Sunset returns home to face the consequences and finds things she didn't expect.
Following the events of the Friendship Games, Sunset's homesickness wins out and she returns to Equestria. Though forgiven by Twilight and pardoned by Celestia, she still faces some resentment from the citizens of Equestria.
But one pony believes that everypony deserves a second chance. Even if she denies it.
I sniffled. "Yeah," I responded. The girls were all gathered around me, including the Twilight Sparkle of this world. They had come to see me off a little reluctantly. I looked at AJ, who had spoken.
"At least, for a little while," I said, looking down. "It's been a long time, and I really want to see home again."
"Ah understand," she said, nodding.
"You'll come back, though, won't you?" Twilight asked. She was still awkward around the girls, but I knew from experience she was in good hands.
"Sure!" I said, smiling. "I don't intend to just up and vanish. After all, isn't Rainbow's birthday party already planned?"
Pinkie nodded enthusiastically. "And you can't miss it, cause I already got your party favor ordered!"
I smiled and stepped forward to hug everyone.
I opened my eyes, warm sunlight falling across the bed I was laying in. I sat up slightly, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with a hoof. The dream had been bittersweet, but I should be seeing them around Hearth's Warming.
I climbed out of bed and plodded down the crystal hallway to the kitchen to get some breakfast or at least coffee. As I walked along, all I could think on was how this might have been a mistake. I had been back for two months, most of which had been waiting for a judgment from the Daytime Diarch as to my fate. The princess Twilight had spoken as to my reformation and deeds since my ill-considered gambit to gain the magic I needed to return and stage a coup.
Celestia had declared that she needed time to consider the ramifications. That had been six weeks ago, and I had been limited to the Castle of Friendship until a ruling was reached.
I passed the door to the room that held the map table, and I heard voices from within.
"I don't care how much she's done over there," a voice rasped. "She still stole your crown and infused magic into that world. She's responsible for everything that happened over there."
Hearing Rainbow Dash say those words made me look down at my hooves in shame.
"Now hold up there," Applejack responded. "That may be true, but she took a stand against everything that happened. Ah think that shows true change of heart."
"It doesn't matter," the voice of the Princess of Friendship spoke up. "Celestia has decided to pardon her, and we are bound to follow the decree. Sunset Shimmer is now free to go wherever she wants."
I walked back to my room, my appetite fled. I may have been forgiven by the courts and the Princess, but Dash was right.
Everything that had happened across the mirror was ultimately my fault.
I rolled over in bed and looked away from the door. I wasn't in the mood to talk to anypony, but I also knew that if I didn't answer, she'd likely pester me until l gave in.
"Whatever," I grumbled. "It's not like I can stop you if you really wanted to come in."
The door opened, and in the reflection in the window I saw Twilight's muzzle wrinkle for a moment at the stale air. She looked at my back and took on a look of concern.
"Sunset, you've been holed up in here for four days," she said softly. "Won't you at least come out and join us for dinner?"
"No," I said, my tone neutral. "I don't want to go where I'm not welcome."
"What do you mean?" She asked. "You've always been welcome here. You're my friend!"
I rolled over suddenly, the mess my mane had become flopping over my shoulder.
"Friend?" I snarled, all the frustration and worry from the last couple of weeks pouring out suddenly. "You may be my friend, but that's all I have going for me!"
Before she could respond, I lit my horn and showed her the scene from the other morning, Rainbow's harsh words boring through my skull again.
"Sunset," she whispered. "That isn't what you think..."
"Isn't it?" I fumed.
"Rainbow tends to speak without thinking," Twilight said, ears pinning back against her head at my tone.
"If I had known I'd be unwelcome here in any way, I would have never come home." I looked down, before shouldering my way past her and taking off down the hallway in a canter. I didn't care where I went, I just needed to be alone, the castle suddenly stifling.
I found myself coming to a stop under a small copse of trees and laid down as tears starting welling up.
"I'm such a fool," I said, swiping at the tears. "I should have known they wouldn't be like the girls."
Slowly, a few drops of rain began to drip down, growing steadily into a shower. I felt my coat and mane getting soaked, but I didn't care. It hid my tears.
"Yo, Sunset!" A voice called. "What are you doing out in the rain?"
I rolled my eyes, looking up to see the sky blue Pegasus above me.
"What do you care?" I asked bitterly. "I thought you didn't trust me."
The Pegasus had a look of surprise on her face.
"You heard that, huh?" she asked sheepishly.
"You aren't exactly soft spoken," I growled in reply.
"Look, I'm sorry," she started.
"Save it," I said, lowering my head back to my forelegs. "I just want to be left alone right now."
She flew off after a single glance back my way. I stared at the roots of the tree I was under, tears mixing with the rain.
I don't remember falling asleep, but when I woke up, I was covered in a warm blanket and a canopy had been strung over my head in the branches of the trees.
I looked at the blanket, confused. It wasn't one of Twilights, it was too simple and looked hoofmade. It also wasn't something I saw Rainbow owning, and she was the only pony that knew where I was.
I felt a smile tug at my lips as I folded the blanket with my magic. I wasn't sure who had done it, but there was a small bit of appreciation for the act.
I would figure out who it was later. I probably should go apologize to Twilight. She didn't deserve the anger I had unloaded on her.
Slinging the blanket across my back, I headed back for the castle.
I wasn't sure why I still had the blanket. I mean, sure, it was a clue in a mystery, and I loved mysteries.
But you don't normally wake up snuggling clues.
I had gained a few details in the last couple days. It was indeed hoofstitched, as the stitching was tight but uneven. It was also cleary designed for function over decor, so that ruled Rarity out. Also, the fashionista would have woken me up if she had even been out in the rain.
Rainbow obviously hadn't done it. The Pegasus would have just opened a gap in the clouds so I wouldn't get rained on. That left Pinkie, Twilight, Fluttershy, or the quiet Unicorn student of Twilight, Starlight Glimmer.
But I had managed the narrow it down further. Underneath my own scent, there was an undercurrent of hay, field grass, and something I couldn't quite place. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so. It was more subtle, almost floral in its fragrance. It reminded me of honeysuckle.
So it wasn't Pinkie or Twilight. It didn't have the scent of books from the Alicorn or the glitter or super sweet smell I had associated with the baker.
Fluttershy, or Starlight? Or some random pony?
Well, I had lunch later this week with Fluttershy, somepony that I hadn't spent a lot of time with since returning. Well, that wasnt quite true. I hadn't spent much time with her since my reformation. Out of all the students of CHS, she was the only one that I had treated as a personal punching bag and I had trouble being near the girl without bouts of guilt.
I knew that the pony wasn't the same as the human, but the similarities were enough to trigger that guilt. I was going to try and overcome that in a few days.
But that can wait it's early yet, and the smell of the blanket was soothing, for some reason. It couldn't be an emotional attachment forming.
"Hello, Sunset," Fluttershy said as she stepped onto her porch, her wings tucked closely against her sides. "Are you feeling better today?"
"Hmm?" I blinked. "Yeah, I suppose so. I just had some frustrations that needed to be vented. Twilight and I had a good long talk the other day."
It was the truth. When I retuned to the castle, soaked for the rain, Twilight's first reaction was to rush forward and hug me. After a quick bath, we had sat down and she explained what had happened. Turns out I had walked in on the tail end of the conversation, but I missed Rainbow apologizing.
"Oh, good," she said, pulling the door behind her closed. "I'm glad. I'd hate it if you were fighting while you were here."
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye as we walked. She was different from the Fluttershy that I had come to know. She stood a little taller, spoke a little louder. But the smile was the same, as was the pleasant humming.
"So, do you have a preference on where to have lunch Sunset?" she asked as we entered the town proper.
"Not really," I said. "I've never been to Ponyville, actually. You can pick, if you want."
"Ok!" The yellow Pegasus started her humming again, smiling.
Her happiness was infectious, and soon I was smiling as I walked alongside her. She led us to a tall building with a pleasant looking paint job.
"Welcome to the Golden Leaf," a mare greeted us as we entered. "Oh, Fluttershy! It's been a while."
"Hi, Suzette!" the Pegasus said, walking up and hugging the other mare. "How is your dog doing?"
"Oh, much better," Suzette replied, smiling. "Thanks so much for treating that cut. Now then, just two today?"
She nodded, and we were led to a small booth near the kitchen. I glanced around at the decor, wondering what the fare was.
"So," I began hesitantly. "What's good here?"
"She didn't!" I giggled, setting down my fork.
Fluttershy nodded as she laughed too. "She did!" The mare said as she picked up another biscuit with her wingtip. "I don't think I've ever seen Rainbow so terrified. I almost felt bad for agreeing to be in on the prank."
"She learned her lesson though, I assume?"
"Oh, yes," Fluttershy wiped her mouth with a napkin. "She apologized for the pranks and agreed to reign them in a bit."
I chewed on the last bit of my pasta. "One thing, though," I mumbled around the bite before swallowing. "Did they taste good?"
"The cookies? Well enough, I suppose. I wouldn't want to eat them again, though."
I chuckled at that, then glanced at my lunch partner, about to say something else when memory ripped into my head.
"So pathetic! I mean, why would anyone want to be friends with you? It's no wonder the only people that put up with you are animals."
"Sunset? Are you ok?"
I snapped back to reality at the question, realizing tears were streaming down my face. I took my napkin and wiped them away and managing a small, sad smile.
"Yeah," I answered. "Just...bad memories. From before Twilight came after me."
"Does it have to do with why you've been avoiding me?" She asked softly, eyes locking with mine.
"Don't worry, I'm not upset, just confused. You said you were friends with all of our counterparts back there. But since you've come here, you've interacted with most of us a little at least in passing. So, why am I the one you seem to avoid?"
I looked down at the table, tracing small circles with a hoof. "You heard about what I did there, right?" I whispered. "How I bullied other students. I dated the most popular guy in the school to climb the social ladder, tore down competition with rumor and scandal, and forced your counterparts apart."
Fluttershy nodded. "But you changed," she whispered encouragingly.
I shook my head. "I'm a better pony now," I agreed. "But there was something I did for no other reason than cruelty. Every day, I would track and corner your counterpart and insult her, humiliate her, or otherwise ruin her day. She was my favorite target because I knew she wouldn't fight back. After the dance and they started to befriend me, I stayed away from her. Spending too much time with her would remind me of what I had done."
"And you feel guilty," she whispered. "I think I understand. But I'm not that Fluttershy. You didn't..."
"It doesn't matter," I interrupted, feeling tears welling up again. "You sound just like her, act the same. I keep thinking there should have been a way to apologize better. Something I could have done."
"I forgive you, Sunset," the mare said in that soft voice of hers.
I froze, shocked.
"Even though you never did anything to me, I forgive you," she smiled at me, pink mane sliding forward slightly. It gave her a more mature cast to her face, changing the shy filly-next-door look into something beautiful. "It's in the past, and there's no sense in living there. Everypony deserves a second chance to make up for mistakes, so cheer up!"
I smiled. "I thought Pinkie was the one that tried to cheer everyone up," I said, swiping at the tears.
"I filled in for her for a day," she admitted shyly. "It wasn't a good day. But the thing is, Sunset, you've been forgiven by everypony from what I understand, and even you managed to move past all that to save that world's Twilight. Why won't you move past this one piece?"
"I will, someday," I promised. "But thank you, Fluttershy."
She nodded and stood from the table. We paid our check and returned to her place. As she unlocked her door, she turned to me and smiled.
"I hope you had a wonderful time, Sunset," she breathed. "And I hope to see you around more now."
I grinned. "Well, I don't plan on moping in the castle anymore," I chuckled. "And I had a good time. Maybe we should do it again sometime."
The Pegasus smiled as she turned to face me.
"I'd like that," she whispered and leaned forward to hug me before turning and entering her cottage.
I stood there on the stoop for a few moments, dumbfounded.
As she had pressed in, I had gotten a strong whiff of her scent.
My thoughts were turning around in circles. I knew who had covered me the other day. In retrospect, I should have guessed, Fluttershy embodied Kindness, after all.
But what confused me was how often the image of the way she looked as she leaned forward to explain her reasoning for forgiving me of an act she'd never endured. It seemed to rise up to counter the memories of the cruel mistreatment of her counterpart.
Though I had originally accepted the lunch invitation grudgingly, I found I had a lot of fun. I hadn't expected that. I also hadn't expected her reaction to the prospect of meeting more often.
I stared out the window at Luna's canvas, the blanket draped over my withers. I should really return it and thank her for it.
But...it represented the first kind thing anypony had done for me since my return beyond a Royal Decree. Part of me didn't want to let that go.
"Trouble sleeping?" a voice said from behind me.
Turning, I saw Twilight standing there. She walked over and sat next to me. I turned to look at the stars again.
"You ever been confused by your own thoughts?" I asked softly.
"Rather often, to tell the truth," she chuckled nervously. "Why do you ask?"
"The last couple months, I've been trying to reconcile the girls and their counterparts here in my head," I murmured. "When I'm not working on friendship reports or rediscovering Equestrian literature, I keep thinking how, for all the differences, nothing seems to have changed in my situation." I scuffed a hoof on the floor. "And it's confusing. Not to mention that now there is another problem wriggling in my mind that I have to solve."
"Anything I can help with?" she asked with a smile.
I shook my head, subconsciously reaching up to pull the blanket down a little around my form. "Not really," I told her. "It feels more like something I have to figure out myself."
The Princess and Friendship rose and went to leave, turning as she reached the door.
"You know, I'm just down the hall if you ever need to talk," she offered.
I smiled. "I know, Twilight," I said. "And I appreciate it. Give me a day or two to sort my thoughts out and I'll fill you in when I'm ready."
She nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "Goodnight, Sunset,"
"Good night, Twilight."
I stared at the stars for a few more minutes before climbing into bed.
I could return the blanket in the morning. I didn't want to disturb Fluttershy at night.
As I fell asleep, four words echoed in my thoughts, making me smile.
"Shucks, Sunset," Applejack said as she came around the trail. "Ah thought you might need a hoof bucking this row but looks like you got it licked."
"Thanks, AJ," I said as I lowered another group of apples in my telekinetic grasp. "I really appreciate you letting me help out."
"T'weren't nothin'," she said taking her hat off and fanning herself for a moment. "With Mac down with the flu, we'd be hard pressed to get these early harvest trees done in time. Ah was plumb surprised when you volunteered, figuring you a city gal and all."
"I've had some practice," I said, moving to the next tree. "I've done this before at the other Sweet Apple Acres. It's not that different. And the solitude is nice."
"Sure is," the farm pony agreed. "Plenty of time to think, isn't it?"
The tone of her voice made me turn, catching her sly smile.
"Am I missing something?" I asked.
"The last couple days, ya been drifting off whenever you get a moments peace," she chuckled. "Somethin's on your mind, that's plain to see. But it don't seem to bother you. Seems like you enjoy the daydream. "
I blushed fiercely. "Is it really that obvious?" I whispered.
AJ chuckled. "Only a little, sugar cube," she returned. "Ah just noticed it today. So, what's on your mind?"
"Oh, just a puzzle," I said. "Trying to decide something."
"Sounds like a tough one," she said, narrowing her eyes a little. "If it makes you stop everytime a songbird passes by."
I chuckled and grinned sheepishly. "It may have to do with Fluttershy," I admitted.
"Fluttershy?" AJ looked surprised. "What about her?"
"Well," I hesitated. "Did you hear about my little breakdown after the pardon came down?"
"Yeah, Rainbow mentioned seeing you out in the rain," she said. "You heard us talking, didn't you?"
I nodded. "It hurt," I said. "And the feeling of betrayal hit me hard because I hadn't separated you from your counterparts yet. I had forgotten that we are effectively strangers to each other."
"What's this got to do with 'Shy?" AJ asked, a little bewildered.
"I fell asleep out in the forest," I said, kicking at a rock partially exposed in the earth of the row. "When I woke up, somepony had covered me with a blanket and set a canopy over me. I just figured out it was Fluttershy the other day."
"Well, that sounds like something she'd do," the farmer nodded. "But Ah still don't see the problem."
"Well, at lunch the other day, she said something that I can't get out of my head," I said. "She forgave me for the things I had done, and it made me happy. But I don't know if it is from her saying it or if it's because it's like hearing the other Fluttershy forgive me."
Applejack smiled at me, tilting her head.
"Ah see how that could be a problem," she said, glancing up at the sky. "C'mon, let's go grab some grub. We can finish this section tomorrow."
We started to trot towards town, and I drifted into thought again. I had stretched the truth a little. While I did wonder about why those words had affected me so, there was another part to it.
I was seeing her again later this week for tea at her cottage. I planned to return the blanket that day, but I was also thinking of asking if she wanted to get lunch again sometime.
"Arrrrgh!" I slammed the door behind me with my magic, stomping my way to one of the small studies on the lower level of the castle. "I can't believe this! Those ponies are crazy!"
"That sounds familiar," a voice spoke up as Spike came in, a couple of comics in his claws. "What's up?"
"I just tried to go shopping for something and I couldn't go anywhere without hearing about if I should have been pardoned or not!" I snorted in frustration. "How did they even find out?"
"It was in the paper," the dragon replied, holding up said offender. I took it and flipped through until I found an article - complete with picture - about how the prodigal pony had returned after disappearing for six years with an unconditional pardon for an unnamed crime after heroic actions.
"To Tartarus with it!" I snarled, the paper crumpling in my aura. "I finally got comfortable here and had gained everyponies' trust. Pinkie even threw a party!"
"Ah, come on, Sunset," he said. "It's not like we don't trust you. I even saw some of those heroic actions myself!"
"I know, Spike," I muttered, anger fading into a dull disappointment. "It's just...this is how it was after Twilight defeated me at the Fall Formal. I can even hear some of the same whispered voices."
The dragon patted me on the shoulder. "I know what will cheer you up," he said. "A fresh set of cupcakes. Come on!"
As he led the way to the kitchen, I couldn't help but look at him. "Do you know how to make them without gems?" I asked warily. " I almost cracked a tooth the last time."
"Don't worry," he chuckled. "I wont be the the one baking."
"SURPRISE, SUNSET!" Pinkie shouted as we walked through the doors.
I blinked and shook the confetti from my mane. "Pinkie? What are you doing here?"
"Well," she said as she closed the door to the oven. "I saw you in the market earlier and you seemed really, really upset, so at first I thought that it was that somepony had forgotten your birthday. But then I realized that your birthday isn’t until April, so then I thought that it was because you had been back three months but haven't found a place of your own. But then I heard all the mean things some of the ponies were saying about you, so I decided to throw you a ‘Cheer-up-Sunset’ lunch!"
I blinked, mentally slowing down her sentences. Thankfully, understanding Pinkie was often easier than understanding Twilight, despite the Alicorn's slower speech pattern.
"Thanks, Pinkie," I said, settling on a stool. "It's been tough coming back. Nothing is how I remember it. I mean, Nightmare Moon defeated and Princess Luna returned? Discord reformed? The Crystal Empire restored...it's just so much. Almost too much."
"I'll admit, it was a lot," a soft voice came from behind us. Turning, I saw Fluttershy walking in with Twilight. "And it was scary at the time."
I frowned inwardly. "Am I forgetting something?" I asked, looking at the two ponies. "I thought you were working wih Starlight on magic tests, Twilight."
The Alicorn giggled sheepishly. "Yeah, about that," she stammered.
"She's upset that Starlight was called to Canterlot by the Cutie Map," Spike said casually as he turned a page in his comic.
"I am not," Twilight returned. "Just hoping she fixes whatever problem the staff has soon."
"Are you sure it isn't one of the Princesses?" I asked.
"Of course not," she said laughing, a twitch in her eye. "Don't be ridiculous!"
I settled the teacup back down, glancing over at the Pegasus. "I have something I wanted to ask you," I said, feeling a blush rise to my cheeks. "A little over two weeks ago, somepony covered me up in the grove just a little ways from here. It was you, wasn't it?"
The shy pony ducked her head and let one of the long locks of pink mane slide down to hide an eye. "Yes," she whispered. "I hope you didn't mind."
I smiled. "Of course not," I said, glancing over at my pack and drawing the folded blanket from its depths. "I actually rather appreciated it. I just wanted to know something."
"Why didn't you just wake me up instead of covering me and protecting me from the rain?" I glanced away. "I'm sure that would have been easier on you."
"Oh, it wasn't any trouble," she whispered. "The rain had let up for the time being but Dash said there might be a few more showers that night." She turned away slightly, hiding behind her teacup. "As for why I didn't wake you up, well," she blushed furiously. "You looked peaceful in that moment, despite the tears on your muzzle. I didn't want to disturb that peace."
"I wouldn't say I was at peace," I said, settling the blanket next to her. "Anyway, this is yours. I should have returned it sooner."
"It's ok," she said. "You can keep it if you want to."
I blinked for a moment. "Are you sure? I don't want to take something you might need later."
"You needed it more than I did, Sunset," she said, turning towards me. "And maybe it will help you over that bit of self-doubt you have. I heard what some of the townponies have been saying."
I frowned. I haven't been able to pass through the main part of town without at least one whispered conversation concerning me starting, and though I had been back three months now I couldn't teleport very far yet. I was so far out of practice with Equestrian magic that I was almost starting out from scratch again.
"I can handle it," I said as I rubbed one foreleg. "It isn't like it's the first time I've been through it."
"You shouldn't have to," she said firmly. "I've seen everything the papers printed and they didn't talk to you in it at all. They could have at least asked Twilight for information like when Starlight moved in."
I chuckled ruefully. "Sadly, the by-line of the article is a filly that I took classes with when I was a private student of Princess Celestia," I closed my eyes. "Not all of her attempts to keep it a secret were successful, it seems."
"Still though," Fluttershy started again.
"It's ok, 'Shy," I said, picking up my teacup again. "Let's not let this spoil our tea, ok? It'll be fine and everything will blow over in a few weeks."
She refilled her cup and picked it up again, but she didn't seem placated. "Why go it alone, though?" she asked.
The rest of the tea was silent but for the tweeting of the birds.
I was awake when Celestia started to raise the sun. I had been for a while. Too many thoughts whirling through my head for sleep.
Twilight had heard the commotion in the street yesterday when a young colt had started lobbing tomatoes at me when I went to the market to pick up something to go with dinner since Twilight was busy. Instead of throwing up a shield or teleporting away, I had just borne the assault.
"Why are you letting them do this?" she asked through the door of the washroom. "You could have stopped them in any number of ways."
"And it wouldn't have gotten out of their system," I replied. "It's just tomato pulp, it's not like it's permanent."
But those words and some very similar to them had stayed in my head. Why was I letting them do it? Did I still feel some bit of guilt over my crimes?
No, that wasn't it. Twilight had pardoned me long before the official pardon from Celestia and my time at CHS since had helped me get over that. There was something else at work here.
I turned and saw the blanket on my bed. That was likely part of it.
I sighed and headed out of my room for the door, only a hooffull of bits with me.
The early train would be leaving soon.
The snow bit into me as I left the comfort of the passenger car behind. I shivered and pushed my way forward until I passed through a mana shield and the harsh cold of the wintery north fled to be replaced with a cool late summer breeze. I looked around at the glittering brilliance of the Crystal Empire's capital. Rising like a spire of ice in the center was the castle, and I slowly made my way to it.
In a dome just before the gates, a large heart made of pure crystal spun gently between two spires. I could feel the magic radiating off of it. I just watched it's spin, my mind rewinding the last few months.
"I could always go back," I said to myself. "I'm sure AJ would let me stay in the spare room till I got a place. Re-ernoll in CHS for the final year."
"Sunset Shimmer," a voice called behind me. I closed my eyes and sighed. I had hoped no pony would recognize me here. I turned around and found myself face to face with a white-coated unicorn stallion. His blue mane ruffled in the breeze and instead of anger or curiosity, his face held surprised amusement.
"Do I," I hesitated. Something about him was familiar. "Do I know you?"
"You probably at least know of me," he said with a good natured laugh. "We were in the same year at Celestia's school. You were picked to be a private student before I left to join the guard. I'm Shining Armor, Twilight's older brother."
That explained it. I didn't really remember him from my time at the school - or anypony, really - but I had seen pictures of Twilight's family, including the adorable little niece she had.
"Nice to meet you," I said conversationally, turning back to look at the heart. "What can I do for you?"
"Actually," he said, coming to stand beside me. "I was going to ask that of you. Twily contacted us to ask to let her know if you wound up here."
"Of course she did," I muttered. "How did she even know I'd be headed here?"
"I figure she sent letters to Canterlot as well as any place you were fond of," he said. "You know how she can be."
"So," he said, gesturing towards the entrance. "What brings you to the Empire this time?"
I winced. My last visit was to steal a crown. "I needed to get out of Ponyville, clear my head," I said.
"And a certain newspaper article had nothing to do with it?"
"How long are Twilight's letters to you?"
"I have to clear a morning some days," he said. I wasn't sure if he was joking or not.
"That's not the entirety of it," I admitted. "I'm also having trouble sorting out some feelings. Things I thought I had already dealt with."
He nodded at some guards that snapped to attention. Apparently, he had tightened security recently, and I couldn't blame him, considering how easily I had infiltrated this place last time. There was a magic portal mirror involved at the time as well, but that's beside the point.
"I'm not sure why I still feel like I have atonement to do even with everything I've done and having been pardoned officially," I whispered. "It's almost like I want to be punished more, like I haven't been punished enough."
"You seem to have a handle on the feeling," he said as we passed into what looked like a sitting room.
I smiled ruefully. "Two days is a long train ride," I said. "You really need to get an express line built."
He smiled, and I saw the family resemblance instantly. "We'll look into it," he laughed.
I settled onto one of the plush couches. "And on top of all this, I keep thinking about this one pony and I'm not sure why."
Shining Armor smiled and nodded. "Ah," he said. "The plot thickens."
"Oh, stop it, Shiny," a softer voice said from the other side of the door on the far side of the room. "She's nervous and confused enough as it is."
I froze, not realizing I had been in the presence of the Empress of the Crystal Empire. I also dimly remembered that I had been talking to her husband, the crown prince.
Cadence walked gently into the room, a warm smile on her face and I immediately bowed my head.
"Stop that," she said. "We're in private and you're one of Twilight's friends. Now, who is this pony?"
I fiddled with my hooves, suddenly afraid to speak the name in front of the Princess of Love. I wasn't sure how her special talent worked or how she had gained the title.
"I can't force anything, if that is your worry," she whispered.
I swallowed. "It's just a silly infatuation," I said, and began telling them the story of hearing Rainbow, running out and crying in the grove, waking up covered by a blanket, and the eventual admission of Fluttershy to the act.
Cadence tutted softly with a smile. "I have an idea of what's going on," she said.
"Oh?" I said, a little exhaustedly. "At least somepony does."
She opened her mouth to continue when a gurgling laugh came from the other room followed by a magical surge and a loud pop.
"Oh dear," the princess muttered. "Shiny, do you think you could go find her this time? Let us girls talk."
The stallion rose and left, horn already lighting to trace the teleportation spell their foal had used.
"That's quite the power for a foal," I commented.
"And that's with a forbearance spell in place," she muttered, rubbing her temples. "But about Fluttershy, I think I know what it is."
"And that is?"
I blinked. "Come again?"
"You're afraid of everything it could mean to actually open your heart to another pony in that way. Especially one that resembles someone that you've hurt in the past."
"That's silly," I said. "If that was the case, wouldn't I have felt the same around the other Fluttershy?"
"Well, you did avoid her rather actively when you could, by your own admissions," Cadence said. "But tell me this; did you find any of the people of that world attractive?"
I thought for a moment. "Not really," I said, thinking back. Even after I had gotten a handle on the aesthetics of the world, I hadn't seen a single person at the school that appealed to me. Flash had been the closest but even he had been a tool for power. I had started feeling a bit of fondness for him near the end, but there was no spark when I thought of him - which wasn't often. "They were just too different from what I was used to. And I was still getting used to the various differences in my own body, like the lack of magic, no hooves, that kind of thing. I never really felt any attraction like what you're suggesting while I was there."
"But since you've been back? Anything you've noticed?"
"Your sister-in-law has a big mouth," I snickered.
"She's concerned for you," the princess said, letting the remark slide. "When you came here, she says a lot of the confidence she admired in you slipped away."
"Hard to be confident when you get pelted with tomatoes," I muttered. I saw the sun start to set. "Hard to feel worth it."
"Maybe that's the problem," she said, rising. "If anypony wishes to have something to do with another, it's because they feel it's worth it.
"Twilight considers it worth it to be your friend. So do the others, by her estimation. And I suspect that Fluttershy may find you worth the effort as well."
I thought on that for a moment. It seemed plausible. It wouldn't be the first time I got in my own way.
"We'll prepare a room for you while you're here," she said as she left. "It would be a shame for you to come all this way only to turn around. And a few days to clear your head may help."
I nodded in acceptance. It would be a shame to leave so soon.
I slid off the platform in Ponyville, heading for White Tail Woods. Glancing up, I saw a handful of small fluffy clouds drifting by. Spying a low hanging one with a polychromatic tail dangling off the side, I stopped.
"Hey, Dash?" I shouted. As expected, I got no answer. "Dash!"
I heard a snort, then the cloud shifted slightly as the tail retreated slightly.
I growled in disbelief and reached out with my magic and gave the tail a sharp yank.
"Yeouch!" the Pegasus shouted, bolting into the air. Looking down she saw me and came down to land. "I think you've been spending too much time with AJ. What is it with always grabbing my tail?"
"Sometimes it's the only part we can catch," I said. "I need a favor."
"Can it wait till after my nap?"
"I'm sure I can find another Pegasus willing to do an awesome stunt during the Running of the Leaves," I taunted casually. "I hear Soarin has a house outside Canterlot, maybe..."
"Sheesh, ok, ok," the cyan pony muttered, rubbing the back of her head. "If it's that far off I'm sure that I can manage. But why are you asking me to help? Last I heard we were still kind of shakey after that whole business with the pardon."
"I understand what was happening in there now," I said. "And if you ever feel like you have to speak up again about something, don't tiphoof around with me. I trusted somepony very much like you once upon a time, and I'd like to trust you the same way." I stuck out my hoof.
She smiled and bumped my hoof in return. "Deal," she said, ruffling her wings. "Now, this got anything to do with admitting to Fluttershy how you feel?"
"Does everypony know my feelings better than I do?"
"Who do you think guided her to you that night?" she asked, one ear tilting in amusement. "She's been my best friend since flight school. We talk a lot."
"Then yeah," I said. "It's about admitting to Fluttershy."
"Then I'm in," she said. "What's the plan?"
I collapsed, trying my best to catch my breath. Two winged forms came and landed in front of me.
"Almost," Dash said, looking at her stopwatch. "Just a few seconds shy."
"I'm not trying for a record, Dash," I panted. "Just getting into shape."
"I think she's as ready as she's going to be, Dash," Twilight said. "Besides, I didn't do any training and I took fifth place my first year."
"That fills me with curiosity," I muttered as I stood and gave my coat a shake to knock off dust from my last timed trial. "But another time. Right now I just want to collapse in one of the ponds out at Sweet Apple Acres."
Twilight laughed. "I can imagine. It may be Fall, but it's still pretty warm," she frowned for a second. "You know there are still some ponies in town that gossip about you, right?"
"And if I see them or hear it, I'll address that then," I said, wiping my brow. "I'll just say what I feel, and if they don't like that, that's fine. It doesn't mean that my words didn't get near their hearts."
"That sounded deep," she said. "I guess that trip to the Crystal Empire did some good."
"Yeah," I nodded. "When I came here, I suddenly discovered that I didn't really have a purpose anymore. But that's ok. It's ok to live and not have a purpose, sometimes."
"How'd you get that from the Empire?" Dash asked.
"Some of the outlying farms don't have the benefit of the shield the Crystal Heart projects," I said. "I visited one and asked why they didn't move closer to the warm part of the region, and they told me that nothing worth doing is easy. Sometimes you can't grow anything without fighting for it, especially if it's important."
Twilight nodded while Dash cocked her head. "I guess that makes sense," she muttered. "It wasn't easy to get into the Reserves."
"But right now," I said, turning to head towards the castle. "I need a nap and a bath."
I only had a week left before the Running, and I still had to find the words to say.
I pawed at the ground impatiently. We were all lined up and the guest officiant - Long Winded - hadn't finished his speech yet. I was already having a hard time keeping my nerves under control without seeing the flashes of pink and yellow through the crowd.
"Oh, come on!" shouted Rainbow Dash. "Let's just start the race already!"
Long Winded frowned but waved his hoof. "I declare this year's Running of the Leaves," he drawled. "Begun!" Pinkie fired off her party cannon and we leapt from the starting line.
For most of the race, it was just keeping up with the other ponies, seeing the wake of our passing tugging leaves from the trees. Most of us were just running for the fun, some for the tradition and some just for the experience.
AJ and Dash were racing seriously for the seventh year in a row. Apparently, they needed a tie-breaker for their past races. I don't know why they waited to do this the same time every year when the route is open year round. Maybe I'll ask one day. I just hope she's not too tired to pull off that stunt I asked for.
I kept going, maintaining a steady pace just above a canter. I was hoping to keep my place in the middle of the herd until we neared the end, then break out into a full gallop across the finish, just as Twilight and Dash had helped me train for. It had been a hard two weeks, but it was worth it. I wanted to do this, to be seen participating in an Equestrian event despite what anypony might say. I was done hiding. This was my act of defiance, my flag of challenge.
I rounded the midpoint, the blue and orange specks that were AJ and Dash far ahead of us. I was glad they weren't officially in the race, otherwise the first and second place finishers would have been determined already. I kept my legs churning, but I was starting to feel the fatigue build.
Unicorns aren't built for physical stamina. We weren't any better or worse at doing things than any other pony, but physically, we were kind of small. The Pegasi didn't fare much different because while mostly athletic, their power was concentrated in their wings. Earth ponies had the advantage here, being connected to the earth and stockier than the rest of us. It didn't matter, though. The race was long enough to challenge all, even those that weren't in the best of shape.
The last leg of the race was a blur in my eyes. I was just focused on running, just keeping one hoof in front of the next. I crossed the finish line and stumbled into a sprawl on my back, panting. I heard somepony say something to me, but the sound of my lungs greedily sucking in air made it hard to hear.
"What?" I panted.
Twilight leaned into my field of vision. "You made fourth place!" she beamed as she helped me to my hooves. "Congratulations!"
A shiny bronze medallion floated over and settled onto my neck. I looked at it in awe as I felt a wing slide over my back.
"Congratulations, Sunset," Fluttershy breathed in that quiet voice of hers. "I'm happy for you."
"Hey, traitor!" a stallion shouted. "You shouldn't have been allowed in this race! This is only for loyal ponies!"
A soggy tomato flew through the air and suddenly froze in my reddish aura of magic.
Twilight turned, her wings flaring out. "Who threw that?" she demanded.
"Yeah," Dash swooped in, making motions as though she were pushing sleeves up her forelegs. "Step forward."
"That's alright," I said softly, setting the soft fruit down and stepping forward. Fluttershy looked at me in confusion. I gave her a wink and was rewarded with a warm smile.
"I'm sure you all read the editorial about me and my reason for being here," I said, hearing some jeers from the crowd. "I didn't want to face it before because I thought it would just blow over and I could ignore it. Apparently not.
"It's true, that I did commit a crime some years back," I admitted. "But it wasn't anything treasonous. The crime was not realizing how good I had it, for having ponies that wanted the best for me. I ran away, and refused to see things that were right in front of me all the time. Princess Twilight and her friends helped me see where I went wrong, and when I returned here, Celestia was constrained by her own laws to either try me for the act of defiance of a request she made of me or to pardon me for it.
"Twilight and her friends stood up for me, and that should be good enough for you," I smiled gently as I heard the jeering stop. "Don't believe one editorial written without even consulting the ponies involved. Judge me by my actions and not for rumors you might hear. If you're not sure of something, feel free to ask. I'm not Nightmare Moon, you know."
Some laughter rippled through the crowd, and I turned away, walking back to my friends, hoping that someone wouldn't throw anything at my back. As I passed under Twilight and Dash's wings, I saw a wistful smile on Fluttershy's face as she moved to meet me.
"I knew you could do it," she said.
"We need to talk," I said. "There's something I have to tell you."
She looked confused, but as the crowd slowly moved to the location where the three top racers were celebrating, we had a moment of privacy.
"Fluttershy," I started, my nerves starting to twitch. "Ever since I came back, you've been nothing but kind, always trying to draw me from my shell and get me to move past my mistakes. I thought I had done that already, but well..." I chuckled.
"But I was worried," I said, twisting a hoof in the dirt before me. "I kept thinking that it was because I was a guest of Twilight's and you felt obligated to. I didn't examine it too deeply. But then, the night where I felt the most lost, I woke up warm, covered in a blanket and protected from the weather. You didn't have to do that, but you did. And the lunches and tea times, even the one with Discord, they were all fun."
She looked at me, her eyes wide as the words tumbled out faster than I could think.
"I really enjoyed them, 'Shy," I said, taking one of her hooves in mine. "I'd like to keep doing them. I'd like to see you more often. I..." I froze as she rested a hoof against my lips.
"Are you trying to ask me to be your marefriend, Sunset Shimmer?" she asked playfully. "Because you sure have danced around the issue and the hints I dropped since you've been back."
I smiled. "I guess I have," I said. "I had to find my place here first before I could realize what's happening."
She gave me a smirk. "You still didn't answer my question, you know."
"I suppose I haven't," I admitted.
"My answer's yes, by the way," she whispered to me.
I smiled. "So's mine," I joked, leaning in to nuzzle her. As her wings spread slightly, I heard a crack like fireworks overhead, and glancing up, I saw Rainbow bank and dart up through a multi-colored cloud of smoke, speed building until with a loud boom, an arc of colors started spreading slowly.
Fluttershy smiled that gentle smile, looking at the fading Rainboom. "She did her first standing up for me, you know," she said.
"I heard," I agreed, smiling as she slid a wing across my shoulders.
The sun was heading for the horizon, but its majesty paled in comparison to the rest of my view. I was back in that grove of trees again, but I was smiling this time because next to me was a butter-yellow Pegasus, her eyes closed in sleep. We were laying on that blanket that started it all, the fallen leaves drifting across us in the breeze.
I closed my eyes, and sighed, letting nature cover us in a mantle of red and gold.