she would be from any other route she took. But anything was better than the barn and the creature inside it, the creature like her.

She turned to leave but found there was nothing behind her. The nothingness approached her, and she turned from it.

It forced her up against the barn. She heard a voice inside. Rough, male. Go away, it said. Your kind is not supposed to be here.

But the nothingness drew ever closer, and Sunset wouldn’t go in it. Without thinking, she kicked in the door to the barn. It wouldn’t follow her into the barn.

Chestnut was waiting, as she knew he would be. He snarled at her. I told you to leave, he said. This is not the place for humans.

I’m not a human, I’m a ——! Sunset pleaded for him to understand, for something to understand.

He approached her snarling, backing her into the wall. He had heavy iron chains keeping him from reaching her, the same as she had around her own neck. This was the place for her, the place she belonged.

Although it made the chains dig into her neck, Sunset turned away. The barn was dull and void of color, except for one. Red spider lilies raised up around her. Her favorite, they were the flowers of death, and of hell.

She bent down to reach one, but it was just out of her grasp. She strained her neck as far as she could, longing for the poisonous bulb. Everything would be okay if only she could eat just one.


Even as she woke up, Sunset hid under her blanket. She didn’t want to see herself in the mirror, didn’t even want to so much as check her own body to see which species she was. As long as she didn’t know, there was a chance she was still a human.

But whether she wanted to or not, she could feel herself drifting out of consciousness. If she remained in the dark, she’d sleep again, and she’d dream again. There was no choice, Sunset had to get up.

But first, she would make sure of something. Without opening her eyes, she slowly lifted her hand and pressed it to her face. She felt five little points press into her cheek, proving that it was indeed a hand, not a hoof.

She pulled the cover off and looked into the mirror. She saw a little girl with red and yellow hair that was all tangled up from tossing and turning in her sleep. Still, her heart wouldn’t stop pounding. She couldn’t forget everything that had just happened, even if it was a dream.

A knock on the door made her retreat back under her blanket. “Sunset, it’s time for breakfast,” Rose Petal called through the door.

Sunset didn’t answer. She didn’t want to see Rose Petal, not after what she’d dreamt about. Moments passed without any other interruptions, meaning that Rose probably had already moved on to the other rooms. It was only a minor relief since Sunset knew she would be back soon.

Rose could come back, but she would not get in. Rising from her bed, Sunset moved quickly. She cleared off her bedside table and pushed it against the door. She would have liked to move the bookshelf or, even better, the heavy dresser that was next to the door, but even the comparatively small bedside table proved to be a challenge for her small body. She piled everything she could on top of it, even if it only amounted to a few books. Hopefully it would be heavy enough to keep Rose and everyone else out.

She got it in place not a moment too soon. There was another knock on the door. “Sunset? What was that noise?”

Sunset ran back towards the bed, opting to hide under it instead of on top. The doorknob turned, and the door was pushed open slightly before being stopped by the table. The only thing that managed to work its way into the room was a light from the hallway.

“Sunset, what’s going on in there? Are you okay?” Rose sounded concerned.

It was a tone Sunset couldn’t trust. When had she ever done anything to earn that concern? She had caused problems for Rose the entire time she’d been at New Horizons, there was no way she could be genuinely concerned about Sunset’s well being now. It was a trap, she was faking it to lure Sunset out.

“Sunset, please, answer me.” The door pushed against the bedside table, but it didn’t move. “I just want to help you, please, just come to the door.”

Lies. Tricks and treachery. Sunset wouldn’t fall for them.

The noise stopped eventually. Footsteps led away from the room, but it hardly made Sunset feel safer. She reached a hand out from under the bed in order to grab her blanket and pillows. She covered her body with the blanket and placed the pillows in front of her, leaving just a crack between the top of the pillows and bottom of the bed frame which she could see out of.

The minutes passed slowly. Whether it was because of the hard floor, or because she was still terrified, Sunset was now much further from sleep. That was good, they could take her much more easily if she were asleep. She wouldn’t let that happen, no matter what.

Sunset had no idea how long she lay under the bed, watching the door. It felt like hours, at the least, although she knew that was probably not the case. In any event, it was all too soon that another knock came, and a different voice called through it. “Sunset, it’s Crystal Clear. Will you open the door?”

What was he doing here? After a moment’s silence, he tried the door. Thankfully, the table still held it in place. “You don’t want to talk to me through the door, do you?” he asked, as if she wanted to talk to him at all.

The door closed and she heard muffled voices from the other side, followed by silence. She wanted to believe that meant they had given up, but she knew better. She maintained her silent vigil on the door.

Enough time passed that she really did believe she might have won out, until she heard another sound coming from the wall to her right. Her head jerked to look, but she couldn’t see anything. Still, she knew what that sound was. Someone was opening her window. She could tell from the sound that it was already opened at least in part, leaving her no time to lock it. Instead, she pushed her way farther under the bed, hiding in a corner underneath her blanket.

She heard footsteps. “Sunset?” Crystal Clear called. His voice was gentle, the same trap that Rose Petal had tried. “Come on out, we need to talk.”

The closet door opened, then closed a moment later. The footsteps came closer, stopping just short of the bed. Sunset squeezed her eyes shut as tight as possible, willing him away.

“There you are.” His voice was much too close. If she would have looked, she knew she’d see him on the ground looking right at her. “Why are you under the bed, Sunset?”

Sunset wouldn’t move. He hadn’t seen her, and she wouldn’t acknowledge him.

“Ms. Rose is worried about you. She told me that you haven’t said a word all day.”

Sunset continued not speaking.

“She said that you’ve been distant since we went to Sweet Apple Acres.”

The name caused her to wince. If she could, Sunset would never even think of that place again.

“Please, Sunset. I want to help you, but you need to talk to me.”

Sunset pulled the blanket down to just below her eyes. “You’re lying.”

Crystal Clear was flat on his stomach, with his head barely underneath the bed. Although he probably could have reached her if he tried, he didn’t do anything to try and force her out. “Now why would you think that?”

“Because…” Why did she think that? Everything blurred together, all her thoughts and emotions. “You don’t even understand what’s going on.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers for you, Sunset. But I do want to help you.” He reached an arm under the bed, but didn’t attempt to grab her. “It would be a lot easier to understand what’s going on with you if you’d talk to me about it. And it would be a lot easier to talk if you come out from under the bed.”

Sunset stared at his open hand for a moment, then ignored it as she crawled out from under the bed on her own. Crystal Clear moved out of her way, then took a seat on her bed once she was out. He patted the spot next to him for her to sit down as well. She did sit on the bed, but picked a spot farther away from him.

“Now then, want to tell me what’s going on today?” Crystal asked.

Sunset folded her arms and scowled. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“I don’t know, I can be pretty understanding. Did you have a nightmare?”

For a second, Sunset turned to him with a bewildered look, but she soon realized that it must have been fairly obvious. It was early in the morning, after all. “Yes.”

“Nightmares can be scary,” he said in his most patronizing tone, “but it wasn’t real. You know nothing from your dreams can hurt you, right?”

It always seemed like he forgot whom he was talking to. “I know that,” Sunset answered sharply. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I know you’re not, I’m sorry.” Sunset doubted that. “Did you know dreams have hidden meanings?”

Sunset didn’t have the patience to go through all the motions with him. “Yes, and you probably figured that I do. You’re just trying to ease your way into asking me what I dreamt about while making me feel like I was the one who wanted to open up with it in the first place.”

When they first met, Crystal Clear would have been caught off guard by a comment like that. But it had been over a month with weekly sessions, and he had since grown accustomed to her. “Well, you’re half right. I did want to ease into the question, but I wasn’t going to try to manipulate you into anything.” That was a lie, he was just trying to cut his losses. “So then, do you want to tell me what you dreamed about?”

“No.”

“Okay.” He smiled, which caught Sunset off guard. He looked at the no-longer-bedside table and noticed the books on top of it. “Have you been enjoying these books more?”

Sunset looked at the books. There was a book about basic electronics, which was written for kids. But Sunset didn’t mind so much, as it was a subject she knew nothing about. The other book was finally something suitable for her age. Of course, Sunset usually wasn’t interested in reading books for teenagers, but it was a hell of a lot better than the juvenile stuff she had to read to get to it.

“They’re good,” Sunset said, unable to form a better answer. “Aren’t you going to try to get me to tell you about the dream?”

Crystal’s smile widened. “I think it would be helpful for you to talk about it, and I want you to know you can tell me about anything at all. But no, I’m not going to force you. It’s your decision whether you want to tell me or not.”

“Well, I don’t,” Sunset said definitively, frowning as she turned away. Meanwhile, thoughts of the dream lingered, eating away at her.

“So, have you gotten to the part where –”

“I dreamed I was a horse.”

To his credit, Crystal Clear only needed a moment to compose himself before proceeding professionally. “I see. And what happened while you were a horse?”

“I was…” Sunset shook her head. She wanted to say it so she would understand how ridiculous it sounded. Maybe that would get her to stop dwelling on it. But she hated admitting something bothered her. ‘Like he doesn’t already know. He saw me run away crying a few days ago.’

“I can see how that might have been disconcerting,” he prompted gently.

“It… wasn’t, at first. But then… at first, I thought I was a pony. I only realized I was a horse afterwards.”

“You were okay with being a pony, then?”

Sunset looked down at her hand. She balled her fingers into a fist, and tried to imagine it was a hoof again. “Yes.”

“What happened when you realized you were a horse?”

“I… I was taken away. To Sweet Apple Acres. They chained me up in the barn with the other horse.”

“Is that when you woke up?”

Sunset opened her mouth to agree, then stopped. No, that wasn’t quite it, was it? “There were flowers there. Lycoris radiata, which are poisonous. I was trying to eat them, but I woke up first.”

Crystal Clear nodded and put his hands together on his lap. “Dream interpretation isn’t an exact science. Most things have a few different things they can mean, so we’ll have to work together to figure out what your dream means to you. Horses, for example, can be a sign of strength, or they can represent arrogance.”

Sunset shook her head. “I know what it meant.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

Sunset didn’t answer.

“I can’t help you if you don’t –”

“You wouldn’t get it! Nothing is what it’s supposed to be!” Sunset jumped to her feet and gestured towards the mirror. “This is wrong. I’m wrong. You don’t… you can’t…”

Although Sunset’s temper was heating up Crystal Clear seemed remarkably cool. “Talk to me, Sunset. I want to understand, but I can’t unless you help me.”

“I don’t need any help!”

“Oh, Sunset, my gifted student. Everyone needs help sometimes. I know I certainly do.”

“The only thing anypony even wants from me is a free ride to the top. I don’t need them.”

“Yes, there are some ponies who would manipulate you for their own gain. But you’re a smart mare, and I think you could tell the difference in somepony like that and somepony who just wants to be friendly if you tried. Ask yourself if somepony really seems trustworthy and I think you’ll find most of them are. And when you find somepony you can trust, you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel when you open up to them.”

Equestria was fading from Sunset’s memory much faster than it should have. She suspected it had something to do with her smaller child-sized brain. There was a certain shop she liked to take breaks from studying in; she could no longer remember what it smelled like. There were ponies that she knew, acquaintances even if they were never friends; she remembered them less and less. She had to struggle to remember the taste of hay and flowers, foods that humans didn’t eat.

But there were memories that would never fade. There was the feeling of being left alone while her aristocratic parents were too busy for their daughter. The thrill of magic and using it to get the recognition everypony told her she deserved. Cadance’s ascension putting all of her own accomplishments to shame.

And then there was her. There was the day that she invited Sunset to be her own personal student, which even caused her parents to look proud. The first winter, when she wore that hideously ugly scarf every day, the one that Sunset had foolishly tried to make for her, thinking it would be easy. Times she took Sunset out of class for ‘private lessons’ which amounted to nothing more than secret trips to the ice cream parlor. And then years later when she invited Sunset to leave her parent’s house and live in the castle with her, as if Sunset were part of her family.

There was Celestia. If there was nothing else in her life worth remembering, there was Celestia. Her princess, her idol, her mentor. Sunset had shunned everything she taught that wasn’t magical, and where had it gotten her?

She looked at Crystal Clear. Sunset was a smart girl, and who knew? Maybe she’d be amazed at how much better she felt.

“Well, the thing is… I’m not actually…”

Crystal Clear just waited patiently. As she paused, he nodded to encourage her.

Sunset looked away as she returned to her seat. She couldn’t look at him while she explained. “I’m not exactly from around here.”

“Did you remember something?” Crystal’s smile could be heard through his voice, even though Sunset still wouldn’t look at him. “Sunset, that’s great!”

“I, uh, I remember everything. I always did.”

He took a moment to answer, sounding more uncertain once he did. “What do you mean?”

“I lied. I didn’t want to tell anyone anything about me because you’ll never believe it.”

“Still so much doubt,” Crystal said. He leaned in closer. “Sunset, does this have something to do with ponies?”

Sunset spun around to face him. His smile was less encouraging, more knowing. “What do you know about ponies?”

Crystal shrugged and faced forward, adopting a matter of fact tone. “I’m a psychologist, not a biologist, so not all that much. But I did look into them since they came up with you, and it turns out that ponies are just small horses.” He turned back to her, the knowing smile returning. Somehow, he managed to sound like he was genuinely interested in what she had to say, while still giving the impression that he already knew everything. “I know that there’s more going on than you’ve been saying. So why don’t you tell me what you know about ponies?”

“I… I’m a pony.” It was all Sunset could manage to say.

Crystal seemed to consider it for a moment, while never seeming to doubt her for a second. “You don’t look like a pony,” he said casually. It wasn’t an accusation that she was lying, just a simple observation.

“I know,” Sunset said, glancing at her reflection. “The mirror turned me into a human when it brought me to Earth. We don’t even have humans in Equestria.”

“Well, that must have been a very shocking experience.”

Sunset couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t a trace of doubt in his voice at all. She scooted over, closing the distance between them as she began to talk more excitedly. “It was horrifying. I panicked and wound up letting myself get taken away from the portal.”

“Where was this portal?”

“I don’t know. It was where the police found me. I tried finding it again, but I couldn’t.”

“The night you snuck out?”

Sunset frowned. He didn’t say it accusingly, but she still felt guilty admitting it. “Yeah, I was trying to find my way back. I just… I want to go home.”

“You know, I might be able to find out where they found you.”

“Really!?” Sunset’s excitement faded as soon as it had come. “Oh, but it’s closed now…”

“What do you mean? The portal won’t work?”

“No, it’s only open for three days, once every thirty moons.”

“I suppose that must be why you’ve been so frustrated.”

Sunset nodded enthusiastically. “That’s just the start. I wa– I am seventeen, but when the mirror changed my body it also made me younger.”

Crystal Clear smiled a bit. “The pieces fall into place.”

Sunset was about to launch into an explanation of how she was a unicorn so she also lost her magic in the transition, but stopped short. “You… you really believe me?”

Crystal Clear stopped to consider that for a moment. “It’s… a lot to take in. Maybe things like this happen in a magical world like Equestria, but this is unheard of on Earth.” Sunset bowed her head. “But on the other hand, I’m not the type to just throw out possibilities. A lot of things could be explained by this, so I’m willing to look at it with an open mind. We’ll have to see what happens from here.”

“Okay.” Sunset nodded. “That seems reasonable.” Really, it was better than anything she would have dared to expect. At his prompting, she talked more about life in Equestria. She could hardly believe how good it felt to finally be open about it. It seemed Celestia knew what she was talking about after all.

7 – Making Promises

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Chapter Seven

Making Promises

Everything was different. Once Sunset opened up to Crystal Clear she noticed an immediate change in how she felt. She didn’t have nightmares anymore, her mood swings had largely stopped, even her outlook on dealing with other kids was better. Suddenly, everything fell into place. All the stupid things she had to deal with were all temporary, just unimportant things she would handle one day at a time.

Talking with Crystal Clear became something to look forward to every week. It wasn’t just that it was liberating to finally talk about Equestria after so long away, either. That was definitely part of her excitement, but even more importantly he had said that he could help her find her way home. She had no doubt he had his own reasons, but that wasn’t a problem. Naturally, he would want to see this other world with its magic, and even if he wanted monetary compensation that should prove simple enough. Sure, bits wouldn’t help him much, but Princess Celestia could easily arrange a reward of gold or valuable gems.

The thought broke through her good mood. Sunset had been feeling cheerful as always while she waited for Rose Petal to take her to her weekly appointment, but as always found mixed feelings rushing back to her at the memory of her former mentor. What would she do if Sunset returned?

‘When,’ Sunset reminded herself. What would Celestia do when she returned, not if. Because she was returning to Equestria, even if it was going to take years.

There was no way to know what Celestia would do. She had always been patient and forgiving in the past, but she had also dismissed Sunset from her tutelage. Would an apology still be enough?

There was no way of knowing, so she was better off not thinking about it. Before that could even be a concern, Sunset would have to find her way home.

“Alright, let’s get going,” Rose Petal said, snapping Sunset from her thoughts. She was smiling happily, the way she did before the past few appointments with Crystal Clear. Everyone was happy with Sunset’s change in attitude, but none more so than Rose Petal.

“Okay.” Sunset followed Rose Petal out to her van. It had been over a month since Sunset had found herself living with humans, and finally she seemed to be getting used to their world. For example, she could now tell that the little old lady looked out of place behind the wheel of such a large vehicle. But of course, she was one of the primary caretakers of twenty-seven children and needed something large enough to transport as many of them as she could.

“So who’s it going to be today?” Rose asked once she started the engine.

“Today’s definitely an Arpeggio Harmony kind of day,” Sunset answered.

“Good choice, as always.” Rose Petal pulled the cassette tape out from between their seats and put it into the van’s tape deck. The sound of the string section opening the song filled the van, with the more dominant piano coming in shortly after.

Sunset and Rose shared a love for classical music, much to their mutual surprise. Rose was amazed to find a child who was interested in anything but pop music, while Sunset never mentioned that it was hardly something she’d consider ‘classic’ since it was still a very dominant music genre in Equestria. In particular, Arpeggio Harmony instantly became one of Sunset’s favorites. She recognized the name as a long dead Equestrian composer, although she had only read about him and wasn’t actually familiar with any of his music. Still, the coincidence in the name was very amusing, and she liked to imagine it was some sort of bizarre connection between the two worlds.

Well, she might not have been familiar with the Arpeggio Harmony who had lived in Equestria, but she was becoming very familiar with the one who lived on Earth. Sunset hummed along once the horn section came in, while Rose accompanied her by mimicking the strings. They were off key and would have ruined the music for anyone else listening in, but they were both smiling at each other.

The short ride was made shorter by being filled with music. If they had been going anywhere else, Sunset would have been disappointed at the fact that they only got to hear fifteen minutes of the tape, but in light of meeting with Crystal Clear she was far less concerned with the music.

Rose Petal walked with Sunset into the building. They stopped in the front room, where a receptionist checked them in before they parted ways. Sunset continued farther into the building with the receptionist to meet with Crystal, while Rose waved goodbye before heading back to New Horizons.

Crystal Clear’s door was open, his sign that he wasn’t with anyone else. “Dr. Clear, Sunset Shimmer is here for her appointment,” the receptionist said.

He looked up from his paperwork and smiled. “Hello, Sunset. Come on in.” He closed the folder he was looking over and set it off to the side. As Sunset entered the room the receptionist closed the door behind her. “How are you doing today?”

“Good,” Sunset said, taking her seat. “Have you figured out anything about where the portal is yet?”

“No,” he said, causing her to frown. “But be patient, it might take some time.”

That was the same thing he had said last week. Sunset didn’t know why it was so hard for him to get access to her records, assuming he didn’t have them on hand already. The police would have documented where she was found, and then it would be a simple matter of the two of them going there together to see if she could recognize where the portal had let her out.

Sunset pushed those doubts away. Crystal Clear was the only person who could understand her, the only person who would possibly help her get home. “Okay. You’ll let me know, though. Right?”

“Of course I will,” he said with an easy smile. “I have to say, I’m happy to keep hearing good things about you.”

“Yeah, well, turns out it’s not so hard to go along with what people want.” ‘Now that I have an actual reason to,’ Sunset finished in her head. She wouldn’t accentuate that point. He was smart enough to realize that there was only one reason Sunset was behaving herself without the reminder, anyway.

“I’m sure you’re finding things a good deal easier, as well,” he said knowingly.

“Yeah, you could say that. It’s nice not being lectured every other day, at least.”

Crystal chuckled. “That does have some amount of appeal, yes.”

“Okay, so, I was wondering –” Sunset smiled excitedly at the prospect of something that might make her time on Earth significantly better “– now that you know what’s going on with me, could you maybe get them to take me out of kindergarten? I’ll still go through the homeschooling classes and everything, so it shouldn’t be a problem as far as the state’s concerned.”

Crystal hesitated a moment. “Well, you have made a lot of improvement, and no one could doubt that you far exceed the curriculum,” he said with an overly soft tone.

Sunset sighed. “But?”

“But it’s only been a few weeks. While I’m very impressed with everything that I’ve heard and seen, I can’t make that recommendation yet.”

“But you know I’m not supposed to be in kindergarten!” Sunset hated the way her voice sounded. She could hear the plea in it. She was asking for reassurance. Tell me again that you believe me.

“It’s not even my call, I’m sorry to say. By this point, all I could do is give my professional opinion.”

“Well, that has to count for something! Hell, I’d be happy if they moved me up a few grades!”

He seemed to consider his options for a moment. Sunset couldn’t help but feel like it was just for show, but she waited patiently all the same. “How about this: Finish kindergarten without any more problems, and I’ll do everything I can to get another placement test for you. Where you wind up from there isn’t my call, but I can pretty much guarantee it’ll be higher than first grade.”

It was probably the best she could hope for, but it wasn’t enough. “The school year only started a few months ago, though! Come on, you have to be able to do something. I don’t want to spend half my time in this world with a bunch of kids.”

Maybe I can make something happen sooner. I’m not promising anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”

‘Just like you’ll see what you can do about finding the portal,’ Sunset thought bitterly. But she couldn’t do anything that would risk burning her only bridge, so all she said was, “Thank you.”

Content to put that matter aside, Crystal Clear nodded. “You’re welcome. So is there anything else you’d like to talk about? Anything new happen in the past week?”

“No, not really.” Even with the news of Equestria, Crystal Clear always kept a large focus on her day to day experiences. She wasn’t sure how he could still be interested in that, but guessed that it was just part of his job. All the same, she knew he would be interested in learning more about Equestria if she brought it up. “Oh! I don’t think I told you about Equestrian weather yet!”

Sunset grinned excitedly as she told him about how ponies controlled the weather in all major cities, happily answering any of his questions. While he was never the one to bring up Equestria, his interest was easy enough to see. He had questions about everything and was particularly interested in the details of how everything actually worked. Sunset suspected it was because of the same inquisitive nature that led him becoming a psychologist.

Fortunately, he was talking to one of the only ponies who understood why things in Equestria worked. Most ponies were content to just accept magic was behind everything, but Sunset understood the principles behind the magic itself. She struggled a bit with some questions, which was made doubly frustrating by the facts that she was sure she’d known those answers before and that Crystal Clear made little notes with each failure. ‘He’s just noting what to look into once we get through the portal,’ Sunset told herself. She didn’t like the other option she’d thought of.

The session was similar to the past few. Sunset talked about Equestria and felt a growing sense of concern mixed into her relief. Still, it was largely positive, and she was feeling pretty good about things as their conversation went on. Almost good enough that she was tempted to ignore a surprise chance when it presented itself. Almost.

Towards the end of their session, Crystal’s secretary knocked on his door to tell him he had a phone call. He normally wouldn’t have taken it, but with their increasingly familiar relationship, Sunset was able to convince him she really didn’t mind waiting easily enough. When he left the room, Sunset walked around to the other side of his desk.

Moving any of his notes would be too risky, so she just looked at what he had been writing. Sure enough, it consisted of the things Sunset hadn’t been able to answer. She had known that, but alongside it was written ‘press further’.

If it had been ‘find out more’ or ‘learn more later’ or even nothing at all, Sunset wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But why would he press further when she already had told him she didn’t know those things? She had a feeling but would need more evidence.

And she knew exactly where to look: her case file. Unfortunately, the one he’d been reviewing earlier had been someone else’s. But next to it was a small key – just big enough for a filing cabinet. She shoved it in her pocket and returned to her seat.

Crystal Clear returned, apologized, and took his seat. Sunset didn’t want to look suspicious, so she began with small talk.

“Everything okay?” Sunset asked. She kept her tone half-joking. He’d never believe she was genuinely concerned.

“Yes, it wasn’t anything urgent. My son asking if he could go out with some friends tonight.”

Sunset continued to craft the perfect amount of interest. Only a little, so he would keep talking, taking care to make sure it was not so much that he’d realize she was just stalling for time. “I didn’t know you had a son.”

“Yes, he’s fourteen. Good kid.”

“You don’t wear a wedding ring.” Friendly or not, she couldn’t pass the chance to make him squirm a little.

Crystal didn’t seem to mind. “Divorced,” he said with a smile. He held up his left hand, showing a barely visable tan line around his ring finger. It was hardly noticeable, so it must have been years ago.

Although Sunset was tempted to dig a little deeper, she was wary of how far was too far. Plus she had places to be. “A keeper like you? No way.” She stood up before he could reply. “Anyway, I’ll be right back. Bathroom.”

Crystal nodded. “Okay, it’s down the hall –”

“To the left, I know.” Sunset had taken care to learn the layout of the building, as well as any other she frequently went to. Not just what rooms went where, but who went to which ones. She hadn’t snuck into the restricted section of the Royal Canterlot Archives by chance, after all.

So Sunset walked out of the room and down the hall. She reached a turning point where the bathroom was to the left, and she went straight instead. With Crystal in his office and the receptionist at the front, the odds that anyone was in the records room were low. And if someone was in there? Then she was just a little girl who was looking for the bathroom.

She opened the door with confidence, as if she was supposed to be there, and found it empty. There was no time to lose, so she immediately set to work. Thankfully, most of the work was done for her. ‘Dr. Crystal Clear’ was labeled at the top of one of the filing cabinets, and the second drawer from the bottom was labeled ‘M–S’. Thankful that whether she was under ‘Sunset’ or ‘Shimmer’ she was sure to be in that cabinet, Sunset inserted the key, turned it, and was hardly surprised when it opened for her. Crystal never struck her as someone who was terribly concerned with security.

She leafed through the files as quickly as possible, finding her own soon enough. It was surprisingly thick, considering they hadn’t had too many sessions. She was very tempted to steal the whole thing, but that would get her caught. She flipped to the first of his notes.

Subject has clearly shown signs of generalized dissociative amnesia, with a strong possibility of either bipolar disorder or even dissociative identity disorder. High levels of intelligence but stunted emotional development, coupled with dissociative amnesia suggests a likely abusive home life.

As interesting as it was to see Crystal’s thoughts on their early interactions, Sunset had a goal in mind. She flipped through to the last few pages.

Breakthrough. Subject has created a past consisting of her being a magical pony from another world. She is capable of providing very in depth logic to back her claim, which is unsurprising given her high intellect. Too early for full prognosis, but could potentially be schizophrenia. Unclear at the moment if this is caused by the dissociative amnesia or vice versa. Attempting to go along with the delusions in the hopes that she can be brought to the conclusion that such a world is simply not possible.

Sunset closed the file, placing it neatly where she found it. She shut the drawer, locked it up, and tucked the key safely into her pocket. Calmly, she walked out of the room, silently closed the door behind her, and made her way back to Crystal Clear’s office.

He smiled as she entered, while she took her seat as if nothing was wrong. She even smiled back. He had no idea what was coming.

“We seem to be running low on time,” Crystal Clear said, as if that were a bad thing. “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?”

There were many. “Nothing in particular. Do you have any other questions for me?”

“Oh, I could always think of something to discuss, I’m sure,” Crystal said with a shrug. “But for now let’s focus on the upcoming week.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like homework.”

“I thought you wanted the extra workload?”

“Nope.” Sunset grinned. “I want to be away from those kids. I’m indifferent to the extra workload.”

“Unfortunately, you’ll have to deal with both for now.” Crystal Clear folded his hands on the desk and leaned across it. “If you really want to get out of kindergarten, you’re going to have to prove to your teacher that you’re ready to move on.”

Sunset shrugged. “Please. I can finger paint like a damn pro.”

“I’m talking about how you interact with the other kids.” Crystal stopped to think for a moment. “And not swearing would definitely be a good thing, too.”

Other kids. How did she ever think he was on her side? “I’ll be on my best behavior. Promise.”

“I don’t doubt it. I really do mean it when I say you’ve done an excellent job these past few weeks. But being neutral towards the others might be enough to keep you out of trouble, but if you really want to move on, you’ll need to do more.”

“You know, if I didn’t know any better I’d say you want me to make friends.”

Crystal grinned. “Oh no, anything but that,” he said sarcastically.

Sunset just grinned to match him. “Well, I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do.” She could remember someone else who always wanted her to make friends. The same pony who told her to try being more open.

Crystal checked his clock. “Looks like our time is up. Knowing Ms. Rose, she’ll be very punctual. Let’s not keep her waiting.”

As he stood up, Sunset carefully let the key fall to the floor. When she rose to follow him she kicked it over to his side of the desk, near the side where she had found it. He would never question it. Whenever he noticed it lying on the floor, he would simply assume it fell.

They walked out into the front waiting room, where Rose Petal was sitting with a book. She smiled as they approached. “How’d everything go?”

“Good,” Sunset answered. It was true, in a fashion. It was better to know that Crystal Clear was a lying, manipulative bastard than to just keep pretending he wasn’t.

As they said their goodbyes, Sunset remained wholly cordial. She didn’t let any sign of her foul mood show until she climbed into the van, and even then she just turned to stare out the window.

“I kept the tape paused for when you got back,” Rose Petal said.

“Thanks,” Sunset mumbled, but she didn’t really care. Rose could clearly tell, but she didn’t say anything. She unpaused the tape as they drove off and tried to get Sunset to hum along with her. Sunset just stared resolutely out the window the whole time, not noticing the music coming out of the speakers or Rose Petal’s rendition of it.

The short drive back to the orphanage was filled with thoughts on how to best proceed. Celestia may have been wrong about opening up to others, but she was undeniably good at what she did. And Sunset had been her best student, in part because she paid attention to the lessons her teacher never meant for her to learn as well. “Everyone needs help sometimes. I know I certainly do.”

Yes, that was true, wasn’t it? Celestia was impressive, but she didn’t run a country by herself. Still, she didn’t go telling anypony else her secrets, now did she? No, for all her hypocritical talk about opening up to others, Celestia kept her thoughts extremely well guarded. Even Sunset struggled to see through her most of the time, and she had known the princess for half her life.

‘I need others to accomplish my goals,’ Sunset told herself. It was a hard truth for her to accept, something she had never been able to come to terms with in the past. ‘I need others, but I can not trust them. So I’ll just have to make them do what I want.’

It wasn’t hard. Sunset had practically been bred for this. Her parents had taught her from a young age how to say the right things to the right ponies, lest she become a threat to their precious reputations. Then, once she became Celestia’s gifted student, every day became a trial in trying to study her mentor’s subtle cues to learn her hidden secrets. It turned out that other ponies became much easier to read.

And now she had another tool. While she loathed being trapped as a five-year-old, it did have certain advantages. She was a cute innocent little girl, people wanted to protect her and there was no way she could be guilty of manipulating everyone around her. How foolish she had been to squander that for so long.

By the time they arrived, Sunset had a plan in mind. But before she could open her door, Rose Petal stopped her. “Sunset, is everything okay?”

Sunset took a moment. Things were going to be changing for her. She wasn’t just going to go along with everything that they wanted from her, but she also didn’t really benefit from going back to blowing off everyone around her. From here on out, she was going to be planning her responses to maximize her goals.

So how to respond to Rose Petal? She was someone with a lot of power over Sunset’s living situation, so she’d do well to stay in her good graces for the time being. She decided on a small smile, since her detachment on the ride home meant she couldn’t possibly convince her nothing was wrong.

“I’m fine, today was just a little… exhausting.”

Rose Petal seemed concerned, but that was expected. Sunset wasn’t trying to dispel all of her worries, she just wanted to do enough that there wouldn’t be further questions. “You know, Sunset, I may not be a professional therapist, but I’m always here if you want to talk. I’m pretty good at it, after all these years.”

Sunset widened her smile a bit but averted her eyes, looking slightly sheepish. “Thank you. I’m really okay, though. I just want to rest for a bit.”

Rose kept looking worried for a moment, then it melted away into a smile. “Okay. I’ll come get you at dinner time.”

Sunset thanked her again for good measure, then exited the van. She felt a sense of accomplishment that the interaction had gone exactly how she wanted it to, but it had hardly been the first time she’d done something like that. The bigger test was still to come.

She entered the building and made for her room, but she didn’t plan on staying there. She dug around in a drawer for a moment until she came across a business card. ‘Violet Dusk: Social Worker’ was printed on it, but more importantly was the information underneath. The address for her office, two phone numbers, a fax number, and an email address.

Although it might have been better to use a phone in the office, that would require going through one of the caretakers. Do that, and Rose would find out, which might cause her to worry. This situation could be handled without her, so Sunset decided to take her chances with the other kids.

Sunset never used the lounge area, but that was where the phone was. Fortunately, it was mostly used by older kids, while the kids her age were off playing silly little games. Sunset’s interactions with the older kids had been more limited and would likely be smoother as a result. Unfortunately, she arrived to find someone already on the phone. She chose a seat nearby and decided to wait it out.

He seemed to be talking to his girlfriend, and kept looking around to make sure no one heard him every time he said ‘I love you’. The idiot was too lovestruck to realize his friends kept snickering every time he did. They droned on for ages about the stupidest things, and Sunset was almost ready to give up and come back later by the time he hung up.

Before anyone else could take their turn on the phone, Sunset practically ran over to claim it. The idiot’s friends were too busy taunting him about how much he loved his girlfriend for any of them to notice Sunset, which suited her just fine. She picked up the phone and looked at the number pad.

Shit. She had no idea how to use the damn thing.

She was about to try guessing when she remembered her new outlook. That idiot could work a phone, and he could show her how to.

“Excuse me,” she said in an intentionally small voice. He turned away from his friends to see what she wanted. Of course they had seen each other around, but they had never spoken directly. “I don’t know how to use this.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Who are you trying to call?”

‘None of your damn business.’ Sunset held out the business card. “Her.” She was far from the only kid at New Horizons with a social worker. Still, she didn’t want to alarm them since that could get back to the caretakers. “I left my lunchbox in her car, and I need it for school on Monday.”

He smiled somewhat condescendingly, but it didn’t bother Sunset. In fact, it was just what she wanted. He saw her as nothing but an innocent little girl, and the situation was hardly worth repeating to anyone. “It’s not that hard. You just pick up the phone and dial the numbers.” Rather than wait for Sunset to do it, he dialed them for her. “You should hear it ringing now.”

Sunset pressed the phone to her ear and heard it ring. She smiled and nodded. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Just hang it up when you’re done.” He turned to to leave with his friends, clearing out the immediate area for her. There were other kids around, but they were all staring intently at the TV which was on the other side of the room. As long as she was quiet no one would hear her.

“Violet Dusk speaking.”

Sunset couldn’t help but smile. Technology really was its own kind of magic. “Hello, Violet. It’s Sunset. Sunset Shimmer.”

“Hello, Sunset. Is everything okay?”

This would be a little bit trickier. Violet couldn’t be fooled by putting forth a cute persona; Sunset needed to actually convince her. “I’m worried about my meetings with Crystal Clear. I don’t feel comfortable talking with him anymore.”

“Why not?”

“There’s supposed to be absolute confidentiality between a patient and a psychologist, right? Like, that’s a law, right?”

“Yes, that’s a law. Is there some reason you think he isn’t following that law?”

“Yeah, he’s told me about his other patients. He told me about how Dew Drop’s parents didn’t want her and abused her. And that Sugar Breeze’s mom is also still alive but she’s addicted to drugs, and just sends her toys and stuff. I don’t even think she knows that. And he told me –”

“Okay, that’s enough. I see what you mean.”

Sunset smiled. Technically, Crystal Clear had only told her about Dew Drop. Sunset had overheard some of the caretakers talking about Sugar Breeze when one of her mom’s packages came in one day. But Sunset wasn’t trying to get rid of the caretakers, and she knew both of them had monthly visits with Crystal Clear. Who was to say where Sunset got the information, after all?

But even though it sounded like the doubt was taking hold, Sunset had to be sure it would play out how she wanted. “So… what now? I’m not talking to somebody who’s just gonna go and tell his other patients about me.”

“I understand your concerns. Give me a few days to look into this and I’ll get back to you. I promise we’ll have this sorted out before your next meeting with him. Okay?”

Perfect. “Yes. Thank you.”

“And Sunset?”

“Yeah?”

“Do not repeat this to anyone else. Including Dew Drop and Sugar Breeze, and anyone else you know things about. You should never have been told about that, and it’s very personal information. Do you understand?”

Personal information sounded like the type of thing that could get her very far. Sunset would need to collect a lot more of it, about anyone she possibly could. “You got it. I won’t tell a soul, I promise.”


It was three days later when Rose Petal informed Sunset that she wouldn’t be seeing Crystal Clear anymore. All she would say when Sunset asked why not was that they were worried he didn’t have her best interests in mind. It didn’t matter, Sunset knew the reason with or without confirmation.

The following week, Violet Dusk came to bring her to her psychology appointment. Sunset knew she wasn’t going to be done with them completely, but still felt better about seeing someone new.

“Is it going to be one of the other doctors at the same office?” Sunset asked once they were in her car.

“Probably not, but we don’t know yet,” Violet answered. “We need to figure out who the best fit for you is.” She flashed a small smile, her usual sign of encouragement. “But it’ll be someone more trustworthy than Crystal Clear.”

“How do you know?” Sunset wasn’t particularly concerned, but it would help her if it looked like she was.

“I’m personally going to be looking into their work history once someone is decided on. And unless I give the okay they won’t ever see you. Turns out Crystal Clear had some similar problems in the past. Nothing recent, or else I’d have known about it. But I’ll look into the new doctor much more thoroughly.”

Sunset watched the orphanage disappear behind them as they drove. “So where are we going today, then?”

“Today you’ll be evaluated by a psychiatrist. You’ve met her before, Diamond Facet. She’s a good doctor and will give us a much better idea of what to do next.”

“Okay.”

They drove in silence for a while. Sunset liked Violet better than most people, but she did miss Rose Petal’s classical music tapes.

It wasn’t so bad, though. Sunset needed the time to prepare. It would be amazing if somehow Crystal Clear’s notes about her would be kept to himself, but she doubted that would be the case. No, she was going to have to talk to someone else about Equestria, so she was going to need a plan going in.

“Nervous?” Violet asked after a while.

It took Sunset a second to realize Violet was asking if she was worried about talking to another psychologist in general rather than anything to do with Equestria. “A little.”

“I understand.” Violet glanced over to Sunset, showing another small smile. “As far as I could find out, Crystal Clear hasn’t told anyone about your sessions. We’re removing you as a precaution.” Violet paused for Sunset to reply, but continued when she remained silent. “You did the right thing. I know you don’t have an easy time trusting people, but I am looking out for you. You can tell me about any problems you’re having with anyone.”

Trust Violet? Sunset had thought she could trust Crystal. But she was wrong, and she’d learned better. She couldn’t trust anyone, she could only try to use them to her advantage. “So what’s going to happen to Crystal Clear now?”

If Violet was concerned that Sunset had avoided answering her, she didn’t show it. “I don’t know. I reported my concerns, so he’s out of my hands now. None of the other children I work with are patients of his, so his future is not my concern.”

Sunset smirked, remembering how she had said something similar before. “Only me?”

Violet grinned. Not her usual slight smile that always made Sunset wonder how someone so unemotional had come to work with children, but an actual grin. “That’s right. Only you.”

They pulled into the hospital parking lot. Violet didn’t even attempt to find a spot near the front, choosing the safer bet of a marginally close one rather than waste time driving around for the chance at something better. Once they were out Violet locked the doors, checked the locks, then led the way into the building.

The first time Sunset had seen the hospital had been an amazing experience. She had been terrified, of course, but amazed nonetheless. But now that she was more familiar with human technology the whole thing seemed exceptionally dull. At the much smaller office that Crystal Clear worked in, they would check in and see him immediately thereafter. Even with an appointment, it seemed that was not a luxury afforded to the larger hospital. Everywhere she looked, Sunset saw nurses, doctors, and technicians running around to get to their next client. Violet and Sunset just sat patiently reading their books while most of the people around them complained about the long wait.

“Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset looked up to see a technician calling her name. “Over here,” Violet answered in Sunset’s place.

The tech smiled warmly. “Dr. Facet is ready to see you now.”

Sunset stood while Violet remained sitting. It seemed she would be speaking with Diamond Facet alone.

“Remember, Sunset,” Violet said before she could go, “the most important thing is to answer anything she asks honestly. This isn’t the kind of test you can fail at, we just need to know how things have progressed since you’ve been seeing Crystal Clear.”

Sunset nodded, then turned to follow the tech. He led her to an office, which Sunset vaguely recognized. She remembered the woman who greeted her much better.

“Hello, Sunset. It’s been a little while.”

“Hello, Dr. Facet,” Sunset said. People liked being greeted with their proper titles, especially from little kids. It was endearing to see a kid who knew how to address an adult, and Sunset wanted to endear herself to Diamond Facet.

The tech left them alone, closing the door. Diamond gestured for Sunset to take a seat, so she did.

“And how are you doing these days, Sunset?” Diamond asked.

Small talk. Easy enough to navigate. “I’m doing a lot better. And how are you, Dr. Facet?”

Diamond smiled at the polite question. No doubt she remembered Sunset’s rudeness the last time they spoke. That would actually work in her favor, though; it would show how much better she was these days.

“I’m doing very well, thank you,” Diamond said. “Now, you were seeing Dr. Clear until recently. What did you think about him?”

Sunset lost her smile. She couldn’t play the innocent little girl there, Diamond probably knew Sunset was the cause for Violet’s investigation. “I thought he was nice, at first.”

“He didn’t seem so nice after a while, though?”

A carefully planned hesitation, to make Sunset look like she felt guilty about telling the truth. “Well, he was still really nice, but… I know he told me things he shouldn’t have. I didn’t want him telling other people about me.”

Diamond nodded. “Yes, that was a bad thing for him to do. But that’s behind you now, and you won’t have to worry about that again.”

Sunset nodded and let a little of her smile back. She didn’t want them to dwell on the circumstances surrounding her conflict with Crystal. “I know.”

Diamond smiled. She was getting the exact reaction she wanted, seeing that Sunset was feeling all the appropriate emotions. “What kinds of things did you and Crystal talk about?”

“He would ask about how I was doing. If I was getting along with the other kids, and listening to my teachers and the caretakers at New Horizons.” Sunset fidgeted in her seat, giving a clear sign that she was hiding something. Diamond Facet knew about Equestria, her question had confirmed it. Sunset would just have to frame her explanation properly.

“Is there anything else you two talked about?”

“Uhm…” Sunset looked down as she spoke. “He, uh, he asked about the books I was reading. He would always find me new books to read.”

Diamond Facet leaned across the desk and spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. “Did you and Dr. Clear ever have any… secrets?”

Sunset admired her attempt. If she were actually five years old, it might have even worked. But Sunset wasn’t going to be goaded into spilling a secret because an adult was making it seem exciting. Sunset was going to spill a secret in her own time because that was what she planned on doing all along. “Uhm… I don’t know…”

“Sunset, you know you can tell me about anything at all, right?” Diamond waited for a moment, so Sunset gave a hesitant nod. “What secret things did you and Dr. Clear talk about?”

Sunset looked resolutely at the desk and mumbled her answer. “Equestria.”

“Oh? And what is Equestria?” Diamond asked, feigning ignorance. Sunset had barely pronounced the foreign word, if Diamond had been paying as much attention to her actions as Sunset was she would have asked Sunset to repeat herself louder.

“It’s… it’s…” Sunset wished she could blush on command. Instead, she counted on the rest of her body language to convey that she was embarrassed to talk about the subject. “It’s a magic world. With ponies.”

“And is Equestria a real place?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“You don’t?” Diamond playfully exaggerated her disbelief.

“No,” Sunset answered.

“But you did tell Dr. Clear it was real, didn’t you?”

Ah, letting the details through, counting on the fact that Sunset would be too young to realize that Diamond Facet knew more than she should. “I… yes.”

“Why did you tell him that if you don’t know?”

Sunset didn’t answer. She bit her lip, making sure the motion was large enough that Diamond Facet would see it.

“It’s okay, Sunset. You’re not in trouble. No matter what the answer is, it’s okay as long as it’s the truth.”

“Because… because he really wanted to know.” Sunset maintained her gaze towards the ground. “He liked hearing about Equestria, he always asked about it.”

Diamond smiled her understanding. Sunset couldn’t tell if that was because she was buying it or because she wanted Sunset to trust her. “Sunset, did you make up everything about Equestria?”

The final piece to the puzzle Sunset was crafting. “I dreamt about it.”

“Did you tell Dr. Clear that it was a dream?”

“I… no.” Sunset looked into her face for only a moment before turning away again. “It… felt real when I woke up.”

“Can you explain what you mean?” Diamond asked. “Please, tell me everything that happened when you first told Dr. Clear about Equestria.”

The hallmark of good psychology. Diamond wanted Sunset to clarify without offering any suggestions, since that could skew her answer. Sunset needed to convey that Crystal hadn’t done that. “Well… Dr. Clear and Mrs. Dusk took me to see a pony at Sweet Apple Acres, but it was scary. I had dreams after that, about ponies. But they could talk and they were nice. But sometimes, they start nice but turn into bad dreams, and they don’t feel like dreams when I wake up. Dr. Clear came to talk to me after a bad dream, and I told him about it.”

“You told him about the dream?” Diamond asked.

“Yes. But, well, I didn’t… I thought…”

“You thought it was real?”

Sunset nodded.

“And what did Dr. Clear do when you told him about this dream?”

“He… asked questions.” Sunset carefully reiterated certain information, hoping to put forth the idea that Crystal had pushed for more information instead of letting Sunset volunteer it, leading to her constructing an elaborate lie. “He asked a lot of questions about Equestria. He was happy when I told him more about it.”

“Did Dr. Clear ever say that Equestria was real?”

Sunset paused to think a moment. “I don’t remember. But he really wanted to know about it, so I think he believed it was real.”

“And do you believe Equestria is a real place, Sunset?”

Sunset blinked a few times and looked into Diamond Facet’s eyes as she gave her absolute, affirmative answer. “No,” she said. “There’s no such thing as Equestria.”

8 – Memories

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Chapter Eight

Memories

It was getting harder to remember; things Sunset told herself she’d never forget were hazy. She could remember the vague outline of her life before New Horizons, but only a few details. She could remember conversations, but not the words. Ponies she saw every day, but not their names.

And if there were things she was having difficulty remembering, there were dozens more that she had forgotten. There had to be. She wanted to believe that nothing she forgot was important, but that was hard. Not because she felt like the memories were important, but because it made her wonder if any of it was important.

But even worse than the memories, there were things that Sunset told herself she would never doubt that she was no longer sure of.

And still, she held on. She held on to her history with all she was. It was the only thing in the world that she still cared about. Some days it felt like Equestria was just something her mind had created. A silly five-year-old’s pretend land, something to fill in the gaps left by her amnesia. Those days were hard. She was a magical unicorn from another world. She was wealthy, her parents’ money paying for everything she wanted. She was the personal student of a princess who moved the sun and moon. She herself was exceptionally powerful, second only to her beloved teacher. It was ridiculous. The exact story a little girl with no family or money would make up to feel better about herself. It was easier to believe it came from her head because there was no way that could be real.

But on other days she could remember. She could close her eyes and it felt like she was still there. Princess Celestia telling her that she deserved the chance to sleep in today, despite their usual early mornings. The feeling of the sun against her fur as she took an uncharacteristic stroll through the garden, allowing the laziness only because of the day. Cadance running into Sunset’s room, convinced that they could bond if only because of what day it was. Days when she could barely hold onto Equestria were hard, but there were also days that the memories wouldn’t stop pouring in. Those days were far worse.

Then there was the tradition. Every year, without fail. It was something just for the two of them, something so special that even Cadance knew not to try and intrude. Sunset would join her mentor late in the afternoon, and they would climb to the highest point in Celestia’s tower. They would stand together on her balcony, and Celestia would lower the sun. The sky would catch fire, burning from red to yellow and every color in between. They wouldn’t speak, just sit together watching the sun set.

It was an experience Sunset always hoped to hold on to, a formative part of her past that she couldn’t imagine living without. It was also the most painful memory she had, and it was all she could think about.

Sunset had lived at New Horizons for almost a year. She had good days and bad days, but she had managed to make life bearable. Other kids her age learned to leave her alone, while older kids had a soft spot for her and would look out for her if need be. Caretakers usually saw a polite angel of a girl who had difficulty relating to kids her age. Her new psychologist saw a patient that showed marked improvement as time went on, and sessions were dropped from weekly to monthly, and might stop completely within a few more months. Nobody ever talked about Equestria, or brought up her past at all for that matter. Life could be much worse.

And yet, she found herself staring at a sunset that was no different than the sunset from the evening before, and would be no different than the sunset from the evening to come. It was, like everything, all wrong. She wouldn’t have cared at any other time, but for one day she needed this to be special. She needed something to be the way it was supposed to be.

“You’ve been out here for a long time,” Rose Petal said as she walked onto the gazebo with Sunset.

Sunset didn’t turn to look at her. She didn’t answer at all, actually. Rose Petal wasn’t supposed to be with her to see this. No one was. No one but her and Princess Celestia. It was a tradition.

But Princess Celestia wasn’t coming, and there was nothing special about this sunset anyway. Rose Petal took a seat beside her, and Sunset couldn’t find enough resentment to do anything about it.

“In fact, I don’t think I remember you saying a word all day,” Rose said. “Not that you’re usually very talkative, but today’s different. I can tell.”

Sunset looked at her for a minute. Normally, she could form a reply in an instant. It was a talent of hers, figuring out the exact right thing to say in any circumstance. But she couldn’t think straight. She didn’t know what outcome she wanted from the conversation so she couldn’t figure out how to get there. “Yeah,” she said after a while. “It is.”

“If I had to guess, I don’t think it’s something that happened. It’s the day itself, isn’t it?”

Sunset could only nod. She turned back to look at the sunset. Its poor display was almost at an end, then she could go bury herself under her blankets and not come out until morning.

“Well, let’s see. It hasn’t been a year since you came here, so it can’t be anything to do with that, and obviously it isn’t because of anything else that happened while you were here.” Rose chuckled. “You know, I don’t think you even know what’s so special about today, do you?”

Sunset winced. She couldn’t forget it if she wanted to. “It’s… today’s my birthday.”

Rose smiled widely. “You don’t say. I was planning on celebrating in a couple of months on the anniversary of you coming to live here, but if today’s the day then I guess that’s all there is to it. Happy birthday, Sunset.”

Sunset stared at her in confusion. “You’re not going to ask how I know that?”

Rose just laughed. “Oh, I’m sure you just know. There are some things a person just remembers. Like your name, or how to ride a bicycle.”

“I don’t know how to ride a bicycle.”

“That’s a problem for another time, dearie. For now, you just wait right here. You’ll have to give me until tomorrow to get you a cake since you didn’t see fit to let an old lady know how important the day was, but I do have something to give to you.”

Perplexed, Sunset just watched her leave. What could she possibly have planned? There really wasn’t much reason to give it too much thought, though. She’d find out soon enough, and it wouldn’t be anything too huge. New Horizons had sufficient funding to keep the children well cared for and building in good repair, but they did not have the money to buy expensive presents for almost thirty kids every year. It was probably a book, considering how fast Sunset read through them.

She watched the rest of her lackluster sunset, and wondered how long she would be waiting for. She could be miserable from the comfort of her bed, not sitting outside swatting away mosquitoes.

But unfortunately, Rose Petal was old. She had long since stopped getting around the large building quickly, so even if she knew exactly where the thing she went to get was, she would still take her time getting back.

And take her time she did. Sunset was tempted to just go to her room and get it in the morning. It’s not like she was in the mood to read anyway. But for whatever reason, Sunset waited patiently for Rose to return. When she did, she was carrying a small pile of things.

“What is all that?” Sunset asked as Rose approached.

“Don’t you know half the fun of a present if figuring out what’s inside? Here, open this one first.”

Rose handed her something that was very clearly book-shaped, and Sunset was not at all surprised to find out it was, in fact, a book. She thanked Rose all the same, since surprise or not it was a book she’d been interested in reading. Besides, not too many adults actually accepted that she read books that they would struggle with.

Rose grinned. “Had to at least give you one real present, although I think you’ll like the rest better anyway.”

Of the remaining things, there were three more obvious books and something round and soft looking. Sunset opted for that one next, since it was the only one she was genuinely curious about. Lifting it, she found it was oddly heavy. It became apparent that it was some sort of bag filled with something very solid. She guessed a rock collection or something. Adults always thought kids loved rocks.

She tore away the paper and immediately knew there was something much better than rocks in it. The bag was a rich gold color, with a red drawstring. Not only had Sunset seen it before, she understood what Rose had meant about it not being a real gift. It was already hers. She tore off the packaging and let it fall to the ground as she gaped at the bag. Coin purse, actually. She pulled the drawstring open and found it was full of bits.

“I… but this is… how…”

“There are still three more, dearie.” Rose Petal’s smile was as bright as Sunset had ever seen it. She handed over one of the books, which Sunset took reverently. She set the purse down gently, as if she was likely to hurt the expertly-crafted bag or the copper coins held within.

Tearing away the paper revealed what Sunset had expected. It was a book, but not a human one. The fairly plain front cover didn’t give any indication that it was about ponies, but the title ‘Wuthering Hooves’ certainly did.

“These are mine,” Sunset finally managed.

“They are, and you’ve still got two more.”

The third package contained another book, but this one was undeniably equine at a glance. It was a graphic novel, with pictures of ponies on every page. “How the heck did they not get the whole pony obsession?” Sunset said as she flipped through the book.

“Oh, I’m sure that Crystal Clear knew. He was the one who had all these, you know.”

Sunset set aside the book and turned to Rose Petal. “What?”

“Oh, yes. I think he was hoping you could remember on your own, but planned on showing you the books if that didn’t work out.”

Sunset shook her head. “But why did he have them in the first place? And why do you have them now? And why am I just now getting them?”

Rose smiled at the questions, even the vaguely accusatory one. “The police turned them over to him in the hopes that it would help his work with you. I got them once you stopped seeing him, but it was with the instruction that you weren’t meant to have them just yet. They said it might prove a hindrance to your well-being, but never bothered to tell me why. Well, to hell with it. No one probably even remembers the darn things, so I figured they’re yours, aren’t they? Might as well give them back to you.”

She had barely been thinking when she haphazardly threw a few possessions into her saddle bag on the way to the mirror. She had long since forgotten what they were, and had given up all hope of seeing them again.

“I can’t believe he had them that whole time,” Sunset commented, more to herself than to Rose Petal.

“You have Violet Dusk to thank for getting them back, by the way.” Rose Petal tapped on her chin. “Not that you should actually thank her, considering you probably aren’t supposed to have them. So how about this one is our little secret?”

Sunset nodded. For once, this was a secret she had no intention of ever exploiting. “Okay, sure. But what does Violet have to do with anything?”

“Well when she learned what Crystal Clear was planning, Violet wasn’t too happy. She fought tooth and nail to keep you from going back with him, even though the state didn’t want to transfer you out of his care. Then these books and things were just going to be passed on to another doctor, but she fought them on that, too.”

Violet had never mentioned any of that. As far as Sunset had been aware, Violet’s job with Crystal Clear had been fairly straightforward. Sunset shook her head. She couldn’t start to feel gratitude now, she’d worked so hard to detach herself from everyone. “What was Crystal Clear planning? And why did the state want me to keep seeing him?”

“Oh dear, I’ve said too much again,” Rose said, although she scarcely seemed to be concerned. “Well, Crystal Clear took your case for free. Now the state’s paying for your monthly sessions, but Crystal was just too happy to make time for you. Said it was for a tax write off, somehow he’d save money in the long run for doing the work as a charity case. But Violet found out the real reason. See, he wanted to write about you. He planned on sticking with your case for years, then publishing the whole thing.”

That was the sort of thing that probably should have made her angry. Instead, Sunset just smirked. She always knew he had his own motivations in mind. In a sense, she barely even recognized it as a betrayal. It was, of course. But to the old Sunset, the weak Sunset who thought she could care about others. This was just a reminder of why she was better off now.

“What a bastard,” Sunset said.

Rose Petal frowned. “Language, Sunset.”

“Sorry,” Sunset said even though she wasn’t.

It seemed to be enough for Rose Petal. “Now then, enough of that nonsense. You still have one more present.”

Sunset picked up the last book and smiled as she tried to guess which one it was. It was a thick hardcover, probably a textbook. It would be thrilling to read about magical theory again, or Equestrian history. Anything, so long as it was unique to Equestria.

She peeled off the paper and found it wasn’t a textbook. It was a brown journal with a yellow and red sun on the cover. She stared in awe at it for a moment, wondering how she could ever have forgotten that book. Once she remembered herself, she opened to a random page.

It was covered in notes. They alternated between neat little writing that made the cursive a bit hard to read, and her own barely passable writing. They didn’t say anything of great importance.

Sunset, my schedule’s opened up for half an hour at three today. Would you care to join me for tea?

I’m just finishing up this essay, should be done by then. I’ll meet you in your solar.

Sunset traced her fingers across the words, as if touching them would bring her back to that day.

“Sunset?” Rose’s voice barely registered to Sunset, but it was enough to remind her that she wasn’t alone. She would have to get to her room before she began crying.

“I… I feel like I remember this,” Sunset said as a way of explaining her distance. “Like it’s right there, but I just can’t… can’t quite remember.”

Rose placed a hand on Sunset’s shoulder. “It’ll come back to you in time, child. Who knows? Maybe reading these books will help you remember.”

Sunset nodded. She had no doubt she was going to be remembering quite a bit as soon as she got the chance to start reading.

Rose stood up. “Now then, no sense trying to hide it. I know you well enough to know that the only reason you’re still here is because you don’t want to be rude. Run along to your room, dearie, and enjoy your books. I’ll come by with a bowl of ice cream in a bit and maybe you can tell me about them if you’re not too busy.”

Sunset piled the books on top of each other, with the coin purse on top of that. She picked them up to leave, then set them down again. Instead, she turned to Rose Petal. Sunset would have been a bit embarrassed to admit she had no idea what she was doing, if she wasn’t too busy being embarrassed by doing it anyway. She found herself awkwardly throwing her arms around Rose Petal, who didn’t quite seem to know what to do herself for a moment.

“Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Rose said as she hugged Sunset back.

Sunset felt even more awkward as she pulled away, since she had no idea how long hugs were even supposed to last. Rose Petal didn’t seem worried though, so Sunset just collected her things and ran off to her room.

The purse and other books were quickly deposited on the bedside table as Sunset sat down with the journal. She opened it to the first page, determined to read every single menial note it had within it. That is, if she could manage to start reading despite her tears.

She remembered the day Princess Celestia had given her the book. Before Sunset had ever been able to lay a hoof on her own copy, she had seen Celestia’s. She was with the princess when she wrote the first note, although she hadn’t been allowed to see it. She had protested, ‘What’s the point of instantly sending me a message that I won’t see for hours?’ Celestia had simply told her to be patient.

It took Sunset a while for her eyes to dry enough to read the note at all, and when she did it was through tears the whole way.

‘Dearest Sunset Shimmer, my gifted student. I’m sure you’ve been wondering all day what this message would be. I’m sorry for the roundabout way of delivering this message, especially one that contains nothing I haven’t told you before. Still, I thought for a long time about how to best start this journal, and this is what I’ve decided.

Above all, I would simply like to take the time to remind you how happy I am to have you as my student. You know very well that there isn’t another unicorn your age with talents like yours, but it is much more than that. I can scarcely recall a student so dedicated to learning as you are. You have a passion that every teacher dreams to find in a pupil, and yet nopony could ever give. Even if you did not have the natural talents you do, I would be honored to be your teacher.

I don’t mind saying I expect great things from you. It is a lot to put on a student, and many can’t handle the pressure of expectations. But I know you, I know that you will never cease to amaze me. You could have the world placed upon your shoulders, and you would excel all the same. I do not know what your future will hold, only that it will be a bright one.

I can already imagine you rolling your eyes while you read this. But you are young with many years ahead of you. One day I hope you’ll look back on this message and appreciate the sentimentality of an old mare. But for now, you are young, and I fear I’ve made you wait long enough while I write this message. So I will leave it short, for after all, it is only the first of many.

Never lose your fire, my gifted student.

Sunset tried to remember what she had thought when she first read that message. Did she roll her eyes, as Celestia had predicted? Did she appreciate it half as much back then as she did now? She wouldn’t have cried, and certainly not so much as she was doing reading over the words years later from a world away.

A thought came to her. It was inevitable, though it scared her. The journal still had its partner. A world away, but still it was only half of a pair. Without ever deciding to, Sunset flipped to the bookmarked page.

Blank pages were laid out before her, waiting for her to write. Would the magic still work, separated as the books were? There was only one way to find out. She opened her bedside table drawer and pulled out a pen. She returned to the book, but when she attempted to begin writing, she instead found herself frozen in place with her hand hovering over it. All she would need to do was write a few words. Even just a line, really. It would appear in its partnered book, and Princess Celestia would see it. She would know Sunset was reaching out for her.

And… then what? What would Celestia do once she got Sunset’s message? Would she eagerly reply? Would she ignore it? Would she even see it? Maybe she’d gotten rid of the book by now. She had let go of Sunset as a student, after all. They really had no reason to communicate anymore. And if Celestia had wanted to reach her? Well, there certainly weren’t any new messages in the book.

Somewhere, in another world, there was a mirrored copy of the book she held in her hands. It had a different sun on its cover, but was otherwise identical in every way, with every letter of every message duplicated flawlessly. Sunset could imagine it was also sitting open, lying on someone else’s bed as the owner of that book also reminisced over the past on a special day.

Sunset put the pen away. It was a nice thought, and Sunset didn’t want to do anything to ruin it.

~ End Act I ~

9 – On the Finer Points of Deliquency

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Act II

Frozen Heart

Chapter Nine

On the Finer Points of Deliquency

There was never anything to do in this town. Sunset sat down by Mirror Pool Lake, skipping stones across it and wishing she were inside. It was mid-December, and the weather had recently taken a turn for the worse. The lake must have started freezing over in the night, as there were still bits of ice floating around it. Soon enough the whole thing would be frozen solid, which would ruin her favorite place to hang out, but at least it was safe for the time being.

Sunset debated leaving, but she didn’t know where else to go. It had been seven years since she had been discovered wandering alone and without her memories, and in that time she had explored everywhere. She had been all over the town, always searching for the por–

‘For answers,’ Sunset reminded herself. Sunset had been looking for answers, and nothing more.

She never found any. In seven years, she never found a place she recognized. No memories flooding back, no sign of who she used to be. Even her name, Sunset Shimmer, was only a possibility. Sure, it was on her bag, but since she had no idea if the bag had even been hers originally, Sunset Shimmer could be anyone.

Whoever she was, Sunset Shimmer was never found, so the name passed on to the girl who was carrying her bag. And she had to admit, Sunset Shimmer felt right. But there were other things that felt right to her. Impossible things.

So she searched. She’d visited every district in town and never once came across anything that resonated with her. Eventually, she gave up. It was the only thing left for her to do. She could keep searching for answers, sacrificing whatever was left of her sanity in the hopes that something would turn up, or she could just resign herself to never knowing. It wasn’t like it really mattered. If anyone from her past was still alive, they clearly didn’t give a damn about her.

Sunset skipped another rock across the lake, watching it bounce a few times before sinking. She sighed and stood up, not sure where she was going to go, but sure she was tired of being there. She shoved her hands into her jacket pocket and started walking aimlessly.

It was too early to go to the library or any of the stores she liked. Best to stay out of the main part of town, really. She could go to Everfree National Park, but she usually avoided that; it was far too close to her least favorite part of the town. She was tempted just to go back to the orphanage. She could sneak into her bedroom, she’d done it before. But it always came with a degree of risk. The noise from opening the window or climbing through it could easily attract one of the caretakers. Unfortunately, that had happened before as well.

Well, standing around wasn’t doing her any favors. She started walking towards some houses. She would be fairly safe in the neighborhood.

That is, if she could get there. While Sunset was still in view of the lake, a car pulled up alongside her. Her first instinct was to run, but that wouldn’t get her anywhere. Instead, she just continued along as if she didn’t notice it.

The car pulled ahead of her before pulling off to the side the road in front of her. Sunset stopped walking and waited. The passenger door opened and a man stepped out. “Sunset Shimmer.”

“Officer Blue Stripe.”

The police officer sighed. “You know you’re supposed to be in school now.”

Sunset furrowed her brow. “What are you talking about? It’s winter break!”

“That’s next week, Sunset.”

“What?” Sunset facepalmed. “Oh man, how did I mix that up? Hey, think you guys could give me a ride to school? Geez, I’ve already missed so much.”

Blue Stripe just stared at her for a second, before opening the back door. “Get in.”

“Thanks, you guys are the best.” Hardly believing he could be so gullible, she climbed into the back of the police car. She turned to the driver. “Hey there, Officer Swift Star. How’s the wife?”

He grunted in response.

“Good to know! Give her my best, won’t ya?”

Once Blue Stripe got into the car, Swift Star started driving. At least the heat was on, so feeling began seeping into Sunset’s fingers and toes again.

She watched the town roll by through the window. Everything was quiet in the world outside. It was a Monday morning, so most of the citizens of the small suburb were likely at work or school. The ones who weren’t would probably be spending the day inside. Some snow had fallen the night before, but it was still warm enough that the sun was making quick work of it. It made for an unappealing day to be outside, as Sunset had found out firsthand. True, no one would need to shovel any snow just yet, but in its place was a layer of slush that covered everything. It was just a cold, wet, miserable day.

Really, school wasn’t looking like a bad place to be. Sunset didn’t like school, but the subjects all came easily to her. If she ever decided she cared, she could easily climb her way through the grades. But she had given up pursuing a better education long ago, and was content to remain in seventh grade. Things were easier that way. She could skip half her classes, ignore most of her homework, sit out on every group assignment, and still ace every test to pass her classes.

Yeah, she’d just go to school, sit in the back of the class, ignore her teachers, and enjoy the heat. She should have just gone in the first place. If anything, her day would actually improve by going to school. So of course, that wasn’t the direction they were heading.

“You’re not bringing me to school, are you?” Sunset asked in an annoyed tone.

“ ‘Fraid not,” Blue Stripe answered.

“Why not?” Although she knew it had no real chance, Sunset had already committed herself to a story. “It was really just a mistake! Come on, I want to go to school!”

“You just want to not be sitting in the back of a cop car,” Swift Star said.

“Nonsense! Would this face lie?” Sunset pointed at her face as she gave the biggest smile she could manage.

“Yes,” they answered together.

Sunset sunk back in her seat, dropping her cheerful persona. “Well damn. There’s no need to be a bunch of dicks about it.” She wasn’t sure why she had assumed anything else would happen; her luck was never that good. There was no need to ask where they were actually going, she already knew.

Sure enough, she recognized the path they were taking. And since the lake was within walking distance to the orphanage, it was only a few minutes until they pulled into New Horizons Home for Children.

Blue Stripe stepped out of the car and opened Sunset’s door for her. Wordlessly, she followed him to the building. There was a time he would have lectured her; it seemed that since he and his partner had been the first people with extended contact with her, he had taken a personal interest in her. But that had been years ago, and Sunset had long since changed his mind. They’d had a few too many run-ins with one another over the years, which usually was a result of Sunset getting caught misbehaving. She was getting better at avoiding the whole getting caught part, but sometimes these things still happened.

Still, there was one person who hadn’t given up on lecturing her. Rose Petal stood waiting for them as they walked in, and her glare was sharp enough that even Sunset turned away from it.

“Good morning, Ms. Rose,” Blue Stripe said in a businesslike tone. Swift Star just waited off to the side, silent as usual. Blue Stripe may have held out hope for Sunset for a while, but Swift Star had always kept whatever feelings he had to himself.

Rose sighed and turned away from Sunset. “Thank you, officers. I’m sorry for the trouble she’s caused you.”

“It’s no trouble at all, ma’am,” Blue Stripe reassured her. “We found her down by Mirror Pool Lake, and it doesn’t seem like she was up to anything. Aside from skipping school, of course.”

“At least there’s that, then.” Rose turned back to Sunset, although she was beginning to look more exasperated than angry. “Oh, Sunset… What am I going to do with you?”

Sunset pointedly looked away.

Blue Stripe scratched at the back of his neck. “Er, have you possibly reconsidered what I said about –”

“It’s still out of the question,” Rose said sharply while fixing a harsh glare on the officer.

He frowned, but still nodded his agreement. “I’m sure you know what’s best for her. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

Rose’s expression softened, leaving no trace of her momentary hostility. “No, I think I can take it from here. Thank you, boys. You’ve been so helpful.”

“You’re quite welcome, ma’am.” Blue Stripe turned to Sunset. “Believe it or not, things would be a lot easier for you if you tried to behave yourself once in a while.”

Sunset just rolled her eyes. Despite what he seemed to think, she did behave herself. Once in a while.

Without any acknowledgment from Sunset, the officers left. She waited expectantly for Rose Petal to lecture her, but she didn’t say anything. It seemed Sunset would have to go first. “I tried to get them to take me to school, for the record.”

“So it was the police officers that kept you from going to school, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Rose folded her arms. “Well then, why don’t you tell me what did keep you from school?”

Convincing Rose that she hadn’t done anything wrong wasn’t going to be an option, of course. The best she could hope for was damage control. “I only wanted to skip my first class ‘cause I already finished the project we’re doing, but the rest of the class is still working on it. I wouldn’t be doing anything in that class anyway.”

“Is that so?”

To some extent, it was. The class really was working on a project, and Sunset wouldn’t have been doing anything while they were all working on it. Although in actuality, that was not at all because she was finished with it, as she had no intention of doing it at all. Likewise, she hadn’t planned on going to school after her first class, either. “Yes. I was going to go for the rest of the day, honest.”

“You know very well that you need to go for the whole day, regardless of what you will be doing.”

“But it doesn’t make make any sense!” Sunset said defensively.

“Remind me, what grade did you get in that class on your last report card?”

“I got a C.”

Rose regarded her skeptically. “A C?”

“What? It’s passing!”

“I seem to recall it being a little lower.”

Sunset frowned. New Horizons had twenty-three other kids for her to keep track of; how the hell did she make a point to remember Sunset’s report card? “I thought it was a C.”

“It was a D, but we can check if you’d like.”

There was no need to check. Sunset had known what her grade was. “It’s still passing,” she mumbled.

Rose continued to hold her stare for a few more moments, then broke her composure with a sigh. She walked over to the side of the room and sat in one of the chairs for potential adoptive parents to wait in. She nodded towards the seat next to her, so Sunset sat down as well.

“Sunset,” she said gently, “you’re such a smart girl. I know you could do better if you applied yourself.”

Since she lacked any way to explain herself, Sunset just turned her eyes to the ground.

“What do you think is going to happen if you don’t pull your grades up? You want to work with computers, but you need more than just the knowledge.”

“That’s so stupid,” Sunset said, not directly addressing Rose. “I know enough about computer engineering to practically start a career in it already. Who cares about my grade in history class?”

“That is the world we live in,” Rose said, not unkindly. “All the knowledge in the world won’t help you get into a good college if you don’t have the grades to match.”

Sunset frowned. “And no one will hire me in a competitive field without a college education. It’s stupid, and not fair.”

“You’re right, it’s not.” Rose turned to look directly at Sunset, who still wouldn’t look at her. “There are kids here who are smart, who would do well if given a real chance, but who can’t test well, or just don’t learn best in a school environment. And then, there’s you.”

The return of an accusatory tone caused Sunset to look back at Rose, and she regretted it. The disappointment in her caretaker’s eyes looked all too familiar, and suddenly all she could see was someone else’s magenta eyes staring at her.

“You could excel in school, but you refuse to even make the attempt.”

“You could make friends easily, if only you would put forth the effort.”

“Is school really so bad that that you’ll risk your future to avoid it?”

“Are other ponies so bad that you’d rather be alone instead of trying to befriend them?”

“Sunset… what’s the real problem here?”

“Sunset… what’s the real –”

“I’m sorry,” Sunset said, placing her head in her hands. “I’ll do better, I’ll go to school, I’ll do the work, I’ll get my grades up.” ‘I’ll do anything, just make her go away.’

Recognizing what was happening, Rose changed her tone entirely. “It’s okay, Sunset. There’s no need to worry, we can work on it.”

It was all Sunset could do to nod meekly. She was afraid to pull her hands away from her face, afraid of what she’d see. She did it anyway, refusing to allow herself to look weak in front of Rose Petal. Nothing out of the ordinary was in the room – it was just her and Rose.

“What’s going on, Sunset?”

It was clear Rose wasn’t talking about school anymore. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Rose gently placed a hand on Sunset’s shoulder. If it had been anyone else, Sunset would never have allowed it. Then again, Rose Petal was the only person who ever tried to touch Sunset in the first place. “You know, I’m always here to talk about anything you’d like.” Rose gave a warm smile. “Somedays I think it’s all these old bones are good for anymore.”

Sunset didn’t want to talk about it. She resolved to put the incident behind her as if it had never happened, turning to face Rose with a carefully composed expression. “I’m ready to go to school now.”

Rose hesitated, and Sunset could tell why. No matter how much she controlled her body language, her voice had sounded frail. “I think it’s well enough into the day that we can just resolve to do better tomorrow.”

Although she had been trying to get out of school the whole day, Sunset didn’t want to miss it for that reason. “I’m fine, I can go.”

“You know, you can take it easy when you have an honest reason to.”

Sunset wanted to argue, but she didn’t. She never did. It didn’t happen often, but hearing things – usually her – wasn’t new to Sunset, and she was always left shaken afterwards. Too shaken to offer any real resistance, especially when the thing she was resisting was the chance to be alone in her own bedroom.

“Okay,” Sunset answered in a defeated tone.

“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Rose asked hopefully.

“No.” It was an easy answer; there was nothing to gain from telling Rose what she was experiencing. She would just wind up with another therapy session, in which she’d carefully control her responses to show a perfectly normal girl. The same routine as always.

Rose had also come to realize therapy sessions got them nowhere. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean she had given up on finding something that would work in its place. She waited for a moment, clearly debating if she should push for more, before resigning the day as a loss. “Alright then… Why don’t you relax for a bit, and I’ll come check on you later?”

“Yeah, okay.” Sunset stood up and shuffled to her room. The building was mostly empty since school was in session, so she didn’t meet anyone in the hallway.

She kept her head facing forward as she walked in, not wanting to look at the mirror that hung on the wall beside the door. As tempting as it was to just collapse on her bed, she didn’t like the idea of sitting in silence, so she hit play on her stereo, letting whatever CD was already in begin again.

Softly strummed acoustic guitar chords began playing. It wasn’t exactly what she wanted to listen to, but it was a good CD for the moment, so she left it in. The gentle sounds of the folk album would be calming, which was what she needed.

Sunset sat on her bed and sighed. She looked around the room for a bit, trying to figure out what to do with her time. That was her life these days – she was either trying to shrug off responsibility to get some free time, or trying to figure out how to fill it once she had it.

Lacking anything else to do, Sunset grabbed a book. She wasn’t really in the mood to read, but it would pass the time. The CD eventually came to an end while she read. True to her word, Rose Petal stopped in to check on her after a few hours, and was relieved to find Sunset was looking better.

By the time other kids began to return from school, Sunset’s boredom had peaked. She needed to go out for a bit, but wasn’t so sure that Rose would be okay with it. Even though Sunset was clearly more relaxed now, her caretaker would probably want her to take it easy.

Not that she would let that be a problem. She put away her book and turned instead to her stereo, ejecting the folk CD from earlier. She chose a very different one to replace it. A distorted guitar drone sounded, followed by the drummer counting the band in, then the sudden start of the full band launching into a synchronized explosion of noise. She turned the volume up, careful to leave it low enough so that no one would complain, but loud enough that everyone would know she didn’t want to be disturbed.

With her distraction in place, she grabbed her purse and moved to the window. No one was in sight, so she opened it up and climbed out, closing it behind her. She shoved her hands into her pockets and began walking.

She’d bought herself an hour. After that, the CD would be over and she would no longer be guaranteed any privacy. An hour was more than enough time, though. The store she walked to was only twenty minutes away at a leisurely pace, and the cold motivated her to move faster.

Along the way, Sunset contemplated how much she would follow through on her promise to do better in school. On the one hand, Rose made a valid point about her future. On the other, Sunset wasn’t sure if she really cared.

In the end, she would just do whatever she felt like at any given time, so it didn’t really matter too much. By the time she arrived at the store she had already put the issue behind her.

The warm air as she walked in was a welcome relief. The young man behind the counter greeted her with a smirk. “Well if it isn’t my favorite customer.”

‘Good, he’s here.’ The cashier was nothing short of a creep. He was out of school, so he had to be at least eighteen. And still, he was always distinctly flirtatious every time Sunset had seen him, despite the fact that she was twelve. She worked it to her advantage. “Hmm, favorite? You sure about that?”

“Of course.” He leaned across the counter as he talked, so sure that she thought he was oh-so-cool.

Sunset grinned and gave an overly exaggerated eye roll, which ended with her eyes pointed directly at his. “If you say so. I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Take your time, I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

‘Thank goodness for that.’ He seemed harmless enough, but Sunset was always content in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to follow her once she left the store. Still, his creepiness had its advantages – she sailed right past his suspicions.

The store was Sunset’s favorite for reasons other than the willfully blind cashier. It was large enough that the aisles made for suitable hiding places, leaving her only visible to others within the same aisle, and yet it was small enough that it didn’t have a dedicated liquor section.

She found the beverage aisle completely empty, as she had hoped. It was too early for the after-work rush, and too cold out for many people to want to shop anyway. Free of prying eyes, Sunset casually walked along the wine bottles and grabbed one without stopping, slipping it into her purse as she went. It was the only reason she ever carried a purse; backpacks had to be left at the front of the store, but purses went unquestioned. Even, apparently, oversized purses. Ridiculous fashion trends were good for something, it seemed.

Further along the same aisle, she stopped to grab a two liter bottle of soda. It was the perfect cover-up, since no one would question why a kid would walk to the store for a bottle of soda.

Without wasting any time, she brought her purchase up to the counter. The wine bottle weighed down her purse, but it didn’t create too much of a visible difference. And of all the things that sleaze might have been paying attention to, Sunset doubted her purse was what he had on his mind.

“Just this?” he asked as he rang up the soda.

“Yeah, that’ll do it.” Sunset pulled out her wallet, discreetly keeping the bottle tucked away. “Unless I can pay for a candy bar with my good looks.”

“Hmm…” For a moment he looked like he might have actually been considering it, but thankfully he shrugged off the request. “Ask me again in a couple years, maybe.”

Fighting back the urge to remind him she’d still be a minor in a couple years, Sunset paid for her soda and left as quickly as she could without causing any sort of alarm. Not that she was worried he’d ask to check her purse – she’d been doing that sort of thing for years, and knew she’d get away with it – but everything about him gave her the creeps. She still stopped to give a friendly wave on the way out, though. Creep or not, she wanted him to stay hopelessly oblivious to her behavior.

The walk back was spent trying to decide how to while away the rest of the day. She couldn’t keep sneaking off in hour long intervals, so resigning herself to spend the day inside seemed like the only thing to do.

The CD was still playing when she returned, as she knew it would be. She carefully climbed in through the window, closing it soundlessly behind her. Leaving the CD playing to cover any further noises, she shifted her mattress to get to the box spring underneath, which had a hole in its fabric covering. It had always been there. They must have decided that since it hardly impacted the effectiveness, they might as well still use it. Sunset was very grateful for this oversight.

When it came down to it, she didn’t trust anyone. She suspected that while the kids were at school, at least some of the caretakers were nosy enough to go looking through their belongings. She’d get caught easily if she were using any of the default hiding places – under the bed, in the closet, in her dresser drawers. They were all too predictable. But no one would ever think to check inside the box frame.

She reached through the hole, stretching her arm as far as she could. Even if someone decided to check the hole, for whatever reason, they still wouldn’t know where her stash was hidden.

Her fingers found the pillowcase, and she pulled it towards her. A small shiver ran down her spine as she opened it, revealing the brown journal tucked away inside.

She ignored it, and reached for her purse instead. For whatever reason, the brand of wine she had grabbed had always been Sunset’s favorite. She suspected it was the label, which depicted a sun that could either be rising or setting. The overblown name, Versant du Soleil, amused her as well. She suspected it was just a marketing ploy designed to make the wine seem fancier because it had a foreign name.

But it would have to wait until later. Even Sunset wasn’t bold enough to start drinking in the middle of the afternoon, when people were awake. She shoved it in the pillowcase, making a point to place it on top of the book so she could just reach in and grab it without being reminded of what else was hidden away. Not that she ever forgot.

Once she tucked the pillow case back into the corner of the box spring, Sunset replaced the mattress. Since she didn’t really feel like listening to something so angry, she stopped the CD before flopping onto the bed. With nothing else to do, she sighed and picked up her book again.

10 – Surprises

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Chapter Ten

Surprises

A sharp pounding brought Sunset into consciousness. “Sunset, it’s time for school.”

Sunset groaned in response. She rolled over and covered her face with a pillow. Why was it so bright? It was uncalled for, really. The sun could light the world without being so bright. All she needed was a little more sleep. If they’d just leave her be, she would be perfectly fine. So of course, that was out of the question.

The banging returned, and Rose Petal called louder. “Sunset? Are you awake?”

“I feel sick…” she grumbled.

“What was that?”

“I’m sick!” she called louder, making her head hurt worse.

“Hold on, I’m coming in.” Rose waited a moment before opening the door. She found Sunset still half covering her face with a pillow, and it could not have made for a pretty sight. “What happened? You seemed fine yesterday.”

“I don’t know…” Sunset pulled the pillow over the rest of her face. “Can I just stay home today?”

Although Sunset couldn’t see Rose’s expression, at least her voice seemed neutral. “Hold on, I’ll go get the thermometer.”

Sunset groaned again as Rose left. The thermometer wouldn’t help her case at all; she wasn’t sick, she was hungover. But even if she could think of some way to make herself look ill, she probably couldn’t have brought herself to do anything about it. The best she could manage was to haphazardly look around her for any sign of evidence, and thankfully she found nothing. At least she’d had the foresight to hide the bottle, even if she didn’t remember where exactly she’d hidden it.

Rose returned with the thermometer, so Sunset dutifully stuck it in her mouth and waited for the beep. “Temperature is normal,” Rose reported. “What’s bothering you?”

“My head’s killing me, and I think I’m going to throw up.”

“You stayed in your room all day yesterday, you probably just didn’t get enough to drink.” Rose picked up the soda bottle off the floor. “Or maybe too much of the wrong thing to drink. I’ll bring you some water and we’ll get you feeling better in no time.”

Unaware of exactly how right she was, Rose once again left the room. Sunset ran through her options. If she actually vomited it would probably be enough to convince Rose to let her stay home, and she wouldn’t have to deal with the dilemma from yesterday about how it would be spent – the entire day would be spent in glorious sleep. But Sunset wasn’t terribly good at vomiting on command. It felt likely if she just ate something it would come back up, but if she didn’t throw up, the food was just going to wind up making her feel more sick than she did already.

But aside from that? Sunset already knew she was out of luck. She barely even offered any resistance when Rose came back with a glass of water and ibuprofen. If nothing else, the water helped rinse her mouth of the foul flavor lingering in it.

Rose gave her time to get dressed, and seemed to take it as a given that she was going to school after all. If it hadn’t been for the day before, Sunset would have fought harder, but she could see a losing battle and decided to conserve her strength.

While alone, Sunset took care to find the bottle. It wasn’t hard, since she had tucked it away in her sock drawer. That may be an acceptable hiding place while she was asleep since no one was going to look through her things while she was in the room, but it certainly wouldn’t do while she was at school. As quickly as she could, she removed the half-full bottle and stowed it away in her hiding place.

With that taken care of, she dressed quickly and left the room. She only agreed to a simple breakfast of buttered toast, which did seem to show Rose that she was actually not feeling well. Not enough to actually make a convincing argument, though. And although initially she wasn’t sure she’d manage to eat any of it, she did feel a bit better afterwards.

With breakfast finished, there was nothing to do but wait until it was time to leave. Rather than go back to her room, Sunset opted to wait in the communal lounge room. A lot of her time was spent there, since it was the only room with a computer accessible to the kids. There wasn’t enough time to make it worth using the computer, but that didn’t matter; she had other things on her mind.

The other kids her age were all sitting around the TV, as they usually were. She propped up a book and pretended to read. People always expected that someone with their nose in a book would be far too interested in it to listen in to their conversations. It was one of her most reliable tricks.

Sure enough, it wasn’t too long before Rose Petal showed up. Sunset kept her attention pointed at the book, appearing to be completely unaware of what was happening around her. She couldn’t hear what was said, but she didn’t have to. The hushed tone clearly indicated that they didn’t want her to hear what they were saying. If she had looked up, she knew she would have seen glances cast in her direction, since there was only one thing they would likely be discussing.

Her suspicions were confirmed on the way out the door, as the other kids were casting her worried looks. They were all worried for themselves, of course. Rose Petal didn’t realize what a difficult place she had put them in by asking them to keep watch over Sunset. But the other kids realized, and that was what mattered.

Luckily for them, she wasn’t planning on repeating the day before. She went along with them to the bus stop, and didn’t try to make an escape. Still, if it had come down to it, she knew could have gotten away easily. Through bribery or blackmail, she had all of them under her sway. One wrong word and someone wouldn’t be getting the answers to that next math test, or perhaps one of the caretakers would find a reason to snoop around a certain closet a little better. And while it was hardly her first choice, violence was always a possibility as well.

The relief was visible on all of their faces when she actually boarded the bus. At least she could take comfort that they were still intimidated, although she decided to remind each of them why they were intimidated later. But that would be saved for one-on-one discussions, not something she would think of doing on the crowded bus. Secrets were only valuable so long as they remained secret, after all.

But there were still potentially some secrets she could discuss. She took a seat next to one of the only people she had anything resembling a friendly relationship with. “I miss anything good?”

Summer Rain wasn’t exactly a friend, per se. She and Sunset didn’t share classes and hardly went out of their way to meet up with one another. But they did have the bus ride, where they got together and talked about their mutual interest in keeping tabs on the other kids in school. For Summer, she was only interested in the gossip. Sunset, of course, had better uses for that sort of thing. “No, it was pretty quiet yesterday.”

“Shame. I was hoping that with winter break coming up, there’s be something going on.”

“Yeah.” Summer Rain looked disappointed, then shrugged it off a moment later. “But oh well, something’s sure to come up before the week’s over.”

“Fair enough.”

Both girls turned to their separate interests. They had a good understanding about the nature of their relationship. They shared one mutual interest, and never tried to push for anything more familiar. For Sunset, it was a simple matter of not being able to keep an eye on everyone by herself. For Summer, Sunset suspected she just enjoyed spying on her fellow students and putting that information to use. As well, the few students Sunset had found useful had certain privileges – respect from other students, or at least something that resembled it; occasional favors from Sunset, whose reach extended to enough students that she could usually find some way to keep her lackeys happy; and, of course, the ever important immunity from Sunset using her sway against them. At least, they thought they all had that last one, which is what mattered in the end.

Although she would have prefered to read during the bus trip, Sunset’s head was still killing her, and she felt like reading on a moving bus would cause her to lose her breakfast. So instead, she focused on the world outside of the window. It had snowed again during the night, and the temperature had dropped a little more. All around the bus, kids were discussing plans to play in the snow, but Sunset just found it to be an inconvenience.

It may have been better than reading, but watching the winter wonderland outside certainly did nothing to make Sunset feel better. Nor did the kids around her, with their loud conversations. Everfree Middle School wasn’t normally what she would call a welcome sight, but it couldn’t be worse than the bus.

As soon as the bus pulled into its spot, all the other kids jumped up as if there was nowhere else they’d rather be. Sunset waited behind while the others scrambled to be the firsts out of the door, and calmly left once the rush had died down.

Since it was far too cold to be outside, Sunset went straight into the school. The crowded hallway wasn’t any better than the bus, so she made a beeline to her first class, barely taking the time to notice the kids around her. To most of the school, she was no one important. There wasn’t a lot to be gained by going after every kid personally. But there was a hierarchy, and Sunset was definitely on top. True, not every kid knew enough to fear her, but if there was someone that they did fear, then that person was probably in Sunset’s pocket.

First period was history, taught by Globe Trotter, a middle-aged man who always looked like he was mildly upset about something. Sunset didn’t mind him, as far as teachers went; so long as she wasn’t being actively disruptive, he generally turned a blind eye to whatever she was doing.

The classroom was mostly empty when Sunset arrived, which was fine with her. She ignored everyone in the room as she took her seat in the back. Since there were at least a few minutes before class, Sunset leaned forward on her desk, burying her head in her arms. It was hardly the rest she wanted, but the class was relatively quiet and her arms blocked out most of the light.

Slowly, the seats filled with students over the following minutes, although the seats on either side of Sunset remained empty. The bell rang, and Globe Trotter greeted his class. Sunset ignored him, and he ignored her as well. Only the most stubborn teachers ever held out on getting Sunset to participate for long.

Sunset had almost managed to get to sleep when the class collectively started clapping for some reason. Peeking out from between her arms revealed there was someone besides Globe Trotter standing at the front of the room. Sunset just hoped that whatever they were doing, they’d do it quietly.

“Just choose a seat anywhere,” Globe Trotter said.

‘A new student? Who the fuck transfers classes right before winter break?’ Although Sunset was somewhat curious about the student, it was definitely not enough for her to pick her head up. She’d have the chance to find out more about them later, when she didn’t feel like her head was going to explode.

The sound of footsteps drew closer to her, followed by the sound of the chair to her left being pulled out. Sunset lifted her head to tell the new student to sit somewhere else, but the words stayed frozen in her throat.

“Howdy, partner,” the new girl said, extending her hand. “I’m Applejack.”

Sunset ignored her hand, as well as the stares from the other kids. She knew they were all expecting her reaction, but she couldn’t find herself able to do anything. There was no doubt in Sunset’s mind it was the same Applejack. She had known it before she so much as heard the girl’s voice. Although they had only met once before, Sunset had faced nightmares of that day for years.

Apparently unconcerned with Sunset’s behavior, Applejack withdrew her hand but maintained her friendly smile. “Come on now, I don’t bite.”

Sunset turned away and scanned the room. Every other seat would also leave her sitting next to someone, so Applejack had to be the one to move. “Look, I don’t want to be your friend. You should just sit somewhere else.”

“There ain’t no reason to be like that. It won’t hurt ya to at least tell me your name.”

For some reason, that only made Sunset feel worse. “Not friends.”

Applejack frowned and turned away, but didn’t move. “Alright, that’s fine.”

A few minutes passed and Globe Trotter began talking about their project. Kids were working in pairs to complete a research project on early industrial age revolutions. Sunset probably wouldn’t have been interested in doing the project one way or another, but since they were expected to do it outside of school, she had never even entertained the thought.

Ignoring the teacher, Sunset turned back to Applejack. “So… why are you still sitting here?”

Applejack shrugged. “This seat was open.”

Sunset pointed at another empty seat. “So is that one.”

“So? Mr. Trotter said I could take any seat. I chose this one.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Sunset stood up and grabbed her backpack. She could at least sit next to someone who wasn’t so obnoxiously stubborn.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Globe Trotter said loudly, causing all eyes to turn to her and her head to throb in pain. “Please return to your seat. Class has started and there are some students here interested in learning.”

Wincing at the tone of his voice, Sunset sat back down. She was in no condition to argue. All she could manage to do was glare at Applejack, who had the nerve to look apologetic.

Globe Trotter droned on about their stupid project for a few more minutes, then switched to the day’s lesson. Between the hangover and the girl sitting next to her, Sunset didn’t even try to keep up. At least it kept Applejack preoccupied.

All she had to do was make it through one class. If they shared any others, Sunset would make sure Applejack knew to leave her alone. With nothing to keep her preoccupied, the class passed slowly, but it passed all the same.

And then, with just five minutes until freedom, Globe Trotter had to ruin everything. “I think we’ll stop here for the day,” he announced. “For the next few minutes, you can get together with your partners to make plans. Remember, the paper is due on Friday. That’s still three days to get going for anyone who hasn’t started, but time’s running short.”

The students shuffled around the class, although most of them just used it as a chance to socialize. No one approached Sunset, naturally. Which would have been just what she wanted, if only Applejack hadn’t taken note of it.

“So, uh, you got a partner for this project?” Applejack asked.

“Don’t want one,” Sunset insisted.

Applejack moved closer. Despite everything Sunset had done to indicate that she should be left alone, Applejack still moved closer. “Come on, it jus’ makes sense! Neither of us has a partner, so we should work on it together.”

Sunset shook her head in disbelief. “How many times do I have to tell you that I –”

“Mr. Trotter?” Applejack raised her hand to get his attention.

She wouldn’t.

“Yes, Applejack?”

“Would it be alright if me and Sunset worked together, seeing as neither of us has partners yet?”

She would. Globe Trotter looked at Sunset skeptically. Sunset herself had her eyes fixed on Applejack, staring at her incredulously.

After a moment’s pause, Globe Trotter answered in an uncharacteristically bright tone. “I don’t see why not.”

Sunset turned her glare on him and found he was actually smiling. More than a few students were also watching, with a mix of emotions. They all clearly expected a response from her, but even Sunset had her limits, and outright arguing with a teacher was one of them.

Instead, she leaned back in her seat and waited for the classroom chatter to resume at its normal volume.

“So what’s the plan, partner?” Applejack asked. “Got any ideas for what to –”

“What’s your fucking problem?” Sunset asked, turning suddenly to face Applejack. She kept her voice low enough that Globe Trotter wouldn’t hear, but compensated by filling it with as much hostility as she could manage.

By all appearances, Applejack took it as a friendly joke. She grinned as she leaned in even closer, hovering over the gap between their desks. “Well,” she said, her voice even quieter than Sunset’s had been, “at least ya remembered how to swear right.”

Sunset jumped to her feet. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, all she could focus on was Applejack’s smug expression and one thought: ‘She does remember.’

Before Sunset could do anything, the bell rang. She stood with her eyes fixed on Applejack as Globe Trotter made vain attempts to remind his class to do their project while they quickly filed out the door. Applejack remained in her seat, wearing a knowing grin and waiting for Sunset to make a move.

Deciding to put as much distance in between herself and Applejack as possible, Sunset grabbed her backpack and walked to the door. She didn’t look back to see Applejack’s reaction.

It had been seven years since Sunset and Applejack had met. That day had marked a major turning point in her life. In her childhood delusions, she had expected something wonderful. Instead, she had come face to face with something that would haunt her.

But there had also been Applejack. One memory from the worst time in her life that had never been tainted. A little girl who had managed to make a bigger impact in a single meeting than most of the adults in her life could manage in years. Someone who had come in at just the right time and said just the right things to break through Sunset’s barriers without ever trying.

In her dreams, Applejack had always been the one to try and guide her along the right path. In every single one, Sunset had turned from her. It had been years since she dreamt about the farm girl, but even as Sunset had grown, Applejack had remained the same little girl. Even while conscious, Sunset would occasionally think about her. But it was always the young girl who had been there to hold her hand; she had never spared a single thought to the fact that Applejack had to be growing up as well. In time, she had become more of an idea than a person.

Applejack belonged in her past, so Sunset did what she could to put everything behind her. It was made a little easier by the fact that Applejack didn’t show up to her second period, nor to her third or any others. They shared one class together, and Sunset would just have to figure out a way to minimize their interaction there.

The final bell couldn’t come soon enough. Sunset went straight to the buses, eager to put everything that had happened behind her. She was the first one on the bus, and others were slow to follow. While she waited, she watched the kids mingling out in the courtyard.

She should have just stuck to reading. Applejack was talking to a girl with frizzy orange hair, who was laughing at something she said. Sunset turned away.

“Checking out the new girl?” Summer Rain asked as she sat next to Sunset.

“Yeah, I have first period with her,” Sunset said irritably.

“She seems alright. Wouldn’t say why she transferred so late in the year, though. Just that it had something to do with ‘family stuff’.”

Sunset took another look at Applejack, who looked over just in time to see she was being watched. She waved as if nothing was wrong, and Sunset’s mind flashed back to that day; she was sitting in the back seat of Violet Dusk’s car, watching a hopelessly optimistic girl wave at her as they drove away.

There was nothing Sunset hated as much as seeing her memories come into the real world. “I heard she got caught fucking her cousin behind the bleachers at her old school, so they transferred the two of them to separate schools.”

Summer Rain looked surprised. “You don’t think that’s true, do you?”

Sunset shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea. She’s not just gonna admit to something like that, you know?”

“I guess that’s true, but still…”

“Maybe someone just made it up,” Sunset said. “But you know, she’s got that whole country hick thing going for her, and it would explain why she doesn’t want to say more than ‘family stuff’.”

“I guess you can never tell with those types.”

Sunset shrugged, but inside she was pleased. It was the way Summer had said ‘those types’ that had confirmed it. Whether it was likely or not didn’t matter, it fit perfectly and made for excellent gossip. Before winter break, everyone at Everfree Middle School would be talking about it.

“Yeah, that’s for sure.” Sunset looked back out the window in time to see Applejack board her own bus. “You can never tell what’s going on with someone like that.”

11 – Falling Further

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Chapter Eleven

Falling Further

The sun was high in the sky, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. It was the perfect day for a walk through town. And with the weather only growing colder, it was quite possibly the last decent day of the year. It was a little strange that more people weren’t out, but then again it was mid-day, so most people were probably still at work.

Sunset strolled along at ease, enjoying the solitude. For once, it didn’t seem to have snowed at all the night before, allowing her to move freely without having to worry about trudging through slush.

Although she wasn’t walking with any particular destination in mind, Sunset found herself walking down a familiar path. Before she could place exactly where she was, she came upon her favorite store. She stopped outside and contemplated her next move. It had only been a few days since her last visit, and she didn’t like to push her luck. But something about the day just felt right, so she decided to go for it anyway.

Stepping inside, she found that the cashier was nowhere to be found. Nor was anyone else, for that matter. Christmas music usually played this time of year, but the store was completely silent. Sunset continued to the beverage aisle.

As she rounded the corner, she nearly ran into the first person she had seen all day. It was the same cashier she had seen the last time she was in the store, and he was just standing in the middle of the aisle. Sunset had to jerk to a halt to miss him.

“Hey there,” he said, drawing the greeting out. “If it isn’t my favorite customer.”

“Oh, hi.” Sunset forced an innocent laugh. “Sorry, guess I wasn’t really looking where I was going.”

“Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t mind if you did bump into me every now and again.” He winked, sending chills down Sunset’s spine. “Need help finding anything?”

Sunset grinned nervously. “No thanks. I think I know my way around by now.” She walked past him to the soda. It seemed she wouldn’t be able to get any more alcohol, but that was okay. It wasn’t like she had planned on it anyway, and she was really just ready to get away from him.

“Looking for this?”

Sunset turned around to see him holding a bottle of Versant du Soleil out for her. “What? No, of course not. Don’t be silly, I’m too young to drink that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He walked closer and tucked the wine into her purse. “It’ll be our little secret.”

When there wasn’t a counter separating them, Sunset couldn’t help but notice how much taller he was than her. She took a step away, and he took two steps closer. “I, uh… You know, I’m only twelve.”

“I know that. Doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, right?” He placed his hand on her shoulder, gripping her forcefully. “You know, I have something much stronger than wine. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

Sunset turned to run, and found the other side of the aisle was walled off. “What gives?” he asked, walking closer. He stood in the middle of the aisle, trapping her. “I thought you liked breaking the rules?”

“Get away from me,” Sunset said fiercely, but he didn’t.

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” He reached a hand towards her, so she leapt back. She felt something solid behind her and realized she was as far as she could go. “There’s lots of adult things to try besides just drinking.”

Since going backwards was no longer an option, Sunset ran forwards. She had hoped she could slip by him, but he was able to get a grip on her right arm.

She grabbed for something off the shelf to defend herself with, but he grabbed her with his other arm before she could do anything. He pushed her against the ground, and brought his face closer to hers.

Wriggling free just enough, Sunset swung with her left hand. She heard the sound of glass breaking, and he fell on top of her. He tried to push himself up, but she kept swinging, even after his movements stopped.

Once she could barely find the strength to swing her arm, she tried pushing him off of her. He was too heavy to do so easily, so she had to half push him off while shimmying out from under him. She dropped her purse along the way, and didn’t pick it back up.

Sunset looked down at what she had done. A broken bottle lay next to the body, and blood was everywhere. She was covered in it as well, so she pulled off her jacket and gloves, leaving them on the ground. There wasn’t anything she could do about the rest of her clothes. She looked around for any sign of anyone else, but there was no one.

Although she was shaken, she resolved to not let it get to her. She calmly walked outside, and found it had started snowing lightly. She debated if it was worth going back inside to see if they had any warm clothes to replace the ones she had left, but decided against it. She needed to put as much distance between her and the store as she could.

Once again, Sunset didn’t pay any attention to where she was going. There wasn’t much of a chance that she would get herself lost. After spending years wandering through the city, Sunset could recognize most of it.

Sure enough, she found herself coming to another familiar destination, although it was one she had only been to once before. It was a cozy house with a white picket fence. Sunset had always hated how picturesque it was. It looked like the perfect place to raise a girl.

“Sunset! Did you come to play?”

Sunset frowned at Dew Drop. Of course she had gotten adopted by the most sickeningly sweet family imaginable. Couples were always coming in to adopt cute little girls. Just not girls like Sunset.

“No, I don’t want to play,” Sunset said.

“Oh.” Dew Drop had gotten better over time, but she still acted like Sunset’s reluctance to be friends was some sort of personal attack against her. And maybe it was, just a little. She looked at Sunset’s clothes. “What’s all that red stuff?”

“Juice,” Sunset answered automatically.

“It doesn’t look like juice.”

“Don’t you have your own friends around here?” Sunset asked in annoyance. “I thought Sugar Breeze was living in the same neighborhood or something.”

“Yeah, she does.” Dew Drop didn’t seem to be cheered up much by the reminder.

Sunset just shrugged. “Well then, I guess that settles it. See you around.”

“No you won’t,” Dew Drop snapped.

It wasn’t the denial that bothered Sunset; Dew Drop was probably right about that one. No, it was her tone. Sunset had lived with Dew Drop for three years, and never once had she sounded angry.

Sunset turned to look at her, not really sure what she planned on saying. But it didn’t matter because Dew Drop’s expression blocked out anything Sunset might’ve said anyway.

Dew Drop looked at her with pure malice, an evil grin fixed on her face. “You’ll just keep ignoring me just like you ignore everyone. And we’ll all just keep ignoring you, too. Just face it, Sunset; you put on the tough girl act because you know that no one could ever actually care about you anyway.”

“Excuse me!?” Sunset stormed up to the picket fence, but Dew Drop just laughed and backed away.

“Honestly, I don’t know why I bothered for so long.” Dew Drop shrugged and walked over to her front door. Before going in, though, she stopped to turn back to Sunset, her expression becoming deadly serious. “But remember that I did try. I wanted to be your friend, and you just wouldn’t let me. Whatever happens now is your own doing.”

Without giving Sunset a chance to reply, Dew Drop walked into the house. Sunset could even hear her new parents’ excited voices greeting her.

The snow was picking up, so Sunset went back to walking. With the weather getting worse and her not having a jacket or gloves, she knew she ought to just head back to the orphanage, but there was still more to do. She wasn’t sure what, but she knew there was something.

Sunset almost walked past the next memorable building she came across. It had been years since she had been there, after all. Not to mention that it had fallen out of repair to the point of almost being unrecognizable. But there were some places she would never forget.

Parts of the wall were missing, so Sunset didn’t bother with the door as she stepped through. She looked around the dilapidated reception hall of the psychologist’s office she had once visited every week. It looked like it had been abandoned right after she had last seen it, with everything still in place. Weather worn furniture lay in pieces on the ground, mixed in with books and documents that had long since fallen off of shelves.

Sunset ignored everything she saw and walked deeper into the building. She wasn’t sure what she hoped she might find, but she followed the familiar path towards Crystal Clear’s office. Unlike most of the building, the door was still in one piece. She tried pushing it open, only to find it was locked. Deciding there was nothing else to be done, Sunset turned to leave.

She stopped when she heard the door open behind her. “Sunset. You’re late for our appointment.”

Sunset wheeled around to see Crystal Clear, although just like the building, he was barely recognizable. His short hair had grown long and ragged, he looked sick and sounded even worse, and his expertly kept suit was left in tatters.

“Jesus Christ, what the fuck happened to you?”

Crystal Clear flashed the same smile that had made him so easy to trust before. It didn’t have the same effect now that the few teeth he hadn’t lost were stained yellow. “You did.”

Sunset began backing away from him. At least he didn’t seem intent on following her. “What are you talking about? I haven’t done shit to you!”

Crystal Clear sighed and shook his head. “Still in denial, I see? I had hoped you would’ve made more progress by now. Really now, Sunset, what did you think would happen after the stunt you pulled? I lost my license, and with it, my job. I couldn’t afford my house, my car, my son. I lost everything because of you.”

That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. “All I did was report on what you did.”

“Oh, are you sure about that?” Crystal Clear smiled again. “Think back to what happened. You can remember that much, at least. Ask yourself what exactly it was that I did, and I think you’ll find the answer is quite different from what you want it to be.”

Sunset gritted her teeth and pointed at him accusingly. “You were the one writing a book about me!”

Really now, Sunset. I was using you as a case study, yes. You were an important case for child psychology, and I could have done a lot of good. Both for you and for other kids.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “All out of the goodness of your heart then?”

“You’re a smart girl,” he said. He spoke as if every word he was saying was really just part of a truth Sunset had known all along. It probably was. “People are inherently selfish. They do good things because it will get them recognition, or because that’s how they feel good about themselves. What matters in the end is that something good gets done. I did have a lot to gain from working with you, but so did the psychological community as a whole. Meanwhile, you had nothing to lose. My study would take years to conduct, and would hardly have made you a household name.”

“Just shut up already. No matter how you try and justify it, there’s no excuse for the way you screwed with my head.”

Crystal Clear smiled. “I think we’re getting closer to what this is really about. You have to face the facts, Sunset. You know that I wasn’t responsible for those memories.”

“Shut up!” Sunset clamped her hands against her ears. “I don’t want to talk about that!”

“But that’s what it all comes back to, isn’t it? That’s what’s really important here.” Crystal Clear opened the door wider and motioned for Sunset to come in. Through the open doorway she could see the room was covered in drawings of ponies. “Tell me, Sunset; do you believe in Equestria?”

It was small, but Sunset felt it. As Crystal Clear finished his sentence, the world shook.

Sunset ran away again. She didn’t have an answer for him. She didn’t want to have an answer.

The weather outside had worsened again, the falling snow almost blocking out the sun. Even once she was out of the building, Sunset kept running. She didn’t know how long she ran for any more than she knew where she was running to, she just ran.

After a while, she found herself somewhere she didn’t recognize. After all the familiar sights, it struck her as a little odd. She was staring at a large maroon building, which curved in a U-shape. A horse statue stood in front of a courtyard. It was clearly a school, but not one Sunset recognized. All the same, it filled her with dread.

“What is this?” Sunset asked aloud.

“This is where the whole mess got started.”

Both the answer and the person who gave it should have surprised her, but neither did. Sunset just turned to Applejack as if she had been expected all along. “What do you mean?”

“This is as far back as you’ll let yourself go, but ya still gotta go deeper.” Applejack held out her hand. “It’s okay, though. No one ever said ya gotta do it alone.”

Sunset stared at Applejack’s hand for a moment, then she ignored it and walked towards the school. Applejack fell into step beside her.

“I don’t want your help,” Sunset reminded her.

“I know ya don’t.”

“So why are you still here?”

“Because whether ya want it or not, ya do need it.” Applejack gently placed a hand on Sunset’s shoulder. They stopped walking, and Applejack looked up into the sky. “Almost time.”

Sunset followed her line of sight to see the sun was going down. “What happens when it sets?”

Applejack looked at her for a moment, sadness showing on her face. “That’s not a question I can answer for you.”

Sunset didn’t say anything for a while. They both stood silently watching the sun set, with Applejack’s hand continuing to rest on Sunset’s shoulder. Something about the sight was supposed to be special, but she couldn’t place it. She was pretty sure that there was someone else she was supposed to be watching it with.

Applejack patted her roughly on the back. “Come on, we’re almost there.”

No longer able to find words to reply with, Sunset allowed Applejack to lead her closer to the statue. Every step filled her with dread, although she couldn’t have said why. When Sunset began lagging behind, Applejack stopped and offered her hand again. “Would ya just stop being so stubborn and let someone help ya out?”

It sounded so easy when Applejack said it, but it still felt easier to ignore her. Sunset pushed ahead, approaching the statue on her own.

The surface was reflective, and Sunset didn’t like what she saw. It was clearly herself in the reflection, but not as she was supposed to be. On the statue’s surface, she saw a amber-coloredunicorn wearing her features. While she was stuck frozen in place, she watched a little girl approach from behind her. Sunset turned to see Applejack, who was still adolescent outside of the reflection.

“It’s okay,” Applejack assured her. “You can do this.”

“No, I can’t,” Sunset said, her voice rapid and panicky. “I need to go, I can’t be here!” She scrambled away, eager to get anywhere else.

“Stop,” Applejack said, and Sunset stopped. “Listen.”

Sunset listened. She heard a vibrating sound, and felt the world move again.

“Hear that? She’s coming.”

“What!?” Sunset looked around in a panic, trying to find any sign of her. She wanted to run, but didn’t know where to run to.

“You have to face her, Sunset. It’s the only way to move on.”

“No! I won’t! I… I can’t!” The world vibrated again, and Sunset launched herself at Applejack, desperate to hold onto to anything that might help.

Applejack let Sunset bury her face into her shoulder, and wrapped her arms around her protectively. “Sunset?”

“What?” By this point, Sunset was desperate for any reassurance Applejack could give her.

As the other girl pulled Sunset closer, she let herself believe everything would be okay. Somehow, Applejack would make everything okay. She placed a hand on the back of Sunset’s head, guiding her so that her ear was right beside Applejack’s mouth. “She’s here.”


The vibrating didn’t stop when Sunset woke up. She pulled her blanket over her head and held it down as tightly as she could. Every few seconds a pulsation would come from underneath her, as that horrible vibrating noise resounded in her ears.

Silently, she prayed to something, anything, to make the noise stop, but it didn’t. It grew louder. The feeling grew so that the whole bed was vibrating, and then grew to be the whole world. The sound was all around her, filling the air.

Another sound, a distant memory. Unmistakable. A single hoofstep. It came from outside of her room. She prayed it would stay there.

Another.

And another.

They grew in volume as they picked up speed. Soon they formed a steady rhythm, moving ever closer. Always accompanied by the incessant vibrating.

Both sounds stopped when the hoofsteps were right outside of her room. Sunset tried to keep her breathing in check, terrified that she would be heard. It didn’t work.

The sound didn’t resume. Sunset knew better than to hope it was over, and braced herself for the second wave. It never came. Ever so carefully, she lifted the corner of her blanket to peek out.

The room was covered with darkness, with only some ambient light filtering in through the window. Sunset looked around for something out of the ordinary, but saw nothing.

She breathed a sigh of relief and took a moment for her breathing to return to normal. Although she still felt a little apprehensive, she sat up. Nothing jumped out at her, because there was nothing hiding. It was just a bad dream which had continued to feel real when she woke up. Nothing she hadn’t experienced countless times before.

Going back to sleep right away would just lead to another nightmare, so she got up and turned her light on. She winced at the light, but it made her realize exactly how ridiculous she had been.

Moreso for the short walk than any other reason, Sunset left her bedroom. She would have loved to waste some time in front of the computer or television, but it was the middle of the night so that was off limits. Most of the orphanage’s residents would be asleep, but there were still two overnight caretakers on staff in case the kids needed anything late at night. And, of course, to make sure they stayed in bed.

Without much else available for her to do, she walked down the hallway to the bathroom. Although Sunset hated mirrors, she took the time to check her reflection. The only thing that stared back was a tired looking girl, who should probably hurry up and get back to bed. Sunset smiled as she turned on the faucet, giving the water a moment to heat up. She reached a hand into the water to test it, and once it was warm enough, she leaned over the sink to splash some water onto her face.

As Sunset was rubbing her eyes, she heard it again. The same vibrating noise, and it was close. She jerked her head up and found herself staring into angry magenta eyes. Sunset yelled and took a step back, falling into the bathtub. When she looked again she only saw herself.

‘I’m just tired. I just need to get back to sleep.’ Sunet didn’t really believe that, but repeating it to herself was the best she could manage. She quickly pulled herself out of the bathtub, turned off the faucet, and made her way back to her room.

Although the thought of what she might find filled her with dread, Sunset forced herself to check her bedroom mirror as well. All she found in it was that she looked like an absolute mess.

‘She’s not real.’ Sunset didn’t even know if she believed that one.

Before she could get back to sleep, there was something she needed to check. She shifted her mattress and reached her arm into the hole in her box spring. Finding the pillowcase, she pulled the whole thing out. It was filled with things she didn’t want other people to see, like the half-full bottle of wine, as well as things she wanted to hide away from herself. That was what she was after this time. She pulled out a brown hardcover book with a yellow and red sun on the cover.

Setting the rest of the bag aside, Sunset sat down on the bed with the book. There was a time when she had poured over every word written in it, although she had long since stopped. Now there was only one page she ever turned to.

About halfway through the book, the pages became blank. Sunset flipped to the bookmarked page, the last one with writing. She turned to this page so much that she didn’t even need to read it anymore. She could recognize it exactly on sight, as if it contained a familiar portrait rather than text. She read it anyway.

I was thinking about that mirror, and I still can’t figure it out.

Sunset, I have told you already, you’ll learn about the mirror in due time.

And that was it. The final message between ‘Sunset Shimmer’ and ‘Princess Celestia’.

Everything about the book was bizarre. It was elaborately handwritten, with both characters having completely distinct handwriting. And yet, there was nothing special about most of the conversations. It was clearly a work of fiction, but with no real plot to follow.

And, of course, there were the memories. Sunset could remember things this other Sunset Shimmer had experienced, although it was plain that they were not one in the same. The book featured a fantastical setting, with magic unicorns and immortal princesses.

The book had plainly influenced Sunset to an enormous degree. She had been found with it in her possession, and the name ‘Sunset Shimmer’ was sewn into the bag that was also found with her. She had taken Sunset Shimmer’s name, and sometimes she felt like her entire life was controlled by the character.

It wasn’t hard to see what had happened, although Sunset had no idea why it had happened. She must have read the book as a child, when she would have found the idea of being a magic unicorn very appealing. Then, for whatever reason, she found herself lost without any memory of who she was. Being young and impressionable, she had adopted the mantle of her favorite character, and filled in the blanks with a story of her own creation.

She stared at the book and wondered why she didn’t just burn the damn thing. It had never done anything good for her, and maybe then she would be free from the nightmares. Free from her.

“Sunset Shimmer.”

Although the book in her hand never moved, Sunset could swear she felt a vibration. She dropped the book onto the floor and looked around wildly. Her eyes immediately fell onto the mirror, which showed nothing. Not her, not her bedroom, nothing at all.

A dim light appeared in the black pool that should have been her mirror, and the hoofsteps started again. This time she could tell it was not coming from outside her room, but rather from inside the mirror.

Sunset sat paralyzed with fear. The hoofsteps were close and getting closer, and there was nothing she could do. Whether from the book or from somewhere else, a horrible vibrating noise echoed loudly around her.

The noise stopped for half a moment, then she appeared. A white face with angry magenta eyes, staring at her from inside the mirror. Except it wasn’t a mirror, not anymore, and it wouldn’t hold her.

A long white foreleg reached out from the blackness, stepping on top of her dresser. Things got knocked to the floor as she brought herself into the world. Next came her head, prismatic hair trailing behind her.

“Sunset Shimmer.” Her voice was harsh as she came closer. A front hoof reached the wooden floor.

Sunset broke free of her paralysis and lunged to the edge of the bed, reaching for something, anything to defend herself with. She found something hard and she threw it. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see what would happen, and she heard glass breaking.

Then there was nothing. No hoofsteps, no vibrating, nothing.

When Sunset opened her eyes, she saw a pile of broken glass from where the mirror had been. She breathed a sigh of relief, until she realized exactly how loud the sound had been. And sitting in the middle of the glass was the book.

Acting without even thinking about what she was doing, Sunset leaped forward and grabbed the book. Somebody was sure to come running any minute, and she could not let them take that away from her. She felt a stinging in her hand as she grabbed it, but she ignored that. Without worrying about being careful and quiet, Sunset moved her mattress and shoved the book through the hole in the box spring.

The mattress was barely in place before her bedroom door opened. Sunset turned to find one of the overnight caretakers looking wide-eyed at her and the mess. “What the heck happened in here?”

“I can explain,” Sunset said, even though she wasn’t sure how she was going to manage that one. She lifted her hands in an apologetic gesture, and regretted it immediately when she realized one was bleeding.

The caretaker noticed as well. “Oh jeez… Here, let me look at it.” He stepped into the room, but stopped as his foot hit something that made a distinct clinking sound.

An overwhelming sense of hopelessness came over Sunset as he bent down and picked up the pillow case she had left out. All she could do was stare as he pulled out the bottle of wine.

12 – On Thin Ice

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Chapter Twelve

On Thin Ice

Why did Rose Petal have to talk with her anyway? Didn’t she realize that Sunset had already been lectured by the overnight staff? Couldn’t she just leave her alone? God knew that none of the caretakers took as much interest in her as Rose did.

But she had known what would happen from the moment that she had seen the overnight caretaker pick up the bottle. The broken glass was bad, but Sunset could explain that. The cut would even serve as a distraction. It was deep enough that she was taken to the hospital and received four stitches in her right palm, and everyone assumed that would be enough to teach her a lesson.

But the alcohol? That was another story. While her caretakers didn’t press too much about the mirror, they simply wouldn’t leave the alcohol alone. After six hours and a hospital trip, she was still trying to figure out how to explain it. It wasn’t like she could even use the awful ‘I’m just holding it for a friend’ excuse, because she didn’t have any friends.

Her careful control over what the adults at the orphanage knew about her was gone. Sure, they knew she skipped school sometimes, and once or twice she had been caught shoplifting a few small things. But the bigger stuff? The drinking, the manipulation, the general apathy towards every aspect of her life? She had been very careful to keep that hidden. As far as anyone could tell, she was a genuinely nice girl going through a rough time because of childhood trauma and puberty.

But now she had jeopardized all that, since her drinking habit was decidedly not within the confines of normal puberty behavior. And so, she found herself sitting across from Rose Petal and staring at the floor. Rose had asked her to explain herself, and was fixing Sunset with an expression that read ‘I’m waiting’.

“I didn’t mean to break the mirror.”

“Well, I should hope not.”

Sunset winced at the tone. “I had a, uhm… I was angry.” It was better to blame mood swings than to ever admit she still regularly had nightmares, and admitting to the hallucination was completely out of the question. The last thing she needed was to be treated like she was crazy. “I threw a book, but I didn’t mean to hit the mirror, that was an accident.”

Rose waited a moment, as if contemplating her response. “And why, exactly, did throwing a book seem like a good idea in the first place?”

“Like I said, I was angry.” Sunset lifted her head a little so that Rose could see her eyes, but she still didn’t look directly at her. “I’m really sorry, I promise I’ll be better, and –”

“Sunset,” Rose interrupted gently. They had barely started the lecture, and she was already beginning to sound more exhausted than angry. “I’m not worried about the mirror. I’m worried about you. Why are you so angry? Why won’t you come talk to me when you’re having problems?”

“I…” Sunset found herself at a loss for words. Taken off guard, she forgot to maintain her carefully controlled body language and found herself looking directly into Rose’s eyes. She had to turn away, there was too much hurt there. “I’m sorry…”

Rose sighed. “Sunset, I’m trying to help you, I really am. But you’ve just been so distant lately. I understand that you need your space, but these days it’s like you’re not happy unless you shut everyone out completely. And by the looks of it, you’re still not happy then, either.”

Sunset stared at the stitches in her hand and reflected on how wrong Rose was. Sunset had always been a terrible person, this was really nothing new. She just used to hide it better, back when she believed in Eq– when she was younger. “I’m just… I don’t know what to say.”

“It may have been a long time ago, but I was young once. I remember what it’s like, probably more than you think I do.”

If there was one thing Sunset was sure of, it was that Rose did not know what Sunset was going through. All she saw was a girl dealing poorly with the changes in her life. What would she know about feeling like an alien? How could she understand what it was like to never be sure if the world around her was real or not? How could someone like Rose Petal, someone who was so loved and adored by all the children she cared for, how could she possibly know what it was like to feel so alone, no matter how many other people were around?

“I know that, it’s just… I really don’t have anything to talk about.” When Rose didn’t reply immediately, Sunset added, “I’m sorry.”

Rose hesitated a moment. When she spoke again, her tone became more desperate. “I’m trying, Sunset, but you’re not making this easy. And now you’re drinking, of all things? Where did you even get the alcohol from?”

It was a good thing that Rose had waited so long to broach that topic. Sunset had an explanation ready to go. She would still be in trouble, of course, but she didn’t have to admit she stole it. Just say she bought it off some kid who swiped it from their parents. She had a list of kids who would be presumed guilty based on their own difficult history. “I found it.”

“You found it?” Rose asked incredulously. Sunset flinched, both at the sudden shift in her tone and at her own pitiful excuse. “Where did you find it? On a grocery store shelf?”

Sunset opened her mouth, realized she didn’t have a response worth making, and closed it again. Why hadn’t she just gone with sharing the blame?

“Do you even realize what you’re risking?”

“I know.” Sunset bit back a harsher reply, just because it was Rose. “Alcohol is dangerous, I know all that.”

“Well, I should hope so, although I do have to wonder if you realize how dangerous it can be for someone your age. But there’s more to it than that. You do know that I’m not solely in charge of what happens to you.”

Sunset frowned, wondering what she was getting at. “Yeah, I know.”

“And neither is New Horizons itself.” Rose folded her hands on the table and spoke matter-of-factly. “You are a ward of the state. That means that if it’s decided that we are not giving you the proper care, you will be placed somewhere else.”

“What?” Sunset sat up straight and her mouth fell open. “That’s ridiculous, Violet would never –”

“Mrs. Dusk is one of the only reasons you’re still here,” Rose stated resolutely. “She’s been adamant that the stability of a home like this one is the best thing for you. But there’s only so much we can do when you make things so difficult for us. How can we continue to claim to be in your best interest when you’re stealing and drinking alcohol?”

Sunset rose to her feet. “So… that’s it then? ‘Sorry, Sunset, but you’ve screwed up too big this time! You’re just not our problem anymore!’ ”

Rose waited for her to finish before speaking. “Return to your seat, Sunset.”

Reluctantly, Sunset obeyed, although she continued to fix Rose with a harsh glare.

“If Mrs. Dusk is one of the people advocating on your behalf, I should hope that by now you know who else is.” Rose matched her glare with a stern expression until Sunset folded her arms and turned away. “Even before this, it hasn’t been easy. Between your grades slipping and you gaining a record of petty theft, there’s already been talk about sending you somewhere else. A military boarding school has been suggested.”

“Who in the…” Sunset facepalmed. “The cops from the other day.”

“If I have any say in it, that won’t ever happen. But if things keep going this way, I won’t have any say in it.”

Sunset sunk into her chair. She didn’t want to leave New Horizons. She really didn’t want to go to a glorified boot camp. “Okay,” she said in a defeated tone. “This won’t happen again. I promise.”

“It had better not, for your own sake.” The edge was fading from Rose’s voice, and by the time she spoke again it was gone completely. “You should get some rest. You’ve been up half the night and you’re hurt. We can worry about school tomorrow.”

Sunset waited a few more moments before rising. She shuffled to the doorway, but stopped before going through. It occurred to her that despite all the apologies, none of them had been completely authentic. She turned back to Rose, and found she was looking elsewhere. ‘Oh well,’ she decided as she went through the door. ‘It doesn’t really matter anyway.’

No one spoke to her on the way back to her room, but that wasn’t too surprising. When Sunset had first started living in New Horizons, there were three caretakers that lived on the grounds, all of whom were older women who had lived there since it was common practice. Over the years, one of the others moved down south to live with her daughter, and the other moved into a nursing home. Now Rose was all that was left, and it was understood that her word was final. On paper, she was equal to any other caretaker, but everyone knew better in practice. It was her home, and the kids were her kids; everyone else just worked there.

The glass had been cleaned from her room, and the frame removed. There wasn’t a replacement mirror yet, and Sunset found she liked it much better that way. She wondered if she imagined it, or if some of her stuff had been moved around from where she’d left it. Of course it had, they’d probably searched every inch of her room. Not that it mattered. Everything that could have gotten her in trouble had been hidden in that one pillowcase.

“So stupid…” Sunset muttered to herself as she collapsed on the bed. She’d only thought to hide the book, which had been given to her in the first place. What did she honestly expect would happen if someone else had found it?

There wasn’t anything she could do about what had happened, though. She looked at her right hand, wondering how school was going to go without the ability to use it. At least there were only a few more days until winter break, and she should be healed enough to write by the time school was back in session. Two days, almost felt like there wasn’t a point in going for the rest of the semester. Of course, there was no chance she was getting out of it. Still, she had one more day off. With nothing else to do, she covered her face with a pillow and went to sleep.


It wasn’t surprising that no one bothered to ask why she had missed school. After all, she did skip fairly frequently – why would this absence stand out? But she was a little surprised when she got on the bus in the morning and Summer Rain was the only person to ask about the bandages on her hand. Sunset suspected it wasn’t out of concern for her acquaintance, but rather out of the hope that it was related to some sort of drama with another student. It was obvious she was disappointed when Sunset told her that she had just been reaching for something on a high shelf and grabbed a knife by accident.

It was the same once she arrived at school. The white bandages stood out against her skin, and yet no one said a word. But then again, who would? She had never cared to make any friends, so it wasn’t like her fellow students had any incentive to care about her well-being.

She walked into her history class and didn’t bother to ask the teacher about what work she missed. There wasn’t a real chance of pulling up her grade, anyway. She’d just get it up next semester.

She leaned back in her chair and prepared to be bored for the class period. Even if she wasn’t worried about the assignment, she had to at least pretend to pay attention. Doing anything that might get her into trouble was out of the question.

That was true no matter whom she was stuck sitting next to, unfortunately. Applejack smiled at her as she walked in, as if they had any reason to be happy to see one another. Sunset just averted her eyes.

Applejack took the same seat again. Sunset could have tried to get her to move, but doubted she would be successful. It was probably for the best if she just ignored the annoyance.

“Hey, Sunset. You doin’ okay?”

“I’d be doing better if you left me alone.” Sunset shot her a quick disinterested look, then went back to ignoring her.

Applejack maintained her casual smile. “Well, I’m doing great, thanks for asking.” When Sunset didn’t say anything, Applejack continued. “You, uh, hurt your hand?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “No, it’s a fashion statement.”

“Right, dumb question. Suppose that must be why you weren’t in class yesterday.”

Sunset made an affirmative noise, but didn’t offer any other explanation.

“Well anyway, I wanted to apologize for the day before.”

“Don’t care.” Sunset was marginally curious why Applejack felt the need to apologize, but saying so would open up conversation.

Which didn’t really matter because Applejack told her anyway. “I shoulda just been honest ‘bout rememberin’ you from the get go. I just thought ya might not appreciate the reminder, considering it wasn’t really such a good day.”

“Yeah, well, it didn’t stop you from reminding me anyway.” Nor had the reminder even been necessary since Sunset hadn’t had any problems remembering without it.

“Right, which is the other reason I’m sorry.” Applejack extended her hand to shake Sunset’s, offering her left hand so she wouldn’t agitate Sunset’s injury. “What d’ya say we just put all that behind us and start over?”

Sunset shot Applejack a sideways glance and ignored her hand. “ ‘Cause we got off to such a great start even before all that.”

Applejack remained quiet while the rest of the class filed in, although Sunset never suspected she was giving up. Since there were only two days left before winter break, Globe Trotter gave them a simple open book assignment that had similar questions to what would be on their test the next day.

And much to Sunset’s horror, he let them work in groups. Sure enough, Applejack turned towards her as soon as he had finished giving the instructions. But rather than begin on the assignment, she started looking through her backpack. After a moment, she pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Sunset. “Here, I got this for ya when I saw ya weren’t in class yesterday.”

Sunset took the paper and saw it was an assignment, likely the one she had missed the day before. She set it off to the side. “You shouldn’t have bothered.

Apparently misunderstanding her, Applejack smiled. “Aww, it wasn’t a big deal.”

“I mean, I’m not doing it anyway.”

“Oh. Well, uh, alright then.” Applejack scratched the back of her neck. “I’ve been working on our project. Maybe after school we could –”

“Applejack.” Sunset turned to face her. This was getting ridiculous. “I’m not doing the project. I have no idea why you decided to partner up with me on it, but you can just keep working on it by yourself. Or don’t, I really couldn’t care less. Hell, maybe Globe Trotter will give you extra credit for doing the whole thing alone. But in any case, it’s really not my problem.”

At least she didn’t look hurt by Sunset’s apathy, although she definitely was starting to lose her optimistic edge. It was almost a shame she had to be so cheerful all the time; when she folded her arms and adopted a scowl, Sunset had to admit she pulled off the tough look pretty well. “You like this with everyone?”

“Most people know well enough to just leave me alone.”

“Okay, so ya don’t care ‘bout me. Guess I really can’t take that personally ‘cause from the sound of it, ya don’t really seem to care ‘bout anyone. But don’t ya at least care what your grade is?”

Why was she so damn stubborn? Sunset sighed. “Counting the project and today’s assignment as a zero, I have a fifty-six percent F in this class right now. Once I ace the test tomorrow, I’ll have a sixty-two percent D, which is enough wiggle room that even if I miss some answers, I’ll be more than covered. Not that I’ve ever actually gotten a question wrong, but you know. Anyway, a D is a passing grade, so it doesn’t really matter, but let’s just say I do care about getting something better. If I had done a few other assignments I had skipped before now, I’d have a C easily enough. But at this point, if I did the project and today’s assignment, I’d wind up with a sixty-eight or sixty-nine percent D, depending on how he rounds it.”

“So you’re screwed either way, is what you’re sayin’.”

Sunset smirked. “You could say that. Of course, I also don’t care.”

Applejack turned to face forward. “That’s great and all, but you’re wrong.”

It had almost been enough. Sunset could feel it, Applejack had almost given up on her. “Save the ‘work ethic’ speech. I really don’t give a shit.”

“No, there’s a way ya could get a C, you’re just too dead set on not doin’ anything to see it.”

“Whatever.” Sunset rested her head on her chin and faced away from Applejack. She tried to not care, she really did, but her curiosity got the better of her. “What do you mean.”

It was clear Applejack knew she finally had something. She pointed to the paper still sitting on Sunset’s desk. “So what’ll ya have if you do the project, today’s assignment, and that?”

Sunset frowned at the paper, mentally cursing its existence. She quickly did the math in her head. “Son of a bitch.”

Applejack grinned. “So what do you say, partner?”

Sunset turned to Applejack slowly, staring at her with more malice than she realized she even possessed. No one had proved Sunset wrong since, well, ever. At best, people could catch her in the act of something she wasn’t supposed to be doing, or expose a lie she told to cover it, but she couldn’t recall ever being outright wrong about something. “Fine. You’re right. Happy?”

“Now, now, there ain’t no reason to be like that. Here, I’ll help.”

“I’ll do it all myself.” Sunset pulled a pen out from her backpack and started to write. The wound prevented her from holding the pen normally, so her handwriting was an absolute mess. She figured Globe Trotter could deal with it. At least she didn’t need to bother with a book, answering every question from memory.

It should have taken her less than ten minutes to finish, but it wound up taking fifteen. Unable to do anything else, she set it aside and prepared to start on the next task.

“So I got through these questions here,” Applejack said, showing Sunset what she had done.

“That’s great, but I really need to focus.” Sunset ignored Applejack to look at the clock. She was running out of time.

“Uh, Sunset? He said we could work in pairs.”

“And I said I’d do everything myself.”

“Now that just don’t make no sense.” Applejack also glanced at the clock. “You do realize we spent half the class bickering already, right?”

“Which means I really need to get to work.”

“No, it means we really don’t have time to keep arguing.” As Sunset tried to reply, Applejack held up a finger to silence her. “Now don’t even start with it. Ya know both of us are too hard headed to not argue ‘bout it, so the only options ya got left are to work with me, or to not get this assignment done.”

Sunset gritted her teeth. Applejack was undeniably right. “I hate you. So. Fucking. Much.”

“Right, you work on the odd questions, I’ll do the even ones.”

The worst thing about it was how Applejack seemed impervious to any hostility Sunset could throw at her. She fumed all the way through the assignment. She took some solace in the fact that she worked much faster than Applejack, even with her injury; Sunset finished her half, then answered a few questions of Applejack’s. Still, Applejack’s head start meant they each did around half, and they still finished just in time, leaving Sunset with no choice but to admit that she wouldn’t have finished quickly enough on her own. Applejack had been right. Again.

Globe Trotter was completely shocked when Applejack and Sunset turned in the assignment with both their names on it. He skimmed their paper, likely to make sure that they had both worked on it. But given the state of Sunset’s handwriting, there was no denying that each girl had done her fair share.

At the end of class, they walked out side by side. “So, where do ya wanna meet up for the project?” Applejack asked.

Sunset sighed. “Look. You were right in class. But I can still do this project on my own.”

“It’s a group assignment,” Applejack pointed out. “I have a stake in this, too.”

“Fine. If it’ll get you off my case, I’ll put your name on it too.”

“Nope, not cuttin’ it.”

Sunset shrugged. “Maybe you weren’t paying attention back there, but I really do know what I’m doing when I actually decide to do something. Relax, this is an easy ‘A’ for you.”

“It ain’t that, it’s just, well…” Applejack scratched the back of her neck. “It wouldn’t be honest, ya know?”

“So?” Sunset arched an eyebrow. “It’s not like Globe Trotter’s gonna give us an interrogation about it.”

Applejack watched as students made their way to their next class. Sunset knew she wanted to argue, but they were running out of time. “Just… do what ya want. But leave my name off it, I’ll just tell Mr. Trotter I didn’t work on it.”

Applejack started walking away, and Sunset could scarcely believe she was following after her. “What? No. I can’t do that.”

“Why not? It’s like you said, he might even give ya extra credit for it.”

“No, he might give you extra credit for it. I might get a phone call about my ‘anti-social behavior’. Again.”

Applejack stopped and smirked at Sunset. It was an expression she recognized completely, although it was usually Sunset who wore it. The smug expression of someone who knew they were getting just what they wanted. “Sounds like you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. I’m only taking credit for it if I actually helped with it, so we can work together, or you can risk that phone call.”

The warning bell went off, informing students they only had another minute to get to class. Sunset balled up her fist and clenched her teeth, but she was out of time, and she was out of options. “Fine. Meet me in the front courtyard after school.”

Applejack gave a friendly wave as she walked off. “Will do. See ya later, partner.”


There was always talk in the courtyard. Most of it was uninteresting – people discussing classes, or what their plans for the rest of the day were. But there were some interesting things to hear, if one knew where to look. Of course, no one would ever discuss their own secrets somewhere so public, but other people’s secrets? Lips were much looser where that was concerned. And there was one rumor going around that pleased Sunset more than anything else could.

“Did you hear about the new girl?”

“You mean about how she slept with her cousin?”

“I heard it was her brother.”

Sunset just smiled to herself. She knew by now Applejack must’ve heard the rumors as well, and she clearly hadn’t been able to stop them. As Applejack took her time meeting up with Sunset, she entertained herself by imagining what expression she’d have once they did meet up. Would she be embarrassed? Angry? Trying to maintain an air of indifference?

Out of all the possibilities, Sunset hadn’t expected blissfully ignorant. And yet, that was the only explanation for Applejack’s smile as she approached. Meanwhile, Sunset’s smile completely vanished. It seemed Applejack had to ruin everything.

As she approached, Sunset noticed she was holding something in each hand. She offered one to Sunset. “Figured we should probably start with lunch, seein’ as we’ll be workin’ all day to get caught up.”

Sunset looked down at the hot dog, then back up at Applejack. “I’ll pass.”

“I know school lunch gets a bad rep, but they really ain’t so bad.” To demonstrate, Applejack took a bite out of one of them.

“Good thing you like them so much, ‘cause it looks like you’re eating two of them.”

Applejack sighed. “You… really can’t accept someone trying to be nice, can you?”

Sunset frowned and looked away. “Whatever. Can we just get this over with?”

“Right.” Applejack took another bite from the hotdog, then continued talking as she ate. “So where ya wanna do this? Your place or mine?”

Even just imagining what everyone at New Horizons would do if Sunset brought a classmate home with her made her stomach turn. “My place is out of the question.”

“Alright.” Applejack nodded as she swallowed her food. “So we can go to my house.”

“No!” Sunset answered quickly. Even Applejack was caught off guard by how forceful her answer was. Embarrassed, Sunset put her hands in her jacket pocket and turned away. “We can go to the library.”

Applejack blinked away her confusion. “Uh… sure, I guess.” She gestured towards the front office and started walking, with Sunset following behind. “Suppose we ought to call home and let our families know where we’re at.”

On any other day, Sunset probably wouldn’t have bothered. No one ever really questioned where she was as long as she was back before dinner, so why bother updating them? But given the events of the past few days, she decided she would be better off if she went along with it.

As they walked to the office building, Sunset constantly expected Applejack to try and start a conversation. Perhaps it was just because she couldn’t think of anything to say, but the short walk remained blissfully quiet. Sunset could only hope the rest of the day would follow suit.

“Hello, girls,” the office secretary said as they entered the building. “What can I do for you?”

“Hello, ma’am,” Applejack said brightly. “We were hopin’ we could use the phone to call our families and tell ‘em we’re goin’ to the library.”

“No problem.” The secretary handed Applejack a corded phone, then typed in the phone number Applejack gave her.

“Big Mac? It’s AJ.” There was a pause that lasted longer than a simple greeting really warranted. “Can ya let Granny know that I won’t be comin’ straight home? I gotta –” Another pause, this one even longer. Applejack held the phone away from her mouth and sighed. From the few things Sunset could make out, it sounded like he was lecturing her about not being home to do her chores.

“Big Mac,” she said eventually, as he continued to drone on. It might have been a bad idea, as it only seemed to make him switch to lecturing her about interrupting. Applejack mouthed an apology to the secretary, who waved off her concerns. When he finally stopped talking, Applejack quickly took the time to add in, “It’s for a school assignment.” Whatever he said caused Applejack to facepalm. “I was tryin’ to say that the whole time! Anyway, just let Granny know, okay?”

“Real sorry ‘bout that,” Applejack said when she got off the phone. “I swear my brother never lets anyone get a word in…”

“No need to apologize.” The secretary turned to Sunset. “And for you?”

Sunset gave her the New Horizons phone number and waited as an automated voice came on “If you know your party’s extension, enter it at any time. To speak with someone about making an appointment, press –”

“Dial ‘three’,” Sunset told the secretary. She stared away from Applejack, aware of how odd it probably seemed to have to dial an extension when calling home.

The phone rang again, and shortly after a real person answered the phone. “You’ve reached the New Horizons Home for Children. How can I help you?”

“Hey, this is Sunset Shimmer.” She carefully avoided saying the name of the guy who answered so that Applejack would be less likely to ask any questions. “I’m going to the library to work on a project for school. Just letting you know so you don’t freak out about me or anything.”

Even over the phone, Sunset could tell the New Horizon’s secretary was hesitant. On the one hand, he couldn’t possibly deny her the chance to do something for school. On the other, he probably didn’t believe her after the other day. “A project this late in the semester?”

“It’s mostly done,” Sunset lied. “We just need to finish it up before tomorrow.”

“And you can’t work on it here?”

“No, it’s a group assignment.”

A notable pause as he weighed his options. “Well… Okay, I guess. I’ll let Ms. Rose know. Just be back before dinner.”

Sunset smirked. “Trust me, I don’t plan on being out later that I have to be.”

She handed back the phone and turned to Applejack. “Ready?”

“Yup.” Applejack nodded and turned to the secretary. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome. And good luck on your project.”

Applejack waved as they left the building. Sunset didn’t bother.

The fear that Applejack would try to start a conversation had only grown following Sunset’s phone call. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Sunset lived in an orphanage; four other kids from New Horizons did go to Everfree Middle School, after all. But since it wasn’t a secret, it wasn’t something that kids often talked about. It was unlikely that Applejack knew, and Sunset wanted it to stay that way.

When she inevitably did speak, it wasn’t about the phone call. “So what do you usually do for fun?”

Sunset shrugged. “I don’t know. Just stuff, I guess. I think my favorite thing to do is probably mind my own business.”

Applejack frowned. “Ya know, it really wouldn’t hurt ya to try and be friendly, seein’ as we’re doing this thing together one way or the other anyway.”

“We really don’t have to,” Sunset reminded her. “I can do it myself.”

“I never said ya couldn’t. But I ain’t backing down, so maybe we could just try and get along for the rest of the day?”

It was as if Sunset was a small child again. Somebody else had decided they should be friends, and she was expected to just go along with it. “Sounds like something you should’ve thought of before forcing us into this partnership.”

“Would ya feel better if I apologized for that, too?” Applejack sounded doubtful, so at least she was starting to learn better.

“Not really.” Sunset shrugged. “And since I’m not going to buddy up with you, we’d probably just be better off keeping to ourselves as much as possible.”

Applejack looked like she was going to protest, which was what Sunset had expected. But through some miracle, she didn’t. “Fine. Have it your way.”

The library wasn’t too far from the school in normal conditions, but trudging through the snow lengthened the process. The whole way, Applejack continued her stubborn silence while Sunset kept her persona as frigid as the weather. If they could just keep that level of interaction for the rest of the day, Sunset would accept it as a victory.

The situation could actually wind up working to her benefit, Sunset realized as they walked. At the rate things had been going, she would be forced to continuously deal with Applejack’s attempts to make some sort of connection between them, with no telling when Applejack might give up. But while being partners would be torturous, the extended time together would hopefully make Applejack realize that there was no way the two of them could ever be friends.

If Applejack was feeling anything like Sunset was, she might actually have a chance. By the time they arrived at the library, Applejack had become the second worst part of the experience, having been removed from the top spot by the winter wonderland all around them.

The library was warm and comforting. It was one of Sunset’s favorite places, especially in the winter. Without friends or money, her entertainment options were always limited, but the library was always an affordable destination that didn’t require anyone else to help her enjoy herself.

In fact, she was finding that being with someone else actively made her enjoy the place less. And unfortunately, Applejack also enjoyed the warmth. She grinned and stretched her arms out as they walked in. “Now that’s more like it. Not that I mind the snow, but there’s nothing like walking into a warm building after bein’ out in the cold.”

Although she completely agreed, Sunset just shrugged to maintain her air of indifference. “I guess.”

“Well if it isn’t the bookworm,” a librarian said, cutting off Applejack before she could reply.

Sunset turned and smiled at the librarian, waving as she walked over. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Keeping warm in here?”

“I’m managing alright.” The librarian smiled at Applejack, who was looking at Sunset as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Is this a friend of yours?”

“Yeah. We’re working on a project for school.” Sunset might’ve warned Applejack not to say otherwise, but she could tell there was no need. While Applejack might have some sort of ridiculous moral code that didn’t allow her to get a free grade, she was also so caught up on the idea of breaking through Sunset’s harsh attitude that she would jump at the chance to play at being friends.

“Pleased to meet ya, ma’am,” Applejack said.

“Likewise. I suppose you two will need access to a computer then?”

“Yes, please,” Sunset said in an overly sweet voice.

The librarian typed a few things on her keyboard, then turned back to the two girls. “You’re all set up for terminal two. Take as much time as you need.”

Sunset grinned. “Thanks a bunch. You’re the best, you know that?”

She chuckled and waved the kids off. “Oh, you. Alright then, you two better get to work.”

After thanking her again, Sunset led them towards the computers. She knew what was coming, and only hoped Applejack would be quiet about it.

“The heck was that about?” Applejack asked as they reached a table with a row of computers on it.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Applejack, please. This is a library, so you’ll have to keep your voice down.” She sat down in front of the computer marked ‘2’ and folded her hands on the desk. “What, were you raised in a barn or something?”

“Ha ha,” Applejack deadpanned as she sat down next to Sunset. “Never heard that one before. But seriously, that didn’t even seem like you over there.”

“Have you used the library computers before?” Sunset asked.

“No way, you’re not changing the subject this time,” Applejack said, completely missing Sunset’s attempt at setting up her explanation. “Why were you so nice to her, but ya can’t hardly stand to be around anyone else?”

Sunset opened up a word processor on the computer and filled out the paper’s header as she talked. She made sure to put her name before Applejack’s. “That’s not entirely true. I’m completely indifferent to most people, just like they’re indifferent to me. You’re just special, and it’s because you can’t stop sticking your nose in my business.”

“Well, sorry for tryin’ to be friendly.”

The sight of Applejack’s increasing frustration caused Sunset to grin. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll forgive you, so long as you promise to never do it again.”

Applejack held her face in her hands and let out a long sigh. When she looked up, she no longer looked optimistic, or even upset. She just looked worn out, and Sunset knew she had won. “Let’s just get the damn assignment over with.”

Unable to resist, Sunset kept pushing. “Ooh, swearing. Sure your morals allow for that sort of thing?”

A frustrated glare was the only answer she got. It set the tone for their work, as neither girl said more than was necessary. Which didn’t turn out to be very much at all. Sunset barely needed to check references, even if history had always been her worst subject. For her, ‘worst subject’ just meant she excelled less than the others. At least the computer was slightly more manageable than a pen, since she didn’t need to bed her palm so much.

In fact, Applejack was really left with nothing to do. She would occasionally ask how she could help, but Sunset was never able to come up an answer. There really wasn’t a point, when she knew everything so well herself.

An hour passed, and Applejack had given up asking. She was idly flipping through a book as Sunset finished another page. “A third done,” she announced, more to herself than Applejack.

“That so?” Applejack muttered. She looked around and stood up. “Let’s go for a walk real quick.”

Sunset jerked her head away from the screen to give Applejack an incredulous look. “Are you serious? It’s freezing out there. Besides, I’ve still got to finish this.”

Applejack folded her arms. “Yeah, I’m serious. We gotta talk, and we can’t do it in here.” She smirked. “It’s a library, so we’d have to keep our voices down.”

Sunset was already turning back to the computer. “This again? Give me one reason why I should care.”

“ ‘Cause if ya do, then I’ll go home and leave you alone. I’ll find a new seat in class and everything. You can leave my name on the paper if it’ll help ya out, I won’t say a word.”

Well, that was one hell of a reason. Without saying anything, Sunset saved her work and stood up as well. She left her stuff by the computer as she walked off, stopping only to inform the librarian she’d be back shortly.

The cold hit her as soon as she stepped through the door, and she began shivering immediately. She turned to Applejack to get it over with. “So… What’s up?”

“Look, I get that you don’t want to be friends. Just…” Applejack shook her head and held out her arms. “Why are you so hostile about it?”

Sunset scowled. “I came out here for this? I literally just told you, it’s because you’re so damn pushy. I would’ve been perfectly fine with dropping things at any point if you would’ve left me alone.”

“I don’t believe that.” Applejack gestured back towards the library. “You can’t just pretend like you hate everyone when I just saw you can get along with other people just fine.”

“Because other people can stay out of my way. Really, what part of this are you not getting?”

Applejack folded her arms and stared her down for a moment. “Be honest with me here. This is about when we were kids, ain’t it?”

“No,” Sunset insisted through clenched teeth. “You’re perfectly capable of being obnoxious all on your own.”

“You sure about that? Because I –”

“I answered your damn question!” Sunset began losing sight of her end goal. She just wanted Applejack to leave. They were not discussing that.

Applejack lingered for a few more moments. At first she looked like she might argue, but eventually she sighed and walked off. “Fine. But, well… let me know if you ever change your mind.”

Why did she have to be so stupidly optimistic? Even as she was walking away, Applejack was still hoping they could be friends. Why couldn’t she just hate Sunset as much as Sunset hated her? Why did she ever have to come back into Sunset’s life in the first place?

Everything she did just made Sunset angry. Sunset hated the way Applejack wouldn’t leave her alone. The way Applejack acted like she needed help. The way Applejack reminded her of a part of herself she wanted to forget.

Without paying attention to what she was doing, Sunset grabbed a handful of snow. The cold stung her hand, but she ignored that. She balled it up, and threw it at Applejack. It broke apart on Applejack’s back, causing her to stop suddenly. By the time she spun around, Sunset had already made a second one, which she again threw at the other girl.

“Now that’s just childish!” Applejack snapped as she brushed snow off of herself. “I was leaving you alone, like ya wanted. Ain’t no need to –” A third snowball cut off her train of thought. “Alright, that’s it.”

When Applejack returned fire with a snowball of her own, Sunset finally lost whatever semblance of self-restraint she had maintained. She broke into a run, chasing Applejack down. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do once she caught her, but she knew Applejack was going to regret ever getting involved with her.

That is, if she could catch her. Applejack started running herself, and it was immediately apparent that she was faster. Cursing herself for not exercising more, Sunset pushed herself with everything she had. They ran around the side of the library, but Sunset never managed to close in.

Applejack noticed the difference in their speed as well, but she didn’t use it to make her escape. Instead, she would occasionally stoop down to grab handfuls of snow and make snowballs, which she’d lob blindly back at Sunset. The first two missed her completely, but she got lucky with the third one.

Certain that the momentary slowdown would be enough to let Applejack get away, Sunset still wouldn’t give up. If she couldn’t catch Applejack, she would do the only option available to her. As she ran, she scooped up some snow and formed another snowball. Since Applejack was in front of her, she had a much easier target.

Unfortunately, that didn’t improve the fact that she was growing exhausted on top of her already mediocre aim. The snowball flew past Applejack’s ear, and when she turned back, she was grinning. “You’ll have to do better than that!”

“Bitch,” Sunset muttered under her breath. Applejack rounded the corner to the back of the library, and Sunset put everything she had into catching up.

Instead, she ran right past Applejack, who had stopped as soon as she was out of view. As Sunset wheeled around to correct the mistake, Applejack took the time to throw a few perfectly aimed snowballs. Sunset began backing up, so Applejack advanced.

Deciding her best bet was to break away and form a strategy, Sunset turned and fled. Applejack gave chase, and proved more apt at throwing snowballs when running than Sunset had been. About half her snowballs hit Sunset, and she threw a lot of them.

But Sunset could tell she was making a mistake. Applejack was too concerned with hitting her, more so than she was with giving chase. Since Sunset wasn’t trying to throw any of her own, she was actually managing to build some distance between the two of them.

Sunset ran back to the front of the library, and used the parking lot to her advantage. It had been cleared of snow, so Applejack wasn’t distracted by making snowballs, but Sunset already had gained enough of a head start. She weaved in between cars, hiding her body as well as she could. She knew she was successful when the snowballs stopped coming, but looked back to make sure.

No sign of Applejack, so she made a mad dash towards a bush that would be the perfect spot. It would provide cover, while allowing her access to snow to make more ammunition. She dropped to her knees, sliding into place behind the bush.

Quickly skimming the parking lot showed no sign of Applejack, but Sunset knew she’d be around somewhere. Determined to be ready for her whenever she showed up, Sunset began making snowballs, piling them up so she could unleash a torrent of frosted fury.

When the pile contained maybe a dozen snowballs, she heard Applejack. Unfortunately, she was much closer than Sunset had expected, and hadn’t approached from the parking lot at all. “Gotcha!” Applejack said from right behind her.

Sunset spun around in time to get hit by a close range snowball. She tried to stand, but slipped on the snow underfoot. The snow cushioned her landing, but Applejack seized the opportunity, running over to Sunset and laughing as she shoved a pile of snow on top of her.

And Sunset laughed too. She had lost a contest that she had never meant to participate in, and yet she was laughing. She didn’t even know when her attempt to catch Applejack had turned into a game, but she wound up having more fun than she’d had in ages. Maybe more fun than she’d had in her entire life.

Applejack piled more snow on top of her, before she herself collapsed on top of Sunset.

“Applejack, what the hell?” Sunset said as she laughed. She tried to wriggle out, but it was hopeless. Whatever Applejack did to help out around Sweet Apple Acres hadn’t just made her faster than Sunset, she was stronger too.

“I’ll let ya up once you admit it.” Applejack looked down at her and grinned. “Ain’t nobody better at snowball fights than me.”

“Fine, you win. You’re the snowball champion of the world. Now get off!”

True to her word, Applejack got off of Sunset. When she offered her had to Sunset, she accepted it, allowing Applejack to help her up.

They both sat in the snow as Sunset brushed off her torso. Since Sunset hadn’t landed any snowballs in some time, Applejack was mostly snow free, with only a few stray flakes clinging to her hair and clothes.

They didn’t talk at first, each of them still catching their breath. While they sat in silence, Sunset grabbed one of her premade snowballs and threw it at a stop sign. She didn’t even come close to hitting it. Applejack picked up a snowball for herself, repacked it in her hand a bit, then took a shot for herself.

“Show off,” Sunset said once it smashed into the sign.

Applejack grinned and picked up another one, again repacking it. “You made ‘em too fast. If they’re not round, they won’t go straight.” She held the reformed snowball out to Sunset. “Try that one.”

Sunset took the snowball, aimed, and threw it. It still missed, but not by as much. She frowned until Applejack said, “See? That was much better.”

Adopting a cocky grin, Sunset shrugged it off. “Well, I didn’t exactly have the time to make them perfect.”

“I ain’t complainin’,” Applejack said with a wink. “You’re the one covered in snow.”

Sunset almost retaliated with her own comeback, but ended up just shrugging it off. “I guess that’s a fair point.” She grabbed another snowball and took the time to smooth out the worst of the imperfections. Once she was satisfied, she threw it.

“Nice shot,” Applejack said as it hit the stop sign.

Sunset grinned at the compliment, but it was short lived. What was she even doing? She hated the snow, and she hated Applejack. She had to clear things up, or else Applejack would keep insisting they spend time together. “Look, Applejack… I know you’re just trying to be nice, but I really don’t want…” That wasn’t exactly the point, was it? This wasn’t about what Sunset did or didn’t want. “You really don’t want to be friends with someone like me.”

“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting you’re this dangerous bad girl who I need to leave alone.” Applejack smirked. “Ya know, when you’re not being nice to librarians.”

Sunset looked down at the ground. She’d already tried to explain why she acted nice towards the librarian, but suddenly she found she didn’t want to. There was a part of her that no longer wanted to admit the worst parts of her personality to Applejack. Which was exactly why it was so important; if she didn’t make Applejack understand soon, she might lose the ability to do so.

“It’s because of the computers,” Sunset explained. “There’s supposed to be an hour time limit on using them, but it’s really up to the librarians. So if it’s not too busy and the librarian likes you enough, you can usually stay on as long as you want.”

“Huh.” Applejack considered it for a moment. “I guess that’s kinda smart.”

Sunset frowned. “Don’t you think it’s a little selfish?”

Applejack hesitated a moment, and Sunset could imagine she was choosing her words carefully. “I guess a little. But, well, you’re not hurting anyone, you know?”

No, but the same couldn’t be said for everything else Sunset did. “Why are you trying so hard to get me to open up, anyway?”

Applejack looked Sunset in the eyes, and didn’t show a trace of her stubborn optimism. “Because you really haven’t changed a bit since we were little.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I can tell that you’re still hiding away from things that ya don’t like.”

“Okay, fine!” Sunset folded her arms and scowled. “I didn’t want to go to your house because I’m fucking scared of horses.”

Applejack scratched her neck and grinned sheepishly. “Well, that ain’t really what I meant, but I suppose that’s good to know. I thought it had something to do with that stupid rumor going around school.”

Sunset felt her throat tighten up. “I, uh… I guess you did hear about that then.”

“It’d be kinda hard not to. Everfree kids always gossip like that?”

“Yeah, it’s… kinda a problem.” More to the point, Sunset was a problem. Gossip was one of the ways she controlled secrets, and by extension, controlled her fellow students. “But, you know, winter break is coming up. Everyone will probably forget about it by the time school’s back in session.”

Applejack smiled. “Yeah, guess ya got a point there.”

Sunset considered admitting to starting the rumor. She wasn’t sure why, though. Did she want to drive the point home, to remind Applejack that they shouldn’t be friends? Did she actually want Applejack to forgive her? And if so, was there any chance of that actually happening? Maybe she just wanted Applejack to be as angry with her as Sunset was with herself.

No matter what Applejack thought, there were some things that were better off staying secret. Nothing good could come from telling the truth, so Sunset held it inside along with the guilt.

Applejack took no notice of Sunset’s internal struggle. “Anyway, when I said you’re the same as you were when we first met, I didn’t really mean that you’re actually hiding from anything. More so that you just don’t, well… Ya didn’t really want to let me help ya then, either. Back then, I didn’t really know anything ‘bout what ya might’ve felt like, but now… well, let’s just say now I know what it’s like to wanna just shut yourself away from everything. But… I also know that it doesn’t really help. I have no idea what your life is like, so I won’t try and say what ya should or shouldn’t do. Just… you don’t have to do it alone, ya know?”

Sunset looked into Applejack’s face. She was smiling, but she didn’t look happy. It took Sunset a moment to place the emotion, as it wasn’t something people normally showed her. It was reassurance, Applejack’s silent promise that things could be okay.

“Yeah, well, I’m not holding your fucking hand, if that’s what you’re after,” Sunset said as she stood up.

“Think I’ll manage okay without that part,” Applejack said with a smirk.

Sunset helped Applejack up. They brushed as much snow off of themselves as they could, then Applejack took a look at the sun. “I reckon you should probably get back to your assignment, if ya wanna get it done today.”

Sunset chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll get you that A, don’t worry.”

“Hmm?” For a moment, Applejack seemed genuinely confused. “Oh yeah, I never mentioned. I don’t have to do the assignment at all. Mr. Trotter said he’d mark it complete no matter what I did, seein’ as I wasn’t here for most of the semester, and, er… because I’m working with you.”

Although Applejack looked embarrassed to admit the last part, Sunset couldn’t care less about that. “So why the fuck are you even doing it?”

Applejack shrugged, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. “Well, you still need to get it done.”

Sunset sighed. “You’re hopeless. Completely and utterly hopeless. You’re just going to let people like me walk all over you.”

“I’ll take my chances.” Applejack clapped her on the back. “Anyway, I’ll get out of your way now, like I said. See you in school tomorrow.”

Sunset watched as Applejack started walking away again. The day could have gone a lot better. Even though Applejack had said she’d leave Sunset alone in school too, Sunset had probably screwed that up. Now she was cold, and wet, and exhausted, and worst of all, she was considering giving Applejack another chance.

It would have been easier to just go into the library and deal with whatever consequences when they came. But when she turned to look at the building, then back at Applejack, she realized that wasn’t happening. Regretting it even as she did, Sunset called out to Applejack before she could get too far.

“What are you, stupid?”

Applejack stopped and turned around. She looked surprised at the question.

“Look, it’s not like I really fucking care, but you’re going to get hypothermia if you walk home cold and wet.” Sunset broke eye contact and muttered the rest of her response. At least the cold temperature would mask her blush. “You should, you know, come back to the library. Just to get warmed up before you go.”

Although she didn’t look up to see Applejack’s response, Sunset did hear the footsteps getting closer. “I suppose that sounds like it’d be a good idea. But I ain’t sitting around just to watch you work.”

“Fine,” Sunset relented, then led the way back to the library. The warm air was even more welcome than before, especially since their coats were too wet to keep on. At least the chairs were plastic, so they didn’t have to worry too much about their wet pants.

“So, what’s the best way to go about doin’ this?” Applejack asked.

Sunset examined the bandages on her hand. It didn’t hurt, but that was probably only because it was numb. “Can you type it? I’m probably better off not using my hand.”

“Sure thing. It’s not hurtin’ you too bad, is it?”

“No, it’s not a big deal. I shouldn’t leave the wet bandage on, though.” Sunset rifled through her backpack until she found a roll of self-adhering bandaging. Setting it aside, she unwound the bandage.

“Jesus, what happened?”

Sunset flexed her fingers and examined the stitching. It really didn’t even look bad. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Pretty sure they don’t go giving out stitches unless it is a big deal,” Applejack pointed out. “But if ya don’t want to say, you don’t have to.”

Before Sunset could do it herself, Applejack was already unwinding the bandage. Her first instinct was to protest, but she resisted it. It was hard enough wrapping the bandage one-handed, let alone with her left hand.

“I cut myself on a broken mirror. I was picking up something else, and didn’t notice the piece of glass.” When she returned to school, Sunset hadn’t planned on telling anyone what really happened. But once she actually said it out loud, she had to wonder why not. It was a perfectly reasonable explanation.

“Wish ya would’ve said something sooner. Could’ve had me doing more of the writing and stuff from back in class.”

Not that Sunset would have ever accepted. Sometimes even she wondered why she was so resistant to accepting friendliness. Applejack finished with the bandage, so Sunset stretched her hand out. Tight enough to stay in place, but not uncomfortable. “Thanks.”

The word felt odd coming out. It’s not that Sunset didn’t thank people, or even that she didn’t let people help her. But that was always through her manipulation, whereas Applejack just seemed to take it upon herself.

“No problem,” Applejack said. She turned her attention to the computer. “Well, let’s get to work then.”

Applejack wrote while Sunset dictated. With her hands free from writing, Sunset was able to flip through books for information. Meanwhile, Applejack used the internet to help check facts. Work progressed much faster than it had when Sunset was doing it on her own.

Even with the snowball fight interruption, they were finished much sooner than Sunset had anticipated. They thanked the librarian for her help, apologized for the wet chairs, then made their way back out into the cold.

“So, uh…” Applejack scratched at the back of her neck. “You wanna go out somewhere? Or are you just ready to get home by now?”

A change of clothes and her warm bed felt very appealing to Sunset. “I don’t know. Have something in mind?”

They began walking, with Sunset just following Applejack’s lead. “Well, ya never did eat lunch, so maybe we could get something to eat. Course, dinner’s right around the corner, so maybe we’d better not.”

“No can do anyway.” Sunset patted her empty pocket. “No money on me.”

“I have some money, I could pay. You did most of the work, anyway.” Applejack chuckled. “If ya can stand to accept some kindness, that is.”

“What do you…” Sunset frowned as she realized Applejack was referencing the hot dog. “I’m a vegetarian.”

Applejack started to laugh, then realized Sunset wasn’t joking. “You, uh, really don’t seem like the type.”

“Fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothin’.” Applejack shrugged. “Anyway, how about we go down to Sugarcube Corner? We can just get some hot chocolates or doughnuts or something.”

Sunset took a moment to answer. All she had wanted since the day started was to just relax in her bedroom, away from everyone and everything. But then again…

“Sure,” Sunset said. “If you’re really that desperate to hang out with me, I guess I’ll oblige.”

“Great! Ya ever been there before?”

“No, but I’ve passed by it a few times.”

Applejack nudged her playfully. “We’ve gotta get you out to more places than just the library.”

That was kind of a daunting thought, in its own way. Sunset had been anywhere within walking distance, but never with company. It had never occurred to her how comfortable she was in her solitude until she had someone threatening to take it from her. “Yeah, maybe.”

But then again, it wasn’t like she’d have to do it alone.

13 – Friends

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Chapter Thirteen

Friends

Christmas had come and gone, but the mall was still completely packed. People were running around to the different stores, eager to spend their new gift cards or return the presents that they’d only pretended to like. The crowd was far too large and far too noisy. Sunset would never have bothered to go to the mall around the holidays, but there were certain advantages to it.

But none of those advantages made it easier to find someone in the horde of shoppers. Checking the large clock in the food court showed that she was early anyway. With nothing to do but sit and wait, she began walking around the tables to find an empty one.

Spotting a place to sit, Sunset began to walk towards it but stopped when she saw someone waving. She almost hadn’t noticed; there were lots of people around, and many of them were gesturing towards friends. But it just happened that the person waving was Applejack, and that Sunset would probably always be able to pick her out in a crowd.

Her first instinct was to just keep walking. Sunset wasn’t there to meet with Applejack, so why waste time talking with her? But she thought better of it and gave a friendly wave back, shifting course to go to Applejack’s table. She was sitting alone with just a soda in front of her, so it didn’t look like she was in the middle of something that Sunset could get dragged into, and the meeting could easily be spun to Sunset’s benefit.

“Hey there, Sunset. How’s it going?”

“Applejack,” Sunset said with a friendly nod. She took a seat across from the other girl. “I’m doing alright. Just waiting for someone.”

“Me too,” Applejack said. After finishing their project and leaving the library the week before, Sunset had taken Applejack up on her offer to go to Sugarcube Corner. It had been an uncharacteristic move for her, and she spent the whole night trying to figure out what her motivation had been. She hadn’t come up with satisfactory answer. She told herself that it was only one day, that things would go back to normal at school in the morning, but they hadn’t. Applejack had forgotten her promise to find another seat in class, once again sitting next to Sunset. That was bad, but not unexpected. What was unexpected was that Sunset was kind of happy about it.

She told herself that she needed to distance herself from Applejack. Nothing good could possibly come from them growing any closer. “So how was your Christmas?” Sunset asked. Of course, this meeting didn’t count. Sunset was using this for her own gain, which made it completely justified.

“It was okay. It’s kinda been a while since I really enjoyed family holidays, though.” Thankfully, Applejack decided not to elaborate on what she meant by that, and instead just shrugged off the potentially awkward conversation. “What about you?”

“Eh, I never really liked family holidays.” Sunset smirked. “Or any other holidays for that matter.”

Applejack chuckled. “Yeah, I figured that would be the case. So then, any other big plans for the break?”

Sunset shrugged. “No, not really. I’m mostly just trying to stay out of the snow.”

“I hear ya. Why, just the other day someone went and started throwing snowballs at me for no reason.”

“Honestly, what’s this world coming to?” Sunset shook her head and sighed. “But it’s probably not worth worrying about too much. I’m sure she’s just a huge bitch.”

“Oh, there’s no doubt there. But ya know, I kinda get the feelin’ that there’s a bit more to her than that.”

“I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.” Sunset leaned across the table and grabbed Applejack’s drink. “That kind of thinking gets snow thrown at your face.”

Applejack watched as Sunset took a drink. It tasted disgusting, like it was mostly water with just a small amount of soda remaining. “And that,” Applejack said, pointing to the cup in Sunset’s hands, “was already on the table when I got here.”

Sunset spit out what she hadn’t swallowed. “Gross. But I guess I had that coming.”

Applejack laughed, which caused Sunset to smile a little. “Want to get some sodas while we wait?”

“Nah, I’ll pass.” As usual, Sunset didn’t have any money on her. Applejack had paid for them the other night and might be willing to do so again, but Sunset didn’t want to count on that, lest she put herself in a position where she owed Applejack something in return. And, just maybe, there was a small part of her that didn’t want Applejack to spend her money on somebody like her. “I’m not really thirsty.”

“Well this is a surprise,” Violet Dusk said as she walked up to their table.

Sunset decided on a sheepish smile. She didn’t want to look too happy, or else Violet might realize that Sunset had been hoping she’d walk up while she was still talking to Applejack. “Oh, hey there, Mrs. Dusk.”

“Good afternoon, Sunset.” Violet turned to Applejack and smiled. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“No, we’re just killing time. Oh, uh, this is Applejack.” Sunset gestured to Applejack, and then to Violet. “And Applejack, this is Violet Dusk.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Applejack stuck out her hand, which Violet shook.

“Likewise. I’ve never had the chance to meet any of Sunset’s friends before.”

Applejack chuckled. “Wonder why that would be.”

Sunset frowned and narrowed her eyes. Applejack was supposed to be helping her look good, not reminding Violet of her anti-social behavior.

“Well, she’s got me now,” Applejack said with confidence. She turned to address Sunset. “And if ya want, me and another one of my friends are gonna be headin’ over to the arcade for a bit. You should come find us once you’re done.”

Sunset wondered if she could refuse with Violet standing right next to them. She really wasn’t interested in meeting any of Applejack’s other friends. “Maybe.”

At least Applejack didn’t push for a more definitive answer. “Well alright then, suppose I’ll see you later one way or the other.”

“Oh, yeah. See you.” Sunset watched as Applejack stood up and walked away, taking the cup with her. As she left, Sunset felt a small pull in her chest. It seemed there had been a little bit of joy there that Sunset hadn’t even noticed, but Applejack had taken it with her.

“Do you two go to school together?” Violet asked as she took the seat Applejack had been in.

Shaking herself free of any lingering thoughts, Sunset fixed her composure. She didn’t want to oversell anything, so she just assumed a neutral expression. “Yeah. We have history class together.”

Violet smirked. “Applejack… So then, I suppose you two share history in more ways than one.”

Sunset frowned and sunk further into her chair. Since she did her best to forget that day, Sunset had almost forgotten that Violet had been there too. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m happy to see you’re finally making some friends.”

“Well… ‘some’ might be a bit of an overstatement.”

“From the sounds of it, you might make another today.”

That seemed unlikely, but Sunset wasn’t going to argue. “I guess.”

Although Violet was smart enough to realize that Sunset wouldn’t willingly make friends, she was also smart enough to welcome an unexpected victory. One friend was more than Sunset had ever had before. “And I hear you’ve been behaving yourself this past week.”

“Today’s the first day I’ve even left the orphanage since school got out. I’ve been a good girl.”

That news didn’t seem to win over Violet as much as Sunset thought it would. “I’m worried you’re not taking this seriously enough.”

Sunset pulled herself back into a fully upright position. “What else do you want me to do? I said I’d pull my grades up and stay out of trouble, and I will.”

“I believe you.” Violet folded her hands on the table, and her gaze reminded Sunset that she could never let her guard down around the social worker. “I’m just wondering if you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

In the end, it didn’t really matter. Violet and Sunset both knew she was just going through the motions, but so long as she went through them well enough, there wasn’t really anything for Violet to do. “Maybe try giving me a chance before writing me off as a failure?”

“I’m not writing you off as a failure. You’re without a doubt one of the smartest kids I’ve ever worked with, and I know you can achieve great things.”

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

Violet considered her response for a moment. It was easy to see her dilemma; she had probably heard other kids falsely claim they’d behave better far too many times to take it at face value, but she also didn’t want to say anything that would push Sunset away. “You have a lot of potential. I don’t think you’ve ever failed in a goal you genuinely applied yourself towards.”

Failed in a goal? Only if they counted the years Sunset had spent looking for some clue about her past that wasn’t a delusional land of make-believe. The only goal that she had ever really cared about. But why count a little thing like that when she could score well on tests?

“But?” Sunset prompted.

“But you do need to earnestly apply yourself to your future.” Violet sighed and tapped her fingers on the table. “It’s not that I don’t believe in you, Sunset, it’s that sometimes I think you don’t believe in you.”

Of all the ridiculous things to say. “Please, it’s like you don’t know me. I’m the best, and I know that as well as anyone.”

“There’s a difference between knowing something and believing it. And quite frankly, nothing about your behavior suggests you have as much confidence in yourself as you pretend to have.”

“That’s completely unfounded.”

“The lack of caring about your grades even when you could succeed easily? Skipping school? Stealing?” Violet inclined her head and arched an eyebrow. “Drinking?”

Sunset turned away. They had already met once to talk about that, but she had known it was going to come back up. They didn’t normally meet twice within a week, after all.

“All of these quite clearly indicate that you don’t care about your future,” Violet continued in a matter of fact tone. “And if you don’t care about your future, I’d have to speculate it’s because you don’t have a lot of faith in it.”

“Or maybe I’ll just take care of it when it comes,” Sunset replied bitterly. “Like everything else.”

“You know it doesn’t have to be that way. It’ll be easier if you at least put forth a little effort now.”

“And I said I would.” Sunset was tempted to walk away. She probably would have, but Violet would just interpret that as proof of her point. “What do you want me to do? I know I screwed up, but I can’t just fix everything in a week. You have to give me time.”

“I’m not attacking you,” Violet said calmly. “But you won’t get your act together for me, or for Ms. Rose, or for anyone else. You need to do it for you, because that’s the only way you’ll stick with it. So here’s what I want you to do. What I really want isn’t just for you to behave yourself, or to get good grades, or anything else like that. I want you to find something you genuinely want in your future. Something that will honestly make you happy that you can work towards.”

“Fine.” Sunset leaned on the table. “I’ll think long and hard about what I want to be when I grow up. And I’ll be sure to make you proud by picking a nice respectable career.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t care if you want to travel across the country as a rock musician. Just so long as it’s something that you care about enough to not want to throw away.”

Sunset smirked. “Yeah, that’d be great. I could pick up a heroine addiction along the way.”

“We’re going to try and avoid that part.” Although she didn’t smile, Sunset couldn’t help but think that Violet was at least somewhat amused.

Sunset stretched her arms over her head. “Alright then. I’ll try and figure out something that I want to do with myself.”

“Good.” Violet pulled out her phone to check the time. “I had planned on this meeting being a little longer, but if you want to catch up with your friend then I suppose the important stuff is out of the way.”

Typical. Violet hadn’t expressly stated that Sunset had to spend time with Applejack – there wasn’t anything to be gained from forced interaction, after all – but she had made it clear that she expected it. The subtle manipulation didn’t bother Sunset, though. In fact, she had counted on it.

“Alright. So will I see you again in a week?”

Violet thought about it for a moment. “No. Unless I hear something that changes my mind, then I’ll see you next month.”

That was better than Sunset had expected; she thought she’d be stuck with weekly visits well into the new year. “Sounds good to me. See you later then.”

Sunset walked off in the vague direction that Applejack had left in. Despite the obvious implication, Sunset hadn’t actually said she was going to look for Applejack. And either way, Violet wasn’t likely to catch her in this crowd. Sunset was free to do what she wanted to.

So what did she want to do? Catching up with Applejack was out of the question. She was with one of her friends, and Sunset didn’t do groups. Besides, it wasn’t like she really wanted to hang out with Applejack anyway.

Leaving the mall might be the safer bet, since it would eliminate all chance of seeing either Applejack or Violet, but it was freezing outside. She didn’t feel like loitering around in the snow, so any outdoor activities weren’t happening. The library would be open and probably her best bet, but that still meant a miserable trudge through the snow. Maybe she would have been better off if she’d just waited out whatever else Violet had to say to her, then she could have gotten a ride back to New Horizons.

Sunset stopped in place when she realized where she had walked. Although she had only meant to give the illusion she was going to the arcade, she found herself standing in front of it. ‘It’s just because it was on my mind since that’s where I wanted Violet to think I was going.’ She began walking again, moving past it.

The store next to the arcade was some frilly girl store, full of things like makeup that Sunset didn’t have any reason to care about. She ducked into it anyway. There were a number of other stores around that she preferred, many of which had lax employees and no kind of real security. But she felt the need to get away from the arcade entrance as fast as possible, so it would have to do.

At least there was no chance that she would be recognized here. She was technically banned from the mall, but she didn’t really think anyone remembered that. Still, better safe than sorry.

Sunset idly browsed a wall full of earrings, but she wasn’t really paying attention to them. Her mind was wandering back to Applejack and the arcade. She told herself it was stupid to keep thinking about, which of course opened the way for her to wonder why she was thinking about it so much in the first place.

This was ridiculous. There was no reason to hide away in a store she didn’t like from a person she didn’t care about. Deciding that snow or not she was going to go to the library, Sunset turned and began walking away from the earrings.

She did not, however, look before she began walking, and found herself colliding with another girl who had been right next to her.

“Ah!” The other girl jumped back and held up her hands. “Terribly sorry, I really didn’t mean to invade your personal space.”

Sunset sighed and straightened her jacket. “It’s fine.”

The other girl had snow white skin and long wavy purple hair. While the store they were in was far too girly for Sunset’s tastes, this girl looked like she wouldn’t dream of shopping anywhere else. “I was just so excited to see what new items they had in stock, but that’s no excuse for my rudeness.”

Sunset gave her a deadpan stare, then shook her head and began walking away. “I said it’s fine.”

“Er, right.” Before Sunset could get too far, the other girl ran up to her. “You know, darling, I think I know just the shade of lipstick that would really accentuate your coloration, if you’d allow me a moment to show you.”

Sunset turned back to find the other girl was practically overflowing with excitement. “Do you, like, work here or something?”

“Oh no, I would just like to make up for my rudeness. And I am rather good at this sort of thing, if I do say so myself. It’s a bit of a passion of mine.”

Although she was beginning to get annoyed, Sunset also didn’t really feel like causing a scene. “I literally ran into you. You don’t have to make anything up to me.”

She turned to leave, but the other girl ran in front of her. “Alright fine, if you must know… I’m trying to make a good impression on the manager here so that she’ll consider hiring me once I’m old enough to apply. But I really would also love the chance to help you unlock the potential of your natural beauty!”

Sunset grinned. To hell with it, at this point she was practically begging to get told off. It wasn’t like Sunset would care about getting kicked out of this particular store. “Well now,” she said in an overly sweet voice, “that’s very thoughtful of you. But you know, I…”

The rest of Sunset’s response died before it could reach her lips. She just found herself staring out of the entrance at the mall walkway. The other girl cocked her head to the side. “Er, what was that?”

Sunset’s features deflated as she suddenly lost all interest in saying anything hurtful, no matter how much of a pest the girl was being. “I just saw a friend of mine head into another store. Good luck with… whatever it is you’re doing.”

“Oh, er… alright then…” Although she looked disappointed, the girl didn’t do anything else to stop Sunset from leaving.

‘God dammit, Applejack!’ Sunset could have used the chance to let loose on someone. It would’ve helped ease some of the stress she’d felt since her secret stash of wine had been discovered. But then Applejack had to go walking by, and just like that her intentions melted away. It was almost enough for Sunset to go find Applejack and give her an earful instead.

But Sunset knew she wouldn’t do that. She couldn’t exactly place why she wouldn’t do that, but she knew it all the same. Which begged the question of why exactly she was still following Applejack into a different store.

At least it was a store Sunset liked. It was a music store, although their prices were far too high. Of course, that had never been a problem for Sunset. She looked around and quickly spotted Applejack. She had a pair of headphones on and was listening to one of their new CD demos.

Sunset walked over to her and lifted one of the earpieces off of her. “Country,” she mused. “You could at least try to not be predictable.”

Applejack pulled off the headphones and grinned. “Hey, Sunset! Glad ya came after all.”

Sunset just shrugged. “Yeah, well, I wasn’t really doing anything anyway. So where’d your friend get to?”

“Bathroom. She’s meeting me here. Ya might know her. Golden Harvest, goes to school with us?”

Sunset thought for a minute, but no one came to mind. “I dunno. Maybe I’ve seen her around, but the name doesn’t ring a bell.”

Applejack chuckled. “Of course. Why’d I ever think the terrible Sunset Shimmer would get to know her classmates?”

It was kind of cute how Applejack thought the ‘terrible’ thing was a joke. “So do you listen to any real music?”

“Sure do,” Applejack said proudly. “Do you?”

Sunset grinned and led the way to a different aisle. “Once you hear this band, you’ll never listen to that crap again.”

“Fine, I’ll give it a shot. But I betcha I can find a country band that you like by the end of the day.”

A day spent listening to country music? Sunset had to wonder if she would’ve been better off in the store with the makeup. Still, she found it easy to smile in spite of the circumstances. “You know what? Sure. I’ll take that bet.”

Sunset set Applejack up with one of her favorite artists. She’d been tempted to go straight for the heavy metal, just to see Applejack’s expression, but she decided to take it easy on her and opted for a folk artist that wouldn’t be too far from what she was used to.

She set up the CD to play her favorite song, then handed the headphones to Applejack. She closed her eyes to listen to the music, which made Sunset smile. While she waited to hear Applejack’s thoughts on the CD, she began looking through the others on the shelf.

‘Hey, I didn’t know Thistle’s new CD was out.’ Sunset glanced around and didn’t see anyone looking so she discreetly tucked the CD into her jacket pocket.

“Ya know, this is pretty good,” Applejack said.

Sunset turned to find she was just opening her eyes from the music. Perfect, she hadn’t seen anything. “See? What’d I tell you.”

“ ‘Course I already knew that, seein’ as I have this CD at home.”

“No way, you’re a Daybreak fan?”

Applejack adopted a cocky grin. “Sure am! So then, still doubt my music tastes?”

Sunset shrugged. “Well… yes. But what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. Bring it on, give me your worst.”

“Careful whatcha wish for. But if ya like Daybreak, I think I know a good one.”

Applejack led them back to the country aisle, and Sunset found herself genuinely curious to hear what Applejack usually listened to. Still, she couldn’t feel quite as excited as she had when she was showing off her own music tastes. As much as she wanted to write it off as weariness towards country music, she knew better.

Sunset pulled the CD out from her pocket. “Have you heard Thistle and Weeds yet?”

She handed the CD to Applejack, who looked it over. “Nope. Any good?”

“Well, I haven’t heard that one yet, but their last album was pretty amazing.” ‘Dammit, Applejack.’ Why did her presence make things so difficult? Now she’d have to wait to listen to it.

“I’ll check them out next, but first I got something good for ya. Here, listen to this one.”

Even with her plan foiled, Sunset didn’t really mind too much. Stranger still, Sunset was almost more interested in hearing what Applejack thought of them then hearing their new album herself. ‘I guess that’s worth sitting through some country music.’

Applejack put on the headphones for a moment to find the song she wanted Sunset to hear. But as Sunset was occupying herself with looking at the CD she wanted, somebody else walked up to them. “What are you doing here?”

Sunset looked over to see a girl whom she assumed was the friend Applejack had mentioned. It was kind of funny seeing her and Applejack in the same place; whereas Applejack had orange skin and blonde hair, the girl beside her had yellow skin and orange hair. And unfortunately, Sunset did recognize her.

“Golden Harvest.” Sunset smirked and looked around. “I was just listening to some music. Pretty sure I’m allowed to do that, you know.”

Golden Harvest glared at her. “Can’t you do that somewhere else?”

Sunset’s smirk grew into a full grin. “Ooh, somebody’s getting a little bold.”

She loved the way Golden Harvest’s features fell. Sunset had barely done anything, and she was already intimidated. Then Applejack spoke up, and Sunset’s enjoyment vanished. “Okay, I found a good one. Here, try – Oh, hey there, Goldie!”

At least that brought a little mirth back for Sunset. ‘Goldie!’ Golden Harvest was certainly embarrassed by the name, which made it even better.

“So this is Sunset Shimmer, and Sunset, this is the friend I was talkin’ about.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” Sunset said. She had no doubt that it was.

Golden Harvest looked between Applejack and Sunset. “Uh, AJ? Can I talk to you for a minute?”

As much as Sunset loved watching ‘Goldie’ squirm over the thought of Applejack hanging around someone like the terrible Sunset Shimmer, she also knew there was an unavoidable problem coming up. Applejack was already picking up on the issue.

“Uh, do you two… know each other?”

Golden Harvest didn’t say anything. Even if she was emboldened by being around her friend and outside of school, she knew there was a limit. Sunset could twist the situation easily enough. Golden Harvest could be convinced to hold her tongue around Applejack, and Sunset would be able to keep Applejack unaware of her past exploits.

“Yeah, we met back in sixth grade.” Sunset thought of how best to send the warning to Golden Harvest. But then again, what was she even bothering for? She wasn’t going to enjoy spending the day trying to keep Golden’s mouth shut, so she might as well leave. “We, uh, we’ve got a bit of a history, so I’ll just let you two get back to your date. Later, AJ.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Applejack would try to stop her. And really, it didn’t. Not the attempt itself, but the way Applejack stopped her was surprising. As Sunset had tried to wave goodbye, Applejack had grabbed her wrist to hold her in place. That was all, nothing dramatic. But nobody ever tried to touch Sunset. Nobody except Applejack. And honestly, Sunset didn’t particularly like to be touched. Except, perhaps, by Applejack.

Applejack maintained her hold on Sunset’s wrist as she spoke. “Now hold up a second. There ain’t no need for all that. Sunset, Golden lives down the street from me. I’ve known her my whole life. And Golden, well, I haven’t really known Sunset all that long, but I do know that she’s not as bad as she wants everyone to think she is. Ain’t no reason we can’t all get along.”

Golden Harvest looked like Applejack had struck her. “AJ, she’s… You just don’t know her like I do.”

“Come on now,” Applejack said in that frustratingly optimistic tone. The one that always seemed to promise things would be okay, even when they never could be. “Whatever happened last year’s in the past. I’m sure if we talked about it, then –”

“What do you think it says about me that your friend is too afraid to tell you what actually happened?” Sunset snatched her hand away and shoved that one in her pocket as well. She turned to Golden Harvest. “Go on then. Tell her what happened.”

Golden opened her mouth to talk, but didn’t say anything.

Sunset laughed. “See? She’s still scared. Frankly, I’m impressed she managed to bring anything up at all. You should consider yourself lucky, AJ. She’s willing to risk a lot to keep you from falling into one of my traps.”

All of Applejack’s optimism seemed to be gone. “Sunset, what did you –”

“Hey! Hey you there!” A store clerk seemed to notice their heated discussion. Possibly more to the point, he seemed to notice Sunset. “I know you! You stay right there, security’s gonna have a word with you.”

It was hard to decide if his timing was perfect or horrible. “Hey, genius! Maybe try calling security before saying something next time? Fucking idiot, no wonder you still work at the mall even though you’re like forty.” She walked backwards and grinned at Applejack and Golden Harvest. “Well, that’s my cue to get the fuck out of here. But you two feel free to stick around to give the mall cop a statement. Later!”

“Kid, stop!”

“Sunset!”

Sunset calmly walked out of the store, then locked eyes with a security guard. “Son of a…” She wasn’t sure how he got there so fast, but she wasn’t sticking around to find out. She began ducking through people, using her smaller size to her advantage.

“Stop! Don’t move!”

Had that ever worked for him? Ignoring his shouts, Sunset kept running until she was out of the front door, then abruptly turned. She made for the nearest car and slid under it.

From her vantage point, she saw the security guard’s feet as he left the mall. He paused to look around, but quickly gave up when he didn’t see her. She took a few moments to catch her breath, then crawled out from under the car.

She took a deep breath and reminded herself that she had been lucky. With how crowded the mall had been, it was incredible that none of the shoppers had thought to grab her. It had happened before, and was pretty much the only way she’d ever gotten caught.

Sunset sighed and put her hands in her pockets. She frowned when she felt something hard, and pulled it out. “Forgot about that,” she mumbled as she looked down at the CD. She had meant to put it back, but must have absent mindedly put it in her pocket when Golden Harvest had shown up. ‘Guess I’ll get to listen to it after all.’

Going back in the mall was out of the question, so she leaned against the car to decide her next move. She jumped away as the alarm went off.

Figuring that the last thing she needed was to be accused of burglarizing someone’s car, she started walking. Unfortunately, the noise caught someone else’s attention.

“Sunset! Wait up!”

Sunset winced at the voice. She didn’t bother to turn around, she didn’t really want to look Applejack in the face. “Leave me alone, AJ. Haven’t you figured out by now that I’m trouble?”

“What happened between you and Golden Harvest?” Applejack demanded. Sunset couldn’t quite place her voice. It was somewhere between anger and fear. It was exactly what Applejack should feel, but Sunset hated the way it sounded.

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“Well, I… I guess I’d like to hear from both of you.”

There it was, creeping back in already. That stupid fucking optimism. That hope that somehow Sunset could say something that would make the whole thing okay. That she’d say she was sorry and Golden Harvest would forgive her, and they’d all laugh about it before the day was out.

Sunset looked down at the CD still in her hands and found she didn’t really want it anymore. She turned back to Applejack. Although she’d planned on wearing a cocky grin, she couldn’t manage it. Not when she saw the way Applejack looked. The hope mixed with the fear and with the anger, and it hurt to see.

She tossed the CD, and Applejack caught it. “You should give them a shot. They’re pretty great.”

Applejack looked down at it. “What? Did you…?”

“Steal it? Yeah, I did. Throw it out if you don’t want it, it’s all the same to me. Anyway, I’ll see you around. Or, you know, maybe I won’t, if you finally figured out that I’m not such a good person after all.”

For once, Applejack didn’t stop her as she walked away. Did Sunset want her to? She couldn’t even tell. But of course, why would she? Golden Harvest was Applejack’s friend, and she was probably pretty upset about everything. Applejack would go and talk to her, and she’d share that stupid optimism of hers, and eventually it would work its way through to Golden Harvest. Soon, the two of them would be laughing about the crazy day they had. Because that’s just the kind of thing friends did together.

And Sunset? Well, Sunset didn’t have any friends. So instead, she walked back to the orphanage she lived at, through the snow, cold and alone.

14 – Cracks in the Ice

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Chapter Fourteen

Cracks in the Ice

It had not been a good couple of days. Ever since the incident at the mall, Sunset had been on edge. She had resolved to spend as much of the winter break as possible hiding away at New Horizons, but being confined was starting to get to her. It was with some reluctance that her caretakers even allowed her to go out at all, but they were eventually convinced to allow her to go to the library. At least Rose Petal seemed to understand that getting away from the other kids once in a while would actually be good for her well-being. That, or she just knew that if Sunset wasn’t given a long enough leash, she would eventually rip it off again.

To this end, it was fortunate that Sunset’s favorite place to be was the library. It had to be a lot harder to prevent a kid from going to the library than it would be to prevent her from going anywhere else. After all, she knew that she’d only been allowed to go to the mall because she was meeting with Violet, and then only allowed to stay because of Applejack.

Applejack. Every thought worked its way back to her. Sunset didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she knew that she only had another week to figure it out. Christmas was over, New Years was around the corner, and then soon after that they’d be back in school.

Every thought returned to Applejack, which was frustrating. But Sunset could handle that. It was what came after that was making her miserable, what thinking of Applejack reminded Sunset of. Because whether she liked it or not, Applejack had come dangerously close to something resembling a friend.

There were lots of people who had encouraged Sunset to make friends. They had all long since given up, but there had been plenty over the years. There was no real reason why one memory should stand out so much in particular. No reason that the basic idea of making an honest to goodness friend should remind Sunset so damn much of her.

Sunset took a deep breath and held the cold air in her lungs. She willed herself to not think about her false memories, then exhaled, imagining that she was letting them out with the breath. It was a silly trick, but sometimes it helped. Although when the thoughts came so quickly, and continued to come back to back… Well, it was impressive that Sunset was holding herself together as well as she was.

Sunset was sitting on a hill overlooking Mirror Pool Lake. It was always one of her favorite places, especially when it was empty. The day was unseasonably warm, which meant that the lake wasn’t suitable for ice skating, but was still far too cold for any sane person to be outside now that the sun was setting.

Although she hated being out in the cold, Sunset had specifically gone to the lake after leaving the library. She told herself that the fresh air would help clear her head, and it was close enough to New Horizons that the walk home at night wasn’t going to be a problem.

But the lake was only half of the appeal. The setting sun was really what Sunset was focusing on. It wasn’t exactly that she liked watching the sunset. It was just a thing that she did. She didn’t often think about it, but she suspected the ritual was just something that made her feel comforted because of the repetition.

“But it’s just a time of day, Princess. Being named after the sunset doesn’t mean I have to like it any more than any other pony.”

“True, but anypony can appreciate the sunset. Here, come and watch it with me. Maybe you’ll like it more than you think.”

Sunset frowned and squeezed her eyes shut. That was exactly what she was trying to not think about.

Inhale. Hold the breath. Exhale.

It still didn’t help.

‘She isn’t real.’ Sunset no longer wanted to watch the sunset. She just wanted to get back to her bedroom, where she would at least be somewhere safe if she had another episode.

‘She isn’t real.’ It was time to move on. Sunset had accepted that her memories were false years ago, so why were they still haunting her? Why were they so vivid?

‘She isn’t real.’ Sunset was frozen in place. She felt like she was being watched. If she turned around, what would be behind her? She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.

“Sunset Shimmer.”

Everything stopped. Sunset didn’t move, she didn’t breathe, it didn’t even feel like her heart was beating. For one horrible second, Sunset’s world was replaced with her.

“Sunset Shimmer, I’m talkin’ to you. I know you can hear me.”

Everything rushed back into focus. It wasn’t her. Sunset turned around, and had never felt so relieved to see a real person in her life. Even if she wasn’t even remotely prepared to talk with the person in front of her. “Applejack.”

For once, Applejack lacked the confident grin she usually wore as she walked up to Sunset. Sunset had previously reflected that Applejack didn’t look half bad when she was going for the tough girl look; now, Sunset couldn’t think of anything she could possibly want more than Applejack’s positivity.

They held each other’s glares for a moment, each one waiting for the other to go first. Eventually, it was Applejack who folded. “Jesus Christ, Sunset. How long have you been out here? You’re so pale that it looks like ya seen a ghost.”

Sunset turned away, looking back towards the sun. It was barely peeking over the horizon. “I thought you were someone else,” she muttered. She knew, of course, that it had been Applejack speaking from the start. But that didn’t change what she felt. She could have sworn it had been a different voice that had said her name at first. “It doesn’t matter. What are you doing out here, anyway?”

Applejack continued approaching until they were side by side. “I was just passin’ by on my way home when I saw you.”

“You should have just kept walking.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Applejack said, but she gave no sign that she was moving. She stood in silence again, waiting for Sunset to do something. It wasn’t going to happen, though; Sunset knew she would be able to outwait Applejack, that she could just ignore the cold and the growing darkness and the silence, that she could ignore anything at all, because it was better than being alone.

Eventually, Applejack sighed and turned to Sunset. “Maybe I shoulda, but I didn’t. We got some things to talk about.”

Sunset didn’t move, but she pointed her eyes towards Applejack. “I told you, just talk to Golden Harvest about it.”

“I did, and she said not to worry about it, but that I should avoid you anyway.”

Sunset smiled, which made her feel colder. “You know, that’s actually really good advice.”

“Ya know by now that I don’t back down that easily.”

“Yeah, I know. So then, I guess you want to know what happened, right?”

Although there couldn’t possibly be anything else Applejack wanted, she hesitated. “I get that ya don’t really want to talk about it, and I hate to pry…”

Sunset laughed and turned to face Applejack properly. “Come on, you’ve been prying into my business for the past two weeks. Don’t pretend like you’re above being nosy now.”

Applejack’s features hardened, but she didn’t look upset. It was that stubborn determination showing through again. Sunset had hated it so much only a few weeks ago, but then it had wound up being the same thing that allowed Applejack the chance to become the first real positive change in Sunset’s miserable life.

“I wanted you to open up and talk to me. I wasn’t ever tryin’ to pry into the details of your life. Everyone has things they don’t want to talk about, and I respect that.”

“That so? Well then, what does the oh-so-honorable Applejack have that she doesn’t want to talk about?”

Sunset hadn’t really expected an answer, but it seemed Applejack was willing to give one. “Do ya really want to know? ‘Cause sure, if it makes ya feel better ‘bout talking to me, I’ll tell you the honest truth ‘bout anything.”

It was a tempting offer, but Sunset still hadn’t decided what she wanted out of Applejack. “No, I don’t really care. But since you can’t seem to bring yourself to ask about it, I’ll tell you what happened with Goldie.”

Sunset waited just a moment before continuing, giving Applejack the chance to back out if she wanted. She didn’t, and Sunset wasn’t surprised. She may be above admitting that she wanted to know the details of Sunset’s past, but she certainly wasn’t above wanting to know. “Well, it was last year, like I said the other day. Goldie was trying out for cheerleading at the time.”

Realization instantly crept onto Applejack’s face. It seemed she’d heard this story before after all. Sunset forced a grin as she continued. “The problem was that I had someone else in mind to make the team. I told Goldie to back down, but she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t know who she was messing with. Maybe all you country girls are just stubborn like that. Either way, I wasn’t left with a whole lot of options.

“But I did have photos of another girl cheating on her boyfriend. That’s kind of my thing, actually. I have enough dirt on enough people to make things happen. So I put the photos to good use, and long story short, Goldie didn’t make it to tryouts that day. Or to school for the rest of the week, if I recall. Hey, maybe you can actually answer a question I always wondered about. Were the injuries that bad, or was she just embarrassed to show up with her face all fucked up?”

It didn’t seem like she was going to get her answer. From the look she wore, Sunset could have sworn it was Applejack herself that had been attacked. “Sunset… What the fuck? That’s awful!”

“Wow, you don’t say? You really showed me the light, AJ, I’ve seen the error of my ways now.”

Applejack continued to stare in disbelief. “But why would you even want to do somethin’ like that?”

“Because the cheerleaders are popular. People like them, and they want to be liked by them. In short, they’re a useful tool for getting other things I want. And one of them is completely under my thumb because she knows I put her where she is and I can destroy her if I ever change my mind.”

In the silence that followed, Sunset found that there was one thing she wasn’t willing to wait out after all, and that was the look Applejack was giving her. “Hey, I did try to warn you to stay away. Not my fault that you’re just now getting the hint.”

“It’s just…” Applejack pressed her hand against the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I can’t believe you’d do something like that. But I also think you got it in you to be a better person than that.”

Sunset could hardly believe her ears. She had been sure that even Applejack would give up on her for that one. If not just for the action itself, then for the fact it had been against one of her real friends. “You really are an idiot.”

“Hey now!” Applejack scowled and took a step closer to Sunset. “I’m tryin’ to give you a chance here. After what you just told me, yeah, I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t. Honestly, I think I’d be pretty well justified in givin’ you a taste of your own medicine right now. But I also know that ya haven’t exactly made things easy for yourself by pushin’ everyone away, so I’m tryin’ to stick around and help you. It’s a hell of a lot more than what most people would do, so maybe you could try to watch your words just a bit more carefully?”

Applejack was bigger than Sunset, and was certainly stronger. If she had even the slightest bit of concern for herself, she probably would have been intimidated by the anger that was clearly working its way through Applejack’s friendly demeanor. Of course, Sunset hadn’t cared much about herself in years. “And what makes you so sure I want to be your friend, anyway?”

Applejack folded her arms and kept her scowl. “Everyone needs friends, Sunset,” Celestia said.

Sunset jumped back. Applejack. She was talking with Applejack. Her heart started pounding and she struggled to breathe.

“The fuck’s wrong with you now?” Applejack asked, her normal voice returning.

Sunset tried to focus on Applejack as a way of grounding herself, but it wasn’t working. She needed to get away. Without saying so much as a word, Sunset turned and started walking away. She would have run, but her legs were shaking far too much.

“Hey, don’t just walk away! We’re still talking!” Applejack ran up to Sunset and grabbed her arm.

Sunset jerked her arm away, falling down in the process. She looked up at Applejack, who was already holding a hand out to help her back up. But her gaze didn’t settle on Applejack, looking past her at the sun. The sun had already set, but she saw it in the sky. She knew that it wasn’t the same sun, though. The sun from this world had set, and the one she was looking at was her sun.

“Sunset, are you okay? I –”

“Get away!” Sunset scooted backwards before pulling herself up.

Applejack looked around for some sign of what was going on. “I, uh… Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you or anythin’.”

“I… I need to go.”

Sunset tried to leave as fast as her legs would take her, but Applejack was faster. She caught up to Sunset easily, but didn’t try to reach out to her again. “Don’t do this, Sunset! Come on, I’m sorry, I wasn’t really gonna do anything.”

Although she needed to get away, Sunset stopped. She couldn’t distance herself from Applejack if Applejack kept on following her. “It’s not like I’ve changed, you know. Yeah, that happened a year ago, but it could’ve happened anytime.” She turned back to face Applejack, trying to not pay attention to the sun that unnaturally hung in the sky. “I started the rumor, you know.”

“What are you talkin’ about?” All trace of anger had disappeared from Applejack’s face. Instead, she looked confused and concerned. “What rumor? You’re actin’ awful strange.”

“The one everyone’s been talking about. That you got caught having sex with your cousin, and that’s why you transferred schools.”

Applejack still looked more confused than angry. “You… you did? But why?”

Sunset laughed. “You know what? I don’t really know! I guess it’s just because I really fucking hate you.”

“You don’t really mean that.” That finally brought a little of the anger back. Sunset needed to make it grow.

“Really? What makes you say that? Was it the time I let you buy me hot chocolate? I wonder why I would’ve been playing nice then. Maybe you’re thinking of the mall, when I used you to make myself look good in front of my social worker. I even used you to get my grade up in history, not that I really made a secret of how obnoxious you were at the time.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. She was getting there. “So then why would you tell me all this now?”

Sunset shrugged. “I guess I just decided you’re not worth it. Sure, I could probably get a few more things out of you, but nothing major. You’re not likely to become a big shot at school, so your social status is pretty useless to me. Thought about seeing if I could get you to rough up some kids for me, but you’re too damn honorable. I don’t think I could get enough dirt on you to get you to actually hurt someone, even if your muscle is probably all you’re really good for.”

Applejack was clearly trying to find some reason to not believe Sunset, but she was also clearly failing. Sunset just laughed. “Plus, to be honest with you? I thought it was a pretty good guess. So come on, be honest with me here. Was I close?”

“That ain’t what happened,” Applejack said through gritted teeth.

“Whatever you say. I don’t really care, if it makes you feel better. Keep it in the family, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Sunset tapped on her chin. “Actually, that would explain why you’re so stupid. So, what? Are your parents, like, siblings or something?”

Her anger escalating unusually quickly, Applejack closed the distance between them, grabbing Sunset by the jacket and pulling her closer still. “Do not talk about my parents like that.”

Although all she had been trying to do was get Applejack to give up on her, Sunset found herself getting caught up in the moment. It seemed that anything really was better than being alone. “What’s wrong, AJ? Hit a little close to home there?” Sunset saw Applejack’s offhand ball into a fist and just laughed. “So tell me, are you a daddy’s girl, AJ?”

Pain, it seemed, was very grounding. As Applejack’s fist connected with Sunset’s face, she lost the ability to focus on anything else. She fell backwards again and instinctively moved her hand to her nose. When she opened her eyes and pulled away her hand, she saw it was covered in blood.

Sunset stood up and laughed. She wiped the blood off her face and flicked her hand to get what she could off, leaving red spots in the white snow. “Guess that was pretty dumb of me.”

Applejack stood with both fists ready. Sunset stepped up to her anyway. “I mean, seriously? With how butch you are, you’re probably more into your mom.”

Applejack hesitated a moment before swinging again, which gave Sunset the chance to duck down and tackle her midsection. Applejack’s fist still connected, but it lost most of its momentum and hit Sunset’s side rather than anywhere on her front. Sunset pushed forward with as much strength as she could, knocking Applejack to the ground.

Knowing that she wouldn’t have nearly as much force behind any punches of her own, Sunset had to use other methods of attack. Since she was positioned on top of Applejack, she wrapped her hands around the other girl’s neck. “You stupid fucking bitch! Why couldn’t you just leave me alone!? This is all your fault! It’s your fault she’s still fucking with me!”

Applejack grabbed at Sunset’s arms, but couldn’t pry her hands away. After a moment, she pulled her hand back and swung it into Sunset’s stomach. It lacked the force of her first punch, but was enough to get Sunset to loosen her grip. Seizing the opportunity, Applejack pushed Sunset off of her.

She tried to pin Sunset, as Sunset had pinned her, but Sunset was ready and didn’t yield easily. They wrestled for dominance on the ground, but eventually Applejack managed to get Sunset face down in the snow. She kneeled on Sunset, forcing her arm behind her back. “You want to be a heartless bitch? Fine. I can take whatever stupid shit you want to say about me. But listen here, Sunset, and listen good. Don’t you ever talk about my parents again! Because I swear to God that I’ll make you regret it in more ways than you can imagine.”

With a painful shove, Applejack got off of Sunset’s back. She wanted to keep lying where she was, but she forced herself up. There was a large red spot on the snow where her face had been, and she heard the crunch of snow underneath Applejack’s footsteps as she walked away. It was exactly what Sunset had wanted, but it was no longer good enough.

“Aww, what’s the matter, AJ?” Sunset’s voice came out sounding thick. She grinned, even though it hurt her face. “I thought we were friends?”

Applejack kept walking away.

“Hey. Hey!” Sunset ran up to Applejack, who turned at the last moment to grab hold of Sunset’s arm.

“We’re done here,” Applejack said, before letting go.

Which was, of course, a mistake. Eager to repeat the only thing that had worked for her, Sunset lunged herself at Applejack. They both fell, tumbling down the hill. Sunset threw whatever punches she could as they rolled downwards.

“I hate you!” They reached the bottom with Sunset on top. “I hate your stupid voice!” Sunset threw her first real punch at Applejack’s face. “I hate that you never leave me alone!” Her hand stung, but she kept swinging. “I hate that I think about you!” The world seemed to shake, but Sunset was used to that.

“Sunset, stop!” Applejack’s words didn’t reach Sunset, who kept up the assault.

“I hate that you’re so fucking good!” There was a cracking sound, but Sunset ignored it. “I hate that you came back into my life!”

It happened so fast. Sunset pulled her fist back to swing again, but never got the chance. The ground below them opened up, and Applejack fell through it.

For one horrible moment, Sunset just stared. Then the reality struck her with more force than any punch ever could have: They had fallen onto the lake, and the ice had broken.

The water looked black, and Sunset already couldn’t see Applejack. It didn’t stop her. Without taking even a moment to think about it, Sunset dove in after her.

The cold was like nothing she had experienced. It felt more like fire than ice, burning her skin. It didn’t matter, so she ignored it.

Even with her eyes open, she was completely blind under the water. Even if the sun had still been up, it wouldn’t have penetrated the ice enough to see. That was worse than the freezing temperature, but she ignored it as well.

With no way of knowing where Applejack was, Sunset swam forward. Applejack was what mattered. She was all that mattered. Sunset had to find her, she had to get her to safety.

It felt like it took far longer than it should have, and if she hadn’t of seen where Applejack had fallen and dove in the same direction, she never would have found her. But she had, and when she felt something solid, she knew what it was. She wrapped her left arm around Applejack, who grabbed hold of her as well. Using her feet and right arm, she shifted course, and swam in the direction she thought was up.

The seconds dragged on for ages, and she just kept swimming. She was terrified that she was swimming in the wrong direction, but she kept at it. Thinking was difficult, but she was positive she had calculated the direction correctly.

She eventually felt something solid again, and knew she had reached the top. Too panicked to be thankful, she started groping around for the exit.

Solid. Everywhere she reached, solid. There was nothing but ice, and no light to show her the way out. She pounded her fist against the ice as hard as she could. It didn’t help. The ice was too thick to break from below, and they were trapped underneath it.


Sunset was sitting at her desk, books and notes spread out before her. Her tutor was explaining something, but Sunset wasn’t really listening. Something about how weather ponies used pegasus magic to control the weather and help all of Equestria. It was an interesting enough topic, but Sunset couldn’t focus. She was staring out the window.

The door opened without warning, and both heads turned to see a stallion walk in. He had a tan coat and dark blue mane. His name was Brass Badge, but Sunset only ever referred to him as ‘sir’. He was her father.

“I trust the lessons are going well?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he looked over the lesson plan.

Rosey Dawn was quick to explain. “We’ve been going over weather lessons. Next, I’ll be teaching Miss Shimmer a bit about Cloudsdale’s history.”

Brass Badge gave only a curt nod to indicate he had heard her. He walked over to Sunset’s desk to look at her notes. “This is all you have?”

Sunset blushed and looked down towards her desk. Why hadn’t she been paying more attention? “Yes, sir.”

“Speak up when you’re answering somepony, Sunset.” Brass Badge set the notes down and turned back to Rosey Dawn. “It’s hardly surprising. Sunset is not a pegasus, Ms. Dawn. Stick to the basics for that stuff and focus on her magic.”

It was hard to disagree with Brass Badge. He was a respected military strategist who expected soldier-like obedience from anypony beneath him. Which was to say, everypony. So it was with a meek voice that Rosey Dawn spoke up. “But sir, magic is already Sunset’s best subject. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to get a rounded education?”

“Magic is the cornerstone of a proper unicorn education.” Brass Badge looked at Sunset. “Being the only student her age to get into Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns doesn’t mean anything if she’s not also the youngest to graduate.”

For a moment, Rosey Dawn looked like she might continue her protests. Only for a moment, though. “Yes, of course, sir.”

Another curt nod, then Brass Badge turned to walk away. He stopped when he noticed the window, however. Outside, three foals were running around playing some game. “Hmph. You’d think parents would teach their children to stay off of private property.”

He left the room muttering to himself, and Sunset knew the foals outside were about to get lectured. She took one more longing look at the three of them, still playing blissfully. They looked like they were her age.

Rosey Dawn sighed. “Perhaps we should take a short break.”

“No, I’m ready to continue.” Sunset turned away from the window. She was six years old, and she was the youngest student at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. With enough dedication to her studies, Sunset would also be the youngest to graduate. Then her parents would care about her.


“My goodness, already?” Princess Celestia smiled down at Sunset, and at her new cutie mark. “This is very impressive, Sunset!”

Sunset smiled at the compliment, but didn’t betray how excited she was to hear the words. She was only nine years old, and she already had earned a cutie mark from her magical studies. Few foals her age had cutie marks already, and nopony ever earned one for an academic talent that young. “Thank you, Princess.”

“I bet your parents were thrilled to hear the news.”

“Yes, they were.” In reality, Sunset’s mother had seemed to think of it as a small point of interest, no more significant than a particularly good business deal. Meanwhile, her father had only said ‘Naturally’ when he had been told.

“And of course, you should be very proud of yourself.”

Sunset nodded. “It’s a sun,” she said. ‘Just like yours.’

“I see that. Perhaps it’s because your future will always burn brightly.”

It was getting hard to keep her excitement in check in light of Princess Celestia’s praises. But she wanted to look mature in front of the princess, so she held herself together. “I’ll do my best to live up to that, Princess.”

“I’m sure you will, my gifted student.” Princess Celestia gave a knowing smirk. “But I do hope you haven’t been flaunting your cutie mark in front of your friends too much.”

Sunset’s smile faded as she tilted her head to the side. But the confusion was short lived. After all, she had only been Princess Celestia’s personal student for a few weeks. It was hardly surprising that she didn’t know too much about Sunset outside of her academic talents. “I don’t have any friends, Princess.”

Princess Celestia’s smile disappeared as well. “Really? You don’t have any other foals your age that you like to play with?”

“No.”

Many of Princess Celestia’s expressions were hard to place, and the one she was giving Sunset was no exception. But it only lasted a moment, then Celestia smiled and walked over to the little filly. “Well, I know one friend who’s very happy for you.”

Sunset furrowed her brow in concentration, trying to think of whom Celestia could be talking about. Nopony came to mind. “Who is it?”

“Me.” Princess Celestia extended a wing over Sunset and used it to guide her towards the door. “Now then, this calls for a celebration. Let’s go see if we can convince the kitchen staff to give us some ice cream and cake before dinner.”


“Sunny! Sunny! Wake up, it’s Hearth’s Warming!”

Sunset just groaned and mumbled something that vaguely resembled ‘go away.’

Cadance just giggled. “Come on, Miss Grumpy. It’s Hearth’s Warming, you can’t sleep in today!”

Ignoring her wouldn’t make her go away. It never did. So with great reluctance, Sunset pulled herself into a sitting position. She huffed and narrowed her eyes at Cadance, who was dressed in a pretty little Hearth’s Warming dress, complete with a bow. Worst of all, she seemed perfectly chipper despite the early morning chill. “Good morning to you too, Princess.”

Ignoring the obvious sarcasm in Sunset’s tone, Cadance just giggled again. “You know you don’t have to call me princess, Sunny.”

Sunset glared at her. “And you know I told you not to call me Sunny.”

“But it’s such a cute nickname.”

“If I wanted ponies to think of me as ‘cute’, then I’d just start hanging around with ponies like you, Cadenza.”

Cadance frowned. If there was one thing she hated being called more than Princess, it was Cadenza. Unfortunately, her bubbly spirit proved frustratingly resilient. “Okay, fine. But anyway, Sunset, we should head down to breakfast. Aunt Celestia is already up, and our parents are coming soon.”

“Yeah, fine, whatever. Just go, I’ll be down soon.”

Clearly, Cadance had been hoping they could go down together. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone. But here, I got you a present.”

Cadance left a box on the bed, which Sunset made no move to open. Eventually, the young alicorn admitted defeat and walked away.

Sunset hated her. No, hate wasn’t strong enough for how Sunset felt. Cadance had come into her life unexpectedly, and everything changed when she did. Before Cadance, Sunset had been the most amazing thing around. The words ‘most talented unicorn her age’ were very frequently used to describe her. But she was sixteen, while Cadance was fourteen, and only one of them was an alicorn princess.

Somewhere along the way, Sunset had messed up. She had always been the youngest to achieve anything she did, but she had lost the chance to become the youngest alicorn, or to be the first alicorn to ascend within the century.

Finally opening her present, she found it was a dress that matched Cadance’s. She could just imagine the little twit’s eyes lighting up, visions of Sunset finally warming up to her dancing through her head. They’d be such darlings in their matching outfits, and all the adults would compliment them for being such sweet little angels. Why, by the end of the day they might even be calling each other sisters!

It made Sunset want to gag. She shoved the box off to the side of the bed and approached the mirror. She levitated over a brush and watched her reflection as she began untangling her hair.

She saw a unicorn, because that was what she was. It was too late to become the youngest alicorn, but that was always an inevitability. Every year she grew older, her chances of being the youngest to do something began to disappear more rapidly. No, she could not be the youngest alicorn. She would just have to become the best one. She would be a better alicorn than Cadance ever was, and then she would be Celestia’s favorite again.


Sunset Shimmer was a pony. She was a real pony, no matter what she looked like. She was not like that abomination that they pretended was a pony. Sunset Shimmer was a unicorn from Equestria, the seventeen-year-old gifted student of Princess Celestia. She was not a five-year-old human child.

But then when she looked at her hooves, they were hands. Her forelegs had become arms. Her horn was gone completely. Sunset had never been further from her dream of being an alicorn, and she had no idea how to get herself back to her home.

And so, Sunset cried. It wouldn’t help, it never did. But there was nothing else she could do, so she cried. She had been told that crying was cathartic, although she had never found that to be true.

Never before, that was. There was something different this time, as her mind finally started shutting down from all the stress of the past few weeks, and only focused on the present. This second, this breath. The hardwood beneath her. The cool autumn air.

And, most of all, the person sitting beside her. Just a small child, with no idea of what was going on, but still willing to sit beside Sunset and hold her while she cried.

“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”


Sunset hadn’t been sure what to expect from Sugarcube Corner. At worst, she figured she could drink some hot chocolate and be on her way. Sure, she would have to put up with Applejack for a little bit longer, but there were worse things.

That had been the worst case scenario, but Sunset wouldn’t have been able to pick a best case one. She certainly wouldn’t have imagined it would be as enjoyable as it was.

“So then after spendin’ all day lookin’ for it, come to find that my little sister had it the whole time!” Applejack adopted an overly sweet voice. “I was just borrowin’ your new boombox while we paint our clubhouse! Don’t worry ‘bout all the purple spots on it now!”

Sunset laughed. “Geez, that sucks. Little siblings are the worst.”

Applejack chuckled. “Well, I was mad as heck at the time, but I do still love her as much as anything.” She took a sip of her cocoa. “So what about you? Sounds like you got some siblings of your own.”

That took the smile off of Sunset’s face. “Well… Sort of, I guess.”

“You guess?” Applejack arched an eyebrow. “How do ya sorta have siblings? You kinda either do or ya don’t.”

“It’s… complicated.” Sunset frowned. She wasn’t exactly in a hurry to let Applejack know she lived at an orphanage, even if she couldn’t exactly place why. “Let’s just talk about something else.”

Applejack clapped her on the back. “You got it, partner. So then, did you see that new space movie that came out last week?”

Sunset smiled again. She doubted Applejack realized exactly how casually she touched people. She was constantly nudging Sunset playfully, or resting a hand on her shoulder, or putting an arm around her in a half-hug. It was a normal sort of thing that friends did, but Sunset had never had any friends. To her, the attention was something completely foreign, and it made her a little uncomfortable every time. But there was some part of her that enjoyed it as well, that liked the constant reassurance that someone would want to be around her, would want to be that close to her.

She never said anything about the contact for the entire night. If she did, Applejack would have probably stopped, and that was exactly what Sunset was afraid of. Instead, she slowly got used to it. And not just that. The way she and Applejack joked together, the way Applejack smiled, the way she laughed, the way she made Sunset smile. It was all a little overwhelming, but not necessarily bad.

By the time the night ended, Sunset was left with the thought that maybe Applejack was something she wouldn’t mind getting used to.


Applejack was going to die. Trapped under the ice, they would freeze and drown. Applejack would die, and it was all Sunset’s fault.

Although Applejack had initially grabbed hold of her, she hadn’t moved since then. Sunset herself was losing strength fast, and couldn’t focus on any thought clearly. She kept moving as much as she could, constantly pressing her hand along the ice, looking for a gap that she might be able to get them through.

‘Don’t let her die. Don’t let her die. Please, Applejack deserves so much better than this, I’ll do anything, whatever it takes, just please don’t let her die.’

There was no answer to her silent prayer. Sunset stopped moving everything but her feet, just treading water to stay in place. Soon, even that would prove too much for her.

Sunset kept a close hold on Applejack. In part, it was just so she wouldn’t drop her, but also it was because Applejack was all she had. The only things she was aware of were the burning cold, the fact that everything was her fault, and Applejack’s motionless body in her arms. It wasn’t hard to pick which one of the three she would try to focus on.

How ironic it was that after turning away from it for her whole life, Sunset had managed to kill the only friend she’d ever had.

There was a light. Coming in from somewhere above and in front of her, a light was shining through the ice. Sunset knew she must have imagined it, but she swam towards it anyway. She would put her faith in anything, anything at all, if it gave her even a chance of saving Applejack.

Every muscle in her body wanted to shut down. It felt like it would be so easy to sink into those depths. Someone would find their bodies still stuck together in the spring. Even through the panic and the cold, part of Sunset was ready to leave that world behind. It never felt like her world, anyway.

But for Applejack if for nothing else, Sunset kept swimming. If there was going to be one thing Sunset did right in her lifetime, it was going to be this. Applejack would not die. Sunset would not allow it.

The light grew closer, until Sunset saw it right above her. Close enough to finally see it clearly, she could swear that it was a sun. She reached up and found only ice, but she kept trying. When she didn’t find any holes, she pushed with all her might.

At first she didn’t even realize she’d broken through the ice. She’d lost so much of the sensation in her body that she couldn’t tell the cold air from the cold water. But when she realized her hand had extended farther than it should have, she knew she had made it. Swimming up with as much force as she could, she finally was able to push her head through the water.

The first breath made her so dizzy that she almost sank back down. She braced an arm against the ice, which was clearly too thin to hold her. But before she could even attempt to get out, she had something more important to do.

She hoisted Applejack up as best she could, barely managing to get her head out of the water. Applejack! she tried to call, but no words left her mouth. And although her face was above the water, Applejack still wasn’t moving.

Sunset looked around frantically. She had swum a good distance from where they had fallen in, but had found their way back towards the edge of the lake. Choosing the shortest path towards dry land, Sunset swam ahead. At first, the ice just broke in her path. She ignored the broken ice and kept swimming ahead. Eventually, she reached a place where the ice held. Holding onto Applejack as best she could, Sunset attempted to climb on top of it.

The ice broke under the increased weight, and they were back under. Only for a moment though, then Sunset was able to get them back through the hole she had formed. She realized that she could reach the bottom, and used that to steady herself while pulling Applejack farther out of the water.

Breaking the ice in her path, Sunset waded to the shore. By the time she reached it, she was crawling on all fours, while barely dragging Applejack along with her. She collapsed onto the solid ground, snow and all.

After only allowing herself a few breaths, Sunset dragged her body close to Applejack’s. She rested her head on the other girl’s chest and listened carefully. She thought she heard a faint heartbeat, but it was hard to tell with how ragged her own breathing was.

She moved her head to Applejack’s face, placing an ear against her mouth. She didn’t feel any breath and Applejack’s chest wasn’t moving. Every inch of Sunset begged for rest, but she pushed herself onto her knees. Breathing hurt, and no matter how much she did it her lungs still felt empty. But Applejack wasn’t breathing, and if Sunset stopped now, then she would die on the shore.

Sunset’s mind snapped to academics. It was what she was good at, after all. Although no one had ever taught her how to perform CPR, she could distinctly remember learning about it in another world, from her false memories. There was no time to question the sensibility of relying on that information, though, so she followed along with the steps.

‘Open the airway.’ Quickly pulling off her uselessly soaked gloves, Sunset forced Applejack’s mouth open. She used her fingers to check it for anything that might be in the way, found nothing, and moved on to the next step. She forced Applejack’s mouth to open wider by physically moving her jaw, pinched her nose shut, and placed her own mouth over Applejack’s.

Her biggest worry became that she didn’t have enough air herself to start Applejack’s breathing as well. As soon as she started blowing, she could feel herself getting light headed. She kept it up. It would all be worth it. Even if she died, it would be worth it to save Applejack.

‘Check for a pulse.’ After a few breaths, Sunset took a quick break to try and catch her own breath. Meanwhile, she placed her hand on Applejack’s neck. Thankfully, there was a pulse, which meant no chest compressions were necessary. As difficult as breathing was, Sunset wasn’t sure she had the strength to maintain chest compressions.

Back to breathing. With how fuzzy her head felt, she had no idea for how long she kept it up. Logically, she knew it could only be for a few minutes at most, but it felt like much longer. Eventually, Applejack jolted and started vomiting. Sunset rolled her on her side and waited for her to finish. Once she was done, she audibly inhaled a deep breath.

It was the best sound Sunset had ever heard. Once she’d returned Applejack to her back and verified that she was still breathing, Sunset finally allowed herself to collapse. She rested her head against Applejack’s shoulder and smiled to herself. She did it. For once in her life, Sunset had done something good. Applejack was alive.

But she knew she still hadn’t done enough. Applejack hadn’t drowned, and now she was breathing again, but she still wasn’t conscious. If they didn’t get somewhere warm soon, Applejack would die of hypothermia.

Sunset forced herself up and noted her surroundings for the first time. Despite the light she had seen, it was dark out. The moon was barely rising though, so she knew it was still fairly early. The smartest thing to do would be to get help and go to a hospital. They would probably all celebrate her as a hero, and any bad blood that existed between Applejack and Sunset would be sure to wash away.

But the situation had finally made up Sunset’s mind about where she and Applejack stood. Although she would never take a chance on Applejack’s life, she also knew the worst was behind them. All that was left was for Sunset to get Applejack somewhere warm.

Kneeling next to Applejack, Sunset pulled her into an upright position. Her muscles protested, but she pulled Applejack up against her back, put her arms over her shoulders, and stood up. The weight of Applejack on her back was almost more that she could bear given how weak the ordeal made her, but she would persevere.

Although she stumbled at first, Sunset took a step. Then another. And another. It was slower than she would have liked, but she built speed as she grew used to the weight. The whole way, Applejack’s steady breathing gave her the strength she needed to keep going.


By some miracle, Sunset had returned to New Horizons before dinner time. She climbed in through her bedroom window and got both herself and Applejack into dry clothes before someone came to get her for dinner. Making sure Applejack was tucked safely in her bed to warm up, Sunset left to scarf down dinner a quickly as possible.

She returned to her bedroom to find Applejack shivering. The orphanage was kept warm in the cold months, and the kids were provided with comfortable and sufficient clothing, so she knew Applejack would warm up alright. Still, she knew recovery would take time.

Setting a thermos next to the bed, Sunset took a seat next to Applejack. “You awake yet?” she asked quietly.

At first it seemed like she wasn’t going to get an answer, but eventually Applejack muttered, “S-so c-c-cold…”

Even though she knew how miserable Applejack must have felt, Sunset smiled. Applejack was alive, and now she was awake. “Here, drink this.”

Applejack very slowly worked her way to a somewhat upright position. She took the thermos from Sunset, and began sipping.

“Slowly,” Sunset instructed when Applejack began going at it with a bit too much fervor. “I know you’re cold, but you’ll burn yourself if you’re not careful.”

“I don’t think I can ever get enough heat again.”

Sunset smirked. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They sat in silence awhile. Sunset knew what was coming, but she wasn’t sure how to best get there. Additionally, she wanted to enjoy at least a few moments of peace with Applejack. Surely she’d earned that much?

‘No,’ she reminded herself. ‘I don’t deserve anything like Applejack. That kind of thinking is exactly the reason this needs to happen soon.’

“So, uh, is this your room?” Applejack asked after a while.

“Yeah.” Sunset looked around the room and frowned. At least the mirror was still gone; she really didn’t want to see herself. “Home sweet fucking home.”

“Aww, it ain’t so bad.”

The cheer returning to Applejack’s tone should have been a good thing, but it was dangerous. It threatened to change Sunset’s mind. “Can you get yourself home?”

Applejack looked at her in disbelief. “I… Sunset, I don’t even know where we are.”

“Keep your voice down.” Sunset glanced to the door. Most of the kids would still be eating dinner, but she couldn’t get caught bringing in company. Not under these circumstances. “I can tell you how to get back to your house from here. But can you walk?”

Applejack looked at her longingly, then turned to look back down towards the bed. “Don’t make me leave, I’m still freezing… I can just stay quiet if ya want, but let me warm up first.”

“Fine.” Sunset had been apprehensive about letting Applejack go anyway. It was probably for the best. She stood up and walked to the CD player, hitting play without thinking of what CD was in there. It would help cover any noises from whenever Applejack decided to forget her promise to keep quiet. “You have until the CD’s over.”

Applejack hesitated for a moment, but eventually she said, “Alright.”

The CD started, and it was aggravating how perfect the music wound up being. Daybreak, the only band she knew they both liked. She had been listening to them a lot since the day at the mall.

To her credit, Applejack lasted through four of the ten songs before she spoke. “Uh, Sunset?”

“Yeah?”

“I just… thank you.”

Sunset winced. She knew that might have been coming, but she hated to hear it all the same. “For what?”

“Well, I mean… You saved my life.”

Sunset turned to face Applejack. “You’re remembering wrong.”

Applejack feebly shook her head. “I remember what happened. I remember the fight and everything, but, well… That doesn’t matter. You still came in after me, I remember that too.”

Sunset thought back to her own memories. The way it had felt like it had taken forever to reach Applejack, even though she knew it was only a few seconds. “Do you remember how long you were under there?”

“Well, no. I have no idea, I know it felt like a while, but –”

“That’s because it was.” Sunset folded her arms and turned away. She didn’t want to see Applejack’s reactions anymore. “When you went under, I walked away. I was ready to just leave you there, but then I changed my mind.”

Silence while the information sank in, then she rationalized it. “Well, you still came back. Ya didn’t have to, but ya did.”

“You don’t get it.” Sunset’s voice was getting too loud as she found herself trying to fight back her emotions. She didn’t want to say what she needed to, but she forced the words out anyway. “What happened, you going into the ice… That wasn’t an accident. I didn’t save you, I tried to kill you. And then I changed my mind.”

Another moment of silence, and the CD moved onto the fifth track. “I don’t believe that.”

“Yeah, I know. Hard to believe I would decide to keep someone like you around in the end. Really though, I was just worried someone in one of the houses around saw what happened. Even if I got away with pretending it was an accident, the fact that a fist fight resulted in someone’s death would be enough for me to get sent to a military academy.”

Applejack waited patiently through Sunset’s explanation, but then just shook her head. “I mean, I don’t believe that you were tryin’ to… do that on purpose.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot.”

Although Sunset had expected another reply, Applejack kept quiet. The CD moved to the sixth track, then the seventh before she spoke up again.

“I know that you’ve got some stuff goin’ on that ya don’t want to talk about. And I know you’ve done some pretty rotten things. But I don’t think you’re a murderer.”

“Well, congratulations, you’re right.” Sunset turned to show a cocky grin. “I didn’t kill you, so I’m only an attempted murderer.”

Applejack wasn’t looking at Sunset. She was staring down at her hands, folded in her lap. At some point, she must have finished the cocoa because the thermos was sitting on Sunset’s bedside table. “Do… do ya really hate me that much?”

Sunset wasn’t sure if Applejack really believed her about the attempted murder, but she also realized she didn’t want confirmation. She didn’t want to know that Applejack could think that low of her, even if that was the picture Sunset was trying to paint. But Applejack seemed to finally believe that Sunset genuinely hated her, and that realization hurt enough on its own.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

By the time the eighth song came on, Sunset decided it was time to focus on getting Applejack home safely. “Anyway, you’re at New Horizons Home for Children. To get to Sweet Apple Acres, you just go –”

“Hold on, you’re an orphan?”

Sunset scowled. “Don’t give me any of that ‘it all makes sense now!’ crap. I know a lot of orphans, and believe me, none of the others are as fucked up as I am.”

Applejack shifted to a more upright position. “No, I was just… Well, I never knew that.”

Sunset arched an eyebrow. “Want my fucking life story while we’re at it? In case you didn’t realize, there’s a lot of things you don’t know about me.”

“Well yeah, but…” Whatever gears had been turning in Applejack’s mind, they seemed to die out on their own. “Never mind.”

More than happy to drop the subject, Sunset returned to giving directions. The ninth song came on, meaning their time was almost at an end.

“See, even you can figure it out. Soon you’ll be back with mommy and daddy in no time.”

Applejack looked like she was going to say something, but held her tongue.

The final song was torturous. On the one hand, they were certainly not having a good time. On the other, once Applejack walked away, she would probably be out of Sunset’s life for good.

“Ya know, I do know some of what you’re going through,” Applejack said, only minutes before the end.

“Uh huh. Sure you do.”

“Sunset, I…” Applejack sighed. “My parents are… they died, Sunset.”

Sunset’s head snapped towards Applejack. She thought back to the things she had said during their fight. Suddenly, she felt sick.

“It was just before middle school. I… I pretty much locked up, kinda how you are. I moved to live with my mom’s side of the family for a bit. That’s why I transferred schools, I only just moved back to town. But, well… Ya can’t keep livin’ like that. You need people in your life, and I… I want to be one of ‘em, if you let me.”

“Oh, AJ.” Sunset filed away her emotions. This was no time to change her mind. She placed a hand on her heart and gave a sentimental look so over the top that no one would be able to take it seriously. “I’m touched. Did you read that off a greeting card?”

“No, I –”

“Here’s the thing, AJ.” Sunset grinned and placed her hands behind her head. “I really just don’t fucking care. My parents? I don’t know if they’re alive or not because I haven’t seen them since I was five. But it doesn’t matter, because I don’t give a damn about them. So no, you really don’t understand me.”

Applejack sighed. “Okay.”

Sunset had probably gone far enough, but she needed to make sure. She needed Applejack to know that this newfound common ground wasn’t a good reason for them to be friends. “And you can definitely be sure that I don’t care about your parents. You can go cry on their graves or something if it makes you feel better, but leave me out of it.”

That had hurt, and Sunset could see it. She thought back to all the times Applejack had mentioned her home life. She was very fond of talking about her family, but her parents had never come up. Sunset had to wonder if Applejack had told anyone about her parents yet. Maybe Sunset was the first, and she had been motivated to finally open up because she earnestly believed having some common ground would help.

The CD came to an end. Sunset picked up a bag of Applejack’s wet clothed and tossed it to her, then pointed at the window. “And that’s all the bonding we have time for today. Now get out, and don’t let anyone see you go.”

Applejack looked like she was going to protest, but she didn’t. Without a word, she walked over to the window and opened it up.

Sunset took a seat on the bed. “Hey, Applejack?”

“Yeah?” Applejack didn’t look back, but Sunset could hear the strain in her voice.

“Try to look on the brightside. At least they don’t have to deal with a daughter like you anymore.”

Without a word, Applejack climbed through the window and closed it behind her. And just like that, she was gone. Sunset had finally gotten exactly what she wanted.

She leaned her head against the wall. Now that Applejack was gone, she finally stopped holding in her emotions. The tears came silently, and she slid down the wall, sinking into the exact place Applejack had been moments before.

She had gone too far, and she knew it. She could imagine Applejack crying on the way home. Hell, she’d probably have some issues of her own after everything that happened, on top of what she was already dealing with because of her parents.

But in a way, that was good. Sunset felt absolutely horrible for what she said, but it would serve its purpose. Sunset had goaded Applejack into a physical fight, and then outright attacked her. Worse still, Applejack had almost died. That had been Sunset’s fault, even if it hadn’t been what she wanted.

They would never be friends, and that was a good thing. It wasn’t safe to be friends with someone like Sunset, and Applejack deserved so much better.

15 – Shattered

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Chapter Fifteen

Shattered

The new semester of school brought about mixed feelings for Sunset. It was a welcome relief, because if she had thought that winter break had given her too much to think about before, that was nothing compared to the final week of it. During the events at the lake, Sunset had been forced to relive some of her false memories while under the ice, and it was hard to try and shove them back down. School would provide a much needed distraction, especially since she still resolved to actually put forth some effort into her grades.

On the other hand, there was a lot she wasn’t looking forward to. The stitches in her hand had been removed, which was good. But that was just about the only thing positive about Sunset’s appearance. At least she could wear gloves to cover the blisters on her knuckles. Her face was another story.

Once the initial redness turned to bruising on the day after the fight, Sunset made an emergency trip back to the mall. Although Sunset had never cared for makeup, she needed something to cover the evidence of the fight. She managed to grab a few shades of concealer and some other stuff to experiment with without being seen, but she wasn’t too confident in her efforts. True, none of the bruising was showing up, but she was worried the makeup itself would stand out too much, or that it would fail to hold up for the day.

She counted it as a victory when no one at the orphanage commented on the makeup. They probably just assumed it was normal for a girl her age to care about crap like that, or maybe they just didn’t pay enough attention to her. Either way was fine with Sunset, since she didn’t want to have to explain why she had the sudden interest in looking pretty. Other kids could be far more critical, but there was nothing to do but handle that if it came up. That was a concern, but it wasn’t really the problem.

The problem, of course, was Applejack. In the week after the fight, Sunset had been left with plenty of time to think about what had happened, and about what would happen when they inevitably saw each other again. She’d changed her mind about what she thought would be best at least a dozen times, and was trying her best to find the certainty that she’d had when she pushed Applejack away. A friendship between the two of them would never work out.

But no matter how much she reminded herself of that, it didn’t seem to help. As she walked along the crowded hallway towards her first-period class, she was surrounded by kids catching up with friends and sharing their winter break experiences. Any other year, this would have been a prime time to catch up with some rumors she could exploit. But instead, all the words from the other kids seemed to elude her, becoming nothing but background noise against the much louder words in her head.

“Well then, I’m Applejack. What’s your name?”

“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

“So what’s the plan, partner?”

“What d’ya say we just put all that behind us and start over?”

“Now, now, there ain’t no reason to be like that. Here, I’ll help.”

“You really haven’t changed a bit since we were little.”

“Just… you don’t have to do it alone, ya know?”

“Well, she’s got me now.”

“I can’t believe you’d do something like that. But I also think you got it in you to be a better person than that.”

“You need people in your life, and I… I want to be one of ‘em, if you let me.”

“– the one who fucked her cousin?”

Sunset stopped walking as the tail end of a question floated into her perception. Her head snapped in the direction that the voice had come from, and she saw two guys talking.

“No, I haven’t seen her,” the second guy said. “Why, something else going on with her now?”

“Yeah, you could say that,” the first one answered. “She must’ve had one hell of a rough winter break, for sure.”

The second guy laughed. “Well, you know how it is with rednecks. Old man probably started hitting the bottle, then started hitting his daughter.”

“What was that?” Before she could even think about what she was doing, Sunset was already walking up to the two assholes.

One of them gave her an incredulous look, but the second one looked scared. Although Sunset couldn’t recall who he was, it seemed he had no problems recalling her. “Oh, uh… Hi there, Sunset…”

Sunset folded her arms and adopted a menacing glare. If he knew who she was, this was going to be a snap. “I asked you a question. What were you talking about?”

Asshole number two swallowed nervously, but asshole number one still hadn’t caught on. “Dude, are you seriously scared of a –”

An elbow to the ribs cut him off, and number two took over for him. “It, uh, it wasn’t anything about you, promise. We were just talking about that new girl… Apple-something?”

“Well, don’t.” Sunset narrowed her eyes. “The less you have to say about Applejack, the better. Understand?”

“Yeah, you got it, Sunset!”

“Good. Because I’m not going to have a friendly discussion like this a second time.” Although his friend still seemed confused by the whole situation, Sunset turned and resumed the walk to class. She would have made a more direct threat if she could remember why he was so afraid of her in the first place. As it stood, she just had to hope that a vague one would do.

Her foul mood followed her into first period, where she sunk into her usual seat. Every time the door opened, Sunset had to resist the urge to look at it. Applejack would walk through the door at some point, and Sunset had to see what would happen. If she looked at Applejack as she walked through the door, she might influence her decision on what to do, and Sunset needed to know if Applejack would even want to still make the attempt at being friends on her own accord.

And what if she did? What if she sat down next to Sunset, taking the same seat she had claimed before the break? Sunset knew what she should do. They couldn’t be friends, so Sunset would just have to make Applejack move or else move herself. Being hostile and guarded came naturally to Sunset, and in a lot of ways it was just easier on her to maintain the wall she had built.

After spending so much time alone, it was sort of draining to be around another person. There was the touching, which Sunset wasn’t sure she would ever get used to. The constant internal reminders that she was supposed to at least try and stay well behaved. The fact that if she actually decided to maintain a positive relationship with Applejack, she would have to give up most of what she had worked for to fit into Applejack’s world.

There was no real reason to do anything else. It wasn’t like she got anything significant from Applejack. Just friendship, and she’d never cared about that before. There wasn’t anything substantial to be gained, just that she’d have someone whom she could spend her time with. Someone who could make her laugh. Someone who could make her feel warm with just a smile. Someone who maybe seemed like she could understand her, if she were ever allowed the chance. Someone who made her feel like maybe there was finally something worthwhile in her life.

Sunset set her head down on her desk, hiding her face in her arms. In truth, she had no idea what would happen when Applejack took the seat next to her. But she knew she couldn’t keep being friendly in one meeting only to push Applejack away in the next. Whatever happened was going to be what happened. At the end of the day, she would either commit to giving a friendship with Applejack a real chance, or she would give up on the idea entirely.

It was almost time for the class to start, but the seat next to Sunset was still empty. She was beginning to wonder if Applejack was coming and pulled her head up to look around the room, just in case Applejack had come in without her realizing it. There was still no sign of her. Sunset slumped in her seat and began wondering what she would do if Applejack didn’t show.

Just as the bell rang, the door opened one more time. “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Trotter.”

“It’s… Oh, hello, Applejack.” Globe Trotter’s voice seemed off. Something had caught him off guard, and against her better judgement, Sunset looked to see what it was. Her mouth fell open at the sight. “Let’s not worry about it. First day back and all that.”

“Right. Thank you, sir.” Although Applejack kept her tone business as usual, her face was anything but. Unlike Sunset, Applejack had done nothing to cover up her face. Sunset had suspected that much when she heard the talk in the hallway; besides, Applejack seemed even less like the type to go messing around with makeup than Sunset was. But what Sunset hadn’t expected was exactly how much worse Applejack looked.

During the fight, Applejack had only managed one good punch on Sunset’s face, and had otherwise been concerned with just overpowering and subduing her opponent. But towards the end, after they had fallen onto the ice, Sunset hadn’t held back on her assault at all, and it showed. Applejack’s face was covered with several yellowish-brown bruises. They were clearly old and healing, but that didn’t make them any less ugly, and it was also clear that they weren’t from an accident.

Applejack kept her eyes pointed down as she walked through the room, obviously aware that everyone was staring at her. Including Sunset, despite her earlier decision to wait to see what Applejack did before so much as looking at her. Aside from her own backpack, she was carrying a brown paper bag, which she set on the floor beside Sunset.

Without a word, Applejack turned and walked to another seat. She chose one several rows away from Sunset, and didn’t do anything else to acknowledge her. Sunset finally tore her eyes from Applejack and realized for the first time exactly how much she had been expecting her to persist in spite of what had happened.

Mostly just to give herself something to focus on that wasn’t the empty feeling in her chest, Sunset pulled the bag closer to her. She looked inside to find her own clothes, the ones she had dressed Applejack in to get her warmed up. They were folded neatly, and looked to be freshly washed.

Sunset scooted the bag to be next to her backpack. She cast another glance towards Applejack, but all she could see was the back of her head as she prepared for the day’s lesson.


Everywhere Sunset went she heard the rumors. It seemed to be collectively agreed amongst the students that Applejack was abused by her parents, but few kids seemed sympathetic. They probably would be, but whenever Applejack came up in conversation, so did the other rumor. It seemed that most kids were content to view her as a caricature, and the abusive homelife only added to the situation.

Probably as a result of the two rumors, it seemed that Applejack had taken to keeping to herself for the day. Sunset kept her eyes and ears open whenever she was in between classes, and occasionally noticed Applejack walking through the hall with her eyes fixated on the floor. A few kids mentioned that although she had seemed fairly open before the break, she was keeping to herself now. It was hard to blame her, but at the same time it made it easier for kids to forget that she was a person, not just a walking joke.

A couple of times since they had met, Applejack had mentioned that she had locked up in the past, shutting out the people around her. Sunset worried she might do the same again, and resolved to fix things. Both rumors were her fault, anyway. How hard could it be to use her power to stop a rumor rather than start one?

Very, it turned out. For every person she was able to stop, five more were still spreading rumors. And she couldn’t stop all of them; Sunset had carefully maintained a position in the shadows, which meant most of the student body didn’t know her well enough to be threatened into silence.

By the end of the day, Sunset still hadn’t made any progress. Once the last class was over with, she stopped by her locker to collect the paper bag with her clothes. Not wanting to carry around the reminder of how horrible she was, Sunset had taken the first chance she could to drop it off in her locker. It didn’t matter, anyway; she was able to remember exactly how much of a worthless person she was without the reminder.

Sunset was making her way towards the buses when she saw Applejack again. She was in the path in front of her, but she hadn’t seen Sunset at all. Instead, she was walking alongside Golden Harvest, who was giving angry looks to anyone who seemed to be thinking about making any uncouth jokes.

“Can you imagine actually being friends with someone like her?” Summer Rain said as she approached Sunset.

“Not really,” Sunset answered. It was the truth – Sunset couldn’t possibly imagine being friends with someone as amazing as Applejack.

Summer Rain smirked. “I’m sure you heard everything by now? The whole school’s talking about it.”

“Yeah, I have.” Sunset shrugged as if she were indifferent, but she realized Summer Rain had just provided her with the perfect opportunity. Sunset couldn’t stop the rumors herself, but she didn’t have to. She had people to do that sort of thing for her. “So it turns out I was wrong about the whole incest thing. Someone just made it all up as a joke after all.”

“Huh. Well whatever. Too late to worry about that now.” Summer Rain just watched Applejack hungrily. “Besides, it’s all too fun to bother thinking about too much.”

Summer really was a perfect partner for Sunset. They were both self-serving and uncaring, and they lacked anything vaguely resembling positive character traits. The best thing for both of them would be to just move on and get back to business as usual. “So I heard one of the football players making plans to meet up with someone at the park by the school, if you want to try and catch something good before the buses get here.”

“Really?” That seemed like enough to get Summer’s attention away from Applejack. Sunset and Summer Rain had a good understanding of their relationship, and it did not include working together to spy on their fellow students. Summer seemed positively excited by the development. “Is he meeting up with someone interesting?”

Sunset grinned. Look at that, making friends was easier than she had thought. “Well, I didn’t recognize the name, but I’d say the star quarterback meeting up with his secret boyfriend could be pretty interesting.”

If Summer had seemed excited before, it was nothing compared to how she looked after hearing that. “Oh yeah, I’m definitely up for that!”

“Thought you might be.”

They walked out towards the park beside the school. It wasn’t really much of a park, just a small field with an old playground that hardly got used anymore. A larger one was put up nearby, further away from the middle school and thus away from the older kids. Because the playground was less used, the city had made it a low priority for maintenance, which meant it was left to disrepair and rust, which in turn meant even fewer people bothered to use it. They were tearing it down eventually, but for the moment it was occasionally used by Everfree Middle School kids as a close place to hide away or meet in secret when they were trying to avoid the rest of the school.

No one seemed to be using it when they got there, though. “Did you hear when they were supposed to be coming?” Summer Rain asked.

“Hmm, I kinda thought they’d beat us here actually.” Sunset set her bag down and took a good look around, making sure there were no secret lovers anywhere in sight. Or anyone else, for that matter. “But maybe they’re just running late on account of the fact that I made the whole thing up.”

Summer Rain turned to face Sunset and looked perplexed, as if she wasn’t sure she heard correctly. “What? What do you mean you –”

Sunset wrapped her hand around Summer’s throat and pushed her up against a metal ladder. She pressed down tight enough that Summer would have difficulty breathing, but was careful not to press so hard that she’d leave marks. “Listen up, Summer, because I’m not really big on repeating myself.”

Summer grabbed at Sunset’s arm and tried to squirm away, but clearly had no idea what she was doing. She was used to being part of Sunset’s cherished circle, after all, and nobody ever fucked with Sunset’s lackeys.

Sunset used her free hand to grab one of Summer’s and twisted it backwards. Summer made a painful grimace and stopped struggling. Sunset just smiled. “All that shit about Applejack? It’s not true, and to be honest with you, I’m just a little sick of hearing about it. So I don’t give a fuck what you do, but you’re going to make it stop. Understand?”

Sunset moved her hand away from Summer’s throat so she could answer, instead holding her in place by her shoulder.

“I… I can’t…” Summer said in desperate gasps.

Sunset frowned and let go of Summer’s shoulder, instead grabbing a handful of her hair. Summer made a pathetic whining noise. “Well then, that’s unfortunate. Because see, you’ve had the wrong idea in your head for too long. You think that because I use you regularly it means I give a damn about you, but I don’t. For the past year and a half we’ve had a pretty great thing going, but you know what? That means I’ve got a year and a half’s worth of dirt on you. And let me tell you, I can bury you deeper than any other kid in this school. So what do you say? Think you might want to try to set the rumors straight?”

At first Summer didn’t answer, so Sunset tightened her grip on her hair. “Ow! Yes! Yes, I’ll do it!”

“Good!” Sunset let go of Summer and held her arms open wide. She showed her friendliest smile and spoke in the brightest tone she could. “And hey, don’t worry so much! You’re the slimiest gossip queen in the school. If anyone can do it, I know you can.” Sunset accentuated her comment with a friendly wink.

Summer Rain didn’t seem to appreciate her hospitality. She had collapsed to her knees and was rubbing her throat while trying to catch her breath. There was a certain appeal to having someone kneel before her, even if she did so with tears in her eyes.

“So before I leave and you get to work, we should lay out the conditions of the next year and a half. Because this? This is just to keep me quiet for now. There’s no wiping the slate clean from here. So here’s what’s going to happen: If I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. If I need a favor, you’ll come through. And if you double cross me? Then you’ll wish you hadn’t. Remember that at my word, this whole school will turn on you. So keep your head down and do as I say, and above all I want you to remember one thing.”

Sunset picked up the bag of her clothes and held it close. “I only care about one person at this damn school, and it sure as hell isn’t you.”

There was no need to wait for confirmation, so Sunset walked away. If Summer Rain had even the smallest amount of backbone, she could report the assault. Even the report without any real evidence would probably be enough to get Sunset sent away to the military academy, but it didn’t really matter. Summer was a coward, and she would never tell a soul about what happened.

Sunset got to the bus shortly before it pulled out, while Summer didn’t get on at all. That was for the best; maybe she could get the rumors to die down a bit before the morning. Since the seat next to her wasn’t taken, Sunset set the paper bag down in it.

At school, Sunset hadn’t bothered to look through the bag at all. It only held her own clothes, and it wasn’t like she suspected Applejack had kept anything for herself. But out of boredom on the bus trip, she decided to take a look.

Turns out there was something unexpected after all. Tucked in between a shirt and a jacket, there was a CD. Sunset pulled it out and stared down at the new Thistle and Weeds album, the same one she’d stolen. It was no longer sealed, so she opened it and found a piece of paper inside. Once unfolded, it revealed a handwritten note.


I know it’s late, but Merry Christmas! You said you don’t really like the holiday much but I figured it can’t hurt to get a present anyway.

To tell you the truth I wasn’t sure what to do with this. I don’t really feel good about having a stolen CD so I was just gonna bring it back, but then I thought maybe you might want it after all. I know you said you didn’t but I think deep down you just felt guilty about taking it. Well no need to worry about that because I went back and paid for it! I can already hear you saying that it was a really stupid thing to do, but I think I’m also beginning to be able to tell when you’re actually happy and just don’t want to say anything.

Of course I was also not really sure if I wanted to give you this on account of whatever happened with Golden Harvest. But then I was thinking and I guess I decided that whatever it was happened before we even knew each other. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter but if you want to try to be a better person going forward then I’m ready to stand beside you.

So cheer up! Yeah it’s winter and it’s cold and all that, but that just means there’s still time for a rematch if you think you can take on the snowball queen!

PS, hope you don’t mind that I listened to it. You’re right, they’re pretty good. But don’t think I’ve forgotten our deal. Now I’m just gonna make you listen to twice as much country music!


Sunset frowned as she read the note. Underneath, there was a blank space followed by a second part to the note. Immediately suspecting what it was, Sunset took a moment to brace herself before reading.


I really don’t know what to write here, but I feel like I have to write something. When I got home my family was all kinds of worried about me, and I didn’t even know what to tell them about everything that happened. I guess you can rest easy because I didn’t tell them anything about you specifically. Not sure why I didn’t, but I didn’t.

So now I’ve got this CD and I was planning on giving it to you. I guess I still am. I wanted to just throw it away, but it just didn’t feel right. Maybe I am just as stupid as you always say I am after all.

So… now what? What am I supposed to do? After everything that happened I keep telling myself that you must of been telling the truth because nothing else makes any sense. No one would just act the way you do so I guess you really do hate me like you said. I know that but it still feels wrong. I guess I just also know that you’re hurting and I still hate to see that.

I may be an idiot but I have my limits. So I guess what I’m saying is this. If you ever change your mind then come talk to me. Until then I’ll keep out of your way. Maybe that really is all you wanted. If so then I guess congrats. Hope this makes you happy somehow.


Sunset placed the note back in the CD. This didn’t change anything. It couldn’t. As much as Sunset wanted to use this as an excuse to give this whole friendship thing another shot, she refused. Applejack already had enough to worry about without having someone like Sunset around. They would both be better off this way.

Sunset would fix the rumors, whether Summer Rain came through or not. No matter what she had to do, the remainder of middle school would be positive for Applejack. She hadn’t been lying when she said that there was only one person at the school she cared about, but it sure as hell wasn’t herself. As long as things could be made better for Applejack, that would be good enough.

~ End Act II ~

16 – Life Out of Place

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Act III

The Other Side of the Mirror

Chapter Sixteen

Life Out of Place

It was the moment of truth. All of Sunset’s efforts were about to be tested. She’d done everything she was could think to do, and whether she succeeded or failed would come down to this. Just a single press of a button.

Inhaling a breath she didn’t dare let out, Sunset reached out her hand. She stopped for a moment, index resting on the button, before finally pressing it.

A blue light circled the button as the gentle humming of fans started up. “Yes!” The computer monitor lit up to momentarily display the motherboard’s manufacturer, before booting into the BIOS.

A knock on the door snapped Sunset away from her moment of victory. “Good news, I take it?”

Sunset frowned at the door, but she soon fixed her expression as she stood to answer it. It wouldn’t do her any good to show Rose Petal anything less than the darling angel Sunset had become in the past year.

By the time she opened the door, Sunset was wearing an excited grin. “It works! I just finished getting it all set up.”

Rose took a look at the screen, although she no doubt had no idea what anything she was seeing meant. It was just blocky white text on a black background, awaiting the command to begin installing the operating system. “I never doubted it. But while I’m sure you’d rather play with your new toy, it’s time for your meeting with Mrs. Dusk.”

“Already?” Sunset glanced at a clock, although she had already known what time it was. “I guess I’ll just have to wait until tomorrow…”

Rose turned away from the computer to give Sunset a confused look. “It’s not going to take all day, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But installing everything on the computer probably will. I was hoping that I would at least have enough time to get it all started, then the operating system could install while I was gone. But I guess I’ll have to do it when I get back.”

Rose seemed to consider something, then broke out in a resigned smile. “Well, I suppose I could drive you. Would fifteen minutes give you enough time to get things settled here?”

Sunset shifted to an apprehensive look, although that was the exact reaction she had hoped for. “That would be perfect, but… I couldn’t ask you to do that. I know you don’t really like to drive around so much anymore.”

“Really now, Sunset, I’m not that old!” Rose chuckled and shook her head. “I think I can manage a short drive down to the coffee shop.”

“Well, if you’re sure… Thank you, Ms. Rose. You’re the best!”

“Oh, you.” Rose smiled to herself as she left Sunset alone to finish with her computer.

Sunset wasted no time in getting back to it. She initiated the OS installation, taking the time to review all the options. For as long as she could remember, she’d been fascinated by computers. As silly as it seemed, there was always something about them that seemed magical to her. She had thought that learning about how they work would diminish the effect, but it didn’t. If anything, the more she learned, the more interested she became.

When New Horizons got the budget to get personal computers for all the older kids as a result of the increased use of computers in high school, Sunset had been able to convince them to let her build her own. The timing had been on her side; she had just graduated middle school, and had managed to keep straight A’s for the last year and a half. Rose had been sympathetic, but she had said there was no way they would be able to budget anything other than what was in the deal that they had already made for the computers. But in light of Sunset’s progress, Violet Dusk had managed to find a way to cover the extra funding.

Which was perfect, because Sunset was more than ready to not have to share computer times with other kids. There were twenty-three kids at New Horizons, and they had all needed to share the three computers that were in the communal lounge room. On a good day, she could maybe get to spend four hours on one of them. Now, she would get to spend as much time as she wanted on a computer she had the satisfaction of knowing she personally had built.

With a few final clicks, everything was set up. She watched the progress bar move ever so slowly as the OS installed. She just hoped it would be finished by the time she got back.

Since there was nothing else she could do with her computer, Sunset left her room to look for Rose. She didn’t have to look for long, as they met in the hallway.

“I was just coming to get you,” Rose said. “Ready to go?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

As they walked outside, Sunset kept her pace slow so as to walk side by side with the elderly caretaker. It was more than a bit frustrating, but there was nothing much to be done about it. Rose was the easiest of all the caretakers to get her way with, and Rose was old. While everyone at New Horizons cared about the children, the rest of the staff would be too busy with their work to drive one teenager somewhere that was easily in walking distance. But Rose didn’t have many obligations anymore. In truth, she had been past the age of retirement for some time – she just didn’t have anywhere else to retire to.

Although she had slowed down considerably, Rose usually managed to get around well enough. But getting into the large van took her a lot more effort than it had a few years prior, and even Sunset felt a little bad for coercing her into driving. That wouldn’t last, though. She’d be grateful for the extra time once she got back to her computer.

Rose squinted as she checked her surroundings, then shifted into reverse and pulled out of the parking space. Thankfully, once they were on the road, Rose managed much better. She made casual conversation along the way, asking all the standard questions about how Sunset felt now that she was about to transition into high school. Sunset didn’t particularly care for the small talk, but she humored Rose. It was only a short drive, and life was easier when she was in Rose’s good graces.

“Here we are,” Rose said as she pulled into the coffee shop’s parking lot.

“Thanks for the ride,” Sunset said, showing a friendly smile as she got out. “I can just walk back, so I’ll see you later, Ms. Rose.”

“Alright, Sunset. And be sure to thank Mrs. Dusk for the computer.”

“Will do.” Sunset closed the door and waved, then turned to enter the coffee shop. It would’ve been easier to just meet with Violet at the orphanage, but Sunset preferred to speak with her away from other kids and caretakers. As a matter of policy, Violet had allowed Sunset to choose their meeting locations for years; wherever Sunset felt most comfortable opening up would be ideal.

A quick scan of the tables revealed Violet had already arrived. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long,” Sunset said as she approached.

“No, I’ve only been here a few minutes.” Violet slid a cup across the table, reminding Sunset that there was another reason why it was nice to meet her outside of the orphanage. “I got you something. You like mocha, right?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Sunset took a sip and smirked. “It’s decaf, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is. Can you tell, or was that just a guess?”

Sunset shrugged. “A little, but it’s fine.” That was typical of Violet. She knew that Rose wouldn’t approve of her drinking regular coffee, so she wouldn’t overstep her bounds by ordering it. But she also wasn’t stupid, so she certainly knew that’s what Sunset would’ve ordered herself. It didn’t make much difference to someone like Violet. She had far bigger things to worry about than Sunset’s caffeine intake, so long as she wasn’t the one providing it.

“So, is there anything new going on?” Violet asked. The meeting was really just a routine check up, insofar as Sunset was aware. Violet probably didn’t intend to move past their basic script of pleasantries and reassurances that Sunset had managed to not fuck anything up.

That said, Sunset was at least a little excited to share her accomplishment. “Well, I set up my computer. Everything’s installing right now.”

Violet smiled knowingly. “I suppose I see why you wanted the caffeine now. You aren’t planning on sleeping tonight, are you?”

“Violet, please.” Sunset folded her arms in pretend indignation. “You know New Horizons has a curfew.”

“Of course I do. But I also remember being fourteen.”

Although Violet had the tendency to say everything in a serious tone, Sunset had been seeing her for nine years. She knew Violet didn’t really care about her sleeping habits either, so long as Sunset stayed on track with the things she did care about. “Well, at least it’ll be something to keep me out of trouble.”

“One can only hope.” Violet took a sip of her coffee. “Suppose that it’ll also keep you indoors for the last few weeks of summer.”

Sunset smirked. “Sorry, guess I won’t be going out to play with the other kids too much.”

“It wouldn’t kill you to make some friends. You might be –”

“–surprised, I know.” Sunset leaned forward. She dropped the playful smirk and set her coffee aside. “Look, Violet, we both know I don’t fit in with kids my own age. You’re pretty much the closest thing I have to a friendly relationship.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Other adults still treat me like the poor little girl who’ll be fine if I just get enough hugs. And kids my age are going through the stupid phases that they’ll be embarrassed about in five years.”

“Don’t underestimate young adults. Most of them will probably need ten years before they really cringe when looking back.”

“See! That’s what I mean! Anyone else would’ve tried to explain that I was wrong. But you didn’t, because you’ll actually listen to what I have to say before shooting it down. Because even when I was five, you treated me more like an adult than anyone else does now.”

“This is leading to you suggesting something that you don’t want me to shoot down immediately, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is.” Sunset wasn’t surprised that Violet had seen through her set up immediately. Violet really was the only person that could ever keep up with Sunset, and she was more amused than anything. But as she continued, Sunset’s tone turned somber. Part of it was intentional, to show Violet how much she meant what she was about to say. But beyond that, there was the fact that she really did mean it. A rare truth that she normally wouldn’t let slip. “I’m not like other kids. And I know everyone my age says that, but you also know that for me, it’s true. I feel more like an adult trapped in a kid’s body. I’ve felt like that for a long time, really.”

“You know I can’t do anything to make other people take you seriously.”

“I know that. Which is exactly why I want to leave New Horizons. I’m never going to fit in there, or anywhere else with other people.”

“I’m not going to help you become a hermit out in the woods.”

Sunset normally appreciated Violet’s humor, but she ignored the joke. “I want to live on my own. In my own house or apartment. I definitely don’t want to live with kids, and honestly? I don’t want to live with adults either. It’s not like anyone is going to take me seriously as long as I’m still a minor. So I just want to live alone.”

Violet sighed. “If you were anyone else, I’d think this is a joke. But of course it isn’t, is it?”

“No. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I honestly think that’s the best thing for me.”

“Like you already said, you are a minor.”

“I know, but minors can live alone if emancipated from their legal guardian. That’s the state in my case, so there won’t be any sort of emotional reason for them to try and stop me. Proving that I’m capable of taking care of myself and making a sound case for this decision should be all I need to do.”

“You make it sound so easy.” Violet looked like she couldn’t decide between smiling and letting her head fall on the table. She settled for a weary frown. “But I know you better than that. Since you’ve done your homework, you know it’s difficult to get emancipated.”

“I know. And I know I’m not at the point where that’s even possible right now. But if you help me, I know it’ll be a lot easier to move through the court system.”

“Yes, it would be.” Violet didn’t seem happy about that fact. “But there are numerous hurdles to overcome before that’s even a possibility, and I certainly hope you’re not taking it as a given that I’m going to go through with helping you with this.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Sunset looked up at Violet and tried to capture the most earnest look she could. “So tell me, what do I need to do to convince you that I can handle this?”

“Well, let’s start with the obvious. You’ll need a reliable source of income.”

Sunset nodded. “Of course. I’m sure I can find a job.”

“Which you’ll need to balance with school.”

“I can do that. And once I get a job, I’ll prove it to you.”

“You’ll need to find housing.”

“Actually, I was hoping that was one of the things you could help me with,” Sunset said, then thought better of her answer. “But if not then I’m sure I could still manage.”

Violet nodded. “Yes, I could help you with that. That is the sort of thing I do with some of my older clients, and it’s something I had planned on doing with you. Of course, that was going to be a few years down the line.”

“Right. So, I know what I need to do for the court, but what do I need to do to convince you?” Sunset didn’t like the expression Violet was giving her, so she added, “You told me before that what you really wanted was for me to find something I could work for. So let me work for this.”

For a moment, Violet didn’t answer. She folded her hands, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, she had lost the weariness and returned to her usual impassive look. “I can’t deny that your logic checks out. I had always hoped you could settle in a bit better at New Horizons, but I’ve known for years that it just isn’t going to happen. Even when you’re doing good – perfect grades and attendance at school, no trouble with the law or other kids – you still detach yourself from everyone else. But you do function incredibly well when you set your mind to it, so I’m open to this idea if you can convince me.

“So here’s what you need to do: First, you’ll have to manage work without it affecting your grades. You have a very bright future ahead of you, and I don’t want you to throw that away. Second, you’ll need some life skills. I’m sure your new school offers some home economics classes, which I recommend you take. But beyond that, I’m sure Ms. Rose would love nothing more than to help teach you how to maintain a household, and there’s no one better than her at doing it. Third, whether you like it or not, sometimes you’ll have to get along with your peers. Not causing problems is enough to get you by, but you’re going to have to make an honest effort to connect with someone. No one’s expecting you to become the most popular girl in school, but you’ll need at least a few friends before I sign off on you cutting yourself off from others.”

Spend more time with Rose and make friends? Violet was clearly trying to get Sunset into the exact social situation that would make her give up on wanting to live alone. Sunset was about to try and argue it, but then something occurred to her. It was something in how she said it. She’d never outright say it, but there was subtext hidden in her instructions. Whether you like it or not. Fake it if you have to.

“Friends.” Sunset nodded. “Admittedly a lot harder than acing school and getting a job, but I’ll manage.”

Violet nodded. Sunset suspected Violet knew she’d caught on. “And above all, you’ll need to impress me. Sorry, but there’s no itemized list I can give you of everything you need to do. The best advice I can give you is to just keep doing anything you think will help you get further in your goal.”

“Just wing it?” Sunset smirked. She finally remembered her coffee, and took a sip. It had cooled a bit more than she would’ve liked, but it was still warm. “No problem. I excel at thinking on my feet.”

“You’re right. I don’t think anyone else would stand a chance, but you? Maybe.” Violet drank the remainder of her own coffee. “At least a new school will give you the perfect chance to start fresh.”

“Yeah, that’s true.” Even after Sunset had started improving her grades, Violet suspected a complete change of scenery would be in her best interest. So instead of going to the nearby school that she was zoned for, Violet arranged for Sunset to go to a school clear across town. Since most of Sunset’s classmates from Everfree Middle would be going to the nearby school, including everyone at New Horizons, it really was a chance to start fresh.

Sunset was going to miss the hold she had over the student body, but she had faith in herself; it wouldn’t take her long to do something similar at the new school. Maybe she could even do it better. “Canterlot High, here I come.”


“Sunset Shimmer.”

The voice called to Sunset as she walked closer to the U-shaped building. It filled her with dread, but she did what she could to ignore it. She had to get to the statue in the courtyard. It was important.

Sunset had never been here before, but it was all she’d ever wanted.

The statue stood before her. A horse, rearing up into the air. She hated horses, and this one was the worst of all. It was the guardian, and it would find her unworthy.

Sunset had been here a thousand times, but she was still terrified.

The polished sides of the statue’s base reminded Sunset of a mirror. She reached her hand out to it, and the age old thought ran through her head. Would her hand stop when she touched the surface, or would she keep going through to the other side?

Sunset had been here once before, but she had forgotten that long ago.

Heart beating rapidly against her chest, Sunset held her hand almost to the statue’s surface. What would happen? She needed to know. She was afraid to know. She had once known.

“Sunset Shimmer.”

Startled into moving by the voice, Sunset’s hand shot forward, and she found out.

“It’s time to return home.”


A vibrating sound woke Sunset up. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if the dream had ended. They didn’t always end when she woke up, and the vibrating followed her in and out of consciousness.

But with a few panicked breaths, she was able to draw on the more reliable sensations. She could feel the softness of her bed, and the hardness of the wall beside it. Her mouth was dry, and there was sleep in her eyes. She reached a hand to her face and wiped her eyes, noting the way her fingers felt against her skin. Fingers were always a good sign.

The vibrating continued, but Sunset ignored it. It came from inside her bedframe, and she knew if anyone else was in the room, they wouldn’t be able to hear it. The worst thing to do would be to pay attention to it, since one thing led to another whenever that thing was involved. So instead, Sunset began her morning routine.

She turned on a light and dressed into the clothes she had set aside the night before, then pulled a small makeup bag out of a drawer. In recent times, Sunset had found a certain benefit to paying some attention to her appearance. Her biggest assets were and would always remain her intellect and quick thinking, but being able to disarm her peers with the right look helped too. And since it was the first day of school, Sunset wanted to make sure she looked her best.

Taking the bag with her, Sunset walked out into the hallway. She frowned when she saw the bathroom door closed with a light coming from underneath it. It seemed it had been too much to hope that the other high school aged kids at New Horizons would be trying to spend as much of the first day back to school sleeping as possible.

There wasn’t anything to do about it though; such was the downside of not allowing a mirror in her bedroom. Sunset pulled a hair brush out of the bag and took a seat in the hall, taking the time to work on untangling her hair.

“You’re up early,” someone said.

Sunset turned to see one of the overnight caretakers. She recognized him, but they didn’t really know one another. Up until now, Sunset had usually either been asleep or in her room whenever he was around.

“Might as well get an early start, right?” Since she wasn’t sure what the future with him might be like, the best thing to do would be to try and stay amiable. In general, it was a good policy for the New Horizons staff.

“That’s the spirit!” He wore a friendly smile and seemed entirely too enthusiastic for someone who had been awake all night only to have to deal with a bunch of teenagers as they woke up. “So, ready to return home?”

“What?” Sunset stopped brushing to give him her full attention.

“I said, are you ready to return to school?”

“Oh.” Sunset ignored the sense of unease and smiled. “Well, not really. But is anyone ever ready to go back to school?”

He laughed. “I guess that’s a fair point.”

The bathroom door opened, and Sunset seized the chance to excuse herself from the conversation. She’d long since learned better than to question these things. She’d misheard, and that was all there was to it.

The routine of finishing her hair and applying her makeup distracted Sunset from her thoughts. She had become well practiced at that, and she hadn’t devolved into a full episode in ages.

By the time she left the bathroom, Sunset was feeling much more composed. She joined the others for breakfast, and was content to find most of them were still half asleep and untalkative. Not that it would have mattered too much. Sunset’s school was farther than the others’, so she didn’t have much time anyway.

A quick check to make sure she had everything she needed, and Sunset was ready to go. On the way out, she reassured the caretaker that she knew where the bus stop was, and walked to it alone. She couldn’t help but think of how easy it would be to just skip school. But of course, the first day of school was too important to miss. She needed to get a feel for the students and teachers in order to establish herself as head bitch.

There were a few kids at Sunset’s bus stop. She adopted a half-lidded sleepy look to discourage anyone from talking to her, but kept her ears open for any useful information. They were just complaining about school starting again, which was to be expected. Not that she’d likely do too much with these kids anyway; they lived too close to her, so she’d be better off waiting until she was at school to start picking targets.

The bus ride was more of the same. The kids near the front were a bit more talkative than the ones in the back. Once Sunset had a better idea of the personality she’d be playing with them, she would gravitate further up to be near the information. But for now, she bided her time in the back, where the kids around her just seemed to want to sleep.

“Next stop, Canterlot High School!” the driver announced after picking up the last of the kids. Everyone joined in a chorus of boos and groans, which seemed to amuse the driver.

As for Sunset, she just found herself wondering what Canterlot High would have in store for her. There was something about the school that made her anxious. It wasn’t high school itself that nagged at her feelings. Sunset was reasonably sure that if she wanted to, she could push herself to graduate within a year.

But even if she couldn’t place what it was, there was definitely something that made Canterlot High School stand out to her. Although she’d explored most of the city, Canterlot High had always been too far, so there really wasn’t any reason for the school to stand out to her. She’d even turned down the chance to visit it with Rose during summer break, wanting to avoid meeting any of the other kids while parents were around.

Inhale. Hold the breath. Exhale. They were nearly at the school, then Sunset could see for herself that there was nothing to be anxious about. Just another school, just like Everfree Middle.

Sunset almost got herself to calm down, but then the bus rounded the corner. A large maroon building that curved in a U-shape came into view. Sunset would have screamed if she wasn’t completely frozen in place.

How many times? How many times had Sunset seen this building? For over a year, she had dreamed of this place. Night after night, always searching for it, sure that it was the answer to the questions she no longer remembered to ask.

She barely noticed when the bus stopped, but the door opening brought her to attention. She jumped up and practically ran to the front, not bothering to wait for anyone else.

“Now hold on there,” the bus driver said as she pushed past another student.

“Motion sickness,” Sunset said, the lie coming easily. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

Everyone got out of her way, which Sunset took full advantage of. As soon as she was off the bus, she began looking around. She was at the back of the school, but she needed to get to the front. Would it be there? Sunset was afraid of the answer.

There were staff members standing by the school, directing students where to go. Once she was in the building, Sunset wasn’t sure when she’d be able to get back out. And she was not waiting until the end of the day to see the front of the school.

Using the general chaos of the confused students as cover, Sunset walked towards the building but away from any entrances. She stayed within the crowd as best she could, but moved steadily towards where the busses pulled in. Once she reached the point where there would be no more student cover, she took a quick look around, then continued along on the grass to the side of the school.

Thankfully, there were a few students hanging around there as well. Older kids who all knew where they were, catching up with friends they hadn’t seen in months. Sunset kept her gaze pointed downwards and her look disinterested. So long as no one realized she was out of place, no one would question it.

As she approached the next corner, her heart began pounding furiously. There was always one point in the school that she went to in her dreams. It was somewhere important, but she didn’t know why. She paused for a moment at the corner. It was time to find out.

She turned the corner, and there it was. The statue of the horse rearing up onto its hind legs. Sunset’s jaw fell open and she stood rooted in place for a moment, then she ran. Giving up all pretense of not standing out, Sunset ran as fast as she could towards the statue.

She stopped just short of reaching it, collapsing to her knees in front of it. She couldn’t place why, but the square base that the statue stood on called to her far more than the horse itself did. The polished sides reminded Sunset of a mirror, and she found herself thinking the one thing she had trained herself to never so much as spare a thought to. ‘What’s on the other side?’

Sunset tentatively held up her hand to it. She took a deep breath, then reached out.

Solid.

He hand stopped, pressed up against the cold marble, and nothing happened. Well, almost nothing. Sunset rested her forehead against the marble and watched as little dark circles appeared on the ground wherever her tears fell.

‘It… it’s really here…’

Sunset was scared. There were things that she did not think about. Things she wouldn’t let herself think about. And now, so many of them were dancing through her mind, all connected to this one statue, the place where it all started.

Where what all started? It was right there. Sunset knew it was, knew there was something that she had buried in the deepest parts of her memory, something she had tried and failed to forget. It was right there, and it wanted to come out.

Sunset pulled her head up and looked into the marble. This was wrong. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. Something else was supposed to happen now. Everything was supposed to be better now.

But nothing happened.

No matter how much Sunset stared, no matter how much she willed something to happen, nothing did. She reached her hand up to her head, feeling a little above her forehead. Things were supposed to happen when Sunset willed them too. She could almost remember how that felt.

“Uh, are you okay, miss?” someone asked from behind her. Judging by his voice, he sounded like he was another student.

“I’m fine.” Sunset’s voice sounded detached from the rest of her body. It barely registered to her.

“You do know that the bell rang, right?”

Sunset didn’t want to turn away. She knew once she did, the magic would be gone. But she could already feel it fading as the other student’s voice pulled her out of the statue’s world and back into the one she was stuck in.

Realizing that it was over, Sunset turned around. He was definitely another student, and looked to be around Sunset’s age. He had light tan skin and two-toned blue hair, which he had slicked back. Sunset suspected that he thought he looked much cooler than he really did.

“Are… you sure you’re okay?” he asked when Sunset didn’t answer.

“Yeah, I… I don’t really feel that well.”

“Do you need to go to the nurse’s office? I think I know where it is.”

Sunset shook her head. “No, I’ll be alright.”

She started walking toward the school, and he ran to catch up with her. “Yeah, I hear you. My stomach’s feeling a little uneasy too. High school’s gonna be a lot tougher than middle school.”

Sunset didn’t answer him.

“Uh, well, I guess that’s only for Freshman though. What grade are you in?”

“Freshman,” Sunset said. She looked around and realized she had completely missed out on getting any sort of instructions. “Do you know where we’re supposed to go?”

“Oh, yeah!” He seemed happy to have some way to be useful and motioned for her to follow him. “All the different grades are gathering in different places. Seniors and Juniors are meeting with the principal and vice principal, so I don’t know who we’ll get, but Freshman are supposed to meet in the cafeteria.”

At least her guide knew where they were going. He was visibly unsure on one or two turns, but they wound up finding the cafeteria before long, and they weren’t the last ones in.

Nonetheless, the lady at the front of the room gave them a stern look as they walked in. They each took seats and waited as other kids filed in. No one seemed to want to talk under the teacher’s harsh gaze, but that suited Sunset just fine. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to anyone.

Eventually, enough of the kids arrived that the teacher began her speech. “Greetings, Canterlot High School Freshman. My name is Mrs. Harshwhinny, and there are a few things we’ll be going over before you can begin your career as students of our school.”

Sunset didn’t listen much to her words. They didn’t seem very important anymore. Nothing really did. Since she had laid eyes on that statue, nothing in this world quite felt real. It was just a dream, or a small part of a much more real world that she belonged to.

“And in just a moment, our principal will be –”

“Good morning, Canterlot High School!” a voice on the intercom cut Mrs. Harshwhinny off.

Sunset sat bolt upright, suddenly acutely aware of the world around her. Or at least, of one small part of it. That voice. She had heard it her whole life, both in her dreams and while awake. It called to her. It terrified her. It embodied everything she wanted, and everything she wanted to be.

“Welcome to what I’m sure will be the start of a fantastic new year! And of course, an extra big welcome to our youngest students for your first day as Canterlot Wondercolts!

“My name is Principal Celestia –”

“Princess Celestia,” Sunset muttered along with her introduction. She squeezed her eyes tight, shutting out everything except that voice.

“– and I hope you all know that my staff and I are here to help you on your journey towards education. All of you will be given your schedules once this announcement is over, and I know your teachers will be eagerly awaiting the chance to meet you, just as I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to see all the things we’ll achieve this year.”

I do not know what your future will hold, only that it will be a bright one.

“And I know that if we pull together, we will make it a year to remember. So don’t worry about starting over at a new school, or starting a new year in one you’ve already been to. Because I know all of you will help each other. So go forth, my wonderful students, and make me proud to be a Canterlot Wondercolt!”

‘Never lose your fire, my gifted student.’

Mrs. Harshwhinny tried to get the students back under her control, but everyone was suddenly fired up by Principal Celestia’s speech. Not Sunset, however.

Sunset was calm. It felt like things were suddenly coming back into focus. She was Sunset Shimmer, the most talented unicorn of her age, and the personal protégé of Princess Celestia. She may have lost her fire for a little while, but she had found it again. And she was going home.

17 – Going Through the Motions

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Chapter Seventeen

Going Through the Motions

It had been a hell of a day. Sunset moved from class to class, following her schedule without really thinking about it. She wasn’t sure how much she cared about school anymore, but it was easier to go through the motions than to try to think of anything else to do. And, really, she wasn’t sure how much she cared about anything anymore.

As soon as she had heard that voice, Sunset had been certain. But then as the day went on, that changed. Doubt set in. She had dreamed about the statue before, that much was certain. But was it so farfetched that she might have seen the school before? What was really more likely, that she had simply forgotten the school along with the rest of her early memories, or that she had come through a portal from another world?

But it hadn’t been the statue that did it. The statue had set her along the course, but it had been that voice. Her voice. Could that really be just another forgotten memory that her mind had repurposed to torment her? She knew that was the most likely answer, but she also knew that wasn’t what felt true.

Sunset placed her hand against the statue. It felt cold against her palm.

“You, uh, must really like that statue, huh?”

Sunset turned to see the guy from earlier, the one who had shown her where the cafeteria was. “What do you want?”

He seemed somewhat taken aback by the question. “I just wanted to see how you’re feeling. You seemed pretty out of it this morning.”

“I’m fine.” Sunset turned back to the statue. She was anything but fine. “I’m just… tired.”

“Yeah, I hear that.” He lingered in silence for a moment, then seemed to realize Sunset wasn’t going to say anything. “Er, my name’s Flash, by the way. Flash Sentry.”

Again, he was only met with silence.

“Am I… bothering you? I can go if you’d rather be alone.”

Sunset frowned. He reminded her of someone else, but she wouldn’t have left so easily.

“Right, well… I’ll see you around.”

“Sunset Shimmer.” It was the first time she had introduced herself all day. Reluctantly, Sunset gave Flash her full attention, turning her back on the statue. It wasn’t like it was going to get her anywhere.

Flash stuck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Sunset.”

Although Sunset wasn’t sure what she wanted from him – or even if she wanted anything at all – she shook his hand all the same. It was just easier to go through the motions.

“So, are you doing anything? I’ve got some time to kill if you want to maybe go out for lunch or something.”

Sunset wondered if he was always this forward. It didn’t really matter. “I’ve got a bus to catch.”

“Oh, alright. Well, there’s still some time before the buses leave. If, you know, you wanted to hang out here until then.”

Sunset’s initial thought was to tell him to get lost. Even if he could offer her some sort of social foothold, she really didn’t know if she even wanted to bother repeating her dominance over Everfree Middle School anymore. But before she did, she thought better of it. Perhaps there was something he could help her with after all.

“Do you… know where the principal’s office is?”

“Er…” Flash looked off to the side before deflating completely. “No idea.”

Sunset sighed. “Oh well. Guess I’ll find it myself then.”

“Oh! I, uh, think Principal Celestia is actually meeting with some of the students right now, though. I saw her on the way out here.”

Sunset had to bite back her impulse to ask why the hell he didn’t just mention that to begin with, since there wasn’t really any other reason for her to want to go to the principal’s office. “Can you show me where?”

“Sure! Right this way.”

Flash led the way proudly. While Sunset would normally use the walk there to prepare some kind of plan for when she spoke with the principal, she found it impossible to focus on that. It was hard to even think about what she’d say to someone she had been convinced existed only in her head. Much easier to just follow Flash quietly and observe the school around her.

Canterlot High seemed to be very different than Everfree had been. There was a general sense of camaraderie that had been completely absent at Sunset’s old school. The halls were filled with students engaged in friendly discussions despite very obvious differences between them. Over here, the jocks were socializing with the artists; over there, the preps were mingling with the hippies.

Of course, the students at Everfree Middle School had been younger. Some of them had started associating with specific cliques, but mostly they all blended together fairly well. It was fitting for the older teenage student body of Canterlot High School to cling to social constructs. It allowed them to feel like they were expressing themselves in a unique way, while also fitting in with others like them. That was to be expected, but it surprised Sunset to see them casually fraternize with one another.

It was kind of a pity. If Sunset did wind up deciding to repeat her role as Everfree’s ruler from the shadows, it might have proved useful for the school to be divided. In the end, it was just another reason to not bother.

“That’s her over there,” Flash said, pointing out a woman sitting on a bench and talking with students. It was unnecessary, as there couldn’t ever be any doubt in Sunset’s mind about whom she was looking at.

Princess Celestia. The Solar Princess and sole ruler of Equestria. Her mentor, her idol, the embodiment of everything Sunset wanted to be. The reason she had suffered for over eight years in a world she didn’t belong in. The one who haunted her dreams. And when that proved to no longer be enough, the nightmare that followed her into the waking world.

There were differences, of course. To anyone else, Princess Celestia would appear to be a perfectly normal person. She was perhaps taller than the average woman, but not abnormally so. But Sunset would never mistake her, human or otherwise. The snow white skin, the prismatic hair, and most of all those magenta eyes. Sunset would never forget the way those eyes stared at her the last time they had spoken.

“We’ll never get past this because you aren’t seeing how great I deserve to be. Is that really all you have to say to me?”

“No. The guards will escort you out.”

It was the biggest mistake Sunset had made in her entire life.

While Sunset stood frozen in place, something near her must have caught Princess Celestia’s attention. She turned her gaze towards Sunset, and they locked eyes.

And then in an instant, it was over. Sunset couldn’t find the will to care about anything other than the woman in front of her, but she had regarded her former student no differently than she would a complete stranger. She was already talking to someone else as Sunset’s world shattered.

Sunset took a step back while not turning away from Princess Celestia. No, that was wrong. It had to be. This person could not be her mentor.

Flash smiled, completely oblivious to Sunset’s distress. “Come on, let’s go introduce ourselves.”

Sunset barely glanced at him, but it was enough to get her attention away from Celestia. She abruptly turned around, walking back towards the front of the school.

“Huh? Hey, wait up!”

That couldn’t be her. It didn’t even make any sense. Celestia was a princess in another world; what could possibly cause her to give that up in order to become a high school principal?

“Sunset? Is… everything alright?”

There was a rational explanation for this. Sunset didn’t know what it was, but she knew there had to be one. Surely she hadn’t thought that Principal Celestia would really be a pony princess who had come to take Sunset back to where she belonged. That would be crazy.

“Look, you’re kind of worrying me here. I know we don’t really know each other, but if something’s wrong, I’d like to help.”

Sunset wasn’t crazy. Sometimes she saw or heard things that weren’t real, and she remembered a past that was impossible, but she kept a firm grip on what reality was. The second she let herself fall back into believing in things like Equestria, that would be when she really lost it.

But she’d already started believing, and she knew it. As much as she wanted to quiet that part of her now, it had been awoken as soon as she saw that statue.

Flash caught up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Sunset, wait.”

Sunset spun around and pushed it off. She did not like to be touched, especially by someone she didn’t even know.

“Uh…” Flash stood in place, hand still outstretched. After a moment, he withdrew it and awkwardly used it to scratch at the back of his neck. “So, what was that all about.”

Sunset took a deep breath. The truth was clearly out of the question, but she couldn’t think of a lie. “I… was expecting someone else.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

They both stood quietly for a moment, neither one really knowing what to say. Eventually, it was Flash that spoke up. “I guess you probably need to get to your bus then.”

Right. The bus. “Yeah, I should.” Without bothering to say goodbye, Sunset turned to walk down a different hallway leading to the back of the school.

She didn’t get very far before stopping in her tracks again. For one foolishly optimistic moment, Sunset thought she could get away unnoticed. But of course, right as she stopped, Applejack turned to look directly at Sunset.

What was Applejack doing at Canterlot High School? The whole point of Sunset going to a school across town was to escape the past. Applejack was supposed to be somewhere else, somewhere that Sunset could never hurt her again.

But there she was, and unlike Celestia, Applejack definitely recognized Sunset. Neither one moved, neither one turned away. One part of her past had forgotten her, and Sunset couldn’t handle it. Another part of her past remembered her, and Sunset couldn’t handle it.

And so, Sunset did the only thing she could do. She turned away from both, running instead for the front of the school.

Although she didn’t intend to, Sunset found herself quickly approaching Flash. Once he noticed her, he shot her a look of silent confusion.

Sunset didn’t even think about it. It was just easier to go along with someone else’s plan. “I changed my mind about heading home. So… if you want to go somewhere, I guess I have some time.”

Sunset was a little concerned that her earlier behavior might have caused him to lose interest in doing anything with her, but it seemed that was not the case. Flash grinned as he led them out of the school. “Great! Is there anywhere specific you’d like to go?”

“No.” Sunset fell into step alongside him, trying her best to not think about anything at all. “Wherever you want to go is fine with me.”


“And then I’m lucky enough to have Mrs. Harshwhinny for social studies as my last class,” Flash said, making sure to put on a sufficiently disgruntled face to show his lack of enthusiasm.

“I bet she’s fun,” Sunset deadpanned.

“You have no idea.”

Sunset chuckled and took a bite of her pizza. Flash knew the area around the school, and he took her to a local pizzeria. He politely followed suit in getting a vegetarian option, and they mostly talked about school. It was the type of social situation Sunset preferred to avoid, but it kept her from thinking about other things.

“So what about you?” Flash asked. “Your teachers seem okay?”

“I… wasn’t really paying much attention,” Sunset admitted. “I guess I really have been pretty out of it today.”

“Getting sick on the first day of school is pretty rough.”

Sunset knew she should just go along with the excuse, but she was too worn down to care. And she was certainly not about to try and fake symptoms to make for a believable lie. “I’m not really sick, there’s just… a lot of my mind.”

“Like what?”

‘Well, I’m kind of trying to figure out if I’m a magical horse from another world, or just an insane girl with a lot of talent at hiding how fucked up I am.’

“Nothing really, no need to worry about it.”

Flash got a certain look, one which Sunset recognized all too well. She had said the exact wrong thing, and now he wasn’t going to leave it alone. “Well, I’d like to help, if you’ll let me.”

That sounded familiar. They really were far too similar. Maybe that was why Sunset opened up, just a little. The day had been bad enough from the start, but running into Applejack had fractured her usual defenses. “It’s just… This is an important year for me.”

“What do you mean?”

Well, telling him anything about the portal was still out of the question, so Sunset went a different route. “I’m trying to get my own place. I can do it, but I need to prove to my social worker that I can handle it.”

It didn’t take long for Sunset to regret that decision. Flash held his pizza in the air, forgotten halfway to his mouth, as he stared wordlessly at Sunset.

“Sorry, too much info. Told you that it’d be better not to worry.”

Flash set his pizza down. “No, I’m glad you said something. Are you, er…” He looked around awkwardly and lowered his voice as he continued. “Do you need to get away from your parents or something?”

It was no wonder he thought Sunset meant she had an abusive home life. If she hadn’t been so distracted, she would have realized how she was making it sound. “No, I don’t have any parents. Not that I know of, anyway. I live at an orphanage.”

“Oh.” It took a moment, but Flash realized his sympathetic look was patronizing without Sunset needing to mention. “I didn’t even realize there were still orphanages.”

Sunset smirked at how overly forced his casual tone was. “New Horizons is technically a group home, which isn’t exactly the same thing.”

It was a bit funny. For the first time, Sunset was going to a school that none of the other kids she lived with attended, and she hadn’t expected to let anyone know where she lived. And yet, here she was, telling some guy she didn’t know on the first day of school.

“Well, in any case, I can see why you’d want your own place,” Flash said, finally managing to compose himself properly. “Plus it would be pretty cool to not have anyone to tell you what to do.”

Ah, the generic teenager response. “Yeah, I guess.”

“So what do you need to do to get there?”

Sunset sighed. “Honestly? I don’t exactly know. I know that I need a job for one thing, and to keep my grades up. But aside from that, she said I needed to impress her, but didn’t say exactly how I should do that.”

“So like, doing really good in school?”

“Not exactly. I already make straight A’s, so there’s not a lot of room for improvement. I guess the main thing is that she wants me to be more social. I’m not exactly the friendliest person.”

Sunset returned to her pizza, only noticing Flash was staring at her after she had taken a bite. She glanced as she finished chewing, and failed to figure out why he looked so confused. “What?”

“Uh, we’re kind of being social right now, you know.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but I don’t think my social worker is going to be sold because I went out for pizza.”

Flash smiled. “Well, I think I’m beginning to see the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not that you can’t be social, it’s your attitude towards it. It’s the first day of school, and you’ve already made a friend. I think she probably just wants you to make some small improvements here and there.”

It was tempting to point out that calling them friends was a stretch of the word, but Sunset thought back to the last meeting with Violet. She didn’t have to like it, but she would have to get along with her peers. And she could always fake it if she had to.

“You know, maybe you’re right.”

Flash nodded. “And if you really want to push yourself for it, maybe you could try joining some clubs and stuff.”

Now that was an idea. Violet couldn’t possibly claim she couldn’t work alongside her peers if she joined a club. “That sounds perfect, actually. I wonder what I should join.”

“Well, what are you interested in? I was thinking about joining a music club.”

“I don’t play any instruments, so that’s not gonna work.” And as much as Sunset loved computers, she couldn’t see herself enjoying being in a club with the type of people who would join a computer club. “Student government might be good.”

“I think they filled their positions before school even started. I take it you didn’t go to the Freshman Fair?”

Sunset frowned at her oversight. “No, I didn’t think it would be worth it.”

“The sports teams are probably all filled, too. There’s the drama club.”

“Eh, I’m not into sports anyway. Drama might work.” Sunset had cultivated a talent for carefully controlling her emotional responses through her constant lying over the years. She wondered if that would carry over into actually acting.

Flash nodded, then started counting on his fingers as he listed more off. “We’ve also got debate, journalism, dance, art…”

“Is there anything CHS doesn’t have a club for?”

“Not really. Wondercolts take a lot of pride in cultivating a wide range of interests.”

“You… read that directly off a pamphlet, didn’t you?”

Flash blushed. “Uh… yeah.”

Well, art and dance were definitely out. Drama could work, but why go with something so unsure? Debate sounded perfect for her, and she had no doubt she would excel at it, but one club in particular stood out. “Do you think the journalism team is still taking new members?”

“I don’t know. It’s worth checking out, though.”

Journalism wouldn’t exactly be Sunset’s first choice if she was just going by her interests, but it did hold a certain appeal. There could never be a better place to learn about her fellow students, and what little secrets they had to hide.

“Fair enough.” Sunset grinned and pointed to Flash’s plate. “Your food’s getting cold.”

They spent another half hour or so at the pizzeria, finishing their food while they continued to talk. Sunset paid much closer attention to how she was acting. It was easy. Just laugh at his jokes, make a few friendly jibes of her own, show some interest in the things he seemed interested in, stroke his ego once or twice.

And best of all, falling into the role of a friend proved to be a perfect distraction. It gave her just enough to focus on that she didn’t dwell on the events of earlier. Of course, that only meant that it couldn’t last.

“If I don’t head home, my dad’s gonna worry,” Flash said with a sigh.

“Yeah, probably a good idea.”

“I’ll see you at school tomorrow though, right?”

Sunset hesitated for a moment. For her whole life, Sunset had avoided becoming friends with anyone. And while it was necessary for winning over Violet, there was a part of her that didn’t want to change that. Wasn’t the whole point to avoid other people? What did she accomplish by befriending someone?

But Flash could be a lot worse. They didn’t share any classes together, so it wasn’t like Sunset would be seeing him constantly. All in all, he seemed like a safe choice, and it would be worth it in the end. “Yeah, see you then.” Besides, she could always drop him once she got her own place.

“Great! See you later, then.”

Flash stood up and walked away, leaving Sunset alone. Immediately, the same questions crept back in, but there was another one on top of it.

‘How the fuck am I getting home?’

Sighing, Sunset stood up as well. She had long since finished her food, and she wasn’t getting home by sitting in a booth at a pizzeria. She had a little cash on her, so she’d be able to take the city bus, but she wasn’t familiar with the routes.

And as she stepped out of the restaurant, she realized she wasn’t even sure where the nearest bus stop was. Without much else to do, Sunset picked a direction and started walking.

“Sunset!”

Sunset turned to see Flash Sentry running to catch up with her. “What’s up?”

Flash caught up to her before answering. “Hey, uh, you do have a way to get home, right? I know you said you were taking a bus earlier.”

Sunset shrugged. Even if she wasn’t entirely sure how things would go, she was sure she could figure it out. “Yeah, I’ll just take the city bus instead.”

“Want a ride? I’m sure my dad can bring you home, if you want.”

Really, Sunset didn’t want that at all. It was bad enough she had already divulged where she lived, she really didn’t need Flash to actually go to New Horizons. But she also was too far to walk, and even if she found a bus stop, she wouldn’t be sure that the bus she needed would stop there. As much as she hated it, Flash’s offer was the best she was getting.

“Are you sure it won’t be a problem?”

Flash grinned confidently. “Positive. Come on, my house is just a few blocks away.”

The neighborhood they walked through could best be described as completely normal. Picket fences, perfectly mown grass, houses that were all roughly the same size, which was neither too big nor too small. Everything was perfectly average.

Sunset resented it. She had always been conflicted on the idea of actually getting adopted, so she never really bothered to put on the nice girl act around potential parents. Still, there had definitely been a part of her that wanted this, or something like it. A perfectly normal house. Somewhere that the people around her didn’t constantly change, somewhere she could have some semblance of solitude, without twenty other children running around.

Soon enough. She just had to keep reminding herself that she’d be living on her own soon enough. And she had already reached an important milestone in achieving that: She had made a friend, or something close enough to one that she could fool Violet, if she could just prove that she wasn’t making him up.

Perhaps Flash visiting New Horizons wouldn’t be a bad thing after all.

“This is it,” Flash said as they approached a house that looked remarkably similar to those around it.

“Nice place,” Sunset said as she followed Flash inside.

She felt out of place. Ever since she had come to live at New Horizons, Sunset could count on one hand the number of times she had entered a regular house. Examining her surroundings revealed a world that she had seen hundreds of times on television, but which still seemed alien to her. There were pictures adorning the walls. Not of huge groups of kids, like at the orphanage, but of a few people that all looked similar enough to clearly be related. Mostly there were three: Flash Sentry, at various ages, and a man and woman who must have been his parents. Sunset took note that while there were recent pictures of him with his dad, any picture with his mom showed a much younger Flash.

The strangeness didn’t stop there. There were odd things here and there, knick-knacks collected throughout the years. The furniture was all mismatched, and in fact nothing in the house seemed to follow any set theme. Sunset got the impression that despite looking so similar to the other houses on the outside, the inside told a story which was entirely unique. A story that belonged to a real family.

“Dad must be working in the garage,” Flash said, bringing Sunset out of her thoughts. “Come on, I’ll introduce you two.”

As they walked down a hallway towards the garage, the sound of old school rock and roll grew more noticeable. It reached full volume as Flash opened the door to the garage. It didn’t look much like the perfectly orderly garages on TV did – everything was a disorderly mess, with tools scattered around on all the benches, paint and oil stains on everything, and more than a few rusty pieces of equipment that looked like they were just taking up space.

But among all the chaos, there were two sports cars, both of which were in pristine condition. The one closer to them was cherry red, and while Sunset didn’t know enough about cars to name the model, she was pretty sure it was a classic design. Flash walked over to it and knocked on the hood.

A man lying on a mechanic’s pallet slid out from underneath the body of the car. “Hey there, sport.” He grunted and stood up through obvious effort. “How was the first day?”

“It was good. Most of my teachers seem nice.” Flash gestured to Sunset, who was still in the doorway. “Dad, this is Sunset Shimmer. We met at school today. Sunset, this is my dad, Bottled Lightning.”

Bottled Lightning nodded and waved, revealing his hands were completely filthy. “Nice to meet you, Sunset. I trust you don’t mind if I skip the handshake for now.”

Sunset smirked. “I think that sounds reasonable.”

“We were wondering if you could give Sunset a ride home. She kinda missed her bus.”

Although it was technically not a lie, Sunset noted that Flash had neglected to mention she chose to miss her bus. Maybe he really wasn’t as hopeless as she always assumed everyone was.

“I don’t see why not. Give me a minute to finish up and get cleaned off, then we’ll head out.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Ha!” Bottled Lightning grinned and shook his head. “Lightning will do just fine, miss.”

Sunset nodded. “Alright, Lightning.” That suited her just fine. She wasn’t really fond of calling people ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, but if she was going to pretend to be friends with someone, being polite to his father was probably important.

As Lightning got back on the pallet, Flash led them out of the garage. “He seems nice,” Sunset said.

“Yeah, he is.”

They stopped by the kitchen to grab a couple cans of soda, then went to Flash’s room. Like the garage, it stood out from the rest of the house as its own unique space. There was only one photograph – a framed picture of the woman who Sunset was sure was Flash’s mom sat on a dresser. The rest of the pictures in the room took the form of posters covering the walls, most of which were bands that Sunset recognized. There were a couple model cars, both of which had a similar classic look to the ones in the garage. Also like the garage, it was a complete mess, with clothes and other miscellaneous things littering the floor.

Flash seemed embarrassed by the state of his room, but Sunset ignored it. Without waiting for an invitation, she walked in and sat on his bed. “Could you be any more of a guy?” she teased playfully.

Flash chuckled nervously and took a seat next to her. “Sorry, I wasn’t really expecting company.”

“It’s fine. Nice taste in music.”

The complement seemed to shake some of Flash’s embarrassment off. But instead of answering, he reached over the foot of the bed and grabbed an acoustic guitar. “You said you’ve never played before. Want to learn?”

Sunset had admittedly thought about learning an instrument before. But New Horizons didn’t have the funds to buy everything the kids might want, so if she was only likely to get one expensive thing, she knew early on that it was going to be her self-made computer. “Thanks, but I don’t know. I mean, I’m not gonna be able to practice.”

“We could make this a regular thing, if you want. You could come over after school for lessons. My dad could bring you home, so you wouldn’t have to worry about the bus.”

That was way more than Sunset was ready to commit to. “I’ll think about it. But I also need to get a job, and then if I join journalism or some other club.”

Flash nodded. “Fair enough. But here, at least give it a try while you’re here.”

Sunset took the guitar from him and plucked a few strings. She tried strumming them all at once, as well as trying while holding down different frets. Occasionally Flash would give her some input, but he mostly just let her play around on her own. She had no idea what notes she was playing, and there was certainly nothing as organized as real music coming out, but she couldn’t deny it was fun. She could see herself learning to play, if she ever decided she had time for it.

“The girl’s a natural,” Bottled Lightning said from the doorway, causing Sunset to blush.

“Sure is,” Flash agreed. “I was just telling her that she should come over regularly for lessons, if she can find the time.”

Lightning wore a smug smile. “That sounds like a good idea to me.”

Sunset awkwardly handed Flash his guitar back. “Maybe. But I think it’s going to be a pretty busy year for me.”

Thankfully, both father and son dropped the topic before Sunset had to keep making excuses. “Anyway, we can head out whenever you’re ready.”

“Yeah, I should probably head out,” Sunset said. She could already imagine the lecture once she got back, and just hoped that being out with a ‘friend’ would be reason enough to excuse her.

They followed Lightning into the garage, where they got into the back seat of the car he had been working on. Like most sports cars, the back seat was cramped, but Flash opted to sit in back with Sunset rather than the much roomier front next to his father.

“So, Flash show you his baby?” Lightning asked once he took his seat.

“His what?”

“The other car,” Flash said, gesturing to the black car next to the red one they were in. “It doesn’t run yet, but we’ve been restoring it. It’ll be ready by the time I get my permit.”

“That’s pretty cool. I guess I can see where you picked up an interest in cars.” Sunset turned to Lightning, who was just starting the engine. “So are you a mechanic?”

He chuckled. “No, although everyone says I should be. It’s really just a hobby of mine, though.”

“Don’t let him fool you, Dad used to be a racer.”

“Well, not officially,” Lightning clarified. “I used to live in the country, back before Flash was born. Me and some of my buddies would work on these hot rods, and race ‘em in our spare time. Never did it as a job, but I did win more bets than I lost.”

“Why didn’t you make a career out of it?” Sunset asked, although she could guess the answer.

“The usual. Met a girl, got married, moved into the suburbs. These days, I’d rather keep work and play separate.”

It sounded so bizarre to Sunset. She could clearly see that he revered his time spent racing cars, but he just pushed it aside. But prying any further would be rude, so she dropped the subject.

Thankfully, Lightning was familiar enough with the city that he recognized Sunset’s street address. It was fortunate, since Sunset wasn’t used to the side of town they were on.

Along the way, Sunset found another surprise in Flash and Lightning’s interactions. She had always expected most people’s relationships with their parents would be somewhat similar to how Sunset acted with Rose Petal, albeit more authentic. Respectful, yet casual, but not exactly friendly. And yet, while it was obvious that Flash held a lot of respect for Lightning, there was a level of camaraderie that Sunset hadn’t expected. A playful joking nature, almost more like how Sunset would match wits with Violet Dusk at times.

Just like she couldn’t understand how Lightning would drop his passion in favor of settling into quiet family life, she also couldn’t figure out their behavior. It was different from her and Rose, as well as from her and Violet. It was certainly nothing like Sunset’s relationship with her own parents, if those memories were even to be believed. The closest thing she could place it to was the earliest memories of her time with Celestia.

And again, the memories flooded back. Or perhaps, the delusions, but it was impossible to deny they felt more like memories.

A formal dinner with Canterlot nobility. The princesses leaned across the table to tell her bored pupil a joke. She could no longer remember how it went now, but it had certainly made her laugh.

Sunset failing to get a spell right on the first try. Celestia still found some reason to celebrate her failure. Surely no other filly could have even managed to come half as close to succeeding, after all.

The first night she stayed in the castle. Too prideful to admit that she was feeling homesick, and yet Celestia knew anyway. She joined her in the library for a late night reading session, choosing a silly paperback romance novel and good-naturedly letting Sunset tease her for it.

All at once, the memories flooded back.

“This is the street, right?” Lightning asked.

Sunset blinked and looked out the window at the familiar surroundings. She hadn’t even noticed they were so close. “Yeah. It’s actually that yellow building up there.”

As Lightning realized which building she meant, Sunset saw him glance back at her in the rearview mirror. He wore a similar expression of sympathy that his son had when he had learned Sunset was an orphan.

At least he kept his comment to himself as he pulled into the parking lot. “Thanks again for the ride,” Sunset said. Since there were no back doors, she had to wait for Flash to fold down the front passenger seat then follow him out of the car.

“No problem,” Lightning said. He winked as he added, “And you should think about taking Flash up on those guitar lessons.”

“I will,” Sunset assured him. She turned back to Flash. “Thanks for today. See you at school tomorrow.”

“Yeah, of course! See you, then.” Flash waited outside the car for a moment. Sunset hoped he wasn’t expecting a hug, but she knew he probably was. Once he finally gave up, he sat in the front with his dad, waving as he closed the door.

On one hand, Sunset was glad to be away from the forced socializing. It was easy enough to go along with it, but it was far from ideal. But on the other, those memories – or delusions, whichever they were – had come back at the worst possible time. Now she’d have them playing in her head while she was alone.

‘Well, there’s still one thing to do before I can be alone,’ Sunset reflected as she walked into New Horizons.

The receptionist smiled as she walked in, but it was quickly gone once she noticed it was Sunset she was smiling at. “Where have you been?”

“With a friend.” Sunset wasn’t sure if she would believe it, and she clearly didn’t.

“You know you’re supposed to call if you’re going somewhere.”

“Sorry, got kind of caught up.” This conversation was pointless. Sunset would just have to repeat everything later anyway. “Do you know where Ms. Rose is?”

The receptionist just frowned more. “Sunset, Ms. Rose isn’t the only person at New Horizons. I know you and her get along well, but sometimes you’ve got to –”

“There you are,” Rose said as she walked into the room. The receptionist looked pissed, and Sunset had to fight the urge to shoot her a smug look.

Instead, she cultivated the look she had decided on earlier. She slouched her shoulders and sighed, tilting her head to the side while letting her facial features fall flat. She carefully avoided eye contact. She would look somewhat apologetic, but also disappointed. “I’m sorry that I forgot to call. I was with a friend. We went out for lunch then his dad brought me home.”

“A friend?” Rose sounded interested. Perfect, Sunset had caught her off guard with that. Now it was time to follow up.

As Sunset narrowed her own eyes, she looked pointedly into Rose’s. The apology had been delivered, now she wanted answers. “How come you never told me I was found at CHS?”

Rose blinked a few times, seemingly taken by surprise. “What do you mean?”

“Nine years ago, the day I was brought to New Horizons, the police found me wandering around Canterlot High School. How come no one ever told me that?”

To her credit, Rose seemed genuinely perplexed. “I didn’t know that. I suppose they might have told me when you first came here, but that was a long time ago and my memory isn’t what it was.”

Sunset folded her arms and looked off to the side. “All those years,” she muttered, making it sound like she was talking to herself. “I kept looking for some sort of clue about who I am or where I came from, and that was probably hidden in a file somewhere.”

Rose sighed. “I am sorry, Sunset. Here, let’s get out of the entry hall so we can talk about this.”

Keeping her head hung low, Sunset followed Rose into an office. She avoided looking at the receptionist, but could imagine that she must be livid. But even if she was right in that Rose wasn’t in charge of New Horizons, no one was going to say that when she was in the room.

Once in the office, Rose didn’t sit down immediately. Instead, she rummaged through a filing cabinet while Sunset took a seat. “Here we go.” Rose set a file on the table, and Sunset was delighted to see her own name on it. “I don’t know if there’s anything in there that can help you now, but that’s all the information we have from when you were admitted to New Horizons.”

Sunset opened it up and skimmed the document. It contained a photograph of her on the day she was found, as well as all the basic information of her name, admission date, and physical appearance. At the bottom, there was a section for notes.

Sunset Shimmer was found alone, and seems to have no memories of her past. Possibly confused. When asked her age, she gave the answer of seventeen. Will be in regular contact with Dr. Crystal Clear to determine status of mental health. Social worker assignment pending.

And that was it. All the information they saw fit to give. “It doesn’t say.”

“I’m sorry, Sunset.”

Sunset sighed. She had actually gotten exactly what she wanted, but she still needed to look disappointed. “No, I’m sorry. I know better than to think you wouldn’t tell me if you knew.” With one last glance at the document, she closed the file and looked up at Rose. “I just… Once I got to school, I remembered that day so clearly. I still don’t remember what happened before it, though.”

“Well… I think you already know that if you were found near there, then that’s probably the neighborhood you used to live in. Maybe while you’re at school you’ll find other things that finally trigger those memories coming back.”

Sunset nodded.

“Do you want to talk about that? Or about anything else from school?”

Sunset opened her mouth, then closed it. She shook her head. “No… Thank you, but I just want to some time to think right now.”

“Of course.” Rose walked Sunset to the door. “But do remember that I’m always here to talk.”

“Thank you. I will.” Sunset kept her eyes pointed down as she walked to her bedroom. She looked to all the world as if she were lost in thought. In actuality, there was only one thought on her mind; a date that she needed to remember.

As soon as she was in her room, she grabbed a notepad and wrote it down. The date that she first came to New Horizons. The key to the puzzle.

Sunset sat down and closed her eyes. Sometimes memories came back to her. Sometimes she dreamt them. But for the first time since she was a small child, Sunset actually tried to remember.

It was harder than she thought it would be. She had remembered so many things throughout the day, and there seemed to be no end to the thoughts that would turn up. But to home in on one single memory was another matter entirely.

“Look into this mirror, and tell me what you see.”

“A beautiful pony that has nothing but power and potential.”

No.

“About that mirror…”

No.

“I was thinking about that mirror, and I still can’t figure it out.”

No.

So many memories connected to the mirror, but not the one she needed. She pushed for more.

“The Crystal Mirror… Every thirty moons a portal will open to… another world?”

Yes. Sunset’s eyes shot open as she came across the exact memory she needed. She grabbed the notepad and wrote ‘Every thirty moons’ underneath the date. She knew the date of one time the portal had been opened, and now she could figure out when it would be open again. She began frantically doing calculations to figure out the exact date it would be open again.

Oh sure, she could keep going through the motions here, make life easier for herself. Maybe she really was crazy after all, and this would turn out to be pointless. It’d be stupid to put all her faith into one plan or the other, especially when all there was to do for her return to Equestria was wait. All she needed to do was get to the statue on the right date, then she’d know for certain. Maybe it was impossible, but Sunset had finally found something that felt right, and she was not going to give it up again.

18 – No Other Way

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Chapter Eighteen

No Other Way

Waiting was, of course, much more difficult than it should have been. Every day crawled past agonizingly slowly, and Sunset could never get herself to stop thinking about the portal. Everything else mattered so much less with that end goal in mind. How could anything in this world compare to the one in her memories? She wasn’t convinced that anything would happen on the day the portal was supposed to open, but it felt so right that she stopped trying to question it. In any event, she was afraid of what would happen to her if it didn’t open.

And so it was more out of the need to distract herself that she continued with her other plans. Really, all she had to do was make sure she stayed at CHS for the remainder of the year, but putting forth only the minimal amount of effort was liable to drive her to a mental breakdown long before the portal opened. So she made it a goal to excel in every class. She put on the façade of the perfect student, winning over all of her teachers. If Violet checked in with them to see how Sunset was progressing – and Sunset very much hoped she would – she was certain to hear nothing but good things.

If that wasn’t enough, Sunset had also managed to join the journalism club. Since she was new to the team, she should have been assigned a boring job working behind the scenes. But since that wasn’t helpful to Sunset’s interests, she made sure to show off her charismatic side to the editor in chief, earning her a spot as a reporter.

If Sunset ever decided to continue her plan of dominating the school, she was in a perfect position to do it. She could interview the students and staff, gaining valuable intel in the process. The newspaper gave her the position to write stories as well, which would be a powerful tool in the flow of gossip if she could manage it well enough.

But whenever Sunset thought about that, she began second-guessing herself. What would be the point in doing all that work if she was just going to abandon the school in a year anyway? And honestly, what was she even going to gain from it all? Nothing in this world could compare to the one from her memories.

Well, almost nothing. There was one memory that still ate away at her, and she knew she had to face it sooner or later. And the longer she waited, the more it tormented her.

Which was why Sunset was finally going to face it. As soon as she got off the bus, she moved purposefully through the school. There was only so much time until class started, and she hoped she could get this done before then.

Unfortunately, she had no idea where to look. So she did the only logical thing: She looked everywhere. In the hallways, the library, the cafeteria, the lobby, but everywhere she went wound up being a waste of time.

Deciding she would have to wait until later, Sunset made her way to the front of the school. Even though the portal wouldn’t be active until the end of the year by her calculations, visiting the statue made Sunset feel like she was just a little bit closer to home. She would find herself stopping by it at least once per day, usually absent-mindedly.

Sunset placed her hand against the smooth marble. It was cold and solid, like ice that she was trapped beneath. And even if the sun still shone on the other side, the ice was too thick for it to guide her.

There was no sun in the reflection on the statue, but something else caught Sunset’s eye. A moment’s hesitation, fear of failure holding her back, but then Sunset spun around to and made her way across the courtyard.

“Applejack,” Sunset said once she finally approached the girl she had been looking for.

Applejack turned to face her, mouth hanging open slightly. “Sunset.”

Although Sunset had prepared words for this meeting, they all abandoned her. Instead, she found herself staring down at Applejack’s feet, unwilling to meet her eyes.

“Is, uhm, she a friend of yours?” another voice asked. Sunset had barely noticed her before, but another girl was standing beside Applejack. Sunset had seen her with Applejack before, but didn’t know who she was. She had yellow skin and pink hair, and her voice was so quiet Sunset had barely caught what she said.

“We know each other,” Applejack answered. Of course, it would be wrong to say that they had ever really been friends.

Sunset chanced a look up. Applejack had composed herself and stood with her arms folded. The tough girl act that Sunset had been so taken with seemed to be reserved exclusively for her these days. Every time she saw Applejack with anyone else, she was the warm person that Sunset hadn’t managed to forget.

“Can, uh, can we talk?” Sunset finally managed.

“I can’t think of anythin’ we need to talk about.”

Sunset winced at Applejack’s tone, and even her friend shrunk back in the face of the obvious hostility. She opened her mouth to respond, to convince Applejack that they should talk, and realized that they shouldn’t. Applejack was right, there was no good end to this.

“Yeah. Guess not. Forget about it then.” Sunset turned and walked away. It was easy; she’d already done it a thousand times before.

As she entered the school, Sunset forced down all the emotions she felt. Part of her was happy that Applejack pushed her away, proud even. She was finally taking care of herself. But at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel hurt. In the letter Applejack had written her, she had said that Sunset could talk to her if she ever changed her mind.

And Sunset had changed her mind. She’d change it, then change it back by the end of the day. It happened constantly since the winter Sunset had almost caused Applejack’s death. She wanted to push Applejack away, keep her safe. She wanted to apologize, to explain that she hadn’t meant all the things she said.

In the end, she always made the same decision. Sunset was not a good person, and she knew that. People around her could get hurt, and she’d probably be the one to do it. If she tried to be warm, she knew she would wind up burning anyone she cared about. It was better to be frozen and unwelcoming. There was no other way.

“Uhm, excuse me?”

‘What next?’ Sunset asked herself. She hadn’t counted on Applejack being the distant one. Even if she could acknowledge that it might be for the best, that wouldn’t stop her from endlessly dwelling on what might’ve been.

Someone tapped Sunset on the shoulder, causing her to wheel around. The quiet girl from outside backed up and stared at the ground, tucking in her arms as if to make herself as small as possible.

“What do you want?” Sunset asked. Even though her tone was more mild annoyance than aggression, the girl still flinched. It was pathetic to watch; Sunset could break her without even trying to.

“I… I’m…”

Sunset sighed. “You’re Applejack’s friend, right?”

“Mmm hmm.” The girl nodded, then started fidgeting with a strand of her hair. “I’m Fluttershy.”

Sunset waited a moment for her to get to the point, but it didn’t seem like it was happening anytime soon. “Yeah, that’s nice and all, but I have to get to class.”

Fluttershy frowned. “Oh. Okay, then…”

Rolling her eyes at the waste of time, Sunset turned to walk away.

“Wait!”

Sunset didn’t bother to turn around as she answered. “Congratulations. Your voice can get louder than ‘hamster’.”

“Uhm… You’re Applejack’s friend, too. Right?”

Strictly speaking, Sunset agreed with Applejack. They hadn’t ever really been friends, exactly. But she was too eager to get to the point of this conversation to point that out. “You could say that. Why do you ask?”

“Well, uhm, it’s just that… Applejack isn’t usually like that. She’s always so kind and thoughtful, and she’s always there to listen to what anyone has to say.”

As if Sunset needed someone to remind her of all the things that made Applejack great. “So did you just want to talk about your crush, or are you going somewhere with this?”

That left Fluttershy blushing, which Sunset had to admit was fun to watch. “It’s just that, well… When you left, she seemed so… sad.”

“Sad?” That didn’t make any sense. Fluttershy had to be imagining it.

Fluttershy nodded, then managed to look up into Sunset’s eyes without turning away. “I think… I think she really did want to find out what you wanted to talk about. She’s just… stubborn.”

At least that last part sounded right. “Look, Fluttershy, you seem like a nice girl. So let me offer you some advice, and maybe you’ll take it to heart better than our stubborn friend ever did. If you let yourself get too close to me, you’re going to wind up miserable in the end. So do yourself a favor, and forget about me. You’ll be a lot better off sticking with Applejack, anyway.”

Sunset walked away, and thankfully, Fluttershy didn’t try to stop her. Having someone who was obviously riddled with her own insecurities follow her around was the last thing either of them needed.


One of Sunset’s favorite things about high school was the increased freedom. In middle school, students were always supposed to be in certain places at certain times, and required permission to go anywhere else. It made lunch one of the most miserable times for her; she hated being around kids, and having a third of the school congregated into one place only made that worse.

But at CHS, she wasn’t confined to the cafeteria. The logical result was that she spent every lunch period in the library. It had been great. She could access the computers or books, get caught up on any homework assignments she hadn’t had time to do in class, and, best of all, no one bothered her. That is, until someone did. It had been great, right up until someone noticed that was where she spent most of her time.

“So any idea what you’re going to write about yet?” Flash asked.

While Sunset had remained somewhat standoffish with the rest of the students, she continued to spend time with Flash. Having someone she could claim as a genuine friend had impressed Violet, especially since Rose Petal had been able to confirm that they spent time together regularly.

“I don’t know. I thought I had something, but it wound up being a bust.” Sunset sighed. She had until the end of the week to show some progress for her first newspaper article, and the whole thing was supposed to be completed for editing a week after that. But all the easy topics were taken by the older reporters – back to school updates, the school’s sports teams, local fashion – leaving Sunset with a handful of stupid suggestions no one could possibly care about, and which wouldn’t help her learn the school any better.

“Hey, don’t worry so much. Whatever you come up with will be incredible, trust me.” Flash smiled that silly lovestruck smile he had whenever he was about to say something he thought was smooth. “I mean, how could it not be with you writing it?”

At least the fact that he was obviously smitten with her meant that it didn’t require much effort to keep his interest. Sunset smiled and brushed her hair behind her ear, and she could practically hear his heart melting. “Aww, thanks, Flash. You’re too sweet.”

The whole scene was too sweet; it left Flash blushing and made Sunset want to gag. But while she had no real interest in Flash, she did want to keep him interested. While her main tactic at Everfree had been fear, she was aware that affection was also a great way to manipulate people.

Although he tried to play it off and return to a casual topic, Flash kept grinning like an idiot as he talked. “Maybe you could write about music? You know, CHS has a long history of student formed bands. Might be an interesting topic.”

Sunset chuckled. “That’d probably be a good one, but I think I’ll wait until we get a few more lessons in. It’d be nice to know what the hell they’re talking about.”

“I dunno, I bet you already could.” The lovestruck expression returned. “You’ve been a quick learner, I’m pretty sure you’re going to be teaching me pretty soon.”

“I guess you have a point.” Despite her initial reluctance, Sunset took Flash up on the guitar lessons, at least until she found a job. Like everything she attempted, she found she excelled at it. It had only been a month and she was still a beginner, but she was picking it up faster than Flash thought she would. “I’ll think about it. Not like I have anything else to go with, not after this morning.”

It seemed that Sunset’s offhand remarks were finally piercing the veil of teenage hormones. “What happened this morning, anyway?”

“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Shucks, and you were doin’ so good, too.”

Sunset bolted upright and spun around in her chair to see Applejack wearing a sheepish look. Unsure of what to say, she simply found herself staring.

Applejack adjusted her hat and looked to the ground. “Sorry for interruptin’, but if ya still wanted to talk, well… I’d be happy to.”

Sunset tried to blink away her surprise and confusion, but neither would subside. After a moment, she stood up, grabbed her backpack, and took a step towards Applejack.

“I… guess I’ll see you later then?” Flash said from behind her. Sunset had completely forgotten about him.

She turned and tried to offer an apologetic smile, but she wasn’t sure how it came out. Suddenly, she found herself completely unable to regulate her body language. “Sorry, Flash. This is… kind of important.”

“Oh, alright then.” Flash was disappointed, and did a bad job at hiding it. Sunset didn’t really care.

He was saying goodbye, but she was already walking away. In the end, it was only the realization that Applejack was watching her that made Sunset turn back to offer a feeble wave.

The library at Canterlot High School was larger than any school library really needed to be, with an entire second floor. Without conferring with one another, that was where they went.

“Sorry for listenin’ in on your conversation just now,” Applejack said as they climbed the stairs.

Sunset just laughed it off. “That doesn’t really seem like you.”

Although Sunset honestly couldn’t care less, it seemed Applejack was embarrassed about it. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but then I saw you and him talkin’ and I guess… Well, you seem different than before.”

That wasn’t so easy to laugh off. If Sunset seemed different than before, that was really just because she had decided to fake it. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Still got a ways to go, though.” Applejack nudged her playfully, which caused Sunset to smile. “Ya coulda told your friend what was botherin’ you.”

“It’s just… a lot to get into.”

“I guess I can understand that. But you should try to be honest with your friends.” Applejack led the way into one of the many secluded places in between bookshelves, so they would have some privacy while they talked.

There was only one person that ever made Sunset want to be honest. Even though she knew it would be stupid, she was half tempted to admit to Applejack that Flash Sentry wasn’t really a friend. She reminded herself to hold her tongue and changed the subject. “So what made you come and find me?”

“The friend I was with this mornin’ talked me into it.”

Oh geez. Another person who didn’t know when to stay away. “Well, that was nice of her, but…” Sunset sighed. “She shouldn’t have. You were right this morning, there’s really no reason for us to talk.”

Applejack just smiled and placed her hand on Sunset’s shoulder, and Sunset could practically hear her heart melting. “Come on now, ya came to talk to me ‘bout somethin’. Might as well get on with it.”

Applejack was smiling. She wanted to talk to Sunset, to hear what she had to say. After everything that had happened, after Sunset had gone above and beyond to be as horrible as she could be, Applejack was still there. Maybe she really had changed, at least a little, because it was more than she could take.

“AJ, I’m… I’m so sorry.” Sunset reached her hand towards Applejack’s, which was still resting on her shoulder, but changed her mind at the last minute. Instead, she bowed her head into her palm. “I was awful, and you didn’t deserve any of it. I don’t even know how to explain myself. I guess I really can’t. There’s no excuse for the way I acted.”

It wasn’t enough. It never could be, and Sunset didn’t know why she thought it was even worth a shot. Sunset had spread rumors that made Applejack’s time at Everfree miserable, had constantly insulted her in the short time that they were talking, and had even almost killed her. No apology would change that, and Sunset didn’t have anything else to offer.

The silence said enough. Sunset didn’t want to hear Applejack’s answer anymore, and decided to just leave. “I should –”

“Well, I’ll be…” Applejack pulled her hand away, and Sunset found she couldn’t move after all. “I never thought I’d see the day. Apology accepted!”

“What?” Sunset looked up to see Applejack was smiling. That didn’t make sense, it shouldn’t be so easy. “But… but everything I said! Everything I did!”

Applejack just shrugged. “I forgive ya for all of it. That was a long time ago, and I think you’re a whole new person now.”

Forgiveness. Applejack forgave her. All it took was an apology, and she was forgiven. Sunset let out a weak laugh and shook her head. “Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

It was all she could do to keep herself from crying. She didn’t deserve forgiveness, didn’t deserve to have someone like Applejack in her life. “Thank you.”

“Aww, don’t worry about it. I’m just happy to see you’re finally figuring stuff out.”

Figuring stuff out? If anything, Sunset felt more confused than ever. “Could… you let Fluttershy know that I’m sorry for earlier? I kinda snapped at her when she tried to help.”

“Sure I can, but I got a better idea.” Applejack pulled out a phone to check the time, then motioned towards the library exit. “There’s still a bit left before lunch’s over. How ‘bout we go find her so you can tell her yourself? I’m sure she’ll forgive ya either way, but it’d mean a lot more comin’ from you.”

Sunset didn’t like to reach out to people. Extending an apology to Fluttershy had been more of an afterthought, and was more so because she was Applejack’s friend than because Sunset felt guilty. But the idea of going with Applejack to do it, of doing anything that Applejack had invited her to do, was impossible to resist.

Applejack led them out of the library, walking with a confidence Sunset wished she could manage herself. “So what are you doing all the way out in CHS, anyway?” Applejack asked casually as they walked.

“Getting away from everything that happened at Everfree. Or at least, I thought I was. Why are you here?”

“My granny works here, so it’s easy enough for her to bring me to and from school. And, well…”

Applejack shifted uncomfortably, and Sunset got the message. “Yeah, I guess you wanted to get away from Everfree too. Probably gave you a heart attack when you saw me.”

“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit nervous…” Applejack grinned and clapped Sunset on the back. “But hey! Looks like this wound up workin’ out for both of us!”

Sunset didn’t agree. Even if Applejack was quick to forgive her, she couldn’t help but feel like it would be safer for the two to be at different schools. Not that she could say something like that, not now. “I guess that’s true.”

“Sorry I didn’t listen to you earlier. Guess I was still pretty worried ‘bout what would happen.”

That was too far; there was no reason for Applejack to apologize for anything. “It’s fine, you had every reason to be wary. Please don’t apologize…”

For a moment, Applejack looked like she was going to press the apology, but she dropped it. “Hope I didn’t mess up ya up too much.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ya told your friend that you had somethin’ figured out until this mornin’. Me not talkin’ with ya is what messed up your plans, right?”

Sunset had already forgotten what she had been talking about when Applejack had walked up. Remembering caused her to blush. “Oh, don’t worry about that.”

“Uh huh. Thought so.” Applejack sighed. “I won’t force it out of you, but I’m sorry all the same.”

If Applejack was trying to manipulate Sunset into telling her what she had meant, she was doing an excellent job. Did she realize that, or was she innocently stumbling into the perfect responses? It didn’t matter; whether she knew what she was doing or not, Sunset couldn’t let her keep apologizing.

“It really wasn’t a big deal, and you probably wouldn’t have really been interested anyway.” Sunset chuckled, laughing at her own stupid plan. “I’m writing for the school newspaper now, and I was wondering, well, hoping I could maybe interview you and your friends.”

Applejack cocked her head to the side. “What for?”

Sunset wondered if Applejack had even noticed. “Well, you, Fluttershy, and the rest of your friends are pretty popular.”

Apparently, Applejack hadn’t noticed. “We are? I guess I can see Rainbow Dash, seein’ as she’s on the soccer team, and Rarity for sure. And Pinkie’s friends with everyone, so I suppose that makes sense. But I didn’t think anyone paid much mind to me and Fluttershy.”

It wasn’t really surprising that Applejack seemed to have no idea how these things work. “Well yeah, but when three of the most popular freshman are constantly hanging out, it makes the rest of their group popular by extension. Plus you five are known for just being completely inseparable. So I thought maybe, I don’t know, I could write a story on friendship or something.”

“Really?” Despite the explanation, Applejack still looked confused. If anything, she actually seemed more surprised than before. “We sure you’re the same Sunset Shimmer I went to middle school with?”

Sunset laughed. “Yeah, saying it out loud made me realize how dumb that idea was.”

Applejack shook her head and smiled. “Now don’t say that! I think it’s a great idea, and I’d be happy to help. Course I can’t speak for the others, but I reckon they won’t mind either.”

“I don’t know, doesn’t it seem a little too cheesy?”

“Maybe a little, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. You got any other ideas?”

Unfortunately, Applejack had her there. “Well, no…”

“Well then, might as well go for it. Come on, we can ask everyone now.”

Sunset stopped in front of the cafeteria. Applejack had a group of real friends waiting for her inside. She didn’t really need someone like Sunset to bring them down.

“You nervous?” Applejack asked.

Sunset smirked. “Nervous? The hell would I be nervous for?”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sunset had already obligated herself to this meeting. She just needed to go in and apologize to Fluttershy, no need to even ask about the interview.

She matched Applejack’s confidence as they walked in. Even if she wouldn’t ever be making friends with these girls, she still wanted to present the best possible image to Applejack’s friends.

Three of them were sitting around a table, while the fourth was standing on top of it. Although Sunset hadn’t met any of them, aside from Fluttershy earlier that day, she recognized the girl on the table as the one who was on the soccer team.

“And then whoosh! I jumped over the Shadowbolt player, and –”

“Rainbow, what do ya think you’re doin’?” Applejack asked as they approached.

Rainbow looked unamused by the interruption. “Trying to tell the story of last night’s game!”

“Uh, you do know we were all there, don’tcha?” Applejack asked. She shook her head and gestured to Sunset before Rainbow could answer. “Everyone, this is Sunset Shimmer, a friend of mine from middle school. Sunset, ya already met Fluttershy, and this is Rarity and Pinkie Pie.” She gestured towards each of her seated friends in turn.

Rainbow folded her arms and frowned at Applejack. “Forgetting someone?”

“Nope. I’m just not sure I want to admit that I’m friends with someone who stands on top of a table while she’s wearing a skirt.”

Rainbow Dash jumped off the table and pointedly ignored Applejack. She stuck her hand out towards Sunset and grinned. “Name’s Rainbow Dash. Star player of the Wondercolts soccer team, and soon-to-be star of the track team.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Sunset said, shaking her hand. “But aren’t auditions for the sports teams decided by now?”

“Yeah, but the coach realized the team needed someone like me, so they made an exception.” Rainbow shrugged, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

“It also helped that one of the other members moved away,” Pinkie said. She took Sunset’s hand and shook it vigorously. “My name’s Pinkie Pie! But I guess you already knew that since Applejack just introduced us. So anyway, I just know we’re all going to be best friends, and we can do all sorts of fun things together! We can all go to dances together, and have sleepovers, and maybe we can even start a band and fight magical creatures from another world, and we’ll hang out at the mall, and –”

Rarity cleared her throat and smiled when she saw she interrupted Pinkie’s rambling and caught Sunset’s attention. “Pinkie, it’s wonderful that you’re excited to greet our new friend, but let’s not overwhelm her. Please excuse her, she just gets a bit overexcited at times.”

“All the time!” Pinkie corrected cheerfully.

“I do think I speak for all of us when I say it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Rarity continued. “I wasn’t aware that any of Applejack’s old friends went to this school.”

As far as Sunset was aware, Applejack hadn’t had very many friends in middle school. She and Golden Harvest had remained close, but most of the other kids kept their distance. Despite her best efforts at stopping the rumors, Sunset never could salvage Applejack’s reputation.

But if Applejack had decided not to tell her new friends about that, then Sunset wasn’t going to be the one to tell them. “Well, we weren’t that close, really,” Sunset answered. She turned to the one person that hadn’t spoken since she had arrived. “Fluttershy, I… wanted to say sorry for earlier. I was upset, and I guess I kind of took it out on you.”

“Oh, uhm, it’s okay,” Fluttershy mumbled quietly. “I’m just happy everything worked out.”

Sunset couldn’t help but notice everyone else’s reactions as well. Rarity seemed to want to ask what was going on, but thought better of it, and kept to herself. Applejack smiled happily at the reconciliation, apparently oblivious to the fact that Fluttershy was still visibly upset. Rainbow Dash’s tone shifted instantly; she didn’t say anything, but she sat down next to Fluttershy and kept her eyes fixed on Sunset, watching for some sign that she would fuck something up.

And then there was Pinkie Pie. Without any forewarning, she stood up and grabbed Sunset by the arm, pulling her over to Fluttershy and then wrapping an arm around both of them. “Aww, no need to worry about it, Sunny! It happens to all of us sometimes, and I’m sure that Shy knows you didn’t mean to do anything bad!”

“O-of course,” Fluttershy stammered, sounding every bit as uncomfortable as Sunset felt.

Sunset pulled herself away. She hated being called Sunny, and having people touch her unexpectedly was even worse. If it wasn’t for the fact that Applejack was right next to her, she probably would’ve started yelling. And even though she restrained herself, she noticed Rainbow’s eyes had narrowed as if she was already expecting the worst.

It was time to get out. “Well, it was nice meeting all of you.”

She took a step backwards, right into Applejack’s outstretched arm. Sunset froze as Applejack gently placed her arm around her shoulder. “Sunset’s on the journalism team, and she was hoping she could interview the five of us for the paper.”

‘Fuck. I guess this is happening then…’ If it had been anyone else, there would be no way. But since it was Applejack, Sunset just smiled along sheepishly.

“You want to interview us for the school paper?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah, if you all don’t mind,” Sunset answered, hoping that they would, in fact, mind.

“Well, I for one am flattered,” Rarity said with a smile, “but whatever for?”

Before Sunset could answer, the bell rang. She wasn’t sure whether to be thankful that this conversation would be put on hold until she could figure out how to handle it, or if she should be pissed that it hadn’t rung a few minutes sooner. She opted for both.

“We’d love to!” Pinkie answered.

“I certainly know I’d be delighted, whatever the reason is,” Rarity agreed.

Rainbow looked like she was about to protest, but stopped when Fluttershy answered. “I guess if everyone else wants to, it’ll be okay.”

It seemed Fluttershy’s approval was all that Rainbow really needed, as she finally gave up the watchdog role. “Yeah, I guess I’ll let you interview me. Can’t say I’m surprised that you want to so badly.”

“Guess that settles that,” Applejack said. “But we should probably get to class.”

Sunset looked around at the five of them, smiling. “Thank you all. I’ll get in touch with you soon to schedule the interviews.”

As soon as she turned away, her smile fell into a scowl. She walked to her next class while fuming on the circumstances she was stuck in. Fluttershy could barely manage to speak at an audible level, Rainbow obviously didn’t want to try and get along, and Pinkie couldn’t understand the concept of personal space. The only one of Applejack’s friends Sunset didn’t already dislike was Rarity, and she didn’t exactly have a winning impression of her either.

And she’d be stuck interviewing them. About friendship, of all things. Not to mention she’d be walking on eggshells the whole time, since they were Applejack’s friends.

“Sunset, wait up,” Applejack called from behind her.

At least there would be one guilty pleasure involved. “I know you miss me, but you really should get to class,” Sunset said as she turned around.

Applejack smirked. “I’m going. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry if that was a bit much. I know Pinkie can come on a bit strong, and Rainbow…”

Sunset shrugged. “It’s fine. Stop apologizing so much.”

Applejack nodded. “And, you know… You’re welcome to join us more often if ya want to. You and your friend, if he doesn’t mind hanging out with a bunch of girls.”

“Loverboy? Something tells me he wouldn’t complain much.”

“So what do you say?” Applejack smiled. That perfect, friendly smile that had danced through Sunset’s memories and dreams for over a year. “Friends?”

Friends. They could actually be friends. Wasn’t that exactly what she wanted? Why fake a friendship with Flash when she could have a real one with Applejack? Sure, she’d have to put up with Applejack’s other friends, but wouldn’t that be worth it?

Of course it would be. There wasn’t even a real question there. Perhaps Sunset had changed, at least a little. For perhaps the first time, she was willing to admit to herself that being friends with Applejack was exactly what she wanted. And there she was, smiling that perfect smile, welcoming Sunset into her life.

“Thanks, AJ. That really does mean a lot to me.” Sunset smiled as well. “But there’s too many bad memories tied up in, well, us. I’m happy that you and I are good now, but I really want to focus on moving forward. I think that us being friends would complicate that.”

The perfect smile faded as Applejack turned her eyes to the ground. “I guess I see your point.” When she looked back up, Applejack was smiling again, but it wasn’t the same. “Well, alright then. But thanks for reaching out today. It’ll be nice to know we’re at least on better terms from now on.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. Anyway, I’ll catch up with you about the interview later.”

Applejack waved, then ran off. Sunset smiled to herself as she walked to her next class. She did the right thing, and that wasn’t something she experienced very often. Applejack had real friends, and didn’t need someone like Sunset bringing her down. It would be better this way.

If Sunset accepted the offer, she’d screw it up eventually. She always did. She could only keep Applejack safe by keeping her distant. Stay frozen, don’t let anyone important get close. There was no other way.

19 – Of Questions and Answers

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Chapter Nineteen

Of Questions and Answers

There was no vibrating anymore. No voice calling her name. There weren’t even nightmares. From the first day Sunset started attending Canterlot High School, everything went quiet.

The silence was bizarre. For the first time in years, Sunset was able to put her whole life back into focus without worrying about triggering hallucinations. It was exactly what she needed, but it was challenging in its own way.

If she accepted that Equestria was real, and she was usually inclined to do so, then it became hard to not get lost in the wasted years. It had been over eight years since she first stepped through the mirror, and in that time, she had done nothing but play make-believe with humans. There was possibly variation in the length of days – or even the flow of time itself – between the two worlds, but there was no denying that the portal had been open several times since Sunset’s first trip through it.

And, of course, there was always the fact that no matter what felt right, Sunset was too intelligent to not realize how ludicrous it all was. The time would come, and the statue would remain solid. It was the only answer that made any sense.

So Sunset worked on both fronts. Every day started with a trip to the statue, just in case time did work differently between the two worlds. And every day, it was nothing but a statue.

From there, Sunset would continue playing make-believe. She kept her grades perfect, she worked with the journalism team, she applied for jobs, and she continued seeing Flash Sentry.

For his part, he was quickly becoming one of the most popular freshmen in school. It wasn’t surprising, really. He was handsome, outgoing, charming without being cocky, he could play guitar, he dressed in the right way, and best of all, he was genuinely oblivious to all of this. It was as if he was made to be the perfect embodiment of all things that a teenager would find cool.

And by extension, that made Sunset cool. Other students began taking note of her. She was the pretty girl who effortlessly aced every class, she held a position that was usually not available to freshman by writing for the school paper, she always said the exact right things at the exact right times, but she stayed in the background enough that other students never felt threatened by her presence. And, of course, she exclusively hung out with Flash Sentry, the guy whom everyone else wanted to be.

And then there was the statue itself. Plenty of people had noticed Sunset’s habit of starting every morning by touching the base of the statue, but no one could figure out why. Sunset certainly wasn’t giving any clues out, so she had a mysterious element to her. It was the kind of quirk that seemed harmless enough to build interest without having the risk of making her seem weird.

“Yup, the statue’s still there,” Flash teased as he caught Sunset at the statue early one morning.

Sunset noticed the small crowd of people looking their way. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that while she never wanted their friendship, the adoration of others was another matter entirely. Sunset’s smile as she answered was almost more for them then for Flash. “Just making sure. It’s an important part of the school’s appearance, you know.”

“Yes, of course.” Flash knew better than to pry further. He leaned against the statue as he changed the subject. “So I was wondering… There’s a really great local band playing this weekend. Did you maybe want to go see them together?”

Sunset hesitated before answering. It was innocent enough. Sunset had never been to a concert before, and Flash did have good taste in music. It sounded like it could actually be fun. But she also wasn’t sure about the idea of seeing him over the weekend. They already saw each other every day at school, they had weekly guitar lessons, and Sunset had even introduced Flash and his dad to Rose Petal. It all served a purpose, since no one could claim she was just making him up, but it was all also overwhelming.

Flash misunderstood her hesitation. “Let’s go to the library. I can show you their website so you can hear what they sound like.”

At least his misunderstanding could work as an excuse to stall for time until she heard the band. “I’ve got to do something else before class starts, maybe you can show me after school?”

“Yeah, of course.” Flash seemed to take her lack of an answer as a ‘yes’. “You’re gonna love them, it’ll be a blast.”

“We’ll see, I guess.” Sunset began walking towards the school, eager to distance herself from the conversation. “But I’ll also have to see if I can even get permission to go to a concert.”

“I’m sure Miss Rose won’t mind.”

Unfortunately, so was Sunset. “Yeah, maybe. Anyway, I should get going if I want to get this taken care of on time!”

“Did you want any compan– Okay, guess not,” Flash muttered to himself as Sunset quickly walked away.

In a twisted way, it was good to have a dilemma with Flash. Sure, she’d be thinking about it all day, but that would hopefully stop her from thinking about other things. Things like whatever was about to happen in this meeting.

If Sunset was wrong about Equestria, then it was easy to see how her delusions could have formed. The first true memory that she could recall was being discovered at Canterlot High School, so it made sense that it worked its way into her psyche. But there were unexplained anomalies. It wasn’t like she couldn’t come up with possibilities, but she couldn’t be certain what was true, and that ate at her.

She could remember the day she was found, but she couldn’t remember it clearly enough. The stress, the overwhelming amount of new experiences, her young age, everything all piled up to leave Sunset with exceptionally vivid fragments of what happened, but with nothing to connect them together. And there was one particular gap that she was never satisfied leaving open.

Sunset knew Celestia. The statue had started her along the path, but Celestia’s voice had been what made everything click into place. And every day, she heard that voice again. It was only ever simple morning announcements to start the day, but no matter what Celestia was saying, that voice resounded through Sunset’s mind.

There were only three possibilities.

The first was that Princess Celestia and Principal Celestia were the same being. That didn’t make sense in a logical way, but if Equestria and Princess Celestia were real, then it was the most scientifically sound. When Sunset crossed through the portal, she was transformed from a pony to a human. It only made sense that the same thing would happen to Celestia. Had she followed Sunset after all? She could have gotten stuck in this world as well, and chose to remain at the school to monitor the portal. While it was disconcerting to imagine that the portal may no longer be working, it would be comforting to speak with Celestia again. To have her unquestionable word that yes, my gifted student, it was all real. You didn’t imagine it.

But Celestia had seen Sunset. On the first day of school, Celestia had looked directly into Sunset’s eyes, if only for a moment. Could she really have forgotten? It had been so long, but Sunset didn’t believe she was that replaceable. So the second possibility was that Princess Celestia and Principal Celestia were entirely separate individuals, in spite of the obvious similarities. The odds of that being a coincidence were minuscule to the point of being entirely negligible, but there was the possibility that the two worlds were completely parallel dimensions. That would explain another thing that had baffled Sunset: Several notable locations carried over. Canterlot was the city Sunset had lived in, and now it was her high school. She had gone to Everfree Middle School and White Tail Elementary, both of which were also places within Equestria. Although it sounded a bit too close to science fiction, it was something Sunset couldn’t rule out.

The third explanation was the worst, as well as the most likely. There was no Equestria. Sunset had adapted the place names of locations she knew into her fantasy, and she had somehow known Celestia in the past. They could even be related, although that was stretching it; the police had conducted a thorough investigation before giving up on finding Sunset’s parents, and she was sure that they would have found out if Sunset had any family willing to claim her in the state. And, of course, Celestia hadn’t recognized Sunset as a long-lost daughter when they saw one another. No, it was more likely that she had met Celestia, but in a much smaller way.

None of those explanations answered every question she had, but figuring out which one was true would be the key to solving the puzzle. But figuring out which was true would require Sunset to finally confront the one thing she had actively been avoiding.

Sunset stood outside of Principal Celestia’s office and tried to steel her nerves. All she did was waste time, however, so eventually she had to ignore the shaking of her hand and knock on the door.

“Come in,” Celestia’s voice called from the other side, sending shivers through Sunset’s body. She ignored those as well, and opened the door.

Sunset froze in place. Even her lungs stopped working as she stood transfixed at the sight of Celestia before her. The rest of the world faded away. It didn’t matter. All there was that was worth paying attention to was the woman that sat across the room.

Principal Celestia did not forget the rest of the world. She was not lost in memories of the girl who stood before her. If she had been, she wouldn’t have smiled so politely. She wouldn’t have casually raised a hand to gesture between Sunset and a chair across from her. She wouldn’t have maintained nothing more than polite pleasantness when she said, “Please, come in. What can I do for you, miss?”

And the world came rushing back. It was too much, and it threatened to overwhelm her. She forced herself to focus on one thing at a time. Step into the room. Close the door. Sit down.

Principal Celestia was waiting expectantly, so Sunset had to speak. Start with an introduction. “My name’s Sunset Shimmer.”

“Sunset Shimmer?” Celestia’s smile grew wider. Did she remember after all? “You’re the student that wrote the article on friendship. I have to say, I was very impressed.”

No, she didn’t. Focus, don’t lose sight of the goal. Thank her for the compliment. “Thank you, ma’am.” Move forward, don’t waste this chance. “There’s something I want to ask you.”

Principal Celestia chuckled. “Ah, I should’ve known. Every year, someone from the paper wants to do an interview. And while I’m always happy to oblige, you should know that it never goes over as well with the student body as you’d expect.”

A misunderstanding. Correct the mistake. “No, it’s not for the paper.”

Sunset took a deep breath and forced herself to look into Principal Celestia’s eyes. The memory of another Celestia’s eyes still burned in her mind, but these ones were simply warm. They were not the same Celestia, that much was apparent. “It’s actually… well, it’s about me.”

Principal Celestia looked puzzled, but patiently waited for more. “Oh?”

Sunset nodded. “Eight years ago, I was found at this school. I was alone and didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t remember anything about my life before then, like where I lived or who my parents were or anything. I…” Sunset closed her eyes. It felt wrong to lie to Celestia, even the wrong Celestia. “I still don’t remember anything from before that day.”

“My goodness.” Celestia reached her hand across the desk, placing it on top of Sunset’s. Sunset opened her eyes and stared at it, unable to think of anything other than how wrong it was. “That sounds awful. Were you ever able to find your way home?”

Sunset shook her head. “Someone did find me eventually, though. But I was so confused that I don’t remember who they were, or even what they looked like. I think it was two people, but I’m not really sure. I was hoping that maybe they worked at the school or something, so that I could get the chance to speak with them again. Have you ever heard about something like that?”

Principal Celestia contemplated the question for a moment. “Hmm… I’m sorry, but I don’t think I have. But I wasn’t at CHS eight years ago, so it’s still possible that it was one of the staff members.”

It hadn’t been Principal Celestia. She wasn’t even at CHS eight years ago. There was no way that Sunset had met her, unless it had happened before the day she was discovered. And at that, she showed no signs of recognizing Sunset by either appearance or name.

“But of course, there are other people who would’ve worked here at that time. Give me a bit to get in touch with anyone who might remember that, then I’ll get back to you with an answer.”

It probably didn’t matter, but Sunset nodded anyway. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Principal Celestia smiled. “Well then, unless there’s something else I can do for you, it’s probably best you get to class. I’ll send a message to you as soon as I know something.”

Sunset nodded again. “Right. Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure. It certainly isn’t every day that something like this happens.”

Sunset forced a smile. She wasn’t sure where she found the willpower, but she managed all the same. “Well, I hope not. I think one five-year-old found lost and alone is more than enough for any school.”

As she left, Sunset walked through the hallway in a daze. They were not the same Celestia. Sunset had ruled out one possibility, which meant she was that much closer to her answer. And she had also discovered that it was unlikely she had ever met this Celestia before.

Which meant the most likely answer became the possibility that she was in a parallel universe. It was fitting, once she thought about it. She had stepped through a mirror and into a bizarre reflection of the world she had once called home. There were probably other duplicate anomalies, if she allowed herself the chance to look into it.

But even if that answer meant Equestria existed, there was one inescapable problem with it.


Professor Inkwell had been a teacher at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Ms. Inkwell taught seniors about history at Canterlot High School.

Arpeggio Harmony had been a famous Equestrian composer. Rose used to play an Arpeggio Harmony cassette when she drove Sunset to appointments.

Stout Shield was the Captain of the Celestial Guard. Stout Shield was the head of the police department.

Not everything fit evenly, but there were connections for everything. An internet search for Clover the Clever didn’t reveal a historical figure celebrated for her achievements in both magical research and political revolution, for example. But there was a Clever Clover who had been a philosopher ahead of her time. She was seldom remembered because she was a woman at a time when human society would only accept males in educated fields, and her peers had stolen or defamed all of her accomplishments.

The parallels were endless. Human and pony society often chose to celebrate different individuals, but famous historical names still turned up. It became harder and harder to accept that Sunset was recontextualizing things and people she knew as part of an elaborate world of fantasy that she had created when she was five.

Which left her with just one problem.

It didn’t take long for Principal Celestia to get a message to Sunset. It was the end of the day, and a student aide brought a note to her last class asking that she go to the principal’s office after school. It seemed that Principal Celestia was nothing if not reliable.

Although she had only been interested in finding out if she had known Principal Celestia, Sunset was still curious to meet with the people who had found her. So after Vice Principal Luna gave the afternoon announcements to close the day, she calmly walked back to the principal’s office. There was no hesitation at the door. She was no longer worried about what would be inside.

“Come in,” Principal Celestia said when she knocked, and Sunset obeyed.

There were three people inside. Principal Celestia sat at her desk, seemingly pleased with herself. Sunset didn’t know the other two people by name, but she recognized them immediately. Seeing them in front of her filled in the gap, and she found herself able to recall them finding her across the street from the school.

“Sunset, this is Mr. Cranky Doodle and Mrs. Matilda. They’re both teachers here at CHS, and I believe they’re the people you’re looking for.”

It was clear that both Cranky Doodle and Matilda recognized Sunset as well. “My word,” Matilda said, a slow smile creeping on her face. “It really is you.”

Cranky seemed to be having more trouble moving past pure bewilderment, but he mumbled, “Well, I’ll be…”

It wasn’t often that Sunset was at a loss for words, but she found herself completely unprepared for a situation like this. She fixed a nervous smile and gave a small wave. “Uhm, hi.”

At least Principal Celestia seemed to realize that everyone else was feeling speechless, so she broke the ice herself. “I have to say I was quite amazed when Sunset told me the story this morning. I’d love to hear more about that day.”

Cranky cleared his throat and began the story. “Well, Matilda and I were on our way home when she saw a little girl hiding in a bush.”

“You said we should just leave her alone,” Matilda added.

“I thought she must be playing hide-and-seek.”

“But there were no other kids around. So I convinced him to at least go over and check on her. The poor dear was so frightened and confused.”

Sunset blushed and scratched the back of her head. “I… guess I just knew I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. Even if I didn’t know a whole lot else at the time.”

“That’s right, you didn’t remember where you lived,” Matilda said. “I hope the police were able to find your parents?”

Sunset shook her head. “I never remembered anything before that day. The police took me to a hospital to make sure I wasn’t hurt, then I got brought to New Horizons Home for Children. I still live there.”

Matilda held a hand over her mouth. “Oh, you poor thing.”

Sunset smiled. “I’m doing okay, though. And I realize that day could have been a lot worse. That’s why I wanted to find you two. I want to thank you both, I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t come along when you did.”

“Well, we couldn’t just leave you there,” Cranky said, looking somewhat embarrassed to be put in the spotlight.

They continued to talk about that day, and what Sunset had been up to since then. Principal Celestia made a point of telling Cranky and Matilda about Sunset’s article, which Cranky had to admit he hadn’t read, although he said he would soon.

The meeting remained cordial, if somewhat awkward. But Sunset was able to play it well once she was over the initial shock, and they were both delighted to learn that the confused little girl had grown into a polite young lady. Principal Celestia was clearly proud of both her staff and her Wondercolt, and never missed a chance to point out their virtues.

By the time Sunset was finally able to use her bus as an excuse to leave, she could tell they all loved her. And because she knew teachers talked among themselves, she was sure the adoration that the student body had for her would soon be spread to the teachers. She may not rule the school from the shadows, but it was still an accomplishment. And if Violet got word of how well liked she was becoming, it would be sure to reflect well on her.

Things were going great. There was only one problem.

On the way to the bus, Sunset ran into Flash. But he was more of an inconvenience than anything. “There you are,” he said when he saw her. “I was looking for you. Ready to go?”

Oh, right. It was Wednesday, the day she was supposed to go to Flash’s house for guitar lessons. “Sorry, Flash, but I’m not feeling so great. I’m just gonna head home today.”

Flash frowned, his expression somewhere between disappointment and concern. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I think I just need to get some rest.”

Biting back his disappointment, Flash nodded solemnly. “Alright, well, take it easy.” He looked off to the side and seemed to be embarrassed. “So, uh about that concert… How about I email you the band’s page, then you can check them out? Or, you know… If you don’t want to do that, maybe there’s something else we could do this weekend.”

Sunset cocked her head to the side. “If I don’t wind up going to the concert, just go without me.”

“Yeah, but…” Flash shook his head. “Well, we’ll figure it out when you’re feeling better.”

Sunset was confused by how embarrassed he seemed to be, but she didn’t have time or interest enough to figure out why. “Yeah, alright. I’ll see you later, Flash.”

“Bye, Sunset. Hope you feel better soon.”

Sunset walked away, aware that he was still watching her. She had more important things to worry about, though.

And she did, all the way back to the orphanage. She expected the bus ride would feel like an eternity, but she barely noticed it. Her mind was so preoccupied that time just passed her by. If she had thought about it, she would have preferred the bus to move at a crawl. It would be better than being home, as she knew there was no real relief waiting for her there. Thoughts danced in and out of her mind, but they always came back to the same one.

She didn’t run home from the bus stop. She didn’t rush to her room. She moved steadily and purposefully, but without hurry. There was nothing waiting for her. There would be no answer to her question.

Sunset didn’t speak to anyone when she walked into New Horizons. She kept her head down and walked to her room. She closed the door behind her and took off her backpack, setting it on the ground. Then she stood there, as if waiting for something to happen.

But nothing would, nothing ever did. Nothing real, anyway. Slowly, Sunset walked over to her bed. She moved the mattress, and reached her hand into a hole in the box spring. Inside it, there was a pillowcase, which she removed. It had become largely ignored, and Sunset didn’t plan on putting it back.

She replaced the mattress, taking care to line it up neatly, and sat down on it. One by one, she removed the contents. She pulled out the novel, and examined the cover. An Equestrian classic. She would have to read it again sometime soon. She pulled out the comic book and flipped through the pages. Pictures of ponies in almost every panel. Even in stylized form, they looked natural to her. She would reread that one, too. She pulled out the coin purse and opened it. It was full of copper coins that still shone brightly. She took out one of the bits and examined it, running her hand over the etchings, then put it back.

Then Sunset ran out of ways to keep stalling. Not that it mattered. One way or another, it was going to come down to this, and there would be no answer.

She pulled out the last item from the pillowcase. It was a brown journal with a yellow and red sun on the cover. Sunset had spent years pouring over every page, then she had spent years trying to forget about it. She opened to the first page.

Dearest Sunset Shimmer, my gifted student. I’m sure you’ve been wondering all day what this message would be.

Sunset turned to another page.

Greetings, my gifted student. I think today seems like the perfect chance to test the practical nature of this journal. I would like to invite you to join me in the castle gardens after your classes are over, if your parents will not mind your absence.

Sunset turned to another page.

Dear Sunset Shimmer, although I do agree that you are sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, I ask that you leave the teaching to Professor Inkwell.

Sunset turned to another page.

Dearest Sunset, thank you for telling me this. I know it may not always seem like it, but your parents do care for you. I am sorry to hear that you have any reason to feel otherwise, but you need never doubt this fact.

Everything suggested that Equestria was real. It was a parallel dimension, connected to but distinct from the world Sunset was now in. But there was still one problem.

“Why didn’t you write to me?”

Good morning, my gifted student. I trust that you’re finding your new room to your liking? With you staying in the castle, I can imagine no end to the ways that you’ll impress me. But first, we must have breakfast. I’m heading to the dining room now, and I hope that you’ll join me there.

“Why didn’t you try to find me?”

Sunset Shimmer, I must say that I’m disappointed. Cadance is a sweet filly, and she could use a friend in her new home. I had hoped that could be you, but I had at least expected you to treat her kindly, if nothing else.

“Why wasn’t I important enough?”

Dear Sunset, I am glad to hear that you’ve apologized to Cadance. I know it hasn’t always been easy for you to become close with your peers, but I do hope that you’ll give her a chance. I think that she isn’t the only one who could benefit from having a friend, you know.

“Why did you forget about me!?”

Happy birthday, Sunset. I hope no one has beaten me in being the first to say it. And even more so, I hope you’ll use the day as a chance to take some time away from your studies. Perhaps you could meet me for tea? It would be nice to have a chance to talk without it being related to your lessons. I hope you know that I always treasure the time we have together.

“Why did you lie to me!?”

Sunset grabbed the book by the pages and threw it, ripping out a handful of its pages as she did.

“Why am I stuck here!? Why do I have to be all alone!? Why don’t you care about me!?”

Sunset stared at the book until her vision blurred, and it gave her no answers. She collapsed on her bed, holding herself tightly as she sobbed. She could no longer form the words, but there could never be an answer anyway.

‘Why don’t you love me?’

20 – Pushing Boundaries

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Chapter Twenty

Pushing Boundaries

On some level, Sunset knew she should be excited for the evening. It would be her first time going to a concert, and Flash had been right about the band being good. It wasn’t like she had any other plans, and even if it did mean hanging out with Flash on a Saturday, he wasn’t that bad.

But still, Sunset just couldn’t bring herself to be interested. She had thought about cancelling, but she knew it was more important than ever to do something to keep herself preoccupied. And so she found herself lying on her bed, staring blankly at the ceiling but otherwise ready to go.

She resisted the urge for as long as she could, but inevitably Sunset turned her gaze to the bedside table. All of her belongings from Equestria sat on top of it. The only person she had even needed to hide them from was herself, after all, and Sunset was done hiding.

Her eyes settled on the journal, ignoring everything else. She tried to ignore it, but could never manage to do so for long. Sometimes she would flip through it, making sure to be careful around the pages that had been torn out. She had carefully smoothed them over and placed them neatly back in the book, but she was constantly worried they would fall out and be lost.

Today, however, she simply stared. The journal remained motionless, as it had every day since Sunset started at CHS. It was kind of funny. For years, she had been terrified every time she imagined that the book was vibrating, which was a frequent occurrence. Now she would give anything for it to vibrate, for some sign that someone on the other side of the mirror was reaching out to her.

The journal did not vibrate, but eventually there came a knock on the door. “Sunset? It’s me. Uh, Flash.”

“Come in.” Sunset used the moment it took him to open the door to roll her eyes. Even if she didn’t recognize his voice, he knew she didn’t have any other friends. How many guys did he think came to her room?

By the time he opened the door, she was sitting up. He smiled and blushed. “You, uh, look nice.”

Sunset hadn’t exactly planned her outfit out too much, honestly. It was just jeans and a hoodie, which she figured would be appropriate for a concert. But the compliment was hardly a surprise, so she just shrugged and smirked. “Thanks. Let’s get out of here.”

“Sounds good.” Flash didn’t show any signs of being upset that Sunset hadn’t complimented him back. Perhaps he just knew better than to expect it.

They left Sunset’s room and made their way outside, stopping only to assure the caretaker at the front desk that Sunset would be back before it was too late.

Outside, Flash’s dad was waiting for them. Flash opened the passenger door, folded down the chair, then waited for Sunset to get in before climbing into the seat next to her.

“Hey, Sunset. Feeling better?” Bottled Lightning asked.

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, feeling much better now.” It was true, so long as persistent anxiety counted as ‘much better’ than overwhelming dread.

“That’s good. Wouldn’t want to miss more guitar lessons.” Lightning grinned as he pulled out onto the road. “At the rate you’re going, pretty soon it’ll be you two up on the stage.”

Sunset chuckled. “I don’t know about that. It’s fun and all, but I can’t really see myself joining a band.”

“Why not?” Flash asked. “I think it’d be kinda fun.”

“You mean besides the fact that I’m still learning? I already have school, journalism, and job hunting to balance. Adding band practice and shows is probably a bit much.”

“You really want a job that bad?” Lightning asked.

Sunset nodded. “I need one to get my own place.” And, of course, to give her a reason to spend less time with her thoughts.

Lightning shook his head. “I think you’re rushing things, but I guess I can’t blame you. I wasn’t a hell of a lot better when I was younger, and at least you’re sticking with school. Tell you what, my brother-in-law owns a grocery store near the school. If you put in an application for an after-school job, I’ll go ahead and put in a good word for you.”

Well, look at that. Keeping Flash around was worth it after all. “Thanks, Lightning. That’d be perfect.”

“Well, what can I say. You’re a good kid.”

It was nice to see she was doing a good job of fooling people into believing that, and even better that it was paying off for her. The less time she had to herself, the less time she spent around the journal, the better.

That was the main reason she wound up accepting Flash’s invitation to the concert, after all. The band was good and she was interested in seeing a live show, but she really just wanted to fill up time. And what better way to do that than with music blaring in her ears, making it impossible to think about anything else?

After a short drive through the city, they pulled up to a small concert venue. It was attached to a bar, which was getting more of a crowd than the venue was. They could already hear music coming through an open door.

“I’ll see you two in a bit then,” Lightning said. “Text me once the concert’s winding down so that you’re not waiting out here by yourselves.”

“Will do,” Flash said as they exited the car. “And thanks again!”

After one final wave, Bottled Lightning drove off. They walked together to the concert venue, where a bouncer drew X’s onto their hands to signify that they were too young for alcohol. Sunset wondered how hard it would be to remove them, but decided it didn’t matter anyway. Even if Flash would be okay with drinking – and that was a pretty big ‘if’, considering he was the golden boy – she doubted that the bartender would believe they were twenty-one, X’s or not.

They entered into a small room that served as a foyer. There were bathrooms to one side, and it was separated from the stage area, thus allowing for people to talk. Still, it was noticeably louder than it had been even just outside of the door, and Sunset was surprised at the amount of people still trying to talk over it.

They moved through the crowd of people slowly, and made their way to the main room. It was significantly larger, with both standing room directly in front of the stage and seating surrounding that in a U-shape.

A few people moved about the stage, but the first band still hadn’t come on. The music was a playlist of popular artists that sounded similar; a mix of some artists that Sunset knew and some she didn’t.

There was no way they could find seats. Even though they showed up half an hour early, every seat was taken. So they found a place near the seating where they could stand and wait. They were near enough to the stage that they’d be able to see most of it clearly.

“It’ll get better once the band is on,” Flash said, speaking loudly to be heard over the music.

There were so many people all around them, and everything smelled of sweat and spilled beer. They had to stand uncomfortably close, and people still barely squeezed past them to get to the bar. And since people kept filing in, that would all only grow more true as the night went on and the audience grew drunker.

And Sunset loved it. The commotion in her head had no room due to all the commotion outside of it. “No, this is great.”

Flash grinned at hearing that. “Do you want to be on the ground or in a seat when the band comes on?”

Sunset’s laugh couldn’t be heard over the music. “I don’t think we’re getting a seat.”

“No, we can. We just need to be quick.” Flash gestured around to a few seats where people were anxiously watching the stage. “Once the band starts, a lot of people are gonna try to get in front of the stage. If we’re quick, we can fill in an empty spot.”

“Good thinking. Let’s try to do that, then.”

They kept their eyes open for an empty spot while they waited for the band to start, but no one was moving. Sure enough, however, once the lights dimmed and the music cut off, a fair amount of people tried rushing into the already overcrowded area in front of the stage. Flash quickly led them to a booth, and not a moment too soon. They were clearly not the only ones who had the same idea, as every seat was filled as quickly as they were opened.

“The hard part’s getting onto the floor,” Flash said once they were seated, and Sunset could see exactly what he meant. It had already been packed in front of the stage when they arrived, and now people were just compressing together even more. Everyone who had waited for the last minute to give up their seats was stuck in the back, barely able to see the stage.

Sunset was about to point that out, but she was cut off by the whole band starting in unison. The sounds of the band’s instruments all sort of blended together, making it difficult to decipher the individual member’s contributions, but it didn’t matter. Suddenly, the music from before seemed quiet in comparison, as the live music was loud enough that Sunset couldn’t hear herself think. It was perfect.


“I can’t believe you went in the mosh pit!” Flash said after the second band finished their set.

“I can’t believe it was so much fun!” Sunset was still beaming. Despite the fact that she normally didn’t like to be touched, it had been oddly thrilling to jump into the chaos. Even more so once she got the hang of it and stopped just getting pushed around at the whim of everyone else.

They were lucky enough to find a couple open seats as everyone shuffled around. “I’ll go get us some drinks,” Flash said once they secured their spot.

“That’d be great, I’m pretty much ready to drop dead.” They had quickly run to the floor as soon as the first band finished up, filling in empty places while others made for the bar, merch tables, or to look for empty seats. On the plus side, they had great spots for the band they had actually come to see. On the downside, they hadn’t had the chance to actually get anything to eat or drink since they arrived.

There was one more band before the night was out, and neither Flash nor Sunset had heard of them before. Apparently they were kind of a big deal in the local scene, judging by the way most of the audience were talking about them.

Sunset sat back and watched the crew on the stage as they reset it for the next band. She kept herself uncomfortably stretched across the seat next to her, making sure no one tried to take it as she wondered what was taking Flash so long.

By the time he returned, the third band was already setting up. “Sorry it took so long.”

“Get lost on the way to the bathroom or something?” Sunset asked as she sat up properly.

“No, I stopped to get you something.” Flash handed her a bottle of water, then pulled a shirt out from under his arm. He unfolded it to reveal it had the logo of the band they had come to see on it.

“Hey, that’s pretty cool! Thanks, Flash.”

“No problem. I just hope I got the right size.”

Sunset took the shirt and held it up to her torso. “I think it’ll be a good fit.”

“Good.” Flash took a drink from his own water bottle then looked around. “So, how do you like your first concert?”

“It’s been a lot of fun.” Sunset wasn’t sure why he needed to ask, since she’d pretty clearly been enjoying herself. “I’m glad I came.”

“Cool. ‘Cause I was thinking, well, maybe we could do stuff like this more often.”

And then it hit her. He was blushing and looking around nervously, and she knew exactly why he was making sure she was enjoying herself. He was setting up a topic Sunset did not want to touch. “Yeah, well, maybe. We’ll see how things go with work and stuff.”

“Yeah. I know you’re busy a lot of the time, but I was thinking. Maybe, well…”

Fuck. He was really going for it, and there was nothing Sunset could do. Why couldn’t the band just start playing at the perfect moment to cut him off? A glance to the stage revealed someone was currently tuning the bass, but Sunset didn’t even think he was a band member.

“Flash…” Sunset turned back to look at him, and he failed to make eye contact.

“Would you… want to go out with me?” Flash’s blush reached full force and he fidgeted in his seat. “Like, uh… dating?”

Sunset looked away and bowed her head. She had known Flash was infatuated with her, had even encouraged it, but she didn’t actually expect something like this. “You don’t want to date somebody like me…”

After a moment in which neither of them spoke, Sunset looked up to see he was still smiling, albeit very nervously. She realized he didn’t hear her and spoke up. “Flash, come on. You don’t even really know me.”

“Of course I do!” Flash insisted. His expression shifted towards being similar to the usual dopey look he got when trying to flatter Sunset, but more focused. She could tell he was determined to get his point through. “I think I know you better than anyone, Sunset. We see each other pretty much every day, and you’re… you’re incredible!”

Sunset just shook her head. “You don’t know the real me. Trust me on this one.”

Flash stared for a moment, and Sunset expected him to disagree again. Instead, he nodded and leaned closer. “Then I want to learn. Who is the real Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset smirked. “Look, if I don’t want to talk about that normally, why do you think I’m gonna do it here? I have to practically yell for you to hear me.”

Flash looked disappointed, but seemed to accept her point as he leaned back. “Alright, but just… think about it.”

Thinking about it was the last thing Sunset wanted to do. That was the point of the whole night, that Sunset wouldn’t have to think about things. But once the thought took hold, it was hard to get rid of.

She thought that once the third band came on, she’d be distracted once again. Not so. It helped quiet her thoughts a bit, but they bounced back every time she caught a glimpse of Flash.

Maybe it was just because she found herself unable to focus on them, but the band seemed less impressive than the two before had been. She waited until she finished her water, then she got Flash’s attention and leaned close to his ear, cupping her hands and speaking up so he could hear her. “What do you say we get out of here?”

Rather than try to answer with words, Flash gave her a bewildered look and shrugged. Sunset grinned and leaned in towards his ear again. “You wanted to see the real Sunset, right? Come on.”

Sunset stood up and, after a moment, Flash followed. Although she was kind of interested in seeing the last band, the feeling was gone, and she wanted Flash to see that she wasn’t the perfect girl he thought she was.

“Where are we going?” Flash asked as Sunset led them out of the building.

The fresh air was welcome after the stagnated smells within the concert venue. “I saw a store on the way in that I want to stop at.

It was getting late, but thankfully they still had a little time before it looked too suspicious for teenagers to be out. Also thankfully, they were far away from Sunset’s side of town, so it was unlikely that anyone in the store would recognize her.

After a few minutes of walking in awkward silence, they reached the store. “Wait out here,” Sunset instructed. Flash looked like he was going to protest, but Sunset walked in before he could.

It was too crowded. Sunset walked to the drink aisle as usual, but there were people there. So, keeping her eyes fixed ahead to make it look like she knew where she was going, she meandered around the store for a bit.

She was about to give up when she saw a display with six packs of beer. It was hardly her first choice, but there was no one around and the bottles could be taken out of the package without having to open anything. Lacking her usual purse, Sunset slipped a couple of bottles into her jacket pocket and kept walking, barely slowing her course.

She stopped to grab some candy from a nearby display, then backtracked to get some soda from the cooler before making her way to the front counter.

“Evening, miss,” the cashier said as she set the stuff on the counter.

“Hello,” Sunset said warmly.

“Don’t you think you’re out a bit late?”

He wasn’t scanning any of her items. Sunset knew what was up immediately – he had seen her in the mirror that was set up to monitor the store.

If it hadn’t been alcohol, Sunset could probably get away with it easily enough by just letting them kick her out. But as it was, she knew they’d want her to stick around until an adult picked her up.

Since that wasn’t happening, she wasted no time in bolting for the door.

“Wait! Get back here!”

Sunset ignored him and ran outside, then kept running.

“Sunset, what are –”

“Run! Now!”

Thankfully, Flash quickly jumped into action and ran alongside her. Unfortunately, so did the cashier. He must have hopped the counter, because he was already behind them.

The cashier had longer legs than either of them, but they only needed to make it to the edge of the parking lot. Sunset reached into her pocket and grabbed one of the beer bottles. She tossed it behind her as hard as she could, and was relieved to hear the cashier’s steps falter as the bottle broke.

It wasn’t long before he gave up completely. Sunset and Flash kept running, heading down a small neighborhood street. Only after they had rounded a corner did they slow down, although they didn’t stop completely.

“What… was that?” Flash asked as he tried to catch his breath.

Sunset laughed. “Well, he probably realized they don’t pay him enough to deal with shit like this.”

“You know what I mean.”

Sunset took a good look behind them to make absolutely sure that they weren’t being followed before turning down another side street just in case. They found themselves in front of a small field, which seemed as good a place as any.

“Are you gonna answer me?” Flash asked. Frankly, Sunset was a little surprised he was still following her.

Choosing a spot near a tree, Sunset sat down and pulled the remaining beer bottle out of her pocket. “You wanted to meet the real Sunset Shimmer, right? Well, this is me.”

Flash looked at her with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and maybe something else. Sunset got the impression that he himself didn’t know what he felt about what just happened.

It had been stupid to show Flash this side of her. If he told anyone and word found its way back to Violet Dusk, Sunset would never get emancipated. But there wasn’t helping what was already done. Besides, did it really matter anyway? Once the portal was open, Sunset was leaving this world for good.

“Don’t suppose you got a set of keys on you?” Sunset asked. That was one part of the plan she hadn’t thought through. “Belt buckle could work too, if it’s the right kind.

Flash sighed and took a seat next to her. He held out his hand and she handed over the bottle. She half expected that he’d just throw it out, or do something even stupider, like try and return it. Instead, he pulled out a multitool, folded out a bottle opener, and popped the cap off. He handed the bottle back to Sunset.

“Nice.” She took the bottle and drank from it. Beer would probably never be one of her favorites, but she liked it well enough. She offered the bottle back to Flash. “I tried getting one for each of us, but, well… you know.”

Flash hesitated a moment before accepting, and didn’t drink right away once he did. “Do you… do stuff like that a lot?”

Sunset shrugged. “Not as much as I used to. I got caught with a wine bottle a couple years ago, so I don’t usually bring it back to the orphanage anymore.”

After a few more moments of staring at the bottle, Flash took a swig. Probably too much at once, as he started coughing. “God, it’s so strong.”

Sunset laughed as she took the bottle back. “Easy there, golden boy.” Sunset took another drink, leaving about half the bottle. She smirked and nudged Flash playfully. “And hey, you can’t date a girl that out drinks you. Might damage your poor masculinity.”

Flash laughed and took the bottle back. “There’s no hidden Flash Sentry, you know. You should realize by now that I don’t care about stuff like that.”

“I dunno about that. I mean, I never thought the Flash Sentry I knew was gonna be the kinda guy I could drink beer with.”

Flash frowned at the comment, but drank some more. He handed the bottle back to Sunset. “Well, this isn’t exactly normal for me.”

“Not surprised.” Sunset drank some more and held up the bottle. It was almost empty.

“So, tell me more about the ‘real’ Sunset. Anything else I should know besides drinking?”

Sunset was going to give Flash the last of the beer, but changed her mind as the focus of the conversation fell on her. She finished the rest of the bottle and set it down. “There’s… it’s hard to explain.”

“Like I said before –” Flash set his hand on top of hers “– I want to learn.”

Someone else had wanted to learn about her before. Someone Sunset had trusted, and who had then betrayed that trust. But Sunset wasn’t five years old and foolish enough to tell her whole story to the first person that seemed trustworthy.

“The real me is a fucking mess.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you don’t have to do everything alone?”

“More than once.”

Flash squeezed his hand around Sunset’s. “Look, I don’t want this to be about, you know, us dating. Because if you don’t want to then that’s okay, we can just stay friends. But either way, I’m here for you. So… talk to me.”

Why did he have to go and remind Sunset of Applejack? Why did she need two stubborn idiots who just couldn’t leave her alone? And who was Sunset, anyway? The real Sunset Shimmer was a unicorn and magical prodigy, but she couldn’t say that. She was the gifted student of Princess Celestia, her personal protégé and brightest pupil.

“Have you ever… wondered what someone thinks about you?” Sunset asked, bowing her head and staring at their shoes. “But you can’t ask because they’re not around. So you just… wonder if it’s because they thought you weren’t good enough. And you start to think that maybe… maybe they were right. And no matter what you try, you’re never good enough, because you just don’t get it.”

Flash waited to make sure she was done before speaking hesitantly. “I… I know I’m not even close to being in the same situation as you since my dad’s still around. But I do kinda know what you mean. I think about that all the time, actually. I wish my mom was still here to see me now. I wish I could know for sure that she’d be proud of the person I become.”

Sunset took her hand from his to pat his shoulder. “Hey, come on now. I don’t call you golden boy for nothing, you know. I know your mom would be proud of you.”

“Thanks. And I think yours would too, you know.”

“Heh.” Sunset shook her head. “She was always… trying to teach me something. And I tried, I don’t think she ever knew that, but I really tried for a while. I just… never understood what I was supposed to do. I don’t think I ever really felt what she wanted me to feel so eventually… I just gave up. And now she’s gone.”

Slowly, Flash moved his arm around Sunset’s shoulder. “Sunset, you really are amazing. You’re so talented, you’re like the smartest person I know, you never stop working. I mean, how many people our age are working towards getting their own place? There’s no way your mom wouldn’t be proud of you.”

Sunset shifted her position and wound up partially resting on Flash. “Yeah, right. Stealing and drinking beer. She’d be real proud.”

“No one’s perfect, Sunset.”

Sunset sighed and fully leaned against Flash. “She was.”

They sat together for a while without talking. Sunset didn’t know how she felt about what was happening. She didn’t like to be touched, and yet Flash had his arm around her. She didn’t want to get close to people, yet she was resting against him. She didn’t want people to know about her, yet she had opened up to him.

“How much longer until your dad starts to wonder?”

“I should probably text him.”

After waiting another few moments, Sunset stood up, with Flash following behind. They started making their way back, while Flash texted his dad.

“Hey, Flash?”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

Flash glanced up from his phone to show a puzzled expression. “Yes?”

“The question you asked at the concert. Yes.”

“The question… Oh!” Flash broke into a grin. “You mean… about dating?”

Sunset nodded. Why not? If anything, it would give her something else to fill her time with. He was popular, which would in turn make her more popular as well. And besides, even if she knew there was someone else she’d prefer, she knew that would never happen.

“Sure. I mean, you’re a pretty great guy. I still think you’re fucking crazy, but that’s on you.”

“Yes!” Flash threw his arms around her, causing her to tense up.

Sunset pushed him away. “You… should know I’m not really great with being touched.”

“Oh!” Flash stepped back and held up both his hands. “Sorry.”

Sunset sighed. “It’s fine.” They started walking in an awkward silence. Although she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to make the leap, Sunset held out her hand.

Flash took it, and they walked the rest of the way back in silence. At least Flash seemed content with how things were going. Sunset just tried not to think too much about abandoning him once the portal opened.

21 – Acquaintances

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Chapter Twenty-One

Acquaintances

It was snowing outside. Sunset had always hated the snow. It did nothing but make things cold and make it harder to get around. Not to mention that recent years had only made her feelings for it worse than before.

Still, she tried to stay positive. It was just a bit of snow, nothing she hadn’t experienced before. She rested her palm against the cold window and watched as snowflakes drifted to the ground. It was a picturesque scene, she supposed.

Not that she could bring herself to care about that. No, the only thing Sunset cared about was that now she was going to have to trudge through the snow to get to her meeting.

In that case, there wasn’t much reason to stick around. The longer she waited, the more snow there would be. So although leaving the warmth of the orphanage would be torturous, she bundled up and left her room.

She only got as far as the foyer before being stopped by the receptionist, however. “Oh, Sunset?” he said as she was walking past. “Mrs. Dusk called and said to wait here, she’ll come by and pick you up on account of the snow.”

Although Sunset wanted to ask why no one bothered to tell her until she was about to walk out the door, all she said was, “Great, thanks.”

Since she probably wouldn’t have enough time to do much of anything before Violet showed up, there wasn’t much reason to go back to her room. Instead, Sunset made her way to the lounge room. She hadn’t bothered with it too much since getting her computer, but she decided that the TV would be a perfect way to waste a few minutes.

There hadn’t really been any hope of the room being empty. Sure, some kids would be out playing in the snow, but Sunset wasn’t the only one who preferred to stay out of the cold. There were kids at all three computers, although that didn’t matter much; all the computers had headphones to make the shared space more tolerable, plus they were across the room from the TV.

Much more noteworthy to Sunset was the fact that two boys were already watching the TV. Or, to be more precise, they were sitting in front of it without showing much in the way of interest. Sunset recognized them as the newest admits to come stay at the orphanage. They were brothers, and had only arrived a few days prior.

Sunset took a seat near them. They both turned to look at her, but she didn’t pay much attention. The cartoon on the television was more than a little too childish for her, but it would suffice.

“Uh, hi,” one of the boys said.

Sunset glanced over and gave a small wave.

“I’m Snips,” he said cautiously.

Both of them looked apprehensive, and Sunset recognized what was going on. The kids at New Horizons were diverse, but there was one consistent: None of them were at there because they wanted to be. It didn’t take a prodigy to guess that something very bad had happened within the past few days to leave these two with nowhere else to go. And while everyone handled that in their own way, there were a few general patterns that came about regularly.

“Sunset Shimmer,” she answered back. She was still debating how to play this interaction, but giving her name wouldn’t hurt.

“And I’m Snails,” the other one said. “So, uhm, why are you –”

“Stop.” Sunset held up her palm to emphasize the command. “Do you really want to talk about your family or whatever?”

The two boys looked at each other before glancing down to the floor.

“Yeah, and neither does anyone else here,” Sunset said. “At least not to someone they just met. It’s usually a pretty sensitive subject.”

“Oh, uh, okay then,” Snails said. He and Snips turned back to the TV in silent resignation.

It was obvious they were reaching out to someone. There were twenty-four kids at New Horizons, but they were all different ages. Snips and Snails looked like they were probably a little younger than Sunset, but they were close enough in age that she was a prime candidate to be their way to make the most of a horrible situation.

None of which was really Sunset’s problem. They weren’t the first kids to try and make friends with her, and they wouldn’t be the last. Since they had given up already, it was the perfect chance to just let things end where they were.

But there was something different this time. For once, Sunset found an actual reason to play nice with her housemates. “So what school do you two go to?”

“Hollow Shades,” Snips said. He looked at her nervously, as if afraid she was going to tell him off again. “What about you?”

“CHS,” Sunset answered.

“I know where that is, it’s right by our house,” Snails said. It made sense; Hollow Shades Middle School was on the other side of town, near Canterlot High. “Or… it was…”

This was exactly why Sunset hated talking to new admits. Well, she hated talking to anyone that lived at the orphanage, but new admits were definitely in a class of their own.

Oh god, Snails looked like he was going to cry. Sunset was not prepared for that kind of situation. “So… you two are brothers, right? Must be pretty close in age if you’re at the same school.”

Snails just nodded in answer, clearly holding back tears.

“I’m a year older,” Snips said. He was much shorter than his brother, so Sunset would’ve guessed it was the other way around. “Snails just started going to Hollow Shades, but I’m in seventh grade.”

“Few more years until high school, then.” Sunset weighed her options one last time, then made a decision. “Well, when the time comes, you should consider CHS. It’s a pretty great school, and you’ll know at least one person there.”

Snips and Snails both smiled a little. At least it looked like the tears were avoided. “Okay, we’ll think about it!” Snips answered.

Mercifully, Sunset was saved from having to continue the conversation when the door to the lounge opened.

“Hello, Sunset,” Violet said from the doorway. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”

Sunset smiled. It was a friendly smile for Violet’s benefit, but it was also because the situation was going perfectly. Violet being the one to come and get her meant that she was able to see Sunset being friendly firsthand.

“Hi, Violet. I was just getting to know Snips and Snails.”

“I see. I’m happy that you’re making friends, but it’s time for our meeting. Are you ready to go?”

Sunset stood up, but turned to Snips and Snails before leaving. “I gotta head out, but I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Okay,” Snips said. He smiled along with his brother as they waved goodbye. “Bye, Sunset.”

They walked to Violet’s car in silence. That was typical of her, and one of the reasons that she was one of Sunset’s favorite people. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to talk about it; Sunset making friends with people at the orphanage was a big deal, and would need to be addressed. But Violet understood that Sunset wouldn’t want to talk about that – or indeed, talk much at all – while they were still around people she knew.

Of course, once they were in the car was another matter entirely. “They seem nice,” Violet said as they buckled up.

“You’ve seen them once, and that lasted for about all of thirty seconds,” Sunset pointed out. “But yeah, I guess they’re pretty nice.”

Violet gave them a few moments of silence as she pulled out into the street. “It’s nice to see you interacting with others.”

It was only ‘interacting with’, which was not exactly ‘being friends with’. That was something Sunset could manage, at least. “Maybe other people aren’t so bad after all. Besides, they’re new. They could use someone to help them.”

“That is true,” Violet said, although her tone suggested she expected there was more to it.

Might as well oblige her. “And, you know, they don’t have an opinion of me yet. Not exactly every kid at New Horizons likes me much.”

Violet nodded. “This way they’ll get to know your good side first.”

“Exactly. It’s a win-win.”

“Speaking of getting to show off your better side, how’s school going?”

“Still going well.” The second semester had started a few weeks prior, and Sunset was already counting the days until its end. “Report cards came in. All A’s, as if there was any doubt.”

Violet smirked. “Yes, of course. But still, congratulations. It’s nice to know your grades aren’t slipping with everything else you’ve got on your plate these days.”

Sunset shrugged. “You know, this isn’t even difficult. It’s really just a matter of managing a schedule properly.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this to you of all people, but you’re selling yourself short here. You’re doing an amazing job, and you should be proud of yourself.”

Proud. Like there was any way Sunset wouldn’t be proud of herself. She had manipulated everyone around her into helping her look better, all so she could meet her own goals. Then when the time came, whether it was because she went back to Equestria or because she succeeded in getting her own place, she could just drop everyone. Sunset had made things perfect for herself with no concern for anyone else around her. Why wouldn’t she be proud?

“Yeah yeah, I know,” Sunset said.

Although Violet always let Sunset choose the location if she wanted to, all that really mattered to her was that they weren’t at New Horizons. So with that in mind, Violet occasionally took the chance to take Sunset to places of her own choosing. Today was one of those days.

Perhaps it was because she wasn’t paying much attention, or perhaps it was just because it had been years, but Sunset didn’t realize where they were headed. Not until they were already there, and by then it was too late.

“Sugarcube Corner,” Violet announced once they arrived. “Have you been here before?”

Sunset stared at the building. “Yeah,” she said, her voice distant. “Once.”

She quickly became aware that Violet was watching her, so she smiled and left the car. It was important that she not show any cracks. They were already there, and it’s not like Applejack would be inside just because the two of them had gone there years before.

Unwilling to say that she’d rather go somewhere else, Sunset followed Violet into the building. She regretted it immediately.

“Hiya, Sunny!” a chipper voice called from across the room.

Sunset looked over to see Pinkie Pie was waving at her enthusiastically. She was sitting next to Rainbow Dash, who gave a casual wave once she saw Sunset.

The only one at the table who wasn’t waving was Applejack. She was watching Sunset closely, but aside from a bit of surprise at the unexpected appearance, she didn’t show any signs of how she was feeling.

“Friends from school?” Violet asked.

“Acquaintances.” Sunset smiled and gave a friendly wave. Applejack showed her not-quite-perfect smile and waved back.

Once the basic acknowledgement of one another was finished, Sunset wasted no time in going to the counter to order something. The last thing Sunset needed was to get sucked into a conversation with Applejack and her friends while she was out with Violet.

Since she wanted to do as little as possible to recreate the events of two years prior, Sunset opted to avoid ordering cocoa. Instead, she chose to get a cinnamon bun, so as to still get something warm on the cold day. Violet, as usual, stuck to coffee.

As soon as they had their orders, Sunset made sure to choose a booth that was far away from Applejack’s table. She was still unwilling to admit that she wanted to leave, but with Applejack being around, it was more important than ever to not be overheard.

Violet was smiling about something as they sat down. “What’s up?” Sunset asked.

“I was just thinking,” Violet said, glancing over to the other girls. “A year ago, I would’ve encouraged you to turn your acquaintances into friends.”

“What’s different now?” Sunset pulled off a piece of her cinnamon bun and started eating it.

“Well, you don’t have to be friends with everyone you know.” Violet took a sip of her coffee. “You have friends at school and at home. You’re staying social with your peers that you’re not close friends with. I’m just happy, is all.”

Sunset took another bite of her pastry to give herself a reason to not respond immediately. Violet’s comment was hardly overflowing with sentimentality, but it sounded out of place from her. In all the years that they’d known each other, Sunset could count on her hands the times that Violet had shown her emotions so clearly.

Or maybe that was just because of Sunset herself. She certainly hadn’t given Violet too many reasons to celebrate in the past, always opting to scrape by with the minimal effort.

Deciding it was best not to address that fact, Sunset just moved the conversation along. “Come on, Violet, you’re going to make me blush over here.”

“I doubt that,” Violet said with a smirk. “But fine, I’ll stop complimenting you. Since you insisted.”

Sunset matched her sarcastic tone. “Thank you for your understanding.”

Violet’s smile continued, but she brought the conversation back to checking up on Sunset’s everyday life. “So how are things going with work?”

That threatened to take the smile off Sunset’s face, but she forced it into place. Smiling when she didn’t want to was becoming more essential than ever. “Well, I’m not gonna say I’m living the dream. Customers aren’t always rays of sunshine, and the limitations on the hours that a fifteen-year-old can work are less than ideal. But I can’t complain too much. It’s nice to have some income, even if I am saving most of it, and I’ve been getting along well with my coworkers.”

Getting along was easy enough. Flash’s uncle had come through in getting her the job, and he seemed delighted that his nephew’s girlfriend was so motivated. Other people saw her as a bright young girl, and she had quickly been dubbed everyone’s little sister. Sunset resented them all enormously for it, and she was looking forward to ditching the job when the time came.

“I’m glad to hear that. But I think even you would have a hard time working more than eighteen hours a week. You’re also balancing journalism, guitar lessons, and a social life.”

‘Social life’ was apparently being used very loosely, since Flash was the only person Sunset ever spent time with. “Well, I’d definitely have to reconsider what the best use of my time is. But it’d be nice to have the option for more hours, at least.”

“I suppose I can see your point.”

Sunset shrugged. She filled her time, and that’s what mattered. “Oh well. It’s only for another year, and then federal restrictions ease up.”

Violet nodded. “True. And if you stay with the store, you’ve got a good chance to get promoted to management once you graduate.”

As if Sunset would be there for that long. “Yeah, exactly.”

“Sounds like you’re pretty on top of everything these days.”

“I manage alright.”

“So, have you thought about college at all?”

For all her planning, college was certainly not something that had crossed Sunset’s mind much. “I know it’s never too soon to start planning and all that, but college is four years away.” She had vaguely realized that would be her main focus if things didn’t work with the portal, but that was something to worry about later.

“I’m a little surprised to hear that, actually.” Violet reached into her purse and pulled out a booklet, which she handed to Sunset. It was an elegant cerulean with a stylized purple ‘S’ in the center and the words ‘Crystal Prep Academy’ along the top. “Crystal Prep is among the most prestigious schools in the state. I’d like you to look over that pamphlet.”

Sunset opened the booklet and flipped through the pages. It was mostly just filler and buzzwords, with a few shots of the school and its facilities. “Looks like a really nice school. Also looks very expensive.”

“They offer a scholarship for low-income students. But you’d have to impress the school’s council, and that’s exceptionally difficult to do.”

Sunset looked up to see Violet was grinning. “I think I could manage. I am exceptionally impressive when I want to be. But what are you suggesting, exactly?”

Violet folded her hands on the table. “It’s safe to say that it’s a given that you still want to go through with getting emancipated?”

“Of course.” It wasn’t likely that Sunset would ever reach that point, but she liked having a backup. Besides, if she was wrong about when the portal would open, it would be nice to spend the last of her time on Earth alone.

“Crystal Prep offers a course for gifted students that would allow you to finish the remainder of your high school within the next year. Combine that with your work ethic and intelligence, and scholarships to prestigious colleges wouldn’t prove difficult to earn. If you can get accepted into this program, then I’ll do everything I can to help with your emancipation.”

Sunset looked down at the booklet. “You want me to transfer schools now?”

“The sooner the better. This will put you on the fast track to success and independence, and I no longer have doubts that you’ll manage it well.”

“But I’d have to leave CHS.”

Violet chuckled. “Yes. No matter how impressive you are, I don’t think you could attend two schools at once. The extra effort at school will likely require you to leave your job as well, but CPA offers room and board to students, which would be covered under your scholarship.”

The job wasn’t even a real concern. If her time was filled with extra school work, she wouldn’t need it anyway. Hell, it could even prove to be mentally stimulating for her. That would be a much better way to spend her time.

Possibly confusing Sunset’s silence for nervousness, Violet continued. “I spoke with the head of the school, Principal Cinch. She’s very interested in meeting you, and thinks that you sound like a perfect fit for CPA.”

A perfect fit? Sunset was never a perfect fit. Not once in her life could she remember feeling like she belonged. The closest had been when she was first taken in as Celestia’s pupil, but that was short lived. On some level, she had always known that she couldn’t be the pupil Celestia had always wanted her to be.

So then why not this? It was the fast track to a real life, one she could make herself. It wasn’t chasing a world that she barely remembered, and there was no chance that she would have to face the harsh reality of being wrong about everything.

Sunset glanced over to where Applejack was sitting. She was looking around, while Rainbow Dash drummed her fingers on the table and Pinkie Pie checked the time on her phone. If Sunset left CHS, she wouldn’t have to worry about Applejack anymore.

Logically, there was no reason to pass up Violet’s offer. It made too much sense. Which was exactly why Sunset found it terrifying.

She stood up and looked at the table as she spoke. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

Violet didn’t react to the sudden shift, just nodding as she sipped on her coffee.

A bathroom would not normally be Sunset’s first choice at hiding away to think about something, but there was nowhere else she could reasonably go. Even with the cold weather, a walk outside would have been preferable, but that would require she acknowledge why she was running away.

It had been four months since her last incident, but Sunset still didn’t feel comfortable around mirrors. Sure, she no longer saw visions in them like she had before going to Canterlot High School, but she always felt the potential that there could be something behind them. Some days she’d find herself staring into a mirror with no concept of how much time was passing. Most of the time she’d do whatever she could to avoid them.

But mirror or not, the bathroom was the only way she could get away from Violet for long enough to figure out what to do. And so Sunset just resolved to ignore it as she pushed open the bathroom door.

It turned out that she didn’t need to worry herself about it. Someone else was already there, watching her own reflection in the mirror. She turned at the sound of Sunset entering the room.

“Sunset?” Fluttershy said in a voice that was abnormally quiet, even for her.

“Hello, Fluttershy.” Sunset took a good look at the other girl. Her voice wasn’t the only thing that seemed odd. Her wardrobe was entirely black, with only her vibrant pink hair standing out. “Going for the goth look now?”

Fluttershy turned away, staring down into the sink. “Oh, uhm… not really.”

Sunset expected she would follow up, but Fluttershy just kept staring into the sink. Eventually, Sunset just shrugged it off. It’s not like she had any reason to care what Fluttershy wore. “Whatever.”

Since she didn’t want to be next to or across from Fluttershy, Sunset just moved to a spot next to the door and leaned against the wall. She and Fluttershy proceeded to ignore one another.

It didn’t matter. Maybe it was because Fluttershy was there, or maybe it was because she already had assessed the situation in the instant that it came up, but Sunset was just as conflicted as before. It had always been easy to work on both fronts at once – she could check on the portal every day and make plans for when she went through it, but she would also keep her social status up and work on independence just in case.

But that was all changing now. Now she actually had to choose. She could either st–

“Uhm…” Fluttershy said, cutting through Sunset’s thoughts.

Sunset just glared at her.

“Never mind.” Fluttershy turned away again. “I, uhm… I’m bothering you, aren’t I? I should go…”

Sunset didn’t bother to say anything. If Fluttershy left, maybe she’d finally have the chance to think.

But Fluttershy just stayed where she was. She occasionally glanced over to Sunset, who never reacted to her. She fidgeted in place somewhat, but for the most part remained where she was.

It was pointless. She couldn’t think as long as Fluttershy was there, but she couldn’t be mean to one of Applejack’s friends. “So, what? Do you just hang out in bathrooms or something?”

Fluttershy tucked her arms in tighter towards her body and stared down at the floor. “No, I… I’m, uhm…”

Sunset facepalmed. “Okay, seriously? You weren’t even this bad when we met. Hell, you were fucking cheerful during the interview. So what gives?”

“I… I’m sorry…” Fluttershy kept her focus on the floor.

Sunset leaned her head against the wall. She really didn’t have time for this. She was about to cut her losses and go, until she turned back to look at Fluttershy. She was still standing with her arms wrapped around herself, and she was shaking. Sunset almost couldn’t believe it. “Are you crying?”

Fluttershy quickly wiped her eyes, then looked up and showed an eerily calm smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

This was not a situation Sunset was prepared to handle. “It’s fine, you just…” Sunset sighed. It was just like when she first arrived at the orphanage and constantly struggled to figure out what to say to Dew Drop. “I’m not exactly the type of person people go to for support. I’m bad at all this sentimental crap.”

Surprisingly, that actually caused Fluttershy to smile. “You’re just like Rainbow.”

“Doubtful. Trust me, I’m one of a kind.”

Fluttershy nodded. “Okay, Sunny.”

Sunset groaned. “Don’t call me Sunny.”

Fluttershy’s hand shot up to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just thought that… well, Pinkie always…”

“Yeah, tell her to stop that too. I really hate that name.” Bringing up the subject of Fluttershy’s friends reminded Sunset of what she’d seen. “Pretty sure they’re looking for you, by the way. Unless they were waiting for Rarity or something.”

“Oh…” Fluttershy’s head sank down again, but she kept it high enough that Sunset could see her face, at least. “No, Rarity was with us earlier, but she had to go. I… I know they’re looking for me, but…”

Sunset realized what was going on. “But you’re hiding away from them in a bathroom.”

Fluttershy looked up, making direct eye contact for the first time. Sunset got the impression that she wanted to deny it, but she couldn’t. “Yes. I didn’t even want to come here, but Applejack thought I should get out of the house, and everyone agreed with her. I just didn’t want to let them down.”

That sounded about right. “So AJ’s still doing that then? So sure that all anyone needs is to spend some time with a friend, and everything will just be better.”

“Uhm… yeah…” Fluttershy sighed and crossed the room, standing next to Sunset against the wall. “I know she means well, but… I don’t know. She’s probably right.”

“Well, of course she means well. She’s Applejack!” Sunset shrugged. “But she thinks everyone is like her. That everyone else will respond to things the same way she does. Because for her, being with friends is exactly what she needs when shit’s not going her way. She doesn’t really get that some of us just need more space than that.”

“Is, uhm, is that why you two don’t talk anymore?”

Sunset grinned. “That’s one hell of a story. But if Applejack hasn’t told you, then I’m not going to. You can ask her about it if you want.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No, I understand. I didn’t mean to pry.”

It didn’t really matter. One way or another, Sunset wouldn’t be sticking around CHS for long, it seemed.

“So, uhm, you must have something on your mind, too,” Fluttershy said after a moment.

Sunset smirked. “What, who says I don’t just like hanging around in bathrooms?”

Somehow, it seemed Sunset was managing to cheer Fluttershy up, judging by the way she laughed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Thanks, but some of us don’t just talk about our feelings in public restrooms.”

“Okay. Well, whatever it is, I know you’ll figure it out.”

They stood silently, side by side. Sunset had to wonder what it would be like if she had just accepted any of Applejack’s offers for friendship. Would she be part of their group by now? A group of friends who always tried to support each other, even if they didn’t always know the best way to go about it.

No. That was a world Sunset could never belong to.

“What would you do?” Fluttershy asked eventually. “If you were out with your friends, but you really just wanted to go somewhere else?”

Sunset shrugged. What did she know about friendship? She didn’t even have any friends to be able to imagine herself in a situation like that. “I don’t know. I guess… You’re not happy here, right?”

Fluttershy frowned and looked away. “Well, no, not really. But I don’t… I also don’t think I would really be happy if I left. So I guess I should just stay. That way, at least they’ll be happy.”

Sunset cocked her head to the side. “Uh, no, fuck that. Look, you don’t strike me as a people person. At least not the kind of person who likes being around a bunch of people you don’t know. Right?”

“I… I guess that’s right. I don’t really mind people usually, but it can be a little hard sometimes.”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, and right now you’re surrounded by them. And I don’t just mean your friends, but everyone. Trust me, I know it sucks to be miserable at home, but if you’re going to be miserable somewhere, it’s better to be miserable where you’re most comfortable.”

“I guess that makes sense. But the others…”

“Hey, you asked what I’d do. And personally? If I wasn’t happy somewhere, I’d try going somewhere else.”

Fluttershy nodded and smiled. “Thank you, Sunset.”

It felt weird to be thanked for advice that could be completely awful, for all she knew. “Yeah, whatever. Just don’t blame me if it doesn’t work out. Like I said, I’m bad at this.”

“I don’t think so.” Fluttershy laughed again. “I think you’re actually a lot better than you realize. Just like Rainbow. And anyway, thank you for talking to me.”

Before Sunset could answer, the door opened. “Hey, Shy, are you –” Rainbow Dash stopped when she noticed Sunset, and grinned as she looked in between her and Fluttershy. “Uh, bit of advice? Maybe go into a stall if you two want some private time.”

“Rainbow!” Fluttershy blushed, but she maintained a glare in Rainbow’s direction. “We were just talking!”

Sunset grinned. “Yeah, come on now. Fooling around in a public bathroom stall? That’s fine for you or me, but Fluttershy’s classier than that.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Yeah, I guess you got a point there.” She walked over to Fluttershy and her tone got noticeably more serious. “But really, you doing okay, Shy?”

Fluttershy hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Yes. But, uhm, do you think it would be alright if we went back to your house? I, uh, I don’t really want to go home right now, but I’d feel a lot better if we were somewhere else.”

For a moment, Rainbow looked to be unsure of what to say, but then she smiled. “Yeah, no problem. Just me and you, or you want to invite the others?”

Fluttershy blushed again and looked down at the ground. “Do… do you think they would mind if it was just the two of us?”

“Nah, they’ll be fine.” Rainbow motioned for Fluttershy to follow her then led her to the door. She turned back to Sunset on the way out. “Later, Sunset.”

Sunset waved. “Yeah. Bye.”

Fluttershy smiled and waved as well, then Sunset was alone.

She walked over to the sink and looked in the mirror. She had come to the bathroom to think, but she had spent so long talking with Fluttershy that she was already past what could be considered a reasonable amount of time. She placed her hand on the mirror, and watched as her reflection’s hand met hers. At least she didn’t stop to wonder what was on the other side.

On the way out of the bathroom, Sunset took a look at the table Applejack and her friends were sitting at. Only one friend was there now, however. Pinkie looked sad that the others had left, and Applejack had a hand on her shoulder while she tried to cheer her up.

Violet was drinking her second cup of coffee when Sunset walked up, and there was an insulated cup on Sunset’s side of the table. Sunset took it and smirked. “I didn’t think I was gone that long.”

Violet smirked as well. “You know, you could have just said that you wanted some time to think about it.”

That took the smile off Sunset’s face. In retrospect, it must have been pretty obvious. “I just got caught up talking with another acquaintance.”

“Of course,” Violet said, although she clearly didn’t buy it. “So then, do you want time to think about it? It would be best to have an answer soon, but you don’t need one by today.”

Sunset took a sip of her drink, which turned out to be cocoa, not coffee. Typical. “No, I have my answer already. I’m going to stay at CHS.”

“Really?” Violet frowned. “You’re sure you’ve thought this through?”

“Yes.” Sunset looked down at the booklet from CPA. It really was the best chance she had to be happy in this world, and she already knew that it wasn’t good enough. Nothing in this world made her happy, and if she wasn’t happy somewhere, why not try going somewhere else? “I know it might not seem like the best decision, but I know what I’m doing. I’m working towards the future that I’ve chosen”

Surprisingly, Violet smiled. “You know, you’re an interesting person.”

Sunset chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve been told.”

“Well, I can’t say that I think this is the best choice, but it seems like it’s the right one for you. Although I have to warn you, this could be a setback on your emancipation.”

“I can accept that.”

It was a setback on her progress in this world in more ways than Violet could realize. For the first time, Sunset was presented with a choice. She could choose to pursue the dream that was Equestria, or she could play it safe and cut her losses. She had no way of knowing what would happen, so she would just have to wait and see if it turned out to be the right choice in the end.

22 – Through the Looking Glass

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Through the Looking Glass

No one was really excited for school to start. All through New Horizons, groans could be heard as kids were roused from sleep. It was the last week of regular classes before finals, and that meant one thing: studying.

All of the students were dreading the coming day. Except for one.

There was a knock on the door, although it wasn’t necessary. “Sunset? It’s time –”

“I’m up,” Sunset said before answering the door. A very pleased Rose Petal was on the other side. “Good morning, Ms. Rose.”

“Good morning, Sunset. Glad to see that there’s at least one person we won’t need to convince to get up today.”

Sunset laughed. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I have any reason to worry about finals.” Of course, that was because she had no plans on taking them.

“I’m sure, but you can never be too prepared.”

“I know.” Sunset was already dressed, and had chosen a loose fitting sundress. It was exactly the type of thing that maternal figures like Rose thought she should wear, which would hopefully mean it was perfect for Sunset’s purposes. She gestured to her backpack, which was sitting by her bed, ready to go. “Trust me, there’s nothing to worry about with me. I’m ready to take on the day.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Rose was beaming, but she took a step away from the door. “But I had best get back to waking up the others, and you ought to get some food in you. You’re not really prepared for school unless you’ve had a good breakfast.”

Sunset just smiled as she followed Rose Petal out of the room. “Of course, Ms. Rose.”

While everyone else was insistent on looking as miserable as possible, Sunset couldn’t help but keep smiling. It was going to be one hell of a day.

She was far too excited to be hungry, but she still got a bowl of cereal. If she didn’t eat something, Rose would be on her case about it. On most days that wouldn’t really bother her, but Sunset was far too happy to spoil it by bickering about breakfast.

Although Rose being up was also strange. When she finished waking teenagers and entered the dining room, Sunset decided to ask her about it. “You’re up early today, Ms. Rose.”

“At my age, sleeping through the night can be a challenge.” Rose looked over Sunset’s breakfast choice. “Just a bowl of cereal?”

Sunset shrugged. “Who wants to eat this early? I’ll eat a granola bar on the bus or something.”

Rose shook her head, but she was smiling as well. “I suppose it’ll have to do.”

As Rose turned her attention to the other kids and was getting them to eat, Sunset realized that she was actually happy by the turn of events. Rose Petal had been the first person to welcome her to New Horizons. And while it would be overly gracious to say Sunset’s feelings towards the orphanage itself were mixed, Rose had always tried her best to make Sunset feel at home. Once or twice, she almost even succeeded.

And this would be the last time Sunset ever saw her. It’s not like that hadn’t occurred to Sunset before, but she had been too preoccupied to give it any real thought. It was an odd sensation, and it left her wondering at all the other last times she was about to experience, and how many had passed her by without her so much as noticing them.

Sunset didn’t say anything to Rose. She thought about saying something, something meaningful about the time they spent together. No words came to mind, however, so she just watched. Rose doted on every child at the table, offering encouragement about their classes, trying to get them to be a little more active and alert. She asked them about the day-to-day events of their lives, and referenced things about their individual interests. Sunset had never thought much of that before, but Rose knew every single child that came through New Horizons, while Sunset couldn’t even remember all of their names.

It had to be challenging, keeping up with everyone. But by the end of the day, there would be one less person for her to keep up with.

“I think it’s about time for one young lady to get going to her bus stop,” Rose said after a while. She smiled at Sunset. “Have a good day, dearie.”

Sunset nodded and stood up. “Thank you, Ms. Rose.”

In the end, that was all there really was to say.

After a quick trip back to her room to grab her backpack, Sunset left New Horizons. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone on the way out.

Even Sunset’s bus stop was a bit of a walk. There were only a few CHS students who lived as far away from the school as Sunset did, after all, so the stop had to service a fairly wide area. She didn’t mind, though. It would also be the last time she walked to it, and the last time she’d be in complete solitude before her life changed forever.

Or rather, before she got her life back. That was a better way of looking at things, she decided. And it was a glorious thing to think about. It was with great restraint that she managed to calmly walk to her bus stop. But running wouldn’t make the bus arrive any sooner, so she kept her pace to a brisk walk.

Technically speaking, Sunset had no idea if the portal would actually be open. Both Equestria and Earth used a twenty-four-hour cycle for the length of their days, so figuring out when the portal would open was theoretically just a matter of counting from the date of her arrival. But it was impossible to know if the time really synced up. The flow of time could easily be different between the worlds; one second in Equestria was not necessarily one second on Earth.

Sunset reminded herself of this, if only to fight off the crushing disappointment if it wasn’t the right day. But her working theory was that time did sync up between the worlds. If they were completely separate worlds, then that would be exceedingly unlikely. But while these worlds were clearly separated and held many distinctions, they were also connected. The most obvious being the doubles of various ponies as humans, but there were other significant similarities. Scientifically speaking, the two worlds were alike in far more ways than they were different.

And assuming her theory of a perfect time sync was correct, the portal would already be open. It would have been for several hours, long enough that Sunset had been tempted to just walk to the school in the night. But she had waited far too long to suffer some nefarious fate on the eve of her return. So she played it safe, waiting until the morning to do things properly.

That wait was excruciating. She had been up all night long, having given up on sleep after rolling around her bed for a few hours. And the closer she came to the wondrous moment that she could leave this world behind, the harder the wait became. Her pace was quick enough that she found the walk to be much shorter than usual, but that just meant the wait for the bus was much longer than usual.

While she was waiting, she wondered for the first time what would happen without her. It had almost certainly been seeing Rose interact with the others that put the idea in her mind, as that was the first place her mind went to. Rose would be distraught to have lost one of her charges. She was used to saying goodbye to the children she cared for, but not so suddenly.

Violet would probably lead the charge to find her. There would be an obvious trail; Sunset had left for the bus stop, and someone on the bus would remember seeing her on it. The bus driver would verify that every student arrived at school safely, but her first-period teacher would inform them that she never made it to class. They’d search and search, but they’d never find her.

Perhaps Sunset should have left a note. Not saying that she was leaving to another dimension, of course, but something to give an actual explanation. Say that she was running away or something along those lines.

But it was too late. She had passed the chance to do anything like that, so there was no point in dwelling on it. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what everyone would assume. Flash would be the first to notice, of course. The poor sap was probably going to be looking for her all summer long, and still be hopeful that she’d just show up on the first day of school after summer break.

And there was Applejack. Would she even notice Sunset was missing? Of course she would. The school would make an announcement in case any of the students knew where she was. Applejack would be there, right alongside Flash and Violet while they looked for her. Not because they had a history together or anything like that. No, Applejack would be out there looking for her because that was just who Applejack was.

Sunset wondered if she should try to find Applejack before going through the portal. But what would she say? Hey, AJ, just to let you know, I’m a fucking magical horse and I’m going back to my horseland? That’d go over well. She couldn’t even make up a believable alibi, since that would just lead to Applejack trying to stop her.

Even still, a large part of Sunset wanted to find her before she left. To at least see her one last time before leaving forever. Even if they didn’t speak, Sunset could still say her own personal goodbyes to the only person she’d ever wanted to be close to.

But no. Even disregarding the fact that Sunset had no idea where Applejack would be, it wouldn’t do her any good. She needed to move on from this world, and that included Applejack. By the end of the day, she would only be a memory. The time Sunset spent in the human world was filled with regrets more than anything else. What was one more added to the pile?

Although the wait was torturous, the bus arrived all the same. Sunset hardly paid attention to the kids around her as she found her seat, letting their talk of finals and summer plans pass over her. She chose an empty seat at random, and stared out the window.

The bus went on its way while the world outside rolled past, but Sunset wasn’t paying it any attention. She was watching her transparent reflection as it watched her. Sunset had spent a lot of time in that body, but in the end, that was just another thing to put behind her.

What would happen on the other side of the mirror? What would Celestia say when she saw Sunset again? What would Sunset say? These were the thoughts that passed through her head, just as they had passed through it for months. She had no answers, but she had faith. Faith in Celestia.

Sunset would apologize. That much was certain. She would admit her mistakes, that she hadn’t really understood anything about the mirror when Celestia had warned her away from it. She knew better now. Now she would listen to every word Celestia said, obey every order. All if there was even so much as a chance that she might get to be her gifted student again.

And she would be. Sunset knew it would be hard, she knew that Celestia had every reason to turn her away, but she would prove herself again. Whatever it took, anything at all, Sunset would do it.

They would pick up where they left off, and Sunset would be a better student this time, and Celestia would understand, and they would both finally be happy.

And so her thoughts continued throughout the bus ride. A hundred scenarios played through her mind, of all the different ways the meeting might go. Sometimes Celestia was relieved to see her. Sometimes she was angry. In all of them, the ending was the same. They would reconcile their differences, and Sunset would be her student, and Celestia would understand, and they would both be happy.

When the bus reached the school, Sunset remained staring at her reflection for a moment. Other kids were up and moving to the exit, but Sunset was trying to calm her breathing. It was time. She was going home.

She was the last to leave the bus, and she did so with her legs shaking. She felt like they might give out under her weight. For all the rush she had been in, she now found it difficult to move at all. But one shaky step after another, she made her way across the school.

There was no more thinking about anything else. Sunset wasn’t even thinking about Equestria anymore. Just the portal, and making her way to it. If anyone tried to get her attention, she didn’t notice. As far as Sunset was aware, there were no other people around her. There was just the portal, herself, and the distance between the two.

Until there wasn’t even that anymore. Sunset stood before the statue, staring at her reflection in the polished surface. It was just the same as it had been the day before, and yet, it was very different. It was a feeling. Was it the magic making her lightheaded, or her inability to breathe?

Sunset reached out her hand, but stopped just before touching it. It wasn’t too late to turn back. She could wait, and the dream of a perfect world would remain untouched.

But it was too late. Sunset could already hear it calling to her, drawing her in. She closed her eyes and let herself fall forward. It was time. Sunset was going home.

The sensation was awful. It felt like she was being pulled in every direction, with no control of what was happening. Her perception was so consumed by the feeling that it didn’t even occur to her what it meant.

And then it stopped, just as soon as it started. Sunset found herself lying on the ground with her eyes closed, and everything felt strange. Her body felt sore all over, and for a moment, she just lay still.

She opened her eyes and blinked at her surroundings. There was no school. There weren’t teenagers wandering around. Sunset was in a small room, and the only lighting was natural sunlight coming in through the windows.

It worked. It had actually worked. The portal had taken her away from the hell she had gotten herself stuck in, and there was no doubt about where it had taken her.

Sunset tried to move, but only fell back down to the floor. She turned to look at her body and found all she could see was a no-longer-fitting dress covering it. She laughed at the unexpected obstruction and worked on freeing herself from it.

Or she tried to, anyway. When she attempted to grab the dress, she realized she was unable to. He hooves just slipped right off. Forgetting the dress completely, Sunset held her hooves up to her face and laughed giddily. It had really worked! She was really a pony!

Unable to bring herself to do anything else, Sunset just lay on her back, staring at her hooves and laughing. She pressed them against her cheeks. She had forgotten they were so hard, had forgotten everything it meant to be a pony.

More so driven by the desire to see herself than anything else, Sunset eventually saw fit to do something about the dress. It wasn’t easy, but at least she wasn’t wearing pants. Little by little, she managed to shimmy out of the dress. It tore in several places as she did, but she certainly couldn’t manage to care about that.

Once she was no longer tangled up in human clothing, Sunset paused to look at herself. She was still awestruck when she noticed the mirror out of the corner of her eye and quickly turned to it.

She saw a unicorn, because that was what she was. An amber-colored coat with a red and yellow mane and tail. A picture of a red and yellow sun adorned her thigh. And, despite the tears in her eyes, she was smiling.

There was no telling how long she just sat and stared at her reflection, but it was the dress that got her to turn away. She surveyed the remains. Even if it had fit her, it certainly wouldn’t any longer. Which was kind of a shame. She had wanted to wear something nice for her meeting with Celestia.

Celestia! Sunset still had to see her! It was what she wanted more than anything, after all. She was going to get her old life back, and Sunset would be her student, and Celestia would understand, and they would both be happy.

But first, she had to learn how to walk again. Even standing felt awkward, but distributing her weight over four hooves certainly made that easier. Walking proved a bit more tricky, but she was in no hurry. As much as she was dying to meet with Celestia, the simple pleasure of being a pony again was immeasurable, and she found the clip-clop of her hooves against the stone floor was practically hypnotic.

Before she dared step hoof out of the room, Sunset wanted a glimpse of Equestria. Thankfully, there were windows scattered around the room. She walked over to one and took a look outside, and the view stole her breath away.

She was high up in what she knew was Celestia’s castle, with the city stretched out below her. Although they were small, dozens of ponies could be seen on the ground, all going about their business. They were talking among themselves, they were walking to and fro, they were doing their jobs around the castle grounds, and above all else, they simply were.

An entire world full of ponies, and Sunset was once again part of it.

So it was time to be part of it, then. She walked to the door, and was relieved to find it opened easily at her push. She found herself in a long hallway, although her memory failed to tell her which part of the castle she was actually in. Considering she had been completely familiar with it before her departure, that had to be a result of spending so much time away. Oh well. She’d have plenty of time to relearn the castle’s layout once she was Celestia’s student once more.

In the meanwhile, she had absolutely no complaints about walking the castle hallways aimlessly. Sooner or later she’d either realize where she was, or she’d run into a guard that could direct her. But for now, observing and remembering was enough. She couldn’t pick out specific details, but she definitely recognized the castle’s signature architecture.

The marble floor was a checkerboard pattern, with white pillars reaching to the vaulted ceiling that lined the walkway. There were elegant decorations all around, from the ornate carpet underhoof, to the flowers that decorated the walls.

But the most eye-catching thing was, of course, the stained glass windows. Sunset took her time to admire them as she walked, for they showed a rich history that she had almost let herself forget. Each one was unique, and she was sure that she’d see one she remembered before too long, and the realization of where she was within the castle would follow.

It turned out, she needn’t have bothered. As she walked along her leisurely pace, a door opened in front of her. Sunset stopped in place, her heart beating fast at the realization that somepony was about to walk out of it.

The steady clip-clop of hooves came into the hallway first, but that was soon followed up by the appearance of a unicorn. Although Sunset was no longer used to seeing ponies, she guessed that the mare in front of her was younger than herself. She had a light purple coat with a darker purple mane and tail, both of which had a pink stripe running through them. She held a book in front of her with a magic aura, which she seemed to be devoting all of her attention to.

So much so, in fact, that she walked right past Sunset with neither one saying a word.

Sunset watched her as she walked along the hallway, too stunned to speak. It was only when the other mare was almost past the point of easy earshot that Sunset realized she was about to let a golden opportunity walk past her.

“Uhm, excuse me,” Sunset said. It was the first time she had spoken since arriving in Equestria, and she noted her voice sounded a little deeper.

The other mare’s ears swiveled back first, with her head following a moment later. Ears moving independently from the rest of the head was a natural equine movement, and something Sunset had forgotten all about. There was so much to relearn, but she was ready.

“Oh, hello there,” the mare said with a smile. “Can I help you with something?”

Sunset opened her mouth. There was just so much. She was talking to an actual, real live pony. Not some horse in a barn, but a genuine unicorn of Equestria!

But she needed to focus. There was still something she needed to do. “I’m… looking for Princess Celestia. Do you know where I can find her?”

The mare’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry, but the princess isn’t taking visitors at the moment.”

The news only made Sunset smile more. She was talking to an actual pony about Princess Celestia! “It’s… it’s okay. She’ll make an exception for me.” Sunset desperately hoped that was true.

“Maybe there’s somepony else who can help you?” the mare suggested. “I can direct you to one of her aides, or her secretary. Even the captain of the guard, if it’s an emergency.”

“No!” Sunset said too forcefully. She tried to return to a casual tone, but she was suddenly having trouble breathing. “It has to be Princess Celestia!”

The mare chuckled nervously. “Well then, could you at least tell me what’s so important?”

Could she? There was a part – a large part – of Sunset that wanted to do just that. To tell somepony, anypony about everything that had happened to her. But that wouldn’t be fair. She needed to talk with Celestia first. The mirror’s purpose had been secret even from herself, the princess’s personal student. If she was going to prove that she could be better, that she would be better, she’d need to start by respecting Celestia’s wishes.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I just really need to speak with her.”

The younger mare sighed. “Here’s the thing… The princess isn’t exactly feeling well today. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but she even cancelled my afternoon lessons!”

Sunset felt like she had been ripped through the portal again. Her breathing was becoming ragged and her ears started filling with a buzzing sound. “Your… lessons?”

The mare brightened up with that topic. “Oh, yes. I’m guessing you’re not from around here? I’m Twilight Sparkle, the princess’s personal student.”

Sunset took a step back. “You’re her…”

“Are you okay? You seem a little… out of sorts.”

Replaced. Sunset had been replaced. While she had been struggling, spending every waking moment longing to return to Celestia’s side, she had been replaced. Just like that.

“Miss, uh…”

“Never mind.” Sunset’s tone came out oddly level, although the rest of her world crumbled around her. It shouldn’t be so surprising. Why would Celestia want her, a failed pupil? She had said it herself.

“Sunset Shimmer, I am removing you from the position of my pupil.”

“Are you sure you’re –”

“Yes.” Sunset stared into her replacement’s eyes. “I’m fine.”

“Well… okay then. I hope the rest of your stay at Canterlot Castle works out better for you!”

Sunset said nothing as she walked away. There was nothing to say.

She stood in the hallway for far too long. She didn’t know what else to do.

“You didn’t really think it would be so simple, did you?”

Sunset wheeled around. She had heard Celestia’s voice, but there was no one there.

“That I would ever want you back?”

Sunset spun all the way around, looking everywhere in the hall, but she saw no sign of the princess, or of anypony else.

“But don’t worry. Twilight’s a much better student than you ever were.”

“Twilight would never disobey me.”

“I don’t need you anymore.”

“Equestria doesn’t need you anymore.”

“You thought you were going home?”

“You don’t have a home. You don’t deserve a home.”

“You have nothing. You are nothing. You will only ever be nothing.”

It became hard to focus, and Sunset fell to the ground. Celestia’s voice surrounded her. The princess spoke over herself, an endless barrage of Sunset’s idol all talking at once.

“I’m better off without you.”

“Everyone is better off without you.”

“Just leave us alone, you’d be doing everyone a favor.”

“You should just run back through the mirror.”

“You never should have come in the first place.”

“You shouldn’t be allowed to exist in this, or any other world.”

“You will never be my student.”

“You will never be understood.”

“And you will never be happy.”

23 – Burn

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Chapter Twenty-Three

Burn

There was seldom any peace anymore. In the days since returning from Equestria, the world had grown harsher and colder. Day by day, things only seemed more and more bleak, and Sunset was left wondering why she bothered at all.

Every day was spent going through the motions. Sunset just did what she always did, only because she always did it. She didn’t even remember what happened. She had been talking with her replacement, then she heard Celestia’s voice. The next thing she knew, she was lying on her bed back at New Horizons while staring at the ceiling. It was only later that she learned there was a three day gap between the two events.

And there was the vibrating. Everywhere she went, it followed her, no longer confined to the book. A constant echoing reminder of the world that had abandoned her, a fake promise that someone was reaching out for her. It would stop only long enough for her to get used to the silence before catching her unaware.

There were other things. Despite her caution to avoid them, sometimes she would be caught off guard by a mirror. It was the last class of the day, and the girl who sat in front of her was using a pocket mirror to fix her makeup. Sunset hadn’t expected it, so she hadn’t avoided it. And once she noticed, it was impossible to look away.

The mirror reflected the surroundings perfectly. Nothing was there that shouldn’t be, for a change, it just showed the girl applying her lipstick, and Sunset’s desk positioned behind her. And that was all. Where Sunset herself should have been, there was just the chair she was sitting in, empty.

The lack of her reflection captivated her, and she didn’t even realize that she was staring. Eventually, the other girl noticed though. She turned around and cheerfully asked if Sunset needed her for something.

Sunset said something as well, but she couldn’t remember what it was afterwards. Whatever she’d said caused the other girl to stop looking so cheerful and turn back around, though.

The rest of the class passed by. The teacher continued talking about something, the upcoming exam or something like that. It was hard to tell, Sunset only heard some of his words. Other students seemed to be busy taking notes. Sunset wondered if she should as well, until she realized she already was. She looked down at what she had written.

I don’t need me anymore. Equestria doesn’t need me anymore. I thought I was going home. I don’t have a home. I don’t deserve a home. I have nothing. I am nothing. I will only ever be nothing. I don’t need me anymore.

Sunset kept writing her notes.

A tone sounded over the intercom, alerting everyone that afternoon announcements would be made. Vice Principal Luna always ended the day. It was another voice that Sunset heard.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Celestia said over the intercom. Sunset already knew which Celestia it was. “Do not think you belong in this world any more than you belong in mine. You could never belong anywhere, no one would ever want you.”

Sunset nodded along. She knew it was true.

“I wish I could be rid of you as well. I’ve already found somepony who surpasses you in every way, after all. But you are my responsibility, and I will fulfil my obligations. Come to the school’s auditorium. I will be waiting for you.”

The intercom cut out, and students started getting out of their seats. The teacher said something as they left the room.

Most of the students were out the door by the time Sunset put away her stuff. As she tucked her notes in her backpack, she noticed a flower on the floor. She picked that up as well.

It was a wispy, crimson-colored flower with thin stamen extending out of it. Sunset recognized it immediately. It was her favorite.

When she stood up, there was another. Past that, another. Without concerning herself with the rest of the students, Sunset followed the trail of lycoris out into the hall. They continued in a path, which Sunset continued to follow.

Lycoris radiata were beautiful, but that was only part of their allure. They were used by humans for various purposes, but they were also highly poisonous if consumed. Because of this, they were regarded as the flowers of death. Sunset followed them readily.

They grew thicker as she went, until the whole hallway floor was a blood-red river of flowers. Still, Sunset followed. They led her outside, where they were in bloom all over the school courtyard. They were no longer what Sunset’s concern was, however.

There was a purple unicorn sitting at the base of the statue. She was looking around her, searching for something. Once she noticed Sunset walking forward, her smile confirmed what it was.

“Hello, Sunset,” she said cheerfully. “Princess Celestia told me all about you, and I just knew I had to come see you myself. You really should’ve introduced yourself better, you know. We have so much to talk about!”

Sunset just stared down at the little pony. She was much smaller than a human or a horse, only coming up to Sunset’s waist.

“I think it’s best if we get the most important part out of the way first.” The unicorn beamed up at her. “Stay the hell away from Princess Celestia. She’s mine now, and she’s doing much better without you around to fuck everything up.”

Sunset kneeled down to be on level with the pony.

“Now then, as long as we understand that, I think we’re going to be the best of friends! Princess Celestia told me that you aren’t very good with friends, but that’s okay. I’m sure if you follow my example, we’ll do just –”

Sunset wrapped her hands around Twilight’s neck. She pushed the unicorn onto her back and held her down, squeezing as hard as she could. It was easy. Twilight tried to pull Sunset’s arms off of her, but hooves couldn’t grab like hands could, and Sunset was far bigger. It was easy and so fucking satisfying.

Little by little, the movements slowed while Twilight gasped for breath. There was no magic outside of Equestria, and no one to save her. Sunset smiled when she finally stopped moving. It was the first time she smiled since she came back through the portal.

And then it was over. Twilight Sparkle was dead, and she couldn’t outshine Sunset anymore. When Sunset moved her hands, there was red all over them. It covered Twilight’s coat, staining that perfect lavender.

But it wasn’t blood. It was much better than that. Sunset and Twilight were both covered in flower petals. Sunset was still holding one in her hand. Lycoris radiata were beautiful, but that was only part of their allure.

Sunset lifted the bulb and placed it in her mouth.

The vibrations started again, and Sunset realized there was a hand on her shoulder. She blinked and came to her senses. She was in the courtyard, but the flowers were gone. There was no dead pony. She wasn’t even on the ground.

Sunset was standing in front of the statue, looking into its reflective surface. The reflection staring back at her was her own, and it was not. She had dark red skin and bat-like wings. Her hair and dress were flames and her eyes were black and green. She saw a demon in the mirror, staring back at her. She saw fire given solid form.

There was a voice. Sunset turned to see Flash. He was smiling. He was talking to her. What was he saying? Something about knowing that he’d find her here? Sunset said something as well. He wanted her to go to the auditorium. She followed him without questioning it.

Along the way, he smiled and held out his hand. Sunset took it. She had grown accustomed to the contact, and it no longer made her uncomfortable. So instead, she let go of his hand and wrapped her arm around his back. He followed suit and placed an arm around her shoulder, and all the while he was talking.

That was better. The closer she was to him, the less at ease she felt. Holding hands was no longer good enough, and even walking side by side in a half embrace hardly did anything. Still, it made her feel a little uneasy, and that was good. It was a real kind of discomfort. Something she could understand. Something that could distract her from whatever else there was around her. She tried to only focus on that, but it too was becoming more normalized.

They walked into the auditorium together, but they had to part ways. Sunset didn’t know why, but she knew they did. Flash was going to sit in the crowd, while Sunset went backstage. There was a reason, she was sure, but she just couldn’t remember it.

Flash gave her a smile and a thumbs up while he walked away, but Sunset was already moving on. He had served his purpose by distracting her, but he couldn’t do that any longer.

Backstage, Sunset found herself being corralled by Vice Principal Luna. She was addressing several students at once, Sunset among them. Apparently she was proud of them, but Sunset still wasn’t sure why.

One by one, students went out to the stage. Principal Celestia was out there, and she addressed every student as they came. The same motions for every one of them. The student walked onto the stage, Celestia said something, the audience cheered, and Luna sent out the next student.

The students were sent out in order of grade level, with the older students going first. By the time Sunset’s turn came, three-quarters of the students had gone. She was the first freshman to be sent out, however, which she was sure bore some significance.

When Sunset walked out, she saw that the entire school was ahead of her. She had never gone before so many before, but she thought little of it. She walked to the front, taking her place beside Celestia.

Celestia turned and smiled at her. They didn’t have the same smile, not quite, which made it easier. How had Sunset ever mistaken this poor imitation for the real princess?

Celestia presented Sunset with a plaque. It was simple. Canterlot High School’s logo engraved in a gold-colored metal. There were words on it, stating her name and that it was the ‘Bright Future Award’. Sunset couldn’t recall when she was told, but she knew that someone had informed her that she was chosen to receive the award.

Sunset taking the award was Celestia’s cue. She launched into a small speech about how proud she was, and that Sunset was sure to go far in life. Sunset wasn’t listening. She had another Celestia’s words on her mind.

Never lose your fire, my gifted student.

Sunset looked over the crowd. They were clapping politely as Celestia finished her speech. Sunset looked over them and realized that it wasn’t enough. She could get more. She would get more. These students only needed the right push, and they’d all bow to her. They’d adore her, far more than they adored Celestia.

Or, if Sunset chose, they’d fear her. Many students at Everfree Middle School had feared her, but it had never been enough. She could see that now. These students would know her. Sunset was done hiding in the shadows, and if they wouldn’t love her, they would fear her.

But just as soon as it had started, it was over. Sunset knew what she was supposed to do, even if she couldn’t remember being told, and she did it. She marched along to where the other award-winning students were waiting, and Celestia announced the next recipient. Sunset was certain that the applause was quieter than it had been for her.

The vibrating got worse while the others finished, until Sunset began to worry that someone else might hear it. How could they not? It was all around them. But nobody reacted to it, so neither did Sunset. She had to complete the motions.

She wasted no time once the ceremonies were over. There was nowhere she had to go, but she had to go somewhere. She had to escape that awful vibrating. It called to her, it wanted to deceive her.

Sunset wasn’t aware of anything else. There was the vibrating, and nothing else. It was deafening, and made her whole body ache.

That was why it took her so long to notice. There was another vibrating, but this one was in her pocket. It pulled Sunset back out of her fog, and she realized that she was outside the school, sitting in the grass. She was off to the side of the building, where she couldn’t see the statue.

Sunset pulled out her phone, a purchase she had made with her new income. There were new text messages from Flash, asking where she was. They were supposed to meet up after the ceremony, it seemed. Sunset answered him, then put her phone away.

She covered her head with her arms. The vibrating had dulled, but was still present. At least there were no other students in the immediate vicinity, but she still saw them out and about. They all seemed so happy, but Sunset couldn’t understand why.

When Flash found her, he looked annoyed. He was trying to say something about her running off without him, but she cut him off by throwing her arms around him and resting her head on his chest. Sunset wasn’t sure what he said, but his voice had grown concerned.

It helped. Especially when Flash followed her lead and put his arms around her as well, it helped. But Sunset had grown too used to his physical affection, and it was no longer enough to keep her fully distracted. She would have to push for more.

Sunset looked at him and couldn’t place his expression. It didn’t really matter. She closed her eyes and brought her lips to his. It wasn’t like they had never kissed before. They had been dating for months, after all. But usually, Sunset reserved kisses for parting ways, and they had generally kept them short.

This was unlike that. Sunset needed something to hold on to. Something that would pull her back into reality. And if the only thing she had was her discomfort, then she would take that.

Sunset pushed Flash against the wall, covering his body with hers. As they kissed, Sunset felt more aware of her surroundings than she had all day. She even began to realize that she had no idea what she was doing, and if Flash were more experienced, he’d probably find her attempts at making out ridiculous.

“What brought that on?” Flash asked as they pulled apart.

“Are you complaining?”

Sunset heard herself answer. It was the first focused exchange she’d had all day, and one of the only since she’d returned from Equestria. It seemed having a lovesick boyfriend could still prove to be a useful distraction, and Sunset relished the fact that the only noise came from the other students around them.

“No, not at all,” Flash said with a smirk. “I was just wondering so I could know how to do it again.”

Sunset grinned. “Well, school’s almost out. And I think we’ll have a lot more time to spend together over the summer.”

“I won’t complain about that.” Flash motioned towards the back of the school, where the busses were. Or rather, where they should have been. “You’ve been out here a long time. Your bus left already.”

Sunset stared at the lot, empty of all but a few lingering students. “Yeah, I guess it did.”

“Come on, let’s head to my house.” Flash held out his hand for Sunset’s.

Reasoning that she couldn’t refuse him something so simple after what had just happened, Sunset took his hand again as they walked off.

“Hey, uh…” Flash’s tone shifted back to concern. “Is… everything alright? You’ve been… distant lately.”

Sunset frowned. There was no good way for that conversation to go. “I’ve been… I don’t know. It’s been a shitty week.” She looked back at him and put on a reassuring smile. “But I think it’s looking up now.”

Flash smiled as well. So hopeful for a positive answer that it seemed he wasn’t even going to question it. “Alright. But you know, I’m always here if you need me.”

“I know.” Sunset didn’t doubt that. Nor did she doubt that she would be needing him again. Things were okay now, but she knew that wouldn’t last. There was a serious risk that she’d be back to being a zombie before the day was out.

Meanwhile, everyone around her continued as if things were fine. Better than fine; everyone around her seemed so damn happy. Sunset couldn’t understand it.

Sunset had gone to another world. She now knew beyond a doubt that she wasn’t a human. That she didn’t belong in this place. There was someone else taking up the spot that was rightfully her own, and nothing was the way it should be.

She had distracted herself from negative thoughts before going through the portal by keeping busy. But that was no longer good enough, so she knew it was time to push for more.

While they walked through the school courtyard, Sunset took a look at the surrounding students. She had learned a lot during her first year at CHS. She knew how they worked – everyone fell into their own cliques, but they intermingled easily. It would be easy to change that, though. They just needed the right push.

Sunset could unite them closer than ever, or she could divide them once and for all. Either way, she’d place herself on top. It might not be easy, but she had the time to do it. The portal was closed, and wouldn’t open again until her senior year. The only question that remained was what kind of ruler would Sunset be?

Five people caught her attention. It would have been hard to miss them, with all the noise Rainbow Dash was making. She was cheering about the end of the school year, with Pinkie Pie joining in the premature celebration. Ever the voice of reason, Rarity was reminding them that they still had finals over the next few days. Meanwhile, Fluttershy and Applejack were just laughing at their antics.

They all looked so happy. As if just being around each other was the best thing in the world. And then Applejack saw Sunset, and she smiled and waved. It was that perfect smile, the one Sunset had in her head for years, the one she hadn’t quite shown since they started CHS. But Sunset knew it wasn’t for her. That smile was reserved for Applejack’s real friends.

And Sunset knew there was no question about it. She was going to rule the school, and she was going to do it her way. Everyone was just so fucking happy, everyone except Sunset. She watched as Applejack turned back to her friends and said something that made everyone else laugh. And Sunset knew right then that if she was going to divide the school, there was only one place to start.

Sunset wouldn’t lose her fire. She couldn’t. She would find her way to the top, and everyone would know to fear her name. There was no other way. Sunset Shimmer was fire given solid form, and it was time for everyone else to burn.

~ End Act III ~

24 – A Place to Call Home

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Act IV

Consumed by Fire

Chapter Twenty-Four

A Place to Call Home

It was finally time. After a lifetime of waiting, it was finally happening.

‘Not a lifetime,’ Sunset reminded herself. There was a time before New Horizons, an entire life spent elsewhere. Even after everything Sunset had experienced, she still had to remind herself of that from time to time.

Perhaps that was why she was still going through with the whole thing. But as she loaded the final box into the back of Flash’s car, it didn’t really matter why. It was finally time, and Sunset was not looking back.

“You’re sure that’s everything?” Rose Petal asked as Sunset shifted the passenger seat back into its usual sitting position. “It never hurts to do a double check, you know.”

“I’m positive,” Sunset said. “It’s not like I had all that much stuff to begin with.”

“You remembered your toothbrush? Everyone always seems to forget their toothbrush.”

Sunset smiled and rolled her eyes. “Yes, I remembered my toothbrush.”

“Well, okay then…” Rose Petal looked at Flash’s car apprehensively. The trunk and back seat were full of Sunset’s things, and it was ready to take her away from New Horizons forever.

Snails was leaning against the car. “Uh, do you want us to come and help you unpack everything?”

What a stupid question. Even if Sunset wanted them to come, which she definitely did not, there wasn’t anywhere for them to sit. But before she could point that out, Flash stole their attention with a friendly chuckle. “Thanks, Snails, but I think we can take it from here. We appreciate the offer, though.”

“I guess we’ll see you at school tomorrow, then,” Snips said. He was standing near Snails, inseparable as always.

“Yeah, of course,” Sunset said, following Flash’s lead by being polite. It would be easier than ever to ditch school, but more than ever, she needed something to focus her attention on these days.

Snips and Snails had helped Sunset and Flash load up her stuff. Rose Petal was too old to actually carry any boxes, but she had come to see Sunset off. The other caretakers who happened to already be at work and a few of the kids had also come outside, but they all lingered a fair distance away and were already talking among themselves. No one that wasn’t already at the orphanage had bothered to show up for her last day there.

“Sunset,” Rose said gently, “if things don’t work out for you on your own, I hope you know that you can always come back to me. I’ll… well, we’ll figure something out.”

That was easier said than done, and they both knew it. Sunset had been officially emancipated from the state’s care, which meant that living at New Horizons would never be an option for her again.

But since they were both aware of that fact, there was no reason to point it out. “Miss Rose, everything will be fine. But if anything does go wrong, I’ll be sure to come to you.”

It didn’t seem like quite enough for Rose, but Sunset doubted anything ever could be. “Alright, Sunset. And you know, even if you are okay on your own, you can always drop in just to chat.”

Sunset smiled. “Of course. I’ll still be right here in town, and now that I’ve got my motorcycle, getting around won’t be a problem.”

Rose sighed and bowed her head for a moment, then lifted it and smiled. “I’m sure you’ll be just fine, anyway. You’ve got a bright future, Sunset, and I’m so proud of everything you’ve done in the past few years.”

“Come on, Miss Rose, you’re going to make me blush.”

No doubt aware that Sunset would resent a hug, Rose settled for taking Sunset’s hands in her own. “Take care of yourself, Sunset. Keep making me proud of you.”

Sunset wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to that, so she just smiled along and rushed into her final goodbyes. “Well, we should get going. Bye, Miss Rose. And thank you. For everything.”

In the end, that was really all there was to say.

With nothing left holding her back, Sunset climbed into Flash’s car. They didn’t speak as he got in and started the engine. Sunset stared at the mirror in silence as they pulled away, watching as everyone waved. One by one, most of the people went back into the orphanage. None of them really cared anyway, Sunset’s departure was just a point of interest for them.

Rose Petal didn’t wave for long, but she also didn’t go inside. Instead, she stood and watched the car sadly. The elderly caretaker had been the person who welcomed her to New Horizons eleven years ago, no one else in this world had known Sunset for quite so long. And she had stood by Sunset the whole time, supporting her even when she should have been written off as a lost cause. And now, after so many years, Sunset could only stare as they drove away from her.

“You okay?” Flash asked.

Sunset pried her eyes off the mirror. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Flash cast her an uncertain glance, but he didn’t argue. To try and prevent any awkward conversations about feelings, Sunset turned on the radio and flipped through stations until she found something that they both liked.

Whether it was because he caught on to what Sunset was doing or because he also wanted to avoid the conversation, Flash focused on a more positive topic. “So it’ll be pretty cool having a house all to yourself.”

Sunset suspected she knew exactly what Flash would find the most cool thing about it to be, but she was far more interested in other things. “Yeah, it’ll be great to not have twenty other kids around.”

“You’ll be able to play your music as loud as you want.”

“Sleeping in on the weekends will be a lot easier.”

“You can eat whatever you want.”

“Trust me, I’m already planning the ice cream for breakfast.”

Flash placed a hand on her thigh. “And best of all, there won’t be anyone to walk in on –”

“Mind on the road, Loverboy.” Sunset pushed his hand off but flashed him a sly grin.

Flash laughed and returned his hand to the steering wheel. “I’m a little surprised that you actually went through with it, though. You’ll be eighteen in another year.”

Sunset shrugged. “And I’ll enjoy that year a lot more on my own.” Or at least, what was left of it. The portal would be open in just under a month, and Sunset wasn’t planning on coming back this time.

But still, there was part of her that needed this backup plan. Sunset had already returned to Equestria once, so she knew it was real. But she had seen so many things since then, and that seed of doubt would never quite go away. So living on her own would be a good move for her; anything that helped her keep calm was good.

But since she couldn’t tell Flash any of that, Sunset added, “Besides, this has been in the works since before I met you.”

“Yeah, I know. And don’t get me wrong, I do understand. It’s just a little surprising to see someone in high school go through with getting their own house.” Flash grinned. “But I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised. Since when does Sunset Shimmer not follow through with something?”

“Pretty sure that’s never happened. You know that when I set my eye on something, I get it.”

“Of course, Princess.”

Sunset’s chest tightened and the sounds all around her suddenly seemed distant. “Princess?”

Flash smirked, completely oblivious to Sunset’s complicated feelings towards the term. “Well, you will be soon enough. The Fall Formal is right around the corner, you know.”

“Oh, right.” That was all. Sunset let out a breath and things started to refocus. This was just a normal conversation with Flash, nothing to do with why she was usually called princess.

And as far as normal things went, the Fall Formal was business as usual. Everyone knew that Sunset Shimmer would be the Princess of the Fall Formal. Canterlot High School had a dance for every season, and Sunset had already been crowned in the Summer Shindig, the Spring Fling, and the Winter Wrap Up. The Fall Formal would be her fourth consecutive win, proving that her reign was unbeatable.

Which was why it would probably come as a surprise to everyone when Sunset didn’t even bother to show up for the dance. It was almost a shame. Winning the Formal would be a great way to cap off her time at Canterlot High School, but the portal opened two days before the dance, and there was no question about which one of those Sunset cared more about.

“Hey, uhm…” Flash shifted nervously in his seat. “Speaking of the dance, there have been a lot of rumors going around…”

“Not surprised. I swear, CHS had a lot less gossip when we first started going there.” Of course, that was because Sunset had carefully been using her popularity to manipulate the student body to segregate into smaller, more manageable groups. Gossip was both a natural byproduct of that and part of how Sunset had accomplished it in the first place.

“Yeah, but… people seem to be afraid to run against you. And after seeing that no one ran against you during the Summer Shindig…”

“I can’t help it if everyone knows I’ll win.”

“I don’t think that’s it.” Flash’s tone grew less nervous, more serious. “It sounds like they’re afraid of you, Sunset. People are scared you’ll do something to them if they run against you.”

Nothing good could come of Flash looking into Sunset’s reputation. He usually proved too oblivious to take much notice, but Sunset occasionally had to win him back over to her side. She decided to start by playing up how upset the news made her. “What? But I’ve never done anything to anyone at that school! Why would people think something like that?”

“I don’t know. Like you said, the school does gossip a lot.” Flash didn’t sound as sympathetic as Sunset had hoped, but he was sounding a little less sure.

Good. Sunset was working her doubt in. As long as he stayed open to the idea that she was innocent, then he’d stay hers. She’d be able to solidify her hold later. But that could wait; for now, it was better to drop the subject.

Since Flash wasn’t pressing to continue it, Sunset focused on the way the city changed as they drove. The houses grew smaller and closer together, and they lost the expertly maintained lawns of suburbia. Large chain stores and restaurants first started appearing run down, with faded paint jobs and out of date signs that didn’t fully light up, then they disappeared altogether. In their place, convenience stores and laundromats started popping up as the most common local businesses.

The minivans, SUVs, and mid-priced sedans that Sunset was used to seeing around New Horizons and Canterlot High were replaced with either old, beat-up cars and trucks or foot traffic. Flash’s sports car, with its custom paint job and undented frame, must have stood out like a sore thumb in Sunset’s new neighborhood.

It wasn’t luxurious, but it wasn’t for long. “I can’t wait until I can just leave everything behind.”

Flash didn’t catch on that she wasn’t talking about the rumors anymore. “You know the school just likes to gossip. Being talked about is kind of part of being at the top.”

At least he was sounding more sympathetic, so Sunset decided to roll with it. “I know. And it usually doesn’t get to me, but… I guess this just isn’t how I wanted to start senior year.”

“I swear, this school’s been getting worse every year since we’ve been there. Do you remember freshman year? The whole student body was so supportive of one another, and I was proud to be a Wondercolt! Why do we even let all these stupid cliques divide us, anyway?”

Bad move, Sunset did not like where this was heading. “Maybe we were just too young and naïve to see that this was always there. I don’t know. I just know that I’m ready to move on from this school. Bigger and better things and all that.”

Flash laughed, so Sunset punched his shoulder playfully. “Hey, that’s not nice. Your girlfriend’s trying to be all angsty over here, and you’re laughing at her?”

“Sorry, it’s just… you just got your own house! You haven’t even settled in yet, and you’re already pushing for the next thing. That fire is one of the things I love about you, but maybe tonight you could keep it more of a simmer?”

Okay, so his fire metaphor went bad at ‘simmer’, but Sunset still found herself smiling. “Fine, you win. Tonight will be a drama free night.”

“Speaking of your house…” They came to a stop in front of a small red house. There was no driveway, so Flash pulled over along the road in front of it.

“Home sweet home.” Sunset got out and folded her seat down as Flash cut off the engine.

Even with only two of them, it didn’t take long to bring everything in. All of Sunset’s worldly possessions amounted to her motorcycle, some furniture and appliances she’d only recently acquired for the new house, a guitar Flash gave her last Christmas, her computer, and half-a-dozen boxes. Since the motorcycle, furniture, and appliances were already at the house, that just left the computer, guitar, and a few boxes to bring in.

Once they finished with that and shut the door behind them, Sunset let out a giddy laugh in spite of herself. “Okay, so this is pretty exciting!”

“So should we unpack now, or jump straight into the obligatory kegger?”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “You know, I did manage to get some beer in the fridge after you and your dad left yesterday.”

Flash didn’t seem as enticed as Sunset was by the idea of booze that was actually cold. “Please tell me you paid for it.”

“Of course I did,” Sunset lied. “I told you I’d behave myself. I had to drive to like five stores before finding someone who didn’t care enough about his job to ID me.”

It was just what he wanted to believe, so Flash ate up the lie. “Yeah, of course. But maybe next time, I’m gonna have to drive home later.”

“Ever the responsible one. Oh well, we should really unpack anyway. I don’t know how we’ll ever get through this mountain of boxes.”

One of the boxes was full of books, which went on a small bookcase Violet Dusk had bought her. A second box contained a few more books and some miscellaneous things; most of those also went on the bookshelf, for want of anywhere else to put them. The remaining four boxes were mostly full of clothes, so most of their time was spent putting things on hangers. She didn’t have a dresser anymore, but she did have a small closet.

Small described almost everything about the house. There were only four rooms – living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen – and none of them were as big as Sunset would have liked. In addition to small, cheap could be used to describe all of Sunset’s furniture and appliances. Along with the bookcase, the living room had a table they had found at a yard sale that would be her computer desk, one chair, and a couch that Flash had insisted on helping her pay for despite the lack of a TV to watch from it.

The bedroom was, if anything, even more minimalistic. The full-size bed had been a difficult decision, but Sunset had slept on a twin mattress her whole life, and they cut enough corners elsewhere. Besides, the full-sized frame had been free, a hand-me-down from Flash’s uncle, so she had only needed to buy the mattress. The only other things in the bedroom were a few recently empty boxes and a bedside table with a few drawers she used for underwear, socks, and makeup.

“So what do you think? Good look for me?”

Sunset turned and burst into laughter. It seemed that not all of her underwear had made it into the bedside table drawer – Flash was wearing one of her bras over his shirt. To top it off, he had one hand on his hip, the other behind his head, and his lips stuck out in a pout.

“Take that off, you dork,” Sunset said in between laughs.

“What’s the matter? Don’t want your boyfriend to become your girlfriend?”

“No, that part sounds fine. But any girlfriend of mine can get her own clothes.”

“Oh really?” Flash smirked. “So then explain why you’ve had my leather jacket for over a year now.”

“Because being my girlfriend and being your girlfriend are different things. I can steal your clothes because, unlike me, you’re a pushover.”

“Now who’s being mean?”

“Yeah yeah, I’m a real bitch. Now take my bra off!”

Sunset lunged for it, but Flash pulled away. “But I feel pretty.”

“Oh, you’re pretty alright,” Sunset said as she shook her head. “Pretty ridiculous.”

Flash laughed and took off the bra. He handed it to Sunset, who shoved it haphazardly into her underwear drawer. “I wish you’d let other people see this side of you.”

Sunset smirked. “I don’t really think other people need to see my bra.”

“Well, no, obviously not that. But the warmer, more playful side of Sunset Shimmer.”

That didn’t make any sense. Sunset had worked her way to the top in a large part by using her charm. Sure, now that she had her hold firmly established she was squeezing a little tighter, but she still had to put on the fake happy demeanor more often than she’d like. “I don’t get what you mean. I’m just me, Flash.”

“I thought that for a while too, but you’re different when we’re alone. It’s like… you keep everyone else at an arm’s length. I’m glad you can relax around me, but I wish I wasn’t the only one.”

Sunset kept everyone at an arm’s length, including Flash. Where was this coming from? “Is this about the rumors?”

Flash frowned. “No, it’s just something I noticed.”

“Well, you noticed wrong, then.” Sunset’s tone had hardened in the span of a few moments. She was not more comfortable with Flash, and he was not different. Just a pawn in her plans like anyone else.

“Sunset, I–”

“So what exactly are they saying about me?” Sunset asked sharply. “They think I’ll ‘do something’ to them? What does everyone think I’m going to do?”

“Look, we said we’d drop that for tonight. I didn’t mean to bring it back up, I was just saying…” Flash didn’t seem sure what exactly he had been trying to say anymore.

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “You do know something else, don’t you? What is it?”

Flash’s mouth fell open and he looked around as he struggled to make words come out of it. Eventually he sighed and stared down at the bed. “It’s… dumb. And I don’t know exactly what, but… People are saying that you bullied that other girl out of running against you during the Spring Fling.”

“Rarity?” Sunset asked incredulously. “Rarity is a self-absorbed drama queen. Of course she says I ‘bullied her out of it’, she doesn’t want to believe that she lost all on her own! No wonder her friends don’t even like her anymore.”

Flash didn’t say anything, but that meant he didn’t deny it. It was strange, though. Sunset had made sure to cover her tracks with the whole Rarity incident, and she’d been keeping an ear out to see if the bitch talked. And yet this was the first she was hearing about anyone else suspecting foul play. “But you don’t even talk to Rarity. Who told you that?”

“Sunset, I… I don’t think it matters who –”

“You don’t think it matters that someone is spreading lies about your girlfriend?” Sunset scowled. “I thought you were supposed to be there for me…”

Flash sat up straight and quickly answered, “I am!” He sighed again and looked away for a moment before turning back and giving Sunset what she wanted. “I heard it from Rainbow Dash.”

Ah, that made sense. Sunset had never deliberately put anything in between Rarity and Rainbow Dash, but as their circle of friends imploded, the two of them had begun hanging out a lot less. It seemed they did still talk about some things, however. “Rainbow Dash is her friend. She’ll believe anything the little diva says.”

“Well, they’re not real close anymore, so I just thought that…”

It seemed Flash realized his poor wording before he finished, but Sunset wasn’t letting him go so easily. “Just thought what, Flash? That I have been terrorizing girls out of running against me? That I’m some sort of monster trying to bend the student body to my will?”

“No! Where is this all coming from?” Flash shook his head. “I just thought that I should talk to you is all.”

“Well, congratulations. We’re talking. Real fucking delightful conversation we’re having right here.” Sunset turned away, giving Flash a moment for his actions to sink in.

He didn’t react right away. Sunset was beginning to think she’d have to make the next move, but he eventually stood up. “I have something I need to do.”

Sunset didn’t acknowledge him. After another moment of silence, she heard him walk away. Within a few more moments she heard the front door open and close, followed by the sound of his car starting and driving away.

She could have handled that better. In fact, it would’ve been hard to have handled it worse. Why had she brought the rumors up again in the first place?

With nothing else to do in the bedroom, Sunset got up as well. More so to fill her time than because she wanted anything, Sunset went into the kitchen. It was the only room in the house that wasn’t strikingly empty, but that had more to do with its small size than anything.

Well, its small size and the fact that the motorcycle sitting in it was taking up a lot of the precious space. It was only a temporary solution; since Sunset didn’t have a garage, Bottled Lightning was going to come over and help her build a shed she could lock it up in. She wasn’t sure if he actually knew how to build a shed or if that was just his masculinity insisting he knew what he was doing, but he certainly knew more than Sunset. He and Flash had been over the day before to build a ramp leading into the kitchen door, and that had worked to get the motorcycle inside, after all.

Sunset walked over to the motorcycle and brushed her hand along it. A ride to clear her head sounded like the best thing for her, but she was low on gas and had to make it last until payday. That was why she chose a motorcycle over a car in the first place; it was cheaper to buy, more economical on gas, and repairs would be more manageable. Lightning had gone with her and made sure she wasn’t getting ripped off, then he and Flash had helped her tune it up and showed her how to maintain it.

Flash. When she really stopped and thought about it, Flash Sentry was responsible for so much of this success. He’d helped her buy a lot of the furniture, and his dad had been essential while they were figuring out what to get and how to budget. She even had her job thanks to them, since Flash’s uncle was the owner of the store she worked at.

‘Why did I bring up the rumors? Because he was right.’

Since a joyride was out of the question, Sunset opened the fridge. She immediately pulled open one of the bottom drawers and moved aside a bag of lettuce to get to the beer shoved all the way in the back. Even though everything was finalized by now, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone would pull it all away if she was caught with alcohol.

But since there were only four cans, Sunset just put the lettuce back in place. She knew she’d be better saving it, since there’d come a time when she wanted it more than she did now. Probably in a few hours or so.

Instead, she grabbed a can of off-brand cola. It tasted like crap, but it was crap she could afford. Since there was also nothing else to do in the kitchen, Sunset walked back to the living room.

It seemed that as much as she was thrilled to have her own house, there wasn’t much to do in it. The unpacking was finished and she hadn’t lived in it long enough to need to do any chores, so she moved onto the only thing left to do and set up her computer.

It took all of maybe five minutes. Move everything to the table, plug everything in, and turn it on. She wouldn’t have internet for another couple of days. Even if one of her neighbors had an unsecured wifi connection, her desktop didn’t have a wifi adapter to connect to it.

She sighed and watched the computer boot up. There were a few things she could do offline – she had downloaded some music and movies specifically to give herself something to do until there was internet – but nothing appealed to her at the moment.

This was it. This was what she wanted. A place all to herself, somewhere she could call home.

The word processor on her computer popped open, and Sunset stared in disbelief as words started appearing.

you dont have a home =)

Sunset jumped back, knocking her soda onto the floor. When she looked back to the computer, it was her desktop wallpaper, with no document in sight. She picked up the half-empty can of soda and shut off the computer anyway.

The bathroom was the only room in the house with a mirror, but it was also where her towels were. Reminding herself to pick up paper towels the next time she was at work, Sunset grabbed the dingiest towel she could find. She avoided looking in the mirror, especially after what had just happened.

Although she half expected the computer to turn on by itself or something, nothing strange happened as she cleaned up the soda. Still, her nerves were getting to her and it was easy to see why. She’d made a mistake. She wasn’t supposed to be this comfortable.

She grabbed a trash bag and shoved the dirty towel in it. A dirty laundry hamper was another thing she’d need to get soon. For the time being, she set her dirty laundry bag down against the wall in her bedroom, pulled her phone out of her pocket, and dialed the most recent contact.

“This is Flash Sentry. Too busy rocking out to come to the phone right now, so leave a message after the B!” A B major chord sounded from Flash’s guitar, followed by the standard answering machine beep.

“Hey, Flash, it’s Sunset…” She sighed. “I’m really sorry I snapped at you, I just… Things have been extra busy with the house, and I know that’s a bad excuse, but please come back. We should be celebrating, not fighting! At least call me. Love you, I’ll talk to you soon.”

Love you. It wasn’t true, of course. Sunset had been dating Flash for almost three years now, and saying things like “I love you” were expected by this point. But Sunset didn’t love anyone, and saying it didn’t make it true.

With nothing else to do, Sunset collapsed on the bed. This was her own fault. She had let herself get too comfortable in the house. She had even fallen into the trap of thinking of it like she was going to stay there.

No, this was only for a month. Just something that was already in the works and that would make her last month in this hell slightly more bearable. And if she started thinking of it as more than that, she’d regret it. Things didn’t go well when she got too complacent with life in this world.

When staring at her ceiling lost its interest, Sunset finally returned to the living room. Since her computer still wasn’t very appealing, she instead retrieved the only thing they’d brought from New Horizons that she hadn’t used yet – a V-shaped electric guitar. It was seafoam green with a white decal, and Sunset spent a lot of her free time playing it.

Guitar lessons with Flash had just been a way to fill time, and practice was mostly the same. She enjoyed playing, but she’d miss computers a lot more than guitars when she went back to Equestria. Still, it was a sure way to kill some time.

She worked her way through a few different styles as she tried to decide what to play. Nothing felt right, so she kept hopping from song to song while trying her best to just not think of anything. Eventually she found a nice groove in a slow melodic chord progression. It sounded familiar, but wrong somehow. Like a song she was trying to remember, but she couldn’t quite figure out how it went. Sunset closed her eyes.

The world stretched out below her. It was bathed in fading orange light, and Sunset knew it was her time. She watched the land, although she did not know what for. She watched as her time faded, and twilight took hold of the world. She watched as that, too, faded.

It was dark. There was a stillness that hung over everything. Stillness, but not calmness. There was fear, but Sunset was not the one who was afraid. She was as detached from fear as she was from the scene below her.

Below her, there was a mountain. It rose sharply into the air, a pillar watching over the land. Did it watch over to protect or to keep in line? Where did the line between the two converge?

Below her, there was a city. It jutted from the side of the mountain in defiance to nature, proof that anything could be conquered. The city slept, but it did not sleep easily.

The darkness was disrupted. Red and yellow danced through its streets, creating distorted shadows that now claimed the city for their own. The city burned.

In the distance, another light broke the darkness. A light that threatened to burn all the land. A light that had once claimed this city, but now bore witness to its end. Sunset’s time had passed, and morning rose. What would the light become?

Sunset never found out, as a knock on the door brought her out of her thoughts. She blinked and looked around the room. It felt like only moments had passed, but the light outside her windows was beginning to dim, and her hands were cramping from playing the same chords over and over.

“Sunset? It’s me. Can you unlock the door?”

“Uh, yeah, just a minute.” Sunset laid her guitar down on the couch and stood up. She felt light-headed, so she took a few steadying breaths before going to the door.

Flash stood waiting on the other side. “Hey, sorry I –”

Sunset cut him off by throwing her arms around him. She felt dazed and knew she was on the verge of lapsing into an episode; she needed Flash to help ground her.

“I was only gone for a couple hours,” Flash said as he hugged her back. He probably thought this because of the fight. It was better for him to think that.

Sunset pulled away and smiled. She had gotten quite good at pretending like she wasn’t completely mental when she needed to. “I take it you got my message?”

“Yeah, and I called you back like four times. Why didn’t you answer?”

Sunset shifted her expression to appear guilty. “Sorry, I left my phone in the bedroom. Guess I’m not used to this whole multiple rooms thing. I’ll have to remember to keep it on me now.”

Flash smiled. “Hey, no big deal. And I was coming back anyway, I just had to go get something. Speaking of which, want to give me a hand with it?”

Before Sunset could ask what he meant, Flash led the way to his car. He smiled proudly as he opened the door, revealing a flat screen TV sitting in his passenger seat. “It’s not huge, but it’s better than nothing.”

Sunset stared for a moment before breaking into a grin. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you did this! But you really shouldn’t have.”

“It wasn’t that much. I got a good deal at a pawn shop a few weeks back, and they agreed to hold it until you moved in.” Flash held up a finger when Sunset tried to speak again. “And before you say anything about not having cable, I already planned for that. I picked up an antenna that works on digital TVs and brought my DVD player with a bunch of movies.”

“Flash…” Sunset smiled and shook her head. “You are unbelievably sweet. Come on, let’s get it inside.”

The two of them worked together to carry the TV inside, then went back to the car for the DVD player. Flash surprised her again on the second trip by revealing he also had two pizzas in his back seat, reasoning that she wouldn’t want to cook the same day that they moved everything in.

Lacking anything to put the TV on, they dragged the kitchen table into the living room. It wasn’t a huge loss, considering the kitchen was too crowded anyway. With the TV and computer on the only real tables, they used empty boxes as their tables to eat off of.

Sunset let Flash pick out a movie, which meant a generic action flick. That was fine, though; it wasn’t Sunset’s favorite kind of movie, but she was just glad to have something to focus on.

“It’s amazing how many problems you can solve with guns and muscles,” Sunset commented about halfway through the movie.

“That’s not a fair assessment,” Flash said. “They also solved some of their problems with explosives.”

Sunset laughed. “Slow motion explosives, at that.”

“Do explosives even come in any other kind?”

Sunset stretched out as best she could. Like almost everything she owned, her couch wasn’t very big, and yet she had decided to lie down on it. Her feet were hanging off one end and she was lying against Flash on the other, so they were both more than a bit cramped. But as she stretched and looked into Flash’s face, she knew he didn’t mind.

If Sunset was really indifferent to him, seeing how happy he was wouldn’t affect her one way or another. If she was a normal person, she suspected it would have made her happy too. Instead, she found herself looking away. She didn’t want to see that. “You’re too good for me.”

‘Which is why I have to push you away while I have the chance.’

Flash’s hand found hers. “Yeah, I should really shoot for better than the most popular girl in school. I mean, she only has her own house, makes straight A’s, works a full-time job, plays gui–”

Sunset pulled him into a kiss. She didn’t want to hear that. Didn’t want to hear about the perfect Sunset Shimmer that he saw. The Sunset Shimmer that she could never be.

Because the real Sunset Shimmer? The real Sunset Shimmer was going to leave him in the dust. She wasn’t even going to tell him she was going. And even though that meant she no longer had any reason to establish her dominance at school, she was going to keep doing that too.

The real Sunset Shimmer was going to destroy whatever she could in this world, just like this world had destroyed her.

‘That’s more like it, Princess.’

Sunset winced. That had been her voice, and it came from the bathroom. She didn’t need to look to know which reflection she would see in the mirror.

Only one more month. She only had to make it one more month, then she’d be free from everything. Until then, she just had to keep the demon’s fire from consuming her along with everyone else.

Sunset pulled away from Flash and stood up. “So what do you say we finish this movie another time?” She kept hold of his hand as she took a step toward the bedroom, and he grinned in response.

No amount of telling herself that some of the things she saw and heard weren’t real had ever helped. So instead, she had often relied on Flash to do that. Kissing had been enough once, but that was years ago. They had a new way of forcing the thoughts out of her head these days, and with no risk of anyone walking in on them anymore, Sunset planned to make the most of it.


Sunset stirred restlessly. It was only August, but there was already a chill in the air. They must have left a window open or something. Even under a blanket, the chill cut into her.

At least Flash had stayed the night. He was supposed to go home, but they wound up falling asleep together in Sunset’s bed. That had never happened before, and Sunset wasn’t sure how she felt about it, but having someone else’s body heat to share on such a frigid night pushed any concerns out of her mind.

She moved closer and placed her arm around his stomach. He had his back to her, so she curled around him. He seemed to be sleeping soundly. Even pressed against one another, Sunset felt unreasonably cold, but she tried to ignore that.

Even with him on his side, Sunset could see the rhythmic rise and fall of his breathing. She had never noticed that before. Maybe it was the way he was silhouetted by the streetlight that gently illuminated the room, but something about his breathing stood out to her.

Sunset sighed and knew she should get back to sleep. Instead, she leaned her head against Flash’s back. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry. You deserve better. You deserve someone who won’t leave you. Someone who can honestly say that she loves you. Someone kind. You deserve… everything you see in me that I’ll never be. And that’s why… you should just go. You’d be so much better off without someone like me who will just make you suffer.”

Flash shifted, and Sunset wondered if she woke him. But he didn’t speak or turn around. Sunset remained as still as she could, waiting to see what he would do. But when his hand moved to cover hers, she was shocked into moving. “Jesus, you’re fucking frozen.”

Sunset tried to pull her hand away, but Flash kept a hold on her. He slowly turned around, and Sunset realized that the silhouette’s form was wrong. “Sunset…” Applejack let go of her hand only to wrap both arms around her body. Her skin was unbearably cold against Sunset’s. “Don’t make me leave.”

There was a cracking sound, and the ground below them opened up.

They fell into the water, and it burned. It was more like fire than ice.

What little light there had been didn’t reach them anymore. There was nothing but darkness in her world now. Darkness and the burning cold.


When Sunset woke up, she was too terrified to move. It had all been a dream, that much she was sure of. But that didn’t shake the feeling that if she rolled over, she wouldn’t be alone in her bed.

Flash had left, of course. He stayed for a little bit after the sex, but even if his dad was okay with him sleeping over at his girlfriend’s house, it was a school night. Sunset had gone to bed shortly after that, feeling confident that the lingering endorphin high would allow her to sleep easily for once.

But Sunset never slept easily. On some nights, she didn’t sleep at all. So she was used to this feeling, used to the dread that something from a dream had followed her into the waking world. And although sometimes things did follow her from her dreams, she was used to confronting that fear.

She summoned all her willpower and managed to turn around. Applejack wasn’t there, nor was anyone else. Everything was as it should be.

The first thing Sunset did was turn on a light. Lights didn’t stop the visions, but darkness welcomed them. Next thing to do was find a distraction. Her phone was in the bedroom, so she chose that.

She opened her contacts. It was not a long list, and there was only one person who was worth paying attention to at this hour.

She could always count on Flash. Even in the middle of the night, he’d answer a call from her. If she told him she’d had a nightmare, he’d be ready to talk to her until she fell back asleep. There had been times she’d been desperate enough to need that.

But this time, she set her phone back down. For the first time in her life, there was no one else around. This was her house, and there was no one to stop her from playing music, or watching a movie, or doing anything else she wanted to do at two in the morning.

Instead of doing any of that, she sat on her bed and hugged her knees to her chest. She never knew she could feel so alone.

25 – Queen

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Chapter Twenty-Five

Queen Bitch

Everything was too bright. Sunset reached around for a pillow she could use to cover her head with, only to find that there weren’t any. Instead, she rolled over and pressed her face into the nook of the couch.

Thirty seconds of a song looped over and over. It had been playing for the better part of the night, and all Sunset could do was groan. Even if she could ignore the light, that song was driving her crazy.

There was no ignoring either, so after a few minutes of trying, Sunset forced herself to sit up. An empty beer can rolled from the couch to the floor, coming to rest beside another one. Sunset groaned again and rubbed her eyes, then started looking around for the remote to shut off the DVD player.

It hit her before she even found the remote. “Fuck…” Sunset stood up quickly and ran to the bedroom. She found her phone on the bed where she left it and checked the time. Eight o’clock, which meant her first class was already over. She groaned again.

She quickly weighed her options. She felt like shit and getting back to sleep in a real bed might fix that. It wasn’t like she even needed to go to school anymore. Sure, the school would be pissed if she completely stopped going. They’d make some phone calls, but then what? Her number was already updated in the school’s records, so they’d just be calling her cell. And it wasn’t like she’d be expelled within the next month, and that was all the time she needed. There was no one to lecture her, or ground her, or anything else.

And even if she wanted to keep going to school just to fill her time, what was one day going to hurt? She knew most subjects better than her teachers did, and she didn’t even really need to do the assignments anymore. Nothing in her future was dependent on what grades she got in school anymore.

The logic was pretty solid, and she couldn’t think of any possible reasons to go to school that would outweigh it. So Sunset crawled into bed and pulled the blanket on top of her. It was much more comfortable than the couch, even if she could still hear the DVD menu music from the living room. That was fixed by following through with her original plan and covering her head with a pillow.

At last, Sunset could not only chase away her thoughts during the night any way she liked, she could sleep in during the morning for as long as she wanted. Having no one to tell her what to do was the best, and Sunset had a feeling she was going to enjoy the month on her own.

All on her own. No one to tell her what to do. Just a whole day by herself in an empty house with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company.

Sunset sat up and groaned one last time. Second period would be over by the time she got ready and made it to school, but she could be there for the rest of the day.

“It’s not even for a whole month,” Sunset reminded herself as she questioned if this house was such a good move.


There was no one around by the time Sunset pulled into the student parking lot, as everyone else was in class. It might’ve been smarter to wait an hour, since then she’d be arriving during lunch rather than the end of second period, but she hadn’t wanted to spend any more time alone than necessary.

Checking her phone showed her that there were only ten minutes left in class. She took the time to lock up her bike properly, then slowly walked into the school. Being late meant she had to enter through the office, but most of the staff loved her, so that wouldn’t be a problem.

She was met with a confused look from the secretary, who no doubt was shocked by the fact that Canterlot High School’s darling was late. Sunset smiled sheepishly, explained that she had just moved and forgot to set her alarm clock in the new house, and had them both laughing it off within minutes. She even stayed to chat for the rest of the class period, since it was obvious that there was no point in going so late, and that way she wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why she was wandering the halls during class time.

Once the bell rang to signify the end of class, Sunset waved goodbye and left for her locker. Students began filing out into the hallway, and only the motorcycle helmet under her arm suggested that she wasn’t leaving her class along with the rest of them.

Nobody stopped to talk to Sunset as she walked through the halls. By now, most of the students knew better, even if the staff remained clueless. Most of them didn’t know exactly what Sunset was capable of, but that worked out to her benefit. Fewer people who knew the true Sunset meant fewer people who would have a reason to stand up to her.

Speaking of people who couldn’t see the real Sunset… She stopped when she noticed two people outside a classroom. They were too far away to hear, but Flash and Rainbow seemed to be enjoying a conversation. Enjoying a little too much, considering Rainbow was spreading rumors about her.

Breaking up their conversation now would only lead to problems. She could deceive Flash and handle Rainbow, but trying to do both at once was too likely to blow up on her. Leaving them alone for the time being, Sunset backtracked a bit to take a different route to her locker.

Going the long way took up most of the time in between classes, but that was fine. Sunset didn’t have anything else to do anyway. The warning bell sounded as she reached her locker. She still took her time; Sunset’s teachers liked her enough that she could get away with being a little late.

She opened her locker and placed the helmet on the top shelf. She pulled a chemistry textbook out, and she tried her best to ignore the box at the bottom.

Most of the students were either already in their classes or running to get to them by the time Sunset closed her locker. She made her way to class ever so slightly faster than her usual walk, just so that no staff members could chastise her for taking her time.

The bell had rung by the time she reached the class, but her teacher accepted the most basic of apology she could offer without further questions. Most of the students cast a half-interested look in her direction as she walked to her seat, but none of them paid her much mind.

One student, she noticed, didn’t look at her at all. In fact, Fluttershy seemed to deliberately avoid looking her way. That was as it should be. A lot of students were afraid of her, especially lately. The closer it was to the portal opening, the less Sunset tried to hide her nefarious intentions. And Fluttershy? She had been one of Sunset’s first targets.

It wasn’t anything against her specifically. Fluttershy was friends with Applejack, and that was reason enough. It had taken a while to separate the inseparable group, but Sunset had worked on it relentlessly. Most of what she did was behind the scenes stuff, things they still wouldn’t suspect she was involved in. But occasionally, more direct involvement was beneficial.

That, and making Fluttershy squirm was an easy source of amusement. Okay, so maybe it was a little bit because of Fluttershy specifically.

Maybe that was why Sunset kept thinking of her throughout the class. After the miserable night she’d had, it would be nice to have a chance to let off some steam. There wasn’t anything she really wanted from Fluttershy, but she could always find something.

Or maybe she was just bored. The lesson certainly wasn’t keeping her preoccupied. Chemistry was an interesting subject, but the school year was new and they were still working through the introductory lessons. Meanwhile, Sunset had studied chemistry years ago in Equestria, and, ever determined to keep busy, she’d brushed up on it more recently in her spare time.

Whether it was because she was looking for a release or because she was bored it didn’t matter. When the bell rang to signify it was lunchtime, Sunset left the room, but she didn’t go far. Fluttershy lingered in the classroom for a few minutes, likely hoping the extra time would mean Sunset was a safe distance away.

Unfortunately for her, Sunset was waiting in the hall. “Fluttershy,” Sunset said with a warm smile, reveling the way she flinched at even the sound of her own name. “Got a minute? I need to talk to you about something.”

Fluttershy tucked her arms in, bowed her head, and avoided eye contact as she spoke. “Uhm, actually, I –”

“Great! Let’s go for a walk.” Sunset placed a hand on her shoulder and guided her as she started walking. Fluttershy either didn’t realize Sunset was steering her away from the classroom she could have run back into, or she was smart enough to know that was only a short-term gain.

“So, it’s been a while!” Sunset said as they walked. “How have things been with you?”

Fluttershy looked off to the side before speaking. “Well, I –”

“Wait, sorry, I just remembered I don’t care.” Sunset laughed as if it were a silly misunderstanding. “Now, there is something I do care about, though.”

Sunset stopped and Fluttershy did likewise. “I was wondering if you could tell me if your friend Rarity is going to try running for the Fall Formal.”

“No, I… I don’t think so…”

Sunset tightened her hold on Fluttershy’s shoulder. Even though it wasn’t nearly enough to hurt her, Fluttershy still gasped as if she were in pain. Sunset ignored it. “I’m sorry, but was that a ‘no’ or an ‘I don’t think so’?”

Fluttershy tried taking a step back, but Sunset maintained her hold. “I… I…”

“Sunset?”

Sunset scowled. Of all the people to find her in the middle of intimidating someone. She forced a smile as she turned around. “Hey, Flash! How’s it going?”

Flash looked between both girls. “What’s going on here?”

Sunset shrugged. “Nothing much, just catching up with Fluttershy. You two know each other, right?”

“A little,” Flash said. Sunset didn’t know if he believed that Sunset wasn’t up to anything bad, but she knew he wanted to. “How’s it going, Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy glanced to Sunset, who wondered if she knew how important her next words were to her well being. “It’s… fine.”

Well that wasn’t going to convince anyone. “Fluttershy and I have chemistry together,” Sunset said, then grinned. “And I don’t just mean because we get along so well!”

It seemed Fluttershy was smart enough to know to play along, even if she wasn’t very good at it. All she managed was a weak chuckle that couldn’t possibly fool anyone, even Flash.

Sunset rolled with it. “Sorry, that was a really dumb joke. But anyway, it was nice catching up with you, Fluttershy, but I’ll see you later. Unless you wanted to join me and Flash for lunch?”

Fluttershy was already backing away. “Oh, I, uh… I have to go meet… someone. Bye!” She ran off before Sunset or Flash had a chance to say anything.

“She’s a little… shy around people she doesn’t know well,” Sunset said once she was gone.

“So… what was all that about?”

Although she knew what he meant, Sunset feigned ignorance and facepalmed. “Ugh, I know, I can’t believe I said that. ‘We have chemistry together’? This is why I shouldn’t try to joke with people.”

“That wasn’t the problem.” Flash sounded exasperated already. “She didn’t look shy, she looked scared.”

“This again…” Sunset folded her arms and arched an eyebrow. “So what? Do you think I’m intimidating her to not run against me or something?”

“I didn’t say that,” Flash said defensively.

“So, you just think I’m scaring her for no reason then?”

“No! You’re being completely unreasonable!”

“Then what would be ‘reasonable’, Flash?” Sunset glared. “Okay, you got me. I wanted to find out why people are talking about me, so I decided to talk to one of Rarity’s friends about it. Apparently that was ‘unreasonable’, though.”

“So you two were just having a friendly conversation then?” Flash asked doubtfully.

“Yes! What do you think I was doing?”

Flash sighed. “I don’t know. But she didn’t seem to think it was just friendly.”

Sunset turned away and shifted her tone, opting to sound more hurt than aggressive. “Fine. Believe whatever you want.”

“Sunset…”

Sunset let out an obviously forced laugh. “Besides, I can see what’s going on.”

That threw Flash off more than the fake hurt did. “What do you mean?”

“It’s Rainbow Dash. You know, at first I thought it was weird that you hang out with her so much. This isn’t the first time she’s perpetuated a rumor against me, you know. But then I realized… she’s playing you, and you’re letting her.”

“Don’t you think that’s going a little far?”

“I don’t know!” Sunset threw her hands up in a show of exasperation. “Don’t you think it’s weird to be friends with someone who’s been talking shit about your girlfriend?”

Flash let out a deep sigh. “Let’s just talk about this when we’re not at school. I’m going to get some lunch. I’ll see you later, Sunset.”

“Whatever.” Sunset didn’t wait for him to walk away before doing so herself.

Let Flash think whatever he wanted to. There were other things to worry about, anyway. Although she had been going through the motions to win the Fall Formal, she hadn’t really cared one way or the other. But thinking on it, why should anyone else get to take her spot? Even if she was going back to Equestria before the dance, Sunset Shimmer was the rightful Princess of the Fall Formal. She couldn’t win the crown if she wasn’t there for the voting, but she could make sure no one else did.

There weren’t many students who would dare to run against her, but it never hurt to be sure. Rarity had almost certainly learned her lesson after the Spring Fling, but a reminder wouldn’t hurt. She didn’t even need to get her own hands dirty.

As she walked towards the courtyard, she sent a text message to Snips telling him to bring Snails and meet her at the statue. She had originally only befriended them to make herself look good, but they proved useful enough to keep around.

It would be going a little far to call them friends, though. Sunset had been the one to show them the ropes at New Horizons, and by the time they went to Canterlot High, she had established herself as the most popular girl in school. They clearly looked up to her, and having the chance to be part of her plans was likely a thrill all on its own. If anything, they were more like her lackeys.

“Hi, Sunset,” Snails said once they arrived at the courtyard. “How’d everything go with the new house?”

“The house is fine, but that’s not what I asked you to come here for.” Sunset looked around to check for anyone listening in, lest she have a repeat of what had just happened with Flash. “I have a job for you two.”

“What kind of job?” Snips asked.

“I want you to find out if Rarity is running for Princess of the Fall Formal. And keep an ear out for anyone else who might be, too.”

“Do you really think she’d try to run against you again?” Snips asked.

“No,” Sunset admitted, then grinned wickedly. “I just want her to remember why she isn’t.”

Snails still looked clueless, but Snips caught on. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure she remembers.”

“Uh, I think she probably already remembers,” Snails added.

“Just make sure!” Sunset barked. “And remember to look out for anyone else who might be getting some ideas.”

“You got it, Sunset!” Snips said as he and Snails ran off.

With that taken care of, all there was left to do was wait. She could go to the cafeteria to try and get some lunch before class started, but she didn’t feel like running into Flash.

She sighed and leaned her back against the statue. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon the portal would be open, and Sunset could return to Equestria.

“And what will we do when we get there?” her voice asked from behind her.

Sunset ignored it.

“Princess Sunset Shimmer,” her voice mocked her. “Going to secure your fourth win at your little school? Tell me they at least change the title to ‘queen’ for that.”

Sunset took a deep breath. She should just go. The voice wasn’t real, and it wouldn’t follow her from the statue.

But she stayed. Anywhere else, she’d have avoided it at all costs. But when it spoke to her from the statue, it was different. It belonged in here, and Sunset was transfixed.

Without turning around, Sunset placed her hand against the statue. She felt fingers curl around hers. “I hate to break it to you, but being queen bitch of a bunch of teenagers isn’t going to count for much once we get back home.”

“I’m just killing time,” Sunset muttered. It was important to control her tone. She shouldn’t engage it at all, but if she was going to, she needed to be quiet enough that she didn’t attract attention.

Her voice cackled from inside the statue. “Do whatever you want for now. What matters is what we’re going to do when the time comes.”

The rules slipped from her mind momentarily, and she raised her voice. “I’m going to find Princess Celestia, and I’m going to make things right.”

“Celestia? She doesn’t need you anymore.” The voice changed to an altogether different one. One she had only spoken with once, but had imagined time and again. “She has me now.”

“I’m going to make things right,” Sunset repeated, then turned around. Where her own reflection should be, she saw a purple unicorn’s. “No matter what that means. And if some little bitch thinks she can get in my way just because Celestia decided to play with her while I was gone, well, then she just doesn’t know who she’s fucking around with.”

The unicorn grinned, then her form twisted. Her colors changed from purple to red, and Sunset stared at a more demonic version of herself. “That’s more like it. We don’t need someone like her hanging around. Get rid of her the second you get the chance.” The demon slid a finger across her throat.

“I’ll decide what to do with her,” Sunset stated clearly.

The demon with her voice just laughed. “Oh, please. There’s no coming back for you anyway. In fact, why stop at your replacement? I think it’s time someone else is in charge. I bet we could take down Celestia.”

“No.”

The demon scowled, and Sunset could feel the heat radiating from the statue. But only for a moment, then she was back to an evil grin. “Suit yourself, Princess. But Celestia won’t take you back. No one in Equestria, this world, or anywhere else could ever forgive someone like you.”

Sunset gently shook her head. “You’re wrong.”

Done arguing with herself, Sunset walked away. She was smart enough to know what was going on. There was no demon that hid in mirrors waiting for Sunset to come around. She didn’t even believe in demons, or any of that supernatural crap. The demon that used her voice and distorted her face was just a manifestation of all the bad parts of herself. All the doubt, and the anger, and the hatred, all of it pooled into one entity created by her mind just to torment her. Sometimes it was hard to remember that, but she did know that it was true.

Which was why she engaged it directly. What good would it do if she went back to Equestria and the demon still followed her? She wanted to believe that all her problems would be gone in Equestria, but there was no way to be sure. So instead, she had to be able to beat it. To not let it have any power over her. If she met it face to face and came out the victor, then what else could it do to her?

The rest of the day was spent figuring out exactly how to do that. She replayed the conversation in her head so much that she kept expecting the demon to pop up somewhere unexpectedly. But to her surprise, nothing else out of the ordinary happened.

Still, she made no headway on beating the demon. She’d already used up most of her lunch time, and her next few classes didn’t prove more productive. By the time she got to her sixth and final class, she was ready to cut her losses.

Sixth period was algebra, and it was her favorite class. Not because of the material, which was far too easy for her, but because of who she shared the class with.

Applejack didn’t sit across the room from Sunset. She didn’t fearfully avoid eye contact. Conversations between the two of them didn’t leave her a stammering mess. While Fluttershy followed along with the rest of the students living in fear of Sunset, Applejack resisted her.

That stubbornness had been a source of frustration for years, just as it had once been one of Sunset’s favorite qualities in her. Every interaction between them saw Sunset trying her best to make Applejack fold like all the others, but she always managed to hold her own, no matter what Sunset threw at her.

It would be a shame. Even after everything that had happened, after everything she had done, Sunset couldn’t help but feel like Applejack would be one of the hardest parts of this world to leave behind.

They were almost at the end of the class period when it hit her. Sunset knew how she could prove the demon wrong, but she wasn’t sure if she could do it. She glanced over at Applejack.

“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

Applejack had been wrong. Everything that Sunset had done since that day proved it. It was no wonder Sunset had never been able to be part of Applejack’s circle. How could she? All Sunset was capable of doing was pushing people away.

So she would just have to prove that she could be something more. And if anyone in this world deserved that, it was Applejack.

When the class ended, Sunset didn’t pull any stunts to force a meeting. She didn’t try to sneak up on her, or manipulate her in any way. She simply walked over to Applejack’s desk and asked for one. “Hey, Applejack. Can we talk?”

Applejack looked at her skeptically, which was fair. “I don’t know what we’ve got to talk about.”

“Just hear me out. Five minutes.”

Applejack didn’t answer immediately. She stared at Sunset, weighing her options. There was no way to intimidate Applejack into this meeting; she would come or not on her own accord. She stood up and slung her backpack over her shoulder. “Fine. Five minutes.”

Sunset led the way, although she had no idea where to take them. There wasn’t anywhere in particular she wanted to go, just somewhere with no prying eyes. She settled on an out of the way section of lockers.

“We’ve always had a… complicated relationship,” Sunset started.

“Complicated? Guess you could call it that.” Applejack shrugged. “ ‘Course, I’d just say ya always been awful and leave it at that.”

Sunset winced. That was not something she wanted from Applejack. “That’s… that’s true.”

Sunset paused to give Applejack a chance to respond, but she didn’t. It seemed Sunset was going to have to dive headfirst into things. “I get it, you hate me. And you should, it’s all I deserve after everything I’ve done to you. But… I want to apologize.”

Applejack huffed. “Really?”

“Yes. I… I don’t want to end our time at this school together like this. So right now, while I have the chance, I want to apologize for everything. I know it’s not much and I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I’m sorry.”

Applejack chuckled. “So when’re ya plannin’ on pullin’ the rug out from under me this time?”

“What? No, I –”

“Ooh, that country girl’s so stupid, I bet she’ll fall for the same trick all over again!”

“Applejack, it’s not like that!” Sunset couldn’t believe it. She knew it was what she deserved, but she couldn’t believe that she was actually hearing Applejack say it.

“Oh, it’s not? So was it like that in freshman year? What about seventh grade?”

“No! I… I don’t know!” Sunset shook her head. “This time’s different, I promise. I mean it.”

“No. No, you don’t.” Applejack didn’t sound defensive anymore, but she spoke with a finality that was almost worse. “There’s a difference between saying sorry and being sorry. Maybe ya think ya mean it this time, but I know that ya don’t. If you were really sorry about the person you’ve been, then what was that thing with Fluttershy about today?”

Sunset’s breath caught in her throat. Everything felt like it was closing in. Applejack knew about what happened with Fluttershy, and Sunset knew she couldn’t deny that. “That’s not… I’ll apologize to her too. And to everyone.”

“Why?”

Sunset waited for more, but she folded when Applejack proved more stubborn. “What do you mean?”

“Why? Why apologize to anyone at all? You weren’t gonna until I said somethin’, so why change your mind now?”

“I… I don’t…”

“It’s ‘cause ya ain’t really sorry ‘bout a thing you’ve done!” Applejack advanced on Sunset, who shrunk back. “If ya really wanted to apologize, I wouldn’t need to drag ya into doin’ it. So why me, Sunset? Why are ya comin’ to me with all this if it’s not to pull some stupid trick later?”

Why was she? How could Sunset ever explain that to Applejack when she herself had never understood. “You told me… you said that if I ever changed my mind about pushing people away to come talk to you.”

“I told you… are you talkin’ ‘bout that note I wrote when I was twelve?”

Once she said it, Sunset knew how stupid this was.

“I was just a dumb kid,” Applejack said. “I thought that all anyone needed was a friend to help ‘em out, and I thought I could be that friend for you. But you taught me that no one’s gonna change if they don’t want to, and that maybe some people are too cold to change at all. So thanks, Sunset. I never could’ve learned that one without you.”

Things weren’t supposed to be this way. Applejack was the one part of this world that was always supposed to be good. “Applejack, wait…”

“Sorry, Sunset, but your five minutes are up.” Applejack smiled and tipped her hat before walking away. “And you were too late, anyway.”

Sunset just stood in disbelief. She had been so sure that this would work, that no matter what she did, she could always count on Applejack to accept her if she ever changed her mind. She never realized exactly how much she had counted on that.

Sunset fell back against a locker and slid down to the ground. Applejack couldn’t forgive her. And if even Applejack couldn’t, then who in this world, Equestria, or anywhere else ever could?

A shrill cackling could be heard. It was her own voice, and it came from both within and around her. “Well well well. Things not working out as you planned, Princess? You really should have known better. No one could ever care about the real you, after all. But don’t worry about a thing. I’m still here for you. I’ll always be here.”

26 – Melting Point

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Chapter Twenty-Six

Melting Point

Nothing mattered anymore. It had been a week since Sunset had moved into her own house, a week since Applejack proved she was beyond forgiveness, and nothing mattered anymore.

Sunset had known that for a long-time, but everything changed once it really sunk in. While she continued to go to school to fill her time, she was done playing nice.

For the past few years, Sunset had worked to make a name for herself. Freshman year had been slowly building popularity. Sophomore year had been spent dividing the school into more manageable cliques. And in junior year, she earned herself titles and crowns by making the most out of the work she’d put in.

Everything had been carefully planned for the best long-term payoff. But there was no long term anymore. Everything Sunset had accomplished brought her to where she was, and that was all there was going to be. And this? This life she’d made for herself? It just wasn’t good enough.

By coming out into the open and dominating everyone into doing whatever she wanted, she was throwing away her ability to play the innocent one, but that didn’t matter. Even if word got back to the faculty, there wouldn’t be time for them to do anything. The whole school could hate her and it wouldn’t make any difference, so long as they also feared her. There were only three people Sunset could be said to be at all close with, and she had no doubt that Snips and Snails would stay by her side.

Flash, on the other hand, had only been a matter of time. Still, she had thought he might stick around for a little longer. But there was no denying what was coming when she got his text.

Sunset, we need to talk. Meet me at the pizza place.

It was tempting to just not go. It wouldn’t really matter. Whether they broke up or not, Sunset would be gone in just over two weeks.

But it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. She’d dropped journalism once she found better ways to fill her time, like her job. But she didn’t have work on Mondays, so there was nothing waiting for her except an empty house, and she wasn’t in a hurry to get back to that.

Although they had met at school, the pizzeria was where Sunset and Flash had actually talked for the first time. It remained a consistent destination throughout their relationship, in equal parts because of its proximity to the school and Flash’s overly sentimental nature.

There was no sign of Loverboy when she arrived, so she bought a soda and chose a seat. Although she was a little hungry, she opted to not order any pizza. She wasn’t planning on sticking around long enough to eat.

This was what she wanted, really. One less loose end when she went back to Equestria. And if Flash was pushed to the point of hating her, they wouldn’t need to draw this out over the rest of the month.

It was only a minute or two until Flash showed up. Like her, he didn’t bother to order anything. Good, that meant neither of them were holding any delusions that this could be an amicable meeting.

“Hi, Sunset,” he said as he sat down. He already sounded defeated. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all week.”

“I’ve been busy. You know I work on the weekends.”

“That’s never stopped you from calling after work before.”

That was a fair point, and he was probably expecting at least an apology, if not a better explanation. He wasn’t going to get either. “What did you want to talk about?”

Flash seemed to take note of the lack of apology, but didn’t comment on it. “What the hell’s going on? Do you really think I haven’t noticed everything this past week? You’ve been openly threatening people, instigating trouble, blackmailing…”

“In my defense, all three of those are basically the same thing.”

“This isn’t funny, Sunset!” Flash pressed his hand against his eyes and took a deep breath. “I want the truth. What’s all this about?”

Sunset thought for a moment. “The truth? Sure, why not? It’s not like it really matters anymore.” She folded her hands on the table and sighed. “The truth is that I’m tired, Flash. I’ve been pushed to my limit for so long, and eventually, I just broke.”

“You’re tired?” Flash repeated incredulously. “So, what? You’re stressed from working so much and you’re just taking it out on everyone else? That doesn’t make your actions any more okay, Sunset.”

“You’re right,” Sunset said with a shrug. “Nothing makes my actions okay because they aren’t ‘okay’. But you also misunderstood me. I’m not tired because school, or work, or anything to do with getting emancipated. All that stuff is the main reason I’m still sane. I’m tired of pretending. The years you’ve known me have all been an act. That girl who’s been terrorizing the school? That’s the real Sunset Shimmer.”

“I don’t believe that. The Sunset I know had some problems with people, sure. But she’s a good person.”

Sunset grinned and leaned back. “No, she’s a good actor. And, let’s be honest, you weren’t hard to fool. You saw a cute girl who let you be the big hero and help her when she was alone. She was nice to you, she laughed at your jokes, and she leeched off your growing popularity to make her way to the top.

It was strange seeing Flash so upset. He was normally so easygoing that his clenched jaw and balled fists looked completely out of place. “So you’re telling me everything we’ve had is some big lie?”

“Well…” Sunset tapped her chin then lifted a finger and smiled. “Oh! The sex was fun, so at least there was that.”

Flash didn’t seem to be comforted. In fact, he seemed to be taking it even worse; he couldn’t even find anything to say.

“I’d say I hate to break it to you, but I agreed to only tell the truth.” Since Flash didn’t seem to be leaving or talking, Sunset continued. “Let’s get down to it, then. For us to be over, there would’ve needed to have been an ‘us’ in the first place. But it’s always been just me and my plan, and you were only ever here as a small part of that. And after this conversation, I think it’s safe to say that the illusion of us is over.”

Flash let out a mirthless laugh. “That’s for sure. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you. I always thought you were such an amazing person.”

“Anyone ever tell you about things that seem too good to be true?”

“You know I’m not just gonna sit by while you screw over the school, right?”

Sunset shrugged. “You can do what you want. I doubt you’ll be able to stop me by this point. Canterlot High School is mine.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Sunset laughed. “Guess we will. Either way, it doesn’t really matter to me. I just didn’t feel like pretending anymore.” She took a sip of her soda then sat up excitedly. “So! It’s safe to say we won’t have another friendly discussion like this, and I did say I’d give you complete honesty. So tell me, is there anything else you want to know before we go our separate ways?”

Flash hesitated for a moment before fixing her with a hard stare. “Did you ever love me?”

Sunset grinned and waved a hand dismissively. “Aww, that’s an easy one! Of course not! To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’m even able to love anyone.”

Flash finally stood up. “Fine. One more question. Are you really happy like this?”

Sunset’s smile fell away. “No. No, I don’t think I can ever be happy either.” Sunset matched his glare. “Our little Q&A is over, so get the fuck out of my sight.”

Flash left without a word, and Sunset just watched as another loose end severed itself.

“Do… do you really hate me that much?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

Sunset sighed. If Flash was pushed to the point of hating her, then she wouldn’t be able to hurt him anymore.

Might as well make the most of her day. She stood up and casually walked over to the counter to get herself some lunch after all.


There was nothing quite like riding her motorcycle. Sunset had taken to driving immediately, revelling the control she felt when she was behind the wheel of the cars in her driver’s ed class. It had been an unexpected highlight of life on Earth, but that paled in comparison to what she felt on her motorcycle. The smaller size gave her more freedom and made cars feel overly large and cumbersome.

Looking for a chance to clear her mind and kill some time before heading home, Sunset took a ride around town. She had roamed much of the city when she was younger, always on the lookout for the portal back home, so there was no end to familiar sights. Sunset felt like she should be feeling something more about the idea of leaving what had been eleven years of her life behind, but she remained as apathetic as ever.

But driving around the city could only occupy so much of her time. Other vehicles were nothing but moving obstacles that added to the thrill, but every stop sign or red light was a disruption in the otherwise perfect experience. Besides, even though it was only a few days after payday, her bills ensured she only had about fifty dollars to last until the next one. Even if she was leaving in a few more weeks, she wanted to make sure the electricity, gas, and water stayed on until then.

Still, it was with reluctance that she went home. She tried to make plans for how she could fill the time – books she could read, movies she could watch – but she had low expectations for the rest of her day.

And yet somehow, she was still disappointed when she arrived home to find a car parked out front. She pulled up alongside it, taking off her helmet as the window rolled down. “Hey, Violet. Wasn’t expecting to see you today.”

“Hello, Sunset. I was just in the area and thought I’d check in on how things are going with the new house.”

“Sounds good.” It did not. Sunset wasn’t supposed to have her monthly meeting with Violet for another week. This felt like a pop quiz, and Sunset was not prepared for it. “Give me a minute to put my bike away.”

Violet nodded and rolled her window back up. Sunset put her helmet back on and drove over the lawn to get to the back door. She cut the engine off and dismounted to walk it up the ramp into the kitchen. ‘I guess I’ll never get that shed.’ There was no way Bottled Lightning would be coming by to help her with anything around the house after she broke up with his son.

Just a few more weeks, then none of this would matter anymore.

At least it gave her an excuse to go in through the back and do a quick check of the house to make sure there wasn’t anything that could get her in trouble. Since she no longer had a legal guardian, she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if Violet found out she was drinking, but she also wasn’t in a hurry to find out.

Once she decided that the coast was clear, Sunset opened the front door. Violet was waiting on the other side, so Sunset stepped aside to let her in.

“So, liking the new place?” Violet asked as she took a look around.

“Yeah, it’s great.” Sunset turned her computer chair towards the couch and sat in it. Even as small as it was, the couch could sit two people comfortably, but Sunset would prefer to avoid being that close to another person if possible. Even Violet, whom Sunset had known for just about as long as she’d known anyone.

Violet followed Sunset’s cue and took her seat on the couch. “I’m glad to hear it. I imagine it must be quite the change to get used to.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I keep half expecting someone knock on my door to tell me to come to dinner, or that it’s time for bed, or just… something.”

“Don’t tell me you’re lonely after waiting for this for so long,” Violet said with a smirk.

“No no, not lonely. It’s just… different.” Sunset smiled. “But it’s nice. I’m not home too much between school and work, but when I am, it’s a lot more relaxing.”

“I know what you mean. Speaking of school, I trust you’ve realized by now that there wouldn’t be any short-term repercussions if you didn’t go.”

Sunset had always admired Violet’s self-assurance. There wasn’t a trace of doubt in her tone. She wasn’t worried about clueing Sunset into that fact because she knew that although they’d never spoken about it, Sunset had definitely figured it out. She was so sure that she hadn’t even bothered to include the ‘but’ part of the thought.

“Yeah, that one hit me pretty early on. But I also know that I need to keep both my grades and attendance up if I want to get into a good college.”

Violet nodded. “Of course.” Checking had been a formality, as she clearly never doubted Sunset for a moment.

“I did miss a few class periods on the first day.” Sunset looked off to the side just a bit, conveying that she was a little embarrassed without making it look like a big deal. She could probably get away without saying anything, but she wasn’t sure what school records Violet still had access to. “I fell asleep with my phone in the other room, so I didn’t hear the alarm go off.”

Violet chuckled. “Those morning reminders weren’t always so bad, it seems.”

“Yeah, that’s fair. I’ve been a lot more mindful of keeping my phone on me since then. I don’t think I’ll have this problem again.”

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. A few missed classes is hardly the end of the world. Especially with your otherwise stunning record.”

Sunset moved back into a grin with the compliment. “Yeah, I’ve already made up the work.”

“Of course. Ever the initiative one.”

“As always.” Sunset couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t managing the social situation properly, then it hit her. “Oh, uh, can I get you something to drink? Sorry, I’m not used to company.”

Violet chuckled. “I’m fine, thank you though.”

It was strange to think of Violet as her guest. It was strange to have a guest in general. The only person to visit the house since everything was set up had been Flash, and he hardly felt like a guest. His being around had become such a normalized thing, and it was stranger to think that he wouldn’t be there in the future.

Flash had been there when Sunset was looking through the few options available to her budget. He’d been there when the landlord gave her the keys, and it was officially her house for the first time. He was there to help bring in the furniture, when she bought the first groceries, on the day she made the final move from New Horizons.

Flash had been there every step of the way. And now he’d never be there again.

“Sunset?”

Sunset blinked and realized that Violet had been talking while she’d drifted off into her thoughts. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I asked if you sent in your first bill payment. I believe the electric was due?”

“Oh! Yeah, it’s taken care of. And I have a little money left over for some things I need to get at work.”

Violet paused for a moment before continuing. “Is everything okay?”

Sunset broke out her best reassuring smile. “Everything’s great. The electric bill is paid and next payday will cover the water. And even with groceries, I should have a little breathing room on that check.”

“Ah, I see. You did know that money would be tight going into this.”

Sunset’s smile faltered at Violet’s misunderstanding. “Yeah, and it’s fine. Unless something unexpected happens while I’m still getting settled into the house, I shouldn’t have any problems with money.”

Violet considered for a moment. “Okay, I believe that’s not what’s bothering you. But I don’t believe nothing’s wrong.”

Was it that obvious? Sunset sighed. “It’s… been a bad day. Flash and I broke up…”

“Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that. Do you want to talk about it?”

There wasn’t anything she could talk about. Nothing but years of emotional manipulation to get herself where she needed to be. “It’s… I think it was the house. Flash got the idea that because I’m living alone now, things between us would be more… intimate.”

“Oh. I see. I have to say, I’m surprised to hear that. He always seemed like a very genuine young man.” Violet shook her head. “I know it might not make it feel any better right now, but you made the right call.”

“Yeah. I’ve got way too much going for me to risk anything by, well, you know…” Although Sunset had no problems talking about sex, pretending like she was embarrassed about the subject would help sell her lie much better. “I should’ve never bothered focusing on a relationship anyway. It’s just a distraction from working on my future.”

“I don’t think that’s true. While you’re better off without someone pushing your boundaries, there’s nothing wrong with spending time on a relationship. You are allowed to be a teenager, you know.”

“I guess…”

Just as Sunset had hoped, Violet seemed to find the conversation awkward. That meant she wouldn’t linger on it for long. “I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the best person to go to for problems like this. But trust me when I say that one of the worst things you could do to yourself is let this ruin your perception of relationships. I understand that you want to focus on your future, but you are going to succeed. You’re one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, and you have endless possibilities in front of you. Spending some time on things like friends and romance will help keep you from burning yourself out.”

At least ‘avoid burning out’ was better than ‘don’t end up alone’. “For someone who’s not good with this stuff, it sounds like you’ve got plenty of advice.”

“I can do advice. It’s just the emotional stuff that I’m not as good with.”

Sunset smirked. “Luckily for both of us, I’m pretty well adjusted.”

“Yes, that is true.” Even so, Violet still seemed to be struggling with finding something to say. She gave up before long. “You know, I’m sure Miss Rose would love if you stopped by for a visit.”

“Is that just a way to pass my emotional well-being off to someone else?”

There was something about Violet that made it really easy to cut through the awkward social games. Even as Sunset pointed out the obvious trick, Violet still grinned as if that was just part of the plan. “I prefer to think of it as realizing there isn’t going to be one person who can do everything. I can help you with a lot of things, but for emotional support, you really should go to Miss Rose.”

“Alright, I got it. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”

“Good. In that case, is there anything you need that I could help you with?”

Sunset pretended to think for a moment. “No, nothing comes to mind.”

“Very well then.” Violet stood up, so Sunset did the same. “In that case, I’ll see you next month. How does October third sound? After school, of course.”

Not that it really mattered, but Sunset checked the calendar on her phone. She’d be in Equestria by then, but she needed Violet to think she’d have reason to be unsure about work. “Sounds good. We’re counting this in place of next week’s meeting, then?”

“Yes. There won’t be much to our meetings anymore, I’m afraid. Until you’re eighteen, you are still my client, but my work with you seems to be done. There’s no need for me to make sure you aren’t being mistreated anymore, and I have every confidence in your ability to see to your future.”

“I suppose that’s true. Still, it feels weird to think about.”

Violet walked towards the door, but she stopped after a few steps. “I do hope you realize that I’m here for you just as much as I always have been, however. If you ever are in any sort of trouble, I’m only a phone call away.”

“I understand.” Although it was hardly necessary in the small house, Sunset still walked Violet to the door. “Thanks, Violet. I’ll see you next month.”

“Take care, Sunset.”

Next month wasn’t going to come. Sunset would be back in Equestria by then, and she would never see Violet again. And all she could do was watch as another pillar of what had been her life in this world walked away from her.

That made it a productive day. Two of the people that Sunset no longer needed were taken care of for good. There was hardly anyone left now. Snips and Snails were really the last loose ends, but she’d keep them until the end.

‘Just me by myself, then.’

The house seemed oddly quiet. Noise was something she’d taken for granted while living with so many kids at the orphanage. She had always thought that she wanted quiet until she got it. Most days she left a movie or some music on even if she wasn’t paying attention. Anything to beat the silence.

Anything, apparently, even included the one thing Sunset hated most. Although she couldn’t have placed why she did it, she walked into the bathroom. But much to her surprise, the mirror only showed her normal reflection.

“Always be here, huh? So where are you, bitch?” There was no answer from her reflection. Sunset narrowed her eyes as she stared at herself and placed her palm against the glass. It was cold and solid. “Pathetic.”

Sunset left the bathroom and looked at the TV. She thought about putting on a movie, but she wasn’t really in the mood. Besides, it was approaching evening and the only thing she’d had to eat all day was a slice of pizza. Figuring out what to do for dinner would be a smarter choice.

She made her way into the kitchen and checked her cabinets and refrigerator. Nothing stood out to her. Even if she found something to eat, she’d have to make it, which was also unappealing.

Ordering food sounded a lot better, so she quickly ran through the list of things she needed to get in her mind. It was all stuff she needed, but she supposed most of it could wait until her next paycheck. She looked at her bike and smiled. Going to get food herself would save on the delivery fee, and she wouldn’t be left home alone while she waited for it to arrive.

After a quick stop at her bedroom to empty her backpack so she could have something to bring the food back in, Sunset was ready to go. The bike’s engine was still warm as she walked it down the ramp, and she could already see most of her disposable income over the next few weeks disappearing in gas.

The engine started with a roar that chased away the silence. It was perfect.

She took it slow until she made it onto the road, then hit the gas. If anything was going to try and chase after her, it’d have to catch her first.

Food was quickly forgotten in the place of speed, and Sunset drove without much of a destination in mind. She drove as the sun set, and then kept driving. She travelled through parts of town that she’d never been before, scarcely even noticing the world around her.

As she drove, she tried not to think about anything. Rose Petal, Violet Dusk, Flash Sentry, Applejack. They were all part of a past that wouldn’t follow her to Equestria. Her house, her job, her status at Canterlot High. None of that mattered anymore, so Sunset tried to push it all from her mind.

It almost worked. The world passing her at a blur, the roar of the engine when she pulled back on the throttle, the wind that was strong enough to chill her even through her leather jacket and helmet. It was almost enough. It didn’t erase the thoughts, but it did help cover them up.

But no matter how much she wanted to just keep going, the gas needle couldn’t be ignored. She let it get close to empty before pulling over at a gas station. She was back in a part of town she recognized, and she was a little surprised to see she was so far from her house.

It all came back when she stopped. There was no helping it, and she knew that. These thoughts were part of this town, and she would only be free of them when she was back in Equestria.

Oh well. She’d just have to do whatever she could to make the most of her time here. She didn’t like to leave her bike alone, so she was in and out of the gas station as quick as possible. Anticipating more rides like this one, she bought more gas than she knew she’d really need.

“Excuse me,” someone said as she walked back to the pump. “Could you help me out with a dollar? Just trying to get something to eat…”

Sunset turned to see a man. His clothes were old and faded, and he looked like he was in his thirties. “Sorry, I don’t…”

She grinned as she got an idea. “Actually, we could help each other out. There’s a liquor store down the street. I’ll give you ten bucks to go in and buy something for me.”

He took a moment to respond, clearly surprised at the offer. “How old are you?”

It wasn’t an immediate refusal, which meant she could sway him. “How hungry are you?”

“Not hungry enough to give booze to a kid.”

Sunset started pumping her gas and turned to face him properly. “Look, I’m not a kid. I’m nineteen, which is old enough to drink in most other countries. I’m not in school, I have my own apartment, I’ve got a job. And I mean, how many kids drive motorcycles? What, you think my parents would be cool with letting their fifteen-year-old or whatever go out on a motorcycle?”

“I guess that makes sense…”

“And anyway, it’s not like we’ll be hanging around together long enough to get you in trouble. But it’s up to you, I’m not gonna beg you or anything.” The gas pump shut off so she replaced the nozzle. “So what’ll it be?”

He looked at her hesitantly and Sunset knew he wanted to say yes. Unfortunately, he had the distinct look of someone who was going to wind up saying no, however. “Twenty dollars if we can get going. Not really in the mood to stay around here.”

Even with the price doubled, it still took a moment before he caved. “Alright, fine. Let’s go.”

Sunset wasn’t thrilled about having a passenger on her bike, but it wasn’t far. At least he kept his hands on her shoulders and didn’t use the ride as a chance to get grabby.

She parked far enough from the door that the no one inside would be able to get a good look at her, but she kept her helmet on just in case. Her passenger dismounted quickly, likely in a hurry to get the whole thing over with. Sunset pulled out her wallet and handed him ten dollars. “The biggest bottle of vodka that’ll get you. You’ll get the twenty when you come back out.”

He nodded and walked inside. Sunset took the chance to pull her backpack off and open it up. So much for getting food. Once she paid her accomplice, she’d be completely broke until payday.

At least he was in and out quickly, and the bottle he brought was the right size for the price. “Here. You sure you can handle this? It’s heavy stuff.”

Sunset laughed as she shoved it in her backpack. “Don’t worry about me.” She could hardly believe he hadn’t demanded the money first. It was almost enough to tempt her to drive off. But the last thing she needed was to provoke him to grab her while she was getting the kickstand up, so she gave him his money. “Enjoy your meal.”

“Hey, could you bring me to –”

Sunset drove off before hearing where he wanted to go. He’d been paid far more than he should have been, and besides, he really wasn’t her problem.

All there was left to do was go home, make a frozen meal, and maybe watch a movie while she got too fucked up to forget about how much she hated everything.

Sunset didn’t go home. She approached a road she should have turned on, but she just kept going straight. She wasn’t going anywhere specific. There was nowhere for her to go. But still, she kept driving.

Sunset knew this part of town, but she didn’t generally like to be in it. It was a nice neighborhood; houses were mostly all two stories and had large yards, they didn’t look identical like the suburban ones, people were usually inside by the time it got dark out, and it always made Sunset uncomfortable.

It wasn’t so much the idyllic quiet town feel that bothered her. It was really just one home. One place that Sunset had spent years avoiding.

It was exactly where she was going.

She only realized it when she was already almost there, but sure enough, every turn brought her closer. She wanted to turn around, to go anywhere else, but she didn’t. She wasn’t even sure why, but for whatever reason, she stayed on course.

No one was outside at Sweet Apple Acres, but Sunset could see silhouettes from in the windows. She pulled off to the side of the road, careful not to get too close or stop directly under a street light, and she just watched the shadows move inside the house. She couldn’t tell what they were doing, but given the time, dinner seemed likely.

What was she doing? Sunset didn’t want to talk to Applejack, so why had she driven all the way to her house? She was amazed she even remembered how to get to Applejack’s house; she had only been there once, and that had been eleven years ago.

While she was stopped, Sunset pulled her backpack off of one arm and swung it around so she could open it. She lifted her helmet without fully removing it, opened the vodka, and took a swig. It burned her throat and left her coughing, but she liked the pain. She grimaced as she replaced the cap, then zipped up the backpack and put it back over her shoulder.

Sunset took one more look at the house. Maybe she just needed to say goodbye to the place that gave her nightmares as a kid before she was rid of it for good. She didn’t really believe that, but she also didn’t know why else she’d be there. She pushed her helmet back into place and drove off.

Past Sweet Apple Acres was Everfree National Park. Sunset had once ran into the woods as a kid, trying to escape the monster that lived in Applejack’s barn. The road that led into the woods was poorly maintained, and Sunset had no idea where or how far it went, but she kept on it all the same.

“You know, I’m always here to talk about anything you’d like. Somedays I think it’s all these old bones are good for anymore.”

Sunset pulled back on the throttle. If any thoughts wanted to chase after her, they would have to catch her first.

“If you’re worried that I’ll get Sugar Breeze and Dew Drop in trouble, you should know they’re really not my concern. Only you are.”

Sunset had never gone so fast. She pulled the throttle back as far as it would go. It still wasn’t fast enough.

“Then I want to learn. Who is the real Sunset Shimmer?”

It was amazing. There was nothing around to get in her way. No red lights, no stop signs. Just acre after acre of trees speeding past too fast to see.

“You need people in your life, and I… I want to be one of ‘em, if you let me.”

Everything would be perfect if Sunset could just shut out her thoughts. She just needed to go fast enough to outrun the memories.

“Although to tell you the truth, I feel a lot better having you around.”

Stop it. Stop thinking about the past. None of that mattered anymore.

“I hate that I think about you! I hate that you’re so fucking good! I hate that you came back into my life!”

Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it!

Sunset screeched to a stop so fast she almost fell off her bike. She killed the engine and pulled off her helmet, not paying it any mind as it fell to the ground. She dismounted her bike and didn’t bother with the kickstand, letting that fall as well.

She only made it a few steps before she stumbled and fell herself. She didn’t get up. Her head was spinning from the rapid change in speed, so she held it in her hands as she willed the world around her to stand still.

Sunset screamed. It was all too much. More than a decade of pushing everyone exactly where she wanted them to get exactly what she wanted from them, and it all came rushing back to her. “It’s not my fault!”

No one was around to answer her.

“I didn’t ask for any of this! I didn’t know what the mirror would do to me! This wasn’t supposed to happen!”

She looked around in the trees. There had to be something in the woods, anything at all. But she saw nothing. Even the shadows remained perfectly still, refusing to play any sinister tricks on her tonight.

“I just… I just want to go home.”

There was no one around, but at least she had one thing. She took off her backpack and pulled out the vodka. She pulled off the cap and drank deeply, determined to drink until she forgot how much she hated herself.

It burned, but Sunset deserved to burn. She only stopped when she started to cough, and she felt like she was going to throw up. She curled into a ball and held her hands between her arms.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’m such a shitty person to everyone who tries to help me. I’m sorry I only hurt everyone I care about. I’m sorry…”

There was no answer. No demonic version of herself, no replacement who could succeed in all the ways Sunset failed, no distortion of her former mentor chanting her name, none of the things that had tortured her over the years.

There was nobody except for Sunset herself.

And that was the worst of all.

27 – The Last Time

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Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Last Time

Sometimes, not often, but once in a while, things just seemed to go smoothly.

It was shaping up to be one of those days, and it was about time. The past few weeks had been a constant trial of Sunset’s willpower. On good days, school and work left her too tired to worry much about anything else.

As for bad days… well, it didn’t get much worse than waking up with a hangover in the woods with an empty bottle of vodka, vomit on her jacket, and no clear recollection of how she got there. At least she had apparently had enough sense to get herself and her bike off the road, but the paint on one side had gotten scratched up pretty bad, and she had to look around for her helmet.

That had been her lowest point, but the ‘good’ days were infrequent. It was getting harder to tell whether the hallucinations or the memories were worse. Either way, it was almost time to leave them for good. If the woods had been her low point, this would be her high one.

There was a certain thrill in knowing that everything was being done for the last time. Her alarm went off for the last time, and she’d gotten ready for school the last time. The ride from her house to school had only been the second to last time, but it was the last time that she’d ever have to deal with the morning rush to find parking. Each class period had been the last time with those subjects, and she’d already gotten through three of them.

Which brought her to her last lunch at the school. Sunset was too excited to eat, which left her with half an hour to kill. That thought almost managed to bring her down, but then she remembered that after this, she would never have to wander the school aimlessly again.

There were no more schemes to follow through on. No more plans to continue. There weren’t any students to issue reminders to, there weren’t threats to make, or people to speak with. There was nothing at all that mattered anymore.

It felt strange. Sunset had expected the last day would feel like wasted time. Surely, it was; she’d spent years building what she had, and soon, it was all going to be gone. There was nothing to take with her when she left, nothing that would give her any benefit. By the time the day was out, everything she had might as well not exist anymore.

But when it came down to it, she felt… relieved. It was difficult to place why that might be, but Sunset didn’t try too hard. She was going home. Why shouldn’t she be happy?

Sunset’s destination as she walked the school’s halls was neither planned nor random; it was more so that it was the only place that made any sense to go to. Almost everything in the school was now pointless, but there was another reason that this day was a good one: Principal Celestia had decided that since the Fall Formal was being held at the end of the week, it’d be a good idea to put the crown on display.

And it was good. Not for the school, but for Sunset. She wouldn’t be around to win the crown, but she was going to make sure no one else did either. This was her crown, and Sunset had already been replaced one too many times.

It was a necessary step, evidently. As Sunset walked up to the crown, she saw someone was already admiring it. “It really is a thing of beauty, isn’t it?” Sunset asked as she walked up behind the other girl.

“Sunset Shimmer!” Rarity shot up straight, her muscles going rigid as she jumped back. “It, er, it is quite lovely.”

In actuality, Sunset didn’t care for the design. She liked the gold part well enough, but the front centerpiece was awful. It was a six-pointed purple star, and ever since she’d seen it, Sunset had hated it. It looked familiar, but she couldn’t place where she might have seen it.

But those thoughts were better kept inside. “Hmm, do you think I’ll look just as stunning in this crown as I did in the one from the Spring Fling?”

The smallest sign of aggression showed in the way Rarity squinted her eyes and frowned, but she soon corrected herself with a nervous smile. “You’ll be as stunning as always, I’m sure.”

“Of course, how could I not be? This is me we’re talking about.”

“Well, best of luck, of course.” Rarity took a few steps away, but Sunset wasn’t quite finished with her yet.

“Oh, I won’t need luck.” Sunset closed the distance that Rarity had put between them. “No one in this school would vote against me, even if I wasn’t running unopposed. That is, unless you know something I don’t.”

“No! I didn’t mean anything at all by it, I was simply saying –”

“Rarity.” Sunset fixed her with a glare that stopped her in place. “Let’s cut to the chase for once. We both know that you’re one of the most popular girls in this school, even after that unfortunate video went viral during the Spring Fling.”

Unlike Fluttershy, Rarity had a limit to how much she would be directly pushed around. It seemed Sunset was reaching it. “Some might say ‘slanderous’ would be a more accurate description.”

“What was that?”

“Oh, never mind me. Besides, I’m sure you must be far too busy to stop and chat like this. After all, I know it is terribly time consuming to plan a campaign to perfection.”

Sunset laughed warmly. “Yes, I suppose you do. Well, maybe not to perfection, exactly.”

“Yes, I suppose there were a few things I might have done differently.” Rarity thought for a moment. “And… I suppose I can’t say if our experiences are the same, exactly. As you know, when I was running for Princess of the Spring Fling, I had competition. So smart of you to get around that, it completely cuts out any need for you to deserve the title.”

Unfortunately for Rarity, Sunset had limits as well. “You know, you’re far too clever for your own good. But like I said, I’m not dancing around any subjects today.” Even though there were students around to witness, Sunset grabbed Rarity by the shirt and pulled her closer. “If I catch wind that you’re thinking about running for Princess of the Fall Formal, or any other dance, then it’ll be more than just your reputation on the line. Do you understand?”

All of Rarity’s quick-wittedness abandoned her the moment things turned physical, and she barely managed to stammer an agreement. “Y-yes, of course. I, er, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good.” Sunset shoved Rarity and she fell to the floor. “I’ll see you at my coronation!”

Everyone moved out of her way as Sunset walked through the hall. There was a chance that any one of them would run and tell Principal Celestia what had happened. It might even get her disqualified from running for princess. But it wasn’t likely. They were all afraid of her, and Sunset loved it.

Well, almost all of them were afraid of her. Just before she reached her fourth-period classroom, a voice called out to her. “Sunset Shimmer! Get your ass back here!”

Sunset stopped with a grin, but she didn’t walk back. Instead, she stepped off to the side and waited for Rainbow Dash to catch up with her. “Well, if it isn’t everyone’s favorite athlete. What can I do for you?”

Rainbow glared at Sunset. Her hands were balled into fists and her jaw was clenched. “What the hell was that with Rarity?”

“Oh, so you did see that. Didn’t realize since you didn’t care enough to say anything at the time.” Sunset couldn’t scare Rainbow with physical threats. Without magic, Sunset couldn’t come close to matching her in strength or speed.

But even though Rainbow had to know she had the advantage, she just wasn’t the type to go throwing punches so recklessly. “I’m saying something now, and I want to know why you’re targeting her. You already sent your lackeys to make sure she wasn’t running against you.”

“It was just some girl talk. Nothing someone like you needs to concern yourself with.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sunset couldn’t overpower Rainbow, but that only meant she’d have to rely on other resources. Unlike Rarity, Rainbow was awful at navigating mind games. “Hey, I’m not saying it in a bad way. It’s just that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things among girls, and you’re practically a guy.”

Rainbow stepped closer and pressed her face into Sunset’s. “That wasn’t ‘girl talk’, and you know it.”

It was almost impressive; normally, Rainbow could be thrown off any train of thought by shifting the conversation onto her. “Sure it was. The Princess of the Fall Formal is a big deal for us girls that aren’t dykes.”

There it was. Sunset had pushed Rainbow just right, and she grabbed Sunset by the arms and pushed her back. There was a loud noise as Sunset hit the locker behind her, but Rainbow’s voice was louder still. “What the hell is your problem!? Why can’t you just leave everyone alone!?”

“Rainbow, stop!” Sunset said in the most pathetic voice she could manage. “Please, you’re hurting me…”

“Heh, you act all tough, but you’re really just a coward. Just wait until I–”

“What is the meaning of this!?”

Rainbow’s eyes shot open wide as she turned to see Cranky standing at the door of the room next to them. It was a joy to see, but Sunset couldn’t react to that just yet. This was going exactly as she had planned it, but her plan wasn’t complete yet.

“Unhand her this instant,” Cranky demanded.

Rainbow obeyed, then looked between Sunset and Cranky. “She started it.”

Sunset covered her face to make her laugh look like a sob. That was the best defense Rainbow could come up with? “I… I didn’t do anything, I was just walking to class and…”

“Yeah right! She’s the biggest liar in this school!” Rainbow was letting her temper get the best of her, which only made Sunset’s job easier. “She was just bullying another student two minutes ago!”

“Why does everyone keep saying these things about me?”

“What’s your name?” Cranky asked.

“Rainbow Dash.”

“Don’t I know you from somewhere? You’re not one of my students, are you?”

“No, sir.” Rainbow grinned. Even in these circumstances, she was clearly far too eager to show off. “But I am on just about every sports team. CHS’s star athlete, Rainbow Dash.”

“Hmph.” There were only a few things that impressed Cranky, and sports definitely wasn’t on the list. “Well then, Miss Dash, what do you think the school’s policy on its athletes getting into fights is?”

Sunset hadn’t even counted on that one. She knew she could goad Rainbow into a fight and alert a teacher easily enough, but getting her banned from sports? That was just too perfect. The only downside was that she couldn’t rub it in with Cranky being right there.

“I wasn’t fighting, I was…” Rainbow looked to the ground as she failed to find another answer. She clenched one fist and used her other hand to point at Sunset. “Well, what about her!?”

“Let me worry about Miss Shimmer.”

Rainbow glared at Sunset, and the realization showed on her face. She knew that it was over, that Sunset had this whole situation under her control. “Fine. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. Now get out of here, and don’t let me hear you’ve been causing problems again!”

Rainbow left with a scowl that Sunset would treasure the view of forever. Everything about this day continued to be simply perfect.

Now she just needed to take care of things with Cranky. “I can’t believe that happened.”

“Why don’t you step inside and we can talk about it.”

It wasn’t hard to spin a story that he believed. She played up the sob story about Flash breaking up with her, and how he had been talking with Rainbow regularly. It was stupid and didn’t make perfect sense as a reason for Rainbow to attack her, but Cranky had been teaching for long enough to realize that sometimes high school drama was honestly that stupid.

Besides, he already wanted to believe her. He and his wife had been the ones to find Sunset when she first went through the portal, and they both had taken an active interest in her activities at CHS. All the students knew she wasn’t some someone to mess with, and some of the teachers were catching onto her as well. But Cranky and Matilda? They refused to see Sunset as anything short of the golden child.

Since Cranky was her fourth-period teacher, Sunset simply took a seat once they finished talking. He taught geography, and despite his less than enthusiastic demeanor, he was actually pretty good at it. He’d traveled around the world when he was younger, and loved to regale his class with stories from his own experiences.

Even with her excitement for the day to be over, the class passed quickly. It was one of the only subjects Sunset was actually interested in, since human geography certainly wasn’t something that was taught in Equestria. She wondered if maybe she ought to have taken better notes about the world she’d been living in. A thorough study of another world had to be more impressive than anything that stupid purple unicorn had ever done.

But it was too late to go compiling research now, and besides, Sunset had plenty of stories of her own to regale ponies back home with. All that was left to do was get there.

But first, fifth period. The bell rang, cutting off the story Cranky had been in the middle of. He told the class to remind him where he left off tomorrow, but Sunset would never hear the end of that tale.

Amusingly, Sunset’s fifth period was English with Matilda. She doubted that it was a random chance that saw her in both of their classes, but she always wondered if having them back to back had also been by design.

This was a class Sunset could do without. Matilda wasn’t bad, per se. In fact, most of her students actually loved her. She was caring, approachable, seldom stern, and basically everything anyone could want in a teacher. She reminded Sunset of Rose Petal.

The class took turns reading passages from a book that Sunset had already finished. She barely followed along, and even that was just so she could know what she was supposed to read when it was her turn. About halfway through the class she took off her jacket and placed it under her seat. It was too cool out to go without a jacket comfortably, but she’d be coming back for it soon.

Once class was over, Sunset left with everyone else. It was time for the last class period she’d ever go to, and she was practically giddy with excitement.

Not that there was anything exciting about the lesson. Even armed with the knowledge that she’d never have to listen to her algebra teacher drone on again, Sunset still couldn’t bring herself to actually pay attention.

It didn’t help that her eyes kept falling on another girl who sat a few rows over from her. Applejack was too focused on her work to notice Sunset’s glances. It would be the last time she ever saw Applejack, and she wasn’t sure what to do about it.

But in the end, what else was there for her to do? When the bell rang to let them go, Sunset approached Applejack before leaving.

“Hey, Applejack.”

Applejack looked at her suspiciously. “I don’t know what ya want, and frankly, I don’t care. I ain’t in the mood to deal with none of your nonsense today.”

“And here I was trying to give you a friendly heads up.” Sunset shook her head sadly. “I heard some kids talking earlier, something about you and your cousin.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Real clever there, Sunset. Ya know, after all these years, ya could at least try coming up with something original.”

Sunset feigned a hurt expression. “What? Applejack, I’m only telling you what I heard. I would never approve of students spreading such malicious rumors. I’m CHS’s most darling student, after all.”

Applejack roughly shoved all her things into her backpack and stood up. “Just you wait, Sunset. You’re gonna get what’s coming to you soon enough.”

“What, everything I’ve always wanted? Can’t wait.”

Sunset wore a grin as Applejack stormed out of the room, but it fell away once she was gone. That was it. The last time she’d ever see Applejack.

This was what she always wanted. Applejack hated the fact that Sunset got away with all her deceit more than anything. It was true that any power the incest rumors had once held over Applejack was long gone, but it was also a reminder of exactly how long Sunset had been treating her horribly.

Any chance of Applejack forgiving her had already vanished, and with any luck, so would any chance that Applejack would stop hating her after she left. Keep everyone she cared about distant so she couldn’t hurt them once she was gone. There was no other way.

Sunset gathered her things and left the classroom. She stopped by her locker for the last time, grabbed her helmet, and dropped off most of her other things. She wouldn’t be needing them anymore. The box collecting dust at the bottom caught her eye, but she ignored it.

She left the building, but rather than head for the student parking lot, she went to the staff one. A quick look around showed that Matilda wasn’t anywhere in sight, but her car was.

Perfect. Sunset waited, keeping an eye out for the teacher. It was incredibly dull, since she didn’t want to risk missing her by using her phone as a distraction, but it was also too important to pass up. This was her only chance to end her time at CHS in her own terms, and she wasn’t going to let a little waiting around stop her.

It took almost an hour for Matilda to finally show up, all of which had been spent doing nothing but watching the faculty go home. But even if she had been stuck waiting the rest of the day, it would’ve been worthwhile.

Sunset watched as Matilda exited the building and waited until she reached her car to call out to her. “Mrs. Matilda!”

Matilda turned to her with a confused look. “Sunset? Is everything okay?”

Sunset grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, everything’s fine. But I, uh… I think I left my jacket in your room. Did anyone from last period turn it in?”

“I don’t have a sixth-period class,” Matilda said. Sunset had known that; not having anyone there to find it had been part of her plan. “But I didn’t see it anywhere. Did you leave it on your desk?”

“I think it was under my desk.” Tucked away so that it was hard to see, of course. “I would just wait until tomorrow to get it, but it’s for safety. Not that I’ve ever fallen off my motorcycle, but if I did and I wasn’t wearing my jacket, I’d get roughed up pretty bad.”

“I really do think you’d be better off without that motorcycle of yours.”

Sunset chuckled. “I know. I hate to ask you to go all the way back to your class, though…” She smiled as if an idea had just occurred to her. “If you want, I could just take the key and get it myself. I’d be there and back before you know it, and I’d make sure to lock up on my way out.”

Matilda looked apprehensive. “We’re not supposed to let students have classroom keys, you know.”

Sunset nodded. If she tried to convince Matilda, she risked revealing that she wanted to go by herself. “Right, of course. That’s completely understandable.”

“But I suppose since it’s you…” Matilda pulled a small set of keys out of her purse and handed them to Sunset. “Hurry on back, though.”

“Will do! Thank you, Mrs. Matilda, I’ll just be a minute!”

Sunset walked off as quickly as she could without actually running. She only had two stops to make, but she didn’t have long if she was going to get to them both without Matilda growing suspicious.

First was the classroom. She quickly grabbed her jacket and threw it on, then walked over to a window. She unlocked it, opened it just enough to make sure it wouldn’t be jammed shut when she needed to open it later, then closed it again. She left the window unlocked but made sure to lock the door on the way out. If someone checked the door and realized it was open, then they might check the room more thoroughly.

With her way back into the school secured, Sunset hurried along to her second destination. As she suspected, there weren’t many people in the halls, but there were still a few students lingering around where her crown was on display. No one was paying it too much mind, however.

Sunset approached the case under the guise of staring at the crown. When she was fairly certain no one was paying her any attention, she slipped one of the keys into the lock. It didn’t turn. Neither did the second one she tried. But on the third attempt, she found the right key. The lock opened easily, and she shoved the keys back into her pocket.

She lingered for just a few moments more, then walked away. She couldn’t take the crown when anyone else was around, but she had her way back into the school. It was as good as hers already.

Once she put a little distance between herself and the scene of the crime, Sunset picked up her speed. She practically ran back to the staff parking lot, desperate to keep Matilda from deciding to come after her.

A million things could have gone wrong with the plan, but it was just the kind of day where everything seemed to go right. Matilda and Cranky were both at the car when Sunset returned, and neither of them suspected a thing. She returned the keys, thanked Matilda again, and promised that she’d be careful on her way home.

Home. It was so close. There were still a few hours before the portal opened, however, so Sunset would have to keep filling the time. She was supposed to go to work, but she’d been debating if she’d bother all day. It’s not like she’d be around to get another paycheck.

But there wasn’t anything else to do, and by the time her shift ended the coast would be clear to go back into the school. And anyway, it’d be a good day. There wasn’t any reason to take anyone’s shit anymore, and the idea of telling off any rude customers was incredibly appealing.


It was time. Sunset could practically feel it in the air as she stepped out of the store. Night had come, and the portal would be open.

It was with no regrets that she left the store. Her time there was getting worse; working for Flash’s uncle after breaking up with him was a miserable experience, but he couldn’t fire her over something like that and she had still needed the money. The only small downside to this being her last day was that he hadn’t been there to tell off.

In the end, she hadn’t managed to go out in style as she had hoped. Although she hadn’t been anywhere near the level of fake happy they expected of her, her shift went by without any incidents. But walking away from working in retail was liberating in its own right, and she couldn’t find it in her to feel bad about the missed opportunity.

Just one more quick stop before she could finish her time in this miserable world. Sunset drove back to her house to change out of her uniform and pick up a couple things.

The house had been a goal of hers for so long, but in the end, the solitude was only one more nightmare to add to her own personal hell. She barely glanced around as she made her way through the house. She didn’t bother to do anything with her uniform once she changed, opting to just leave it on the floor.

Her bag sat on the bed, already packed. There wasn’t much she wanted to bring with her anyway. Although there were things from this world that she enjoyed, she had a feeling they would only serve as reminders of her misery. So instead of carrying her torment with her, she was only going to bring a few things in the saddle bag she’d brought with her when she first went through the mirror. Her wallet just in case she was pulled over, a black cloak that she would use soon, a novel and a comic from Equestria, and a bag of bits that would soon actually be usable as more than something to reminisce with.

She grabbed the bag from the bed and slung it awkwardly over her shoulder. It wasn’t made to be carried by a human, but that wouldn’t be a problem for long. She left the bedroom and started making her way to the front door when she stopped and turned around. Although she was dying to leave, she decided to check one last thing first. She walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. “Anything to say before I go?”

Her reflection wasn’t demonic, but it did grin while her own expression remained stoic. “You say that as if I’m not coming with you.”

“You’re not. I’m stronger than you, and this is the last time I’m going to sit around talking to myself.”

Her reflection laughed. “Okay, believe that if you want. We’ll see in the end. But Princess?” The reflections eyes narrowed and the mirror surroundings began to catch fire. “Do not screw this up.”

Sunset only smiled and walked away. There was no need to answer; she didn’t need to convince herself of anything anymore.

Traffic had died down for the evening, so the final drive to Canterlot High was an easy one. Along the way she reflected on how she was making every turn and stopping at every light for the last time. Every house she passed, every stop sign, every landmark, all of it. She’d never see any of them again.

It made her laugh out loud, although if any sound escaped her helmet it was surely ripped away by the wind. It was finally time. She was going to be free.

Since she didn’t want to draw attention to herself at the school, she pulled into the parking lot of a nearby store. It barely mattered, but she still locked up her bike and helmet. If something went wrong, she could always try the portal again when school started in the morning, but walking back to her house was not going to happen.

She tucked her keys into her saddle bag and walked the rest of the way to the school. It was hard to not run. But if she wanted to break into the school, she had to keep a low profile. Still, the closer she was to the portal, the more she wondered if she’d even care about some stupid high school crown once she was back in Equestria.

Once the statue was in sight, she had to pause to breathe. ‘Better to leave with no regrets,’ she reasoned. And if someone had locked things back up and stopped her from stealing the crown? Then to hell with it, she could leave the damn thing and run straight to Equestria.

She stopped in the shadows to pull the cloak out of her bag. She wasn’t sure what kind of security the school had, but if there were cameras, she wanted to protect her identity in case something did go wrong. If it wasn’t possible to just run straight to the portal, she needed to be able to come to school in the morning. And she definitely didn’t need to wind up spending the three days the portal was open in a police station’s holding cell.

Satisfied that the cloak would keep her identity secret, she made her way to the outside of Matilda’s classroom. A small part of her hoped the window wouldn’t open. She could be satisfied in knowing she tried, and she could just get on with things. But just as she had expected, it slid open easily.

Climbing in proved a little harder, but she managed. As carefully as she could, she closed the window behind her and took a look around. There was no sign of anyone, and most of the lights were off. As much as it would be nice to see things better, she didn’t dare touch the light switch. The less she interacted with the things, the better.

She stumbled through the dark in the classroom, but things were a little better lit in the hall. Before stepping out into it, she made sure to unlock the door. She wasn’t sure if she was going to exit the same way she came in, but knew better than to rely on being able to improvise a way out.

It was eerie walking through the dark. There were no sounds besides the fall of her footsteps, and half-lit objects took on monstrous appearances, shadows looked like they might hide anything.

Sunset pulled her cloak closer to her chest. ‘Just get my crown, and get out.’

If Sunset hadn’t stopped to look at the crown so much in the past couple days, she probably would’ve walked past it. No light shone on the glass case that housed it, but Sunset didn’t need any. She stopped as she reached the case, admiring it through the glass one last time.

“Being a princess must be earned.”

Sunset wheeled around to find there was no one there. Even if they sounded the same, Sunset knew immediately which Celestia’s voice she heard. But she also knew better than to let thoughts like that get away with her. Sunset would see Princess Celestia for real once she was in Equestria, and there was no way her former mentor was going to pop up before then.

Still, her heart raced at the thought of what could be lurking in the darkness. It was time to get on with it.

The bag of bits would probably be heavy enough to break the glass if someone had locked it, but there was no need. No one had checked it since Sunset unlocked it earlier, and it slid open without any problems. Even as shaken as she was, Sunset couldn’t help but grin as she took the crown in her hands. “Eleven years of my life spent in hell, and this is what I get from it all. I have earned this.”

The way back felt much shorter. Once the crown was in her hands, there was never any stopping her. Even if someone saw her now, the odds of them being able to catch her before she got to the portal were slim.

Not knowing which other doors would open, she went back to Matilda’s classroom. She locked the door behind her and exited through the window. She wasn’t sure why she bothered, but she closed it once she was through.

She was so close. All she had to do was walk around the building to get to the portal. Every step filled her with anticipation as she drew closer and closer to the end of her misery.

Until there were no more steps to take. She reached the statue and briefly looked back at the school for the last time. She wasn’t going to miss it.

She turned back to the statue and used it to look at her reflection. She smiled and placed the crown on her head. “How do I look?”

“Magnificent, Princess,” her reflection answered back. “Now let’s go home.”

“You got it.”

Sunset stepped forward, and the world disappeared around her.

28 – Her Faithful Student

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Chapter Twenty-Eight

Her Faithful Student

Despite all the time spent preparing, Sunset had still failed to plan for this part. Tangled up on the floor in clothes that no longer fit, all she could do was sigh.

If her clothes weren’t bad enough on their own, she was also covered in the cloak she’d used to sneak around the school. At least throwing that off proved easy, but she could hardly believe her eyes once she did.

It had been a few years since Sunset had been in Canterlot Castle, and it felt like a lifetime since she’d lived in it. It was reasonable to expect that she’d forgotten some of the seldom used rooms in that time. But not something like this. There was no way this could be Canterlot Castle, because there was no way Sunset could have forgotten a room like this one.

The floors and walls seemed to be made of smooth crystal, while pillars of jagged gemstones rose to the ceiling. As if the room itself wasn’t enough, it was richly decorated with paintings and fine ceramics as well. Not only was there nowhere in Canterlot like this, Sunset couldn’t think of anywhere in Equestria that would have such rich architecture.

‘Is it possible the mirror took me somewhere else?’

Sunset twisted onto her back so she could look in the mirror. She saw the ridiculous sight of a unicorn’s head popping out of a shirt meant for a human. Her new – or rather, old – body proportions meant nothing but her head could be seen under the tangled mess of clothing, but she was unmistakably a unicorn again.

A wave of euphoria washed over her, but she pushed it down. Last time she had returned to Equestria, she had let herself get carried away with wonder, and where had that gotten her? No, she needed to learn from her past mistake and stay focused. Celestia had already replaced her, and unless she could prove she was better than that purple unicorn, she had no hope of changing things.

Sunset fixed her silly reflection with a hard stare. How could she let something like this hold her back? After all, she was Celestia’s gifted student, the most powerful unicorn her age, entirely irreplaceable and unsurpassable. She was fire given solid form, and there was no way she was going to let a bunch of clothes stop her.

Her pants and boots came off easily with a few kicks, but the shirt and jacket proved more difficult. After trying unsuccessfully to wriggle out of them, she stopped and chided herself. Was this really how Equestria’s most gifted mage was going to solve her problems?

It had been a while, but there were some things that were just impossible to forget. Sunset took a deep breath and focused her willpower into her horn. She saw it light up teal in the mirror, and felt her whole body respond to the magical energy.

That was only the first step, something any unicorn filly could manage. Sunset pushed her magic out and willed it to grasp her jacket. It came off easily, but roughly; the strength of her magic was as good as ever, but her control was sorely lacking. “Do better,” Sunset told herself before trying the shirt. It came off much more smoothly than the jacket had, and she smiled at her success.

‘Yeah, great job. I’m sure Celestia will be impressed with that one.’

Sunset could do much better than that, she just needed a chance to warm up. She started by gathering her clothes neatly in a pile using only her magic. She could manage the fine movements easily enough, but that was something any adult unicorn could do. Baby steps weren’t going to get her very far, so it was time to push herself.

Tampering with the mirror in any way was the absolute last thing Sunset wanted to do, so she looked around for something else to practice on. There wasn’t much to work with; the only things in the room that could be moved were the decorations, so that’s what she used.

If anything went wrong and she damaged the undoubtedly expensive porcelain, Sunset would be making a mess of her grand return to Equestria. But she had never doubted herself before, and she wasn’t about to start now. She selected a vase at random and brought it closer to admire it.

Even after spending over a decade away from Equestria, Sunset could still recognize the obvious quality of the work. Add in the possibility that it could easily be incredibly old on top of that, and she could very well be looking at a priceless artifact. She flung it into the air.

While it was airborne, she quickly grabbed another vase and did the same thing. She caught the first one before it fell and flung it again, then did the same thing with a plate as she caught the other vase. The high ceilings gave her plenty of time before things fell, which just meant she had to add more objects.

Vases, plates, trophies, figurines, and even some of the paintings off of the wall were added to the fray. The fear of anything breaking forced her to push through the years of magical atrophying and kept her alert. Her magic was more than good enough to interact with multiple objects at once, but she limited herself. The goal wasn’t to control a dozen things, it was to quickly change targets between a dozen things.

Along with her magic, it was a test for her reaction time and perception. Magic was a tool that Sunset would use to her fullest if needed, but it wouldn’t help her if she was taken unaware. There was no telling what was going to happen when she left this room, but Sunset was going to be ready for it.

She continued adding more objects to her juggling exercise, until something caught her eye as she threw it up into the air – a gold crown with an ugly six-pointed star. Sunset went wide-eyed and hesitated as she saw it. It was only for a fraction of a second, but it was a fraction too much.

Suddenly unsure of where things were, Sunset flared her magic across the room, casting a stasis spell that kept everything exactly where it was. She calmly examined her surroundings. An earth pony figurine hovered just above the floor. If Sunset had paid more attention, that would have been the next thing she sent back into the air, and she could have continued her exercise.

But would have and could have got her nowhere. She casually walked around the room and counted the objects. Fourteen, including the crown. Not bad for a start, but she would need to do better in the future.

She levitated everything back into its rightful place, including setting the crown on her head. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d grabbed it. It must have fallen off when she fell through the portal, and she’d momentarily forgotten about it in the excitement of being a pony and practicing her magic again.

Which was, of course, another failure on her behalf. A small one, perhaps, but a failure all the same. Sunset needed to focus and not lose sight of details. She needed to be aware of what was going on around her. Sunset needed to be perfect, and she would be. She didn’t have a choice.

But being perfect in this room wouldn’t help her get anywhere, so it was time to leave and figure out where she was. She gathered her clothes into her saddle bag. She thought about throwing them back through the portal, but if someone saw them come out of the statue and started investigating, things could go bad very quickly. There was a little risk in carrying them with her – if anypony noticed the strange garments, she’d have to figure out an explanation – but leaving them unattended could put anypony who found them on alert for strange activity.

With everything secured, Sunset exited through the only door in the room. She found herself in a throne room, which only caused her more bafflement. It followed the theme of the other room, with everything – even the throne – being made of crystal. At this rate, Sunset half suspected that the tapestries hanging from the ceiling were some sort of crystal that just looked like cloth.

As she was examining her surroundings, a stallion noticed and approached her. “Who goes there?”

Sunset could hardly believe what she was seeing. He was a pale purple earth pony with a white mane, and his metal armor signified he was part of a royal guard. It wasn’t gold like the Celestial Guard, but that wasn’t surprising since Sunset had already deduced she wasn’t in Canterlot. What was surprising was that everything about him glistened.

‘Holy shit, even the horses are crystal.’ Sunset forced a smile. At least she didn’t have to pretend to look a little uncertain, as everything about his appearance baffled her. “Uh, hi. I know I’m probably not supposed to be here, but, well… I’m a little lost.”

He barely seemed to notice her, staring instead at the crown on her head. Why had she left that on? She hadn’t really thought anything of it since it didn’t look anything like Princess Celestia’s crown. Perhaps it was an odd accessory to wear, but she hadn’t thought it would attract attention like this.

Just when Sunset was wondering if she was going to have to make a fight or flight decision, he cracked a smile. “Say, that looks pretty good. Almost had me going for a minute there. Mind if I take a closer look?”

“Oh, uh, go for it.”

He leaned in closer to the crown as she held it out for him to see. What did he think it was? He chuckled as he backed away. “Well, I guess I know what brings you to the Crystal Castle then.”

“Oh?” Sunset adopted a knowing smirk as she put the crown back on. Although she now felt awkward wearing it, it would potentially draw more attention if she did anything else with it at this point. She’d shove it in her bag once she was rid of him. “And what might that be?”

He met her smirk with a grin of his own. Perfect, he thought they were just playfully dancing around a subject they both knew. “Oh, I don’t know. A certain royal visit, perhaps?”

A royal visit? Did that mean Celestia was here after all? She’d have to find out for sure, but a royal guard who found her wandering the throne room was not the pony to ask a bunch of strange sounding questions to, so she just kept playing along. “Well, what can I say? You got me.”

“You missed them by a few hours, though. The princess and her friends came through here, but they’ve gone back to their rooms by now.”

“Do, uh, do you know when I might get to see her?”

He chuckled and gave her an odd look. “Well, she’ll be at the Summit tomorrow, of course. Don’t know if you’ll get a chance to talk to her, but anypony is welcome to come see the princesses.”

Princesses, plural. Was Cadance here too? Or did this place have its own princess? “Right. Of course.”

“That said, you really shouldn’t be in here. Where did you say you were trying to go again?”

Princess Celestia’s private room was probably the kind of answer that would sound pretty suspicious. But then where did she want to go? This was a throne room and he was a royal guard, so this was clearly a castle. Sunset got a perfect idea. “The library.”

The guard laughed. “A bit late for reading, isn’t it?”

Sunset willed her smile to stay in place and just hoped she hadn’t said anything too strange. “I just… really love books!”

For some reason, he looked at her crown and laughed again. “Yeah, I should’ve known. You’d have a better selection with the main library in town, but you’d never get there before it closed. The Crystal Castle does have a smaller library that’s open all hours which you’re welcome to use, though. Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

The Crystal Castle. Not the most clever of names, but it was certainly fitting, and at least she knew what this place was called. “Thank you so much.” Although she really needed him to bring her to the library, she hesitated to better sell herself as a lost tourist. “I mean, if it’s not too much trouble. I’m sure you must be busy.”

“You kidding? I’m glad you showed up, otherwise I’d be bored stiff.” He began walking, so Sunset followed him. “Nopony in their right mind is gonna try and do anything with all the princesses and their personal guards here. All us regular guys have to do is give ponies like you directions at the Princess Summit tomorrow and make sure nopony gets too rowdy.”

All the princesses. That meant Celestia had to be here, and that there were at least two others. Cadance was obvious, but who was the third? The princess of this castle? Had another pony ascended to be an alicorn while she was gone? Two alicorns ascending within a single lifetime would be astounding, but it may still be more likely than Blueblood actually finding someone willing to marry him.

Sunset had so many questions, and she could only hope that the library would fill her in. Although the guard kept talking along the way, he never gave her any information she could use – no names and nothing else about the location.

“And here we are,” the guard said as he opened a door for her.

What he had described as a ‘smaller library’ seemed quite large to Sunset. It was certainly bigger than the one she was used to at CHS, although it paled in comparison to the Canterlot Archives.

“Thanks, I don’t think I would’ve found my way here on my own,” Sunset said as she walked into the library.

“It was my pleasure, ma’am. Enjoy your stay in the Crystal Empire.”

Thankfully, the door closed before he could get a good look at the complete bewilderment on her face. The Crystal Empire? That was a legend, and nopony even knew how much of it was true. And now she was in it? Had so much really changed since she’d been gone, or did the mirror bring her to another world after all? Another mirror world, a version of Equestria where the Crystal Empire was real.

If there were answers, she would find them. But first, before even taking another step into the library, she took the chance to shove the crown into her saddle bag. There was no need to have a repeat of the situation with the guard.

As Sunset walked in, she was greeted by the librarian. “Oh, hello there. Can I help you find anything?” Like the guard, she was also a crystal pony. It was more than a little bizarre to see, but she didn’t seem to find Sunset being a regular pony to be odd.

Without knowing where to begin, Sunset decided to browse around. She’d be up all night for sure, so she had plenty of time to try and figure out her plans before the Princess Summit. “Thanks, but I think I’ll just take a look around for now.”

“Sure thing, but let me know if you need anything.”

Sunset began walking in a direction at random. Row after row of bookshelves, and any of them might have answers for her. Looking into the Crystal Empire itself would be a good starting point, but what she really wanted to know about was Celestia. Unfortunately, no book would tell her where the princess would be at this moment.

Sunset picked books almost arbitrarily. She levitated them along beside her, choosing ten or so before bringing them to a table in a small lounge area. But before she could so much as open one, she set them off to the side to be forgotten.

Near a couple of chairs, there was a small rack with magazines and newspapers. No book could tell her about things happening with the Summit, but a newspaper could.

Sure enough, the front page headline read ‘Princess Summit Predicted to Be a Sparkling Success’. Sunset took the paper and sat down eagerly.

She didn’t get to read one word of the article before everything fell apart. Once she unfolded the newspaper and saw the photograph for the article, everything else shut down.

There was a smiling pony on the front. She had a purple coat, with a darker purple mane. Sunset had seen her the last time she was in Equestria, and she had seen her countless times since, always hiding in mirrors and showing up in her nightmares. But she had always been a unicorn then.

“Oh, yes. I’m guessing you’re not from around here? I’m Twilight Sparkle, the princess’s personal student.”

The pony smiling at her from the picture wasn’t a unicorn. She had the horn, but she also had wings. She was an alicorn. Twilight Sparkle, Sunset’s replacement, had become an alicorn princess.

There were no words for what Sunset felt. Hate? Not strong enough. She wanted to destroy Twilight Sparkle. Not to kill her, no, nothing so kind. She wanted to take everything Twilight had, everything she cared about. She didn’t even want it for herself. Sunset would take everything that Twilight had, and then she’d burn it all to the ground. Leave her nothing but ashes and memories of a life that had once been worth living.

And when she had nothing left, Sunset wanted her to lose more. Twilight was Celestia’s darling pupil? Well, it was only fair that she learned the same lessons. That there was always something more to lose. She would learn that, just as Sunset had learned it.

Sunset stared at Twilight’s smiling face so intently that she almost didn’t notice the other familiar thing in the picture. But once she did, it finally snapped her out of her trance. Twilight Sparkle was a princess, and just like any princess, she wore a crown. But Sunset had seen that crown before.

Her hoof moved to her saddle bag, where her crown was stowed away. It was Sunset’s crown, but Twilight was clearly wearing it in the picture. It was almost too fitting. It seemed that all Twilight did was take things that rightfully belonged to Sunset.

Sunset stood up. If Twilight Sparkle was going to be her enemy, Sunset would need to find out anything she could about her. Fortunately, becoming a princess meant her life should be an open book, and Sunset was in the perfect place for that.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” Sunset said as she approached the librarian. “I was wondering if you have any books on Twilight Sparkle?”

The librarian smiled. “Of course, she’s quite popular these days. Nopony’s written a book about her since she became a princess, but we do have a book from before then. Should be right over here.”

After everything else, it was hard to believe that something else could still surprise her, but Sunset still found herself momentarily dumbfounded. There was a book about Twilight Sparkle before she became an alicorn?

She shook her head to clear it, then followed after the librarian. They walked to a display that had clearly been set up for the summit; it had books and magazines relating to all the princesses. It turned out that there were four, with Princess Luna also being a new addition since Sunset left.

“Hmm, looks like someone must be using the book, but we’ve got plenty of other material here.”

It was hard, but Sunset summoned all her willpower to form a pleasant smile. “This is perfect, thank you.”

“No problem, and do let me know if you need anything else.”

“Right. Will do.”

The librarian left Sunset to herself, and she looked over the covers. It was painful to see Princess Celestia, even in photograph. Sunset pushed that aside; she could sort things out with Celestia later. Princess Luna would be more interesting in other circumstances, especially after going to a school with Vice Principal Luna, but she was hardly a concern right now. And frankly, Sunset would sooner start reading a dictionary than look at one page of the books or magazines with Cadance and the stallion she was often pictured with.

In the end, she chose a magazine that was labeled as being a special commemorative issue for the Princess Summit, aptly titled “Who Is Twilight Sparkle?” and returned to the seat near the newspapers.

It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t look so damn happy in all the photographs. But why shouldn’t she be happy? She only got everything anypony could ever want. The wish to stop seeing that smiling face was a good reason to finally flip open the cover.

After a three page intro written by someone who probably had never met Twilight, the magazine began with a brief look at her early life. Twilight came from a loving family, with two parents that were highly successful in their own fields, yet still provided a loving household for their precious angel of a daughter and her two brothers. Oh, and one of them was a dragon, because apparently they were just the kind of ponies who adopted less fortunate dragons. Even before any of the stuff that mattered, Twilight’s family was already beating out Sunset’s shitty parents.

Skimming ahead, Sunset found out that Twilight became Celestia’s pupil on the day she got her cutie mark. She was ten at the time, which made Sunset feel a little better. Sunset had impressed Celestia enough when she was nine, and she hadn’t needed a cutie mark to do it. But that wasn’t much of a victory, considering the things that came after.

When Twilight was eighteen, she had been sent to Ponyville. Where she met –

Sunset blinked and stared at the page in disbelief. Twilight Sparkle was in the center of five ponies that Sunset had never seen, but who were eerily familiar. Sunset closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, but when she opened them again, Applejack was still standing right beside Twilight.

Everything. Twilight had somehow managed to get everything Sunset had ever wanted, even someone who shouldn’t even exist in this world.

Sunset read on. The more she read, the more in awe she was. Twilight and her friends had found the Elements of Harmony, which were lost so long ago that nopony even knew what the sixth Element was. They used them to stop Nightmare Moon, a monster that came straight from folklore, and returned Princess Luna in the process.

But that wasn’t enough. Discord, the once tyrannical ruler of Equestria, had returned. By all accounts, he was supposed to be an unstoppable force of magic, the likes of which nopony could hope to stand against. Nopony but Twilight Sparkle, of course. Along with her friends, she managed to turn him back to stone.

Canterlot was invaded by changelings, and even Princess Celestia had been taken out. But not Twilight Sparkle! Even when everyone else was incapacitated, Twilight Sparkle still managed to swoop in and save, of all ponies, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Oh god, and then Cadance married Twilight’s fucking brother. The two worst ponies in all of Equestria, and now they’re related!

And when Cadance was given reign of the Crystal Empire – wait, Cadance ruled her own god damn empire!? Oh no wait, she co-ruled it, alongside Twilight Sparkle’s brother! The useless bitch couldn’t manage to save her own people though, they had to send in Sparkle for that. It was Twilight’s other brother, the dragon, that did the job in the end, proving that everyone in this family was some sort of living legend.

And then, only after more feats of wonder than anypony had the right to claim, then Twilight went and became an alicorn. She had taken a spell that even the legendary Star Swirl the Bearded had been unable to complete, and she fixed it. Just like that. A spell beyond the ability of the single greatest mage in all of Equestrian history, and Twilight Sparkle had managed it when she was twenty-one years old.

It wasn’t fair. All of it was supposed to be Sunset’s. And what had Sunset done? Her biggest accomplishment had been becoming Celestia’s student, and that was practically a footnote in Twilight Sparkle’s list. Maybe the worst part of all of it was the fact that Twilight hadn’t accomplished any of her heroic deeds the last time Sunset had been in Equestria. If she had stayed, if she had just proven that she was worth a second chance, then she might be the one attending her first Princess Summit now.

“Miss?”

What made Twilight so much more deserving? Why hadn’t Sunset been afforded the chance to prove herself like Twilight Sparkle had?

“Excuse me, miss?”

A hoof tapped her shoulder, jerking Sunset out of her thought. She turned to tell whoever was disturbing her to fuck off, but stopped when she noticed he was a member of the Celestial Guard. Instead, she forced her composure as she asked, “Uh, what can I do for you?”

“The librarian said you might be waiting to read this.” He held out a book that had a purple six-pointed star on the cover. The title read ‘Twilight Sparkle: Element of Magic’.

“I think I got everything I needed from this,” Sunset said as she stood up. Only once she was back on her hooves did she realize she had no idea how long she’d been sitting there. All she was aware of was the blinding rage she felt towards Twilight Sparkle. Without another word, Sunset began walking out of the library.

“That Princess Twilight sure is something, huh?” the guard asked as he walked out beside her. “She’s a real inspiration to everypony these days.”

Sunset didn’t bother to look at him. “She’s something alright.” They left the library together and wound up walking side by side. Since she didn’t know the layout of the caste, she couldn’t even guess whether he was specifically following her or if it was a complete coincidence.

“You know, I actually knew her back before she was a princess.”

The realization hit her that she still needed a plan if she was going to do something to Twilight. And if he had any information, that just might prove useful. “Really?”

“Sure! Well, I didn’t really know her, but I saw her around the castle a lot.”

Oh, never mind. He was a useless idiot after all. “You don’t say.” He might have some sort of information, but messing around with the Celestial Guard was dangerous, even if he didn’t seem to recognize her.

“Yeah, it’s hard to believe it. Little Twilight Sparkle, always running around with her nose in a book.” As they turned a corner, he pulled out a map. “Now she’s got me and a bunch of the other guards in the Crystal Empire for extra security. Still don’t know where anything is in this place…”

Sunset had to smirk at that. Cadance couldn’t do anything right, it seemed. “The local guards can’t protect their own castle?”

“It’s nothing like that. Just that Princess Celestia’s worried about her.” As the guard made another turn, and with no other leads, Sunset followed him. “You know, no matter what else happens, I think she’ll always see Princess Twilight as her faithful student.”

“Her…” Sunset stopped in place. She couldn’t believe her ears. There was just no way.

“Oh yeah, that’s what Princess Celestia always used to call her. Think she still does sometimes.”

Sunset didn’t hear anything else he said. Twilight Sparkle was Celestia’s faithful student. The one who stayed. Sure, Sunset was gifted. That was obvious, anyone could see that. But what good was gifted when the pony in question wasn’t there?

What did Twilight have on Sunset? Nothing. Just that she’d stayed while Sunset left. Celestia’s darling little pet, one that would never run away, never question her, never expect more. Hadn’t Sunset proven she was more talented by becoming Celestia’s student when she was younger? Sunset was better than Twilight, Sunset was the gifted one. But Twilight had been faithful, and that’s why Twilight was a princess.

“How dare she,” Sunset muttered.

“Uh… what was that?”

Sunset’s head jerked toward the guard. Sure, she could try and get some information out of him, but he already had something that she needed, and he wasn’t just going to give it to her.

“So if it came down to it, do you think you’d be ready to protect Princess Twilight?”

He looked momentarily taken aback at the odd question, but then he shrugged it off. “Sure. But I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about. Who’d want to hurt Princess Twilight, of all ponies?”

“Well… I would.”

“What?”

It was pathetic. Sunset even gave him the chance to react, but all he did was stare at her like an idiot. A teal light from her horn briefly lit up the dark hallway before a beam of magic struck the guard in the chest, sending him flying into the wall.

He tried to scramble to his hooves, but another blast of magic knocked him back down. Sunset took a few steps closer, looming over him. He finally remembered his own magic and shot a beam of his own, which Sunset deflected easily.

She held his hooves down with her magic, forcing him onto his back, and placed a hoof on his throat. When he tried to cast a spell of his own again, Sunset pressed down, cutting off his ability to breath and as well as his concentration. All that came from his horn were sparks.

“This is so disappointing,” Sunset told him. “My first real chance to let loose, and it was wasted on someone as weak as you. Not that anypony could’ve ever stopped me, but you know. Some challenge would be nice.”

His eyes were wide in terror and he gasped short shallow breaths. He could pass out any moment, so Sunset had better get to the point. “My name is Sunset Shimmer. When you see Celestia, I want you to tell her that.”

Since he couldn’t very well answer her, Sunset just had to hope he’d remember. One more beam from her horn, and he was out cold.

Sunset moved his body up against the wall. He’d live, that was one of the good things about magic; physically apply enough force to knock someone out and they might die, but a powerful enough stunning spell would just keep someone down for a few hours. Sunset didn’t know what she was going to do, but she’d do it by then.

She did know she’d need his map, so she took that. It showed the layout of the castle and the location of some important ponies’ rooms. Celestia and Twilight were among them, which gave Sunset a choice. She could stick to her original plan and find Celestia, or she could go straight for Twilight.

‘Her faithful student.’ The title burned its way into Sunset’s mind. It hadn’t been enough to replace her. Even the name Celestia had chosen was a testament to the failure that was Sunset Shimmer.

Well, Celestia made her choice. She had chosen Twilight Sparkle, and Sunset would follow in her mentor’s hoofsteps and make the same decision.

But first, there was something she wanted to do. One little way that she could make herself feel better, at least somewhat. She turned around, walking back around the corner towards the library.

“Oh, hello again, miss,” the librarian said as she entered.

“Hi there.” Sunset wore a friendly smile and spoke as if she was just making polite conversation. “Bet you don’t get many ponies in here this late.”

“Not usually, no.” She chuckled. “Well, not unless there are exams, then we’ll have students here all night.”

“Guess that makes it a pretty relaxing job.” Sunset looked around casually. “I’m probably the only one in here now, huh?”

“Yes. It was just you and the guard, but if he left for the night then it’s just you.”

“Perfect.”

Sunset shot a stunning spell at her, knocking her out just like the guard. It wasn’t nearly so enjoyable; knocking around the Celestial Guard was one thing, but there was no joy in fighting untrained civilians. Still, Sunset needed to get her out of the way, and this would do it safely and effectively.

She teleported to the librarian, then teleported them both out to the hallway. With no one in sight, Sunset left her and walked back into the library, where she made straight for the display with books about the princesses.

Sunset narrowed her eyes and stared at Twilight Sparkle’s smiling face, which adorned the cover of a quarter of the selection. They’d given her equal space to all the other princesses, even Celestia, which was an insult in itself.

Sunset stared at one magazine and thought of all the accomplishments that were written about inside it.

Of all the friends that Twilight had made while Sunset had been left alone.

Of the loving family that cared about her and helped her along the way.

Of Princess Celestia mentoring her, guiding her along the path she needed to be on.

And of Princess Celestia, replacing Sunset with a better student. This one won’t leave. This one will be faithful.

The magazine started glowing orange and Sunset finally found she enjoyed watching Twilight’s face. The pages started burning from the inside but quickly spread to the cover. As the flames spread across that perfect smiling face, it warped and twisted before it was consumed entirely.

The fire soon spread to a second magazine, and then a third. There was another thing Twilight seemed to be good at; she burned very nicely. It hardly took any time at all before it spread to Cadance and Luna as well, all the while Sunset continued to watch. They could burn too for all she cared.

When the flame first reached a book about Celestia, Sunset pulled it out of the way. She levitated it in front of her face and turned so the fire could better illuminate it. The stark contrast from the fire’s light and the room being otherwise in shadow suited Celestia perfectly. Ever the pony of light, until you found the darkness.

Sunset tossed the book onto the fire and walked away. She got as far as the door before she stopped and looked back. The fire was beautiful. She loved the way the flames flickered, the way the shadows danced around the room, the way the heat made it feel all the more real.

As she watched the fire, one question danced through her mind. What was left for her? Twilight Sparkle had gotten everything Sunset had ever wanted. Princess Celestia had replaced her and insulted her memory with her new student’s pet name. She wasn’t going back to living a dull life as a human, but there was nothing for her in Equestria.

Nothing, so long as Twilight Sparkle was around. Nothing, unless she carved out a future for herself.

“Nothing except revenge.”

A body formed from within the fire. Two wings of flame spread wide and carried a demonic visage of Sunset Shimmer across the library. “You already know what to do. What happens when you take an Element of Harmony into an alternate world?”

Sunset grinned at the idea. “I think it’s time we find out.”

Without turning away from the fire, Sunset opened her saddle bag. She pulled out the cloak and covered herself with it. The loose fit meant that it still covered her, even as a pony. Sunset’s coat was not going to blend in at night, but with this, she’d be a fire concealed in shadows.

But the fire in front of her? That one would be left open, Sunset’s mark on the Crystal Empire. And just to be sure, Sunset lit her horn. A beam of light connected from her horn to the flame, and her magic became a fire itself. Sunset jerked her head to the side, her magic becoming a whip that ignited everything it touched.

And Sunset made sure it would all burn. By the time she was done, she was surrounded by it. The roar of the flame was surely noticeable to someone by now. Hopefully for their sake, the guards were better at stopping fires than they were at stopping invaders.

Sunset wouldn’t be around to find out. She took one last look at the flames, then she lit her horn and vanished into the darkness.

According to the map, Twilight Sparkle’s room wasn’t terribly far from the room with the mirror. She’d gone a little ways in the other direction but once she knew where she was going, it wasn’t too hard to navigate. Along the way, she heard ponies running towards the library. Nopony came across her, however, and Sunset just smiled at the thought of their panic.

Sunset reached a door and paused to check the map. It seemed the wing of the castle where Twilight slept was just on the other side. Sunset made sure she knew where Twilight’s room was and tucked the map into her saddle bag.

The door was closed and locked, but that hardly mattered. Locks were nothing but a mechanism of moving parts, and magic could move them as well as any key could. With little more than a flash of light, Sunset was able to cautiously push the door open. She saw a royal guard on the other side, but thankfully, he was walking away and didn’t seem to have noticed her.

As quietly as she could, Sunset crept behind him. Another of the Celestial Guard; he must have been assigned to watch over the sleeping princess by Celestia herself. Sunset considered taking him out, but causing a commotion was too big of a risk. She was certain it wouldn’t be any more difficult than the last guard, but she could be in trouble if she woke the ponies in the nearby rooms, especially Twilight Sparkle herself.

While there was no chance that Celestia had found someone more impressive than Sunset, Twilight Sparkle was still Celestia’s personal student and an alicorn. Meanwhile, Sunset herself was out of practice, even if the past few hours had proved she had retained most of her skills. But that was no reason to get overconfident, and Twilight wasn’t alone; her replacement was a threat that could not be disregarded, especially if it wasn’t one-on-one.

So Sunset continued to stay in the shadows behind the guard. She got her chance when he didn’t do more than look toward Twilight Sparkle’s room, content to see nothing out of place, then continued along. Sunset quickly darted past him, going left where he had gone right, and left him none the wiser to her presence.

A momentary pause outside of the bedroom, just to steady her nerves. There were still so many ways this could go wrong. The room could be someone else’s, or Twilight could be awake. But she was sure she’d read the map correctly, and it had to be almost dawn. Unless she was staying up all night, she was surely asleep by now.

Sunset pushed aside her concerns and opened the door. The creaking of the hinges and a sliver of light entering the bedroom from the hall sent chills down her spine – there was no chance she wouldn’t be noticed if Twilight Sparkle was awake. But the light shone just enough to illuminate the sleeping face of a purple pony. The wings were covered, but that face was burned into Sunset’s mind.

Any doubt that Sunset had was gone. She crept forward with a single-minded determination to make Twilight pay, barely noticing the snoring dragon in the way. Thoughts of taking her revenge out on Twilight herself while she slept danced through Sunset’s head, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough. First, she needed to take everything from her. How much would Celestia care about her precious little pet once she was no longer the perfect princess?

The crown was right there in the open, just next to the bed. It was nearly identical to Sunset’s Fall Formal crown, although even in the dark there was no comparing the quality.

In her haste to reclaim what should have been hers to begin with, Sunset bumped it against a lamp. Her chest tightened as she saw the lamp fall, but she caught it just before it crashed into the floor. She quickly checked both of the room’s inhabitants and was relieved to find they were still asleep, then returned the lamp to the table.

Sunset held her cloak aside and levitated the crown safely into her saddle bag. For the final touch, Sunset floated the Fall Formal crown onto the table. Let Twilight play pretend with that for a while.

She turned back to the door, and was careful to walk in front of the small bed that Twilight’s brother was sleeping on. It didn’t matter; he turned and Sunset tripped over his tail.

She watched as the floor came up to meet her, but she couldn’t react in time to do anything about it. She hit the ground with a grunt, and immediately heard a boy’s voice behind her.

“Huh? What?”

She’d have to teleport both herself and the dragon elsewhere and figure out –

“My crown! She's got my crown!”

Or things could go the worst possible way. Giving up all pretense for stealth, Sunset broke into a run. She had a headstart, but Twilight was right behind her. Sunset barely managed to cross the first hallway by the time she heard calls of “Stop! Thief!”

As she ran through the segment of the hall, she heard doors opening. “She’s stolen my crown!” Twilight called to ponies that Sunset didn’t take the time to look at. She had a feeling who they would be, however.

Sunset kept running, even when Twilight Sparkle appeared in front of her. “Stop!” Twilight demanded, as if it was ever going to be that simple.

As she ran, Sunset charged her horn. She ran directly towards Twilight, teleporting herself and her saddlebags at the last possible moment, but letting her cloak continue on. When she reappeared behind Twilight, Sunset allowed herself the small pleasure of looking back to see the idiot tangled up in the cloth before running again.

A look back confirmed what Sunset expected. Twilight Sparkle’s friends had joined her in the pursuit. It was disconcerting to see ponies that so strongly resembled Applejack and her friends, but Sunset couldn’t think about that now. Besides, this was good. Her friends would be there to see her fall.

They were right in front of the mirror room. All Sunset had to do was make it there, and she’d finally be able to get everything she deserved. Sunset was ready to throw a shield spell on the door the moment she was through it, but she never got the chance.

As they approached the door, Sunset looked back in time to see someone collide into her. She fell on the floor with Twilight Sparkle on top of her and the crown flew out of her bag. They both watched in stunned silence as it bounced around the room, but only Sunset was left smiling when it flew right into the mirror.

“What did you do with my crown?”

“Sorry it had to be this way,” Sunset said, then teleported to the mirror, “Princess.” She mocked a salute and grinned as Twilight and her friends all stared in dumbfounded confusion.

When she turned to go back through the mirror, she could see her own demonic form waiting for her. Sunset walked right into her own open arms, and the world around her faded away.

29 – Burned Bridges

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Chapter Twenty-Nine

Burned Bridges

To say that shit hit the fan after Sunset stole the crown would be a massive understatement. Everything had been looking up just the day before, but all at once, everything had gone straight to hell.

To start with, she’d been in Equestria all night. It had been somewhere around midnight when she first went through the portal, then between walking around the Crystal Empire and reading about Twilight Sparkle’s perfect little life, the entire night just slipped away from her. By the time she came back through to the human world, the sun was just starting to rise.

Which shouldn’t have been a problem. Missing a night’s sleep was hardly a concern in the face of everything going on, and she still had three days to figure out what to do with the Element of Magic. But when she came out from the portal, it was nowhere to be seen. Since there had only been seconds in between the crown going through and Sunset going through, her best guess was that inanimate objects travelled through the portal faster since they didn’t require any transformation.

Which was a fascinating idea in and of itself, but it didn’t really console Sunset much in the wake of her crown going missing. As it turned out, Fluttershy had found it and gave it to Principal Celestia, who didn’t even seem to realize that it wasn’t the Fall Formal crown. But since she was only incompetent at her job it wasn’t convenient for Sunset, she decided to not put the recently stolen crown back on display.

Without any way of knowing where it was, the only option left was to win it back. Which should have been easy, considering she was running unopposed. But then Twilight Sparkle just had to follow through the mirror as well, and lo and behold the Princess of Everything Sunset Ever Wanted just couldn’t be kept down.

Sunset had tried, of course. When Twilight announced her plan to run against Sunset, Snips and Snails had filmed her making a fool of herself. Sunset put together a video, which spread through the student body and showed everyone what an idiot her opponent really was. Sunset was positive no one would vote for her, but Twilight Sparkle found a way.

Because no victory of Twilight’s would be complete without tearing apart everything Sunset worked for, she’d managed to reunite the school. Worse, she’d reunited Applejack and her friends, as well as became friends with them herself. It wasn’t enough to have the pony Applejack, Twilight Sparkle needed both.

And since Twilight was just as useless as Cadance, Applejack and her friends were basically pulling her weight. Twilight clearly didn’t know anything about life as a human. Even the dragon that she’d brought along for some reason proved more competent than her; he played the role of a dog perfectly, while Twilight stumbled around on two legs and couldn’t seem to grasp how to use her hands.

The first two days had gone so well. Victory had been practically guaranteed for Sunset on Thursday afternoon, but then Friday at lunch Applejack and her friends somehow turned it around with, of all things, a song. Sunset had watched the scene with glee as it started, thrilled that Twilight clearly couldn’t manage a real plan

But it seemed she underestimated how idiotic the student body was. After only a few minutes of singing and dancing around the room, everyone seemed to change their tone in an instant. Suddenly Twilight Sparkle was not only back in the running for Princess of the Fall Formal, she was looking like the more popular candidate.

Not one to give up so easily, Sunset formed a new plan. If the school cared so much about this stupid dance, then what if their precious little princess was caught messing it up. Sunset told Snips and Snails to cause some damage to the decorations and edited some pictures that incriminated Twilight. That should have settled things, but the universe seemed to have no problems bending over backwards for its favorite pony princess.

The problem was two-fold. One, Flash somehow proved that the pictures were fake – because, of course, Flash Sentry was absolutely fucking smitten with the bitch as well. Why wouldn’t he be? By this point, It was a miracle that Snips and Snails hadn’t switched sides yet.

But that might not be such a good thing. Even worse than Flash’s involvement, when Sunset told Snips and Snails to cause some damage, they apparently thought that meant to absolutely trash everything in sight. Sunset looked at the scene of the dance in horror, wondering how they could possibly think that she wanted the dance canceled after she had put in so much work to win it.

But, of course, the god damn wonder horse came to the rescue again. And this time it wasn’t just Applejack and company helping her out; dozens of people from every clique showed up to get the decorations finished in time. It was sickening, but even Sunset had to admit this was for the best.

“You’re lucky she was able to pull this off,” Sunset told Snips and Snails as they watched in secret from a supply closet. “Next time I ask you to make a mess of things, try to show a little restraint! I need this Formal to go on tonight just as much as she does.”

Students were casting their votes as they left the gym, and Sunset had no doubts as to whom they were voting for. She closed the door as they left so that no one would see them.

“So... what are we gonna do now, Sunset?” Snails asked.

“There’s only one thing left to do. I will get that crown, no matter what.”

“Do you think they’ll still vote for you after that?” Snips asked.

“It doesn’t matter. If they won’t make me their princess, then I’ll just get the crown from the princess herself.”

“Uh, do you really think she’ll give it to you?” Snails asked. “She went through a lot of effort to win it.”

Sunset clenched her fists. “She got carried by those other girls. Twilight Sparkle is useless on her own.”

“I don’t know, Sunset. I think she’s doing –” Snails was cut off by a harsh glare from Sunset. He held his hands in front of him as he corrected himself. “I meant, uh, yeah! She’s the worst!”

Sunset scowled for a moment more before opening the door to check if the coast was clear. Everyone seemed to have left, so she left the door open as she turned to Snips and Snails. “Twilight will give me the crown, because I’m not going to give her a choice. The dance is in a few hours, so go get dressed up or something so you two can blend in, then meet me in the courtyard.”

“What do you want us to do at the dance?” Snips asked.

There wasn’t a whole lot for Twilight to care about in this world. After all, she’d only spent a few days in it. But she’d stupidly brought the dragon, and that could give Sunset some leverage. “When Twilight’s getting crowned, you two are going to steal her dog. Make sure she sees you and bring him to the courtyard.”

Snips and Snails exchanged uncertain looks. “Don’t you think that’s going a little too far?” Snips asked.

“Oh, we won’t hurt him. Twilight is going to hand over the crown, so there won’t be any need for that.”

“If so say so, Sunset…” Snips said.

“Trust me, I know her type. She doesn’t have it in her to make hard decision. Now go get yourselves ready.”

The two of them usually ran off in a hurry to follow her orders, but this time, they left with some reluctance. Still, they left, and Sunset knew she had to make the most of this time. Truthfully, she didn’t trust something so important to the two of them, so she knew she’d have to find something better to threaten Twilight with.

There was no telling what would possibly be helpful, but unless Twilight cared deeply about sports equipment, Sunset wasn’t likely to find anything in the gym’s supply closet. She took a look around anyway, mostly because she didn’t know what else to do.

When nothing of interest popped out, Sunset left the closet. The gym was decorated and ready for the Formal, but it was empty. There was nothing to do in the gym either, so Sunset left that as well. She had no idea where to go, but she knew that there was no point in staying where she was.

Her thoughts on what to do next were derailed as soon as she walked out of the double doors. Someone was waiting for her out in the hallway, and aside from Twilight Sparkle herself, it was probably the last person Sunset wanted to talk with.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Applejack said. “Can we talk for a second?”

Sunset pursed her lips and didn’t look at her. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”

Applejack sighed. “Look, I get that you’re still mad about me not talkin’ with ya a few weeks ago, but we do have something we need to talk about.”

Sunset started walking down the hall with no particular destination in mind, and Applejack followed. She debated just refusing to answer, but she never could manage to keep her mouth shut when Applejack was around. “No, we really don’t. I’m not stupid, I know it’s over. Twilight won and I lost.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that part.” Even now, Applejack didn’t sound like she was gloating. She had every right to, but she didn’t. There was something else in her voice, though, and Sunset couldn’t place exactly what it was. “Which is why I’m not here to talk about the dance. I’m here to talk about you.”

“There’s nothing to talk about there either.” Sunset knew she should just ditch Applejack as soon as possible, but it seemed that even now, she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of her when she wanted to talk. “How’d you find me anyway?”

“Had a hunch you’d stick around to see what happened. Then I saw Snips and Snails slinking around, and I knew you wouldn’t be far.”

Why did she even bother with them? Those two couldn’t even leave the gym without drawing attention. “Yeah, well, congratulations on figuring it out. But I’m not gonna trash the gym again or anything, so you can run along to your precious little friends. I’m sure they’re waiting for you.”

“Nah, I told them I’d catch up with them. They’re all off gettin’ gussied up for the dance. Don’t reckon they’ll miss me none, at least not for a while.”

Sunset sighed and turned to face Applejack for the first time. That same thing that Sunset had noticed in Applejack’s voice showed on her face, and Sunset realized it was resolve. It seemed that Applejack had come to talk about something serious, and she wasn’t liable to leave until she’d said whatever was on her mind. “What do you want?”

Applejack inhaled and looked off to the side. She may be resolved to talk about whatever it was, but she clearly didn’t know how to talk about it. “I, uh, talked to Twilight about somethin’ mighty interestin’ earlier.”

“Oh yeah? What, you catch on that she’s not even a student here? The fact that she’s even allowed to run is a joke.”

“Well, that was part of it, kinda…” Applejack nervously adjusted her hat. “The thing is, well, she told us about where she’s from.”

That stupid little bitch. It wasn’t bad enough that she was insufferable, she had to go and keep proving that she got everything Sunset had ever wanted without so much as the smallest trace of worth. What had she seen in the past couple days that so much as hinted that this was anything but a god awful idea? All Sunset could do was feign ignorance and hope she wasn’t already incriminated. “And I care because…?”

“You already know, don’t you? About the pony world?”

Sunset forced a laugh as she looked around to make sure they were alone. “I gotta tell you, that’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Sunset…” Applejack placed a hand on Sunset’s shoulder, and she knew it was over.

Sunset looked down at the floor and resigned herself to whatever was coming. “So what’d she tell you?”

“About you? Nothing. She didn’t have to.” Applejack let go of Sunset and placed her hands on her hips. “I got to wonderin’ if you’d put up such a fight if ya knew how important this crown was to her, and that got me to wonderin’ why you wanted it so much in the first place.”

“So? I’ve been collecting crowns for the past year.”

Applejack nodded. “Right, that’s what I thought at first too. But I couldn’t help but think there was somethin’ more. It took a little while, but then it hit me. When we were little, you came to my farm to see a pony.”

No one had brought up that day in years, and Sunset would’ve been happier if no one ever brought it up again. True, it would settle into her thoughts regularly, but that didn’t mean she had to talk about it too.

“That was a long time ago, but I think I remember you insisting that ponies and horses were different. And I definitely know ya don’t have any family in this world. In fact, I remember you sayin’ ya didn’t know if your parents were alive or not, which would make a lot of sense if they aren’t in this world. Now, I may just be one of those country folk that aren’t very bright, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the two of you might come from the same place.”

Sunset hadn’t even noticed balling her hands into fists, or clenching her teeth, or tensing her muscles. At some point, every part of Sunset’s body had gone rigid, and it was only when Applejack stopped talking that she noticed it.

Sunset closed her eyes and forced a deep breath. When she opened them again, she looked directly into Applejack’s. “Equestria,” she said as calmly as she could manage. “The place Twilight and I come from is called Equestria.”

“Equestria.” Applejack nodded, and Sunset knew that she believed her. For the first time in her life, someone believed her about Equestria, and it was Applejack. “Now, here’s the part that really worries me, Sunset. Back in middle school ya told me that you’re afraid of horses, as well as some other stuff that makes me wonder about you.”

Sunset grinned, if only to hide whatever other emotions might work their way into her face. “I did say you didn’t really understand me.”

“Yeah, yeah ya did.” Applejack scratched the back of her head. She looked away for a moment, then looked back with concern in her eyes. “Sunset… have you been stuck here this whole time?”

Sunset already couldn’t manage to keep up her uncaring grin, so she folded her arms and looked away. “Why do you even care?”

Applejack placed a hand on her forehead. “Jesus, I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like. And you’ve been here since way back when we were five?”

“Seventeen.” Sunset wasn’t sure why she was telling Applejack anything. She didn’t like talking about herself or about Equestria, but she couldn’t stop now that they were on the subject. “I was seventeen when I went through the portal. It made me a kid again, I don’t really understand it.”

“Really? So then wait, how old are you?”

Sunset hung her head and laughed. She hated thinking of that question because the answer was so complicated. “Seventeen? Twenty-nine? To tell you the truth, I just don’t fucking know anymore. It all kinda blurs together, especially since it fucked with my brain chemistry too. It’s pretty hard to feel like an adult when you have the body and mind of a child, no matter how many years you’ve been alive.”

“And ya haven’t told anyone about any of this, have you?” Applejack asked. It was phrased as a question, although she clearly already knew the answer.

“I tried once. Didn’t work out for me.”

Applejack reached her hand out towards Sunset. “Sunset, I –”

“Stop.” Sunset stepped away before Applejack could touch her. “This is just like when you found out I lived at an orphanage. You want to pretend like now that you understand me, you can just come into my life and make things better. Well, you don’t understand me, Applejack. And you have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand.” Applejack shook her head. “But you’re wrong about me thinkin’ I can make things better. I know I can’t, and I know that what ya been through ain’t an excuse for what ya done. Because you’ve been horrible to everyone at this school, especially me and my friends. And to tell the truth? I’m still pretty damn pissed off about all that.”

“So then why are you here? What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know. I guess I want you to realize that what happened is in the past. Yeah, it was awful and ya probably didn’t deserve it, but there’s nothing ya can do about that now. What you can do is stop taking it out on people that had nothing to do with it! You could at least stop messin’ with Twilight since you know that crown is really hers.”

Sunset felt her muscles tensing up again. “Oh, I’m sure she spun quite the story about that! She probably told you all about the great things she’s done, and how she’s Princess Celestia’s favorite, and that everypony just loves her so much!”

Applejack took a moment to answer. “No, uh, she didn’t mention any of that. Although I gotta say, you’re not really making your case sound any better here.”

Sunset scoffed. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Twilight won, so this whole thing is over.”

“Don’t be like that. Look, I meant what I said about being angry at all the stuff ya done, but I am tryin’ to understand. So talk to me. Tell me your side of the story.”

“No. This conversation is over.” Sunset turned away, but cast one last look over her shoulder. “And you were too late, anyway.”

Applejack didn’t try to follow Sunset as she walked away. She still had no idea where she was going, but she didn’t care anymore. She just needed to get away.

So Applejack knew about Equestria. So what. In only a few more hours, Sunset was going to have the crown, then none of this would matter anymore. Not this world, not this school, and definitely not Applejack.

Just a few more hours. Everything would be over soon. Even if Snips and Snails failed, Sunset would find a way. Twilight had to return through the portal eventually, Sunset could stake it out. She’d figure out a way to get the crown, she had to. The crown was the only thing that could fix things. There was no other way.

“And what will you do when you’re back in Equestria?” Sunset’s voice asked her.

Sunset looked around, but she was alone. With no mirror to appear in, the demon could only follow her as a voice. “I… I’ll figure it out.”

Her voice spoke from within and around her, both a part of her and apart from her. “Do you think Celestia is just going to welcome you back, just like that? Face it, she likes Twilight better than she ever liked you. Why else would she share the secret to becoming an alicorn with her when you were the one who deserved it?”

“I know, but… She’ll understand, she has to. Somehow, I’ll…”

“You’ll never be her faithful student.” The voice was right behind Sunset, although she didn’t dare turn around to see. “But it’s okay. We don’t need her anymore anyway. Just get the crown, and we won’t need her anymore.”

“No.” Sunset bowed her head. “I’m not going to do anything to hurt Celestia.”

“Fine. Have it your way for now. But, Princess? Look behind you.”

Sunset was terrified of what she’d see, but she turned around. She couldn’t help it, she had to know what would be there. But there was no demon, or anything else to scare her. Just one red flower, poking up through the floor.

There was no need to examine it, but she did anyway. Just as she thought, it was a lycoris. Sunset looked around until she saw another. She knew how this worked by now; the flowers formed a trail for her to follow.

And Sunset did follow them. She never liked what she found at the end, but she followed every time.

The trail was hard to follow at first. There would be one flower, and then Sunset would have to look for the next once she reached it. But as she kept going, the flowers grew in number. A dotted path began to form, then a steady stream of red. They grew in the floor and on the walls, leading her through the school.

She knew she was nearing her destination when she heard the sound. It also started small, but grew louder the closer she got. It was a pulsating metallic sound. Like something was inside one of the lockers. Like something was trying to break through.

Before Sunset even had her locker in her sight she knew what it was. A box was locked away inside, one that Sunset had always done her best to ignore. It was trying to break through.

Sunset reached her hand down as she walked, feeling the soft flowers brush against her palm as she approached her locker. The vibration was strong enough that she could see the door rattling. She calmly dialed the combination on the padlock and pulled it off.

She brushed the blood-red flower petals off the box and opened it. There was only one thing inside: a heavy brown book with a red and yellow sun on the cover. Leaving it at school had been supposed to make it easier to ignore, for all the good that had done her.

Once Sunset pulled it out, It vibrated one more time in her hands, and then stopped. Everything was deathly still as Sunset stared at the book, trying to decide if she should trust it. It had vibrated so many times before, but there hadn’t ever been a new message in over eleven years. Still, she opened it every time.

Sunset placed her hand on the cover, but stopped short of opening it. “No.” She tossed the book back into the locker, causing a loud thud in the otherwise quiet hallway. “You had your chance. For years, you had your chance. But now? Now you’re too late.”

Sunset closed the locker and walked away. She heard the sound of her own laughter, from both within and around her. And Sunset smiled along with it. Her only regret was that Princess Celestia couldn’t see her now.

30 – Reflections

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Chapter Thirty

Reflections

The throne room in Canterlot Castle had seen many things throughout the ages. It had been damaged in attacks made against the city, and it had been repaired in the aftermath. It had been decorated for formal events and meetings with foreign representatives, which at times had gone perfectly, and at others had been disastrous. It had been a daily meeting room for ponies to bring forth their concerns to their princess, their voices echoing throughout the room until it was hard to tell who was speaking.

This was not one of those days. The room was mostly dark, with much of the light being moonlight filtering in through the large stained glass windows. A few candles had also been brought into the room so that it could be lit through the night without the need for the large chandelier.

It was also very quiet. The only sounds echoing through the room were hoofsteps as its only occupant paced around. She would occasionally sigh or mutter to herself, but those sounds were too quiet to carry. Once she returned to her seat, the room would be completely silent once more, but for now, she was stretching her legs.

But even if the room around her was quiet, the thoughts that danced through Celestia’s mind could not have been louder. The sound of her hooves on the marble floor didn’t register over the memory of the day before.

The sound of the door opening did, but not enough to fully pull her from her thoughts. It wasn’t until a stallion spoke that Celestia turned away from the floor.

“I beg your pardon for the intrusion, Your Highness.”

Celestia stared at him for a moment while blinking a few times. Stout Shield, the Captain of the Celestial Guard, was bowing before her. Celestia’s voice sounded dazed when she answered. “Stout Shield? Is everything okay?”

The pegasus rose from his bow. “Everything is peaceful within the city, Princess.”

Celestia turned away, but her voice returned to normal as she managed to shake herself free from the trappings of her mind. “Good. I was concerned; it is not often I see you awake during the night.”

Stout Shield took a moment to answer, and there was hesitation in his voice. “It’s morning, Princess. Your subjects are wondering why the sun has not risen.”

“Morning?” Celestia’s head popped back up and she looked absent-mindedly towards a window. “Yes, of course. It is time for me to raise the sun.”

Stout Shield moved to one side of the walkway so that she could pass. Celestia wondered if that movement was as automatic as her turning to the window had been. She didn’t immediately leave the room. “Err, what time is it now, exactly?”

“Nine o’clock, Princess.”

Celestia winced. She’d missed sunrise by hours. Her little ponies had to be in a panic because of her; just another mistake to add to the list. “Thank you, Stout Shield.”

Although she knew she should leave, Celestia turned her attention elsewhere first. Near the throne, there was a large mirror. Celestia stared at it while trying to make up her mind.

But there was no choice, not really. Celestia was the Princess of the Sun, and yet the sun was hours late to rise. Equestria could not start its day without its sun.

Celestia turned back to Stout Shield. “Will you wait here while I go? I won’t be long.”

He looked perplexed, and for a moment, Celestia thought he might decline. “Of course, Princess. Anything you require.”

Of course. The guard was not accustomed to her asking for requests, so he was taken by surprise that she hadn’t simply ordered him to stand watch. That was all. There was no point in overthinking things, and she had work to do.

She left the throne room and walked through the castle as quickly as she could. Ponies stopped to watch her as she went, no doubt confused by her tardiness. Nopony alive could remember when she had last needed somepony to remind her to raise the sun. That had been nearly one thousand years ago.

Celestia did not fly very often. Under better circumstances, she did find flying to be quite enjoyable, but she seldom got the chance. Her days were spent in castle walls, visiting her school, or attending events within the city, none of which usually gave her the chance to take flight.

So it was odd for her to step onto a balcony and spread her wings, but that would make for an easy shortcut to the balcony of her room. She did not find the flight enjoyable, however. She scarcely noticed it at all.

From her balcony, Celestia could see all of Canterlot, as well as much of the land beyond it. It was a breathtaking sight, but Celestia paid it no mind. She looked instead toward the sky, focusing first on the moon. Her horn glowed gold, and the moon descended more rapidly than it ought to have.

Some ponies claimed that Celestia’s sunrises would change depending on her mood. Several of the castle staff would even change all their interactions with her depending on how they interpreted the sunrise. It was hard to tell what they might think of this one, for the sun rose into the sky in almost an instant; had a pony looked away at the right moment, the sky would have gone from midnight to morning without their realizing.

Celestia did not take much time to contemplate this now, as she was only interested in raising the sun because Equestria needed it to start the day. Still, she knew she’d likely be thinking about it in the coming hours. There was little else for her to do, as she’d taken the chance the day before to cancel all her appointments for the day. She still hoped that it would be a day off spent in celebration, even after the sleepless night before.

Just as she had come, Celestia flew off her balcony. She entered the castle proper again and retraced her steps to the throne room. Although she knew it was foolish, she still found herself hopeful that everything would be fixed when she was through the door.

But it wasn’t. The only pony waiting for her within the throne room was Stout Shield, who stood at attention as she entered.

Celestia sighed and walked past him. “Thank you, Stout Shield. You may go about your duties now.”

“Yes, Princess.”

With nothing else to do, Celestia walked over to a long table against a wall. It was a place for ponies to rest as they waited for their chance to meet with their princess, but nopony aside from Celestia would be using it today.

As Celestia took a seat, Stout Shield spoke from behind her. “Your Highness, if I may… I could stand watch in the throne room, if you wish.”

Celestia hadn’t realized he was still there. She looked back at him and smiled. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary.”

Stout Shield frowned and took a step forward. “Princess, please. You have been awake all night, and there is no need for you to wait personally. I know I failed yesterday, but I will not fail you again.”

It took a moment for Celestia to realize why he thought he had failed her the day before. “As I told you yesterday, there was nothing you could have done. I would like to be the one waiting here for my own reasons.”

Stout Shield seemed to consider her words, then nodded. “Understood. But, Princess? You did the right thing. Equestria will be better off without Suns–”

“You have been dismissed,” Celestia said sharply.

Stout Shield took a step back and stared open-mouthed at Celestia. The edge in her voice had not been intended, nor was the glare she fixed on him. He made a quick bow. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I spoke out of turn.”

After a moment of pointed silence, Stout Shield left the room. Celestia watched until the door was closed behind him, then hung her head.

Her crown fell onto the table, and Celestia left it where it lay. She didn’t feel very much like a princess today. She rose to her hooves and walked across the room.

Stout Shield didn’t understand. Nopony would. They saw what was on the surface, and Celestia was well aware of how that must look. But what nopony ever realized was that it was all Celestia’s fault.

She approached the mirror, but didn’t look directly into it. Instead she traced a hoof around its edges, focusing on the gemstones that were embedded into its border. They weren’t of particular interest to her, but there was only one thing within the mirror that was, and Celestia knew it was foolish to hope that she’d come back.

“Sunset Shimmer… I’m so very sorry.” Celestia finally looked into the mirror, and saw nothing more than what she’d expected. She saw herself standing in front of it; she didn’t have her crown, but she otherwise looked just as she always did. She saw a pony that was regarded as radiant by many, but who could never live up to those expectations.

She saw a pony who was beloved by many, but who had always been cold and detached from those she cared about. A pony who thought too seldom about how those close to her might feel, who had always assumed that as long as everything was done by the book, then everything would work out in the end.

She saw a pony who had made colossal mistakes. A pony who had taken it unto herself to be the sole guardian and guiding light in one wonderful little filly’s life, even though she had neither the time nor the ability to ever be more than a teacher. She saw a pony who had refused to question herself, refused to see that she may have been wrong at times.

And now she saw somepony who was alone again. It was just like when she had failed Luna, and allowed her own sister to fall into darkness and suffering. How many times would she fail? However many times the sun would rise.

Equestria could not start the day without its sun, but now it seemed that Celestia would have to.

Celestia tore her eyes away from the mirror. There were two more days before the portal closed, she reminded herself. Two more days for Sunset to come home to her.

With nothing else to do, Celestia returned to the desk. A stack of paper sat on top of it – work Celestia could do to keep herself busy as she waited. She gave it the smallest of glances before pushing it aside.

Instead, she pulled out a blank piece of paper and a quill. She took a deep breath and watched it, as if expecting something to happen. She stared until the silence became unbearable, then placed her quill to the page. She imagined there was somepony else beside her to read the letter she was about to write, and managed to smile, just a little.

‘Dear Sunset Shimmer…’


‘Easier’ was a strange word. On the surface, it was so simple. If something was easier then it was less difficult.

But there were many ways that simple concept could work in practice. Sometimes things were easier to live with because they hurt less. The sting of an argument often faded with time, and ponies could move on with little more than an unpleasant memory of bad events.

Sometimes that wasn’t an option. But then things could grow easier as a pony thought about the painful experience less often. Ponies would find other ways to occupy their time, and the day would come when the memory simply stopped popping up.

But as Celestia stared into the mirror and reflected on the past, it was clear that she would not be afforded either luxury. There were things that filled her time, even things she enjoyed – she still found pleasure in spending time with Cadance or meeting with old friends. But it had been thirty moons since Sunset Shimmer had left, over two years that Celestia had been without her, and the pain had never gone away.

The throne room door opened and Celestia turned and smiled, because things had gotten easier. Celestia was still plagued by intrusive thoughts and nightmares every day, and there was no sign of that stopping. But she was also getting used to that, just as she had needed to get used to Luna’s absence. It was easier simply because Celestia had learned to continue with her life in spite of the pain.

A young filly ran ahead of the guard that was chaperoning her. “Good afternoon, Princess!”

Twilight Sparkle reminded Celestia of Sunset Shimmer in so many ways. She was the only filly that could rival Sunset’s appetite for learning, and Celestia was sure that if she was shown the right path, Twilight would excel at anything she set her mind on.

But she had to be shown the right path. Celestia knew that she might never get the chance to make up for her faults in raising Sunset. For years, she had taught her gifted student to excel, praised and rewarded her for every academic achievement, and assumed that was all that was needed. And what had Celestia taught her of other virtues? When had Celestia shown Sunset that there was any reason to care about anything other than being ‘gifted’?

“Greetings, my faithful student. And how are you doing today?”

If Celestia could not make amends for the mistakes she had made in raising Sunset, then the best thing she could do would be to learn from her mistake. She would do whatever she could to teach Twilight of faithfulness, compassion, fairness, and everything else that she never managed to teach Sunset. Not through dull lectures, but through her actions whenever possible.

There were limited lessons she could teach on a day like this one, however. Celestia would not leave the throne room for the next few days, not until the portal closed again. But since Twilight was so young, she still did most of her learning at the school, meaning there needn’t be more to their lesson than a simple conversation.

They talked about things that Twilight was learning, about her teacher, and most importantly, they talked about the other students in Twilight’s class. Celestia was pleased to hear Twilight had a group of fillies that she was friends with, although she couldn’t help but feel that Twilight seemed to still be prioritizing her lessons over her friends.

But there was definitely something more than her desire to learn. Twilight did have a lot of compassion for others, and it showed when she talked about her family. It seemed that she had an easier time accepting them since they were already part of her world, whereas her school friends could scarcely keep up. Celestia made a mental note to add learning to compromise to Twilight’s lessons.

Things did get easier, in their own way. Celestia had learned to live alongside the pain that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And hearts were curious things; no matter how full they seemed to be, they could always fit more. The joy she felt because of Twilight didn’t seem to push away the sorrow of losing Sunset, but it did give her something to look forward to again.

But the lesson couldn’t last forever. A member of the guard came to escort Twilight back to her family, and Celestia was left to her own devices once more. She took a seat at the table and looked down at the book she’d been contemplating for years.

It had taken some time for Celestia to go through Sunset’s room. The memories held within were painful to recount, and she hadn’t thought there was anything to be gained from it. But when she eventually did, she was surprised to see a particular book was nowhere to be found.

Perhaps she had gotten rid of it, a sign of teenage rebellion at her failed mentor. Perhaps it had been misplaced, forgotten in a library and buried with some other books where nopony would notice. Perhaps it had been recognized by somepony as a magical artifact and stolen from the abandoned room before Celestia had ever set hoof in it.

Or perhaps it was sitting by its owner, a world away from where Celestia stared at its twin. She opened the journal that had her cutie mark on the cover, and turned to the last page with any writing on, just as she had done countless times before.

I was thinking about that mirror, and I still can’t figure it out.

Sunset, I have told you already, you’ll learn about the mirror in due time.

The final messages that were sent between the two journals. Celestia had read them over and over, wondering why she hadn’t tried to explain the mirror better, how she had let the situation get as far as their argument in the library, why she had allowed anger to bring her to say such awful things.

Celestia raised a quill to the page, but stopped short of writing anything, just as she had done countless times before. If Sunset had her journal, then she had chosen not to write anything in the years she had been away. She might finally have found what she wanted, and she may no longer need a failed mentor to find new ways to let her down.

If Sunset was happy in her new home, then any lingering misery Celestia may feel was unimportant. And maybe, after enough time had passed for Sunset to forgive the foolishness of an old mare, she may someday decide to use her journal to write to Celestia again.

Celestia put the quill away. It was a nice thought, and she didn’t want to do anything to ruin it.


It was a bit ironic that one of the faults in herself that Celestia was aware of was her tendency to not notice her own faults until it was too late. Once Sunset had left, Celestia had been able to see how her actions had contributed to that, not only in the argument but for years before it. And as more years passed, she began questioning if she had been continuously failing her student for the past sixty moons.

It could be truthfully said that Celestia was not quick to take action. Millennia spent ruling Equestria had taught her the virtue of patience and avoiding rash decisions. But at times, action needed to be taken, and Celestia was coming to realize that she had let that time pass her by twice so far.

Well, once the portal opened again, Celestia was ready for it. Rather than mope around her throne room in the vain hope that Sunset Shimmer would come home this time, she had gone through it herself.

It was astounding. The world on the other side seemed to be as far removed from Equestria as it could be. The biggest change was to her own form – Celestia wasn’t sure what kind of creature she was, but she was not a pony. Most of the first day was wasted acclimating to a bipedal form.

“Excuse me, do you know anyone by the name Sunset Shimmer?” Celestia asked a passerby at random.

“Can’t say that I do, sorry.”

Celestia sighed. It was the same reaction she’d been getting over and over. “Alright, thank you.”

She contemplated her next move, but before she could do anything, Stout Shield walked up to her. Celestia had wanted to bring a platoon of guards to help with the search, but knew better than to risk upsetting the balance of another world, especially since she had no reason to suspect Sunset was in any danger. In the end, she had brought only Stout Shield under strict orders to keep a low profile.

“Were you able to find anything?” Celestia asked.

“I’ve learned some things about this world, but nothing of Sunset.” He looked up into the sky, and Celestia knew what was coming next. “I think it would be best for us to return to the portal.”

“But we haven’t found her yet,” Celestia said desperately. “She has to be here somewhere, I won’t give up on her!”

“If we stay much longer, we’ll be stuck here.”

Celestia glanced up at the moon. Within an hour, it would reach its peak and the portal would close, while they still needed to walk back. “You go ahead. I’ll look around a little bit more and follow behind you.”

Stout Shield shook his head. “I am sorry, Princess, but I have a duty to Equestria to bring you back. You can take whatever actions you want afterwards, but I will not leave Equestria without its princess.”

Celestia turned to him and narrowed her eyes. “What are you implying?”

He held her gaze for a moment, then folded. “Celestia, please… I know you want to find proof that she’s okay, but be reasonable.”

Celestia was caught off guard by his informal request, which forced her to reflect on his words. There was no denying that he had a point.

“We have been searching for three days,” he continued. “And yet we don’t have a single lead. Today I managed to find out more about the city we’re in, and we’ve barely covered a small fraction of it. We don’t know if she’s still within this city, and we have no way of knowing how large this world is. An organized search in Canterlot could take longer, and here we have nothing.”

“So I just give up on her!?” Celestia threw her arms out in frustration. “She’s somewhere in this world, and I need to find her!”

“Who are you doing this for, her or you?” Stout Shield gestured around them. “While we’ve been in this world, no one has tried to harm us in any way. The inhabitants here seem peaceful, and we’re clearly in an organized society. Sunset Shimmer is a resourceful mare who has no doubt managed to fit in to the world around her. The only thing you’re after is your own peace of mind.”

Celestia closed her eyes and was silent for a moment. Her voice was quiet when she spoke. “Is that really so awful?”

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Look, I understand that this is hard. But you have millions of ponies that need you back home, including Twilight Sparkle and Cadance. In thirty moons the portal will be open again, and now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can organize a proper search party next time. But right now, we need to get home.”

There was no denying that he was right, but it was difficult to take the first steps back towards the portal. It was at least made slightly easier by the company, however. “Thank you, Stout Shield. I’m glad I brought you with me.”

“Of course, Princess. And I’m sorry you weren’t able to get your closure.”

Celestia took one more look around. The world they were in didn’t seem dangerous, and Sunset was very resourceful. “It might’ve helped more than you think.”


It had been seven years since Celestia had last seen Sunset Shimmer. She was back at the mirror once more, staring at her reflection. The portal had been open for over two days, and she hadn’t ordered a search party. In one more day, the portal would be closed again, and she’d miss out on yet another chance to bring Sunset Shimmer home.

The throne room door opened, and the sound of hoofsteps echoed in the otherwise quiet room. Celestia did not have to look back to see whom they belonged to.

“No sign of her?” Stout Shield asked.

“No.” Celestia turned away from the mirror to look at him. The past seven years had seen him growing older, and Celestia had barely noticed. It was only when his official resignation had been brought to her that she realized how much time had been passing while she was preoccupied. “How did everything go?”

Stout Shield smirked. “Everything went off without a hitch. Everyone recognizes that Shining Armor is the right choice for my replacement, and he’s doing a great job so far.”

Shining Armor was Twilight Sparkle’s brother, Cadance’s coltfriend, and would soon be the Captain of the Celestial Guard. Celestia had met him several times due to all of those circumstances, and yet, she hardly knew anything about him. He was yet more proof that while seven years may not be very long to somepony like Celestia, it was a long time for any of her little ponies.

“You’re sure he’s not too young?”

Stout Shield chuckled. “If he was getting the job right now? Yeah, probably. But I’ll still be here for another year or so, and I’ll make sure he’s up to snuff when the time comes.”

“Yes, of course. I have every confidence in you.”

Celestia turned back to the mirror. Seven years was a long time for any of her little ponies, including Sunset Shimmer.

Stout Shield’s reflection appeared next to Celestia’s, and his voice was much more reserved when he spoke. “There’s still tonight and tomorrow left. It’s a bit last minute, but I could stage that search party.”

Celestia searched her reflection for something, some sign of what to do. She saw nothing, but it didn’t matter. She had already made up her mind. “No, I don’t think there will be a need for that.”

Stout Shield nodded. “As you wish, Princess.”

These past seven years had been spent with too much reflection, so finally, she turned away from the mirror. “It’s time for me to lower the sun. After that, I shall return to my room for rest.”

Stout Shield’s ears perked up. He followed her as she walked away. “Would you like me to stand watch by the mirror tonight?”

Celestia showed him a smile. “I thank you, but no. In fact, I would like for you to arrange for it to be moved. Somewhere safe, but out of the way.”

It seemed Stout Shield understood exactly what she meant. “Of course. I believe one of the rooms on the third floor of the east wing would be well suited.”

The area he mentioned was deep in the castle, meaning it was unlikely to be stumbled upon by ponies passing through. “That sounds perfect.”

They reached the door of the throne room, and Celestia stopped. She hung her head and allowed for one more moment of lingering doubt. “Do you… think Sunset could be happy in that world?”

Stout Shield smiled warmly. “Yes, I do.”

Celestia smiled as well. “Thank you.”

Seven years brought many changes. Stout Shield was growing older, too old to be bothered to run the entire Celestial Guard. But he was looking forward to a comparatively easier job as part of Celestia’s personal guard, and to his retirement after that. He talked of seeing the lands beyond Equestria, determined to make his life an adventure to the end.

After seven years, Twilight Sparkle was no longer a little filly. At sixteen, she was growing into a young mare, and Celestia was exceedingly proud of her faithful student. She still struggled with friendship, but she had many years yet to grow.

Seven years ago, Cadance was still shadowing Celestia, learning how to be a princess before she had any responsibilities of her own. Now, she had been crowned as the Princess of Love, and was beginning to take on an active role in Equestria’s leadership. Meanwhile, her coltfriend had advanced through the ranks of the Celestial Guard rapidly, and was soon to be its next captain. There was already talk of wedding bells in their future.

Even somepony like Celestia could feel the effect seven years had on her. Things got easier. She knew Sunset’s departure would always weigh heavily on her, but these days, she thought about that less. The nightmares had subsided, and the painful flashbacks were less frequent.

In their place, she thought more about the good times she had shared with Sunset Shimmer. The day Sunset got her cutie mark, and Celestia was perhaps more happy than she should be to see it was a sun. The day she had been able to separate Sunset from her parents, and the look on her face when she was invited to live in the castle. The time Sunset had tried her hoof at knitting, just to make Celestia a scarf for Hearth’s Warming.

Celestia stepped out onto the balcony of her room and looked out at the sun. Her horn glowed gold and she set it on a slow descent. Just before it could disappear beyond the horizon, she allowed it to linger for just a few moments longer, so that the sky would burn amber, red, and yellow.

Seven years brought about a lot of change for everypony. Perhaps it was enough time for Sunset to finally find happiness.

“Good night, my gifted student.”


Something getting easier was not the same as it being easy. In the years that followed the mirror being put away, Celestia found herself thinking less and less about the loss of her student, but the pain remained whenever she did find herself thinking of it.

Knowing that the portal was open again certainly brought those memories coming back. Although Celestia did resist the urge to spend the night in front of the mirror, she still found herself unable to get anything done. She wound up cancelling her appointments, rescheduling even her lessons with Twilight.

By the time it occurred to her that lying alone in bed for three days wasn’t quite so relaxing as she had hoped, she had already made the arrangements. But while it would be far better to find something productive to fill her time, Celestia couldn’t find the willpower to do it. Wasting another day was miserable, but it was also much easier.

There were a number of distractions available to her. Books that she’d been meaning to catch up on or reports that needed her attention, but she found herself picking them up, skimming a page, and setting them back down. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to work, but thoughts jumbled in her head when she tried to focus, and she would need to reread the same passage over and over before understanding it.

It came as a relief when somepony knocked on the door. Since she had no appointments for the day, the chance was high that it was related to some sort of urgent problem that she’d need to sort through, and still, it was a relief.

“Come in,” Celestia called as she rolled over into a sitting position.

The door opened to reveal a young mare. A purple unicorn, and not somepony Celestia would have expected. “Good morning, Princess. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“No, not at all.” Celestia smiled at both her guest and the unexpected turn of events. “It’s a pleasure to see you, my faithful student. Please, come in.”

Twilight levitated in a covered mug as she entered the room. “I brought some soup to help you feel better. Don’t worry, Spike’s the one who made it, so it’s perfectly safe to eat.”

That was a relief to hear; her student excelled at a great many things, but cooking was not one of them. “Thank you, Twilight. That’s very thoughtful of you.” Celestia took the mug in her own magic and levitated it over. Pulling off the lid let out an aroma that Celestia was sure would make her feel better all by itself if she were truly ill.

“It’s got carrots for the beta-carotene, onions because the phytochemicals boost vitamin C, sweet potatoes for vitamin D…”

Celestia smiled along as Twilight listed what was in the soup and exactly why it was in the soup. She sipped it through Twilight’s explanation and patiently waited until she was done before speaking. “I see you put quite a lot of thought into this. And just as important, it’s very tasty.”

Twilight beamed at the praise. “I just hope it’s able to help. Are you feeling any better than yesterday?”

Any better? Not likely until the portal was closed again, and Celestia could resign herself to the fact another thirty moons had come and gone. “I think the rest is helping. I’m certain I’ll be back on my hooves in a matter of days.”

“That’s a relief to hear. I didn’t even think you could get sick.”

Celestia chuckled. “I am perhaps more resistant to sickness than most ponies, but I am only a pony, Twilight.”

Twilight looked off to the side in embarrassment. “Right, of course.”

“I just hope my absence isn’t causing too much trouble for everypony. Rescheduling appointments is always a hassle for everypony involved…”

“I’m sure no one sees it that way.” Twilight smiled. “I talked to Raven on the way in, and she said that ponies have been sending their well wishes.”

Although that was certainly true, Celestia suspected many of them were only doing so to be polite. “That is good to hear.”

“I actually met a mare looking for you yesterday.”

“A mare?” Against her better judgement, Celestia felt her heart start racing.

“Uh huh. She was wandering around the castle when I found her, I guess she wasn’t very familiar with it. But as soon as I told her you were sick, she changed her mind about interrupting you.”

“She wasn’t…” Celestia shook her head. Not only would Sunset Shimmer have known her way around the castle, if she had returned with the intent of seeing Celestia, she definitely wouldn’t be so easily dissuaded. This had gone on too long, and Celestia really needed to stop tormenting herself with false hope. “Never mind. I’m sure she’ll be back once I’m accepting visitors again.”

“Oh!” Concern flashed across Twilight’s face. “I’m sorry, you’re supposed to be resting.”

Celestia chuckled. “I don’t think I’m quite so sick that a chat with my student is going to make anything worse. It’s nice to have some company.”

“Then would you like me to stay for a while?”

Twilight’s optimistic expression warmed Celestia’s heart and chased away some of the bad feelings. “I think that sounds like a wonderful idea.”

Nine years had gone by since Sunset Shimmer had left Equestria, and it still hurt to think about. But things did get easier, day by day. Sometimes it was hard to keep from dwelling on the past, but at the end of the day, all there was to do was keep pushing forward.

With no other obligations, Celestia was able to talk with her pupil for hours. But they didn’t discuss magic or any other lessons; they simply talked. They talked about Spike, and what it was like raising a baby dragon. They talked about the apartment that Twilight and Spike had moved into recently. They talked about books, plays, music, and art, both classic and contemporary.

There were so many things in the world to talk about, and there was no need for their relationship to revolve solely around Twilight’s academic studies. Celestia did not make enough time for meetings like this, not with Twilight in recent years, and not with Sunset in the past. How different might her pupil’s worldview have been if Celestia had encouraged her to take her time more often?

But that was the past, and it was past time to stop living in it. All she could do for Sunset was hope that she was happy where she was. Twilight, on the other hoof, was still growing, and it was not too late for Celestia to have a positive impact on her.

“I think I better get home before Spike starts to worry,” Twilight said eventually. “We’re supposed to have lunch together.”

“Yes, of course.” Celestia passed Twilight the long-empty mug. “Give him my regards.”

“Will do!” Twilight stood up and walked to the door, then stopped to say her goodbyes. “It was nice talking, and I hope you feel better soon.”

“Twilight…” Celestia’s eyes flicked away for a moment before turning back to her student. Making enough time for Sunset outside of lessons wasn’t the only thing that Celestia hadn’t managed to do. She’d promised herself that she would do better with Twilight, but in at least one area, she had never quite managed that.

“Is there something I can do for you?” Twilight asked as Celestia struggled to find the right words.

“No, it’s just… I wanted to say that I’m very happy to have you as my student.” Happy to have her as a student? Surely she could do better than that. “That is, I wanted to make sure you to know that I... I care about you very much.”

Although Celestia’s words fell flat to her own ears, Twilight was still beaming. “Thank you, Princess. I’ll try my best to make you proud!”

Sunset and Twilight were very different ponies, really. Celestia cared about both of them, and despite the timing of everything, she had never felt like Twilight replaced Sunset as her student. But as she closed her eyes, she could see an amber-colored filly standing in front of her, making the same reassurances.

“I’ll do my best to live up to that, Princess.”

“My dear student, you already have.”


This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. This should be a joyous time of celebration, a chance to make up for past wrongs and try again. Celestia should be sitting inside with Sunset as they rebuilt a connection that had been severed for eleven long years. Twilight, Luna, and Cadance would be with them, and all the ponies most important to her could all be together for the first time.

Instead, she was sitting on a balcony overlooking the Crystal Empire and hoping that Twilight would not come back alone when she returned through the portal. But there were only a few more hours before the portal closed, and Celestia was too nervous to be optimistic.

‘It’s okay,’ she told herself for the hundredth time. ‘I won’t lose both of them.’

“Still no sign of her.”

Celestia looked over her shoulder to see her niece walking onto the balcony. “How is everypony holding up?”

Cadance sat down beside Celestia. “They’re keeping themselves preoccupied, but Twilight’s friends have faith in her. They know she’ll be back soon.”

Celestia wished she could be so sure. “Of course.”

They sat in silence for a while, and Celestia wasn’t looking forward to where the conversation was going. It would be nice to have someone beside her that could relate to how she felt, but Cadance had never had a positive relationship with Sunset. Still, Celestia was sure Cadance would be happy to look past what happened when they were teenagers, if only that were the only issue…

“I don’t understand why Sunset would do this…” Cadance said after a while.

“I wish I had that answer as well.” Celestia knew that Cadance wanted some sort of rationalization, some insight that Celestia might have to her pupil’s behavior, but there was nothing she could say. “We’ll know more once Twilight is back.”

“Hopefully…” Cadance gave Celestia a concerned look before hardening her expression. “The guard that was attacked is awake now. Shining’s with him.”

“That is a relief to hear.” A relief that would surely be tempered with hard news. “I suppose it would be pointless to ask the description of his attacker.”

“She gave him her name, auntie… He said that she wanted you to know who was responsible.”

Everypony had already known Sunset was responsible. In addition to the theft of Twilight’s crown, the library had suffered extensive fire damage on the same night. The guards flocked to the fire, leaving less protection on the way to the crown. The timing fit, and they had a clear motive. That would have been enough even without the librarian’s eyewitness account, which incriminated a mare matching Sunset’s description.

But it was still disconcerting to hear that she had left her name, and for Celestia specifically. It seemed that hoping Sunset might be happier in her new home had been too much to ask for. “I see. Then there can be no more doubt, although there wasn’t much to begin with.”

“I was always afraid she’d reappear some day, although I never thought it’d be so catastrophic.”

Celestia sighed. Cadance had feared Sunset’s return, as would most ponies who remembered her. “It seems that the years have not been kind to her if she has fallen so far.”

Cadance looked at Celestia with an irritated expression. “I wouldn’t be so sure. Knowing Sunset, she probably manipulated things to go pretty well for herself. I’m sorry, auntie, I know you want to believe in her, but… Sunset was always pretty bad.”

It was easy to see how Cadance could think that, but as she closed her eyes, Celestia thought of the filly she had met so many years ago. Of course, that was before Celestia had let her down. “Not always.”

Silence fell over them again, but Celestia didn’t let it bother her. She and Cadance would probably never agree on Sunset, but it was still comforting to have her niece beside her.

“Aunt Celestia…” Cadance shifted uneasily. “What happens if Sunset does come back with Twilight? She stole Twilight’s crown, caused extensive damage to my library, and attacked one of your guards.”

It was painful to admit, but there was only one answer. “It would seem that since she has committed crimes against three princesses, the only fair thing to do is for all of us to hear what she has to say for herself, then decide together what fate would be the most fitting.”

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” Cadance stood up and turned to head back into the castle. “I’ll head back in with the others. You should join us, auntie.”

“Go on ahead, I’ll follow in a bit,” Celestia said. But as Cadance walked away, Celestia felt concern growing inside her. What would happen to her student if she did return? “Cadance?” Celestia added before she could make it inside. “If I asked it of you, would you go easy on her?”

Although Celestia kept her eyes off Cadance as she waited for the answer, she could still clearly hear the hesitation in her voice. “I really hope that there won’t be a need to go easy on her at all. I’d like to think that we’ll come to an agreement that everyone is happy with, that’s fair without being harsh. But you know that depends on Sunset more than anything, and that when the time comes, I’ll have to do what’s right for the Crystal Empire.”

Celestia bowed her head. “Yes, I understand.”

The sound of hoofsteps and the door closing told her that she was alone again. It was right and just. Cadance had to consider the needs of the Crystal Empire above all else, just as Celestia had to consider the needs of Equestria. Her own personal wishes should not factor into things, but yet…

“Careful, Tia. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re actually showing some emotion.”

“Greetings, Luna.” Celestia turned to see her sister, who had certainly not been present a moment before. “Tell me Sunset hasn’t found a way to wrong you as well.”

“No, I remain spared from the excitement.” Luna stood beside her sister and looked out over the city with her. “If it should come to a trial, I feel you should know I intend to ‘go easy on her’ whether you ask me to or not.”

Celestia smiled. “Thank you, Luna, but Cadance is right. Our duty must be first and foremost to Equestria.”

“Certainly. And as a citizen of Equestria, we do owe it to Sunset Shimmer to give her the chance at a new life. What Cadance was most right about is that it will be up to Sunset Shimmer to decide to take that chance.”

“That’s what I’m most afraid of… Sunset has sent a very clear message that she is not willing to make peace.”

Luna smiled and shook her head. “No, dear sister, she sent a very clear message that she was not willing to make peace. That was before Twilight Sparkle went after her, and I should not need to remind you that she is a wonderfully capable mare.”

Celestia wanted to be as optimistic as Luna sounded, but there were still so many ways for things to go wrong. “But she’s not back yet. Even if she stays until the last possible moment to try and fix things, Sunset has been gone for eleven years. Who knows what could have happened in that time? Meanwhile, Twilight only had three days to make a difference.

Luna’s voice lost it’s playful tone when she spoke. “I recall another time when she had only one night to help a pony who had lost her way, and she had been gone for much longer. Have faith in your student, sister. I do.”

Celestia watched her sister as Luna watched the city. It had been two years, and yet she still seldom talked about her time as Nightmare Moon. “And you think she’ll be able to find her way again?”

“Nopony knows that better than I do. There are times when any of us can become consumed by our darkness. By our feelings of rejection from the ponies around us, or our greed to see ourselves with rewards we have not earned, or even our sorrow at the loss of those we hold dear. Sometimes we lose sight of what’s around us, and all we can see is ourselves on a path that we may not even want to be on any longer. But even when it’s too dark to see clearly, there are always other paths to take. We only need somepony to show us the light that we may find them.”

Celestia couldn’t help but smile at Luna’s cryptic explanation. “Has anypony ever told you that you like to speak in riddles just a bit too much?”

Luna smirked. “Has anypony told you that a metaphor is not a riddle?” She laughed before adding, “But yes, it has been mentioned.”

Only Luna could make Celestia smile even when she was so determined to remain miserable. She thought about Luna’s words. Sunset had lost her way years ago, but she could find it again. She just couldn’t do it alone. “And you believe Twilight could be that light for Sunset?”

Luna thought for a moment. “Twilight Sparkle will show her the paths. Sunset Shimmer must be the one to take one of them.”

“I… I will have faith. In both of them.”

“Good. Your support may be needed to help Sunset along whichever path she chooses.” Luna closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Tell me, when Sunset Shimmer returns, what do you intend to do?”

Celestia blinked. “As I said, we’ll hold a –”

“Tia.” Luna opened her eyes and looked into Celestia’s. Although she had spent millennia learning how to cover her emotions, there was no hiding when those teal eyes were on her. “I am not asking what we will do, but what you will do.”

“I…” Celestia knew what Luna was asking, but she didn’t have an answer. She’d been searching for one for three days, but all she had found was uncertainty. “I… don’t know. I just want her to come home.”

Even without a real answer, Luna’s smile suggested that she found whatever she was searching for. “She will. It may not be tonight, but she will return to you.”

Celestia leaned her head on Luna’s shoulder. “How can you know?”

Luna stretched a wing across Celestia’s back. “Because I did.”

Celestia smiled as she nuzzled against her sister. “Thank you, Luna. The years without you were the most difficult of my life.”

“Yes, I am quite the treasure.” Luna pulled her wing back and lit her horn. “But for now, there is somepony else that you ought to be talking to.”

Much to Celestia’s surprise, Luna levitated a book towards them. A hardcover journal with Celestia’s cutie mark on its cover. “Where did you get this? And how did you even know about it?”

“From rifling through your personal things, of course.” Luna gave Celestia a confused look, as if she couldn’t understand what other answer there could be. “What kind of little sister would I be if I did not at least try to read your diary?”

For a moment, Celestia found herself wondering if Luna was serious. But only for a moment, then she smiled and shook her head. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Luna shrugged and levitated over a quill and inkwell. “I am afraid you’re going to be stuck with me for a long time, dear sister, so you might as well learn to live with it.”

“Oh no, I could never do that. It would ruin all the fun of things.” Celestia’s smile fell away as she stared at the book. Even Luna remained quiet as she opened it and turned to the last page with writing on it. “I… I’m not sure what to say.”

Luna put her hoof on Celestia’s. “Say what is in your heart.”

Celestia winced. “You make it sound so easy.”

“For you, dear sister?” Luna stood up. “I doubt anything could be more difficult.”

“You’re leaving?”

“It is not my heart that Sunset Shimmer needs to hear from. Have faith in yourself, Tia. I do.”

Luna left Celestia to the journal as she followed Cadance inside. Celestia looked down at it, wondering what words could possibly tell Sunset everything that was in her heart.

“Oh, Sunset…” Celestia took a deep breath and brought the quill to the page. “I wish I could be there to see you now…”

“At last…” Sunset stared down at the crown in her hands. “More power than I could ever imagine!”

Sunset placed the crown on her head, and there was a blinding flash of light. Everything Sunset ever wanted was finally going to be hers!

“Good job, Princess,” Sunset’s voice said from inside her. “At least you managed to do something right.”

Sunset tried to argue, tried to point out that this was her victory and she wouldn’t be sharing it. She tried, but nothing came out. Rings of blue and black originating from the crown circled around her body, and her hands remained frozen to the crown.

Then everything went dark. Her body felt weightless, but Sunset hardly noticed. Her mind felt like it was being torn in two, as she lost the will to fight anything.

Then there was pain. Pain, it seemed, was very grounding. It pulled her out of her head, but she could do nothing as she felt herself being burned alive. Her body felt like it was ripping itself apart, the fire burning away everything that was and replacing it with something that should not be.

Then there was nothing. The pain was gone, the darkness faded, and Sunset knew it was over. She felt weaker than she ever had in her entire life, but whatever the crown had been doing to her was over.

Everything felt wrong. Sunset felt wrong. Her thoughts were a mess, and she couldn’t remember what was going on. She opened her eyes and found herself floating above the school, but she wasn’t sure how she got there.

What’s going on? Sunset asked. There was no sound, but the only person who mattered still answered.

We’re getting everything we ever wanted, she told herself.

Everything she ever wanted. It was hers now. She knew that, because she told herself, and she listened to herself.

Not yet, she reminded herself. We’re only just getting started.

Sunset was only just getting started. She looked down at herself and realized her whole body had changed. She was no longer just fire, Sunset had become an inferno. She could cleanse the world in flame, and then she would get everything she ever wanted.

It’s time to see what we can do, she told herself.

Sunset laughed gleefully and looked around for some sign of what she might do. She saw the two boys who had followed her orders for so long.

Them?

Yes, them. Give them their reward, make them the first ones to follow in our footsteps. Let them burn with us.

Sunset gave each of them a form like her own. With that gift, they would finally be useful to her.

But don’t stop there. Do you see? The students running into the school. Show them that there is nowhere they can hide. Remember how they tried to keep you from what was rightfully yours? It is time for their punishment.

There was a wall in her way, so Sunset removed it. Nothing would stand in her way any longer. Sunset felt anger as she looked over the students. They had tried to keep her from what she deserved, and she would punish them. Sunset seemed to be speaking, but she didn’t hear the words.

But wait, we can be merciful. Show them our mercy. Show them they may serve us. Look at them run. But they will not escape. They are ours. Make them ours.

Sunset focused on their thoughts, then she removed them. It was easy. They became like her. And like her, they would always have her words in their head to make sure they knew what to do.

Good. Now, it’s time. This school is nothing compared to what we will achieve. Equestria will be ours!

Sunset was speaking again, but she wasn’t sure what she was saying or why. That wasn’t important. Sunset reacted to what she told herself, and there was nothing else. The world around her was hazy and out of focus. All she cared about was that she was going to get everything she ever wanted.

Twilight Sparkle. While nothing else was clear, Twilight Sparkle stood in sharp contrast to the world around her. She was talking and Sunset was responding, but she wasn’t sure what was being said. All she knew was that Twilight Sparkle was standing in her way, and she would never be in Sunset’s way again.

Others were joining her. Sunset recognized them as Twilight’s friends, but they were inconsequential.

What fate do Twilight Sparkle and her friends deserve?

They deserve to burn.

As Sunset formed fire between her hands, the glow and the heat focused the world around her. She was staring at Twilight and her friends, at Applejack, and she knew she didn’t want this. This wasn’t who Sunset was supposed to be. Sunset was fire… fire given…

We’re an inferno.

Sunset was an inferno, and all she could do was consume. The world fell back into a comfortable haze, and Sunset let the flame in her hands go forth.

And then there was nothing else to stand in her way. The flame engulfed Twilight Sparkle, and there was nothing more.

Something wasn’t right. Sunset could feel it; something shifted. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she knew it was bad.

There was a light. A light that shone as the rest of the world darkened. Sunset watched it, watched as it grew. Something had gone wrong, and Twilight Sparkle had survived. They all had. Twilight Sparkle was talking, but Sunset couldn’t make out the words.

The light spread to Sunset and engulfed her, and then all she could see was white.

31 – Another Way

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Chapter Thirty-One

Another Way

Everything was white. It was blinding to see, but anywhere Sunset turned, there was just more of the same. She kept walking because there was nothing else to do; there was nothing as far as she could see, so she just had to hope that she’d eventually find something.

It took a while for her to notice the way the ground crunched under her feet. The white surroundings and the soft crunch of each step brought snow to mind, but when she bent down to touch it, she found it was warm. It left a powdery feeling on her hand, and she realized what it was.

Sunset was walking through ash, and that was all there was left in her world.

What had happened? Sunset had gotten the crown, that much was certain. Everything after that, however, was a blur. The only thing she could vividly remember was the pain; there had been a lot of pain.

Even if she couldn’t remember anything after the pain, Sunset knew something very bad had happened. Something that she never should have allowed, but had never actually tried to stop. But she couldn’t remember what it was, and she didn’t know how to keep it from happening again.

“Hmph.”

Sunset stopped in her tracks at the sound. It wasn’t just because it was the first thing she had heard since everything had gone white, but also because she knew the voice. She hadn’t heard it in more than eleven years, but that unsatisfied tone had never left her mind.

“You’re going to have to do better than that.”

Sunset turned towards the speaker and was met with the disapproving gaze of her father. Brass Badge was a tan unicorn with a dark blue mane and a perpetually unhappy expression, and Sunset couldn’t stand the sight of him. “What’s the matter? Am I ruining your perfect fucking legacy, asshole?”

“She’s just a child,” a mare said. She was also a unicorn, with a golden-yellow coat and a green mane, and she stood off to the side. She seemed to be focused on something else, but Sunset wasn’t able to see what that was.

“Don’t act like you’re better than him,” Sunset told her mother. “In fact, don’t you have business to attend to?”

“Then stop acting like one!” Brass Badge demanded.

Sunset blinked. ‘I’m not a child.’ That had been her response at the time. She was watching a memory.

Brass Badge turned to Golden Lace. “Baby your daughter if you want, but I’ll take no part in it. And besides, don’t you have business to attend to?”

Golden Lace looked upset for a second before turning away. “Yes, in fact, I do.”

Sunset looked from one parent to the other. She remembered this moment. This was when she realized that she hated them both. The hatred had always been there, but this was when she stopped buying into the idea that she should feel anything else for them just because they were her parents. Brass Badge was a bully, even if he never laid a hoof on his wife or daughter. Nothing was ever good enough for him, and Sunset had spent many of her early years hunting for his praise in vain.

But at least he had shown he cared for something to do with his daughter, even if it was just the way she reflected on his legacy. Golden Lace was a successful business owner who threw herself into her work. And every time Sunset thought she might decide to stand up for herself or her daughter, she backed down.

One parent who ran away from her problems and one who tried to dominate all of his without regard to who was caught in the crossfire. And at the time, all Sunset had managed to say was, “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll do better next time.”

It had been years ago and in another world, but Sunset felt her anger rise up at the memory. She walked over to Brass Badge and reached her hand out to grab him, but he turned to ash at her touch. She frowned as she watched it fell, noticing it was grey in the otherwise white environment.

She turned to see that Golden Lace had also vanished, leaving only ash where she stood. Sunset looked around for any sign of anything else, but there was just her, ash, and the endless nothingness.

Tired of walking aimlessly, Sunset sat down beside one of the ash piles. She had no idea where she was or why she was seeing her parents, but she knew it was because of the crown. She closed her eyes and tried to remember. She had become… wrong. When she put the crown on, there had been pain, and then she had become something else. Or maybe she had only become what she always was deep down.

There was a light breeze. Sunset felt it on her skin, and when she opened her eyes, she saw the ash blowing away. But rather than get carried off completely, it seemed to form a visible path. One lone path laid out before her. There was no other way.

Sunset stood up, and she noticed something else that contrasted the white – a flower at the start of the path. It had a long green stem with no leaves, but at the top there was a blood-red flower, with dozens of stamen sticking out in all directions.

Lycoris radiata, or red spider lilies. It was Sunset’s favorite flower, although seeing it here filled her with trepidation. She had only one path to follow, but she made sure to go around the poisonous flower as she started walking it.

The path twisted and curved, seemingly with no rhythm to its movements. And yet, Sunset never questioned it. Something about the path felt right, felt familiar. It felt like she had always been walking it, like she always would. It was her path, and there was no other way.

Somehow, Sunset hadn’t noticed the next pony she came across until she had almost reached her. Perhaps it was her pristine white coat that allowed her to blend in. But the moment Sunset laid eyes on Princess Celestia, she broke into a run.

Celestia smiled as she greeted her. “Hello, my gifted student.”

“Princess Celestia!” Sunset fell to her knees in front of the princess, sliding a little in the ash. “I’m so confused! Please, what’s going –”

“I was hoping you might want to join me in watching the sunset.”

Sunset looked up and blinked. This was another memory. It was Sunset’s tenth birthday, the first she’d spent as Celestia’s pupil. The princess had asked her if she would like to join her for a while after she’d celebrated with her family. Sunset had agreed, but hadn’t been able to tell Celestia that she wished she could have spent the whole day with her.

Celestia heard a response from a younger Sunset who wasn’t present. “Well, Sunset is your name.”

“But it’s just a time of day, Princess,” Sunset said, remembering her response from so long ago. There hadn’t been tears in her eyes when she had said them back then, though.

The Celestia from her memories took no note of how far her gifted student had fallen, just smiling along as she spoke with a filly that had long since vanished. “True, but anypony can appreciate the sunset. Here, come and watch it with me. Maybe you’ll like it more than you think.”

And Sunset had. She’d never found the words to tell Celestia that, but she treasured the memories of watching the sunset with her mentor. At the time, Sunset had thought it didn’t matter if she said anything or not. Now she wondered how many other things had gone unsaid.

Usually when they met to watch the sunset, they didn’t speak. Usually, but not this time. This first time, Sunset had been too excited to show her teacher how much she knew about the sun and had launched into an explanation of why the colors showed the way they did, which meant that any moment now…

“Very good, Sunset.”

Sunset bowed her head at the praise. She was anything but.

“I’m not surprised you know that, my gifted student. Tell me, what do you know about the stars? Can you name the constellations?”

Sunset looked up into where the sky should be, but there was nothing there. Nothing now, although she knew that in the memory, Celestia and Sunset would be watching the sky give way from sunset to twilight.

The memory of Celestia vanished, leaving only ash in its place. “No!” Sunset reached out for Celestia, but she was gone, and there wasn’t even a memory of her to sit beside Sunset any longer.

All that remained in the place where Celestia had been sitting was a small patch of red spider lilies. With nothing else left to do, Sunset stood up and continued along her way.

Ignoring the lilies wasn’t possible for long, as they started sprouting up along the path as well. Patches of red and green dotted the grey, which otherwise remained the same. How long had she been walking the same path, and what would be at the end of it?

“Hi, Sunny!”

Sunset winced. She didn’t need to revisit a memory of Cadance. And yet, when she turned towards where the voice had come from, she saw a pink alicorn excitedly greeting her. “If I just poke you now, will you poof like the others?”

“What are you doing?”

Sunset frowned and folded her arms. As much as she wanted to poof Cadance, she wasn’t looking forward to going back to the monotony of the path. She decided to wait and see where it would go.

“I love to read! Right now I’m reading a story about a little filly who follows a rabbit down a hole and winds up in a crazy world, and, uhm…”

Sunset tried to remember why Cadance had stopped talking, but before she could figure it out, the memory crumbled to ash like the others. Sunset blinked in confusion. Both of the other memories had been noteworthy; this one she barely remembered.

She closed her eyes to try and think. Cadance had been really young, so it was probably shortly after she had moved into the castle. Sunset replayed the conversation in her head, and with some prodding, it clicked.

One of their earlier interactions had been at the castle library where Cadance interrupted Sunset’s reading, and Sunset had left. That was it. There had been no big meaning to anything, no life-changing revelation. Sunset was perplexed that it had shown up after the others.

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